The riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

By Rafael Morseletto, 2015 Gilman Scholar

Russia and the Russian way of life has puzzled Americans and Western Europeans since at least the time of Churchill–whose bewilderment of our neighbors to the East is quoted in the title of this post.  A cultural, political, economic and geographic mix of Asian and European traditions, the American visitor will find Russia to be a deeply stirred melting pot of the ancient and the modern, the familiar and unfamiliar, and the reasonable and the completely unacceptable.  Though ideological differences have kept and continue to keep Russia and The West at odds, my recent travels to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Veliky Novgorod may help shine a light on a world that many in America consider, sadly, to be a dark mystery better left unexplored.

Besides curiosity and a love of exploring new places, Russia has personally attracted me in its commitment and long list of accomplishments in Art and Science.  Russia is the motherland of the traditional 19th century Realist landscape painters Ivan Shishkin and Ivan Aivazovsky.  St. Petersburg (known in Soviet times as Leningrad), specifically, is the birthplace of the Leningrad school of Painting, and of course, the city hosting The Hermitage–one of the most well known and largest museums of art in the world.  In the field of science, Russia has nearly incomparable achievements in the area of space research and exploration.  Russia is also a significant global scientific contributor both historically and in the present.

My deep appreciation for Russian culture would simply be that if not for the generous contribution that allowed me to travel there in the first place.  I am deeply grateful to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Committee for financially supporting a large portion of my travel and program fees.  As a low-income student and person of color, I encourage everyone interested in travelling to apply for this scholarship.  This blog is a testament to just how within reach it is for anybody on the rocks about studying abroad.  If you want to experience a new country and culture, know that the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship will work with you to make this happen.

My first destination, and the city in which I had spent most of my time in Russia, was St. Petersburg.   I was lucky enough to choose a study abroad program (SRAS–School of Russian and Asian Studies) that accommodated me remarkably close to the city center.  The international student’s dorms of UNECON–the St. Petersburg State University of Economics–was less than one city block from Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s famous main street, and less than three city blocks from the world-known Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.  Its approximation to St. Petersburg’s main artery allowed for impressive access to most of the world famous attractions–including a short walk to The Hermitage Museum of Art and Culture.

One thing that stood out about St. Petersburg that I was not aware of until I became more comfortable travelling around Western Russia was the very pronounced European cultural influence.  The city boasted Classical and Baroque style palaces, 18th-century style French gardens, and pastel colored buildings that contradict the concrete, steel and rust of brutalist and Stalinist architecture more expected of by the western eye.  Of course, the visitor keen on seeing the dusty, weather-worn relics of the Soviet era need not worry, as they are typically further from the center and can be seen on the ride from Pulkovo airport.  In the three months I spent there, I opened my mind (and taste buds) to Georgian and South Russian cuisine, experienced the typical Russian rural life in Gryazno–a very small village about 79 km south of the city center–and, of course, practiced my Russian language speaking skills in a typical antikafe.  Unlike a regular café, an antikafe is a fusion café-game room-lounge space where tea, coffee, and cookies are free and patrons pay by the hour.  It is a Russian invention likely created to encourage long, comfortable stays in a fast moving city.

The second Russian city I visited was Veliky Novgorod (“Great” Novgorod, as opposed to Nizhny, or “Lower” Novgorod) during a day trip organized by my program.  Veliky Novgorod is a destination where one would expect to find the historian traveler.  The ruins of medieval Orthodox churches and historical plaques and markers scatter the serene, woodland outskirts of the city.  Before the Russian Tsardom and well before the Russian Empire, Veliky Novgorod represented the very beginnings of the Russian identity under the rule of the Varangian Chieftain Rurik.  Along with containing many sites and landmarks from before the discovery of the Americas, in more recent history, Veliky Novgorod is the birthplace of the famous Pianist and Composer Sergei Rachmaninov.

After some time had past from the trip to Veliky Novgorod, and I had once again grown accustomed to large city life, I was arranged to travel to an even bigger city–Moscow.  Russia’s capital and the second largest city in Europe, Moscow offered something that one had to actively look for in St. Petersburg–Communist iconography.  As mentioned earlier, St. Petersburg was very much influenced by European architectural standards of elegance.  In contrast, Moscow’s architecture appeared to be directly and deliberately opposed to any such influence.  Instead of the looming baroque palaces and grandiose Orthodox Christian steeples, Moscow’s horizon is dominated by intimidating Stalinist buildings–such as Russia’s equivalent of a Harvard, Lomonosov State University, and the famous Hotel Ukraine.  Additionally, Lenin and Karl Marx statues stand confidently in public areas mere blocks away from the world-famous Red Square and one has to look much more diligently for English-speakers and even just signs written in the Roman alphabet.

In a way, Moscow represents an active resistance against Western-style globalism with the city being difficult and even hostile for the American and European traveler.  As an American, it is clear that any political tensions between Russia and the US can be seen here.  Not simply the consequence of being a capital city, the atmosphere of Moscow has, as I’d been told, always been deeply political.  This could explain the much heavier presence of modern-day Communists (even occupying a notable 14 percent of seats in the state Duma) as opposed to, more logically, the birthplace of the Russian revolution in St. Petersburg.  An even bigger surprise being their coexistence with the second largest concentration of billionaires in the world–after New York City.  Whether considered good or bad by some, my experience in Moscow was generally very positive.  It was a city where I had enjoyed getting lost in, speaking to friendly and shady strangers alike, finding my way, setting out on a photo-hunt completely alone with no map, getting locked-in after-hours on the negative seventeenth floor of an old Soviet nuke bunker, getting lost again and finding my way again–all in the three days I had visited the city.  Moscow was definitely worth visiting, especially for the traveler with the “St. Petersburg” picture of Russia still fresh in their minds.

My return to St. Petersburg after the Moscow trip marked the final month of my overall stay in Russia but the beginning of a month of incredible autonomy.  Due to Spring quarter at SU overlapping with the entry date in my SRAS program, I had to arrive in St. Petersburg a month late–and consequently, leave a month late.  This meant I would be staying a month after the rest of the Americans in my group had left.  Though I would remain in my dorm for the period of time I had left, I would be free to explore the city with no guidance by any of the remaining English speakers, no itinerary, and with minimal obligations–the exhilarating experience I had always hoped for.  I had spent this time making friends, visiting local art galleries, a butterfly conservatory, a trashy basement punk rock venue, equally trashy late night shawarma stands, and of course the best places to pick up souvenirs.

The days following my return to Seattle became gloomier and greyer as I prepared myself to leave behind a city and country that had treated me so well.  Of the things I had worried about while preparing for this life changing journey–such as fear of hostility in my being American or a person of color or simply a foreigner–none came to fruition.  Either due to luck, good judgement or simply a misjudgment on my part, the Russian people made my experience in their country a wonderful and exciting one.  For this reason, I would gladly return to Russia and encourage any apprehensive Westerners to look past the political and historical biases and explore this wonderful country for themselves.

The Transition from Alyson to Bailee

My parents were surprised to find out that I went by my middle name while I was studying abroad in Chile. I had always been called Bailee and even I admit that it took some getting used to being addressed as Alyson. I told Chileans to call me Alyson because I knew that it would be nearly impossible for a native Spanish-speaker to correctly pronounce the first part of my name. The “aye” sound simply does not exist in Spanish conversation because the “a” sound is always pronounced “ah,” and even if you did run into a word in Spanish with “ai” in it (like bailar, for example), it would sound more like “buy” than “bay.”

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When I was in Santiago I was able to be Alyson instead of Bailee for a while. The Alyson side of me is less afraid to be social and I met a lot of great people that I never would have been able to talk to if it weren’t for my ability to speak Spanish. I miss the challenge of deciphering every street sign and menu at a restaurant even though it wasn’t always easy. I laugh thinking about the one time I ordered an empanada that I thought was filled with cheese and mushrooms and instead discovering that camarones means shrimp, not mushrooms. Mistakes like these made my life interesting and a bit hilarious.

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I remember walking into U.S. customs in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport after my flight in from Santiago and seeing an address from President Obama being played on a loop on a screen and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really home.’ The definition of home has come to mean so much to me in the sense that we can have a physical structure we call home, but also a culture in which we grew up that can provide the same level of comfort or fondness. More than ever I feel like a person without a home. I lived in the same small city up until the age of 18 and since I left the whole world has opened up for me in many different ways. The first big move was from California to Washington in 2015 and since then I have been to Mexico, Chile, and Argentina with my eyes set on more countries in the future. I was fortunate enough to see the homes of many different people and it made me think of just how complex intercultural exchanges are. The simple things like what makes us comfortable, what makes us laugh, and what inspires us are so dependent on where we call home.

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Since my return to the U.S. I have continued to keep in touch with my Chilean host mother. She helped me through the death of my grandfather in August, but more than that she constantly encouraged me to look forward. She had lived in Santiago her whole life so she knew everything about how to make the most of my experience there. My host mother Tita made Santiago my home when I was feeling lost and I have been missing her and that beautiful city since the day I came back.

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Nowadays my friends can find me painting or drawing in my new dorm room back at Seattle University. I haven’t been in Seattle since May 2016 and I feel like already a lot has changed. A big accomplishment for me my first year at Seattle University was putting on my first solo show at Cafe Pettirosso in December 2015. My time abroad has filled me with artistic inspiration and I hope to complete another body of work that I can be proud of in the coming months. I have a lot to think about now that I have lived for a while in another country. I have been thinking about my own sense of identity as well as what I call my home and where I would like to call home in the future. Art has been the constant in my life that urges me to push myself further and I hope that art and travel continue to inspire me to be a better person.

The Harsh Reality of Being an Idiot Abroad

It has come to the point in my study abroad experience where finals are approaching, break-throughs are being made, and everything seems inspiring; The most bittersweet part is that the end of my program is less than a month away, nagging in the back of my mind. I’ve been trying to soak up every detail of the city that I can with my eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs, desperately clinging to what it feels like in the present moment. I don’t want to forget a single thing. Pictures help, but nothing will fully be able to recreate this experience the way I’m living it in this very second.

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The 2016 presidential election somehow managed to worm its way into my every thought, despite the fact that I was living on the other side of the world. I started to question my thinking, “metacognitioning” why exactly I was stuck thinking about a decision being made in what might as well have been an alternate reality at this point. I was living and studying in another country, but my mind snuck back home sometimes.

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Living in Chile has given me a dramatic new perspective on my role in this world. This is a time in which I have the unique opportunity to live and learn from another culture peacefully and with few diplomatic systems standing in the way of this cultural exchange. I applied for a student visa and in response, Chile granted me permission to learn from them in exchange for me abiding to their country’s rules. This is especially important in that the knowledge that I have acquired here is irreplaceable. In addition, the setting that allows me to study Spanish in all forms has awarded me many compliments. I feel myself making more and more connections every day that I reach out to someone in their native language. Communication is so important and this experience has pushed me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one.

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Somehow Santiago de Chile has made me less American and more Chilean. I am not completely one or the other, but rather instead I feel like some other country-less entity looking desperately to share and learn with others. There are many ways to do this, but a great example of an experience related to making connections occurred today.

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It was a typical November day in Santiago which means that the sun was out, hinting at the beautiful summer that was only a matter of months away. The streets were hot and the grass was dry in reaction to the changing of the seasons. Spring.

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It was hot and nothing seemed more appetizing in the moment compared to a cup of chocolate ice cream. I roamed the streets for a while looking for somewhere promising and ended up walking into a store much like a supermarket I had seen back in Seattle. My eyes narrowed in on a cup of ice cream in an advertisement that promised multiple textures of the stupid candy. Being American, I walked straight up to the counter and inquired about the dessert. However, I tried to enunciate my Spanish clearly in order to figure out exactly: What did it taste like?

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Her response took me off guard. She completely turned away from me and said something to her coworker loudly enough for me to hear. It took me a while to piece together what she was saying, but in a few moments I roughly translated what she said to, “I hate when they just walk up here and start talking at me.” My heart felt like it skipped a beat. Without even realising it I had exercised a stereotype of American consumers that she held to be true and I was caught red-handed. I did indeed walk up and directly inquire about the dessert before saying hello or anything. This seemed typical to me, but that was coming from my experience living in Washington and California; it seemed harmless enough to get straight down to business.

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I remember saying something about the dessert again, really pining for what I had come for in the first place, but she returned my inquisitions with a hateful stare. I had dug myself into a deeper hole. Before I left I asked her if she had anything that she could sell to me and she just shrugged and shook her head no. I had really done it this time. I had successfully had a conversation, or rather an interaction, with a native-Spanish speaker, but it all might as well have been for nothing because I had broken the cultural norms that this young Chilean woman was accustomed to. I didn’t know any better, of course, but by cutting straight to the chase I avoided the opportunity to ask this woman how her day was going. It must have not been going well, given that she refused my service simply for being an idiot abroad.

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With the hindsight that I have now I am finally able to come to a logical conclusion. If I really want to meet people and have them accept me, then I have to change a part of my routine in order to invite them into my life. I need to be mindful and change my perspective from time to time because sometimes we just get caught in our own silent routine. I remember feeling quite depressed after this interaction, but now I feel like I have the tools to be a better student abroad.

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Later that same day the heat was just not letting up. I had to make the inevitable decision to interact with another Chilean after just being refused service by someone earlier. I was so scared that I would offend someone again, but alas I walked up to an older woman with her cart selling fruit and simply said “Hola, como estai?”

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The woman returned my greeting and seemed ready to start with the transaction. I went on about how hot it was and she agreed that she had noticed too. Her fruit stand was a handmade cart with an umbrella shading her and the cooler filled with fresh fruit that she had brought. I paid for a cup of fruit and then got ready to leave. She asked me if I wanted cream, but she ended her sentence with “o no?” insinuating that it was optional. I asked her in Spanish if it was yogurt or milk because the bottle said “yogurt” on it in English. She said no, that it was more like a sweet creamy topping that she can drizzle over the cup of fruit. I asked her if she liked it; to be honest, I was very curious about it. She laughed and said of course.

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Needless to say, I ended up leaving with a delicious snack before my next class feeling good about what I had said. I entered this woman’s life, made sure that she was doing well, and then I contributed to her business. She gave me an important cultural experience, practice with my Spanish, and also a new spin on a snack that I would have otherwise continued eating the same old way.

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Being a student abroad can be so rewarding, but only if you are willing to roll with the punches sometimes. It reminds me of how Americans are reacting to the election of Donald Trump with revolts in cities across the nation, but most disturbingly for me, in two cities that I hold dear: Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco, California. Some news articles tell me the worst stories like the tech industry’s plan to secede California in response to the election of a president, exposing the need for a “serious national dialogue” around “rampant sexism, racism and hate that Trump campaign has exposed.”

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Words matter a lot in this day and age and it’s about time we started using them wisely. We should spread thoughts of positive change and strive for unity, but that all starts with simple communication. It will be interesting to see how everything plays out after such a massive statement was made by the American people this election season. I can’t wait to return to my home country to express my opinions, but I am also having an amazing experience abroad that I couldn’t be more thankful for.

-Bailee

Travel, Art, and Death

I suppose I should start this by saying that my grandfather passed away the morning of August 26, 2016. I had been in Chile for no more than four days and I had already broke down. “Se murió mi abuelo,” I told my host mother as I began to cry.

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I live with my new host family in the neighborhood of Ñuñoa, located on the east side of Santiago. This is a good neighborhood for me because every morning I can look out of my four-story window and see children walking to school with their mothers. The white noise that I hear outside my window every night is soft and comforting. Conversations in Spanish and bars playing ugly American pop music lull me to sleep.

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I was lying in my new bed when my mom called me and told me the news. I knew that my grandfather had been sick for months, but the feeling of his loss hurt me immensely nonetheless. The walls are thin in my host family’s apartment building so I’m sure they heard me crying. But enough sadness, because I am not sad anymore.

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My host mother’s name, as it was first told to me, is Carlota, but in Chile everything ends in -ito or -ita so I call my host mother Tita. (Carlota, Carlotita, then Tita… get it?) Even though her nickname may directly mean “little Carlota” she is anything but. Sure, she only reaches my shoulders on her tippy toes, but she has the heart of someone at least twice her size. When she first met me she immediately told me that she was “muy fuerte,”meaning very strong. And boy was she right.

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The perspective that Tita gave me about my situation is what made it so I could continue my study abroad experience. I told her that my grandfather had been sick for so long that when I saw him last on August 22, he could barely acknowledge my good-bye kiss. I told Tita that in my grandfather’s last moments on earth were spent with my mother, my uncle, and my grandmother, all people that love him dearly. My mother held my grandfather’s hand and told him that it was ok, that he was safe. I told Tita that my mother held my grandfather’s hand as he took his last breath and then I cried even harder.

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So you see that there were a lot of people in pain, not just my grandfather. My mother was in pain watching my grandfather suffer, and I was suffering being so far away from him in his last moments. The pain took its toll on my whole family so when my grandfather finally passed peacefully, we were emotional, but we all knew that he was finally free from the body that had been working against him for so long. Tita knew this and she worked to make me understand it more. She told me that my grandfather was in a better place where he could live in peace knowing that I was finding myself in another country. And it’s true. I know that my grandfather is proud of me and the last thing that he’d want me to do is to be sad while I’m in such a beautiful and vibrant place.

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The day after my grandfather died I visited La Plaza de Armas for the first time in my life. I visited the Cathedral dating back to 1600 and when I stepped inside I felt a strange spirit run through my whole body. Tears fell down my face before I knew they were there. I was surrounded by art and I felt safe.

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I come from Santa Rosa, California. I already know that you don’t know where that is, but just know that it is a small, tight-knit city in Northern California. It’s one of the newest societies in the world, only dating back to the early 1800’s. The only history that I ever saw was photographs of the downtown area where one of the oldest buildings has now been converted into a Barnes & Noble bookstore. When I saw that Cathedral for the first time it was like being transported to a whole separate world frozen in time. The sculptures of religious figures I may never have the patience to learn about moved me immensely. They all looked like figures from an El Greco painting, but instead of being immortalized in paint, they were immortalized in three dimensions. They all stood on pedestals looking down on me, almost as if acknowledging my pain. I looked into the eyes of these sculptures and was moved.

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So now I bring it all together. Travel, art, and death. Although the news of my grandfather’s death was painful, it will only affect me as much as I allow it to. I can either shut myself in my room and weep in pain, or I can travel and see art and weep for joy. My choice is obvious.

 

Bailee Hiatt

She couldn’t get enough

This is Bailee Hiatt, again, signing into Hawks around the World for yet another psychological analysis of why I feel the need to travel. At first my desire to explore seemed natural, but my grandmother pointed out something very important to me this summer that made me think twice. She asked me why I felt the need to do community service abroad when so many people in the United States could use my help as well. In Santa Rosa, California, and Seattle, Washington, alike I have witnessed poverty and inequality. Why don’t I stay here and help the people closest to me? Why even travel when there is work to be done here?

"Self in Oil with Purple Hair" (2016)
“Self in Oil with Purple Hair” (2016)

This is a difficult question for many reasons. It addresses the universal problems that service has yet to solve in any one place. There is poverty in every country. There is slavery in some form in every country. There are confused children everywhere, not just in poor countries, but the rich ones too. When two Brazilian “Cannibals” arrived in France to meet the then thirteen year old king in 1563, renowned essayist Michel de Montaigne took note of the newcomers confusion regarding the controversies of a civilized culture. The Brazilians first asked why such a strong army listened to the whims of a young and inexperienced leader, but they also asked why there was such dramatic inequality between the rich and poor (Thank you to my HIST 17.1 professor, William Spires, at the Santa Rosa Junior College for this helpful anecdote). So we see that this has been a problem since the dawn of time. Either everyone gets some or a lot gets nothing. Civilized society today uses social Darwinism to defend the inequalities around us. I believe that people are not born into poverty, rather they were born into a system working against them. They were born into a system where only so few get to enjoy the luxuries of life without lifting a finger.

"Andy in Graphite" (2016)
“Andy in Graphite” (2016)

I saw this inequality in Tijuana, Mexico, when I went with my US-Mexico Border class to build dignified housing in impoverished communities. I saw children forced to walk across a one foot wide wooden beam over a fifteen foot drop to get into their home every day. I saw men deported to Tijuana from the United States having never been to that part of Mexico before. They looked scared.

"Self in Graphite" (2016)
“Self in Graphite” (2016)

That being said I am headed to Santiago, Chile for a college semester in only ten days. Of course I will find a way to volunteer, but I am also there to study. This is different than my last study abroad experience in many ways. First, I am going alone to Santiago. I did not plan to study abroad with friends because this is my journey that I need to take myself. Second, I am going for one hundred eight days total instead of only a week. This will give me time to see, hear, and possibly learn more than my last trip out of the country. I will be studying in a Chilean school full-time so that will have a huge impact on my perception of the country. Third, I will be living with a family in Chile whereas in Mexico I stayed at La Posada with my close-knit US-Mexico Border class. This is what I have been most excited for. Every fear that I had about leaving my family for a whole semester melted away when this option was presented to me. It was a no-brainer to chose a home cooked meal and a family to confide in over an apartment in solitude. I haven’t made contact with this mystery family yet, but I will take note of how my experience was affected by living with a family in Chile.

"Bridget in Oil" (July 2016 W.I.P.)
“Bridget in Oil” (July 2016 W.I.P.)

After this much rambling I should probably have an answer to my grandmother’s question by now. Alas I don’t. Perhaps it is because I am selfish. The feeling that I got while abroad in Mexico was irreplaceable, priceless. I suppose I chose to study abroad again in order to get that same feeling of importance that I got before. I probably won’t tell my grandmother that, though. She’d take that answer as a cop-out.

All of the images in this post are pieces of art that Bailee did this summer.

¡Vamos a Nicaragua!

Bienvenidos a Nicaragua

Hello. It’s me, Olivia, a rising senior at Seattle University. My major is Humanities for Teaching, with minors in Spanish (duh) and Psychology. I’ve made it safely to Managua, Nicaragua, where I will be studying Spanish for the next 6 weeks at the UCA (Universidad Centroamericana). For those of you who don’t know, Managua is the Capital of Nicaragua with a population just over 1 million people. It’s a beautiful place, filled with large plants, insects, colorful birds, heat and humidity. Fingers crossed I will become accustomed to the humidity.

Although I arrived early, early (1 a.m.) Saturday morning, I met my host mother, Marcia, today. The house is beautiful, complete with a hammock in the sunroom. Marcia has been wonderful and made us (there will be four of us staying here) a yummy dinner of soup, salad and the most delicious juice I’ve had. I can’t tell you what fruit it came from but I loved it. Even though I have only been here for a short two days, I have been enjoying my time and excited to see what else I will discover while here.

 

Week 14

Learn about Lisa’s experience in Bonaire with CIEE studying Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation. CIEE Bonaire is considered a Non-SU Program.

Bon Dia!

This week was my last week in Bonaire.

All we really had left to do was give our powerpoint presentations for our projects. We gave one in the morning to the teachers and class, and then the same presentation at night to the public. Other than staff and students, it was mostly retired people that showed up. I’m glad that all the presentations went well.

On Thursday I logged in my 40th dive! It was a fun-dive with friends down to 122ft at Yellow Sub. We saw a large cubera snapper (~5ft.), a barracuda, and lots of moon jellyfish! An anemone was even eating one of the moon jellies. I also received my (8) scuba certifications: AAUS Scientific Diver, Rescue Diver, DFA Pro (Diving First Aid), Advanced Diver: Advanced Adventure Diver– Advanced Buoyancy Control, Research Diver, and Shore & Beach Diver.

We ended the week by snorkeling at Lac Bay…

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