Delta Phi Alpha Logo

Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

No matter how experienced a traveler you are, one of the biggest issues when planning to study abroad is funding. Plane tickets, housing, food, travel expenses, and visas can all add up to a considerable amount of money. I’d like to take this moment to say that there are a lot of different sources of funding, both from your university and from external sources. Always talk to your professors, especially ones in the foreign language department, because they often know about scholarships for your specific study abroad destination.

If you get a scholarship, that’s great! People are handing you money, what’s not to love? But in the excitement of being able to pay for your time abroad, don’t forget the people that made your experiences possible. With scholarships and grants come the responsibility to meet the organizations’ or sponsors’ requests as well as to show your gratitude for all of their support.

I was fortunate enough to receive a substantial scholarship from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society. Upon returning, I wrote them a report summarizing my experiences as well as thanking them for their generosity. This sort of essay really means a lot to the people who receive it; it shows that you are truly grateful for their support, and that their money wasn’t taken for granted.

Here is a link to my report on the Delta Phi Alpha website:

http://deltaphialpha.org/2017/08/scholarship-report-amy-griffin-in-graz/

In short: funding is out there if you take the time to look for it, and if you do receive any, make sure to show your gratitude!

Graz Stadtpark

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

I am a strong believer in only eating all-natural foods. Artificial coloring, preservatives, even so-called “natural” flavors are big no-nos with serious health effects. I’m didn’t just jump on a health-food bandwagon; there is real science that shows our bodies aren’t designed to handle all those chemical additives. Organic food is what humans evolved to eat; all those extra unpronounceable ingredients really do cause cancer and neurological disorders and all other sorts of problems, and yet here in America we gobble them down without a second thought. Organic and all-natural options are hard to find and usually come with a hefty price tag.

Fresh Milk Machine in Ljubljana
The ultimate example of organic food in Europe: the milk dispenser in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a high-tech machine that provides extremely cheap, fresh, local milk. Liter-sized bottles to dispense the milk into are also available for about a euro.

In Europe, organic and all-natural food is readily available and cheap. Even the Walgreens-style drugstore had entire shelves full of all-natural shampoo, soap, and conditioner; at home, I have to visit Natural Grocers or order it online. Not everything is all-natural, but the percentage of food that I could eat was so much higher than in the US.

In addition, and also in direct correlation, to this, weight extremes are a much smaller problem in Europe than in America. Some people were very overweight, and some people were far too skinny, yet I never saw either of the extremes that are fairly common in America. Grocery stores don’t provide electric scooters, and I never saw a girl with such stick-thin legs than I worried she wouldn’t actually be able to walk on them.

The difference isn’t only in what Europeans tend to eat: they also are far more active as a part of their daily routines. In the US, everyone owns a car and drives everywhere; exercise is something we do in the evening or on the weekends in order to “stay fit.” In Europe, people walk to the grocery store and then carry their heavy bags home, and take a bus or train and then walk a few blocks to work. Of course people still lift weights and run in the park and bike on the weekends, but their daily lives are already less sedentary than ours are. This level of constant, non-strenuous activity keeps them extremely fit for their whole lives; I regularly saw tiny 90-year-old ladies slowly but competently make their way through the supermarket and then get on the tram to go home.

After my observations in Europe, I wouldn’t say that either America or Europe is healthier than the other; we simply have focused our negative health habits in different areas. Europeans smoke a ton but are also more active and eat healthier food; Americans are more wary of cigarettes but drive everywhere and eat bright blue cake. Is one better than the other? Maybe not, but by combining both sets of health ideologies, it’s possible to have the best of both health worlds. All we have to do is commit to being truly healthy.

Graz Stadtpark

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

One of the most difficult things for me to adjust to about living in Austria wasn’t the language or the public transportation or the frustratingly limited opening hours of supermarkets. No, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the omnipresence of people smoking.

I have always been extremely sensitive to strong smells; even the perfume in most shampoos and hand lotions is too strong and chemically for me to withstand. But cigarette smoke has always been one of the hardest things for me to deal with; I can’t breathe with it nearby, and it gives me an instant, piercing headache.

I had read before that Europe has a higher concentration of heavy smokers than America does, but I didn’t really understand what that would be like until I was in Austria. Cigarettes and smoke were everywhere: every bus and tram stop had a perpetually full ashtray, outdoor seating at restaurants smelled more of smoke than of food, and the entryway to every store was an impossible gauntlet of unbreathable air.

There wasn’t much I could do about any of it, except look for restaurants with non-smoking rooms and practice my shallow breathing skills. That, and silently judge all the people around me who didn’t seem to care that cigarettes are, you know, lethal. At least in America, we have a lot of laws and taxes and educational programs in place to prevent such rampant smoking. At least we care about our health, right?

But then I stopped myself. Yes, cigarettes are terrible and kill people. Yes, from my experience, fewer Americans smoke than Europeans. But Americans aren’t really any more health conscious than our neighbors across the pond; we just focus our health problems in different fields. What are Europeans doing right that we should emulate? See part 2 of my blog post :)

trieste

But What About My Visa?

But What About My Visa?

When I was looking into the different German-speaking countries that offered semester study abroad programs through OU, one of the aspects about Austria that appealed to me was that it was a more unusual choice. However, something I never considered was that visiting such a small country might have some drawbacks on the administration side of study abroad. In order to live in Austria for five months, I needed to apply for a visa–no problem, right? Fill out some forms, hand over some cash, and I’d be good to go.

Except that for a visa to Austria, those forms include a fingerprint scan, and therefore the application must be conducted in person at an Austrian embassy or consulate. And since Austria is so small, there are only three such locations in the United States: in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. A visit to one of these cities on such short notice would have been way too expensive and impossible to fit into my school schedule, and a bit of research showed me that I couldn’t apply for a visa once I was in Vienna or Graz, so I started to panic.

Luckily, my Education Abroad counselor informed me of one other option: students from the US and Canada can enter Austria without a visa, and then within their first 90 days in the country, visit an Austrian embassy in either Slovenia or Germany to apply in person for a visa. So in order to stay for a full semester in Graz, I had to take a weekend trip outside of the country to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia!

Dragon Bridge, LjubljanaThis ended up being a really fun adventure, since Graz’s branch of the Erasmus Student Network (an organization that arranges fun activities and local student “buddies” for study abroad students all over Europe) put together a trip for everyone who needed to go through this rather convoluted application process. We piled into a tour bus to drive to Ljubljana, where we handed in our paperwork and did the fingerprint scan, and then continued on to Trieste, a coastal town in Italy. Altogether, it only took us three hours of driving, yet by lunchtime we had already spent time in three separate countries!

Although there were some unexpected complications in choosing Austria for my semester abroad, I am so glad that I found a program to suit my unique sense of adventure! Obstacles like applying for a visa actually turned into wonderful opportunities with plenty of support both from the OU Education Abroad counselors and local groups like ESN. Don’t let administrative details dissuade you from finding a study abroad program that fits your interests!

sunset-in-graz

Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Most people have heard the stereotype that Americans dress far more immodestly in the summer than many other cultures around the world. But it wasn’t until I studied abroad in both Japan and Austria that it really hit me how differently our country dresses when the weather turns hot.

For both of my study abroad programs, I packed clothes that were dressier or more fashionable than my typical American college student attire of jeans and a unisex t-shirt. I knew that I wouldn’t always blend in with the locals (especially in Japan, where my red-blone hair was a beacon in any crowd), but I wanted to try as much as I could.

I was successful to some degree, but… Kyoto in July is SO. HOT. And it is humid, every single day. And that was where the real difference came into play, because no matter how much dressier my wardrobe was, I couldn’t compete with the locals who somehow managed to wear nice, more fashionable clothes than me, and also not collapse in the constant, oppressive heat.

Even this felt like so much clothing!I would put on a nice shirt and matching shorts and head out into the day, and immediately feel my face turn bright red (yay for pale Irish skin) and sweat start dripping. As I mentioned in a different post, pretty much everyone carries a sweat towel to wipe their faces off, and I jumped on that bandwagon right away, along with carrying an umbrella for sun protection.

And then I’d get to campus, and notice all the female students and professors walking past looking perfectly put together in a silk blouse, cardigan, skirt, tights, and sun-protective gloves, with no visible signs of distress at all those layers. Men wore suits and button-up shirts and looked similarly unaffected by the heat and humidity, while I just stared in amazement and slowly melted into a little puddle.

winter-attireIn Austria, I ran into a similar problem. When I first arrived in Vienna in February, I was quite proud of my “camouflage” attire: at least half the people on the subway wore jeans, boots, and a grey or black wool coat, just like me. I gave myself a mental high-five at my success, and throughout the semester enjoyed the fact that people would mistake me for a local fairly regularly. Even traveling to other countries in Europe, I continued to blend in (at least, until I very obviously couldn’t speak Hungarian) because everyone was wearing wool sweaters and hats and scarves.

And then the weather in Graz started to change, becoming lovely and warm and a bit more humid than I was expecting, and I started shifting to a more spring- and summer-oriented How are you alive?wardrobe. And yet the locals just… kept wearing all those winter layers! It was MAY and 70°F, yet girls were waiting for the tram in knee-length coats and oversized scarves! Which of course left me with an uncomfortable choice: do I reveal myself as an American by wearing actual shorts and tank tops, or do I try to keep wearing jeans and sweaters like everyone around me but once again melt into a little puddle?

The similarity between my experiences in Japan and Austria is pretty surprising, and makes me wonder: how are people in other countries able to continue wearing so many more layers when the weather gets hot? Do they just have more practice, or is it something more?

Graz, Austria

I’m Sorry, That’s Not German… Is It?!

I'm Sorry, That's Not German... Is It?!

Before I came to Austria, I heard warnings from several people that the dialect would be strong, that I would struggle to understand anything. Most American universities teach a variation of High German from Berlin, which is quite different from Austrian German. But I actually had more exposure to Bavarian German: I lived near Munich with a host family for a month in high school, and when I worked as a translator for two young German boys, they spoke Bavarian German, which is quite close to Austrian German.

The problem is that it’s not quite the same as Bavarian: it’s like someone took that accent, intensified it, talked with a couple of marbles in their mouth, and then decided to cut out half the words. But don’t worry about it, it’s still technically German, ready set go!

My first day in Graz, I felt really proud of myself. I met my assigned buddy from my new university, and he took me on a tour of the city. I told him right away that I would prefer to speak in German instead of English, and he was happy to oblige. We walked all over the city, toured the campus, talked about our majors, and I had no problems aside from the occasional vocabulary question. He had a bit of an accent, sure, but it was hardly different from what I’d heard in Munich. I just had to convince my brain to flip on all my German switches for the next five months and I’d be golden.

Then we ran into one of my buddy’s friends. And I swear they started speaking another language. Except it wasn’t another language: THAT was Austrian. After their conversation ended my buddy told me that guess what, he’d been speaking super proper High German this whole time, except that’s not how people talk to each other unless they’re in an academic or formal setting. No, I would usually be hearing the unintelligible jibber-jabber he’d just used with his friend.

Oh. Well then.

Thanks to my pre-semester German course, where our teacher incorporated some slang and expressions every day, I’ve managed to adjust well enough to the dialect.  But sometimes I still feel hopelessly lost, usually when another student uses common slang with a heavy accent.

For example, in class we went over this tiny dialogue:

“Ich bin heute müde / I’m tired today.”

“Ja, ich ohnehin auch / Yeah, me too.”

Except that nobody actually says that last part like that.  They shorten the “ohnehin” into just “eh,” but then the collective Austrian public decided that the rest of the sentence was still too long so they say just “i e a.” Pronounced “ee ay ah” with complete sincerity, like three vowels is an acceptable substitute for a complete sentence.

Other times I understand the general meaning just fine but have to figure out from context what words are strictly Austrian. It took me a long time to realize that here, “net” is actually “nicht / not,” as opposed to “nett / nice.”

Overall the dialect has been a lot of fun; I smile whenever I hear words like “a bissell” instead of “ein bisschen” and “zwo” instead of “zwei.” I buy “Zwetschen, Marillen, and Paradeiser” in the supermarket instead of “Pflaume (plums), Aprikose (apricots), and Tomaten (tomatoes)”. I’m not sure how far I’ll get, but my goal when I return to the US is to be able to speak like a proper improper Austrian, marbles in my mouth and all. I think that would be really something to be proud of, although my professors might say otherwise!

Delta Phi Alpha Logo

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

A few days ago I received an email from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society, saying that I have been awarded one of their spring semester scholarships! I am so grateful for this honor, which will make it possible for me to visit the CERN particle physics facilities in Geneva and also travel to Munich to view the 13th century Parzival manuscripts.
I haven’t really posted anything about this yet, but next semester I will be studying abroad in Graz, Austria! I am so excited to be living in a foreign country for five months, especially one where I will be able to practice my German skills on a daily basis. Although it is a bit intimidating to be going to Austria, where they speak a different dialect of German than the one taught at most American schools, I can’t wait to challenge myself by attempting to live in German as much as possible. My university, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, has a buddy program so I can connect with local students as soon as I arrive in Graz, and I plan to make as many connections with Austrians as I can so that I can fully immerse myself in the culture.
Although I can’t actually register for my classes until I arrive in Austria, the courses I requested are going to be very different from my usual load. History of Austria, the Symphony in the 18th Century, and Japanese Art will all be taught in German, and I am looking forward to both taking classes in a foreign language and the fun subject material. But the course I’m most hopeful about is a graduate level course called Space Law and Space Policy, which will be taught in English. This course aligns perfectly with my future goal to live abroad and work in the space industry, so I really hope that I can take it!
Since the Austrian semester doesn’t line up perfectly with the American system, I have a six week winter break this year, which I am definitely not complaining about. I can’t believe that in less than two months I will finally be moving abroad!

View from Fushimi Inari

The Harmony of Old and New in Modern Japan

The Harmony of Old and New in Modern Japan

Whenever I travel abroad, something I almost always notice is how very young a country America is.  When I was in Germany, locals would refer to the “new” government hall and then casually gesture to a fabulous neo-Gothic building and casually say that it was “only built in 1760.”  At which point I would laugh and say it was older than my country.

Japan takes that to a whole new level.  Everywhere I went, there was a fascinating blend of ancient and modern that somehow manage to blend together into a single rich culture and society.

For example, Tokyo is often thought of as one of the most glowing, modern cities in the world.  And it is–but when you take the time to look around, you’ll also see things like this shrine, tucked away in the corner of a seven-story building:

Tokyo Shrine

Or this house, which despite being overshadowed by massive skyscrapers manages to stand its ground as an example of traditional architecture:

Tokyo House

Everywhere I went there were similar reminders of ancient traditions.  Most every temple sell charms called omamori that are intended for everything from general good luck to help passing exams, giving birth, or being a safe driver.  The Gion festival in Kyoto is the only place were a larger good Omamoriluck charm called a chimaki can be purchase from one of the parade floats.  After Gion, I saw these chimaki hanging over doors all over Kyoto, and omamori are often attached to book bags, wallets, or keychains.  They aren’t just historical artifacts or touristy souvenirs; they’re religious amulets that are still extremely popular and common in everyday life.

And it’s not just the older generation that still upholds these old traditions.  It is not uncommon for high school students to take lessons in flower arranging, chado (Japanese tea ceremony), or calligraphy, or for people of all ages to dress up in brilliantly colored yukatas to attend anything from summer festivals to shrines to traditional-style restaurants.  Although their numbers are declining, there are still girls as young as 14 years old who decide to become maikos and go through extensive training to learn and then perform traditional songs, dances, games, and art forms.

Japan also still has a monarchy, although it is more of a symbolic role than anything else.  But the same imperial family has been in power in Japan for roughly 2600 years, which is incredible. Where else in the world can a single family claim having had 125 emperors in a row???

Today, Japanese culture still contains countless ancient traditions that have survived for centuries and managed to maintain their popularity even as Japan continues to modernize.  This blend of ancient and modern was one of the most fascinating cultural aspects of my time in Japan.

Kinkakuji

I Love You, Japan, But What the Heck? A Collection of Random Observations from My Time in Kyoto

I Love You, Japan, But What the Heck

Being in Japan has been an amazing experience so far, but there have definitely been some things that have stood out to me as bizarre, out of place, or just downright hilarious.  Rather than trying to make these into some sort of deep cultural analysis, I thought I’d start by compiling them into an amusing list.  Enjoy.

1) English phrases are super popular, but may or may not make any sense whatsoever.  Examples from t-shirts I have seen: “Is the cost of world domination too high?”, “Each need sun she need need son sea,” and “Hearts as one brave aspiration.”  Signage is often not much better.

English Does Not Compute

Thank you, I really want to eat those now.

2) The toilets look like something out of Star Trek, with heated seats, privacy music, and lids that open and close automatically.  Yes, I’m being serious.  You can google them if you don’t believe me.

3) It’s 95 degrees outside with 85% humidity, but everyone is impeccably dressed in long sleeves and pants.  It’s also a normal thing to carry at least one fan and a towel to wipe off sweat.  (Could these possibly be connected?)

4) Convenience stores actually carry edible food.

Conbini Bento

 

5) Items in the 100-yen store really only cost 100-yen. Shocking, right?

Robo-kun

6) Everything is streamlined and efficient, except all transactions are done in cash.  (P.S.  1-yen coins are known to spontaneously multiply in wallets.  You will never be able to spend them all, so just give up and buy a coin purse.  It will be your best friend.)

 

YOUR.  BEST.  FRIEND. :)

7) Learning to properly recycle is an involved and essential skill for survival.  But don’t expect there to be recycling cans, and especially trash cans, in any public places.  You bought that plastic bottle, so you will carry it with you until you go back home.

8) At 5’ 3”, I’m taller than most of the women and many of the men, even though platform shoes abound.

9) Fruit in general is expensive, but you can literally buy a $50 cantaloupe at the supermarket.

— Gion Matsuri

10) My strawberry-blonde hair is so unusual that random strangers walk up to me and ask to take my picture.  (Note the two kids in the background giving me awkward stares.)

Squid Snack

 

11) Ice cream comes in red bean, sesame, and matcha flavors, and dehydrated fish and squid fill up an entire shelf of the grocery store snack aisle.

12) I have yet to go somewhere and have hand towels, paper napkins, or tissues provided.  Except at restaurants, where you will usually be given a moist towelette to wipe your hands.

13) This conversation: “Where in America are you from?”  “Colorado.”  “Oh… So, is that in New York or Los Angeles?” :/

14) There is no such thing as a “too small” parking space.  You just need to try harder.

Mad Parking Skills

 

15) But really, why do I even live in America, we have NO CULTURE.

Maiko-san