Hiking Without Mountains

What Uppsala lacks in mountains, it makes up for in color.

What Uppsala lacks in mountains, it makes up for in sky.

Worldviews may seem to arise from pure observation of the physical world, but I think our ideas about even the most basic, physical aspects of the world are less objective than they appear. It seems that the two shape each other, that we observe our world, form ideas about it, and shape our world according to those ideas. When this process happens on the societal level, over time, our cultural worldview shapes our very homes and communities and the way we interact with them.

I got to thinking about this after a weekend spent hiking on the trails around Uppsala. I resist the urge to put quotation marks around hiking. See, in the U.S., I’ve done my share of hiking around New England and the Mid-Atlantic. The implication: I’ve only known hiking as walking up and down and around mountains. Show me flat land and I’d say the best you can do is to go for a long walk on it. If you’re not making substantial vertical progress, you’re not hiking in my book. I didn’t realize my conception of hiking was so tied up in altitude until I spent the weekend stomping around on relatively flat hiking trails. The paths ran through forests and fields and through tunnels and across streams. They were well-maintained and well-marked and green and lovely. I put my mountains aside and let flat hikes be real hikes.

With the topography issue settled, I found I had another dissonant idea about hiking. Now and then, someone would pass me on the path, carrying groceries home, or biking to work, or just casually strolling around a field wearing slacks and loafers. My American brain was bemused that the trail that I saw as a place for rugged recreation, a place removed from society and mundanity, was, for some people, just part of the daily commute. Somehow, I’d internalized that American compartmentalization of Wilderness versus Civilization, sacred nature versus vulgar society. And though I found it absurd to see a man in a crisp collared shirt stumbling out of the brush, I realized it was just as absurd that I’d gone full Paul Bunyan for a two hour walk past multiple grocery stores and bus stops.

Lake Mälaren at midday

Lake Mälaren at midday

I was told when I arrived in Sweden that nature is highly valued in Swedish culture. I filtered that through my American worldview and figured it meant that Swedes do a lot of camping. Great, I thought. I love it, let the camping begin. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found that this value manifests with much more nuance. For one thing, it seems that the general Swedish mind doesn’t share that firm man-versus-nature framework so fundamental to the American worldview. The Swedish conception is mirrored by the way the town is laced with parks and woods, no hard distinction between civilization and nature.

Even down to the individual level, Swedish culture offers constant opportunity to be outdoors. People walk and bike for fun and transportation, pick wild berries, go roller skiing, sail, play football, garden, cook out. Even in my student apartment building– a monument to budget-conscious architecture of the 1960’s– there are balconies and windows as big as kitchen tables that swing completely open, and fire pits for barbecuing, and tall pine trees filling in the spaces between bike paths and buildings. In Sweden, nature isn’t a place you have to travel to. It isn’t confined to monumental, sacred, powerful wilderness. No, it’s just outside the door, it’s familiar and comfortable, it’s part of the everyday business of being here. Hiking boots not required.

Passing the Time at Home and Abroad


I have fallen completely in love with Scotland, the University of Stirling, and the residences at Alexander Court. Sitting in my bedroom with the window open, I am greeted by the sounds of someone playing the flute in one of the buildings adjacent to mine. Another one of my neighbors can often be heard playing acoustic guitar outside his door when the weather is nice enough, as it is today. He told me he bought the guitar in town for 50 pounds, and I’ve been meaning to do the same. I haven’t played guitar at all since I arrived in Scotland, and I miss it.

I have much more free time here at the University of Stirling than I ever did at Temple. For one, I don’t have a job here. Not that I’m complaining about that, but it does take some getting used to. Secondly, I only have six hours of classes per week—which, while significantly less than the 15 hours I would usually have, is considered a full course load here.

The issue presented by this extra free time is how to spend it in a reasonable manner. I am fortunate enough to have made a decent number of friends here, but everyone has different classes and extracurricular activities, and it is impossible to always have something planned. Even when everyone is free all at once, it is difficult to constantly be creative when it comes to making plans, and you can only walk the same hills and go to the same pubs so many times.

In this way, being abroad is a lot like being at home. So I ask myself, “What do I do with all of my free time at home?” The answer often disappoints me. I spend money, I overeat, and I watch Netflix (which I’ve already started to do here — Community is on Netflix in the U.K., and that’s kind of a game changer for me). Playing guitar is probably the most productive hobby I have at home.

However, I haven’t been terribly unproductive in my time here. I’ve gone hiking a few times, I’ve started buying groceries and cooking for myself more regularly, and I’ve been reading a lot. Even writing this blog is a productive use of my free time. And, perhaps most importantly, many of the hobbies I’ve picked up in Stirling are cheap or free. It’s easy to fall into the same routines at home, most of which entail spending money. When I get bored here I might be inclined to go for a walk around campus, whereas when I’m bored at home I would more likely go for a drive to Wawa. God I miss Wawa.

Now I can hear one of my neighbors playing the violin. I definitely need to buy a guitar soon. I’m sure there are a few thrift stores in town that have cheap, used acoustic guitars. I’ll need to take the bus from campus to Stirling because it’s a little too far to walk, especially carrying a guitar for half the trip. I’ll probably get a haircut while I’m there too—my hair is starting to get unpleasantly long. Some things really don’t change.

The view from my desk in Alexander Court.

The view from my desk in Alexander Court.

The Art of the Exchange


Here in New Zealand, I am not “studying abroad” but rather “on exchange.” I am not actually on a Temple Exchange program, rather a Direct Enrollment program through an external provider, but in New Zealand going abroad to study at a different school for a few months is referred to as “going on exchange.” Rarely does Kiwi slang make a lot of sense to me–Why are swimsuits called “togs?” Or flip flops “jandals?” Couldn’t tell ya — but in this case New Zealand lingo has the right idea. While “study abroad” implies that my home life continues as usual, albeit abroad, “on exchange,” implies just that — a complete swap. At UC, it does not matter what is happening at home, because I’ve exchanged my Temple University Life for my University of Canterbury Life. In order to adapt and immerse myself as fully as possible  — the main reason I chose to do an External Program that directly enrolled me at a foreign university — I have crafted a new life for myself here, save the occasional reference to “my home school.”

(photo courtesy of University of Canterbury)

At least UC has the same color scheme as Temple. (photo courtesy of University of Canterbury)

My opportunities to travel in college have taught me that I have a knack for adapting to new environments. I’m lucky that I rarely feel homesick and that I feel comfortable in new social situations and that I can calm myself when things go wrong. These things are easy for me, and as a result I adapted more quickly to life at a new school with new people in a new country than some of my friends who are also “on exchange.” It’s easy to find people, wherever I am, who remind me of people I left in Philadelphia, or places with a ring of familiarity. It’s easy, as callous as this sounds, to replace.

However, with quick-adaptation skills come quick-forgetting skills, and the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” rings all-too-true for me here. It’s easy to pick up relationships where you left off, but hard to explain why you’re temporarily dropping them. I often feel guilty for not keeping in better touch with people from home, but simultaneously feel that too much contact is intruding on my experience in New Zealand. It’s easy to dampen your experience as an international student by constantly checking social media, wallowing in a dark hole of FOMO, and choosing to Skype a familiar face over meeting a new one. This philosophy, however, is a difficult sell to the people I’m “abandoning.” There’s a thin line when exchanging one life for another.

I’m lucky that I have to opportunity to even have this internal conflict, and it’s nothing original in the canon of travel philosophy. But this is, for me, my longest stint away from not only the States but the Philadelphia area. I’ve removed the “constant variable” of my surroundings and can see who I am without the backdrop of good ol’ Pennsylvania.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of life being composed of blocks of smaller lives, some that continue throughout the overarching Life, and some that begin or end with change, a move, or a removal of a “constant variable.”

Not too shabby scenery for a change of surroundings!

Not too shabby scenery for a change of surroundings!

One friend I’ve made here, who has a lot of similar ideas about traveling, calls it “compartmentalizing.” I’m good at compartmentalizing. I can organize my different lives into mental boxes, and focus on one at a time. I am aware of what’s going on in the lives of my roommates and friends and acquaintances at home, and I Skype my family relatively regularly (although my mother might have a different opinion). But I simply don’t have enough time to be invested equally in two lives, and the new guy in my roommate’s life isn’t quite as exciting as it is when I’m sharing an apartment with her. When I open that mental box in December, I’ll have focus and investment, but for now I’d rather focus on the people and the events in closest proximity to me, so I can be fully present in New Zealand before I inevitably close that lid.

I think part of this is that I know that I will return to the U.S. in a few short months and most aspects of my life will be the same as they were before I left. I don’t mind swapping out my Temple/Philadelphia/American life for my UC/Christchurch/New Zealand one because I know I’ll get the former back. The latter, however, only exists for the 5 and a half months I’m in New Zealand, and won’t be waiting for me to return after I leave. It will be easier to keep in touch with people I’ve met here when I’m back in the U.S. because I won’t feel as though my attachment to New Zealand and my relationships here are intruding on my experience at Temple — rather, they’re enriching my overall life. But for now, in order to be fully present in New Zealand, I also must be disconnected for a while.

The terms of friendship


Everyday this past week as I walked back to my apartment building for the evening, I returned completely exhausted. As of September 7th, I now go to a German course everyday from 9:00am to 3:30pm. This course, START-Kurs, is a three-week intensive German program for international students coming to Tübingen to study at the university. The course covers German language and culture as well as the acceptance and understanding of cultural differences. There are about 60 of us in my course and we represent 21 different countries from around the world.

The first day of the course, the teachers gave us a placement test, which would later be used to divide us into 4 groups based on our German skills. Not only is Tübingen the top university in Deutschland for German Studies, but it is also an elite university especially know for its medicine, law, and theology faculties. So it makes sense that our writing and speaking skills are so diverse considering some students are here for faculties outside of German language studies.

We received our placements the following day and started immediately with proper lessons. I was surprised by how practical our lessons are. I had expected my teacher to start drilling us with grammar tenses and vocab lists, but instead we spoke about friendship. We compared and contrasted, across nations, the concept of friendship and whom you call a friend. Our teacher, Janine (who was born and raised in Germany), explained to us the general German thoughts on friendship and how their views on the subject might be the reason why Germans are often labeled as cold or reserved by other cultures. She said Germans are not quick to speak first to a stranger. When we go to lectures at the university, we shouldn’t expect our neighbors to introduce themselves. When we pass others on the sidewalk, we probably won’t receive a smile or “Hallo!” Janine explained that this might be from the respect of one’s private sphere the Germans give to others, which is expected in return. We should not be offended by a stranger’s reluctance to have small talk with us because Germans have a clear line drawn between work and private life. School is for learning, the office is for working.

But Janine went on to explain the strength of a German friendship. She said that most Germans have about 4 or 5 people that they would call their Freund (friend) and these are strong relationships built to last. Germans are not quick to throw around the word “Freund.” It is reserved for the best of the best. It’s for relationships with deep roots that have been developing for years and have great value and trust. Other people that you know are described as acquaintances, colleagues, housemates, etc.

I think the concept of friendship is thought of differently in the US. I started to think about how often I use the term “friend” to describe people I only really know as an acquaintance. Back home, I find myself getting into conversations of forced pleasantries with people who I don’t even wish to talk to. But it feels like the polite thing to do. If I meet someone in class and spend the next semester sitting next to them making little conversations, it’s likely I will describe them in later conversation as “my friend from class” without really knowing any deeper, more personal information about each others’ lives. For Germans, there is no unspoken societal rule that you have to go out of your way to make small talk with every acquaintance you meet on the street.

That being said, it’s important to know that all lovely and close friends start out as acquaintances. And I think that goes across cultures. As you reach out to others in your host country, it might be intimidating the first couple of times you try to strike up a conversation with a new face. You can’t expect them to know your life story after a few hangouts, but with patience and care, you might be able to create a beautiful friendship. Being the new kid in town gives me so many chances to create new friendships and I am not going to let cultural generalizations and stereotypes keep me from trying.

I brought mini apple pies to share! I though it was a good representation of the American culture. (Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

I brought mini apple pies to share! I though it was a good representation of the American culture.
(Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

My class, 'Klasse 4', in front of the Bodensee which is known as Lake Constance in English. (Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

My class, ‘Klasse 4’, in front of the Bodensee which is known as Lake Constance in English.
(Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

The welcome board from our international dinner. Welcome written in many, many different languages. (Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

The welcome board from our international dinner. Welcome written in many, many different languages.
(Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

The entire group standing in front of the dishes they made for the international dinner. Everyone brought something from their country's culture. (Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

The entire group standing in front of the dishes they made for the international dinner. Everyone brought something from their country’s culture.
(Photo by Nathalie Gottwald)

Culture Shock at the Reccegasque

The view of the chandelier from my seat in the auditorium

The view above my seat in the auditorium

About once a day here, someone asks me “Do you find Sweden very different from the U.S.?” Until last Friday, I would have replied, “Not terribly, it’s not super different.” I’m from a country whose culture encompasses the easygoing Pacific Northwest, the hospitable South, the fast-paced East Coast, not to mention the vestiges of every family’s own ethnic background. I’ve always been around people whose worldviews and customs differed from my own. “American Culture”–and non-American cultures present in America– embody such a diversity of norms, attitudes and habits that I’m afraid I’m a bit jaded. It takes more than a foreign language to make me feel out of place.

On Friday, Sweden did it. When I least expected it, the feeling hit me: this place has its own history, these people have their own frame of understanding the world, their own rules of interaction of which I am not a part, and with which I am not familiar. The foreignness crystallized as I watched a penguin of a man in a tailcoat direct a procession of flag bearers and guests of honor into an ornate auditorium. A chamber ensemble played a plodding little song as these people in white gloves, with medals hanging from ribbon collars, stepped to the beat, up the aisle, across the front, to their seats.

The occasion was the formal welcoming ceremony for new students in Uppsala. At the beginning of every school year, the university’s student social organizations, called student nations, put on a traditional formal dinner for new students. The dinners, called gasques, take place in the nations’ respective nation houses and involve an elaborate meal interspersed with drinking songs and speeches. Think Hogwarts house-meets-wedding reception-meets-karaoke.

Before the welcoming gasque, or reccegasque as they’re called, new students march with their nation to the university main building for the welcoming ceremony. We were lined up two-by-two and directed into the auditorium. I took one step inside the opulent room and I felt that I was a foreigner there. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The gilded designs all over the ceiling and walls were distinctly Swedish: simple plant motifs mostly, but lined with gold and painted in rich reds, yellows, blues and greens, repeated in dense patterns. And yet, the floor was of simple wooden boards, unvarnished and unstained.

Detail from the auditorium ceiling

Detail from the auditorium ceiling

As I said, the ceremony itself began with the penguin man directing guests of honor to their seats to the music of the chamber ensemble. Then began a series of speeches by people whose position I wasn’t sure of, since introductions and speeches were given in Swedish. Since I couldn’t understand what was going on, I had a lot of time to think about what was happening in that auditorium and my place in it.

I think the formality of the occasion brought out the more concrete expressions of culture that I hadn’t been seeing in everyday student life. I’ve been to a thousand ceremonies in a hundred American auditoriums before, and this ceremony wasn’t wildly different from those. In fact, if it had been happening in English, and there were no flags or medals or blue and yellow sashes, it would have felt downright familiar.

But those differences were enough to make me realize that, though the ceremony could have been just like home, it wasn’t. And that’s what’s significant. If the people had dressed differently, talked differently, hadn’t marched in neat ceremonial lines– if they had been stripped of the expressions of the culture that shaped them– then they could have been giving a ceremony anywhere. But they were Swedish people, it was a Swedish ceremony, and I was an American kid just looking on.

And I was happy to finally feel out of place. I didn’t come here to feel at home.

I climbed a mountain today


Well, not exactly. I’ve never been good at rock climbing, and I wasn’t about to practice out in the Scottish wilderness with no safety harnesses and no cell phone reception. In reality, what I did today was more of a hill-walk than a mountain-climb, but it felt momentous nonetheless.

Sheep grazing on the way up to Dumyat summit.

Sheep grazing on the way up to Dumyat summit.

We reached the summit of Dumyat, which towers over Stirling at more than 1,300 feet, after nearly two hours of walking on a steep and often treacherous path (in hindsight, the path we chose may have been intended for sheep rather than people). We—myself and 17 other international students—embarked from my next-door neighbors’ common area at 10:30 in the morning. Some of us were more adept at hiking than others. I, for one, stayed toward the back of the group for almost the entire walk up. I thought about turning back more than once, but the promise of incredible views and a much easier path on the other side of the mountain kept me going (for what it’s worth, the way down was much easier—that is, the path we took down was actually meant for people).

I was also right about the views. At various different points during our walk up the hill, we could see most of the campus of the University of Stirling, the town and its surrounding area, the William Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle, and several different herds of sheep. In the distance in every direction sat other hills, some smaller than Dumyat, some far bigger. The wind at the top made it feel at least 20 degrees cooler than it actually was (I’m talking Fahrenheit here—I haven’t fully converted to the British way of measuring things quite yet), and the mist saturated the air without ever giving way to full-on rain. But despite all my belly-aching and breath-catching on the way up, the feeling of ecstatic accomplishment I had at the summit made all the suffering worth it.

At certain times, through the fog, we could just make out Alexander Court, where I and many of the other international students reside, at the edge of campus. I live in the last townhouse in the court with eight other guys: Vianney from France, Javi from Spain, Frederik from Denmark, two Germans, both named Till, Charlie from Kansas, Levi from Iowa, and Cameron from California. The nine girls who live in the townhouse next to ours are even more diverse in nationality. I’ve never met so many people for whom English is not their first language, which makes for a lot of fascinating conversation. I have also never met so many people in one place who are in such good shape. I guess Stirling tends to attract athletic types.

Which is not to say I am at all athletic. I have a lot of catching up to do if I want to spend the rest of the semester hiking and cavorting with all my new friends. But part of what drew me to Stirling is this idea of a more active lifestyle. I want to be in better shape, if nothing else than for the fact that a healthy body facilitates a healthy mind. My goal for this final year of college is to become more of a well-rounded person, and so far it seems as if the Stirling environment is extremely conducive to this end. Here’s to hoping I can make the rest of my time here as fulfilling and eventful as this first week has been.

On the Road: Part 2


In my last post, I detailed the first half of my adventures during my two-week roadtrip around the South Island over Midsemester Break. To briefly recap, four fellow exchange students and I made a giant loop around the South Island, looking something like this:


Our adventure began with a 5-day hike through Abel Tasman National Park, followed by some hitchhiking, and overnight stays in West Coast cities Greymouth and Frank Josef. Next, we continued down the West Coast on our way around the island.


Wanaka (pronounced “WA-na-ka”) is a lovely small town fueled mainly by tourism. We spent about a day and half here, meandering past sites like New Zealand’s famous Pancake Rocks on our way into town and getting to spend some time exploring civilization after almost a week in pure nature once we actually got to Wanaka. After seemingly endless amounts of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and granola bars on the trail, the grocery store was a welcome sight.

The next day, we contributed our share to the tourism-driven economy by kayaking on Lake Wanaka (the man we rented kayaks from was so refreshingly trusting, and let us keep the kayaks for a bit longer while he went off on a jetboat tour), and then headed off for a day hike to Rob Roy’s Glacier, a lovely “tramp,” as the Kiwis would call it.


To get to Rob Roy’s Glacier Track, we had to drive through nine of these fords — perhaps the reason we soon after got a flat tire?

The glacier!

The glacier!

Lake Wanaka by nightfall.

Lake Wanaka by nightfall.


After our hike, Beccs, McKenzie, Andrew, Cari, and I headed to Wanaka’s livelier cousin, Queenstown. A few weeks ago, I spent a weekend here coordinated by my External Program Provider, Arcadia University, so this time around I was free to explore Queenstown even further. Our Queenstown hostel was “heaps” of fun, with lots of social bunkmates and a young, vibrant atmosphere, and will always have a special place in my heart as the place where I was introduced to Hundreds and Thousands Biscuits, the tastiest cookies in the world and my new guilty pleasure in NZ.

Thanks Hostel Bunkmate Grace for the introduction!

Thanks Hostel Bunkmate Grace for the introduction!


Yep, Paradise is a real place, and it’s in New Zealand (although sometimes I’m convinced it IS New Zealand). A beautiful valley outside of Queenstown, Paradise is known as a Lord of the Rings filming location and for its spectacular views of the Remarkables mountain range that encircles Queenstown and Wanaka. Our road to Paradise felt more like the road to a less desirable mythical place as we battled a flat tire, swarms of flies, and our minivan’s lack of a tire iron, but our picnic in the valley was worth the shlep!

Picnic in Paradise!

Picnic in Paradise!

On our way back to Queenstown for a night on the town, we also experienced a true New Zealand phenomenon — a sheep crossing, in which traffic stopped for a good ten minutes to allow a herd of sheep to pass.

Who run the world? Sheep.

Who run the world? Sheep.

Milford Sound

After Queenstown, we headed to Milford Sound (which, as reiterated multiple times by our tour guide, is not actually a sound but a fjord, and is not really Milford Sound if it isn’t raining). There are a few ways to see Milford, and we opted for an early boat cruise (if you find yourself booking one of these cruises, the earliest times are the cheapest!).

Even got to see a whale (not pictured).

Even got to see a whale (not pictured).


Well-known as the home of the University of Otago and its famous couch-burnings, Dunedin is a college town at the bottom of the South Island’s East Coast. We crashed on a friend of mine’s couch (unburned) for a couple of days and got a chance to explore Dunedin itself and some cool day hikes (one of which involved wild seals!).


Otago has a much larger international student population than UC, and although I enjoyed my time in Dunedin, I missed UC and Christchurch, and for one of the first times they felt like home. A similar thing is happening to me with Philly — absence makes the heart grow fonder!


Our final stop before heading back to Christchurch was Tekapo, an area with the bluest lake I have ever laid eyes on and almost no light pollution that makes for incredible stargazing. Laying out in our sleeping bags under the stars was a perfect way to end the trip (and attempt to learn all the Southern Hemisphere constellations I never knew existed).


And so, after surviving the many mishaps of our trip and musing over life like the study abroad students we are, we headed back to home base. It felt great to really have a chance to get out into the natural beauty of NZ, and I have a further appreciation and comprehension of the lifestyle here after leaving my Christchurch/uni bubble. Also, driving through the single-lane, billboard-less highways of NZ, ignoring our GPS because there are approximately 3 roads, and taking in the untouched beauty around us was one of the most contemplative and serene experiences I’ve had here. This video does not do the varied landscape justice, but it’s a bit of a taste:

I think my Midsemester Break trip was just what I needed to make Christchurch and UC finally feel like home, and lately I’ve been in a very “I never want to leave NZ” mood. This trip was what most people see of New Zealand — rent a van for two weeks, roadtrip around, experience the landscape. I’m very happy I have the chance to explore New Zealand even deeper.



On the Road: Part 1


A few days ago, I returned to Christchurch (and an Internet connection — hello world!) after two weeks hiking and roadtripping New Zealand’s South Island. While my friends at Temple are just beginning classes for the year (and beating Penn State — wooo!), I’m busy trying to readjust to the daily grind after an adventuresome Midsemester Break (NZ Spring Break). Life in the first time zone is strange sometimes.

For fourteen days, four other exchange students — Becca, McKenzie, Andrew, and Cari — and I packed our backpacks into our rental minivan (lovingly named Dick VAN Dyke) and set off on our trip. In this post, I’ll detail the highlights (and the mishaps) of our Midsemester Break.

Abel Tasman National Park

Beccs, McKenzie, Andrew, Cari, and I spent the first five days of our trip hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. The Department of Conservation (which basically runs New Zealand) operates an incredibly comprehensive hut system throughout the Great Walks and other multi-day hikes. We stayed in four of these wood cabins, equipped with fireplaces, firewood, outside bathrooms, and foam mattresses on which to place a sleeping bag, over the course of our hike. It was such a refreshing experience to spend almost an entire week enveloped in New Zealand’s natural beauty, and to live simply with the other hikers we met in the huts, swapping card games and life stories and supplementing each other’s meager camp stove meals. Since it’s currently the off-season for hiking in NZ (aka winter) there were only about ten people hiking the track, and we became close as our paths continually crossed.

Beach one minute...

Beach one minute…


…rainforest the next.

Whariwharangi Hut, our fourth and final hut on the track. (Pronounced

Whariwharangi Hut, our fourth and final hut on the track. (Pronounced “Farifarangi” in Māori, the indigenous culture in NZ).

Will miss this place!

Will miss this place!


Yes, my mother knows about this, and she was surprisingly nonchalant about me hitching a ride with a stranger. Unlike most hiking trails in New Zealand, Abel Tasman does not loop around back to the carpark, but ends about two hours away from the original starting point. A popular option to get back to one’s car is to catch a water taxi across the bay from a point a few hours before the end of the track, but we figured we would save ourselves 50 NZD and take the opportunity to try our thumbs at hitchhiking. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, access to the main road required a 22 kilometer walk down a dirt farm path. Short of riding a cow down the path, we had no choice but to start walking.

Luckily, a nice older Kiwi couple took pity on us and gave Cari and me a ride to the nearest town, where we were able to hitch a ride with a traveling coffee-maker-fixer, who generously went out of his way to drop us off right beside our minivan. We drove back and picked up our friends, who wound up walking all the way to the town! Hitchhiking is quite common in New Zealand, especially for backpackers and other travelers, and I felt perfectly safe giving it a go with Cari.

Destination signs always help! Thank you Nick the traveling coffee-maker-fixer .

Destination signs always help! Thank you Nick the traveling coffee-maker-fixer.

Greymouth/Franz Josef

Next on our itinerary were quick stops in Greymouth and Franz Josef. In Greymouth, we stayed in a charming hostel called Noah’s Ark recommended to us by a lovely couple we met on the Abel Tasman (thanks, Roz and Axel!). Famous for its shipwrecks at the mouth of the Grey River, Greymouth is one of the larger cities on the South Island’s West Coast (which isn’t necessarily saying much).

GREYmouth is aptly named.

GREYmouth is aptly named.

Franz Josef is the main town for access to New Zealand’s two most famous glaciers. Unfortunately, access is currently restricted to one glacier due to the wonderful hole in the ozone layer over NZ, and that access is only gained through an expensive helicopter ride. As college students, we settled for enjoying our funky hostel and doing a short hike to view the glacier from afar.

Stay tuned for my next blog, in which I’ll detail the second half of our trip — Wanaka, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Dunedin, Tekapo, and back to Christchurch.

Sei locker! (Relax!)


It’s been hard to fully concentrate on making a proper blog post because my focus is going in every direction. I am thinking about what I must do tomorrow, this week, in these 11 months. This feeling has been with me since I first arrived in Germany, as I hauled about 60 or more pounds up and down elevators at the Frankfurt airport trying to find the train station.

My anxious, fluttering thoughts had some time to calm down for a brief moment. Upon finding the train station, I sat on my enormous luggage in triumph. I tried catching my breath while simultaneously gulping down mineral water (why do the Germans drink this to quench their thirst?! Not only does “gulping” create a burning sensation on my throat, but now I’m burping from the carbonation. How do they make it look so chic…). It suddenly hit me I had never bought a train ticket. This was a situation I had been planning on dealing with online during my flight…until I realized that Wi-Fi does not exist in the sky. So, reserving a spot on the train had been left to this very moment, out of breath and gulping carbonated water with 10 minutes to spare. A few minor Internet issues later and about a minute before departure, all was once again in order. Once on board, I found a free spot to sit down and stare out the window while we traveled south.

I arrived at the Tübingen Hauptbahnhof perfectly fine with luggage in tow. I got a taxi to the address where I would be staying all year, but when I arrived, I realized I had no way into the building or my room without a key. The student union building, where my key was meant to be picked up, was in the opposite direction and closing in about 20 minutes. I feared I might have to sleep in the streets that night. Many hours later, this glitch was somewhat sorted out, or at least enough that I was able to sleep in my very own room that night.

My advice to students coming to Tübingen, or travelers going anywhere really, is to always keep the complimentary comfort items your flight gives you! You never know when you might be without any sort of bed sheet on your first night in Germany and tossing around while the busy street below you roars continuously. A big shout out to Condor Airlines for the blanket, ear plugs, and an eye mask!

Throughout my next couple of days in Tübingen, I continued to create great little stresses for myself:  getting on the wrong bus, arriving at offices outside of business hours, forever and always being some kind of lost. I would panic. My heart would beat fast and I would think about how my immense, self-created to-do list would have to be set back once again.

But when I boarded that wrong bus, I got off at a street that somewhat resembled what was on my poorly, hand drawn map. I simply asked a man if he recognized the street I had written down. I was actually just minutes by foot from my destination.

And when I arrived at the university offices too late to register for my student ID, I just kept walking down the street. I found the bank at which I had wanted to open an account. The banking process turned out to be pretty easy and I was still able to check one item off my mental to-do list for the day despite my earlier disappointment.

And every single time I have gotten lost (which is most days), I have continued to walk in any direction that seems familiar. It doesn’t matter if I don’t reach my destination as easily as I had hoped. I enjoy the new walking route and the sights I am able to discover.

It is important to go into your exchange year or study abroad program without expecting too much of yourself. You will be tired, confused and probably embarrassed by how little you know the language of your country, especially when speaking to natives. You can give yourself time. I have to repeat this advice to myself just about daily. Before arriving in Germany, I had already been planning what I wanted to do and in what order I should do it. I was trying to be in control of my experience here. But after being a week here, I can see that such thinking only sets me up to be in a panic. Exchange life will keep you busy enough without you intervening with an agenda. Sei locker und mach dich keine Sorgen! (Just relax and don’t worry!)


The view from the Neckar Bridge. I walk along the bridge daily to get to my German course.


The city of Tübingen is spread out over steep hills. The old city is especially hard to navigate so some tiny alleys with steps are necessary.


Tübingen is the most colorful city I have ever visited! Many of the vibrant homes and buildings are decorated with flowers.

A Good Student

Statue of Erik Gustaf Geijer outside Uppsala University's main building

Statue of Erik Gustaf Geijer outside Uppsala University’s main building

My attitude toward academics has been consistent since I entered the American public school system in 4th grade. “I should get A’s,” was the thought. No one pushed this on me. I wasn’t punished for lower grades. I just didn’t see a reason not to do the work required to get an A if I was able to do so. The higher the grade, the better.

There are no A’s at Swedish universities. There is pass and fail and pass with distinction. Naturally, I see “pass” as “failure to pass with distinction,” but the general attitude seems to be that a passing grade is absolutely fine. Students are here to learn and develop skills and if they succeed at that, what more could they want? As satisfying as it is to get an A, I have to admit, it’s rarely a reflection of whether or not I’ve worked up to my full potential. It’s often an empty signification that I know what a professor wants to see, not that I’ve learned anything or pushed myself. There’s something to the Swedish way. I think it leads students to take responsibility for their own education.

The differences don’t end there. I’m taking a full course load here, three courses in a semester, one of which is worth twice the credits of a typical American course. One of my courses will end in late October, the other two continue to mid-December. Each meets just once or twice a week, which means I only have classes Monday to Wednesday. Though no one shows up to class in sweatpants here, the classroom atmosphere is very informal and personal. All of my professors have asked to be called by their first name. Discussion and collaboration are standard fare.

Moving from the hyper-competitive, time-intensive, employment-focused American higher education system to this one has been a welcome adjustment. At first I felt like a kickball gone flat; I didn’t know how to be a student without the pressure of the grades and constant papers and assignments and nonstop lectures of five courses at once. My whole understanding of what it means to be a “good student” was predicated on fulfilling as many externally imposed requirements in as little time and effort as possible. In the American system, I didn’t feel I had the time to give each course the attention it deserved when I had four others, plus extracurriculars, work, and a personal life competing for my limited energy.

I’ve only had two weeks of classes so far, but I think I’ll continue to appreciate the differences here. The Swedish system gives plenty of time to absorb course materials, and plenty of opportunities to investigate your own academic interests. One of the major reasons I chose to come to Uppsala was to study the relationships between economic development, quality of life, and environmental impact. My coursework in that area has been engaging, stimulating, yet not overbearing. I’m not just receiving information and taking tests; I’m learning how to navigate the sea of information related to my field, how to examine it critically and integrate it into my own perspective. There’s less hand-holding here, which can be challenging, but it’s remarkable how much more capable I feel with my hands free.