[Editor’s note: Alexander Anand, our guest writer for this issue, is a National Merit Scholar and a 2012 graduate with dual bachelor’s degrees in Russian and East European studies. Anand will travel to Russia to teach English this year with the support of a Fulbright grant.]

When I stepped off the plane on that rainy first night in St. Petersburg, I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, there had been plenty of prep work while I was still in the States, but it flew out the window when faced with the enormity of what I had gotten myself into. When I had been told that the first few days in-country would be tiring, I had underestimated what was to become the most exhausting and enlightening few weeks of my life to date. The cognitive strain of trying to adapt to an alien social climate was unprecedented in my life up to that point. And … it was absolutely exhilarating.

Of course, my experiences overseas “reshaped my worldview” and “expanded my social consciousness” and all the other psychological effects of being a foreigner in someone else’s country for the first time. Even after spending so much time at OU learning about the history, literature and culture of Russia, my time there was still packed with surprises. For the first time in my life, I had to relearn people’s body language, facial mannerisms and tones of voice. Living in Russia also gave me unexpected insight into the dynamics of power and social interaction in my own country, along with a healthy dose of political skepticism.

But when I returned, I left Russia with something more. A fiancée.

I’ve never really been the sentimental type, so my thoughts on marriage when I left for St. Petersburg were not particularly favorable. I was wholly unprepared for what I was about to face. Within two months of my arrival, I was completely entranced by the charm, wit and grace of Nadia, a woman I’d never have met had I played it safe and stayed in Oklahoma. But this is just the most striking example of a wider trend I experienced: I really connected with my classmates and host family in a way I didn’t expect. Even if it took me five minutes to get out a relatively simple idea, my Russian family and friends were so patient and kind that I never felt like a stranger. Thanks to the Russian tradition of “kitchen talk,” sitting in the kitchen for hours and having thoughtful discussions on social, philosophical and even metaphysical subjects, my host family practically poured their collective knowledge and insight right into my skull.

Just talking to my host family, I got a basic play-by-play of Russian society from about the mid-sixties to the present, including loads of delightfully candid political commentary. I was offered an insider’s perspective on everything from the individual leadership qualities of Soviet leaders to the declining quality of Russian romance novels. Russia’s short list of presidents was a frequent topic of discussion, and my host mother took pride in declaring that St. Petersburg State – or, as she called it, “our university” – was the greatest producer of presidents in Russia, since 66 percent of the three presidents had been educated there.

Had I not studied abroad, my life would be very different, and not for the better. Thanks to my two semesters abroad, I am now going on a Fulbright grant to teach English at a Bashkir school for talented students. I’ll be getting married in the fall, and I have uncovered a connection to the rest of the world I would scarcely have believed existed four years ago.

This post is from the blog Around the World in Katie Days by Kate who is studying in Utrecht.

How do you study abroad when you’re an introvert?

This is the question I asked myself over and over when I was preparing to go abroad, and it’s the question I’ve been wondering since I showed up here.

Every study abroad forum says roughly the same thing: “Say yes to everything! Go to all of the parties and events thrown for internationals! Do everything you possibly can! Meet so many people!”

I spent my entire freshman year at OU avoiding this exact thing. I don’t like parties. I don’t like crowded places, especially crowded pubs/bars. I need my alone time, and I need a lot of it.

Also, I hate doing things just because someone told me I had to.

When I’m at home, every evening is basically the same: all four of us sit in four different rooms (unless a really good game show is on). Occasionally, someone will yell at someone else, or I will yell an answer to Jeopardy. When I was living in the dorms, my roommate, Christiana, and I could sit together for hours without ever saying a word. This works for me. I’m not lonely or bored or depressed, nor am I socially stunted. I’m happy to go to things I’m interested in and participate in things I love, as is Christiana, as are the members of my family. That’s just how we introverts work.

I get to Europe, and all of sudden this social interaction is supposed to be attractive to me? If I said yes to everything, I’d be in bars with too-loud music, coughing from the smoke, and politely declining beer (which I don’t drink—another strike!). I’d be miserable.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not sitting alone in my apartment all day. I have lots of friends here, and I’m not crying from homesickness. I’m pretty happy, but I’m not some super cool party person all of a sudden. I’m still me.

So, what do you do if you’re an introvert abroad?

1. Don’t be completely antisocial. I’m friendly to the people in my apartment. I smile at them in the kitchen and halls; I recognize them when I’m not at home. I talk to them when I see them, and I do my fair share of cleaning. This tends to endear you to people.

2. Say yes to the things you can handle. I can’t handle smoky bars, both because I hate them and because I have asthma, so I don’t say yes to those. I don’t like beer, and I don’t want to get drunk, so I don’t say yes to those things. I do say yes to going to clubs where the smoke is manageable, trips to the grocery store with people, to walking to orientation together, to going downtown to the city centre with people. I push my comfort zone sometimes, which I think is important when trying new things, but I know my boundaries and I respect them.

3. Have goals. I like lists. You’ve probably noticed that by now. I especially like to-do lists; I like them so much that I have an app on my MacBook called iProcrastinate. It makes lists for me AND I get to color code them. It’s sort of a dream come true, honestly. I use iProcrastinate to set goals of things I will accomplish each day. For example:

Tuesday—Figure out how to do laundry.

Wednesday—Mail something at the nearest post office. Go to HEMA and buy tape and maybe room or bike decorations. Find the Aldi and buy food.

Thursday—Go to IKEA! Buy a broom and maybe a Swiffer.

Friday—Meet my Dutch mentors.

Saturday—Climb the Domtoren with some of my roommates.

This forces me to, you know, put down the computer and interact with Utrecht. Usually, I do way, way more than I plan. That’s great. Some days, like today, I only accomplish the one thing. Whatever.

I suppose my answer to my question is: you just do it. You stay true to yourself, you do things and see things without abandoning who you are, and you’ll do just fine.

This is the first post in a series that will highlight things I’m learning as I go. From the mundane everything to the panic-stricken moments, here’s what I (now) know:

1. No one takes credit cards. I have found exactly one business in Utrecht that takes Mastercard, Visa, or American Express. One. No grocery store, McDonald’s, or shopping mall takes plastic. I was planning on using my Mastercard debit, so I was very surprised by this! Luckily, debit cards work fine in ATMs.

It turns out that for everything else, there’s chipknip, not Mastercard. Chipknips look a lot like debit cards, but they have a gold area on them that looks a lot like a SIM card. You can buy a prepaid one with 10 or 20 euro on them (I’ve found dispensers in the Faculty of Humanities library), or you can open a bank account and get one.

2. Opening a bank account is pretty easy. If you’re going to be here for at least a year, Universiteit Utrecht has an arrangement with Rabobank that seems simple to navigate. If you’ll only be here for a semester, ING bank will let you open an account even before you receive your BSN—the tax number you get when you register with the city. All they require is proof of identity (passport) and proof that you’re enrolled (student ID). Super easy.

3. Filet Americain is raw beef. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m still kind of distraught about it. I want to keep other hapless Americans from making my mistakes.

4. Duct tape is called gaffa tape. The Dutch tend to use British words rather than American, so if you’re searching for it, ask for “gaffa” rather than “duct.”

5. They use the metric system. Okay, yeah, I knew to expect Celsius and kilometers, but I somehow missed the part where Europeans measure things in milliliters and liters. If you’re planning to cook some American comfort food, slip a set of measuring spoons in your luggage. You won’t regret it!


Some interesting blog posts about FOOD from OU students abroad.

A 4 hour meal in Clermont

Food and hospitality in Russia

Though I’ve been in Japan for almost 2 months now, this is my first blog post. The first month alone was more hectic than a whole year back at home! So far, I’ve gotten more used to the lifestyle here and things have slowed down. Despite having been to a lot of places here in Japan, and experiencing a lot of different things, I’ll start off slow and work my way through what I’ve done slowly until I catch up with what’s currently happening. So how about I introduce myself… and some Japanese food!

Read more

I have been living in St. Petersburg for almost two months and am still caught up in the whirlwind of the city and culture. Whenever I leave my apartment in the morning either for class or to meet up with friends I have no idea where I’ll end up that day, and I love it. My life in the past month:

-“Go to the gym. Take vitamins. Make yourself go to a café or grocery store, just go somewhere where there is light. You will feel depressed but you can fight it!” This is the advice I have given to survive Russia’s most dreariest month: November. In November it is cold, and will snow but the snow will not stick so rather than the picturesque image of Petersburg covered in snow, you instead find yourself wading through dirty puddles. Also they day shortens to the extent that it will be dark when I leave for class (around 10am) and dark when I come back (around 5 am). While the days have shorten to that extent yet, whenever I wake up around 7 it looks as if it is midnight. I’m not too worried though, I have already made a playlist to combat the inevitable depression (complete with the Beatles “Here comes the Sun” and Matt & Kim’s “Daylight”). The real challenge will be getting myself to get out of my warm (very, very, very warm) room and be social and explore.

-St. Petersburg is home to it’s fair share of Beatles fans. There is a an art gallery/care/bar in St. Pete’s called Pushkinskaya 10. At Puskinskaya you will find a giant yellow submarine painted on an wall on which fans have written messages to the Beatles, along with their favorite lyrics. There was even a party at a nearby bar celebrating John Lennon’s birthday where a bunch of bands played Beatles songs. Despite the fact that none of the Beatles most well known hits were played the crowd was so excited and joyful during the concert that it didn’t matter whether or not you knew the lyrics, the energy just rubbed off on you.

– Vyborg
This past weekend a few Russian friends invited a group of friends and myself to Vyborg, a Russian town not far from the Finnish border where there is an old Swedish castle. The train ride there was relatively uneventful, aside from the vendors walking down the aisles selling everything from beer to snowglobes and other trinkets. When we arrived it was cold and drizzly, and thus went to a café/convenience store to wait out the weather and eat. After stopping for lunch (sandwiches, homemade pickles, salo (pig fat), bread), and making many, many toasts we noticed the rain had lessened and decided to make our way through the town. We visited the Swedish Castle, and stopped at a café before catching the next train home. On the train ride back, our Russian friends made their best efforts to teach us some Russian songs. After many attempts and some success, they asked us to return to favor, which ended with two of my friends singing “Back in the USSR” by The Beatles, to the amusement of the few other people on the train.

While the fact that I have lived in Petersburg for almost two months and have not frequented all of the cities landmarks and sites I am finding that being with people is just as valuable and worth while as going to a museum.

Vyborg, RussiaPushkinskaya 10

On September 7 we visited the Tuscan city Siena with our art history class. We toured the Duomo and some other museums there, focusing on pre-Renaissance art. We saw Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Sala dei Nove. We got to climb up and get a great view of the city.

Andy and I with the Duomo behind us. I chose a good scarf to wear that day, I matched the church!

That Friday we took a day trip to the beach city Viareggio! Some of our friends were going to the Amalfi coast, which is beautiful, but was more expensive and had to be done over a whole weekend. We were glad we could visit Viareggio as a day trip and it was easier to get to.

In Italy there are not many public beaches, but rather private beach clubs, or “bagni”, for which you pay to rent space and chairs for a day (or a week, month, whole summer…).  We found one that looked good, figured out what to rent and how to pay. We ended up getting an umbrella and four chairs for 23€ for the day, so not too bad between the four of us. We lounged on the beach, swam some even though it was pretty cold and had a great day.

It was a warm, sunny day and so beautiful with the beach to our left and mountains to our right! Perfection!

Arezzo has a great tradition of a semi-annual joust of the Saracen, “La Giostra del Saracino.” It is held in the Piazza Grande in the center of Arezzo, and the four neighborhoods, “quartieres,” compete against each other. It has a long history in Arezzo, dating back to the 13th century in some accounts. The current form of the joust was started in 1931. The four quartieres include Porta Santo Sprito (blue and yellow, in which Andy and I live), Porto del Foro (fuschia/yellow, which my cousin Luca supports), Porta Crucifera (red/green) and Porta Sant’Andrea (green/white). There is a board that the jousters attempt to hit with the lance, with points ranging from 1 to 5. They can win additional points by breaking the lance, or lose points by falling off the horse or letting the balls in the Saracino’s hand hit their back.

The giostra is not just one afternoon, however. Ceremonies and celebrations spread throughout the month, and particularly the week before the joust. Each quartiere has a headquarters location, where parties are held each night and a community dinner at the end of the week. Nearly everyone in town wears his or her scarf that represents his quartiere. The rivalries between quartieres can be pretty intense, and arguments and fights are not uncommon.

Parties in the quartieres

At the joust event they also have trumpeters and flag-throwers (one of the best teams in the world, apparently). They practice throughout the week, and on Thursday afternoon Andy and I walked over to the Duomo and stumbled upon an event where the they were performing for the Miss Italia group.

The city is so crowded and so rowdy on joust day, but so much fun!

The joust started with the flag men and trumpeters who paraded in. There were even crossbows! There was so much energy in the Piazza Grande. Families have lived for generations in these quartieres, and they are very supportive of them. Most of the time these rivalries are peaceful, but the action culminates with joust week. Walking along the Corso, people will yell at each other or start singing taunting songs. Girls will even get into it too, chasing each other and trying to fight. So you can understand that the day of the event is pretty crazy. Down on the grounds people stand divided by quartiere, it’s a little more mixed in the stands. I enjoyed being in the stands because we had a good view over all the action, like the Sant’Andrea guy who kept trying to climb over the stands and fight a Crucifera fan.
After Crucifera won and the joust was over, all of their fans rushed to the Duomo, the main church in Arezzo, to celebrate and see the official presentation of the lancia d’oro. (Fans had already rushed up to the stands and grabbed it in the Piazza Grande, but they do the official presentation too.) I have never seen so much energy in a church. They were singing, counting from one to thirty-six (how many jousts they have won), and some people were even crying.
On Labor Day we had a day off class, so we decided to take the day and visit the Lamborghini Factory! It ended up being a fun day, but had quite the rough start. The factory is located in Sant’Agata Bolognese, a tiny town outside of Bologna, which meant two trains and one bus.

Long story short, on the bus there was no sign or announcement indicating which stop was which, we got off at the stop at 10:36, our expected arrival time, and ended up five stops away. Which also happened to be over five kilometers away.

We started walking in the direction we thought we should go, and start to realize we have a long walk ahead of us. From the bus stop information, I know that we are in the wrong town, we have to get to the next one but had no clue how far away it would be. We ended up walking on the side of a two lane highway in the countryside, with huge trucks of hay zooming past us. When I saw a sign saying that Sant’Agata Bolognese was 4 or 5 km away, I knew we were in trouble. Especially since we only had 15 more minutes to make our appointment! We found a small gas station and asked an old man for a number for a taxi. He didn’t speak any English, but I was able to muster up enough Italian (I speak some because of my last trip to Italy, but this is the first time taking any classes.) After a while of searching in the white pages, he finds a number, I call it and arrange for the taxi to come.
Five minutes later, the taxi pulls up and takes us to the Lamborghini factory. Most expensive short taxi ride I’ve been on, but we made it and were only 10 minutes late. I had called ahead and said we were going to be late, and they brought us into the factory to meet the tour once we arrived. It was crazy and awful and stressful, but we made it~

Point A is where we started at, B is where we walked to when we got the taxi, and C was our final destination.

The Factory

Here is a portion my husband Andy’s description of the time at the factory. He loves cars more than I do, and is better able to explain what we saw!

So after arriving a few minutes late, we are rushed through the museum (full of amazing cars explained later) to doors leading outside to the factory entrance. As we walk through the door my eyes are greeted by around 30 beautiful Lamborghini Aventadors and Gallardos parked fresh from assembly…..at that point I know how this day is going to be. To my momentary displeasure we are rushed into the factory away from the incredible grouping of Bulls. That’s when we enter the factory to see the many stages of Gallardo production. I’m like a fat kid in an all you can eat buffet specializing in sweet treats at this point, my eyes linger on every single aspect of the amazing spectacle in front of me.
First, we are shown the process that the Gallardo is assembled, the engine and various interior pieces are brought in from outside sources. The engines are from Audi (who owns Lamborghini, for those of you that are not obsessed with this brand like myself) and interior from a local upholstery shop. This is an amazing sight but I’m looking for the new bull, the incredible Aventador. As the tour guide finishes talking about the Gallardo production line we walk around a corner and there’s an Aventador resting right there….it is amazing. I’ve loved Lamborghini since I can remember, they’ve always been the insane member of the supercar group, and this new car does not disappoint. From the sharp edges at every corner to the huge center exhaust this car just screams “If you don’t respect me I will kill you”, which of course is the Lamborghini way haha. As the tour guide mentions that we can have a look of course I get up close and personal to observe this piece of art on wheels. Sadly, we are told to move on but it’s on to the Aventador assembly line, woot woot! Oh and by the way, every car is hand assembled; there are no robots in the factory. Which brings me to the awesome part of the Aventador assembly, everything is made in house from the engine to the interior; a new thing for Lamborghini.
As we are walked past the testing booth where they run the car at 200km/h (~124mph) for an hour and a half I saw a Gallardo Tricolore awaiting testing. The Tricolore is a special edition (only 150 being made) that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which explains the green, red, and white strip running over the top of the car.

We got to see the President of Lamborghini show off the new Aventador in front of some Audi execs.

First, I must preface this by saying I have an amazing set of Italian family here around Arezzo. They are somewhat distant (one group related to my great-grandfather, and the other group we don’t even know exactly how–just know that we are indeed family). I call them my “cousins” because it’s easier than figuring out and explaining the exact details, but I also call them that because it is how they treat me. It doesn’t matter that we are a bit distantly related, they treat me as immediate relatives. And they have taken Andy into la famiglia and told him that he, too, is now a Carnesciali. They are the best hosts, and the sweetest people.

Summers and falls in Italy are full of “sagre” or festivals. Often they focus on a certain food or drink, but offer full meals of great food and a fun sense of community. My cousin Luca and his family live in Ponte Alla Chiassa, a small town about 10 minutes north of Arezzo. This weekend Ponte Alla Chiassa hosted a sagra, and Luca invited us to attend it with his family and his girlfriend Martina. One of the specialties of this sagra was a pig’s nose.
When you attend a sagra, you stand in line, order and pay for your food, and go sit down at a table with your ticket. The tables are long, bench style tables under tents. It is crowded, and the service takes a while, but that is part of the beauty of the sagra. It is about community and talking with those around you, having a great time.

Here is a picture that shows an example the table area. This was later on, so not as crowded as the peak eating time.

Andy and Luca ordered pizza with prosciutto, I ate maccheroni, Martina ate trippa, Chiara and Francesco ate antipasti and steaks… There is a large variety of food, and you can’t* (for the most part) go wrong!

Here is my maccheroni. As you can see, it is not what we think of when we hear macaroni in the US. It consists of long flat noodles topped with meat sauce. (Note: there are other forms of maccheroni in Italy too, but this is the type I have eaten at two sagre.) It is tasty with good flavor, and filling. I made Andy eat about half of mine. (And his pizza was delicious too!)

I was also told I act like a northern Italian because I eat my salad before my pasta. In Tuscany the order usually goes: antipasto, pasta, salad, meat (and then dessert if there is some. or fruit for dessert.) I got used to this during my last trip, but haven’t broken my American eating-salad-first habit yet.

Martina ordered trippa. In Florence, it references the cow’s stomach, often pressed into a sandwich. But in this case trippa is cow intestines. It was a peasant’s meal in the past, while the noblemen got to eat the actual meat/muscle off the cow. Andy and I both ate a bite of trippa. It tasted good, but the texture was a bit chewy for my taste. I am glad I tried it though!

Luca’s parents, Babbo Carlo and Mamma Ambra, bought us four desserts to share and sample. They were all delicious! Clockwise from the top was blackberry, jelled fruit with some cream, chocolate and apple. Andy and I were asked our favorite, but it was an impossible decision. The pastries were all so good!

In addition to food, the sagra also hosted music and little carnival games. We played this and Martina won a little cow toy.

A lot of Italians are intrigued by cowboys, the Wild West, Indians, etc. I already knew this, but it was revealed even more when I saw them dancing after dinner. You know how Americans take classes and learn how to do foreign dances such as the tango and salsa? Well, they were dancing intricate square and line dances to country-ish music and songs from the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.” (Note: when we were at a restaurant/bar last Thursday night we also danced to Cotton Eyed Joe and Oh Susanna, so it doesn’t seem to be a completely rare occurrence.) It’s so funny and cool.

We went over to Chiara and Francesco’s house and hung out with some of their friends, Luca and Martina. We got to drink homemade limoncello produced by Chiara’s parents. It was delicious! We had a wonderful time and are so grateful to call these people our friends and family.

Andy, Devon, Luca, Martina

Andy, Devon, Luca, Martina

Francesco, Chiara, Devon, Andy

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