Thursday, January 31, 2008

5-31-07 Paris

There was a familiar smell in almost all of the cathedrals we went into on this trip. It wasn't until Brussels that I was able to place it. It was in Notre Dame and Sacre Cour too. I'm not exactly sure what it is. It is incense or a candle, I'm not sure, but it is something that burns. The reason I recognize it is because it is the smell of Catholic special events. There is a special ceremony that a priest does where he takes a little ball on a chain full of this smoky smell and waves it at the congregation as he walks up and down the aisles praying. A similar thing is done with holy water, and he flicks everyone with it. Growing up, I only remember this happening on special occasions or unique days like when a visiting priest was speaking. It seemed like this was just the regular smell for the churches we visited, but it really made me uncomfortable. Having that smell and thinking of special events make me even more aware of how much of a visitor I am. I feel like I am intruding on their religious ground even though it is a religion I could claim as my own.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

5-30-07 Paris

I had my "Wow, I'm in Paris" moment our first night here. We decided to eat near teh Champs-Elysees so we could check the hours on the tourist center. It's a good thing that we did because they moved the tourist center to the other end of the Champs-Elysees and it would have been awful to go looking for it with the entire group. Dr. Ness joined us and we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. The entire city is full of wonderful sights, but nothing prepared me for coming out of that metro exit. We walked up the stairs to the street and right there was the Arc. It was surreal. I actually teared up. It was an amazing sight. The sun was setting in a hand painted sky and wrapped the Arc in a pink glow. The Arc itself was so much more majestic than I had expected. I had seen tons of pictures, but none of them were able to capture the truth. I now understand why Pairs is such an inspiration to art. It is not just a saying, my breath really was taken away. I had a similar experience with the Eiffel Tower, but it wasn't quite as powerful or shocking. We saw the tower from everywhere. I didn't much want to go up in the tower, so I thought that I had seen it. Fortunately, Mike insisted on taking Brandi and me to the base. It wasn't quite as shocking as the Arc because we got off the metro and watched it grow as we walked closer instead of it just being there. I could feel my mind struggle as it tried to comprehend just how big it really is.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

5-29-07 Brussels

I enjoyed our presentations today. I hadn't realized what assumptions I had made about Bologna until she explained it. I wasn't trying to be the bad American, but sometimes it is hard to realize that the words they are using have different definitions and connotations even when they are English words about higher education. I was entertained to everyone's reaction to the grading system. We all know and understand the bell curve, but we are also horrified to see it implemented and enforced. I think what is hardest to accept for us is that in a true bell curve system, a C is not bad. We can all say it, hear it, and know it, but we can't believe it. We are all in graduate school which means we are successful students, and we've been conditioned that Cs are bad. I had a professor who used the bell curve, and tried to assure us that Cs were ok, but he was wrong. He was happy with my grade, but Financial Aid was not, the Honors College was not, and the SURF committee was not. I spent the rest of my undergraduate time trying to explain away all of the courses I took with him. I understand the entire group's uneasiness with the bell curve, but I worry what this will lead Europeans to think of American grades. She had joked that a 15/20 was an 18/20 somewhere else. When the system works the kinks out here, what will an American A be worth?

If UCL (the Catholic University of Levon) had the beautiful architecture that I've been spoiled with for the past week, I would have had to get my bags off the bus. I am very excited about everything I've heard about these university communities that they are thinking about in the U.S., and working in one that has been up and running for a couple of decades sounds like a great opportunity. I don't think that I'm ready for French language immersion, but it would speed up the process of becoming fluent.

Monday, January 28, 2008

5-28-07 Brussels

I've never really had an occasion to use my French, and I assumed that I would lose all of my ability. There have been a couple times on this trip where I heard announcements in several languages and I wasn't sure if I had heard French or not. Between that, and seeing how similar Dutch and German are (in my mind which has never spoken either), I was afraid that soon I wouldn't even be able to recognize the language. I certainly never let myself believe that I was a master of the language by any scale, but my hearing comprehension was starting to near conversation speed,a nd my vocabulary was almost enough to read the news. When Mike asked me to look at some of the Paris website and help him find the information he needed for the tour, French was clearly foreign again. I had to exercise my memory, and eventually sing a little song to remember the days of the week. Being here has made me feel much better. I can't understand anyone's conversations, and I can't completely read any of the signs we come across. I am remembering things. I asked for the bathroom in French yesterday, and in the shops, I don't need to ask them to speak in English. These are not situation where a lot of verbal communication is taking place. It is usually just smiling and nodding, but they've made me feel good for a couple of reasons. First, it has been nice for them to not immediately speak in English for me. I like the idea that I could fit in here if I learned the language. Secondly, I like that I don't have to make them stop and rework their thoughts into English for me. As a girl who majored in communications, I hate the feeling of being the cause of a communication barrier. French was fresher in my mind when I was in Switzerland, and I probably could have spent more time talking in French than I realized. Unfortunately, I was young and scared, and my host family was eager to practice their English. I vividly remember the panic I felt each time someone spoke to me in French. In response to that panic, people spoke to me in English. There have been a couple occasions on this trip in which I've seen that same discomfort. In response, all I can do is appologize. I can't offer the same courtesy that I've been offered.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

5-27-07 Masstricht

Some things are universal. Last night while we were walking we saw a guy cat call and rev his engine at the woman crossing the street in front of him. She responded with what I would assume was Dutch profanity. I was very glad to find out that it wasn't a successful pickup in their culture either.

I noticed in both Amsterdam and Maastricht that when we tell people we are from the states they become a type of modest, and expect us to want things bigger and better. Both of the universities we were at emphasized how small they were. The University of Maastrict has as many students as UCA. All the people we talked to in Maastricht and Aachen began by telling us that it was a small city, but they loved it because... I guess they don't expect Americans to come from small towns or value small communities.

Mike and I have always talked, though rarely seriously, about moving out of the country for a couple of years. I think that it is something that I've wanted more. Mike has already lived in Germany for 3 years, so he is not as intent on it as I am. I've thought about Australia a lot because I am worried about the language barrier, but it is becoming clear that I would have quite a bit of time to learn the language in Europe if I could only find a job that would hire me. This trip is doing a lot to make my desire stronger. At this blissful moment the only thing that worries me is my family. I have an aunt who refuses to watch Johnny Depp movies because he moved to France, and, "The French hate Americans." I'm afraid my reasons for wanting this would be lost on them. It really would be a great adventure and Mike seems to be getting easier to persuade. We'll see I suppose.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

5-26-07 Maastricht

I know that some of the things we are seeing are just the result of a large number of people living together. A lot of the thing that I'm not use to are happening in the US; just not in Conway, AR or Crivitz, WI (the small town where I lived up North). On the other hand, I wonder how much we are missing because we are staying in hotels. I certainly wouldn't want to try and find host families for all of us, but hotels are generally more conforming to their guests. This one is even a Best Western.

Even tough we were hijacked yesterday. I had a great time. I know that if Mike and I had met Peter by ourselves, we never would have gone along for the tour he brought us on. I'm still not sure which of his stories to believe, and which ones were merely to lead up to his punchlines, but I had a great time anyway. I'm not certain what we would have seen the way the day was originally planned, but I was glad we did it his way.

Yesterday, I realized that everyone I've talked to is very good with European history. In America we have history buffs, and those individuals usually focus on a particular war or period of time. here it has been everybody, and most Europeans history. I thought that it was just the girl studying Dutch at first, but then it was also the concierge, the student worker at Maastricht, Peter, the women we talked to on the bus. They all made simple history references in conversation, seemingly without wondering if we knew what they were talking about. I felt a bit bad. I was always bad at history. I love the stories, but I can never keep the names and dates right.

My family is Irish Catholic, so cathedrals have always been a major part of my travels. The Dom was quite possibly the most beautiful one I have ever seen. I know that it has my favorite stained glass window. In the little prayer room off to one side the window was outlined and accented in the most beautiful teal glass that I have ever seen. I'm not exactly surprised that I liked it so much. I've always heard that European cathedrals would put American ones to shame, but I suppose I expected them to be too much for my taste. I expected to be impressed and awed, but I didn't expect to like it this much. There were sections that I found overdone. I wasn't as impressed by the pulpit as I was the tiling on the ceiling.

Just as much as I wasn't exactly surprised by The Dom, I wasn't exactly disappointed by the American Cemetery. The Cemetery was immaculate, beautiful, solemn, and every thing I would have expected from an American military memorial. I guess I just had different expectations for this one. I was looking forward to seeing how the Dutch created a memorial to the American troops. The Cemetery however is how the Americans create memorials. The dedication and gratitude that they show is moving, and I don't want to seem untouched, but I'd be lying if I denied that my expectations were not met. I am completely aware that it has everything to do with my expectations and is in no way the fault of the Cemetery. It was perfect.

Last night my feet and my husband were exhausted, so we stayed in to relax and go to bed early. While I journaled, I watched a couple Dutch cartoons and an episode of Will and Grace. It was interesting to see how they regularly switch between Dutch and English all the time. I laughed out loud when I saw a commercial with George Clooney. I know that Europeans watch American movies so I wasn't surprised to see him as a celebrity on the commercials. What struck me is that doing commercials in America is considered a sign of a failing career. I wonder if it is the same in Europe of if it makes them more excited about the star.

The caves were incredible! There were not at all what I was expecting and I am so glad we went. I doubt that Mike and I would have made the time if we were traveling alone because I thought that the tours would have been similar to cave tours in Arkansas. Expecting stalactites and stalagmites, we probably would have skipped it to do something else like a castle or cathedral tour. I'm glad it wasn't up to us. Jacques was a great guide and he and Christine were a very sweet couple.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

5-25-07 Maastricht

The train ride yesterday morning started out a little crazy, but it was in no way an indicator of how the day was going to go. Maastricht is beautiful. It is exactly what my mind fantasizes about when I think of a European town. The old buildings, the small shops, and the cobblestone sidewalks are what my mind's eye had predicted.

The campus tour was interesting, and ours fortunately went very well. One of the only difficulties we had was finding the Student Center. it seemed to me that it would be very difficult to find things at that university unless you knew exactly what to call what you were looking for. We were assured by everyone we asked that there was not a student center, but they all also recommended we lunch at the Econ Building. We ended up spending on hour and a half, if not more talking with a student who works in the Communications and Relations Department. She was mainly working on putting together the university's Open Day which sounded like UCA's Welcome Week.

Now that I've gone on about how quaint the city looked, I must admit that I was surprised by the brands of the stores we saw walking around. I also saw several Jesus statues and crucifixions, and they had the think Jesus faces that I am use to. I wonder how many other things I have decided were cultural differences that really weren't.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

5-24-07 Amsterdam

If you think of embarrassment as a spectrum, I'd say that I've never been more than mildly embarrassed before yesterday. I've been embarrassed several times on this trip, but none of them were comparable to how I felt when our speaker made a comment about our decisions in Iraq. Here I am American. I am not a democrat or a liberal. I am not even a college student before I am American. At home, I can exercise my freedom of speech; I can use my right to vote. Here, I am responsible for those decisions. I could feel the heat of my entire face turning read as I thought about the news stories I heard of who did and who did not support us and our decisions in Iraq. I was embarrassed of my country. I was embarrassed for not knowing what our decisions made us seem like for them. I was embarrassed for wanting to make excuses.

The campus visit to Vrije University was very nice. I've known about the binary system for a while, but it is still amazing to see it in action. I'm turning 24 next month and I still haven't decided what I plan to do for the rest of my life. Right now, I am still planning out experiences to have that will help me narrow down my options. I can't fathom making that decision at twelve. At twelve I wanted to be an animator. My aptitude tests said I should be a mime or a puppeteer. Higher Ed Administration is pretty far off from all of those. I remember being horribly upset when my career test came back. I was a very talkative kid, and I couldn't understand how I would be best at a job where I wasn't allowed to speak. The irony of the whole situation is that my current desire is to work for Sesame Street.

I wonder if there are societal status differences between the students who go to the research universities and the students who go to the professional universities. I have a friend in Switzerland. They use the same system and her track was to go to the university, but her family couldn't afford all of it. While I was visiting her, she was taking a year off to waitress and save money to pay for it. She would tell me stories of how guests would look down on her because they thought that she wasn't going to the university. I know that there is a clear separation between honors students - regular(?) students- and the at risk student in our education system. I also know that there are classism issues in America. I wonder fi the binary system supports or reinforces those problems.

After the visit Mike and I went to the Van Gogh Museum. I loved it. I spent a year studying the impressionist artists so I knew the Van Gogh story. I could see the influences of the other artists in his work, and I appreciated watching how his work changed. I don't know if Mike enjoied it as much; I'm glad we went.

Last night we went back out to the Dam. There we got to see the Amsterdam police in action, some very interesting hookah bars, and a restaurant that only served fries. In the square there was a huge crucifixion statue. I'm not sure how I missed it earlier, but fortunately I didn't miss it all together. It was neat to see Jesus through their eyes. He was still in the submissive/beaten pose, but his face was so different from what we normally see. Our Jesus face is petite, fragile, and feminine. So often in the crucifixion, he looks broken. In this statue the face was strong, full, and masculine. He looked like a Roman hero. It reminded me of art made of the Greek and Roman gods. I wonder what the difference I'm seeing is. I don't know if it is a European difference, a Protestant difference, or just one artist's preference.

Monday, January 21, 2008

5-23-07 Amsterdam

Yesterday was a good day despite my lack of sleep crankiness. As a group we went to the Anne Frank House. It was somber, but in a good way. In fact, it reminded me that I was cranky because I was traveling the world and wonderfully privileged. I guess the most cultural observations that I did there were of the tourists. It was hard to watch people being less than somber, but I suppose you can't force anyone to be respectful, especially Americans. I was disappointed in myself for how much I had forgotten about her book. I remember it affecting me in school, but now I'm starting to wonder if I was old enough to appreciate all of it. I'll have to read it again.

They had a little movie running after going though the house. It was about human rights and freedoms, and it was clearly biased and liberal. According to the pamphlet it was an EU production, but it struck me as very similar to American, liberal propaganda directed at college students. I don't know that I expected Europe to be more subtle. In fact, I don't even know if they strive for impartial and unbiased like America claims to. I value unbiased reporting, but I think that opinionated reports have their place too. Whether the Anne Frank House is a place for those opinions is something I hadn't thought about. I know what bothers me in America is the claim to be neutral when it is not. I know that some countries have a blatant and open bias for the government (usually because the networks are government controlled), and I don't think that is always good. If all of the media works on behalf of the government, and the people get upset with the government, the media won't be able to tell them anything - even if it is good or unrelated.

I knew in my head that people rode their bicycles everywhere in Europe. I even envied the stories I heard about well-sized and well-respected bicycle lanes. My head never worked out what it looks like to see people riding their bicycles everywhere. When I previously thought of bicyclists, I imagined kids, and people in sportswear. Here it is everybody and every type of attire. The men and women in their business suites is what I couldn't imagine before. It makes sense, but it still caught me by surprise to see. The women in skirts still makes me curious. Do they do something (like wear shorts underneath) that makes it ok, or is it completely a social difference? If I rode a bike with a skirt I would be extremely self conscious. Short skirts I would worry about riding up and long skirts I would worry about them flapping against the tire and possibly getting stuck in the spokes.
Bicycle Parking Deck

Sunday, January 20, 2008

5-22-07 Amsterdam

A friend recently returned from Spain which reminded me that I have not shared my Europe journal yet. So for the next couple weeks, I'll be sharing my journal. This journal was an assignment for the cultural diversity class, but the content and topics were not chosen for us.

I've been accused of having Disney radar before, and it just might be true. The very first thing that I saw in Amsterdam was a kid in a Cars t-shirt waiting for someone to get off the plane. It made me smile. I like it when kids like the movies that I like. Then I had to stop and think about how American Cars is. It is very American.It is about how our country changed when the small towns on the interstate were bypassed. Does that mean I should feel the same way about kids here liking Cars as I do about McDonalds? I realize that Disney is corporate and I understand the concept of McWorld, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to share my favorite movies. Those fairy tales are European stories, and no matter how much I love Ariel, that is not how the story goes. Is Disney depriving them of their own culture? In America Disney was the story & everything else was a version. As much as I enjoy Disney, I hope that it is not like that here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bad Headlines Cause Brain Damage

I've already talked about how upset I was to discover how sensational news has become. I mentioned news bias, but I didn't really get into it. It is generally not something that I have an issue with. In my opinion, it is a side effect of things that I think are good, so I just try to be aware of it. More often than not, I actually find it entertaining. One of my favorite assignments as an undergrad was on news bias. We were given the headlines from a dozen different papers across the country on the same event. We had to write out the political party of the paper and the connotations created by their headline. I am sharing all of this to explain why I am surprised by how upset I am about a headline I recently read. Some other factors that might be fueling my disgust are that one of the journalist's sources is the Joan Ganz Cooney Center which is the new research center of Sesame Workshop, and the article completely betrays the study and the purpose of the Cooney Center.

The topic at hand is the the release of the D is for Digital report at the Sandbox Summit in Las Vegas. The Reuters headline was: Joan Ganz Cooney Center Finds Cause For Both Concern and Optimism in Billion Dollar Digital Media Industry Targeting Kids, but the article that has really been bothering me was titled: Under 7's Should be Banned From Playing Computer Games or Risk Damaging Their Brains'. The difference is obvious, and I've seen worse headlines, but this one has just gotten under my skin. The Cooney Center was named after the remarkable woman who created Sesame Street at a time when people were claiming that under 7's should be banned from watching television or risk damaging their brains.

The Daily Mail says, "They looked at more than 300 products including computer games, toys, virtual worlds for children and supposedly educational software to be run on home computers. Of these, only two educational video games employed proven learning techniques." about the D is for Digital findings. Reuters said, "Of the 300+ products studied,...the survey yielded only two education video games based on explicit educational curriculum design available in the market." This may be an educational nuance to some, but in my opinion there is a huge difference between "educational curriculum" and "proven learning techniques." Here is an example based on my understanding. Repetition is a proven learning technique, however having repetition does not mean you have an educational curriculum. Based on The Workshop Model, having a curriculum would be best, but that does not mean that a lack of curriculum leads to brain damage.

The mission of the Cooney Center is, "to catalyze and support research, innovation and investment in digital media technologies to advance children's learning." I do not speak on behalf of The Workshop or the Cooney Center, but it seems to me, based on the history of Sesame Street and the development of this new center, that they strive to help these 300+ educational products incorporate an appropriate and research supported educational curriculum. I am upset that their research has been warped into something that could scare parents away from good resources.

Monday, January 07, 2008

So Easy a Child Can Do It

The Washington Post reported on a recent study that shows that children are becoming philanthropists before they even get jobs. This article shares some incredible stories about a little girl who had a children's hospital fund raiser for her birthday party and the collective giving of the kids at Club Penguin. I am proud of our country's youth, but at the same time I am skeptical of this study. What are the criteria for labeling a child a philanthropist? How much do they have to donate? Why is it philanthropy when they are raising money for the World Wildlife Fund, but not when they are selling candles and wrapping paper to raise money for their own schools? How much adult involvement is allowed? This is great news, and it is something to be optimistic about for the future, but I would hate for it to belittle the value of supporting your local 4-H as well.

The article claims that this growth in global caring among kids is because of the internet and social networking. Kids today can actually talk to kids in Darfur and that gives them a sense of connection. That connection translates into responsibility as well as ability to help. I think this is partially true, but children had these opportunities yesterday too. What I immediately thought of when I read this was a news story I saw over the holiday. It was a more skeptical version of this MSNBC story that was questioning the authenticity of retail giving. The reporter told the story of a major store that published in it's holiday catalog that they would be giving x% of sales to a charity. Unfortunately the nonprofit that was included in their catalog had no idea that they were going to be receiving a donation. Good or bad, honest or not, I would give retailers at least some of the credit for the surge in children's awareness. Programs like the Livestrong bands and Product RED have integrated charity into our lives in ways that it has never been before. Not only is it accessible and overwhelming, it is cool. I wonder if this is going to create a generation of fad givers, and how that will change the way nonprofits ask for help. This year RED has made fighting AIDS in Africa cool and they will hopefully raise awareness and money. Unfortunately, the problems that surround AIDS in Africa will not be solved in a year, and if WWF and Bengal tigers are the fad charity next year, will RED find itself shorthanded?