History and Tradition in the Bluestack Mountains

One of the things that has most set my time in Glenn Fhinne apart from my time in Glenn Cholm Cille is the opportunity I had to hear about the rich history and folklore of the area. Most of the Irish language songs I discussed in class this week were from the area—and when I say from the area, I mean within about ten miles. One of the highlights was a moving song by a woman in the early 1900s longing for the home of her youth. According to our teacher, the home of her youth was about five miles from her home at the time she wrote the song.


On a more serious note, we had the opportunity after class one afternoon to drive out to the Bluestack Mountains and hear about the history of the people who had lived there. The area that we went hiking in currently has only a few houses, but a hundred years ago, it was home to seven extended families, all Irish-speaking. The first school wasn’t founded there until the early twentieth century. When the school was finally created, it offered not only primary education for the families’ children, but also night classes in English targeted at older teenagers and young adults in their twenties. The schoolmaster realized that many of the young adults would need to emigrate to England or the United States in order make a living, and that their lives would be difficult without English.


In spite of the emigration, though, the area seems to have contained a strong Gaeltacht community for quite some time. During the twentieth century, linguists traveled to the Bluestack Mountains to record stories and songs in a language that they didn’t understand. In one story we were told about the area, there was a woman living there who didn’t speak English as late as 1944. Today, a person who speaks Irish and not English would be more or less unheard of.


I’m grateful that we got a chance to travel to the Bluestack Mountains and to hear about them, because it gave me a chance to put the language in perspective. As an Irish language learner, I often hear concern from people about the small number of people who speak the language. Our trip to the Bluestack Mountains helped me to put the changes that have taken place in Irish speaking communities over the last hundred years into perspective.

Week 3

In the past week, besides regular German lessons, I paid a visit to Residenz – the former royal palace of Bavarian kings.

The palace itself is without doubt spectacular, as the following photo of The Hall of Antiquities witnesses as an example:


But what really impressed me in Residenz was the an item from the Carolingian era that are preserved in the Treasury of Residenz. It is the prayer-book of Frankish King Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne:


It is thought to be the earliest extant Latin prayer book for ruler. Before really having an opportunity to look at it in person, I had not realized how small it is: smaller than an adult’s palm. Its size hints that this prayer book was so portable and therefore probably was always carried by Charles the Bald with himself. On the other hand, The small font of the prayer book might also suggest that Charles the Bald probably did not really read it when praying, but used it as a memorandum, which confirms my positive evaluation about the degree of religious knowledge that Carolingian rulers including Charles the Bald had.

To me, as a Carolingian scholar, the visit to Residenz was so worthy, mostly because of the unexpected encounter with this Carolingian treasure!

The Tyranny of French Swimming Pools

I would like to begin by decrying the blatant, heinous, backwards, draconian regulation that is the French swimwear standard at public pools. APPARENTLY, due to hygiene concerns of dirt and etc being brought into pools, men must wear compression style, polyester/spandex blend, jammer swimsuits of Olympic swimmers in order to swim in municipal pools. This “Speedo or Go Home” dictatorship thus prevents me from going to the pool with my host family and friends. It’s utterly antithetical to the capitalistic principles of a successful business, not to mention nonsensical, as obviously, one’s level of cleanliness should not change based on their attire. As they say, when in Rome… go to the beach.


Me discovering that my swim shorts are non-compliant

Anyways, here we are three weeks in, this is the part when I break free (Shout out to my fellow Ariana Grande fans). In spite of my perceived struggles, I have officially moved up from my starting level of B1.1, to B1.3‼! This leaves me within striking distance of B2, at which point I’ll be able to further my education by taking any class while studying abroad next fall at Angers. Woot woot‼


Gotta pay your dues when you’re moving up in the world

Perhaps because this week covered food and culinary verbiage, or maybe because I have reached some level of acclimation to France, I felt much more at ease speaking to my classmates and family outside of class. I seem to have begun overcoming over my problem of circumlocution, as everyone seems to better understand what I am saying, and conversation is faster flowing. Still not 100%, but I can see clear progress.


Cheers from Brest as me and my fellow students explore the city.

And the lessons appear to have improved my reading as well, for I now can read the morning’s articles on my Le Figaro news app at a reasonable pace. The journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step, but I’m on the way from news to novels to documents, all in due time.

One particular challenge remaining is the French ‘R’ sound in my pronunciation. As an Anglophone, as well as a heritage Korean speaker, the ‘R’ in such words as Parler and Merci among countless others, is difficult for me. I’d like to think the rest of my accented French isn’t so horrendous, but my professors are ever so quick to point out that particular mishap. Practice makes perfect, but personally I’m ok for now with giving myself away as American (which I am), because the default assumption is Chinese (which I am not).

That’s all for this week. Next week I’ll discuss something about the local community, likely the minority experience here in Brittany.

Taking Tests & Being Tourists – 6

Tomorrow marks the end of my language study in Russia. Although I am sad to leave, I know that I will come back to ND with a much different perspective on Russia, its people, and language learning. It has been a busy week, full of hard work and celebrations for completing said work.

Our group took the TORFL Russian language certification exam. It was a grueling two-day process, but we all successfully passed the exam that consisted of 5 parts – writing, reading, listening, grammar, and speaking. The experience of living in and moving around Moscow made day 2 (listening and speaking) much easier than I anticipated because immersion allowed me to make great leaps on the path to fluency. I had two small victories in language acquisition this week when one girl mistook me for a native speaker and a waiter in a restaurant complimented my accent.

After passing the TORFL, we allowed ourselves some time for final tourist attractions. First on the list was visiting Lenin’s mausoleum. This was on my list of must-sees from the moment I arrived in Moscow, but the mausoleum is only open to the public from 10-1 on a few weekdays, so I was always in class during this time. We arrived over an hour early on Wednesday morning and the line already stretched beyond the border of Red Square. Once the doors opened at 10, the line moved surprisingly quickly. Security was very tight, and the guards kept everyone moving at a steady rate. There was no possibility of lingering in the crypt. Once inside, you go down several dark flights of stairs to where the preserved body is stored. It was a surreal experience to see this infamous man displayed, and he hardly looked human. A friend commented that it looked more so like a wax figure. One many walked through the mausoleum with his hand in his pocket and a guard yanked his hand out yelling “No!”. The entire experience was very tense, but I’m glad I went. Outside the mausoleum there are several other memorials and graves of Russian and Soviet leaders.Pictured is the outside of the mausoleum, located on Red Square.


We then went to the Tretyakov State Gallery. This art gallery features many of Russia’s foremost fine art. I particularly enjoyed the gallery of Mikhail Vrubel’s art. Vrubel, a member of the Symbolism movement, is primarily known for his paintings but also dabbled in other media – especially ceramics. The gallery featured many of his paintings, some sketches, and these alternate-media compositions. Among these, I particularly enjoyed a ceramic fireplace he created- full of colors and intricate designs. One of his most famous works, Demon Seated (pictured), was inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, Demon. The poem exists in two parts and offers a nihilistic perspective of the word that roused Vrubel to create the painting.


After 5 weeks of doing my best to assimilate to the local culture and not stand out as an иностранец (foreigner), it was fun to take a 180º turn for only a few days. We concluded our celebration of the Russian adventure with a trip to the souvenir fair in Izmailovsky Market. This is Moscow’s version of Disney World’s aesthetic, with many colorful buildings, tourist attractions, and hundreds of vendors selling everything from traditional, hand-painted Matryoshka dolls to Putin memorabilia. We bid farewell to our time among the Muscovites with delicious kebabs and ice cream and headed back to the metro.

Fifth Week in Beijing

The Friday of our fifth weekend here in Beijing, our class and teachers set out an our weekly excursion to the headquarters of XiaoMi, one of the leading tech and smartphone companies in China. XiaoMi was created only six years ago, and since then, has grown significantly in the selling of smartphones, tablets, and other “smart” technology in China, India, and other parts of Asia. While there, we were given an introduction to the company, its history, and its business strategy by one of its founders and engineers, and then were given the opportunity to visit their one and only retail store. This was definitely a unique and interesting experience.

The next day was our first free Saturday since arriving, so we decided to make good use of it. In the morning, we set out early to see the Summer Palace, one of the most famous palaces and historical landmarks in China. Though the day was the hottest since we’ve arrived and the park was extremely crowded, the Summer Palace was definitely one of the greatest things I’ve seen so far. The Palace itself was incredible, but it also included a scenic lake, a huge Buddhist temple, a gallery of ancient Chinese art, artifacts, and clothing, and the theater and stage that the Emperor of China used to attend.

IMG_3042  IMG_3044 (1) IMG_3056

After seeing the Summer Palace, three of us set out to visit the Beijing Olympic Village, and while there, we were able to see the inside of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, something that I thought was definitely worth a visit. The next day, a few friends and I returned to the Beijing 798 Art District to see more of the art exhibits and shops, and it was great to have the opportunity to see more of this area.

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You Can See Finland From Here

Not too long ago, I visited St. Petersburg with some other students from my group. We were on our own with no resident director to guide us (although two of the students became quasi-resident directors). On the second day, we visited Peterhof, Peter the Great’s palace in the Gulf of Finland. Initial construction of Peterhof began in 1714 and finally ended in 1723. While there are many methods of arriving to this island, we took the hydrofoil across the water, allowing us to see a waterfront view of St. Petersburg and some other boats in the gulf. Supposedly, on a clear day you can see Finland from the pier. The path from the pier to the main palace follows the Marine Canal, which allowed the tsars to sail right up to their palace.

Marine Canal

Marine Canal

Directly in front of the palace is the Grand Cascade and the Samson Fountain.

Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain

Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain

It’s a stunning sight, but it’s hard to get a good photo because of the large number of tourists. People crowded the slippery steps, everyone waving around their phone, professional camera, or even selfie sticks. I have seen more selfie sticks on that three day trip to St. Petersburg than all of my combined years in America. As I walked up the steps, there were two little boys climbing the banister as opposed to the actual steps with their grandmother scolding them, telling them to be careful. I even saw a few wedding parties taking photos here and there.
While one can pay extra to visit the inside of the palace and the grotto, I only had three hours to explore the entire island, so I chose to wander around the grounds that hid fountains, statues, and mini-museums. The rest of the grounds were significantly less crowded than the palace and as I walked among the perfectly manicured lawns and gardens, I could almost imagine the tsars and their family and guests wandering around the grounds, just around the corner or on the other side of the trees. Two of my favorite spots were a little house-museum and another cascade fountain. The little house-museum stood at the end of a perfectly square pond with ducks and ducklings swimming in it. Tourists relaxed on benches around the pond, with the best spots being under the trees. Despite the colder weather, the sun was still fierce. The cascade fountain was a good distance from the palace and had marble statues at regular intervals up the cascade. It was flanked by two large jets of water, at least two dozen feet into the air.

On the way back to the pier, I rested on the beach and simply watched the waves. The water was too cold and probably too unclean to swim, so people simply sunbathed on the sand or the rocks. In Moscow, I try as much as I can to blend in and not look like a tourist or a foreigner. Sometimes this works too well when people come up to ask me for directions and I have to admit that I am as lost as they are. But in St. Petersburg, I allowed myself to be a tourist and simply enjoy the sights.


Xi’an: A Weekend in Review

The 11 hour train ride from Beijing to Xi’an seemed impossible at first, especially upon learning that we were not going to have wi-fi for the entire ride (and for the entire weekend, for that matter). I thought about all of the snapchat streaks that I would lose, the text messages that I would be late to respond to, and all of the content that I would miss over the span of the weekend. However, I slowly realized that staying unplugged was definitely one of the best parts of the trip. As I looked out the window and watched the scenery transition from forested areas to clusters of buildings, I saw a different part of China, one that truly served as a testament to the enormous scale of this country. I collected images in my head that I would’ve otherwise missed if I was staring at a screen the entire time.


Once we arrived in Xi’an, I instantly fell in love with the city. The food was different from what I was used to in Beijing, and compared to Beijing, Xi’an seemed to have a more calming vibe. Quite casually, our first stop was to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. Upon entering the massive complex that houses these iconic figures, I was at a loss for words. I had seen pictures and even saw the fake replica at Disneyworld years ago, but seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors in person was simply an unforgettable experience. This was also Ye Laoshi’s first time so it was great to share a sense of awe and wonder as we all tried to soak in the reality of, “Wow, this is actually real.”


The next day, we biked around the City Wall, but at first, I was terrified because I legitimately thought I forgot how to ride a bike. The last time I rode a bike was when I was seven years old, so when Ye Laoshi pointed at the yellow bikes and said we were going to ride around the entire perimeter of the wall (with all of the bumps and dips), I panicked inside. In my head, I pictured myself biking straight into a wall or falling over. However, I decided to just suck it up and got on my bike. The first few seconds were terrifying and I saw my life flash before my eyes several times, but once I got the hang of it, biking around the perimeter of the City Wall was, by far, one of my favorite experiences in China. It was exhilarating passing by the amazing views of the city and stopping to marvel at the beautiful traditional architecture.


I admit that it is a cheesy comparison but learning how to ride a bike again reminded me of my experiences living and learning in China. The first few days were full of dips and bumps in the road, and it definitely tested my patience. However, once I kept pushing through and celebrating the small wins every day, I began to really enjoy my time here. I am sad that I only have two weeks left in this country, but I want to do my best to make the most of it and learn something new every day.

Bless bless, Ísland! (Goodbye, Iceland!)

Unfortunately it’s my last day in Iceland. It’s gone by so fast! I still feel like my Icelandic is rather basic, but when I think about how little I could say before I started this program and how much I can use the language now, I realize that I’ve improved exponentially! I’m sad to be leaving Iceland, but at least I have a few books in Icelandic to read until I can return to this wonderful country.

Sjáumst, Ísland! (See you later, Iceland!) I will definitely come back!

Two Icelanders sit in the garden behind the parliament building (Alþingi).

Two Icelanders sit in the garden behind the parliament building (Alþingi).

Skate park in Reykjavík.

Skate park in Reykjavík.

The statue of Leifur Eiríksson before Hallgrimskirkja.

The statue of Leifur Eiríksson in front of Hallgrimskirkja.

Amy Bloch (left), a friend of mine from the program, and me (right) on the famous Icelandic horses. Photo credit: Courtney Cook

Amy Bloch, a friend of mine from the program (left), and me (right) on Icelandic horses. Photo credit: Courtney Cook

Cairn in Kaldidalur (Cold Valley).

Cairn in Kaldidalur (Cold Valley).

Water boiling out of the earth. This energy is used to power greenhouses nearby.

Water boiling out of the earth. This energy is used to power greenhouses nearby.

Icelanders at Grotta Lighthouse.

Icelanders at Grotta Lighthouse.

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

The conclusion of this school week marked the conclusion of our midterm, and as a divider between the semesters’ worths of content, the program ventured to Xi’an together. Exploring a new city was a breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally the air quality was noticeably better the moment we stepped off the sleeper train. If you haven’t started to notice a trend in my blog posts where I eat my words, maybe you’ll notice it now. I ended my previous post commenting on the severity in the divide between ancient China and modern China, but Xi’an has mastered balancing the two. Xi’an situates itself on the confluence of the Feng and Hao rivers, but also on the confluence of the China of today, the modern economic power, and the ancient, spiritual China. The two are not mutually exclusive. Xi’an was known as China’s established capital well before Beijing ever was, and is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Eastern Asia. Under the name Chang’an, the city was the eastern most stop on the Silk Road trading network, begun in the 2nd Century BC.

Even so, as we biked atop the city’s ancient city wall, the pagodas and temples were no longer the only constructions taller than we were. Rather, we circled an 8.5 mile perimeter of bright billboards and steely skyscrapers that somehow did not seem to need the protection of a fourteen hundred year old fortification.

Even so, though we browsed and haggled for good among street vendors with blinking neon signs, we were a block away from a mosque founded in the year 742. And at night, when we walked through the lanes bordered by the rising palatial architecture, the swooping roofs were illuminated by both distinctly colored LED lights as well as paper lanterns.

Even so, as we watched a performance of the Song of Everlasting Regret detailing the romance and rebellion in the life of an emperor from the year 755 AD, the stage production was not limited to the masks of ancient dramas. Instead, the theater lit up an entire mountain side with incandescent lights to mimic the night sky with stars dotting the path beneath a cable car system from which fireworks were shot towards the audience to portray a battle occurring on the platforms and pyrotechnics arising from the pond that surrounded the original stage. Somehow I don’t think the poem’s Ninth Century author envisioned the same production I saw. But it was incredible. It may have been cheesy but besides the overwhelming awe, all I could even fathom to think was that this production was the greatest metaphor for the entire history of China, not forgetting the explosive changes of the last half century, and not daring to exclude the centuries of culture preceding them.

To wrap things up, here is my weekly China travel advice:
Don’t wear white in China.
You don’t know how to use chopsticks as well as you think you do.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”


Probably twenty times a day I think to myself, “Chinese class this fall is going to be so easy.”
Now that’s not necessarily saying that this summer program is any harder than Chinese at Notre Dame. The only difference is the speed of the class, which compresses an entire week-and-a-half’s worth of normal content into one day, which in turn means we have an exam equivalent to a midterm covering six week’s worth of material every Friday, but it’s not like the vocabulary or grammar started significantly harder but with the speed, the new content is grows harder more and more quickly so the content is compiled and compounded and grows exponentially as any language class is always a cumulative review. Actually, I take that back. It’s way harder.
Studying Chinese in China has its advantages though (duh), even if its at this breakneck pace. I constantly find myself thinking metacognitively about my language growth to narrate in each blog post, and besides the obvious benefits of studying in China, I’ve noticed some psychological shifts not apparent in South Bend. I am always thinking in Chinese. Unlike at Notre Dame, where I walk to class for a single hour per day to drill the week’s grammar and immediately revert to English at the conclusion, here, I rarely bridge the gap back into the English mindset. Admittedly, most of the hour-long class was spent just attempting to enter into the solely Chinese mind frame. But amidst the language’s country of origin and all its folderol, I’m always thinking of a way to get my thoughts into that mode of communication, trying to decipher the characters I see on the board, in my dorm or on the street signs, and even the conversations from the couples next to me on the subway, even hearing them subconsciously guarantee that I stick to that Chinese first thought process. I never have to switch out of it. This makes for some pretty interesting consequences though. I have to force myself to timidly attempt newer grammar structures, especially when I’ve gotten into a comfortable routine of using certain other approaches with similar meanings. While the comfort of the more recognizable one means my speaking is just fine, failing to understand every grammar structure renders me completely dumbfounded when it comes to listening comprehension. There’s a recurring joke amongst my classmates and I regarding our ability to speak well enough to get by but whenever a native Chinese speaker responds to our request our only reaction is to become a deer in headlights. For example, ordering a pizza on the phone. After planning what I would say and reciting the order in my head for a few minutes before calling I was reasonably confident in ordering one large barbecue chicken, one medium half cheese, half veggie, but I could not even begin to fathom what the receptionist asked, presumably for clarification. Prices, on the other hand, I can understand perfectly fine. I’ll accept the small victory that is recognizing any Chinese class’s first chapter content.

But the best of these consequences includes training my brain into finally taking that shortcut of developing thoughts in Chinese first, completely circumventing the English and translation process. It’s amazing how even in my stunted vocabulary there are words I refer to only by their Chinese translation, often times even forgetting the English for it while on the phone with my friends and family.

It’s weird.
I like it.

Now for the part where I satisfy my lifelong dream to write for National Geographic. This last weekend was void of any program planned events. This entirely free weekend yielded radically different results from the first. There’s an additional level of bravery required in initiating conversation with other people on your own, to ask for directions, buy a ticket, order a meal or whatever you may encounter.

In addition, traveling alone is an radically different experience. I’ve noticed people are much more likely to approach me on my own than when I’m in a group with the program. Aside from an instance at the Xi’an Museum where a tour group of twelve year olds asked to take their picture with me, I have never been approached while with my professors. But as soon as I took the opportunity to walk around the Summer Palace alone, eight different groups of Chinese people asked to take a picture with the 外国人, foreigner, three different couples solicited me in order to practice their English, and eleven different babies or little kids ran up and shouted “美国!” (America!) at knee-height. Yes, I counted. It’s such a distinctive experience having strangers approach you in the mall to tell you all about their business plan dedicated to applying Chinese values to the competition of Western industrial job markets and asking your opinion than simply sight seeing with the same group of people I’d eat with at South Dining Hall. But hey, that’s what I signed up for.