Posted by Ingrid Lombardo, CET China Programs Manager
Harbin in the winter is icy and cold. Everybody knows that. But rather than hibernate and wait for summer, the people of Harbin take their ice and make ice cream, so to speak. Our students, of course are studying hard. But down on the Songhua River, it is a festival atmosphere. Vendors, wrapped to their ears in warm clothing, sell cotton candy. Children play on cheerful snow sculptures and slide down a wide snow luge. Workers carve out blocks of ice from the river to build impressive (and massive) ice sculptures around town. Leading up to the river is a cobblestone street with European-style restaurants, coffee shops, a Russian church, a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque, a Walmart, a Carrefour, and what else … oh yes, Chinese restaurants and shops too.
It is week two and the vestiges of my American tourist self are slowly disappearing as my navigation skills improve. I don’t quite feel like the totally lost girl fighting with a flapping map.
With this new found confidence my roommate Molly and I decided that if we are going to continue the Czech diet of dark beer and bread, we were going to need to balance it out. In search of a cultural experience, we found a Czech yoga, or joga, studio that claimed to offer classes in English. So, Tuesday evening we set out for Vinohrady to realign our spines, souls, and work on our stomachs.
We took the A line from Mustek , and then began our search for the studio, supposedly four minutes from the station. We ended up royally turned down the winding streets of Vinohrady. Utterly confused, turned around, and forced to unfold the map all the way and advertise our tourist presence, we decided to find dinner instead, which led us through the dinning hall of a girls’ boarding school, then to a bar packed with large, stogie smoking, Czech men, and finally a very tame Italian bistro where the waiter spoke English. But our adventure only got more interesting; after finally locating the studio, which was down a very dark, sketchy looking side street, we were informed through a mix of broken Czech and English that the English yoga classes are at the Indian Embassy. So, we decided that Intensive Czech yoga was better than no yoga. It turned out to be excellent practice in reading body language; we had to guess what was wrong with our poses from the frowns of the instructor. Two very meditative hours later we reached the verdict that although it was certainly interesting and different, being the only English speakers in the room, it was not a neighborhood we would visit again alone, or a studio that we wanted to return to. Still, we went looking for a cultural experience and that is what we found.
Although the carefully planned yoga excursion was fun, the most meaningful moments here have come entirely by
surprise. My roommates and I went in search of the Chinese market in Holesovice that was supposed to have great, cheap, produce; one moment we were all freezing on a tram, pouring over a map, and the next we rounded a bend of the river and were met with the full beauty of the sun setting behind the city. The light took my breath away, and we frantically attempted to capture to moment with film. Its times like this, sunset, or laughing ridiculously after two of the most awkward hours of yoga, that take me entirely by surprise. I cannot believe that I am in this city, in Praha, in Central Europe, discovering life all on my own.
The never-ending search for “Czech Culture” over the past two weeks has required a sense of adventure and called for a sense of humor that I was not expecting. I thought that careful planning was all you needed to find good Czech food or markets, but it seems that even with guidebooks and google, you need to be up for plans to change at the drop of hat and for a simple metro ride to become an exciting journey. These past few weeks seem to be an endless stream of changing expectations. From classes, food, nightlife, to living situations, my flexibility and adaptability has been challenged. Personally, letting go of control and going through the week without a plan is quite challenging. But I think to really get to know this city I’m going to need to just let go, get lost and see what I find.
I’ll let you all know how intentionally getting lost goes next week! Enjoy the following photo highlights…
Classic Shot of a Planned Activity: The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, a classic must see, but after the third or fourth trip through the square watching the tourists fight for the best shot of the clock was almost more interesting than the building.
Sunset in Holesovice: Sunsets may happen all over the world, but the light on the river and the silhouette of the city was incredibly beautiful and the moment seemed unique.
Off the Beaten Path Again: Snow in the Franciscan garden just next to the CET offices. I love this place; it’s wonderful to grab a few moments of solitude and peace in the middle of a hectic day.
First of all, let’s be honest. The reason for the large number of students who choose Italy as their study abroad destination is the food. Sure, the weather is heavenly—especially here in Catania—and the history, art, and architecture are beautiful, but Italian cuisine is legendary.
Having been here for a month now, the five other CET students – Tess, Sam, Angela, Julie, May – and I have gotten to experience quite a range of pasta. The pasta that dreams are made of. Admittedly, our first night cooking was not particularly successful. For a few of us, this is the first time living in an apartment with other students. We quickly realized that cooking for eight people was going to be a challenge. We started out simply, just pasta with sauce (or salsa, as it is called here) and spinach (spinaci). Our table was set, we had bought bread from the local panificio (bakery) and we were quite proud of ourselves.
The pasta wasn’t perfect; there was a bit too much spinach and just not enough sauce. We gobbled it up anyway.
But we have improved since then. Our resident chef, Julie Hooper, maintains that cooking is relaxing, therapeutic, and, simply, what she wants to do. And try as we might to keep up, the rest of us can’t compare. Several conversations regarding dinner have consisted of us trying to explain to Julie that we don’t know how to just throw something together! But we keep trying, and hopefully soon we will soak up Julie’s culinary knowledge through our stomachs.
Over the past month, we’ve moved beyond pasta and sauce. We are trying new things; after all, that’s what study abroad is all about! Our first step was to branch out and start buying food the Italian way: at one of the outdoor markets in Catania.
On a recent Saturday morning, we decided to brave the famous fish market. True to the stories, we started to smell the fish market as we began to cross the Piazza del Duomo and head down the steps into the extremely crowded mercato.
We tried to dodge the puddles of questionable, fishy liquid on the cobblestone ground as our minds reeled from the crowd. Although we couldn’t quite understand what the fishermen were shouting in Sicilian dialect, we did understand that, much like learning to cook for eight people, this too, was going to be a challenge. As we eyed the abundance of fish: skin, bones, eyes, and all, we all wondered how on earth we were supposed to cook it.
While we considered what we would cook that evening, we split up and wandered through the meat, fruit and vegetable sections of the market.
Finally, we rendezvoused with a plan: artichokes and swordfish for dinner. Since the cuts of swordfish available were in steak form, we felt confident that we could cook them.
Well, the other students felt confident. I keep kosher, and so I was exempt from the swordfish venture. I assigned myself to artichoke duty.
About an hour later, we were all sitting happily at the table. Our neighbors probably heard the compliments that filtered out of our kitchen: the swordfish was a hit. It turns out that while learning to cook in Italy, it’s best to take Miss Frizzle’s advice: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”
As long as we don’t end up inside a swordfish, I’d say we’re doing a pretty good job.
To top off the first weekend in Sicily, the Spring 2011 CET Sicily program took in the long-faced portraits of Modigliani at an exhibit in the Castello Ursino (built in the 13th century!). Claudio and Ivana, the group’s Italian roommates, came along. The show’s organizers were excited that American students visited and snapped the above photo as a memento!