We are already 6 weeks into the semester, and it has been an interesting one to say the least. Insane weather, with two snow days and two days off school for President’s Day and Martin Luther King Day. And this week, I was hit by February Flu, or in the UK what we would refer to us Fresher’s Flu, wherein after a few weeks of classes, and everyone returning back from their holidays, you are knocked off your feet and into bed. I did however get a reprieve this weekend when the sun suddenly appeared, and the temperature wasn’t scarves and gloves for the first time! I have been told that nothing is more beautiful than Washington DC in the Spring and I cannot wait to see this, and this weekend, I started to see the beginnings of it. After spending most of the week watching House of Cards and sleeping, I decided to head down to my favorite spot in DC: the national mall and monuments. Hundreds of people had gathered in the sunshine to take a walk around the Vietnam memorial and Lincoln memorial and have their photographs taken. I had not visited every monument however; my missing ones were The FDR memorial, Martin Luther King memorial and Jefferson memorial. For any student who has not walked every monument – take some time one afternoon, have your walking shoes on and get out there. Because they will take your breath away, particularly this weekend. I was surprised to find that although there was sunshine some of the reflection pools were still covered in ice. Our first stop was at the Martin Luther King memorial where a stone had been pulled out of a larger rock, with the inscription “out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” What I found surprising was that this monument was only completed two years ago, over 40 years after his death. I also walked through the large FDR monument, an interesting look at everything that happened during the 12 year presidency.However my favorite moment of the afternoon was seeing the Jefferson memorial Sitting beside the water, there were blocks of ice slowly melting and floating on top of the water was an interesting sight! Walking up the steps, it was truly an impressive site , it completely takes your breath away. I love DC, and at times forget how lucky I am to have places like this on my doorstep. Next week keep an eye out for The St Patrick’s Day Parade in Old Town Alexandria on March 1st.
It was the first days of March, when I started to plan my future routine in DC: classes, some free time to tour around DC, outings with the exchanges students, time to work on English, running, and weekends to travel. It seemed to be enough plans, even too many activities for each week, but when looking at my schedules I felt that I needed to add some sort of community service activity.
Unexpectedly one of my classes has a community service activity as a requirement. That is how I started my online search for some place for me to help, to be useful. That is how I found Georgetown Ministry Center, an organization of the diverse communities in the neighborhood of Georgetown, dedicated to guiding homeless individuals towards stability and housing.
My volunteer work: collaborating on Saturday afternoons, greeting the homeless, talking, and helping them with the computers or with their laundry. Definitely, my experience these past Saturdays was doing more than simple tasks.
Sharing a coffee, playing some game, listening about some experience or about some country where they are from, knowing about some astonishing life’s story, or simply receiving a smile were gifts for me. It was worth it to realize that my needs seems to be simple whims in comparison with their needs. I realized that my worries, my exams, my problems in general do not matter when I have someone in front of me who needs to talk, or a shelter, or a meal, or a smile, something totally more important. I just need these couples of Saturdays to remember that I am privileged, having all the opportunities that I have.
It was like breaking a bubble, my new and awesome GW bubble. Or it was almost that, because the shelter is located in the nice neighborhood of Georgetown.
It is an interesting contrast, walking around its main street, seeing its fancy stores and restaurant compared to the shelter. I had a moment to realize how the unequal opportunities in the life are not only a problem of Latino America.
At the same time it was a chance to change the environment, a chance to give more value to my life. No doubt, the shelter surprised me; it was not what I was expecting. I had believed that I would help others, but I was the one who was helped: the guys taught me to play chess, they told me about place to go to in DC, and in the US. They even recommended to go to a politic think tank. I am definitely learning a lot, for instance, the last weekend we discussed drug cartels.
Even though I know that I don’t have more time in my day, sometimes I feel that the time that I spend with them is not a real commitment. However, I am sure that that is better than nothing.
I should only say thank you to my new friends at Georgetown Minister Center; thank you for showing me another interesting and enriching aspect of DC.
So part 2 of ramblings on travelling.
Contrary to popular belief held by many of those who visit from abroad, the United States is not simply a land run on fast food chains or the latest meat-like product being spruiked by a certain clown, bearded colonel, trapezoidal hut or Chihuahua . So take a step off the fast food land and take a detour down the tourist track – each city will always have its own start attractions be it Ben’s famous chilli for Washington DC, Gino’s philly cheese steak for Philadelphia or a dirty water hot dog in New Work (Papaya King is definitely recommended). However, take a further detour deeper in the heartland and again, given its historical and cultural diversity, you will find that the culinary landscape of the US is indeed quite diverse. So keeping an open mind with a small sense of adventure can lead to some great food. If you see something different and looks pretty interesting, go for it – Washington DC itself offers Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Southern and Soul food restraints to name just a few and New York is pretty much the holy land for those camera toting, instagram uploading, ‘picture before I eat’ food bloggers. It’s always a good idea to check up somewhere about a restraint before you go in because at some stage you don’t want to end up seated and then have everyone's eye bulge out when they realize that the cheapest thing on this diner’s menu is a $25 burger (true story).
On Working in Groups
Not everyone appreciates the 19th century impressionist artwork of Gauguin, a large EDM rave at the Hammerstein or a musical on Broadway to the exact same extent – sometimes trying to coordinate what and where everyone wants to go and how long you want to stay there and admire Pollock’s ability to splash paint or take a photo with that guy in the creepy Woody costume in Time Square can be a challenge. Meet up, find out what everyone has on their to do list and do a bit of planning and whilst staying in a large group is always great, sometimes it can be just too hard to handle so as Caesar famously told everyone (writing in the third person no less), it is sometimes best to divide and conquer – again, a small group tends to be less of a logistical challenge then groups of twenty. Five, the same number of men in a SAS raiding party or patrol, strangely enough, seems to be the magic number so far – manageable and plenty of room for characters, a good number to split up accommodation costs and just enough to fit into a standard rental car.
Being thousands of kilometers away from the comfy and toasty cocoon of my home has made me realize something; life is a sneaky little thing ! What I mean by that is that life works in rather mysterious, often unexpected ways. One day you are perfectly content with the way your day is going. And the other, well it's not as great is you might have expected it to be. This weekend has been the combination of both. Great moments of joy and happiness shared with loved friends and moments of disappointment and helplessness. I don't mean to be a downer by any means but tonight, as I am sitting in my desk covered with books, articles, and notes, I feel pensive.
First things first ! I have spent tremendously great moments catching up with my friends. We went out to explore DC's nightlife for a much deserved night of fun. I had personally had a hard week what with discovering that the eye infection I had, hadn't resolved and has to be surgically drained. Therefore, we took matters in our hand and headed to the Sign of the Whale where we could enjoy good music with an amazing company. Saturday was a great day for a stroll in the city since the sun has finally decided to show itself gifting us a warm, sunny day. We decided to walk to Georgetown and I was pleasantly surprised to see the nice little neighborhood (it's kind of my favorite) filled with people. In fact, the streets were downright packed with lines of pedestrians that dusted off their flip flops, t-shirts and shorts so they can absorb as much vitamin D as a the day could allow.
The next day was yet another sunny day but I had the feeling that it wouldn't last. Having been here for more than month now I have learned a precious lesson: not to trust DC's weather. It can be 17 degrees Celsius and in a blink of an eye, the temperature would drop below the dreaded 0. Granted, I wouldn't say no to (yet another) snow day but still, I have heard great things about spring time in DC when all the trees blossom and the streets are covered with pink and crimson. That is certainly something I look forward to ! I hope with all my heart that like the iPhone map, the weather forecast would be wrong about the next days to come. A snowy, chilly weather wouldn't encourage me to either tackle the dreaded amount of reading I have, nor would it allow me to see as much of the city (and the country) as I would like to. Fingers crossed !
Some six months ago in the middle of 2013, I was in the process of narrowing down a smorgasbord of universities to pick my preferences for an exchange. England promised the historic heartland of London or Edinburgh, France offered long afternoons in cozy cafes along Parisian streets or the rural charm of the provinces. In the end, Washington DC won out and whilst the winter blues and the gradual weight of research papers and midterms begin to bear down (and you grow a strange sense of gratitude towards the city’s inability deal with more than four inches of snow) perhaps one of the great pleasures of being in DC is quite simply the fact that it is such a convenient launching point to explore all across the US east coast. With this in mind, I think it pertinent to perhaps write down some lessons learned over the course of the past few weeks of travel for the reference of future to-be exchange students and eager city-hoppers in the semesters to come. So for Part 1, two points:
On the taking of busses:
You can thank Cold-War paranoia and fear of Soviet paratroopers raining down from the skies for the creation of the internet through which you can now watch videos of cats with their head stuck in cereal boxes. You can coincidentally also thank the Cold-War for pushing the development of the sophisticated and well planned highway system which in turn allows cash strapped students to travel rather cheaply and comfortably throughout much of the east coast in particular. So unlike in Australia or Europe, it appears as though budgets airlines are not really a thing here so skip the grumpy air hosts and the $5 optional peanuts for a relatively comfortable bus ride to New York, Philadelphia, Boston as well as other notable cities which will no doubt be on some sort of travel checklist you have devised. Best of all, these busses are cheap – book early and they won’t cost you more than $30 for a return trip and most will have both power outlets to keep you phone charged up as you furiously tap away at several dozen games of flappy birds or do some causal browsing with the onboard Wifi. A trip to New York is four hours which passes by pleasantly enough and sometimes even quicker if you happen to manage a driver who lovingly disregards speed limits.
On planning where to sleep:
A city must be pretty cool to have Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z release catchy tunes solely dedicated to it; and countless films and pop culture references made to it; and filmed in its streets – in other words, lots of people pine after the Big Apple and you will be hard pressed to find someone not wanting to visit New York at some point (unless they already live in New York in which case they simply shake their heads at all the crazy people lining up to see a shiny ball drop in the middle of the freezing winter at the end of each year). In turn, the competition for accommodation in New York as well as any of the big city drawcards along the east coast can be fierce – fiercer so for cheap, well-located and decently comfortable accommodation particularly around the times when most people are travelling, be it during long weekends or during the Christmas period. In other words, do your research and book your accommodation well in advanced. You can thank a German schoolteacher looking to establish cheap accommodation for travelling schoolchildren in the early 20th century for the chain of hostels you can find in most major cities – these are always a good option for a basic place to put your head and unless a personal butler in the presidential is really that important for you, it is more than enough.
So in summary, take a bus (it isn’t that bad) and make sure to plan ahead and look for cheap, well-located accommodation early (unless you plan some Steinbeck-esque hobo adventure) and give thanks to Cold-War paranoia and long dead German schoolteachers.
The past week was very eventful, to say the least. We had a snow day, the second one in the semester, followed by spending an afternoon playing the snow and rejoicing the simple pleasure of walking around the snow-covered city trying to forget about the cold.
Seeing that Monday was President’s day and for that matter a day off, we decided to took this opportunity and travel to … the city that never sleeps, the Big Apple, New York city. I begrudgingly woke up early in the morning and we headed to the bus station where we took the bus to NYC. Although I am not a morning person, I was excited for the upcoming long weekend because, well I had 5 days off and because in a mere 4 hours, I would be in the notorious, New York City. I had only dreamt of it and although it may seem that I am making a big deal out of vising a city but honestly it WAS a big deal. New York resounds in the minds of every single person in this planet as the city where everything can happen. The city with the beautiful skyline, the skyscrapers, the hot dogs and other food trucks, the Brooklyn Bridge, King Kong’s Empire State Building and so on.
The four days went amazingly well and we managed to visit the MOMA, the National Natural History Museum, Times Square, the Financial Department. We were at the Rockefeller Center in the Top of the Rock where we had a breathtaking panoramic view of the skyline of New York. We had lobster and seafood in the famous Red Lobster, we also spend quite some time strolling in an all-white Central Park. On Saturday we walked through the Brooklyn Bridge while it was heavily snowing. We walked to the Financial District where we got to see Wall Street but also Ground Zero. On Sunday morning, we decided to head downtown to West Village and we ended up walking from Soho to Little Italy and Chinatown. For our final day in New York, last but certainty not least, we decided to take the a ferry that went around the Statue of Liberty, perched in all its green splendor in the middle of the water with the background of Manhattan with its concrete and steel buildings !
Now, New York was certainly a dream come true to me and I would like to talk about some few things that I particularly loved about my stay there.First of all the people. I am constantly amazed at the diversity of ethnicities, languages, cultures there were in DC and in the US overall but NY was something different all together. In fact, it was a true melting pot where you could hear man different (and really I mean many) different languages and dialects. Some of the people were intriguing with their avant garde fashion sense and other were curious and eager to hear about a country as tiny as morocco.Second, the diversity was not constricted to the people only, it was all over. Not a part of the city resembled another one as each had its own characteristics and traits, its own vibe and personality that you could feel when you suddenly and unexpectedly moved from one part to another. From the imposing heights of Manhattan to the frail-looking but beautiful Central Park squeezed between the thousands of tons of concrete that the city was made of. West village and SoHo had a swaggy and Avant-garde feel to them from the colorful and worn-out buildings with the fungus covered staircases to the vintage boutiques and cozy coffee shops nestled between two blocs of brigs. Although SoHo was a tiny bit more chic what with the modern art galleries and the gourmet French and Italian bistros and Irish and English pubs. I particularly loved this part of town especially the vintage posters shops, the handmade jewelry and retailing shops that had a sort of hobo-chic feel to them where each piece was as unique as the other. We walked around for a few blocks and we surprisingly found ourselves in … China Town with all its buzzing life, weird smells and overcrowded streets.
In the end, my experience in NYC was one that I will always remember because it encompasses everything that I love about life: diversity. But it had also allowed me to spend more time with an awesome group of people with whom I had shared so much and looking forward to sharing more memories to come !
After seeing photos of exchange student trips, I was excited to do something like this as soon as possible and the past long weekend was the perfect opportunity to go on our first group trip. The destination: New York City.
If I believed that the Americans are a little boring given that they go to sleep really earlier in comparison to Argentineans, NYC showed me that I was wrong. It definitely is the city that never sleeps. It was still 1 AM on Sunday and the street was crowded with people.
It was three incredible days, which seemed like a month given the many activities that we did, and at the same time, it seemed to be only an afternoon because the time passed so quickly given the fun times I had with the exchange friends.
The neighborhoods of Little Italy, Times Square, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brokling Bridge, Ground Zero Memorial, Wall Street, China Town, Rocker Feller Center, nice restaurants -but good street food too- the Statue of the Liberty were some of the places that we went. I can’t believe that aside from the low temperatures, we enjoyed doing more than 15 activities in three days.
Stopping in the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in Times Square, – known as "The Crossroads of the World"- was one of the most astonishing places of the trip.
The quantity of people, flyers, videos, photos, noises, music, made me feel an overwhelmed sensation. I was talking with my family when my sister’s boyfriend asked me: if you have to think of the mountains and valleys of our little town in Argentina, and the same time think of that corner in NY, what do you feel? I said I can feel the most amazing contrast that I could find, so different places equally overwhelming.
Among the best moments, the snow fight in Central Park and the songs with Timo’s ukulele in the subway were my favorites. Timo and I enjoyed singing a couple of song in the subway and there was a good response: people cheered, ask for more songs, and took videos of us. If a can do a generalization: the Argentineans have fun drawing attention or at least Timo and I. Furthermore, I felt that Timo and I were one of the few Argentineans in US, in New York I felt that we were a million, I saw around 45 Argentineans: families, group of friends, couples, in each excursion we heard our distinctive Spanish accent.
Although we went to a lot of places, a long weekend was not enough to know all of the key places. My wish at the end: coming back to NYC if is possible, but when the weather is warmer, definitely. Coming back and continuing to tour this amazing city.
If I have to give details of each moment, I would use thousands of words. However, each excursion left me at least a good memory: a joke, a phrase, a talk, a noise, a song or simply some nice landscape.
It has been a long time since I did a group trip, although it reminded me how nice it is, this opportunity was especially different. So the trip not only offered me the possibility to enjoy the city, but also the opportunity to get to know more of my exchange peers. I shared accommodations in a nice apartment with Oceane, Candince, Mariam and Nadine, thanks girls for everything, especially for the funny talks at night! We also shared the activities with Alessandro, Nico, Marco, Ashraf, Timo, CK, Aaron, Nima, Patrick, Thais, Imane, Marlitt and Ariel. We were more than 15 exchange GW students enjoying NYC. It was funny how we were changing the language constantly: people around us could hear phrases in French, Italy, Arabic, Spanish, Korean, and our international English in all types of accents lacking the American accent.
While I was returning to DC, I read a friend’s post on Facebook, who talked about her exchange. She numerated his classmate’s different nationalities, and said something which expressed perfectly what I could realize in this trip but I couldn’t explain before read the post. She give the perfect word to express it: spending the trip with two French, two Italian, two Egyptians, one Libyan, threes Australian, one Moroccan, one German, one Brazilian, another Argentinean, experimenting such contrast of culture but in the same time laughing and enjoying with the same things means coexistence.
It has been another interesting week at GW thanks to the winter storm that hit most of the East Coast. By Wednesday evening, the campus was abuzz with discussions on whether we would have another snow day, and how much snow would fall. Thanks to the GW Program Board, myself and a few of my friends went down to the cinema that evening to see an early screening of Endless love. Much to our surprise, when we came out at 10pm, the ground was covered in half an inch of snow already. My friend Vanessa who is Australian decided to make her first snow angel: . Not long after we received an email informing us that school was cancelled – SNOW DAY! Not wanting to miss out on the incredible snow coming down, I went out with a few friends to capture some pictures of the monuments in all their snow glory.
It was a beautiful sight, even better than seeing them during the day a few weeks before. We started a mini snow ball fight between the four of us and then got asked by a CNN reporter if he could film us for the morning news – here is a print screen from the video the following morning! Our claim to fame!! Even though the snow was very fun, by the next morning nearly a foot had fallen outside, shutting down the metros and buses – I stood in a pile of snow that went up to my knee! Unfortunately this meant that we were unable to celebrate my friend Christina’s 20th birthday properly, due to being stuck in the apartments
. By Saturday though, most of the streets had been cleared, so we were able to go cheer on the men’s basketball team in their game against the University of Massachusetts. It was a great game, with the teams keeping a single figure difference between them for most of it. Unfortunately the team lost narrowly by 6 points. It is a pretty good streak though, this being the first loss at home of the season. So although this week has been a little different to usual one’s, there was still time to have some fun, see friends, and once again enjoy DC for all its glory.
It could be said that there is hardly anything more quintessentially American than the Super Bowl – the great annual tradition of great pomp and circumstance that is the championship game of American Football and de-facto national holiday. This was my first Super Bowl in the United States and the game this year, was to the say the least, anti-climatic as the Denver Broncos took a beating that had most declaring the game in effect over by the time Bruno Mars finished doing the splits or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers finished the last riff and line on their strangely cordless guitar and bass (the reason for which was subsequently explained by bassist Flea). Perhaps given the not-so riveting game, the focus naturally turned towards the other great attraction of the Super Bowl which is of course, the commercial advertisements. An alleged ten million dollars for a thirty second spot is a serious matter, more so in an age when the attention of at least one hundred and ten million people can be so undivided (or at least as undivided as it can come in this day and age). There was the usual assortment of zany, at times barely coherent humor and “what-the-hell was that?” kind of moments but nothing jumped out as particularly remarkable or memorable including a certain Coca-Cola ad consisting of a simple enough montage of different people from different cultures singing “America the Beautiful” intercut with lines of the song in different languages – including Spanish, Arabic, Tagalog, Mandarin and Hebrew. I would like to think that the ad was pretty standard sappy stuff for the United States but the strange controversy which followed it was enough to merit some thought.
I am still getting orientated with the strange spectrum and poles which seems to direct and guide the American political compass and the controversy which followed in the aftermath of that Coca Cola ad provided some interesting points. The reaction from the right-wing conservatives – the “Fox News” crowd as they would be known and lambasted as by Australian satirists – was in some senses surprising and in other senses predictable. Former politicians who now out of the spotlight yet always craving attention could perhaps be expected to lambaste whatever they can as to the degeneration of society – Allen West’s comments that the ad was “truly disturbing” neatly fits into this category. Random everyday Joe’s and Jane’s now armed with the gigantic megaphone of Twitter and Facebook can be expected to make their semi-drunken spiel of bigotry.
The Coca-Cola ad revealed that many still hold onto a particular vision of what they believe to be theirs within America – a vision of the stability and surety of homogeneity of which the diversity captured in the Coca-Cola ad seems to disturb. Yet as many have pointed out, this vision of America never really existed given that large sections of the US spoke Spanish or that many of the ancestors of those lambasting their multi-lingual take would not have been able to sing “America the Beautiful” in English either. One of the most striking things about arriving in the US is seeing the English signs at the Airport side by side with the Spanish translation – something which continues into everything from brochures to television. Such linguistic diversity is not found in Australia but it was a pertinent reminder of the cultural and historical diversity of the US. There is little doubt that multiculturalism and diversity remains a major issue for many and this is something which perhaps hits home with Australia, itself on the one hand priding itself on its diversity and on the other hand, providing the same glimpses of bigotry. I suppose it strange that a simple Super Bowl ad would bring such a simmering issue to light.
I knew that time is a hot commodity nowadays and everyone is running around the clock to get things done. What I hadn’t realized is how quickly it passes by. It’s already been four weeks that we are in the U.S. It seems to me that just yesterday, I landed in Dulles International airport setting foot in U.S soil for the first time, having trouble with my suitcase and having to use U.S dollars for the first time to pay the exorbitant taxi fair from the airport to campus. At the same time, and as weird as it might sound, I feel like I have been here for longer than a mere 4 weeks. Maybe because I had to adjust to so many different things so fast; adjust to an entirely new city thousands of kilometers away from home, trying and failing at converting temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius. However, the aspect of my exchange I dreaded more was making new friends. I am not a particularly shy person but I am the type of person who likes the comfort and the predictability of my routine. When I received my acceptance letter to GWU I was thrilled of course but I couldn’t help the weird feeling that was grappling my gut. I was scared, weary of the process of starting all over again, introducing myself, making new friends etc... The reality was nowhere near what I had expected, or feared for that matter. In fact, befriending other people in the U.S. be it my fellow exchange students or anyone else, was really easy. I felt really at ease with my new group of friends as we were slowly but in the same time rapidly, exploring DC and the U.S.
So it’s no surprise when everything I experience while on my exchange, I share with this group of people. And with Valentine’s Day around the corner, I am dedicating this blogpost to the wonderful people that I had the pleasure of meeting during this past month. People with whom I shared wonderful moments, mostly in restaurants gushing over how great the food is, but also in museums, parties, in the street between class, the multiple basketball we’ve been to, celebrating George Washington’s birthday and more to come !