Buongiorno, friends!

Starting a blog post is hard, so I’m going to skip to the middle of it. But before I do that, I should come back towards the beginning about a quarter of the way and provide you with some context for this blog, since you probably don’t already know me half as well as you should.


(And in honor of Bilbo Baggins’s birthday today, I should let you know that I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. J.K. but seriously.)

I’m Chris, and I’m a super-junior Computer Engineering major studying in Arezzo this fall. I say super-junior because this is my fourth year, but I have already committed to an extra year to throw in a Master’s degree in Computer Science, and I’m finishing my bachelor’s degree halfway through that extra year thanks to Algorithm Analysis. Anyway, super-junior. It’s a thing.

I should also let you know that I am a gigantic nerd. As if the Hobbit reference, Computer Engineering/Science, and my enthusiasm for grad school didn’t already give that away, I’ll just tell you know that I love school, learning, and working in my field(s). I’ve averaged 17 credit hours per semester for my college career, and I’m enrolled in 18 this semester. While driving my mind to the limit (and sometimes beyond) on campus, I’ve also been busy interning and researching since the end of Freshman year, on top of all those classes. I stay pretty busy. I love it.

So, oddly enough, one of the hardest adjustments I’ve had to make here in Italy has been to work out what “studying abroad” really looks like for me in Arezzo. In a city in which almost every business owner closes up for a few hours in the afternoon and picks an additional day not to even open besides Sundays, my let’s-go-get-it-done American industrious/pragmatic self has had to learn how to slow down a bit. A lot. We’re a little more than a month into the semester and I’ve only had one test/quiz, and it was in my Pass/No Pass Intro to Italian class. I should also let you know that test day is my favorite day.

I’m doing an internship with La Fabbrica del Sole this semester, and my initial plan was to draw upon that for my Honors research this semester. The only problem is, they’re busy being the Italian Dharma Initiative and doing their cool experiments and building the world’s first urban hydrogen pipeline, not hanging out, waiting for their American interns to arrive. As such, my very first meeting with my boss is not until next week. Not a problem, unless you’re trying to bang out an Honors thesis in a semester, right?

So it’s been a little bit crazy for me this semester because of how busy I haven’t been so far. I’m so used to running around that I don’t know how to stand still. It’s been nice – sometimes I walk around and take pictures of the city for hours, or stay up past 4 A.M. designing T-shirts, or blog  (oh hey!). I’ve gotten to know some great new friends over espresso, gelato, and Sherlock late into the night. Though I’m still doing my best to pursue the furthering of my knowledge in engineering and build on my experience for my imminent job search, and I’m working very hard in my classes, I’m learning that perhaps the most valuable area of study for me this semester is the one that’s not going on my transcript: life in a brand-new context.

They do seem to stay pretty busy at Pagani, though.

Coming into this semester, I thought I would have to choose between being a student and being a traveler. That in order to accomplish my academic goals for the school year, I would have to pass up some of the more “vacation-like” experiences of studying abroad. I also had a little bit of a sassy attitude about people who only go abroad for a good time, and feel like they don’t even have to try to be good students while they’re there. I’m happy to say that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m still a student, only now more portable. Next month, I’m going to Spain and Sweden, and we’re hitting up Vienna and London in November.

While studying abroad, I’ve found that ‘abroad’ itself is a very nice thing to study, if that makes any sense.

Ciao! Per Piacere! My name is Nicole Grant and I am currently studying abroad in Italy with the OU in Arezzo program. My life has been uprooted and moved half way across the world to Tuscany. I am originally from a big city in Texas so moving to a small town in Italy has been quite the adjustment. I am an European International and Area Studies major and I am loving it! I speak 3 languages fluently and I am currently working on my fourth. I can speak French, Spanish, and English and now Italian! I am loving learning Italian in a country that actually speaks Italian. I get to practice hands-on with people here even though communication is mainly just “coppia piccola” or “un’etto di proscuitto per favore” . I am a lover of Mexican food, so eating only Italian food has been a struggle! I love tomatoes and Ziti, but not for every meal of the day. I understand I must eat all of this in order to immerse myself fully into the culture of Arezzo and Italy. My favorite thing to do in the United States is shop and thank goodness fashion is a major part of the culture here! I love walking up and down the Corso and seeing all the beautiful shops. So much to look at and so many things to discover everyday. I still wake up and giggle to myself, because it is unbelievable I am in Italy. Instead of birds chirping outside my window in Norman, I get mopeds and cars and regular city noises. This experience has already been quite the roller coaster, but keeps getting better everyday! I better get going on my Dante close reading paper. Until next time amichi!



Did the semester really start almost a month ago? Inconceivable!

I’m ashamed to admit I have been so overwhelmed by how much catching up I need to do that I have continued in my procrastination and only put myself more behind. For a while, I might make it a habit to touch on one current thing that’s going on and another that passed by un-blogged in the past twenty-nine days.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s try this again.

Hello there, Tuscany.

Well hello there, Tuscany!

Ciao a tutti!

My name is Shelby Stillwell; I’m a sophomore currently studying in Italy with the OU in Arezzo program. I am a history nerd and bookworm, a writer and a former theatre kid (though it never really leaves your system). I love stories and adventure, and am on a mission to make my own story one big adventure.

I am currently double-majoring in International Studies and Broadcasting and Electronic Media. After college, I am hoping to go into either International Education (Study Abroad councilor? Educational tour guide? World history teacher?) or Travel Media (Travel Channel? National Geographic? Lonely Planet’s digital media branch?) or some kind of creative combination of the both, which I have yet to imagine. Clearly I don’t have it all exactly figured out yet, but I’m only a sophomore, and I’m working on it. If I have any revelations about it throughout the semester, I’m sure you’ll get to read all about it.

I’m going to leave you at this for now, and if you have managed to get all the way through this introduction I applaud you! I promise it will all pick up from here. I still have to retrospectively tell you about Joust Week, a weekend trip to Cinque Terre, and generally what it’s like to be living in Tuscany (Oh my goodness, am I seriously living in Tuscany??) plus all the adventures to come.

But for now, I have to get back to my homework–yes, studying actually is a part of Studying Abroad, oddly enough.

“Live long and prosper!”
Shelby Stillwell

Well, the direct translation isn’t yank on stomach. It’s actually “pull stomach”. However, that doesn’t do reality justice. It’s more like yank/tug/jerk stomach. Kinda like an internal combustion engine working overtime through the intestines. And I have it. This is not unexpected. Almost every foreigner (well, Westerner), gets it within one or two weeks of an extended stay in China. I mean, it’s totally understandable. The food here tastes amazing. Especially the food you can get on the street.

Every time you make a purchase, even if it’s the same food purchased from the same little mart, could taste just a little different than you remember it, but still taste incredibly good. Unfortunately, stomachs of most Westerners must go through its own version of culture shock as it deals with the reality of a different flavor of food. The results can be quite impressive. Exhaustion is just one symptom after a long sit in the thinking room.

Anyway, I thought I had beat it. I was set. Last night, I went to bed early. I woke up early. I felt great. I had some bread for breakfast. I had some potstickers for lunch. Lamb was on the inside. I didn’t think lamb would upset my stomach as I figured pork would. Anyhow, my taste buds thanked me profusely for such a tasty meal for lunch. I finished studying. Half-an-hour flies by. No eruptions are immenent. Maybe I had beat the tide. An hour goes by. Nothing on the horizon. I think I’ve beat it. Now, to go out with friends and check out the Olympic Stadium.

That’s when it hit. Not before I left my room. Not when I was waiting downstairs for my friends. Not even when we left the apartment. But when we stepped across the university gate leading to the outside world, I noticed something concerning. A distant rumbling warning of things to come.

Now, for a foreigner, there is something that must be understood about China. The toilets here are not exactly of the sitting nature. Rather, they are of the squatting family. I’ve never been a fan of that brand of commode. This is my third extended trip to this part of the world and I have yet to be put in a position where balancing my weight in a squat position is my only option. However, it seems that Beijing has even fewer assisted squatters than Shanghai or even Taiwan. It seems that the old fashioned way of doing things is my only option if I’m caught outdoors in a dire need to find someplace private to do my business.

In other places in this part of the world, McDonald’s is a trusted place to find something to sit on. However, in Beijing, even McDonald’s has not imported this most luxurious of Western cultural artifacts.

So, we begin this trip. Within five minutes of our travel, I am concerned. Thirty minutes in, we’ve reached the Olympic Stadium. I can’t hold it any longer. By this time, squatting and getting rid of the constant pain within seems better than trying to hold it in. I search for a stall. I figure, if anywhere in Beijing has something to sit upon for me to do my most important business, it’s got to be the Olympic area. I mean, the Chinese served thousands of Westerners not four years ago. They had to have provided something to sit on, right?

Fortunately, the answer to that question is yes. Unfortunately for me, and much to my chagrin, the one thing they did not provide in that private compartment was toilet paper. In none of those stalls could toilet paper be found. There wasn’t even any paper towels. They’ve gone green in their effort to conserve waste. So, I take care of business, learn some lessons and return home.

After I clean up, I have some dinner consisting of crackers and peanut butter. Surely, my stomach will welcome such old and familiar products. Not quite. In fact, not until I break down and grab some sprite and gatorade does my stomach calm down and begin to rest.

This time, however, I will not underestimate the power of the Pull Stomach. A friend is hooking me up with some medicine tomorrow as well as yogurt that kills stomach bugs. I shall conquer for I will never give up! And I will never accept defeat! I will endure! And I will succeed!

Around the world in 90 minutes…Impossible? No. Astronauts do it all the time. Us normal people? Maybe a little more difficult. Until now. Leave it to the Chinese to figure it out.

In the southwest corner of Beijing, there resides a park dedicated to showing off the world’s greatest structural wonders throughout history. Each section of the park is dedicated to a certain geographic area of the world. Europe. America. Africa. Middle-East. Ancient Egypt. Ancient Greece.

This is one twenty-fifth of the actual size…

Ever want to see a pyramid or the Coliseum but never had the money to travel to Egypt or Rome? Now you can see both and much more up close and personal on a smaller scale. But you need to travel to Beijing first. The White House. Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. The former skyline of New York City complete with Twin Towers. Denmark’s Mermaid. Belgium’s water basin. London Tower Bridge. Venice. Paris. All are there. Some even that I’d never heard of before. Each on a scale varying in size from life-size to as small as one-fourtieth of the actual size. Each, however, much larger than a human. And all seen in 90 minutes. Flat. Well worth the $10 US it cost to get in. And I can now say I’ve been to all the most important places in history throughout the world.

Of course, I was not the only one there. Besides my friends from school, many Chinese congregated around the various parts of the world for pictures. Not just any pictures mind you. Engagement/wedding pictures. Tall, thin, short, stout, all types of Chinese were there dressed to the nines to capture that special moment next to those historical markers. Making history next to history.

Now, we weren’t planning on seeing these artifacts when our journey began. Originally, we were only going to see Marco Polo Bridge. We saw it. It’s historically significant. It was there when Marco Polo visited. It’s that old and still in use. Polo said that that bridge was a marvel. The dragons on top of each of the bridge’s pillars has a different facial expression. But it’s just a bridge. It took all of 10 minutes, if not less, to get what we wanted out of it. So, we did the next best thing: checked the iPhone and found the World’s Park 世界公园.

Traveling is fun. All places have so much good. The world’s greatest monuments will always be preserved by historians, books, pictures and now actual models built to scale. In China.

Week 1 Over

First week is over. What a relief. That first couple days of getting settled in, realizing my Chinese wasn’t as good as what I thought, and dealing with the hassles inherent in moving somewhere foreign are finally over. And you know what? I’m glad to be moving forward.

I’m about the only American in my program. I’ve seen white people running around every now and then and yelled out to them only to have a foreign English accent respond. Consequently, I’ve made friends with people from all over the world: Cameroon, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Korea, Japan, China, Germany, etc.

Girl looking just right before taking her picture at Forbidden City

What an amazing opportunity for me to experience the beauty of this world and life through becoming friends with people of completely different nationalities and cultures. It’s amazing to me just how marvelous this life is and how similar we all are to each other all over the world.

Before I became friends with so many, I took the opportunity to sightsee. I saw Mao’s resting place. I saw Tiananmen Square where so much history has taken place. I saw many more things. But then I got to focus more on school activities.

We had opening ceremonies and get to know each other games Friday

Split up into teams for games

. Everyone had the deer in the headlight look. Everyone. So, we set about getting to know each other using the most common language available: English with a dash (if that) of Chinese.

But now, the real fun begins. The tests are in. The results are back. Textbooks are bought. Classes begin 8 a.m. tomorrow. Four months from now, our Chinese should be much better. Friendships will have deepened and important experiences gained.

Moving to a new country is fraught with uncertainty and unexpected requirements. Sometimes, that means more headaches and frustrations than one ever wants in a lifetime. Like when you have money, but no way to access it. Or when you have a visa, but got the wrong category of visa.

Both things happened to me yesterday as I was signing in to school here in Beijing.

First. I had to sign in to my apartment. I couldn’t register with the school until I signed into my apartment and got a form of temporary residence from the apartment. The apartment manager handed me my key and said, you owe the equivalent of about $1,200 US for the semester.

“Can I pay month to month?” I ask. “Nope,” they say in Chinese. “All up front.”

“Can I pay with my credit card?” I ask. “Nope,” they reply. “Only cash accepted.”

I say ok and go to a bank. I put in my credit card and pull out some money. Or at least that’s the idea. Nothing happens. I had already maxed out my daily limit. It was Labor Day in America, so no one would be at work, which meant I couldn’t contact my bank or those who owe me money.

So there I was. Effectively broke with no access to any money, which meant no apartment, which meant no registration for school, which meant…well, I didn’t want to think about that.

Fortunately, a friend of mine who picked me up from the airport spotted me the money and said to pay him back when I could. I said I would pay him back through Paypal.

With the apartment taken care of, next was registering with the school. Things went smoothly until the very last step. They looked at my visa and said, “you have an x visa. You need a physical done.” Now, what I was told before coming to China was that I didn’t need a physical if I stayed here less than six months. However, they didn’t say that I needed one if I had an “x” visa. Had I gotten the work visa “f” then I wouldn’t need the physical.

Unfortunately, by the time I found that out yesterday, everyone had gone home. So, tomorrow, I’m off to the hospital for a physical. Hopefully, nothing will go wrong from here on out.

Lessons learned. Expect complications. Be prepared for anything. Have a friend with you who can help you out in a crisis. And don’t give up. Two steps forward and one step backwards is still moving forward.

China. Beijing no less. I can’t believe I’m here. It’s been over a year since I left this country and now I’m back.

The days leading up to this moment went by too fast. So many friends and family to see and talk to. So little time to spend with each person like I want. I’m not going to lie, going away to live on one’s own carries with it some trepidation. Of course there is much excitement and much to look forward to, but the unknown is a wild frontier where one never knows exactly what will be around the corner.

Anyhow, I flew back to Oklahoma from the wonderful Rocky Mountains of Utah on Tuesday, helped fix a family van, went and slept overnight at my brother’s apartment, then got up the next morning early to take the GMAT. Brutal test, but I did better than the average Joe, which is good enough I guess. That afternoon I met with the Army ROTC Lt. Colonel and then spent some time working at a ranch with a good friend of mine. Thursday was spent visiting another brother in a small town in the northeast part of the state. Friday I took my one and only Army physical fitness test of the semester before going back to my storage unit and going home to pack all my things for this adventure.

I hope I got all I need. If not, oh well. I’ll have to buy anything extra here in China.

But now I’m here. The plane ride is long, but that’s what inflight movies are for. Now, it’s well after 1 a.m. and I can’t go to sleep. I go to check in to my dorm tomorrow morning and get to deal with any complications that may be there. Shouldn’t be, but you never know.

Hint to those who are studying abroad. Find a friend to pick you up from the airport and help you get settled in at the school you’ll be at. It will save a lot of time and effort on your part.

Everything is set. My bags are packed. Play time is over. I am heading to China.

But not for six more days. Sigh. What am I going to do?

Everyone else is in school. They just finished their first week. They are getting ready for the first big break of the fall semester: BarBQing while watching their beloved OU football team trounce the University of Texas at El Paso Saturday, Sept. 1. And I? I will be on my beloved plane headed for China. And sadly, I will not witness this football game. Nor will I participate in any Labor Day activities. Come to think of it, all the holidays that we love to celebrate in America I will miss this semester. And why? Because I had this overpowering urge to study abroad in China and China’s semesters are different than America’s. They don’t celebrate Christmas or New Year’s. They have a Chinese New Year’s which they celebrate towards the end of January, but it’s on the Lunar Calendar so it changes every year.

So, yes, I will not return from this epic adventure/study abroad until two weeks after January 1, right in time for the next semester to start up at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, I think I’ll have little less than a week to recuperate, get over jet lag and find an apartment to live in before school starts up in Norman. Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself? Why do I put myself through so much? But after the experience I realize it was totally worth it.

For example, wMt. Timpanogas meadowithin the last two weeks, I have hiked Mt. Timpanogas, camped at some hot springs, hiked all over Zion’s National Park in Southern Utah and returned to Mt. Timp (as the locals like to call it) to camp over night. It’s been outstanding. My legs have hurt from the intense hiking, but I figure it is good exercise. I mean, Timp is over 12,000 feet above sea level. The hike begins at around 6,000 feet and round trip is over 14 miles. Now that’s intense! And so much fun! Not to mention it’s been a nice break from my Chinese studies. I have to prepare because China tests everyone who comes to study on their Chinese skills to place them in the appropriate classes. So, I want to get into the best classes possible.

Anyway, my name is John. I am going to Beijing, China. I will write once a week about my experiences. Maybe more this semester while I am studying abroad. I am stoked to go. I have my passport, my visa, my plane ticket. And I have to wait six days before I can get on that plane and depart. Meanwhile, everyone else is busy at school. Sigh. But it is a small price to pay for the epic adventure that is coming my way. Oh. And I’m a Mormon.

There are a lot of things that have building up in my brain lately that I realize I must write about, but have no way to find the words for it all.  I believe the best way to start is to talk about this month, which is considered the most important month for many Arabs: the month of Ramadan.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this holiday, it is the biggest and most widely celebrated in Islam.  It is a month dependent on the Islamic lunar calendar, so it begins on a different day every year, this year starting July 20th.  This month is a time of spiritual reflection, and historically, the Prophet Muhammad first received revelations in the lunar month of Ramadan. Therefore, the month of Ramadan is considered to be the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar.  Ramadan consists of fasting from sunrise to sunset, where Muslims refrain from food, drink, sexual activity, and smoking.

Watching the sunrise go down on a Falooka boat before we eat Iftaar

This is a time when most people stay in doors (especially when Ramadan takes place in the summer!), sleeping and laying low.  The women spend all day preparing special dishes and huge meals for their families.  As soon as the sun sets, everyone gathers for the evening feast, called Iftaar, and spend time in celebration late into the night with gifts, food, music, special t.v. shows, and of course family and friends.  Before sunrise, everyone will eat again around five in the morning in preparation for the long day of fasting to come.  Although children are not required to fast, many of them do in order to practice later in life.  Here in Egypt, most Muslim women wear the higab, or head scarf, to cover their hair.  During the month of Ramadan, even young girls, sometimes five or six years old, wear the higab as well, in order to respect the sacredness of the month.

Inside a mosque for the first time

Having Iftaar on an island off of the Nile river

Keeping all of this in mind, I am experiencing Ramadan in the Middle East first-hand for the very first time.  The best way I can describe my environment here is by telling you that night is day and day is night.  During the day, the normally crowded streets are practically deserted, and many shops are closed until sunset.  However, as soon as the sun goes down, the whole world comes alive.  Women quickly prepare to go out with their friends and families, every shop is filled with people buying helowiyat (desserts, sweets), colored lights line the windows of countless apartments, and people laugh and talk together.  It is a wonderful feeling, and very similar to the days before Christmas in the States.

During the late night hours, many people eat helowiyat and fruit of all kinds, like Kanafa, Atayef, watermelon, mango, grapes, apricots, and bananas.  My personal favorite is the delicious kanafa, which can be made with raisins and nuts, custard, or a type of creamy cheese (custard is the best!).

Kanafa with custard, made with shredded pastry dough and delicious honey.

Best of all, it seems that the music and atmosphere of the late night hours during Ramadan only increase the constant hustle and bustle of the streets.  This light-hearted, joyous feeling that takes over people simply after eating a delicious meal drowns out the grave political tone that resonates on the streets of Egypt lately.  With the new Egyptian president after over 30 years of the same dictator and centuries of corruption, the streets are tense with political anticipation and expectation.  During Ramadan, however, all of this seems to slowly disintegrate in the wind by the pure joyousness of tradition and holiday spirit.  I wait in anticipation of what the social mood might be like at the end of this holiday good cheer.

A group of us girls about to enter a mosque

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