A change of habits.

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When I decided to study abroad, I knew and at same time didn’t know what was awaiting. I mean, I moved to the United States from Russia already; what may I not know about cultural adaptation and living in a new environment? As it turns out, I never fully paid attention to how much my values and living habits have changed in this year and a half spent in Philadelphia. Now that I am in Zagreb, this shift has happened once again – to help me realize how the place and the society we live in shapes and restructures us, to match itself. We might assume we foster the change, as if we are in power to choose – to adapt or not to adapt. But in reality, a change in the mindset is inevitable.

It starts with little things – like eating habits, for me at least – how can we not talk about food now?!

  • I go grocery shopping nearly 3 times a week (not only because our European fridge is tiny, I swear) – but also because that’s how a lot of people do it here. Stocking up on foods for weeks is not a common practice in Croatia, and all over the continent here. I go to markets for fresh fruits and vegetables, and honey, and meat – because there is just so many of them all around. I have also started to cook at home a lot more. For Croats (for Russians as well, and for many Europeans!) time spent cooking is never wasted. To help my reader understand how important it is – during my Croatian language class, we were learning the names of different eating places (cafe, restaurant, bistro etc.), and she said – I am going to quote her here – “Well what is the first thing that comes to mind? Kod kuće (Croatian – at home) of course!” It is difficult to find takeout food, so I have also developed a habit of taking a prepared lunch with me. Food trucks don’t exist, and looking for a bite may take hours, if you are not in the touristy area.

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    Dolac market – located in the central area, is the biggest and most famous market of Zagreb. It also happens to oh-so-conveniently be an 8 minute walk from my house!

  • I learned to enjoy walking again, walking to everywhere, just like I did some years ago in Saint Petersburg. Back in the States, it felt a bit weird to do that – because it is inconvenient to get to some parts of Philly if you’re on your own two feet, instead of your own four wheels. In Zagreb, the streets are created ideally for both cars and pedestrians to get through. Some even don’t allow car entry at all – especially in the city center. So if you want to go to a little bookstore down on Gajeva street, for example (the main pedestrian area) – forget about even trying to drive and park there. Some of my European exchange friends even walk to school every day – even if it takes them 30-40 minutes.

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    Cvjetni trg – a square, where cars are not allowed.

  • The amount of poems, novels I read greatly outweighs my business readings – and my visits to museums have outnumbered the business conferences and talks I’ve visited. I have mentioned already that Croats take time out to simply enjoy life, to do the things they truly like doing – even if it requires trading in some work time. I have always loved reading, but never had time to read and truly appreciate Tolstoy, V. Hugo, Nabokov, and other wonderful writers since I have started college. I have always felt myself under pressure, hearing this little voice in my head, “Read about economics, read about marketing and don’t forget the daily newspapers, or you’re not getting a job after!” Maybe it is European cultural charm that’s affecting me, the concentration of wisdom, history and culture that hides in every other building, statue, and rock in the pavement is indescribable.
  • I have learned to live in the moment. Of course thinking about the future (at least a week ahead) is still important for me, as I like to keep my schedule organized. But instead of sticking to a very tight one and writing out my plans for every minute of a day, I now choose to leave out some “breathing” space. For a spontaneous visit to the movies, a weekend trip somewhere, or a simple walk around a park. As someone very dear to my heart told me once,“Life is what happens to you, while you’re planning.” The best things always come when you least expect them, and being available and open for them is the key.
  • I don’t stress anymore, and I’ve never been on a deeper level of harmony with myself, and the world. This is something I’ve acquired not due to living in Croatia, a country of people who simply don’t worry. It is probably because I have changed my surroundings this many times – people who have studied abroad twice will understand. After a certain point, a sequence of difficulties you have been put through, smaller problems stop eating up your nerves as much. I know that if I didn’t get a job, or an opportunity to travel somewhere I really wanted to, a better opportunity is waiting for me right around the corner. This overall state, this understanding that the life doesn’t end after one failure, has helped a lot throughout my semester in Croatia; when you’re new to a place, things don’t usually go just like you want them to – and accepting it is the best, the healthiest way.

 

 

 

 

Student Future Day, Internship Hunt and Summer in Zagreb.

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As of right now, I have no clue what I am doing this summer yet, and oh man is that stressful. While my friends all around the world have their road trips written out day-to-day, secured internships and signed up for summer classes, I am still in search of my own lovely journey. But a bit of uncertainty here and there is okay sometimes, even for the most organized people on this planet. In addition, I don’t know a single successful person in history who would always be sure about their even nearest future – Mark Twain almost died on a duel even before writing Tom Sawyer. I’m not comparing myself to Mark Twain, but I think I’m good where I am.:)

My initial plan as the Christmas holidays had passed was to intern this summer somewhere else in Europe (not in Croatia). I’ve started researching options, but as in turns out (wow surprise!) – the probability of finding an internship without a) speaking the language and b) having some business contacts is almost equal to zero. I still had some options for top employment spots, around France and Germany, but decided to give a Croatian internship search a shot. Even before my arrival here (call me a weirdo) I already started to think about how difficult it would be to leave. Seriously, isn’t it harder to ‘live the experience,’ when you have your ticket back and a scheduled time of something else (like an internship, or a vacation) starting? For me at least it is – so I got a one-way air fare, and settled in for the idea of interning in Zagreb, or – worst case scenario – taking summer language courses. Honestly, either way, I would really love to stay here for at least a month once the program is over, and here are some reasons why.

Zagreb has a lot of amazing things happening this summer. Its tourist exposure is growing outrageously every year; earlier, people who visited Croatia would just fly into the country, skip its capital completely and head down to the coast. Now, however, more and more visitors are being drawn into the city – by its rich and complicated history, cozy streets and broad range of museums, exposition & concert halls, open-air events to choose from. For us, residents, tourists are actually doing a huge favor – I will disagree with all of my friends here, who say Zagreb has become “too touristy” – they are bringing the life back into town, forcing the tourist board to organize fun events all over the place. Among my favorite projects and things I am excited for the most:

  • Summer on Stross – Strossmartre. One of the main promenades in the upper town turns into a huge show – life music in the evenings, artists, entreatment, an open bar and even a cinema under the stars!

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    Stross last year. Such a lovely way to spend your evening!

  • InMusic Festival on Jarun lake – named as the best buy festival in Europe, because of its affordability and a cool line-up. It lasts for three days, and people from out of town come and sleep in tents right in the park near the lake! Luckily, I have an apartment here😀
  • Zagreb Time Machine – a series of events popping up at the major spots of interest, telling the old tale of the city. A kumica (a peasant woman) walking around the biggest market Dolac on Saturday morning, a folklore performance on the main square, changing of the guard in order to give honor to the past – and many more. They even have a schedule of what is going to appear, when and where, for the most curious visitors, who don’t want to miss anything:)
  • Red and Blue cycles of the Zagreb philharmonic – okay, for music nerds like me, this is a great series of concerts. I am excited for the opportunity to finally see Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall, where all the major classical music events happen – and also excited to see a Russian conductor on one of the concerts. #pride
  • Fantastic Zagreb Film Festival – open air festival of different genre films (thrillers, short films, fantasy), on a wonderful cinema-under-the-stars venue, Tuškanac, not far from the city center. One of the screenings for the festival will be organized on the mountain Medvednica – with a beautiful view over the city.

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    Sooooo excited for the film festival:) courtesy – Jutarnji list.

There is obviously a lot more things going on, I just mentioned several that are on my must-do list. In the meantime, my university (ZSEM) just held a Student Future Day, where we were able to talk to some local & global employers, participate in case studies and make some last-minute summer internship decisions (and get some – yes yes – free stuff!:) ). Fingers crossed for me being accepted by this advertising firm I really liked, and cheers to ZSEM for organizing an awesome career fair and bringing in some big players in the game!

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Student Future Day – photo courtesy liderpress.hr

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Yay for a bunch of stuff! There were also candies but we ate them, sorry😀

Oh, the Americans You’ll Meet Abroad

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Estadounidenses. Gringos. Extranjeros. Those guys in the Chacos and tie-dye over there.

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We met a nice German couple on the way up this tower!

Let’s just say that I do  not “blend in” here, with the exception of when I wear my “Monteverde Friends School” shirt (see: Paving the Way to Carbon Neutrality). My skin is too pale for having lived in the tropics for two months, and I too often forget to silence my “h” in “hola.” To be called a gringo is not a term of endearment or disdain; it is merely a fact. I am not a tico nor will I ever be a tico, but I am fine with that. What I must understand as a study abroad student is that I am here to immerse myself, not take on a new identity in less than three and a half months.

Inevitably, gringos tend to gravitate toward each other. This can be both beneficial and detrimental in foreign travels. I have seen myself converse with more strangers than my parents would probably be comfortable with, all for the sake of hearing their stories. Something I found in common throughout many of my conversations was that a semester abroad was the beginning of a lifelong adventure. Whether it was the young professional woman taking a solo-vacation throughout Costa Rica for a few weeks, who studied abroad in Vienna, or the temporary volunteer at the Monteverde Friends School, who spent a semester in Buenos Aires, there is some unspoken pride. There is a silent understanding of the trials and euphoric moments of throwing yourself abroad as a young person, and that time infecting the student with the travel bug.

This is not to exclude the local people who wish to share their story with any wandering traveler willing to listen. I recall the story of a man who lost his teeth and broke his leg bull-riding here in Monteverde. He migrated to the New Mexico, a state dear to my heart, in search of work, only to be deported back here after his visa expired. Now, he lives on the kindness of his brother and was thrilled just to have a listening ear. Or there is the story of the farmer who has gone shrimping in the river that runs through his property since he was child. Thanks to the drier dry seasons and wetter wet seasons, the river has dried up and the abiotic conditions have drastically shifted. The poor aquatic conditions are compounded by the local pollution of the river. For almost a decade now, the shrimp population has tumbled. Never would I have heard these stories if I did not go out of my way to make sure both myself and the storyteller have laid some empathetic relationship.

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When in doubt, talk about the weather or beautiful sunsets.

A good rule to follow abroad is to open your ears; obviously, there are some truly inspiring stories to listen to out there. The gringo identity is defined by those who come to Costa Rica and how they represent their country of origin, the North America, Western Europe, or similar regions. If foreigners respect the local culture, find camaraderie amongst each other, and open their ears to themselves and their hosts, not only will their journeys be richer, but they might also find some common ground in the oddest of circumstances.

 

To My Coffee Addicts

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You won’t find this nearby your local Starbucks. Nor will you find it for free at Dunkin’ Donuts after a rare Eagles win. It is the nascent coffee fruit at an organic coffee farm in the midst of the heavily deforested and agriculturally intense landscape in the Tilaran mountain range.

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See the coffee plants on the bottom mixed with banana trees.

Before embarking on our second field trip, our group has had the opportunity to visit a few more key learning spots around Monteverde. The most recent has been to an organic coffee farm owned by none other than Doña Hermida, a woman that truly exemplifies “girl power.” Left with five boys to care on her own decades ago, Doña Hermida resolved to buy some farmland with the help of her sons. And she has been caring for it, reaping the benefits of sustainable harvesting, and sharing her passion with all willing to listen. Her agroforestry model, though ideal, is not replicable everywhere, as coffee optimally grows at her farm’s present elevation along with various other crops from yucca to platanos (plaintains) to frijoles (beans).

First a little background on coffee in Costa Rica and, well, the tropics in general. The Costa Rican government years ago decided only to allow the planting of one species of coffee—Coffea arabica, an Ethiopian rainforest native. Now I am no coffee connoisseur, but “they” tell me this is the good stuff, the stuff that requires more TLC than the alternatives. I suppose this is why Costa Rica has such a high reputation for their coffee. It is also a shade plant, so it must have other vegetation to cover up its sensitive little leafs. Coffee is so needy that the steps from originally seed propagation to your favorite Temple University mug can take years to accomplish, unbeknownst to those as detached from food production as I.

As always, let’s get to the controversial part. Coffee is a luxury good, and I know the fanatics will not agree. In plain words, coffee is NOT a necessity. But countries like Costa Rica rely on selling it, and crops like bananas and pineapples, as commodity items to be traded on the global scale. This puts developing countries in a precarious position if the market dies off for a luxury good, particularly if they do not have suitable land to produce necessary staple crops like wheat, rice, and pulses. Then concepts like Fair Trade initiatives and organic certifications begin to offer some safety net for those developing croppers willing to commit the time and effort toward these cooperative efforts.

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Before we get our brown, roasted coffee beans

The case of Doña Hermida was unique. Monteverde is a huge tourist town with a largely specialized extranjero (foreigner) market. Many extranjeros come to Monteverde for adventure, others for eco-tourism, and then even more for rural tourism. These tourists may be even more enticed to find some organic locally-grown coffee to bring back as a souvenir. She saw an unfilled niche and took advantage of it. Now she has vertically integrated her business to include the arduous steps from seed propagation to retail at her son’s hotel. That is farm-to-your-TU-coffee-mug right there. Plus, she has done it without any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

There is so much more to be said about this topic—food security, fair trade between consumers and farmers, simple knowledge of your K-Cup coffee grinds’ origins—that cannot be addressed in a single blog post. If it means anything to be more conscious about what we eat and acknowledge those awesome farmer-entrepreneurs like Doña Hermida, then it is worth it to write and tell stories like this.

8 reasons why you should study abroad, and shattering some myths.

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Studying abroad is a life changing experience, something I personally would have never traded for anything else in my college career. Of course all of us have priorities set differently. But there are things which only look good on your resume, and those which, above all other benefits, contribute to personal growth and develop you as an individual. Studying abroad pushes you to deal with problems and do things you otherwise would have never done, thus inevitably making you more mature and well-rounded. It is exciting, but at the same time a bit frightening – going alone and living on the other side of the globe for half a year or more. As I went on and committed to my decision to study abroad, some of my classmates were giving me a thousand and one reasons why they could never go for this long, although they’d love to. The reasons I’ve received were a plenty and various: money matters, can’t leave a boyfriend/girlfriend, positions in student organizations, need to do an internship this semester or the world will turn around. Thus, I have decided to comprise my own and very personal list of reasons why you should study abroad, and not let anything drag you down.

  1. Your geography skills improve tremendously. You heard me. I’m not saying they’re not good already, but flying thousands of miles somehow naturally makes you memorize the allocation of countries and rivers on the map. No intense studying for hours in your room will do better than simply leaving it, your town, your state and country to go explore someplace else.
  2. You get a unique chance to familiarize yourself with a culture, so different and foreign to your native. Depending on where you go, people might have dinner at a time you normally go to bed, or pray 5 times a day – and this will inevitably shock you. But there is nothing quite more fascinating than seeing how humans, seemingly the same kind, can act and behave differently in different parts of the world. At first certain actions might seem bizarre, but after over time, you learn how to justify and accept them.

    My shock were the heavy meals Croats eat… Meat & potatoes are everything.

  3. Friends from all over the world & lifelong friendships. While studying abroad, you not only make friends with the local people, but every so often with the whole international community present at your study abroad destination. It might be others from the program (in my case – it is a bunch or Erasmus students from all around Europe); it might be expats or students on exchange in the neighboring colleges. What a better way to travel without money, than doing it vicariously through other people who come from abroad?
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    I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing people from all around the world while here – and I feel ashamed that I’ve only talked about Croatians up until now.

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  1. Learning more about yourself. Being in a new environment results in a shift of values, and shapes the way you think. But only through a series of such changes in your behavior, through the moments of difficulty (for example finding your way in a foreign city when you get lost) do you find the true, real you.
  2. You gain independence & grow. It is kind of tailored to my previous point. When you are outside of your comfort zone, have to make friends with new people, speak the language you barely understand yet, and make serious decisions regarding the rent, your budget, in-country registration and medical aid… You grow up very, very fast. It is probably the hardest thing about living abroad – suddenly coping with all that responsibility. But once you do, you become a different person, undefeatable by possible unpleasant life surprises.
  3. It is cheaper than you think (might actually save money). “I’d love to study abroad, but it is so expensive!” – I hear from my friends back in the States every so often. Of course it is, if you’re only considering the big players in Western Europe, such as France or England. The world is so much bigger (Latin America? Eastern Europe? India? Asia?), and there is an option for every budget. In Croatia, I am actually saving a lot of money, as the tuition here is 3 times less expensive, plus the living standard is lower – so rent is pretty cheap too. Having an open mind while choosing your program destination is the key. Also, a hint for Temple owls on a partial merit stipend – you will most likely receive it for your study abroad (at least that was the way it worked out for me).
  4. Living in a foreign country is different than simply traveling. Because when you are a tourist, you don’t experience the location in the same way as the people who live there. You don’t go grocery shopping, you’re mostly exposed to the touristy rather than residential areas and local hangouts. Finally, you don’t see the city change as the seasons, holidays and important events come and go. Only by living somewhere is it possible to truly feel the place, and let it stay in your heart forever.

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    Strolling around & having coffee at lake Jarun on a gorgeous sunny day – I would have never had time to discover this place, was I in Zagreb for only a short touristy visit!

  5. Become a global citizen. Living and studying in a foreign country opens up new horizons. Seriously – through my two relocations (Russia-USA, USA-Croatia), I’ve learned so much about the world around me, have earned professional contacts in all three, and moreover – pursuing an international career and moving yet one more time doesn’t sound as terrifying anymore. I’ve become flexible and adapt easily to new environments. Even if you are not considering working abroad later, getting an international experience in the form of studying abroad is crucial to your future professional success – there is barely any business nowadays that doesn’t work/wouldn’t like to start operating globally.

     

    I’ve lived in 5 apartments in 2 years and I’m loving it!

The fear of loosing time + my university.

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The spring has sprung, and finally reached Zagreb! It is indescribably beautiful all around (as if it wasn’t already even in the cold season), with all the flowers blooming, birds signing, and people smiling under the warm April sun. The spring is finally not only on the calendar – but can be easily felt and seen around the city. April also marks me being halfway into my program, which is absolutely insane to think about. I remember the long, cold days in the last month of Temple semester, and how I was counting down until the day to finally fly over back to Europe.

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So beautifully blossoming:) Photo credits – a wonderful photographer and my dear friend, Alvin Poon.

Before even arriving, I had this insane strategic plan in my mind, a set of bulletpoints, which was not as easy to follow. But hey, I thought, I am a smartie and can get it all done, right? All I need is time management. Wrong. Among many other things, I had ‘to meet x amount of Croatian people’, ‘to get my language to the y level’, ‘to read these books’ and ‘to schedule z amount of interviews’ (yes, I was hoping to get a summer internship here – and going to this goal slowly but steadily). I was so scared of wasting a single minute of my time here. Knowing the exact start and end date of the program, and especially seeing the graph ‘valid until’ on my Croatian id card, has been making it extremely difficult to go with the flow. I think almost everyone who chooses to study abroad experiences this ‘lack of time’ phenomena, this little bug sitting in your head. Let me tell you – this bug causes nothing but problems. I learned from my mistakes now, but at the beginning I missed out on a lot of things due to keeping to this silly schedule. A small advice to everyone who is studying abroad or is going soon – don’t be scared, and don’t be so strict with yourself while abroad – especially if half of the plan involves not only yourself, but other people’s actions. As I have already learned, spontaneous decisions often come out to be the best ones. While it is important to go to class, do your homework while studying abroad and making an effort to learn more about the country – punishing yourself for spending time on something off the list is not gong to make anyone happy.

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This is what a Croatian id looks like! For the citizens, the colors are a little more saturated, and obviously the type of permit is permanent stay instead of temporary, like in my case. (Privremeni boravak). I am still so proud yo have it – it makes me feel like a real resident in Zagreb now.

Now that it’s been two months, I am finally starting to get adjusted to my new campus and the university system here. ZSEM (for those, who missed my previous posts – that’s my university) is located on a beautiful hill, in a calm, residential area of Zagreb. The campus is comprised of only 4 buildings, in-between which a beautiful flower assembly is set up. Because it is a private college, all of our classes are small, with around 25 people in them. Professors at ZSEM are extremely approachable and knowledgable, just like the ones I’ve had back in the States. I was warned by other Temple students who’ve previously studied abroad in Europe, that the strict line, a barrier between a student and a professor, is easily felt – maybe ZSEM is an exception, but it was not this way for me at all. We also use blackboard over here – so huge yay for that.

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Tiny campus:) Credits – vecernji list (literally translated as ‘evening list’, one of the famous Zagreb newspapers).

In Croatia, and in European universities in general, the way of studying is more lecture-exam type of thing. We barely get homeworks, but still have important group projects. Again, that is because my school is looking up to American schools – you don’t even have projects in other colleges in Croatia, only exams. Exams are, in turn, usually very theory-based and cover a bigger amount of material as compared to most U.S. colleges. You can also be easily required to take an oral exam, sometimes as part of the whole class, sometimes one-on-one with the professor.

At ZSEM, most upper-level classes last 3 hours, and are only held once a week. It was also quite a difficult thing to get used to after Temple, as for me it is more comfortable to spread out the class load throughout the week, as opposed to getting all the information regarding the subject at once. On the other hand, it allows for a more flexible schedule – and leaves an opportunity to only have classes 2 or 3 times a week. For me, studying this way has been beneficial so far – as I get to volunteer more than I would have otherwise, and also have a possibility to make extended weekend trips.

The last thing I would like to mention only affects domestic students, not foreign exchanges or study abroad ones like myself. The final exam period is spread out throughout the whole month of June; for some people it even transfers over to the first days of July – instead of a week and a half in the United States. Thankfully, it will not be this way for me, as the university does not expect us to stay in Zagreb this long.

All in all, the quality of education is identically the same; the only difference is what the instructors want us to focus on here and there, over the ocean. Which one would I prefer? Several months ago, I would’ve said with no hesitance – the United States one, something I am already used to. But now I don’t know anymore, neither do I know how in the world will I adapt back to the way classes are at Temple.

 

 

Paving the Way toward Carbon Neutrality

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Somewhere along the line of my academic career, a passion grew for interdisciplinary study, one that combines my lifelong fascination for maps, my love-hate relationship for hard science, and my gravitation toward languages. Combine these three, and it amounts to my CIEE internship with the Quaker-run Monteverde Friends School, La Escuela de los Amigos.

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Presenting to the Carbon Neutrality Committee

It began with the simple idea to study how students arrive and leave school. The Monteverde Friends School is currently becoming carbon neutral and has established a Carbon Neutrality Committee to address both indirect and direct carbon emissions. In fact, their largest source of greenhouse gases is transportation sector. Nevertheless, this is indirect as the school has no control over how students travel to school. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of this project for the school, which has no form of mass, organized transportation. From the money used to personally drive students to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted on these trips, it is extremely costly to keep this system sustainably.

So my fellow intern, Leah, my supervisor and MFS parent, Marcela, and I set out to survey parents about how their children travel, and somewhat to our surprise, the response from parents and staff to our questions was overwhelmingly positive. We gleaned information about daily or bi-daily trips to school, specific types of personal vehicles they drove, and how they envisioned school transportation in the future. Yet, it turned out that data collection was not going to be the most arduous step; data analysis definitely took top place. Thanks to Leah’s tremendous calculations on how various car models consume fuel and emit gas, we were able to clearly see the magnitude of MFS’s transportation emissions via graphs and maps.

And the process of creating the maps for me, from designing the survey to presenting the final product to the committee was a fantastic learning experience. Using QGIS and ArcGIS, writing a survey to serve a bilingual community, and working with a peer and a supervisor to accomplish this has led to a productive and informative internship month. The greatest accomplishment was the tree offset map, which took the combined effort of Leah, Marcela, my academic advisor Hector, and me. It told the story in relative terms of how many trees would need to be planted per household to mitigate the school’s transportation emissions. It accounted for tree mortality rates, distances traveled from the school, and gas emissions adjusted by kilometers per liter. It was a map inspired by interdisciplinary research coming from all areas of academia and real-world applications.

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Three weeks later…the final product

The MFS has a mission to lay the academic foundation “necessary to contribute to a peaceful and just society.” This statement goes beyond the classroom for them while they address how to leave a more environmentally just world for future generations. This internship has offered fundamental knowledge for MFS to pave the road toward carbon neutrality. With this information, we hope they will finalize a solution that will not only save families money, but also drastically cut their daily greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a Family Affair

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I suppose I have gotten my fill of everything I expected in Costa Rica—the palm trees misshapen from the unceasing wind on mountaintops, the pastel sunsets that wrap up the warmth of a day in Monteverde, the songs of endemic bird species mixed with the mooing of my family’s calves. Then, there is the clamoring of roosters at three o’clock in the morning and the four and a half hour Sábado Santo Vigil Mass and a corn tamale with beans constituting my dessert at the end of a long field trip. While some experiences are not limited to Costa Rica or even Central America, they are what has defined my memories studying abroad thus far.

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After the river, my classmate and I visited our shared host grandmom.

As I have written before, I do not think for one minute that this semester would be as rico if it were not for my host family and our shared adventures. From the second day with my family, I knew it would be an adventurous four months. For the entire day, my host dad, brother, a fellow classmate’s family, and I went to a town about 45 minutes away to swim in the local river and visit extended. The day was filled with language barriers, good laughs with my host abuela (grandmother), and a refreshing swim in the river. Yet it would not have been complete if I did not have the bug bites all over my legs and arms.

 

I have attended Holy Saturday Mass back in the States and knew that it is notoriously lengthy. But nothing could prepare me for the event to come, especially as my host dad is the lead cantor in the music ministry. The music was lively, the congregation was engaged, and the combination of these two maintained my interest as Mass continued into the late hours of the night. It was incredible to see my host dad’s family and friends come together for this holiday that they take so seriously. Plus, Semana Santa is the time for miel de chiverre and jugo de caña, the tastiest of sweets.

 

Then, there was the time we went shrimp “fishing.” I returned home from class for no more than fifteen minutes when I get word that we are leaving for Guacimal, a town about 30-45 minutes away, depending if you are clambering down or summiting the mountain. Following that, it is impossible to describe. We strapped on our waders and walked down the valley near my family’s grandfather’s farm. The shrimp have this special habit of avoiding light. This meant we could not go in the daylight nor when the moon shone brightly. Even worse, our flashlights were only for walking on solid ground. Placing the light in the water inadvertently scared away the shrimp. And then the rest was history: we hiked up the rocky riverbed, looking for and collecting shrimp along the way. We were out adventuring in the dark for more than five hours.

 

Eating the shrimp the next day brought a great pride to have found and collected your sustenance. And I learned the struggles when the yield is low and how climate change has polarized the dry and wet season. And with all of these experiences I stepped closer toward appreciating the true tico culture. This cultural understanding is not the next bullet point on my résumé or simply a fascinating story to tell around the Thanksgiving dinner table. It is the formation of my worldview, identifying the differences and similarities between others’ cultures and my own.

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Time to make some sugar at our farm!

Bloody Balkans – or shedding light on Croatia’s history.

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Coming to a foreign country, I always feel obligated to learn at least a bit about its history. Regardless of whether I’m staying for two days or two months, it is impossible to fully understand and appreciate the place and its people without knowing about their past.

With Croatia, though, I went all in because I was genuinely interested. As there is no separate class on the history of Balkan countries at Temple, I had to do a great deal of independent research on the matter. Wikipedia, tons of websites, library books, journal articles, novels – I read everything I could find, a year before going into my study abroad. Here, I will try to summarize the main points in 500 words, and answer questions, such as why people in this region are always fighting, and whether it is dangerous to travel around the former Yugoslav republics (“But there was war!,” so many people would say to me).

Originally, the lands of modern day Croatia were occupied by the Roman Empire, until “barbarians” from the north – Slavic people – came in the 7th century AD and settled down in the continental part, as well as along the coast. Other modern-day nations were formed by descendants of Slavic tribes who went into other directions, and today are known as Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Slovene, Bulgarians, Macedonians, and the ethnically closest to Croats – Serbians and Bosnians.

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After Croats came and settled on this land, they were dependent on the Romans, and later became independent. This independence lasted for a couple centuries, until Croats formed a union with the Kingdom of Hungary, later Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so on and so forth. Their brother nations – Serbia and Bosnia – were taken over and ruled by the Turks. In the present time, it is easy to see how different but at the same time similar the nations are – different, because some were influenced by Austria-Hungary, and the others by the Ottoman Empire. Similar, because all are  brother Slavic nations, no matter how hard modern nationalists try to deny the fact.

This way, Croatia hasn’t been independent for almost its entire time of existence, except for a short period of time in the Second World War. Then, the Independent State of Croatia was formed, cooperating with and endorsed by the Nazi Germany. These were dark, terrifying times for the country as a whole, and for neighboring Serbia – Serbs were massively arrested and murdered, along with Jewish people and gypsies.

Many of you might have heard about Yugoslavia and its tragic destiny. Not a lot of people know, however, that there has been two Yugoslavias – one before the WW2 (Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and the second one after (the socialist state). The Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was formed right after the war – 1945, and was compared of 6 republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. With Josip Broz Tito, the country’s leader, republics were cooperating and aiding each other with production, agriculture, education, etc. Yugoslavia has only been in close relationship with its big communist brother, the Soviet Union, for several years after the war. Joseph Stalin was a bit too radical, and their ideologies and views were colliding with Tito’s. Therefore, Yugoslavia took a winning position between the West and the East, both geographically and politically. This was especially beneficial, for both the country’s leaders and the citizens, who were allowed to freely travel and move in and out of the country.

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Countries that were a part of Yugoslavia on the map, with capital cities marked as well.

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A house in the

Tito was the only common ground, the only ‘national hero’, who united the republics. After his death in 1980, things started to go downhill, until the 1990s – when republics, one after another, declared independence from at that moment the ruling one – Serbia. This declaration of independence resulted in a horrifying conflict, known as the second bloodiest European war in the 20th century, after WW2. Brother went after brother, neighbors in formerly good relationships would not talk to each other, because one was a Serb and another a Slovene. The pain and losses the countries had to suffer in this incident can still be felt, even in Zagreb – I pass by buildings with marks from bullets on them. Bosnia suffered most of all though, as a country in between the two main rivals – Serbia and Croatia.

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A house  in the center city part, Sarajevo, Bosnia.

It has been 20 years since the war ended. Not too long ago, not too little either. Croatia has joined NATO and the EU, together with Slovenia. It is due to enter Schengen zone this year. Other republics have not joined the European Union, each due to different reasons. Traveling wise though, one is perfectly safe doing a Balkan journey, at any time of the year. The dangerous times are long gone – and I wouldn’t say I have ever felt unsafe anywhere around here. Not a tiny millimeter less safe than in, say, Poland nowadays.

Because the Balkan countries have so much common history – I am not even talking about origins – I think it is absolutely necessary to study all, in order to understand one. That is why my main goal while here is not only to explore Croatia, but to visit all 6 former Yugoslav republics.

Homesickness Is Not Taboo

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Sitting at pre-departure orientation last December, I remember thinking how boring it was to listen to some strangers talk about how I am going to feel when the “study abroad fascination bubble pops.” I remember thinking how relative it was to each person, when they felt homesick (no, it is not taboo to mention it) or when they felt lonely or when they felt like they hit a wall with the language and culture around them. I remember thinking how silly it was to sit months in advance talking about emotions not even guaranteed to arrive.

About a week ago, I received some bad news from home. My grandmom fell ill and soon passed away, thousands of miles away. The first decision, a very personal one, was whether or not to come home. I decided to stay, and I do not regret it after consulting my family and friends. I thought of how proud my grandmother was to see me go abroad, realize my independence, and learn to make a difference. And though it never is easy, somehow it becomes easier to accept tragedy abroad.

At the beginning of the semester, I wrote about not allowing things beyond my control to stop this adventure. I decided to approach this semester with open eyes ready to see a more colorful world, with open ears ready to hear vibrant stories of triumph, failure, and rich experience. But at some point in the past week, my eyes and ears began to close to the beauty surrounding me. My first adopted language became a chore and temperamental weather metamorphosed into a daily nuisance. I grew weary of rice and beans, and I think that I had a dream of a Wawa hoagie and free Rita’s Water Ice on the first day of spring.

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There is always time for a walk in the Cloud Forest.

Sometimes I could not communicate to my host family how tired I was, and I began to count days.

And that is where I went wrong and I forgot what mattered most. I forgot that nothing was going to change or improve if I did not communicate how I felt. In another language or with people you recently met, it is just not as simple as calling up my parents. But my parents are not here, nor are my Temple friends, nor are the study abroad staff who rightfully warned us about these inevitable feelings. For as lucky as I am to have access to all of these people via the Internet, it is not the same as communicating how you feel personally.

I have learned already from these hard lessons. Once I opened myself up to my host family, they understood and looked out for me. When I talked to my new friends about how I felt, I realized many of them shared my thoughts about living abroad. I began to make deeper connections and grew more comfortable. Yet these were all events I heard about in that pre-departure meeting, that now I am glad I attended.

 

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Life lives all around here.

So to anyone thinking about studying abroad, that is abroad, or is committed to go abroad, do not shy away from these feelings of homesickness, fatigue, or cultural inundation; they are normal, and the only way to resolve them is expression. I have felt the love of this country, of my home friends and family, and of this program as we move past the midpoint of our stay, and I look forward to the adventures and challenges ahead.