Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Beginning of the research life in Limpopo

Today was our first real day in the field! I am working with Geoff, a chemical engineering student from UC-Berkeley, some students from the local university - University of Venda, and Nicola, our advisor who just completed her post-doc at the University of Virginia. We squished in Nicola’s little Hyundai and headed off to the school, which is about an hour’s drive away. On our drive, we began getting to know the local students and the culture of our surrounding area. Limpopo, a province in Northern South Africa, experiences a wide assortment of socioeconomic issues. Not taking into account economics and resources, just the unique cultural situation of black South Africans, white South Africans, and foreigners, living in the same place creates this hub for non-profit action; everyone wants to “help.” In just a couple days, I have seen or heard of work done by famous organizations, such Rotary International, World Vision, Salvation Army, and Oprah. While I do not know enough yet to make any formal opinions on these organizations and their work, I can already sense that there is some controversy and tension revolved around the need and want of their projects here. How much is implementing a fish pond really helping, if the culture of the local diet does not include fish? While the purpose of this trip is research for the Water and Health in Limpopo project, just my presence here, has me continuing to question the role and purpose of foreigners’ presence in local communities, especially in less-developed countries. Obviously, there is a major cross-cultural exchange and other benefits that result from people visiting and working in other countries, but I am finding it more and more necessary to continually evaluate the meaning and place of work in the “less-privileged places.”

Ok, back to the research! Limpopo Province is absolutely beautiful, and when we arrived at our research site, a primary school, to no surprise there was a stunning view of the nearby mountains! After re-confirming permission of the project with the principal, we met all of the teachers and students. They greeted us in each classroom with a synchronized, “I’m fine, thank you, and how are you?” Very adorable! Compared to the school in Kinani, Kenya, from last summer, it is very modern, but there are some clear areas for improvement. Without going into specifics, we are conducting an analysis on sanitation facilities in schools and how modifications in resources and education affect behavior over the next seven weeks. Overall, it was a very successful first day, gaining base line data and being introduced to the school. And one thing that never seems to change is that girls love to go to the bathroom in groups. ;)

All before 5 PM (when the sunsets - it's wintertime!), we also visited the tailor, bought water at the oasis, ate lunch at a bird sanctuary and nursery, and purchased avocados at the fruit market! It is easy to say that I am enjoying the research life in South Africa!

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Unfortunate Part of Study Abroad - Dealing with Death across the Miles

For a 21-year-old, I have had more than my share of experiences with the end of life. One could say that my early childhood may have been filled with more funerals and visitations than play dates. While these are certainly not the most fun events to attend, over the years, they have taught me many lessons about the preciousness of life and how we must really make the most of our time here. Fortunately, it has also given me many strategies on how to grieve and how to support others who are grieving. Something that at this age, most (somewhat luckily, somewhat unluckily) have not yet had to develop well in their repertoire of skills.

In my quest to fulfill my dreams the last several years, the miles have meant that I have had to sadly miss out on countless events like birthdays, family gatherings, weddings, and so on, but nothing has been as hard as not being able to be there for funerals. And I'm not writing this for people to feel sorry for me, but for my family and friends to realize that when thousands of miles separate me, it is not rainbows and butterflies all of the time. Many people, even some of my closest friends, do not know that each time that I have been abroad, I have dealt with the death of a loved one(s). Even with all of the "practice," each one is still difficult in its own way. Faith in our Lord that everything happens for a reason is what pushes me through to the next day. With time, the pain slowly fades, the feeling of aliveness returns, and the memories always live on.

A major aspect of being abroad is being placed outside of your comfort zone and having to figure it out on your own. While most of the time this is a welcoming challenge, the grieving process is far from that. Death is not something that is openly free and comfortable for many, myself included, to talk about even with close friends and family in person. Most frequently, my grieving process involves maintaining a strong composure, unless it is with the right person at the right time where I feel comfortable enough to let those feelings free. Therefore, it is especially difficult when a death happens and I am in a different language, time zone, and culture, where I am away from my support network, the people who truly know me and the others who are mourning the same loss. While abroad, there is no one there to bake you cookies, no one to give a shoulder to cry on, and no one to share the memories with. Unfortunately, this is something that I have become all too familiar with in my recent travel experiences.

Since the losses that I have experienced while abroad are something that I have hardly discussed, I would like to take this moment to describe what happened in three of them and to honor and remember their impact.

In 2012, I left for my first time abroad knowing that it was likely that my last-living grandparent would not be alive when I returned. In honor of my grandma's spirit for seeing the world, whether it was on TV, in a magazine, or in person, I knew that I still had to go. Over the course of my childhood, she told me many times of the day that she saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris; how it was one of the best days of her life. I can still hear her voice saying, "Now, wasn't that something!" Since I was a little girl, I had dreamed of seeing that icon myself, maybe grandma had given me some of that dream. Just three weeks before my grandma's passing, I had that magic moment myself as my head turned and saw the Eiffel Tower steal the skyline. With a smile for ear to ear, I could not help but thinking of my grandma in that moment. Not too long afterwards, I began receiving emails from home that grandma was indeed entering her final earthly days. Making it until past August 8, my return date, was not going to happen. I was teaching English in China at the time, and in the midst of knowing that my grandma was dying, I had to continue as if nothing were wrong on the outside, planning lessons, teaching, attending meetings, and playing with the kids. I received the email that grandma was in heaven now from my pastor, 45 minutes before having to report for a full teaching day. There was no time off, sympathies given, and so on. I am grateful for my roommate, Ashley, who lent me her computer for communication with my family and did her best to provide support in the midst of our busy schedules. Luckily in between lesson planning, on a very bad connection, I was able to Skype into my grandma's funeral, but it still was not nearly the same as being there in person. Because of the circumstances with the lack of ability to grieve in China and missing out on the end-of-life celebrations, I do not feel that I ever grieved my grandmother's passing. It is sadly like a blur of something that never truly happened; I wish that I would have been given the opportunity to fully celebrate this special woman's life.

Then, last summer in Kenya, I lost my dear Aunt Inger, always a third grandma to me. As a woman who brought 70+ family members and counting into this world, Inger has touched my heart and hundreds of others. My childhood is filled with memories of family gatherings, homemade bread, and outings with my grandparents and Aunt Inger. Like my grandma's passing, I knew before I boarded my plane to East Africa, that the nights I spent with her in the nursing home would be my last. Just three weeks later, the inevitable 6 AM text arrived as I was tying my shoes in my mud hut in rural Kenya. Once again, I had a full day ahead of me with organizing and leading meetings, and there was no time or place for grieving. With my colleagues that I had barely known for two weeks and only a couple of texts from home through my old-school Nokia phone, it was a major internal struggle to not be able to be with my family to mourn the life of one of our treasured family matriarchs. A couple of days later, we had our first weekend excursion. There I was stuck in a beachfront mansion on the Indian Ocean with a house full of my colleagues drinking, blasting music, watching the water glow, having the time of their lives. What was I doing? Sitting in my room alone, listening to the external laughter and shouting, with tears down my face as I looked at my watch, and I knew that at that very moment, my family from all across the country was gathered to celebrate the life of a woman who holds a very dear place in all of our hearts. It was the funeral that I had said my entire life I would attend no matter what the circumstances were, but on a program, 10,000 miles away in rural coastal Kenya, I could not be there. I am eternally grateful for two family members, Helen and Dylan, who created a video to keep the memories alive of Aunt Inger alive. With the help of technology, I keep her voice and the photos of the family on my iPhone through this video. No matter where I go, my family is always with me.

When I returned from my travels a week ago, my Facebook newsfeed was filled with what no one ever wants to see, a death. A death of not anyone, but of a fellow Falcon and Panther. One of us, the Class of 2011, and the soon to be Class of 2015. For those who are not aware, Kellie, a high school and college classmate, joined the angels just one week short of finishing her semester at UNI. While I was never close with Kellie, I always viewed her as a girl full of school spirit, competitiveness, and laughter. If she was not on the playing field herself, she was in the front row of the student section cheering on our team at the top of her lungs. There was never a dull moment with Kellie around. As our class clown, Kellie had a defining personality in the Class of 2011. The loss of a young woman so filled with life threw hundreds of us a curveball. Even though we were never friends, I would be lying if I did not say that Kellie's passing hit me like a tidal wave last week. While I recognize that grieving each death is different, this one was unlike any one that I had ever been through before. From thousands of miles away, it felt so real and brought an incredible amount of tears again and again and again. A close friend, Hailey, who has unfortunately been touched by death too closely so young, has a special knack why such strong emotions were brought out in so many of us. I have watched over the last week on Facebook, the dozens and dozens of statuses that celebrate the memories of the 21 crazy years that the world had with Kellie. Despite the emotion trials of the last week, I have been finding reminders of Kellie's spirit around me, especially at this dune this weekend. A piece of her lives on in each of us.

A group of friends chasing each other down the Dune du Pilat in the rain.

After a face full of sand, the friends picked themselves and with lots of laughter continued their journey.

All in all, I wish that life, especially while miles away, would not have to endure the grieving process. Each time is never easy, but each time makes me stronger. Dying is the unfortunate part of life, but we cannot stop living in fear of ourselves or others around us dying, as there is a better life awaiting us on the other side. Henrietta, Inger, and Kellie, I wish that I could have been there to say good-bye, but I will see you again someday! Thanks for the impact that you had on hundreds of lives in your time on Earth.


P.S. - See a sad face? Don't be afraid to stop a person, stranger or not, and genuinely ask them how they are doing. You never know what is hiding behind their facial expressions - the loss of a friend, of a job, of a pet. Sometimes a simple, "How are you doing?" text, call, visit, is all that is needed to show that you care and can make all of the difference in the world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lessons from class in France

Study abroad is much more than going to class, but it is an important component. Here's a little bit about what my school life is like and what I have learned from it.

I attend the CLA (Centre de linguistique appliquée), which is a sector of the Université de Franche-Comté. For those who are familiar with UNI, this is similar to the CIEP program, but for French, of course! Our classrooms are in a building near the city center, not at the actual campus. All of us are international students learning French, which is cool, because you can make friends from all over the world! However, it is also unfortunate, because we do not interact with other French students. I am very lucky that I live with an awesome host family, otherwise I could have easily spent an entire semester in France and not known anyone French very well!

Each week, I have four classes: Ecrit, Orale, Socioculturel, and Phonetique. This is the equivalent to 16.5 credit hours, which is the maximum that I am allowed to take. Three of my four classes are with the same cohort of 11 students (7 Chinese, 2 Malaysians, 1 Indonesian, and me!). With the significant decrease in classes (I have been taking 6-7 a semester) and not having a job, internship, extracurricular activities, or large volumes of homework, it has been a major challenge for me to slow down! There literally has not been a year in my life since I was 3 years old where I have had this little of responsibility. I know that I should not be complaining about this ;), but I am a girl that thrives in conquerable challenges and an active lifestyle!

Overall, I do not believe or feel that my classes in France have been nearly close to as worth my time (or as big of a growing experience) as some of the other experiences that I have had recently have been, but I trust that for everything, there is a reason. One that I have already realized is that taking classes at the CLA has given me the following insights and lessons that I would not have received if I had not studied abroad.

1) In the United States, we complain about our education system ALL OF THE TIME. While France's education is still one of the best in the world, I could not be more thankful to have been raised in an education system that particularly stressed challenges, diversity, and the arts. We have thousands of teachers that bend over backwards to help their students with homework, non-school issues, entrance into college, etc. Shout out of thanks for all DCSD employees for all that you do! As students in the American school system, we also have countless "rights" and opportunities to express our opinions. This is a luxury that many countries unfortunately do not have. My hope is that in 50 years, everyone in the world will have the same access to a quality, just, and affordable education.

2) In addition to learning more French, I am picking up some words in other languages! My favorite phrase is "I do not understand" in Chinese, which is quite useful and fun when 3/4 of your class is Chinese. They all laugh when I say it; and then, they usually teach me another Chinese phrase.

3) Americans abroad are very unique and privileged. Personally, I came to France to experience another culture, to gain more independence, and to improve my French. All in all, I am here for the life experience of spending a semester in France. For most of the other students in my class and at the CLA, they are here for 1, 2, 5 years to perfect their French to enter a French university for their Masters or to complete a French teaching program. The Americans being in France for generally different intentions than many of the other nationalities poses certain challenges for teaching and learning in the same classroom.

4) I would rather live with less than more and work hard toward what I do have. It was so interesting when we had to use the little materials that we had around us in Kenya to accomplish tasks (no electricity or modern technology!). This used a creative side that I do not often have the chance to engage with the large presence of technology. I liked this. In Europe, like in the States, I can just buy anything that I want to solve any problem that I have. It is too easy. Where is the fun when there is no challenge to figure anything out?

This semi-relates back to my classes, because I generally have anywhere between none to 30 minutes maximum of homework each evening. I would feel like I am receiving more out of my classes if more was expected out of us. I had more homework when I was 9! Basically, school is too easy, not because the material is not challenging, but because the volume of work is that of a young elementary student and we are just doing worksheets to do worksheets. This is a distinct contrast from the projects and labs that I am used to doing in college classes. Even though my French has improved significantly, I feel like the level of education I receive here is the equivalent of my early elementary school days when basic worksheets were more standard and necessary, except the problem is that I am an adult now stuck in the same classroom!

In general, I am happiest when I succeed (or fail!) at something after I have had to place real effort into it and that it is being used toward a greater purpose. For the first time, I am ready to move on to the next stage in my life, where I can place the skills that I have been building into practice in the workforce. Wow, I cannot even believe that I just said that I am ready to graduate from the school system! I am finally excited to see what post-graduation life brings! #movingbeyondmeaninglessworksheets

5) Finally, I am a true minority for the first time in my life. As the semester has went on, this has happened less and less, but at the beginning, there were many days when we would focus entire classes on concepts that posed difficulties for certain nationalities. As the only Anglophone in my class, this is incredibly frustrating to be forced to sit through 90 minute class periods on concepts that I mastered years ago. At the same time, since the areas that I have difficulties with are not a general problem for the whole class, they are often skipped over, because we have to focus on what will help the majority. As discouraging as this is, I am very grateful that I have had this experience, because I now know what it feels like to be the minority in a classroom. Not an everyday lesson that a middle-class, Mid-western, white young woman has the opportunity to learn firsthand, but I believe that it is the most important one of my time in France. If my future has me being an educator in one form or another, I will do my best to incorporate everyone in my instruction. Every student is important and deserves to receive an equal chance to learn.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Vinsu Family!

There are countless topics that I have been wanting to write about lately and questions that I have been asked, and now, I am playing catch-up! First up is my host family!

I live with 15 other people, yes, with me that brings the total to 16!

Everyone that hears this pretty much stops in their tracks! How are there that many people? Do you live in a mansion? Isn't it loud? Are you going crazy?

The answer to all of those is, NO! :)

How are there that many people?
- Loving host parents, Christiane and Pierre
- 8 children (5 boys, 3 girls all between 17-32 years old), 5 of whom regularly live at home
- 5 French students who go to local universities
- 4 foreign exchange students! Me, a girl from Japan, and two guys from the United Arab Emirates

Do you live in a mansion?

Nope! The house is probably a mansion in French standards, but I know many people in the States with much larger homes for just 2-4 people. It is good-sized, we each have our own room, but the house does not feel huge! Honestly, when I am in my house, I feel like I am in America, because most things look the same with the exception of our very large and inviting dinner table! :)

Isn't it loud?

Not really at all! For the most part, I only see everyone at dinner time! We all eat together around 7 PM each night.

Are you going crazy?

I was raised in a family of four, and I was slightly nervous about living in such a large family before coming, but it has turned out very well! I do not know how my host parents run such a large household so smoothly and stress-free, but they do it very well! There is so much love in this family, and each year it grows a little more! They welcomed grandchild #5 to the family on Sunday and #6 should be on the way anytime in the next two weeks! My friend, Sarah, was estatic when I said that I actually like the big family thing! Not quite enough to have more than two kids someday, but I am glad that I have been able to experience this lifestyle!

Here is the Vinsu family!

So there's a little bit about the wonderful family that I live with! I do not know how, but I already only have 4 weeks left of school and living here! There are 9 weeks until my short stateside return, but I will be traveling for Easter vacation and with my best friend for those remaining weeks! Time is flying!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Discovering my roots in Denmark!

It has been interesting traveling in Denmark and Germany over break, because I at least semi-look like a native, so I blend in better. Most of the time, I'm instantly the American girl, no matter how hard I try! Sometimes, people talk to me in Danish or German, and I just have to give them this look of confusion, and then, they start repeating it in English.

In each country that I have visited, I have always found places that resemble Iowa, but never have I felt more like I was at home than in Denmark! 

It may sound really exciting to everyone at home that I am in Denmark, 1/3 of the way around the world, but really it feels no different than home! Gently rolling hills, wind turbines, and pig f   arms! There are lots of tall people with blonde hair and blue eyes, too, so I fit right in! Only difference is it is warmer here and the grass is green because of Denmark's changing climate. Plus, I do not know a word of Danish, but navigating is not too difficult, because you can usually guess keywords and mostly everyone is fluent in English. 

So why did I choose to go to Germany and Denmark over my university's break? Well, as far back as we are able to trace it, my relatives on all four grandparents' sides originated from regions within Denmark and Germany. Many of these relatives immigrated to the United States in the Midwest region circa 1900. I wanted to take this time as an opportunity to see my roots and where I came from. My mom visited relatives in Denmark in 1984, and I was curious to do the same after looking at a card from the Danish relatives at Ruth Kephart's home in December. It took some maneuvering of tracking my family members down. I only had a couple of names, and Denmark is a big country. Their naming system is also different which made it challenging. After wrong phone numbers and email addresses that did not work, finally a handwritten letter to the right address did! I am so happy that I persisted!

I spent Sunday on the train trying to figure out all of the family relations with the help of a few scanned pages from old Jensen-Ericksen family directories. My great-grandfather was one of five children, four of whom immigrated to the United States (Jens, Anton, Signe, Carl). The family that I visited with are the descendants of Inger Kristine Jensen, the sister who remained in Denmark. On Sunday evening in Copenhagen, Lisbeth and her niece, Skinne, met me at the train station. For my family members, here's the relation: Inger Kristine Jensen > Martin Sorensen > Alvin Sorensen > Lisbeth Sorensen. We talked in a cute coffee shop for a couple of hours, and Lisbeth was able to fill me in on many aspects of the family history. Skinne was surprised to learn about how many family members she had in the United States! Skinne has spent six months between Kenya and Uganda and is also 21-year-old college student, so we had many aspects that we could connect on.

Skinne and I (above) and Lisbeth and I (below) in Copenhagen

Monday morning, I boarded a train from Copenhagen to Aarhus. Berit and Iben picked me up from the train station and drove me to their parents' home in Nykobing, on the island of Mors. Here's this relation: Inger Kristine Jensen > Martin Sorensen > Edward Sorensen > Berit and Iben Sorensen. It was so much fun to learn about their family and Danish customs on the drive. Edward, Anny (Edward's wife), and their "little boy," Robin (an adorable poodle!), live in a beautiful stone house right along the sea. Anny had an abundance of food ready for us over our stay in Nykobing. There are old photos of the relatives that immigrated from Denmark to the United States that unfortunately are in an unknown location, but they were able to show me pictures of when my mom visited in 1984 (I laughed so much!). There were also photos from the late 80s when Tillie Timmensen and Ann Decker visited and from when Edward and Anny visited the United States. Monday evening, Anny and I watched Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on TV together in English with Danish subtitles. It had been awhile since I had watched Ty Pennington, and it showed me truly how much American TV is broadcast around the world.

Anny and her little boy, Robin!

Myself, Berit, and Iben - daughters to Edward Sorensen

Beautiful view outside of Edward and Anny's home.

Tuesday morning, we drove around the island of Mors. While the buildings are no longer there, they were able to show me approximate areas where my family members farmed. We visited the church (it has 2-ft thick stone walls, I think it will be there in 1000 years!) and the cemetery where some relatives were buried. The land was incredibly interesting and pretty, because on one side there is land that looks exactly like Iowa and on the other, there is the sea. How cool!

Near the farmland of my ancestors 

Scenic overlook not far from where Berit and Iben grew up. They spent many summers swimming in the sea!

Oftentimes, we ask ourselves (like this winter), why did our ancestors choose to settle in Iowa of all places?! It only took about 20 minutes for me to realize why. It looks like home. The countryside in northern Germany and Denmark consist of flat farm fields with the occasional cows and haybales. Farming was what my relatives knew, and the Midwest, with a relatively similar climate and landscape, was familiar, which brought comfort in a land filled with struggles and opportunities. At least, that is what I am guessing! I am still amazed how they were able to come to America with little to no money to their names and survive. And how did they make it to the Midwest? By train? By covered wagon? In the very early 1900s, who knows! Through talking with Lisbeth, I mentioned the longevity of our family members, and she brought up that homesteading in America was a very difficult life, and only the strongest ones made it, passing these genes on to the next generation. Survival of the fittest - Darwin at its finest. I had never thought of it quite like that before.

I am grateful for my relatives who have kept many of our family's historical information. As most people know, I was born on Christmas Day. My parents gave me the middle name, Christine, because it had "Christ" in it, honoring the special day and our Savior. After doing some family genealogy, my great, great, great grandma had the middle name, "Kiristine." Since then, there have been many, many of my female relatives with a variation of the middle name, "Kristine." Even if it was not given to me for the intention of carrying on the family name, I am happy to be doing so!

From just my great-great-great grandparents on my mother's paternal side, there have been hundreds and hundreds of descendants. It is pretty incredible how quickly it all multiples when just two people fall in love! I am grateful for the opportunity to see the land of where this started and to connect with relatives still living in the region! Lisbeth, Skinne, Berit, Iben, Edward, Anny, and Robin, thanks for the great visit!

Carrying on the family tradition of waving until you are out of sight to say goodbye! Edward, Anny, and Robin

One random fun fact that I learned - Legos are actually Danish! I had no idea! I had just always assumed that they were American (my too-often American-centered mindset...).

Another reason why I love Denmark...their super eco-friendly practices! More to come in a later blog! 

I am planning to go to Hamburg, Germany, tomorrow. The towns north of Hamburg are where most of my father's relatives came from. While I do not have any contacts there, I will still be happy to see the area and walk where those before me have walked.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

And then there was a day...

…that I accidently ordered raw meat, yes, raw meat! While traveling, silly things like this are bound to happen once in a while! I met Suzanne, one of my friends from UNI, in Strasbourg. She was visiting a family in Germany before her semester in Turkey. Strasbourg is a historical city located on the border of France and Germany. Down each street, I was like, “Wait, is this Germany or is this France?!” The family was very generous, and they treated us to lunch at a very nice restaurant. Unfortunately, none of us were able to understand the very selective, more upscale menu. I settled on ordering what I thought was steak and potatoes. But I was wrong! Very wrong! My plate came out as literally raw hamburger meat with seasonings mixed in! As a very well-done girl, my mind could not get over the uncooked meat, and one bite was enough for me! Not a situation that I hope to repeat, but I am glad that this very unexpected, memorable adventure happened! All in all, it was certainly a dining experience that I will remember for years!

My beautiful, unexpected lunch!

Piglet peering out on Strasbourg's skyline!

…that I walked into Switzerland. My skiing plans did not work out for last weekend, so I decided to go with my school on the weekend trip. It ended up being like a retreat, which is not quite what I expected, but it worked out well! I "traveled" back to Iowa, as we had typical Iowa snow and cold (...cold for here, not -20) this weekend! About 35 of us played games, made meals, and cleaned together at a camp-like place. The weekend also included trips to a fromagerie, a 500-year-old church, a farm, and le Saut du Doubs. Coming from a childhood with many hours spent in the outdoors, it was interesting to see the reactions of many of my international classmates who were raised in large cities throughout the weekend. For me, seeing cows, being in a church, and hiking are normal activities, but for millions of others, these are not! It was a good personal reminder of the diversified backgrounds that we all come from. We ended our weekend with a short hike to le Saut du Doubs, a waterfall located exactly on the border between France and Switzerland. Piglet and I took a trek across the bridge to spend a few minutes in Switzerland! It blows my mind to just be able to walk across a country’s borders like that! All thanks to the Schengen Agreement!

That's a lot of Comte cheese!

Des bonhommes de neige! Fun in the snow!

You can always find a piece of home, anywhere in the world!

Piglet in the middle of France and Switzerland!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Random Aspects of France Life - Week 1!

So happy to report that I made it exactly one week without any major mishaps!

I am settling into my life in Besancon. Each day, I try to accomplish one more thing (i.e. acquiring a bus pass, activating a SIM card, buying a plant!).

My new plant! My room is now alive!

This week, I have…
- Navigated a bus system by myself for the first time ever
- Been locked inside of a bathroom (the lock was faulty and would not open!)
- Watched “La Reine des Neiges” (Frozen) in French
- Walked up and down the hills of Besancon for hours
- Learned that I will be eating a lot of cheese and potatoes this spring (this region's specialty!)
- Tried figuring out the confusion of placement tests, orientation, and French health insurance!
- Traversed a slippery train bridge to be fenced in on the other side
- Continued to find no record of my old passport's location
- Eaten so many baguettes - with almost every meal!
- Noted many similarities and differences between French and American cultures
- Started to improve my French skills, I have a long way to go, but each day is better than the day before!
- Discovered the true extent of French wine and cheese choices!

So many options? It would take years to try them all!

Classes start tomorrow! I am ready to see what I have really gotten myself into! Looking forward to making new friends and improving my French!

Then, there is this little girl, Juliette! In less than a day, she has just melted my heart, just like Judy did in Kenya! With her blue eyes, pink pea coat, and gray shoes, she is as cute as a doll! She is a great distraction in church, too! She loves plants, just like me! And she gives the best, cutest little kisses on the cheek! She is one of the Vinsu’s grandchildren, and I cannot wait to watch her grow during the rest of my time here!

Sunday Mass

Girl #1 who melted my heart - Judy (left in blue)

Girl #2 - Juliette! Laughing and eating her lunch!

Juliette adoring those plants! :)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

More bumps in the road...

After the struggles to get to Europe, I chose to take a taxi rather than trying to navigate the public transportation when I landed in Krakow, Poland. Even though it was dark, as I peered out the window, it flashed me back to the taxi rides of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. In the dark, the world looks the same mostly everywhere. It felt like the entire semester at UNI never happened, there I was again in an unknown land filled with possibilities and unknowns. While my brain knows that many events happened between my plane taking off in Uganda in August and my plane landing in Poland in January, it is still confused! 

My time in Poland was very short, but sweet. I visited my Polish friend, Karolina, who studied at UNI my freshman year. She showed me around the Old Town of Krakow and took me to the top of the castle. We also visited Auschwitz, which as anyone can imagine was incredibly eerie and sad. To see and walk on the ground where thousands died, in a place where you have studied many times, was an unreal, shiver-down-your-spine feeling. I applaud the museum's effort to retell the story for without education, history will surely repeat itself. I also enjoyed my time with a new friend, Kamila, who was able to show me many interesting aspects of historic and modern Jewish culture in Krakow. Besides one bus that never came, sadly receiving the news of family deaths (maybe I should stop traveling...), and suffering from jet lag, it was a smooth visit...until I tried to leave, of course!

After all of the stress of my passport and visa, I thought the worst was over, but Saturday brought more bumps in the road! Once again, I paid the expensive rate for the return taxi to the airport. Upon arriving, I had to rearrange my bags, because it was a full flight, and they were unable to safely allow the normal carry-on bag size for everyone. I have been through security many, many times, but this time was definitely the worst. Long line, pushing and shoving, rescanning, etc. I am sure you can imagine! Everything was flying out on time, and then I started hearing the dreaded flight delay and cancellations (in 3 languages!) over the intercom! There was dense fog in Krakow, and the planes that were already there from the night before were able to take off, but none of the incoming planes could land. An airport packed to the brim with unhappy people (who did not speak English, of course!) and screaming babies was not exactly how I planned to spend my day! Five hours later, the plane from Paris-Krakow was able to land, and an hour later, we were on our way to Charles de Gaulle! I was in the middle seat, in the last row, next to the bathroom with turbulence and the other passengers screaming at the flight attendants about their bags not being able to fit...probably my worst flight ever! With this delay, I missed my train to Besançon (which was to leave four hours after my flight was supposed to land) and I was unable to exchange it for a different one (even with insurance!), because more than an hour had passed since my train had departed. So after all if the Krakow airport drama, I had to forfeit my old ticket, and pay for a new one that of course costed twice as much as the first one! I am hoping my overall travel insurance will kick in to cover it, but only time will tell. Relieved to finally be on the train and happy to not be spending a night in Paris, but I could not sleep after the super exhausting day in fear that I would miss my stop! Finally in Besançon, I was so relieved that my host parents were still able to pick me up that late at night! They were right there with hugs and kisses to take me on my way, and everything was better then! :) 

My quote of the day yesterday was, "Sometimes getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air" - Sarah Kay. It could not have been more fitting, so cheers to being able to taste air again! :)

In the last 24 hours, I have been figuring out how the Vinsu family operates - a good challenge! I am unpacked and starting to practice my French! The Vinsu family is very big - 8 children! I am learning the family tree and each of their professions! Their home is similar to many that you would see in the United States, so I am grateful for some continuity! I also attended mass with them tonight. Each country's religious ceremonies amaze me as to how people all over do the same traditions - it's beautiful! I am looking forward to more discoveries in France throughout the next four months! 

The Vinsu family tree!

A UNI mug in their kitchen! We do not know where it came from, but it is a little piece of Cedar Falls all the way in Besançon! :)

Even though the events of the last two weeks have not been fun, I am grateful for the many newly strengthened relationships that it has given me. It means the world to me to have my extended support network there throughout all of these challenges! I hope that I can be there in the same way for each of you, in life's greatest triumphs and trials, as you have for me! 

My placement tests are in the morning, so that is all for now!

Bonne nuit!


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"It always seems impossible until it's done."

"It always seems impossible until it's done." That is the quote on the bedroom wall of the girl who I am staying with, and I do not know any words to describe the last 10 days any better.

To be honest, during this time, I traveled to hell and back, in the most challenging situation I have ever been presented with. This is a documentation for myself and anyone interested to remember the emotions and events of the last week. 

Reflecting on it, each international trip has started out rough -
#1 - all financial cards wouldn't work for first 48 hours
#2 - bag lost or stolen on flight 1 of 11 going to East Africa, never been found to this day
#3 - passport and visa lost or stolen between the French Consulate and USPS

Let's back up a bit, so that everyone can be caught up on the same page on the story behind #3.

I decided a long time ago (freshman year of college) that I would study abroad at the CLA in Besancon, France, in my junior year. I made many course and leadership adjustments a year in advance to make this possible. My dreams of studying in France began much earlier - middle school, maybe even before. After spending the last two summers abroad, I was not sure if I would still go to France or not. It was going to be expensive, I would be away from everyone, my list of excuses could go on. However, my mother strongly encouraged me to still go, because she did not want me to regret it later. Following wise mother's advice and reevaluating my situation, I knew she was right; I had to go.

Now the events that followed certainly had me questioning my decision.

I had heard from previous students that obtaining a French visa is a nightmare. I took their advice and expected the worst, but I did not know that the situation I was placed in was even a possible outcome - neither did anybody else.

Without giving every minute details (hard to believe, but there was more than what is written below), here is what happened. My CampusFrance file in Washington, D.C. ended up being delayed by several weeks. By the time this was resolved, the required in-person appointments at the French Consulate in Chicago were filled until December 26. This was really nerve-racking because I was to fly out on January 14, and the long-stay French visas can take up to two-three weeks to process. Knowing that I may have to wait to receive my passport and visa in the mail on the 14th, I booked the last possible flight on the 14th. Luckily, a spot opened up on December 20, which would buy me a couple more days. I knew this trip to Chicago would likely not be an enjoyable one, because it was the Friday after finals, and I knew that I would be exhausted by that point. Being just a few days short of 21 also meant that I had to pay double for a hotel room in downtown Chicago. Then, I got the flu mid-finals week, and I had to postpone some of my finals. Throw in having to beat the winter weather for a wedding in the QC that night, not sleeping or eating well because of finals, paying for expensive Chicago everything, still worrying about post-visa appointment finals, and recovering from the flu, all in all, Chicago trip number one did not go that well! Luckily, my best friend, Britney, toughed through all of it with me (I convinced her to come along by promising we could go ice skating outside in Millennium Park...well, it was raining, so that did not even happen)! She was a good sport, and I was glad to spend some time with her, since she was going to be gone for most of break.

I was relieved to have the visa process over. Now, all I had to do was wait for my passport with my French visa inside to come in that precious Priority Mail Express envelope. The holidays passed, and I spent my time preparing for the trip ahead. I called the French Consulate on the afternoon of Monday, January 6. I was relieved to have the lady tell me that everything had been processed at the end of last week, and that it should be to me very shortly. I would not have to wait until the 14th for my passport! However, I had been checking online, and there was no tracking information on my package. Priority Express mail is the fastest, most tracked, and insured service that USPS offers, and it is the only mail service that the French Consulate allows. I figured that maybe with the extreme cold, it was delayed somewhere, but even so, it should have been scanned and tracked at its pick-up point. Semi-worried, I asked my mom, "What if it is lost out there?" She thought I was being ridiculous, but that gut feeling stayed with me. Wednesday came, and I drove back to Cedar Falls, where I was to spend the rest of the time before my departure. Anxiously opening the mailbox, my heart stopped when nothing was there. Even without Priority Express, a letter from Chicago should have made it in four mail days. I started making phone calls to the French Consulate, USPS, Cedar Falls Post Office, etc. Everyone I talked to thought that this was very strange. The French Consulate triple-checked, and they no longer had it in their office. USPS never had any record of that tracking number as being mailed in their system, and I called everyone who handles their mail (Chicago branch, airports, Cedar Falls). Don't forget to mention worrying about identity theft with my passport floating out there!

After these phone calls Wednesday and even more on Thursday (adding in the Study Abroad Center, State Department, Senator Harkin and Senator Grassley's offices, three insurance companies, and many more), I did not know what to do anymore. I knew I could not get on a plane without a passport, and I could not stay for more than 90 days in Europe without a visa, which I could not have it issued there. I had called everyone I could think of, and these are what I was most commonly told: "I don't know what to say," "I am so sorry that this is happening to you," and "I have never heard of this before/this doesn't happen!" With still no tracking record, I knew If I was going to board that plane, I had to do something else. How in the heck was I supposed to get a new passport and a new visa in THREE business days?! At that time, I was told that the fastest I could get a new passport was five business days and up to an additional ten days after that for my new visa, both requiring in person appointments in Chicago. To change my flight was going to cost a minimum of $300, likely much more. These costs were adding up so fast, and no insurance agency would cover them, because "this kind of thing doesn't happen" and "it occurred domestically before my departure date." So I was looking at missing my placement tests, orientation, and likely the first week of classes in France, and having to pay $2000+ for this "one-in-a-million+" situation. If the new passport/visa did not work out, I would be two to three weeks behind in classes at UNI. As anyone, college student or not, this is not cool to hear!

Everyone had done everything that they could, and the same answers kept turning up. The French Consulate did not have it, USPS did not have it. Both parties were tired of getting calls from Party A, Party B, etc. The US Government cannot do anything to persuade foreign governments' decisions. Some curse words, talks with Jessica Moon, and a major meltdown later, all I could do was trust everyone's words that it was going to be okay, and it would work out how it was meant to. But what was God's plan, was I going to France on time, late, never? Only time would tell, but the clock was ticking very, very quickly, especially with two of my four and a half days as non-business days.

I made appointments in Chicago with the State Department's Passport Agency on Monday afternoon and the French Consulate on Tuesday morning. All I could do was hope and pray that these would work, and in time! I did not know what the officials would say when I said, "I need a new passport today" and "I would like my student visa reissued this morning."
In this world, everything is about who you know, so I decided to turn on connections any place I could - Facebook, church, neighbors, etc. to see if together, we could pull this miracle off!

Thanks to Eric O'Brien, I talked to Senator Grassley in person at UNI's women's basketball game on Friday night. While all he was able to say was that he could not do anything with foreign governments and that his people were doing all they could, I heard later that he had been calling his people on Monday and Tuesday asking on updates from me. Talking to him in person likely helped make the situation real and not just something written on paper.

My parents and others thankfully also called upon everyone they knew with any sort of possible connection.

After running last-minute errands on Saturday in hopes that I was still leaving on Tuesday, I decided to email many former professors and UNI administrators. Where this idea came from, I do not know, but it worked. Luckily, this email brought some inside connections and many kind thoughts. With a special kudos to Craig Klafter, who was able to contact the French Consul himself, there was more certainty that I would be able to go to France. However, there was still the question if I would be able to go in time.

After a stressed Sunday of re-filling out my passport and visa paperwork, attempting to see some of my friends, and finalizing packing (and filling out the baggage claim form in advance!), I was more than ready to be able to sleep and eat again, but that was not yet the case. Too exhausted to make it all the way home Sunday night, special thanks to Renee Bockstahler for letting me stay at their place. 

Monday morning came, and I made it the rest of the way home. After dressing as business professional, my dad and I were ready to head to Chicago for hopeful good news from the US and French governments. January 13 is a traditionally unlucky day for the Poppe clan, so I was especially nervous! Luckily, the Passport Agency allowed me in early, and I had a new passport in three hours! Elated with some good news, my dad and I did our best to enjoy the rest of the day. But the next day was the real test...

Tuesday morning - I had no appetite, I did not feel well, I was shaking. It was indescribable, unlike any stress ever encountered from competitions or papers or final exams. I knew that whatever the French visa officer decided that morning would determine if I could not only leave for study abroad in France today, but ever. It was downright terrifying. It did not start well either when the security guard did not have us in the books for being in the building that day. Once actually let up, I was relieved to not have an overflowing waiting room like there was in December. I did not want more people who had to hand their passports over freaked out! The officer asked my name, then said, "Oh... my co-worker informed me on this." He asked a few simple questions, and I re-submitted my paperwork. All he said was, "I will take care of this right away," and he left. Within 10-15 minutes, I had my new passport with my new visa inside. All by 9:45, and my appointment was to be at 9:50! He did not even ask me to pay for it to be re-issued! Seriously, a complete miracle. Able to breathe and feel alive for the first time in over a week, my dad and I elatedly rode the elevator 37 floors down. 

On the road back to Cedar Rapids to catch my flight, I received a phone call from Senator Grassley himself in Washington, D.C., asking if I had any updates yet, and I was glad to report the good news! At this point, I did not care if my flight was delayed or canceled or my bag did not make it, because at 9 AM, I could not have been able to go at all! I made it safely back to Cedar Rapids with FOUR hours to spare. My mom, brother, and roommates, Britney, Sarah, and Sarah, were able to join my dad and I, so that I could have a much more enjoyable last hour in the United States than what the horrors of the last week had been. 

I barely made my connecting flight, so I guessed my bag would not either! But stuff and all, I am now safely in Krakow on my original schedule staring at the quote on the wall still smiling. Tomorrow and Friday, I am visiting a friend who studied abroad at UNI, and then on Saturday, I will be off to my homestay family in France! :)

While I do not know why I was placed in this "one-in-a-million+" situation, I know there is a reason out there somewhere why it was me. If anything, it tested my will power, reconnected me to others, and strengthened my relationship with God. I will likely never know where my old passport, with all of my visas and stamps! :(, ended up and the story of what happened to it. However, if I can survive through all of that, I can make it through the semester and just about any life challenge thrown my way.

I asked for a miracle, and to do the said to be impossible. With a lot of help from God and hundreds of people, two of the most strict governments in the world issued me my new travel documents in less than 24 hours. I do not know who to give the credit to except everyone, both to those who I do and do not know, because without everyone who was there to make phone calls, double check systems, make exceptions, provide encouragement, lift me up in prayer, etc., I would still be in the States and not be making this almost decade-long dream a reality.

With gratitude from the bottom of my heart,


P.S. - For all of the plans and arrangements that I had to cancel this last week, I deeply apologize, and I would love to reschedule once I am on the other side of the pond again! Thanks for your understanding and encouragement!