Tea with Refugees in Belgium

Today’s guest post is by Kate Connelly.

My junior year of college, I had the privilege of studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium. I had so many amazing experiences, from attending a film festival at the European Parliament to seeing the largest collection of dinosaur bones in Europe. I traveled to the Netherlands to see The Hague and to Germany to meet one of my dad’s childhood friends. However, of everything I got to see and do, there is one experience that stands out.

I studied abroad through the ISA program and the directors, Matilda and Paula, or as we called them Ma and Pa, would sometimes set up activities for us around the city. One day they sent out an email inviting us to meet them at St. Catherine’s Cathedral for a service opportunity working with refugees. We arrived at St. Catherine’s and were greeted outside the doors by Ma holding a basket filled with oranges and cups of tea. She handed out the goods and told us to go pass them around and chat with those inside. She explained that the refugees were mostly from Afghanistan. The majority of them were young men who were waiting to see if they would be granted asylum. They did not have papers, so they could not work; they were completely dependent on the charity of others for food and shelter.

St. Catherine’s is no longer an active church but another one of the beautiful cathedrals of Europe that are preserved for tourists. However, no tourists would be visiting St. Catherine’s. The pews had been removed and had been replaced by rows of tents. We awkwardly began to walk around, passing out tea. Those that knew English greeted us warmly. Eventually a group of the refugees invited us into their tent. We were out of tea, but they insisted that we drink some that they had. They also offered us sugar-covered dates. As I took a date out of the box, I noticed that it was covered in Arabic writing and I wondered if they had brought these dates all the way from their home country.

One of the volunteers asked them their story. They told us about living in fear as a war that did not concern them was raged all around them. They told us about the journey from their homeland to Brussels, about watching their friends die as they tried to flee. They told us about the hope they had for a better life and the disappointment they faced at being seen as a burden. They explained how the authorities had taken their papers and how they wished they could work. Surprisingly, though, they were not bitter. When we were finished, we went outside to play soccer. Even though I missed almost every kick, they continued to pass me the ball. They clearly knew how to work as a team. After all, they only had each other.

That was the only day I saw the St. Catherine’s Refugees. I asked Pa what happened to them, but she never wrote me back. I think and pray for them often and thank God for the opportunity to meet them. They touched my life more then I possibly could have touched theirs. They taught me that no matter how difficult life circumstances may be, it is possible to hold onto hope. They taught me that even when everything seems to be against you, if you hold on to relationships, you can make it through. They taught me that even though the news portrays the Middle East in such a dark light, many people there are just like I am. They want to live a prosperous life and are not entangled with their governments.

I also learned to see the world in a more positive light. The St. Catherine’s refugees and the volunteers that work with them are not reported about in the news. They are not talked about in government circles (mind you this was before the Syrian refugee crisis). All over the world people are reaching out to each other. You don’t have to travel all the way to Belgium. Sometimes all it takes is offering someone a cup of tea and a smile.

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Night Train

Today’s guest post is by Maggierose Martinez. Check out more of her writing on her blog, Meg and Mag.

While my university was on winter break, I spent some time during the last week at home in Westminster (the suburb of Denver that I am from). The night before I left Colorado Springs to go back to Westminster, we watched a movie called Night Train to Lisbon. The film begins and ends with the same insight on the effect of time and place: “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” When I left Westminster two and a half years ago to come to school in Colorado Springs, I left so much behind. I left behind my mother and three older brothers, my high school friends, the restaurants I enjoyed, and the sights, smells, and sounds that I had spent close to eighteen years with. But more than that, as the quote says, I left something of myself behind.

When I came to college friendless and scared, I decided that I would not base my friends on circumstance and how often I see them, but rather the quality of our friendship. This is not to say that my friends in high school were merely my friends because they were around for so long, but I do believe that was a big factor. Many of my friends had been around since freshman year, others since middle school, and even a good friend from the first grade.

This Sunday was the 21st birthday of one of my high school friends, and I was invited to her brunch. We were seated at a shared high top table next to a party of strangers. Completely typical of our group, most people were late. Because of our seating arrangement and tardiness, there was a lot of rearranging and I noticed that the easiest move was often me. It had been at least a year since I had spent time with any of these friends and because they have stayed much closer with each other, they had all seen each other within the week. I bounced back and forth between discussions with my old friends, the entire time feeling disconnected. I have always been one to dominate conversations, and while we talked I noticed that there was little interest in me talking about the courses that I’m taking next semester or my new friendships; instead, the conversations aimed more towards the commonalities they still shared.

I am really happy with where my life is right now and I am proud of how far I’ve come. I know that my old friends are happy for, and proud of, me; however, I also recognize that not only did I leave a part of myself in Westminster, I left a part of myself in Colorado Springs. The quote from Night Train to Lisbon follows, “We travel to ourselves when we go to a place where we have covered a stretch of our life, no matter how brief it may have been.” I have grown a lot in my two and a half short years in the Springs, and I have recently gained three of the most important friendships I’ve ever had. Even though my time here has been a small fraction of my life, it feels as though it’s home.

I love my family and I still care so much about my high school friends, but by leaving Westminster, I have found a new home. Before coming to school, I thought I would go back to Denver every weekend, and now I find it hard to pull myself away from the Springs. Although I don’t see myself going back to live in Westminster, a part of myself will always be there. I don’t believe I’ll stay in the Springs either, but I will always look back with pride and happiness. “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” The beauty is that we can go back “there”. No matter where on the map my next “there” is, I can travel back to these parts of myself and I have grown because of the time I have spent, and the people I have spent that time with, in both of my homes.

 

The First Layover

Today’s guest post is by C.J. Sweetwood. Follow him on Twitter at @fearsteveswrath and/or contact him at cjsweetwood@yahoo.com.

In December of 2014, I found myself staring into the abject and disparaging face of culture shock. I had taken two weeks off of my job teaching in Korea to go on a journey through Vietnam, but my tendency to be a complete and utter miser while traveling had landed me a bad flight with a worse airline out of Shanghai. I had decided to take my seven-hour layover there as a blessing in disguise, not a major pain in my ass, since I had never been to China and could try something unusual. My problem was focus: Shanghai is the largest city proper in the world, with a population of more than twenty-four million. What do you see in such an unimaginably large place with only a few hours to spare? I needed a goal, an objective for a bite-sized adventure, and when it hit me, it seemed perfectly and moronically stupid.

This is the story of how I ate Chinese food in China.

First, an aside about Shanghai: Tokyo stretches to the horizon when you fly into Narita, but Shanghai is another beast entirely. The city is constantly shrouded in a stunning grey cloud of wreathing and writhing smoke and haze, a man with eyes agleam in a puff of cigar ash. When you pass through the veil of choking smog and brackish clouds, the city emerges as a dim and dingy metropolis that seems to claw its way to the edges of the earth. The air is tinged with the taste of tar and the scent of cigarettes, and that sense of choking, cloying atmospheric claustrophobia is entirely normal.

I tracked down a map as soon as I passed through customs, and got a better sense of what the city was by staring at the sprawling, chaotic, ad-infested map of Shanghai. Korean city maps are concisely written, with clean lines and spotless images. The map of Shanghai is the total polar opposite. After puzzling over it, I made out that I had to take the maglev to get downtown the quickest. So I stored my bags at an airport kiosk, paid my yuan for a broken train ticket from a lady who looked borderline suicidal, and climbed onto the fastest train on Earth.

Interesting note about the fastest trains in the world: They’re surprisingly barebones. I’m not sure if it’s because they need to store more people or cut down on weight, but the seats on the maglev (and even the Korean KTX) make airport benches look cozy. I took a window seat, expecting to see some grandiose view of the countryside, but instead I was treated to views of a brackish harbor and acid rain-soaked buildings, replete with dripping stains and tattered clotheslines. It was a surprisingly bleak and dreary trip, but it took all of seven minutes. I spent most of that trying to focus on singular buildings and failing, eventually just giving up because my eyes hurt right as the train slowed to my stop.

I wandered out into Shanghai, and an apt comparison came to mind: It was the Star Wars universe. It was dirty, grimy, and lived in, but that feels far more alive and wondrous than our own reality. The city was run-down, jumbled and worn; yet it emitted this pulse of life, of breathing and burning humanity that the wide roads and subdivisions of my home could never hope to emulate. I marveled at it all, even the battered subway entrance as I slithered through the impossibly large crowds into the metro.

I walked into a subway car and immediately hit my head. The handrail was right at forehead level for me, and I drew a combination of sharp glances and comical chuckles from the locals as I rubbed my head and muttered obscenities under my breath. I rode out to Nanjing road, one of the central downtown shopping districts in Shanghai, and started out of the metro to locate an old colonial district called The Bund.

I didn’t get very far. Nanjing road is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world for a reason, and the amount of people relentlessly flowing through the thoroughfares stopped me cold. As an American from the west, used to wide places and personal spaces, this was insane. I stood there slack-jawed, staring at the teeming masses of Chinese shoppers stepping over dead rats to visit the Gucci store, at the foreigners in man buns and elephant pants taking pictures of historically significant pavement, and the touts and louts peddling prostitutes and pink roller skates. In all the travel I have done since, in all the trials and tribulation I have ever faced on the road around the world, be it waking up stranded in rural Huailen in the dead of night, getting lost in Sumida in a typhoon, or even nearly being robbed in Vientaine, nothing ever stopped me in my tracks but this one moment in Shanghai. It’s a challenge every traveler must face, the initial assault on your senses when you travel alone, the sheer realization that you are a single human in a mass of billions, a true stranger in a strange land.

Of course life never lets you rest on your laurels, and it doesn’t always allow for contemplation of the magnanimity of human existence either. I was shook out of my stupor by a man offering me prostitutes (“Long time love only twenty dollar”). I politely declined, and quickly learned that politely declining usually doesn’t work that well in Asia. The best way to be left alone? Keep walking, no talking. Unfortunately, I hadn’t absorbed this yet, and couldn’t get the touts to leave me be. To get away from a man trying to sell me drugs, I dipped into a nearby yellow building and walked smack into one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen.

Without realizing it, I had walked into an M&M’s world, during a live dance performance of M&M’s in terracotta warrior costumes, set to “Disco Inferno”. I marveled at the surreal nature of human existence and bought a magnet before I realized the drug dealer had followed me inside and I had to lose him. I lost him in the street, and remembered what I came for. I decided to turn down a nearby alley and find something to eat.

A ways down the street I noticed a small house with fish tanks out front. As I walked past it, staring at the pictures of food on the windows, a man a picnic table out front called out in broken English: “Hey! You food?”

Ahh…Fuck it.

I nodded, and he invited me inside. The restaurant was a converted house run by him and his family. His son was the cook, chain-smoking as he slaved over a wok in the back, black soot and grease stains lining the walls. The first floor was just the kitchen and some picnic tables, and I wondered if they lived upstairs as I sat down. The man produced a menu, all in Chinese, and smiled a gap-filled grin. I perused the menu, disregarding the words and looking only at the pictures until I saw an image of something any self-respecting American has had delivered a hundred times: Bell peppers and beef. I pointed to it, and the man exclaimed “Ahh…Beef Peppah.”

He gave me a thumbs up, dragging on a cigarette all the while. “Tsingtao?”

I nodded, and he produced a massive bottle of beer from a nearby cooler while his wife produced a plastic wrapped batch of dinnerware. He plopped down with a couple friends at a nearby table, and chatted in Chinese as his wife peeled open the containers and filled one with rice from a cooker on a grimy table.

I sipped my beer and watched the family: the husband gesturing at the paper and talking with his friends, pausing often to shout random things about my size-sixteen feet. The mother, smiling slightly as she showed the oblivious foreigner how to take cling wrap off serving dishes. The son, who put back four cigarettes as he whipped red chunks of beef and crisp bell pepper in a wok with sauce from a stained bottle. Finally, he produced my meal and handed it to the mother, who set it in front of me and stepped back to watch. The husband took a long drag on his cigarette as I took a bite.

I can describe that meal, definitively, as the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life. Nothing has ever come close. I have eaten at five-star restaurants in luxury hotels that paled compared to this meal cooked up by a chain-smoking teenager in a rundown basement family restaurant in Shanghai.

It was life changing, and I tried to convey that as best I could. The husband smiled knowingly and gave me a thumbs up while his wife relayed it to their son, who calmly popped another cigarette in his mouth and nodded with grim satisfaction. I paid my grand total of six American dollars and thanked them profusely as I wandered back into the street, still dazed and overwhelmed by the food.

I looked at my watch. It was time to head back to the airport, to my impending red-eye flight to Saigon and to the next stage of another life-shaping adventure.

Culture Shock 101

Today’s guest blogger is Jaclyn Nelson.

As we entered a little hipster restaurant in Colorado Springs, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Something was wrong. Heather was not her usual self.

“I’m so excited about this trip!” I word-vomited as soon as we sat down. Her eyes darted past mine. She made a passing comment, one that was clearly avoiding my comment. We made small talk for a bit before she finally got down to business.

“What if I told you we might not be going to Seattle?” she asked. My heart sank. I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true. Friends traveling together rarely works out.

“I have another idea. Would you…”

The suspense was building. My head was flooded, still adjusting, preparing for disappointment. Her voice was serious. In the dimly lit café, it felt like a proposal of sorts.

“…Go to Vietnam with me?”

“Vietnam? Like…Viet-freaking-nam?” My heart was racing. I had so many questions.

“Why Vietnam?’
“Is it safe?”
“Is it expensive?”
“How long will we be there for?”
“Do people go to Vietnam?”

Before I said any of those things, I immediately said, “Of course I will. Yes. Yes!

It was that easy. Heather and I had begun to save for traveling endeavors. We had talked about perhaps going to Seattle over the summer, when it had dawned on her that she liked to travel. And I liked to travel. She wanted to go out of the country and so did I. Why not go together?

How do you begin traveling with someone? You must ask someone. Make it happen. People always say they want to travel, but rarely do they make it a priority. You have to start somewhere.

She had done her research. Southeast Asia is one of the least expensive places to travel in and she stumbled upon it when she had Googled “Safest places for women to travel.”  Vietnam was safe, inexpensive, and beautiful. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the next few months, Heather and I would meet up to solidify our travels plans and it didn’t feel like it was actually happening. We’d research hostels and try to decide which ones were safe and how far in advance we should plan on reserving nights. Most websites recommended to just “go with the flow” and figure it out when you get there. That idea terrified me. What if we couldn’t find a place? We booked the first few nights just in case.

The day we bought the plane ticket, my heart was explosive. Still, somehow, I felt doubtful that this was actually going to happen. Something must go wrong. People do not just up and go to Vietnam without consequences—that’s absurd.

The week before the trip, we got an email from the airlines informing us that our two-hour layover in China suddenly turned into a two-day layover in China.

I knew this would happen. All of our plans moving from city to city would now be delayed. The hostel we had booked would no longer work. I knew this was a bad idea.

I said none of this. I went with the flow.

The flight was when it got really real. We were one of possibly four white people on the plane, and Air China was not kind to ignorant Americans who did not speak a lick of Chinese. I suppose it was our fault, but we hadn’t intended on leaving the airport in China until the week prior.

Side note: Air China was cheaper than most flights by a couple hundred dollars, but 100% not worth the hassle. They changed our flights last minute. The flight attendants were extremely rude. It was not worth it. It’s tolerable, but not worth the couple hundred dollars it saved us, even if that money could buy you weeks of travel in Vietnam.

We arrived in China very, very late. We were told the airline should cover our costs for the layover, considering they changed the flights last minute, but despite our pleading, they sent us out with nothing. Heather had booked a hostel in Beijing, just in case, but now the tricky part was trying to figure out how to get there.

We started asking questions about the cab fare. We quickly realized the expensive cabs were lined up first, and as you moved down the row of cabs, they got cheaper and cheaper. We had a round-about idea as to how much the cab should cost to our hostel and kept repeating it to the drivers. Eventually one of the drivers signaled over another driver and we got into the cab.

We showed the driver where we were heading. We had written the name of the place in English. That was our first mistake. The driver is Chinese—he doesn’t read English—he reads Mandarin.

Heather and I just looked at each other, trying to hide our panic. After spending a few minutes fretting, trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do, she remembered she had written down the telephone number of the hostel. She gave it to the driver. Looking back, it was very kind of him to call that hostel. That’s not in his job description—we didn’t know what else to do.

We began the drive in absolute silence. The nerves were settling in. We had researched areas in Vietnam, but we hadn’t China. Heather had booked a place that had high reviews on Lonely Planet, and we had just went with it.

Looking around us, I began to feel sicker and sicker. Graffiti everywhere. People walking in the streets late at night. The closer we got to the hostel, the more unsafe I felt. It didn’t help that the driver was going in circles around this square. Was he trying to rake up the miles and charge us or was he really that lost? I was unsure. All I knew is I could barely breathe and Heather wasn’t mumbling a word.

Finally, the driver motioned us to get out. He pointed down a dark alley. “Go,” he said, using whatever English he could muster. We refused. He drove around the block again, then motioned us down the same alley.  He pointed down the alley and to the left.

I don’t know how or when we mustered up the courage to trust him, against all instinct, but we began making our way down the alley. There were lots of people (what we would later find out to be primarily tourists) walking down this street. For now, we were just jet lagged, hungry, and desperate to find the hostel.

“There it is! There it is!” Heather exclaimed. I would never have seen it, cleverly hidden between other businesses.

We made our way inside, still barely speaking. We were starving, so we walked back outside to find food. Still uncomfortable, we decided to go back in almost immediately and travel by daylight. We ate granola and listened to the noises of our anxious stomachs.

I knew this would happen. I knew it.

The next day, we were still riddled with culture shock. The hostel was beautiful, covered with plants and flowers and connected to an adorable little restaurant. It was pricier than Vietnam would be, but at least there was food.

We spent the morning taking in deep breaths of relief—finally revealing how scared we both were the night before. We were not in a bad part of town at all; the “graffiti-covered walls” were the doors to stores, opening as a garage door would.  We were in a nice district, close to many tourist attractions, such as Tiananmen Square, a large city square in the center of Beijing. The people were incredibly kind.

The first night Heather and I were at the hostel, I sat at a community table and wrote in my journal. One girl from the hostel, Miko, asked if she could join me. I immediately confessed that I knew little to no Chinese and told her a little about the culture shock Heather and I experienced. She taught me a couple key Chinese phrases such as “Wo Chi Su” or “I eat vegetables,” the closest phrase to saying “I am a vegetarian” (this was of course after I accidently ordered an omelet with ham in it and had no way to explain that I didn’t want it).  

Miko was staying in the hostel in Beijing with her family as she waited to go to school to play the harp. Her mother showed me pictures of her playing a harp that was bigger than she! Though her mother spoke no English, we spent an evening connecting through smiles and hand gestures.

Soon others joined us. A traveler from Amsterdam saw us laughing and enjoying ourselves. He, too, began opening up and telling his stories of how far he’d traveled and how long he’d been away from home. At the time, I was amazed. Now, after meeting so many travelers, I cannot recall where he had been, only that he had dedicated years to self-discovery, something I desperately wanted to do.

And this is how I started. No, it wasn’t for months or years at a time, but everyone’s journey is different—and mine, for now, would take me to Vietnam.

Culture shock wouldn’t get me twice.

A Spirit of Quietness at St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery

Today’s guest blogger is John Parker.

High up in the tree-covered hills of Platina, California sits a string of buildings and huts strewn throughout the woods. From morning until sunset, men in black robes, young and old, can be seen walking or working on various tasks: adding new rows to the cobblestone path, tending to the gardens, or most commonly of all—prayer. Dogs wander aimlessly, happily, between the buildings, looking for pinecones to chew. And at the appointed times, a resonating hum of bells sounds across the hillside, beckoning listeners. This is the brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery.

Orthodox Christian Monasteries have been in existence for well over a thousand years. The monastic life is a removal from the chaos of society, a sort of self-imposed exodus into the wilderness—a place where many throughout history have encountered the spiritual life in God. St. Herman’s began out of the desire to return to the spiritual heart of ancient Christian truth and praxis. Father Seraphim Rose, a prolific writer of Orthodox books, helped bring this vision to fruition at this monastery. Since then, this brotherhood has lived in simplicity and humility living out the Orthodox Christian Faith, occupying themselves with devoted prayer and worship, hard work, and hospitality toward the many frequent visitors (ourselves included) who come to see Father Seraphim’s grave. We were there to stay a day in the life of the monastics.

I came on this pilgrimage as the culmination of a year of “returning” to my inner self. I had been running for years from God and from anything resembling church, and had only recently been drawn back into that life. I felt as though God was slowly softening my heart and leading me back, so that by the time I visited St. Herman’s, the noise of the life I was coming out of had diminished enough for me to be able to listen and at least catch a small measure of the stillness of prayer.

After two full days of nearly non-stop driving from Colorado to the west coast, crammed in a van with four other young adults I’d only recently met, I wasn’t sure of what to expect when we arrived. I only knew that I felt something when we walked through the gates—stillness, a quietness returning to and settling on the earth.

Brother Cassian, a man in his early twenties and the most recent addition to the brotherhood, showed me and fellow traveler Jeremiah to our rooms—cells, as they’re called. Like most of the other monks, Brother Cassian was very quiet. Not standoffish or rude, just quietly engaged in a deliberate, contemplative silence. Beyond showing us our rooms and amenities and asking if we needed anything, there was very little conversation. This was the consistent theme throughout the stay: we were given a tour of the monastery, ate meals with the monks, attended services, and were treated with every kindness—nevertheless, a spirit of quietness infused all of these things.

One encounter my friend had with a monk is a fairly good representation of the whole trip’s experience. When we had free time to explore the grounds, this friend of mine was walking and singing to himself. Unknown to him, an elder monk named Brother Theophil was sitting nearby, praying in solitude. My friend thought he was alone, and was singing rather loudly, no doubt distracting Brother Theophil. As soon as my friend noticed the monk, he quickly stopped singing and began apologizing: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your prayer, I’ll leave now.”

Brother Theophil, a man who I would have otherwise thought seemed strict and austere, cracked a warm smile and turned to my friend saying, “It is alright. We must learn to pray, especially in the midst of distraction.”

Even though we only stayed a day at St. Herman’s, this truth has stayed with me. In the midst of a work filled with noise, chaos, pain, and suffering—there is a stillness that is waiting to be encountered. There is a life of prayer and inner quietness that I believe not only helps one endure the outside world, but actually helps sustain the world. These small, humble spaces where people strive to overcome the noise and seek a full life of faith help give breath and life to the surrounding world, even if it can’t perceive it.

St. Petersburg, Russia

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Avischious.

It’s difficult to know just what to expect when visiting a foreign country. No amount of reading about sights to see or cultural practices are a replacement for the real thing. When I was preparing to go to Russia, this process was made even more difficult as I knew very few people outside of my Russian professors at school who had actually been there. Most of my friends had no experience there, and what they did know was usually based off some joke or Russian stereotype. Needless to say I was nervous and excited to venture off into a completely new part of the world in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Stepping of the plane, I realized just how different learning a language in a classroom was compared to actually being surrounded by native speakers. At college the speakers I talked to were just learning the language, and apart from my professor, no one spoke quickly or with great pronunciation. I tried to eavesdrop on conversations nearby to see if I could pick up anything they said, while only sometimes being able to pick up the gist of what they were saying. What really forced me to get comfortable with speaking Russian was living with a host family that spoke no English. It took getting used to, but eventually we were able to understand each other,  and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the language.

After about a week of being in St. Petersburg, I began exploring the city with friends to see the sights. When most people think of Russian architecture, they think of Red Square or giant Soviet apartment complexes. However, St. Petersburg is a very different type of Russian city.  Since the city was originally founded by Russian czar and Europhile, Peter the Great, there is a distinct European style in much of the city. Many of the buildings are pastel colored and feature arches and pillars like in classical French design. That is not to say there is not Russian style, though. As one heads out from the center of the city towards the additions added during the Soviet times, there are towering grey apartment buildings where many of the city’s residents live.

The city not only has unique architecture, but also has its fair share of art. There are many museums in St. Petersburg, but none are more famous than the Hermitage. It’s one of the most famous art museums in the world, and after visiting several times while I was there, it’s easy to understand why. There are pieces from ancient Egyptian art all the way to modern galleries from around the world. While it is an amazing place to visit, I preferred another nearby art museum called the Russian Museum. What makes it special is that it contains only the works of artists from Russia. This helps to give a distinctly Russian perspective of art and the world. It features early Russian icons which show the deep connections with Russian Orthodoxy, portraits of Russian aristocrats during Imperial Russia, and paintings of modern Soviet ideals.

To better understand Russian culture, I then had to travel outside of the city to explore some of the vast parks and gardens. Russians traditionally have emotional and spiritual ties to nature, and getting out of the city is a great way for them to unwind. To get to the parks, my friends and I traveled in old soviet style train cars out from the city, and despite the cold weather, large groups of Russians were out enjoying the scenery. Many of the parks are on the land from former imperial palace grounds, and the amount of space they take up is absolutely gigantic. One could easily spend a day or two just walking around a single park. Through the thick forest and rolling hills, there are often small buildings scattered throughout the parks. These buildings range from green houses to mausoleums built for royal family members.

Of course, it is impossible to really know a culture without actually talking to the people who live there. Walking down the street or riding the metro, people always have a serious look on their face, which can be quite off-putting for foreigners. However I learned to not be fooled by the stern outward appearances of the Russian people. Once you get to know Russians, they are very kind and welcoming. From the friends I made while playing soccer matches in the park, to the old Russian grandmothers who simply wanted someone with whom they could practice their English, they are the ones that truly made Russia feel like an amazing place.

Adventures in Singapore

Today’s guest blogger is Hannah Hendrix.

Hello, world! My name is Hannah. Last spring break I went to Singapore for the second time (the first being the summer before), and I absolutely loved it both times. My father frequents Singapore on business trips and I, wanting adventure, decided to tag along the two times I could. The first time I went, I did numerous activities, like going to the Singapore Zoo (so cool!), an island called Sentosa, the aquarium, as well as doing random site-seeing, like the Merlion and the light show down near the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (done every night for free). The coolest thing about Singapore to me was that you could get anywhere (walking or taking the MRT) underground. And it wasn’t just a tunnel underground; it was a tunnel that led to the lower level of a mall and a food court. Singapore doesn’t have much land mass, and so they’ve built everything up and down. There are malls everywhere! Literally. They also have a variety of price ranges, so if you want to spend the big bucks, you can, or if you’re feeling more on the frugal side, there are things for that as well.

Both times I went to Chinatown. Chinatown, no matter where in the world it is, is always my favorite. It’s one of my favorite places anywhere because I’ve always had a love for Asian culture, and there’s always so much packed into a few streets of town! It’s exciting and wonderful to visit all the booths with their different products to offer (especially food!). It’s just all around a fun time.

One of the weirdest but easiest (as a traveler) parts of Singapore was that while the majority of the people living there are Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese, everyone speaks English. Not when they’re on the streets talking to each other, but if you need directions or are wanting to shop anywhere, there is no language barrier. The signs are also all in English and Chinese, so no need to be confused when someone tells you what street something is on.

Singapore is kind of like a hub of different ethnicities and cultures colliding but all working and meshing well together all at once. The British had taken over Singapore for a while before it became its own nation, and so there are many places (old hotels, site specific monuments, and more) that are British in nature. The plugs in the wall are even European!

The temperature there, since it’s near the equator, is basically the same year round. It’s humid, but not horribly humid. And it’s a delightful kind of warm. All of the buildings are air conditioned and even the tunnels underground are, so there’s no need to be in the heat if you don’t want to. But if you feel like walking around, then it’s bearable. Just bring water!

The last thing I’ll mention is their rules. They have very strict laws about jaywalking, chewing gum (You absolutely can’t do it. They don’t even sell gum there. If you chew it, you can be arrested.) and vandalism. But because of their strictness, it’s a very clean and well organized city. You probably won’t feel like the minority if you go there, because even though the majority of people you see are Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian, there are so many white business men and women walking around that you somehow blend in with the crowd even though you should stick out.

I would recommend going if you can.

Being a Foreigner Abroad

Today’s guest blogger is Mike Smith. Check out his travel blog here.

“If you’re a giant freak monster here in the U.S., then it HAS to be even harder for you there in Albania!”

Truer words never spoken, friend.

Sometimes it is tough to be me in general. I have, unfortunately, never been able to fit in or go unnoticed anywhere in my life just because of my physical appearance alone. When traveling abroad, that feeling is amplified exponentially. Sometimes it is hard dealing with all of the attention I get, positive or negative, and it can be a bit tiring when everyone stares at/wants to take pictures with you when all you want to do is go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. To add to the whole sideshow attraction feeling, I make up about 25% of Albania’s current black population (maybe a little more since I’m bigger than the rest of them) so you can get an idea of how life is for me at present. If you’re just going on vacation somewhere, then it’s not that big a deal, but if you plan on living somewhere for an extended period of time, it can eventually become overwhelming and incredibly stressful.

That’s why I wanted to share with you Big Mike’s Top 5 Ways to Not Feel Like the Unwanted Foreigner in a Different Country (or “Coping Mechanisms” for short).

1. Walk with confidence! – Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Head up. If you walk with confidence you will FEEL confident, and that feeling will carry you through a lot. It seems like a small tip or common knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many times I see other visitors/my fellow volunteers hunched over slinking through their towns staring at the ground because they are afraid to make eye contact with the locals. That demeanor can actually ADD to your fears or unhappiness and give you that nagging, “I can’t wait to go home” thought in the back of your head. Get yourself together, fix that posture, and strut!

2. Learn the language! – Again, one would think that this is common sense if you are living in a country that doesn’t speak your L1 for an extended period of time, but I wouldn’t be bringing it up if I didn’t see people ignoring it everyday. You need to know at least enough for things like everyday conversations, work, travel, buying things, etc. When I see people just slamming English into everything and refusing to learn the language of the place that they live in it irks me. You don’t have to be perfect, but showing the locals that you’re trying does wonders for your approval rating and they will really appreciate the effort.

3. Make local friends – You need friends no matter where you go. Either someone that you can visit or can visit you. These friends can help you get adjusted or introduce you to other people or things that you may have never known about otherwise, and they are invaluable when settling in at a new place. And that doesn’t mean you have to make friends with EVERYONE. One or two really good friends will do just fine. It’s always better to have 4 quarters than 100 pennies.

4. Make American friends – We are quite literally everywhere…like a virus or a plague. Americans are absolutely all over the world, and chances are high that you will run into a few wherever it is that you are traveling to. You may even know some before you go. Some people will tell you that if you want to really be successful, you have to spend as little time with people that are like you as possible. I call b.s. You need as many connections as you can get in your strange new land, so don’t shun anyone! Odds are that they have gone through the things that you will go through as well and can help you to adjust more quickly. ‘MURICA /salute

E. Accept invitations – Inevitably you will be invited out to do things with local people, whether it be to get coffee or lunch or what have you. Make some time to go and hang out with your new peers and neighbors. Everyone will want to know about you, why you are there, for how long, what toothpaste you use, etc. Go out and get to know about them, too! Being open to little social meetings will do wonders for your integration and you could even find some new friends from there as well. Of course, use your judgement when accepting invites to things. Don’t go to someone’s house for “Netflix and chill” if you just met them, obviously…

If you find things getting a bit rough for you, these things will definitely help you get through most of it. You will find that most things that you are stressing about are all in your head and the more you integrate the faster they will go away. It will not be instantaneous, and it will feel like ice skating uphill for a little while, but eventually you will find your groove and start to love your new place.