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Racism and Nationalism in Progressive Europe?

I’m coming upon four full months in Belgium, and all is still very much well. Overall I find this country to be a melting pot of different cultures, languages and attitudes. Antwerp is a city so diverse that a five minute walk will give you a surprisingly large taste of countless cultures – women in burqas, Hasidic Orthodox Jewish men with long black coats, and long beards, and Jewish women who often wear wigs and stockings. I hear at least Arabic, French, Dutch, and English daily.

So it’s safe to say I was rather surprised when I learned of a traditional children’s holiday shrouded in controversy. Sinterklaas (more familiar to us as Saint Nicholas, though not to be confused with Santa Claus) is the most popular Christmas figure to Belgian children. Though our dear Santa is also known to Belgians, most grow up with the knowledge that he is a myth – the man on the coca-cola advertisements, not the bearer of presents on Christmas. In Belgium, Christmas Day is a time to spend with family and give a few small gifts – but for children, December 6 is the most special day of the year. The night before Sinterklaas, children leave their shoes out, and Sinterklaas and his helper Zwarte Piet come during the night and deposit gifts.

The holiday seems innocent enough, but it’s the figure of Zwarte Piet that had me, and many other exchange students here completely shocked. Zwarte Piet translates to Black Pete, and is traditionally said to be a Moor from Spain. Belgians, and the Dutch (for the holiday originates in the Netherlands) therefore dress up as Zwarte Piet in blackface, with a curly black wig, gold earrings, and red lipstick. The majority of Belgians I spoke to are so familiar with this jolly site from childhood that they are almost unable to understand foreigners’ general shock when witnessing people on the street or in school participate in something so wholly offensive to many people around the world.

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I found myself often in many friendly, though sometimes heated, debates during the month of December with my fellow Belgians, but they always ended the same. Belgians now defend Zwarte Piet, claiming he is black solely from the cinders. Whether this is true or not (although the legend definitely portrays him as a servant Moor from Spain), the real problem is not that he is covered in ash, but that the citizens of Belgian think it is appropriate to turn a blind eye to the rest of the world’s perception of their tradition. I had one conversation with a Belgian where they claimed by making a big deal of blackface, we were actually teaching children racism. He claimed children thought nothing of a painted face, and it is innocent until adults try to ruin it. What no Belgian I talked to seemed to realize is that blackface is offensive to other parts of the world. They do not see it that way, so they claim it must not be that way. Sadly, blackface has an incredibly offensive history, and to turn a blind eye to that, solely to keep a tradition as superficial as dressing up in costume once a year is incredibly disappointing to me.

I love this country, and I find the individual citizens progressive in many areas. But I have witnessed a large amount of racism and xenophobia in Belgium – something markedly surprising to me. Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, does have a nationalist movement, and is so small that the citizens seem to hold a large amount of animosity towards the many immigrants who do not assimilate. They seem to be holding on to their small place in the world, and do not like the many threats to their already precarious national culture. The Flemish hate the Netherlands, and they hate the French part of Belgium. They don’t like anyone really.

Yet despite all of the frustrating and heated conversations over Zwarte Piet, I still love Belgians. Every culture has its differences, and at the end of the day my Belgian friends and I simply agree to disagree. In fact, my friends hosted a mini Sinterklaas-feest to try to show me the joys of the holiday. I had a lovely time, and they made sure Zwarte Piet never made an appearance.

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6 Things I Learned Studying Abroad in Morocco

I have been in America for about three days now, and I am still trying to process my experience and push through the jet lag. If I can say anything about the past three and a half months, it would be that it was a learning experience. So here is a list of lessons I took from Morocco and some representative anecdotes to accompany.

1) How to eat bananas:

I have always been a picky eater, so I knew that studying abroad would push me right out of that comfort zone. There are obviously bananas in America, but I have just chosen not to eat them and opt for the abundance of other fruits. In Morocco, for whatever reason, they became my snack of choice and at times I ended up eating up to three a day.

But bananas are not the only cuisine that expanded my palate. Morocco is famous for it’s couscous, served every Friday. It was my favorite meal by far, and honestly the couscous alone is worth the 8 hour plane ride (remember, I am a picky eater. This is saying a lot).

The final food I fell in love with in Morocco is falafel. Falafel is a Middle Eastern food, but I think the Arabic traditions crossed the sea quite nicely.

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2) How to read a simple sentence in Arabic

Before starting beginning Arabic with Professor Driss, I didn’t know that Arabic was read from right to left. I can now read a simple paragraph. I was amazed at my progress throughout the course – from learning the alphabet (all 28 letters and short vowels!) to being able to sound out words, and then being able to read and memorize words. The process was like being in kindergarten again, and it was really the most special kind of learning. By November, I was able to order food and items from vendors, introduce myself and make friends with people on the street!

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3) How to haggle (NOT)

So the interesting thing about stores in Morocco is that there is almost never a price tag. This doesn’t mean that the item is free (usually) – it means that the price is at the discretion of the vendor, and is dependent on your ability to bargain. Unfortunately, I never mastered this skill and found myself paying 490 dirhams (equivalent of about $60) for spices.

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4) The importance of others

Moroccan culture is very social. It places a lot of importance on greetings and meals. I am by nature an introvert, but during my time studying abroad, I feel as though that tendency was challenged. I had to rely heavily on my roommates and directors just to orient myself in the new environment of Meknes, and to cope with challenges that presented themselves (which were daily. Things I take for granted like finding transportation or taking myself to the doctor were not immediately apparent or available). This extremely social and generous atmosphere, as opposed to the extremely individualistic nature of American society is one of the most immediately striking differences.

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5) Insha’alla/ God willing/ إن شاء الله

This is perhaps the first and most important Arabic phrase one learns when studying abroad in Morocco. I talked about it a bit in my last post – the “pace of life” that we were all warned about but didn’t realize until fully immersed. Yes, it is common knowledge that Morocco is an Islamic country. Looking out over Meknes from my roof, there is no view that lacks the towers of mosques, and the daily call to prayer is heard every day, five times a day, and women do wear hijab. But more than that, the theme “insha’alla” or “God willing” is always guiding everyday life. There is no rush, no worry, and little planning and organization. There is always time to stop and greet someone on the street.  Daily coffees and meals are social events. Things happen in their own time – as God wills it.

6) Travel, and what it is like to non western countries

I am no stranger to travel. I have traveled alone, internationally, and for long periods of time. However, I have not traveled outside of western countries or what is classified as traditional study abroad locations. Before going to North Africa, I thought I would immediately fit right in, adapt, and have a seamless and joyful transition from American culture to Moroccan culture. In fact, I thought that I would be able to fit in anywhere in the world I desired to travel. Living in Morocco taught me that this idea was naive. I learned that it’s OK to not necessarily feel like I belong in a country. I came to the conclusion that countries are like people – some people become friends, some people become lovers, others I’ll live with, and some people are best in brief encounters.

I love Morocco, and if given the chance, I would return. This semester has been one of the most transformative of my life; my experiences were memorable, exciting, and challenging. I am also now curious if how I would enjoy travel to the Middle East or Asia

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My most recent adventure!

Hello everyone!

This is my final update from Cape Town, as I return home this weekend. 🙁 These past five months have been nothing short of amazing and while it will be great to see friends and family again just in time for the holidays, I am really going to miss this place. Cape Town has begun to feel like my home. Not to mention I am going to miss this summer time weather once I return to cold KC.

So for my final entry, let me show you some photos of my post semester travels to Durban, South Africa and to the Drakensberg mountains!

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The beautiful landscape of the Drakensberg mountains! (Drakensberg is Afrikaans for dragon mountain)

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This was a pretty challenging 8 hour hike up to the summit, but the views were well worth the trek!

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Once we reached the top we got to see the amazing Tugela falls; at 938 meters this is the highest waterfall in Africa and the second highest in the world! It is kind of hard to tell but there is a girl in the top left corner of this photo which really puts the size of this fall into perspective.

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My brother came to visit me for a couple weeks and explored the mountains with me as well.

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Another good view of one of the waterfalls in the mountains.

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And of course a couple of giraffes from a game drive we did. 🙂

I hope you have enjoyed hearing about my journey in South Africa as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you.

Cheers!

Ashley

Trains, Taxis, and Waffles – From Morocco to Belgium and Back

This week was our fall break and I had the extreme pleasure of crossing continents and spending three days in Belgium!

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The special thing about Morocco is it’s notorious “pace of life”. And this cultural aspect was truly exemplified in our travels in and out of the country. I was travelling with my roommate, Alahna, to Rabat via train to our to catch our plane to Brussels. From the train station Gare Ville  to the airport Rabat Salle, it’s about a 12 minute drive. So, I approached a taxi and he agreed to take us there – but after about two minutes in the car, he had already pulled over to chat with someone on the side of the road, and tried to demand 200 dirhams for the trip (about $35).

After 5 minutes in the car, he stopped in a small residential avenue, where a school was just getting out of session. He told us that we would have to wait 5 minutes for his brother to arrive. I told him no, and tried to use the bit of Arabic I knew to let him know that he cannot pull one over on us. He then asked me if I would marry him – to which I replied absolutely not. Seeing no other cabs, Alahna and I had to wait it out for the brother, and I quickly checked the top of the cab to see if the “Petit Taxi” sign was on top. The driver assured me he was not a voleur, and showed me his I.D. card. The brother then arrived and we had to get into his taxi. After we got into the car, he took down his “Petit Taxi” sign and requested one of us sit in the front seat. At this point, we had experienced every red flag and warning sign that we had learned about in our orientation, and both Alahna and I were mentally formulating escape plans.

However, we did make it to the airport – for the price of 300 dirhams ($40).

 

Being in Brussels was truly amazing. I saw a little bit of everything – the Palace and government buildings, the Manneken Pis, ULB – the university in Brussels, the Autonium, and so much more.

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But what was maybe even better than that was that I was hosted by my friend Nathalie, who was a foreign exchange student in my high school when I was a senior. We haven’t seen each other in three years, but honestly it was as if we had not stopped hanging out. I met her lovely parents – her mom had made a quiche for our arrival (quiche is my favorite food. I was so happy) – and cooked a Belgian meal that was kind of like Shepard’s Pie for dinner one night. Probably the best thing about travelling and study abroad is the people you meet and grow to love all over the world. I’ve found that, maybe even more so than when I’m at home, connections are more lasting, or maybe more deep when you meet people abroad.

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Coming back to Morocco, Alahna and I were immediately indoctrinated back into the pace of life. We knew better than to take the Petit Taxi from Rabat Salle to Gare Ville; we caught the bus this time and then hopped on the first train back to Meknes, our host town. One stop away from Meknes, the train lingered at the station.. and didn’t start again. There was an announcement over the intercom, first in Arabic and then in French, with a vague reassuring message that everything was okay. After two hours at the same stop, we had still heard no word about was going on, and decided to approach the station guard. I said “Salam” from across the tracks, and he responded with a “shwiya“. Luckily, there was a helpful fellow train rider who let us know that they had to fix the train and it would be leaving in 10, or maybe 15 minutes.

These things can be unnerving for me as an American, because I have grown up with schedules, order, and a lot of control over my environment and movement. But it was funny to observe the Moroccan family who we shared the train car with that night – they were completely unfazed by the fact that the ride was more than doubled by this unexplained and unexpected delay. They smiled, played cards, and had the Arabic playlist on blast the entire time.

Update from Cape Town

Cheers from South Africa!

Wow so time is really flying by and my stay in South Africa is really coming to an end soon. I am halfway done with my final exams; two down and two left to go. As you can imagine, I’ve been quite busy studying but have still found time to soak up the Capetonion sun while I can. Summer is pretty much in full swing here with temperatures getting very warm already. The beautiful weather that we have had here lately is only going to make it harder to get back on a plane to come home to winter. While I’m excited to see my friends and family back in Kansas City again, I can’t help but already feeling sad that my time abroad is closing in on the final weeks.

So without further a due, here are some photos from my recent (or not so recent) weeks here!

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This is a photo of my French and German housemates and I. It has been really cool to interact with not only South Africans but many Europeans as well. During my stay here, people have moved in and out of the house so I’ve lived with several German, French, and Dutch people and I’ve gotten to know some of their languages and customs as well.

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Halloween is not as big of a celebration in South Africa as it is in the US; however Cape Town still held a zombie walk that gathered nearly 3,000 zombies to walk around the city center for Halloween!

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This is my friend Yvonne and I at a cave we hiked to in Silvermine called Elephant’s Eye. They call it this because the mountain sort of looks like an elephant’s head and the cave is right where the eye would be!

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This is an older picture, but still one of my favorites from our spring break trip. This photo was taken at Jeffery’s Bay, one of the most famous surfing beaches in the world. While becoming a professional surfer is just not in the cards for me, we had a lot of fun trying to learn.

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This photo was taken during afternoon tea at one of the most posh hotels in Cape Town, the Belmond Mount Nelson. We indulged in plenty of fine teas and sweets this afternoon. We also had an unexpected surprise run in with the actor, Sean Penn! (He is currently working on filming a movie here in Cape Town)

Like I said, I’ve been busy preparing for exams but that does not stop me from going out and exploring Cape Town still. In just one more week my semester will officially be complete and I will have a few weeks off to myself to enjoy my remaining time in South Africa.

Cheers for now!

Daytrip to Bruges

I’ve been here two months now. Antwerp has truly become my home. The excitement has started to wear off, and I’ve definitely experienced the first wave of homesickness. But that’s ok. I still love Antwerp, and the nice thing about being on a study abroad program is you’re surrounded by people going through the exact same things as you. It doesn’t take much effort to find support here, as well as at home.

A highlight of my past month was a day trip I took to Bruges – perhaps the most beautiful city in the world. Known as the “Venice of the North,” stepping into this medieval canal city is like being transported into a fairytale. Belgium has so many great resources for students, and one of my favorites is the Go-pass. Anyone under 27 can buy a ten-ticket pass which makes any train within Belgium a 5 euro ride. So two friends and I decided to take a spontaneous trip one morning. We made our way to Antwerp’s beautiful train station – Antwerpen Centraal – and we were on our way.

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Station Antwerpen-Centraal

 

I could try to explain the beauty of Bruges, but there’s no way words can do it justice – and it’s even more unlikely my words can do it justice. So since a picture is worth a thousand words, these should suffice:

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Tot ziens! (see you soon)

في الحقيقة

I had a pretty rosy picture of life abroad before I came here. And for the first few weeks, my experiences met and even surpassed my exceptions. I have traveled, my new home is large and modern, I have made great friends with the other students, and of course, I am surrounded by this intense and beautiful country.

 

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Unlike most college students, I am used to moving and living in new environments –  I have lived in 4 states in the past three years prior to studying abroad. And so, I thought this experience would be very easy for me, especially because I have the wonderful support of the ISA staff.

I have now spent almost two full months in my host country, and I have officially hit the middle point of  my study abroad experience – it feels kind of like a vacation that has lasted too long, or like a forced relocation that I wasn’t quite prepared for..

The strange and intense culture shock that I had so looked forward to before coming is now becoming the daily challenge. I am realizing how dependent I am on American culture norms. Little things like the concept of a Barnes and Noble is so tragically funny to reminisce on as I walk past the male dominated cafes from which I can never receive a wifi signal anyways. Feeling sick suddenly becomes a big deal when I can’t see a doctor without the assistance of a local.

Through these challenges, I am learning about my own vulnerability and areas in need of growth. Someone famous once said that it is neither the beginning nor end that is the hardest, but the middle. Though I have reached this point, I still find joy in my host country. I have received amazing kindness from both Americans and Moroccans while here, and the beauty consistently my favorite feature of Morocco.

في الحقيقة (fi alhqiiqa) means in reality in Arabic. I’m realizing the reality of being an American studying abroad in Morocco – for me, right now, it isn’t quite as sweet as the traditional mint tea, or the dreams I had before I got on the plane.

Hello everyone!

I hope you are all enjoying your semester back home and as you prepare for midterms, I am nearing the end of my semester in South Africa. This week is our last week of classes, then we have exams, and finally I am finished! I have been quite busy preparing my last assignments for classes and shifting into study mode for exams. However, that has not completely stopped me from doing miscellaneous things around Cape Town. Here are some of my recent photos of what I’ve been up to!

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This is some friends and I at a traditional South African “braai” at a place called Mzoli’s. In South Africa a braai is similar to a barbecue; you grill meat, bring drinks, and invite all of your friends. They are often more of a social gathering than they are a dinner party.

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This is a friend and I at a community day in the Phumlani township. A large group of us went with an organization to spend a day hanging out with the local children who live in this township. This is one of the poorest townships in Cape Town with only 8 water spigots, no electricity, or indoor plumbing. It was great to spend time chatting and playing with these kids because on a regular basis they don’t receive this much attention. They were all so sweet and had a great time with us!

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This is a group of friends and I during a popular bike ride called “Moonlight Mass.” This ride occurs each month and gathers nearly 3,000 Capetonians to ride their bikes under the full moon. As you can tell by our layers, it gets quite windy and cold in Cape Town at night, even when you are biking.

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Here is something you may find familiar! This is my housemates and I at the finish of the Color Run 5k race. This race is held in many different cities throughout the world, including Kansas City.

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This is a group of volunteers, including myself, and kids we took on a hike up the famous Table Mountain. The children were from another local township and really enjoyed the hike. In fact, many of them were so eager to hike they beat most of us volunteers up the mountain by quite a lot of time. Again, this was a great way to spend a day interacting with some of the local children.

So even though it is crunch time for exams, I have still been having a great time in and around Cape Town!

Until next time,

Ashley

Greetings from Cape Town!

Hello world! My name is Ashley and I am doing a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. Since the seasons are opposite in the lower hemisphere, I started my semester in July. I’ve now been here for three months and although my summer was cut short back home this year, it is finally starting to get warmer and stay warmer in South Africa! As fall sets in at home, everything is alive with color and beginning to bloom here. The plants are beautiful and so different than the ones at home, see for yourself!

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Cape Town, and South Africa in general, has a beautiful variety of landscapes from beaches, to mountains, to desert. Each of them are stunning are quite a sight to see. Here are some more photos of some of the places I’ve been and things I have done so far!

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This is me jumping off of the world’s highest bungee jump from the Bloukran’s Bridge at 216 meters.

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This is a group of some friends and I at a local wine festival in Franchhoek.

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This photo was taken at the top of Lion’s Head during a full moon hike. From the top of this peak you can see a 360 degree view of the city; this is said to be the one of the best views of Cape Town.

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This is some friends and I at the Cape of Good Hope, which is the most south western point on the continent of Africa.

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This is a friend and I at a local music festival called Rocking the Daisies where we saw several international artists as well as some great local South African ones.20140903_145016

This photo was taken during a hike to a waterfall in the Tsitsikamma National Park.

 

I have had an amazing time exploring here so far and have met many great people to share my adventures with. I can only imagine what the upcoming spring and summer months have in store for me. I will keep you all updated!

 

Cheers!
Ashley

A Hidden Gem in the Heart of Europe

They warn you about the bad – the times you feel alone, the alienation you feel when you walk into a full classroom and the only sounds escaping the tongues of the students are completely foreign (and let’s face it, ugly –  Dutch is the slightly less scary cousin of German). The nights when you can’t sleep and the gravity of your year crashes upon you with suffocating weight aren’t ideal.

But god, you get so caught up in preparing for the bad, that the good comes in and sweeps you off your feet and suddenly you find yourself in love with a new city, a new culture, a new life.

I’ve been in Antwerp a little over a month now and I’ve already told my parents multiple times that I’m never coming home. Not only is this the most beautiful city – I find myself in new cozy, cobblestone streets almost daily. But Antwerp is also the ideal city for a wonderful study abroad experience. The student atmosphere is definitely present. Twice during the first week of school all classes were cancelled for ‘student activities’. The university actually paid to provide a free festival for students in the city – multiple music stages, a red-bull “free-fall” platform, inflatable jump houses, etc.

But if you want to get away from the university atmosphere – walk five minutes from the university and you’ll find yourself surrounded by history. Beautiful guilded houses, a city hall to rival them all, and one of the most beautiful train stations in all of the world.

And of course the international experience is not hard to find. Antwerp has the second highest international population in the world and its central location makes traveling around Europe a breeze.

There’s more to Belgium then waffels, beer, and chocolate. My year is just beginning and I cannot wait to discover it all.

The University of Antwerp
The University of Antwerp

Campus Street Town Hall