Archive for November, 2009

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Veronica: Application Process

November 29, 2009

So, once you’ve figured out what program you want to go on, you have to apply to it. Obviously. Luckily, after all that thinking about where to go, the application process is easy. For Montpellier, you have to choose what track you want to do. There is Integrated (1-3 classes in the French university with French students/professors) and Language & Culture (all classes with American or international students). That might be a difficult choice for some, depending on how much French you know, how confident you are with it, etc. I chose Integrated.

The application is very standard and easy; it’s pretty much your personal information. The essay is short. You need to submit a transcript, but one printed from OneStop is enough. They want $50. And the last thing is a letter of recommendation along with a short form.

So…application=easy. Thank goodness, right? Definitely, because it gets more complicated farther on down the road.

I applied really early. And when I say really early, I mean six months early. I just wanted to make sure I gave myself enough time between being accepted and getting my passport/visa (which I will write about at a later date). Even if you apply a few weeks before the deadline, you’ll be just fine in regards to time. I’m just paranoid.

Oh, and here’s one thing you should know: Once the application is over, everything else you have to do in order to be able to go is a bunch of paperwork. That’s all it is (well, it’s important paperwork so you should take your time on it. Don’t take it lightly). I don’t want to turn you off to the idea of going abroad because of that, because everyone I’ve talked to says it’s worth it and I believe it will be. But I want you to know what you’re in for.

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Eben: 22 Catch 22’s

November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving weekend to all. It turns out that Friday is just Tabaski Preparation Day, or something. So I have work off but the big holiday isn’t until tomorrow. Anyway:

You’ve heard all these stories before in various forms. And I’ll spoil the somewhat worn conclusion, that life everywhere is complicated and it’s hard enough to understand the issues without even having to think about solutions. Nonetheless, I’m still writing this post because the specifics of the complexities of some facets of life here are pretty interesting and different than their counterparts in all the similar accounts from around the world. (Draw out the sentence tree for that one.)

Given my recent work, the easiest issue to start with is microfinance, and more specifically, microcredit. I got into some of its disparate effects a couple posts ago, and there’s more numerical analysis to come, but I think the stories of a couple particular clients I’ve come across during my internship illustrate as well as any numbers the good and the bad of these loans. The first client lives in a traditional fishing village called Lompoul, about an hour northwest of Mekhe on the Atlantic Ocean. The credit agent Diadji and I make the requisite stop at the village chief’s compound, sitting in chairs on the sand between huts and more modern-style houses and explaining FDEA until he appreciates our presence in his village enough to let us move on. So along with the driver, Pap, we drive on to this old client’s house for me to interview her. (Diadji has a couple clients to see in the village, but the trip has mostly been organized for me to get some interviews in.) We pull up to a house compound enclosed by a white concrete fence, in which is engraved “F.D.E.A.” in a roughshod manner right next to the door. I figure this one will be interesting. They’re finishing up preparing a lunch of ceeb-u jën, which they make us eat before anything else. Then I take a seat on the ledge outside the main building of the compound and start my interview with Codou Diop, a woman who claims an age of 50 but shows more early 60s. A widow with 17 to feed in her house, she begins to tell me in good French how she’s taken out loans with a group of nine other women for more than ten years, using the money to increase the scale of their collective farming operations. This current loan, of about $2700 to be split among the women and be repaid after six months, has proven somewhat problematic, as a couple of the women turned out to be pregnant and have been unable to work. So she thinks they’ll be a couple months late in fully reimbursing. But she hastens to switch the topic, given the opportunity when I ask different questions, to describe how her life has changed since beginning to borrow from FDEA. “That was my entire house,” she begins, pointing at the small building to our right, now joined by three bigger ones surrounding the courtyard we’re in. Back then, she made between $10 and $15 a month doing small-scale farming, and although her husband was still around to help out, they skipped a meal a day and didn’t eat much for the other two. I think you know the rest of the story without me telling it. She now makes upwards of $110 a month by having increased the scale of the farming and the commerce associated with it; she avows having had greater authority in making collective decisions with her husband before his death; she paid for professional school for one of her daughters to learn couture; and, as I could attest to after my lunch, the whole house now eats three full meals a day. She asserts similar success for the rest of her village involved with FDEA, proudly recounting how five of the 17 students graduating high school last year are now at a university. Do you want to take out another loan after this one, I ask, one of the last questions of every interview. She responds emphatically: “I won’t leave it until I die.”

The next day, Diadji and I hop in the truck to go on what he describes as a routine loan recovery trip through Mekhe. We stop at a few houses of women who aren’t home, with Diadji menacing whoever happens to be home with the threat that if the loan isn’t repaid soon, “the American who’s here to help us out in collecting the money we’re owed will come see you personally.” (He seems to get too much of a kick out of this to consider its awkwardness, or the fact that I can’t even really speak these people’s language enough to do anything if I do realize his empty threat.) Then, before heading back to the office, we make one last stop, pulling up under a big “tree of discussion” surrounded by sand and shade in the center of town. Diadji opts for yelling the name of the man owing FDEA money instead of gracing him by getting out of the truck, and the man gets up from whatever discussion the tree was providing, leaving the three other old men looking puzzled in their traditional robes as he approaches the truck to stand outside Diadji’s window. Given that this man is an elder, Diadji and he exchange greetings in the traditional manner done to show respect – by repeating each others’ last names over and over again. “Diop,” “Dieng,” “Diop, Diop,” “Dieng,” they go back and forth for thirty seconds or so, until getting into the normal round of “Where is your family?” and “Have you spent the day with peace?” and the formulated responses of “They are there” and “Thanks to God.” (The only reason I’ve gotten for the name deal is that it’s meant to show you’re acknowledging the other’s presence. Never considered that anyone didn’t think I existed after saying hi to me, but among the things I’ve learned here is that most cultural differences are inexplicable.) Then, as happens with the women in the office, they start the main event, going back and forth quickly in Wolof over some matter. Diadji pauses every minute or so to explain to me, sitting in the back seat, what’s going on. “He’s owed us money since 2002,” he says, 849,000 Francs (about $1900) in total, since he didn’t repay the money he borrowed to raise and sell sheep. (I don’t find out the rest of his story, but it’s likely similar to another man I interviewed who took out a loan with nine others to raise sheep two years ago, and the sheep all got sick and died. This other man now doesn’t work, borrowing money from friends to pay for meals and slowly paying back 5000 Francs a month of the 150,000 he still owes. He never had problems giving his family food before all this but now goes hungry many days. But that’s a different story.) Although interest stops accruing after a year of indebtedness, FDEA’s pestering does not, although I never get a real answer as to why they’ve waited until now to see this man. “He gave his house as collateral for the loan,” Diadji stops to tell me matter-of-factly, “and so we’re going to take him to the police station to start the process of seizing it if he doesn’t bring in at least 100,000 Francs by Tuesday.” (All individual loans require some sort of collateral that usually greatly outweighs the worth of the loan itself, but Diadji later explains to me that this is yet another empty threat; they’ve never, during his time there, actually seized a house or anything of real value.) The man, increasingly panicked and pleading with Diadji, frantically pulls his wallet out of his pocket, taking out the 30,000 Francs that are in there and stuffing it in Diadji’s hand. I figure Diadji will make the man keep it until a more formal repayment, but I’m wrong; “Good,” Diadji says, “now bring the rest soon.” We soon drive off, leaving this man behind to go back to his discussion. He came in this past Tuesday with 10,000 additional Francs, which seems to have placated Diadji for the moment despite the earlier menacing about 100,000. So yeah, it turns out there are people whose lives actually get screwed up by this stuff. In theory, the question of whether microcredit is “good” or “bad” in the aggregate should be empirical, but the few real mathematical analyses that have been done on that question to this point have done nothing but muddy the waters. I’ve been trying to get at that question with my research, but my real answer is that I have no idea. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Adam: Goodbye Norway. Tusen takk.

November 26, 2009

After I returned from Tromsø, the countdown was on. Home was just around the corner. The last week of my semester abroad was fast and random.

Our last few day of classes really focused on wrapping up our Norwegian experience and included a visit to the US Embassy. Much like our visit to the Embassy in Stockholm, our speaker was very rah-rah America. He was also very blunt about Norwegians being a bit too idealistic and naive when it comes to international politics. Snap!

Tuesday was an early morning as we had our Norwegian final to do. It was not too difficult, but after a semester of writing papers, it was odd to just fill in the blank. Later that afternoon, we had our oral exam. Astrid came a little early and brought us a marzipan cake and coffee, because she had to reinforce that she is the world’s best Norwegian teacher.

My last two days were spent at a cabin, which required a two-hour hike to get to. My fave. The stay was a part of class and was meant to be a way for all of us to say goodbye. Instead, it ended up being a really relaxing night that didn’t really include any closure. It did include an intense dance party that consisted of Sonja and I dancing and sweating. A lot.

I actually didn’t feel like I needed closure, since it didn’t feel like I was saying goodbye. Sonja and I plan on seeing each other a lot since we both go to the U. And I enjoy Erika and Kirby’s company enough that I would be more than happy to road trip down to Ohio or Massachusetts to pay them a visit. Also, it’s only matter of time before Lisa and Charlotte come over from Germany and embark on a journey through the States, including Missouri.

My journey home was a long one, but my excitement made it relatively enjoyable. My eight-hour flight from Oslo to Newark was full of movies and sleeping. Going through customs wasn’t nearly as scary as I had originally imagined. And the ghetto little plane I took from Jersey to Minneapolis didn’t blow up or rattle itself a part. I ended up making it home in one piece!

It’s hard for me to believe I did so much in the last semester. I learned a lot about Norway, travelled all over and experienced some amazing things! I mean, I lived it, but I can’t believe that was my life for three and half months.

Now that I’m home, I plan to enjoy my two months off and to see all the people I have missed. My adventure doesn’t stop, it continues. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to go abroad and have such an amazing time!

Tusen takk, Norway. You were great! Ha det bra!

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Veronica: How I Chose Montpellier

November 24, 2009

Choosing the program I wanted to go on was a long process for me. I had been thinking about it for about a year. Sometimes just choosing a country to go to can be hard, but for me, I knew it had to be France. It was basically between Paris with IES or CIEE and Montpellier. I love big cities–I grew up in Chicago. So Paris wasn’t scary. Paris is Paris, I mean, come on! Cool! The big plus for Montpellier was that it was on the Med. Sea and warm. France is warmer than here in general, but Montpellier seemed practically tropical from a Minnesota viewpoint, which was lovely. So the cities both had the same amount of pros.

I had heard from a lot of friends that Parisians didn’t like hearing Americans speak French, so speaking French there would be much harder than in Montpellier. Strike against Paris. But then I heard from others that it was actually the other way around. So strike against Montpellier. I still don’t yet know who to believe. So that basically told me that speaking French in France might be harder than I expected. But that’s okay. I’ll try. It can’t be that bad.

What I liked more about the program in Montpellier was that it seemed incredibly supportive of their students. They really help you through the process before you go, and there is a strong support staff in France that help you get settled and established, as well as help you with whatever you need the entire time you’re there. While I was reading the literature from the programs in Paris, I kept getting the impression that it’s much more independent and they kind of just drop you in this foreign country and say “Go have fun.” Obviously, I don’t know if that is actually the case because I’m not doing one of those programs. But the support for/in Montpellier seemed much stronger; they know you’re in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language fluently and that it’s scary. They seemed like they would be there for you much more than the other programs would. And so far, the support for Montpellier has been wonderful.

The one thing I wish Montpellier was and the Paris programs are, is language intensive–no English allowed at all. I’m not too disappointed though because I’m going to be in a French school, living with a French family, and navigating a French city. I’m going to try to get a pact with my friends there for minimal English. We’ll see how that goes.

So, basically, how I chose my program was through the support system. That’s really important to me. I’m a very independent person and I like doing what I want, but I like having people to turn to if I need it. And I always have tons and tons of questions about everything, so I need someone I can go to, to get answers. And I know that I have really good French, I mean, I’ve been taking it for 10 years, but I’m not fluent, I don’t know slang and vernacular, nor a lot of everyday stuff (How in the world do you say ‘stapler’ or that you need somewhere to plug in your laptop??). I need people that can help me get by in this scary, new country.

Choosing a program is an incredibly personal process and you might like the way the programs in Paris sound better. You might like Montpellier better, but for completely different reasons. I’m not telling you why you should like Montpellier more or Paris less. Hell, you could like Senegal the best. I don’t know. This is just how I made my decision, and what I advise you to do when you are making yours is to find out what are the most important things to you in a program and/or a country/city, and what you definitely don’t want. What are the deal makers and deal breakers? Once you know what you want and don’t want, look for a program that meets those the best. You may have to compromise a little (there isn’t one program that has everything), but it will be much easier than having a big, long list of programs and no idea what it is you want to get out of study abroad.

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Danielle: finding myself in France

November 23, 2009

So. Today. I also realized that I love it here. Not just curious in the exciting way that I felt before. But actually have the feeling that I can come home to a place in this France. Curl up in bed for forty minutes. Wake up. And talk to people that, even though it took forever to warm up to. I really do like. Its nicer now too that I understand everything they’re actually saying. Right? And I think here is a fine time to insert something I wrote on the train yesterday:

I don’t know what its like to be anything but all the too much that I am. And even though I will try for too long to understand all the too much-es out there. I’m always going to do it knowing that all my too much can be just enough for all those people who understand why sitting on the ground is sometimes better than a chair. Why a happy ending is a combination of each minute where you understand that everything really is okay. Why cookies before bed. Bananas with peanut butter. and milk chocolate are somehow just enough to feel just enough. Why life is better when you see it clearly. But why optimism can bring you farther when mixed with that clarity.

The part I’m going to mention right now is the last line. Because I saw it ringing true today. When I came home plagued with the ever lasting drags of thoughts. I found another piece of the puzzle I was missing as I took out the burgundy rock from three months ago. the one thought that out of all the rocks on that beach. And I promise you. There were many. I also missed this one until it was picked up and given to me. and out of all the beautiful unique amazing rocks. I can now not imagine not having this certain one right in front of me even though its not the color I would have picked. It has a crack along one side and many more scratches as well. But somehow now. I’ll take the scratches. The crack. The color. And it can be my own. The little girl living here might have tantrums. The vegetables might sometimes looks like uncooked seaweed. The lines might be too long and too slow. And people might be rude on the tram. But I’ll take it because a part of me is now here too. Just like all the people around me. that I love most of the time and like for the most part. Have so many things that drive me crazier than I could have thought they could. But just like my cold but nicely smooth rock in front of me. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. Learn which parts of yourself fit where. And realize that sometimes you don’t get to choose where your heart decides to lay. And somehow by chance sometimes and patience others, you get to understand why you could never imagine your life without that other small piece.

Learning. As much as I possibly can. Still makes me realize that there are a bunch of things that I’m missing. I know this. And reluctantly I’m going to try to take it as just the way it is. But I hope that for today you can understand a bit more about what is going on in my head. Along with the insert I put a paragraph above, I wrote a good twelve pages of other things. So closing for right now I’m going to put the closing of that nicely long note.

As I sit here with my feet getting cold eating carrots and getting closer and closer to a place that somehow became my place of comfort, I realize that the confrontation of self has made that self echo instead of fold and each word I write reminds me of the parts that make me who I am. The parts that I love. The parts that need tweaking. And the parts that in writing this, I hope someone finds in themselves too.

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Claire: Nafeeyoh

November 22, 2009

which means whats up in sererre.

Don’t have a lot of time, just wanted to drop a line to say hello and that I’m doing fine. I cant really go on about all I’ve been up to, I’ll just tell you its of course gotten better each day. There are still plenty of times when I want to shut myself up in my room, click my heels three times and repeat theres no place like home over and over again (exhibit a: i have almost finished reading Anna Karenina) but of course I don’t (too much).

I’ve started trying to learn the dances which are really hard but REALLY fun, especially when its a big group of women dancing and yelling and laughing around a big circle. most of the times we dance to the beat of someone drumming on a bucket or big metal bowl, those are my favorite. Last night we threw a party for a baby that was just born in my family, the tradition here is to wait a week to name the baby and then throw a big party once the baby is named by a huddle of the men in the village. After dark one woman grabbed a bowl, one woman grabbed a bucket and the rest of us danced our life away, even my mom!!! I, of course, suck but they encourage me anyway. I signed up for another african dance class in the spring so I hope to learn some moves to show off by then.

Next week is Tabaski, which is a lot like Korite but we dress up and kill a sheep instead of dressing up and eating laax. I bought my outfit today and it is fancy shmancy; my sister said she is also bringing me to a soiree that night where there will be lots of young people and lots of dancing. eep.

Also, i must say this, last week I ate rat liver. Yes your eyes did not decieve you. We found a rat, we cooked it, we ate it and let me tell you it actually tasted just like chicken. Who knew?

Today im in Thies where my mom is from staying with her family. I went to the market this morning and then got to meet up with some friends which was awe.some.

It’s not so hard to be here now because of stress or difficulties acclimating. That’s still hard sometimes, but really the hardest part is just missing home, knowing that it’s so close but yet so far. It’s not that I’m terribly homesick, it’s just that it’s been such a long time since I saw everyone that it’s hard knowing there are a mere three weeks left and there’s nothing I can do to make the time go faster. I keep reminding myself tho that those weeks will be over before I know it and that when it’s over I’ll miss it, miss the people, miss the food, miss the adventure.

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Robert: Rulebook

November 18, 2009

The following is my own personal guide to China that I made for my wife, Ellen, who’s coming here in less than three weeks (!) with less preparation that I had:

The Rules Do Not Apply Here: Everything you’ve ever known about how things should be, what constitutes courtesy, and what common sense is, just forget about all that stuff.  Let it go.  People ride motorcycles on the sidewalk here; toothless old women chew on nuts that make the few remaining teeth they have turn black; prices for anything and everything are negotiable beyond belief.  Ultimately, it’s not that it’s that different, but it’s different enough that it might be easier to work from scratch than to backtrack.  Open your mind reeeeeeeeeal wide and prepare to become just a little bit Asian, if you’re not already.  It doesn’t hurt a bit, won’t last forever, and will make your experience here a lot more fun.

It Smells, Often: Everywhere, almost all the time, it smells.  Usually like fish, feces, or exhaust.  Sometimes like a combination of things.   If you mentioned it every time you smelled something foul, you’d lose your voice pretty quickly.  Grin and bear it for a while, and soon you’ll find that you smell the acres of fresh pineapple, but not the piles of water buffalo dung in between the banana trees.

Water: a) Brush your teeth with anything off the faucet– a teeny bit of foreign intestinal fauna might help you, actually and b) anything boiled will be fine, and you’ll be served hot water or tea on most occasions.  Even in the 90˚ afternoon, eating spicy noodles straight out of a 500˚ wok, people just love their hot tea.  I will never understand. And, c) Water pressure and temperature varies.  China is the largest producer and consumer of solar-powered water heaters in the world; if you take a shower at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, you’ll at least rule out a cold shower.  Sometimes.  Your greatest memories of China will be when you get a big showerhead with thunderous, steaming water coming from it.

What Is Clean?: When you get here, almost everything is going to seem dirty somehow– chipped laminate or flooring, oddly-stained sidewalks, graffiti, permeating dust, a weird stain on a sheet or the wall– it feels like a Midwestern church basement gone horribly wrong sometimes.

The buildings are largely from the 80s, and you’ll be caught off guard by how run down everything looks on the outside.  That’s the legacy of concrete.

Although I’d recommend watching where you step, I promise you that it’s not as dirty as it seems as when you first arrive, and that I’ll let you know if something really is dirty.  Chinese people are ritual cleaners, but they have a totally different standard of what looks clean compared to the Western world.

Litterbugs!: I do not understand why Chinese people feel so compelled to litter anywhere, anytime.  You are going to see trash, cigarette buts, plastic bags, etc. in the most unusual places; you’ll see people throw mountains of garbage out of their cars onto the road beneath them.  When we eat, you can just throw whatever is not being eaten onto the floor, and it’ll get swept up after you.  I guess with a population this size, it’s not hard to find a cleanup crew?

Honk Honk: I’m trying to figure out how I can transmit a message to every person in this country that says “I look before I walk into the fucking street, alright?”  Car sales climb about 300% every year, so a lot of people are a) getting their first taste of driving in b) their first cars in the history of the oldest country in the world.  It’s like people honk their horns here just to remind themselves that they finally own a car.  They’re really defensive drivers, but the “rules of the road” generally resemble total lawlessness from our perspective.  In reality, it’s not– just make sure you’re paying attention.  Everybody else seems to be.

Smilely Smile: These are the nicest people in the world, though they’re not without their own occasional bad eggs.  They have the impression that all Americans wear a permanent smile, but there’s a reason for that: It’s body language, which the Chinese have a completely different regard for than the Western world, and that most laowai that come here don’t make the first effort to learn the language and thus have to get by on a smile and their good looks, should they have them.

At any rate, if you treat the people you meet like they are your neighbor and not a tourist attraction (it’s harder than it sounds, despite the obvious moral protocol involved), people will love you.  Especially old ladies, and my goodness are they fun.  They are the keepers of this society.   Prepare to talk about yourself, your home, your family, your job, etc.; and to ask questions of a similar caliber when you meet someone new.

Get Ready to Squat: The western-style toilets are few and far between here; sometimes they pop up in the strangest places, but generally speaking, you’ll have to get used to making sure you don’t pee on yourself!

If It Falls, Let It Go: When you eat, if something falls on the table, it’s done for.  If it falls on your finger, don’t lick it off.  You might not be compelled to do these things anyways, but generally if it’s not in a bowl, on a plate, between your kuaizi, or in your mouth, it may as well be on the floor.

Anything That Can Be Accomplished By A Human Being Can Be Done Better By A Human Being With A Cigarette Hanging Out of His Mouth: Cop, butcher, dentist, bubble tea shopkeepers, cooks, bus drivers– they all smoke, and no, they will not stop smoking while they replace that crown that popped off your molar. Read the rest of this entry ?

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