One Oxford term down, one to go

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I woke up this morning exhausted, still a little bit sick, and unsure if I ever really fell asleep last night. I got up out of my bed and fumbled across the tiny sleeper car to open up the window. Grey skies. Sigh. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting. Actually, that’s a lie—I had a romantic notion of train travel across Britain, fueled by a bizarre Victorian-era fantasy of afternoon tea while watching the rolling hills of the countryside. But in reality, much of the United Kingdom has been swamped with heavy bouts of rain this week, and it was 6:30 in the morning… far from “afternoon tea.” I blame the National Railway Museum in York for filling me with these romantic notions.

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A dining car at the National Railway Museum in York

A knock came at the door. Breakfast was delivered to my room—a smoothie bowl, orange juice, and English breakfast tea. As I slumped back in my bed, sipping my tea, I couldn’t help but watch the remarkable contrast between the bright green hills and the depressingly grey clouds. It was, after all, the only thing to do for that last hour of the journey. But then finally—a break in the clouds. For just a brief few minutes, the bright rays of the sun shone upon the Scottish countryside, lighting up the small homes on the hills. It was a brief but beautiful sight as the landscape quickly changed from rural Scotland to the Glasgow cityscape.

This is my third month living in England as a visiting student at the University of Oxford. I’ve been affiliated with Brasenose College, one of the thirty-eight colleges that compose the university, and it has a reputation as “the happiest college at Oxford.” Some fun facts: Brasenose was founded in 1509; that’s before Ferdinand Magellan tried to circumnavigate the globe. The most famous alum: probably David Cameron (don’t worry, everyone I’ve met is much more pleasant than the former prime minister).

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Hertford Bridge, also called “the Bridge of Sighs” after the one in Venice (although it’s actually much more similar to the Rialto—which I can confirm after spending a month crossing the Rialto every day)

It’s been a journey—mostly good, a bit funny, and at times just ridiculous. I think I’ve acclimated pretty well: I add milk and sugar in my tea, I spend many nights a week at my college bar, I’ve learned how to pronounce cities like “Edinburgh” and “Slough” almost correctly, I’ve grown used to asking about dress codes for events, and I’ve figured out which piece of silverware to use in a formal dinner setting. My phone, much to my frustration, has started to autocorrect words, such as “realize,” to match its British spelling (‘realise’). It’s stupid, and it makes me want to throw my phone against the wall.

This term, I did a tutorial in anthropology theory; tutorials are a style of learning unique to Oxford and Cambridge, where I had a one-on-one, once-a-week meeting with my tutor (mine was a fellow at All Souls College since Brasenose doesn’t actually have anthropology) to discuss my weekly essays and go over the material. Tutorials are a bit of an antiquated system, and there’s no real reason they continue to exist beyond just tradition. But it’s one I really prefer; the individual attention and frequent writing and personalized feedback has really helped me improve my ability to write and more critically understand social theorists. It’s even come to the point where I’ve been able to trick a few people into thinking I understand late nineteenth-century philosophy!

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Formal hall at Magdalen College during my first week at Oxford. Magdalen, along with Brasenose and Corpus Christi, is one of the colleges that Stanford students can be affiliated with.

While my anthropology tutorial—as well as the Spanish tutorial I’ve been doing—is taught through Oxford, I’ve been doing a Stanford seminar with about six other students taught by the faculty-in-residence this quarter, an experimental course on arts in prisons in the United Kingdom. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but it’s been an eye-opening look at the criminal justice system in England and Wales, complete with a visit to a youth prison facility and a prison for sex offenders.

The “arts” piece of it has been a bit more whimsical to me since I’m personally more interested in the “prisons” aspect, but now with just a week of the class left, I’m really grateful I took it, mostly because I got to meet someone—a Stanford Law School graduate, actually!—who does amazing work in advocating for youth in prisons. Instead of trying to recap her life story, I’ll share this, which is available publicly online:

When she was 16-years-old, Christa’s best friend was raped, and she became determined to be a district attorney. But when she got to law school, she signed up to teach the Fourth Amendment at juvenile hall, and her life path changed. She saw something powerful happen as the group of Chicago kids she taught developed into a community where even gang loyalties relaxed. She was personally transformed by the experience of hearing them long for something better than what they saw ahead of them. Christa transferred to Stanford Law School after her first year but took her juvenile hall experience with her. She started a Street Law program at Stanford, similar to the program in Chicago, to teach incarcerated and other at-risk youth about the law. But this time, Christa built her own curriculum and was soon being asked to speak about it at national conferences.

In one of my more embarrassing moments here, I actually started bawling at the end of her final day with us. I was trying to thank her for how much of an impact she had on me, and then I broke down crying. Stupid, right? The next afternoon, I called my parents, told them I wanted to stay at Oxford for another term, and that I was staying so I could study human rights law. Both my parents were initially not pleased—I was supposed to go to Santiago in the spring, which was already a very last minute decision, and just days before the withdrawal deadline, I wanted to back out. But when my parents heard I wanted to study law, my mom was immediately in favor of me staying.

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A reflection I shared on Facebook about two and a half weeks later, after visiting my second prison

My sudden realization that I want to pursue a human rights career is by no means the only reason I wanted to stay. I’ve made such amazing friends here, something I didn’t expect to do since it’s notoriously difficult for Stanford students to really feel integrated during their time here. But thanks to a perfect storm of being a little bit pushy, forcing myself to be more extroverted than I’ve been since my first month at Stanford, a stroke of good fortune, and running into some incredibly warm and inviting Oxford students, I can say pretty confidently that I’ve made at least a few friends. It’s truly such an experience to walk down into the Brasenose bar and realize that, on any given day, I know enough people to feel comfortable.

I’ve only just started becoming comfortable enough with people to really get to know their fuller personalities and their stories. I’ve been criss-crossing the United Kingdom, spending time in southern England cities like London, Windsor, and Bath, heading further north to Birmingham and much further north up to York, as well as to pretty random places, like Swansea in Wales. As you might have guessed, this week I’m in Scotland—I’ll be in Glasgow to visit some Oxford friends for the next few days, and then I’m off to Edinburgh to join the other Stanford students on the trip we take every term. (Next term, the trip will be in Cornwall, the weekend before Easter.)

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A rare occurrence: snow at Oxford! Truly a magical time.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve done a good job of meeting a variety of people and seeing as much of this country as I can, even if that’s meant a few long nights because I always choose new experiences with Oxford friends over regular study times and travel within Britain over travel across continental Europe. And yet, right now, I feel like if I left, I’d be closing a chapter of my life that I’m nowhere near finished reading. How convenient is it, then, that I have until the end of June?

Come mid-April, I’ll be surrounded by a new crop of Stanford students. They’ll come in with the same sense of magic and excitement that I did, and with luck, the magic will never disappear—even if it becomes shaped by the contours of reality. The week after Easter, I’ll be cheering on a few of my Oxford friends who will just be finishing exams. I’ll be spending my time reading and writing about international human rights law and social class in Britain, as I pivot to studying a mix of law and sociology. I’ll be spending my free time sitting on the grass to celebrate what the British call “summer” but I call “an exceptionally warm winter,” And of course, I’ll still be exploring the random nooks and crannies of the United Kingdom.

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Oxford in Feburary, LGBT History Month in the United Kingdom

Exactly three months ago on January 13, I had just finished my first week in Oxford, nervously wondering whether I would enjoy being here, whether I would make any friends, and whether I would want to stay. If you would have told me that I’d actually be here until the end of June, I would have been in disbelief. But I don’t know why I’m so surprised. From the week I turned twenty years old, just nine months ago, I’ve chosen to chase after adventure after adventure, taking great leaps of faith that have led me doing everything from a cross-country trip across the United States, three weeks of studying the Venetian Republic in Venice with a brief stop in coastal Slovenia (complete with a brief archeological dig!), a week-and-a-half in Israel and Palestine meeting with people from both sides of the Green Line, and traveling through Western Europe where I did everything from stumbling upon the yellow vest protests in Paris to meeting my brother’s bone marrow donor in Berlin.

Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” And now, the adventure continues, against all odds.

A Marrow Match in Berlin

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On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. People who lived within East Berlin were now free to enter and live in West Berlin. One of those people who found freedom of movement was Yvonne, who grew up in East Berlin with the Berlin Wall across the street from her garden. Her now-husband had previously attempted to escape into West Berlin just the year prior, leading to a nine-month jail sentence.

On November 9, 2014, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yvonne went to a marrow registration event hosted by DKMS at the site of the Berlin Wall. A child in Potsdam, a city on the border of Berlin, had needed a marrow donation, and she—along with over a thousand other people, maybe more—joined the marrow registry in order to see if she’d be match. She was not, but she and three others who registered that day ultimately became marrow donors.

The child in Potsdam ultimately found a match. And so did someone over an ocean away: my brother, Jude.

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I’ve written on here about my brother’s and my family’s journey with cancer. In August 2010, at the age of five, he was first diagnosed with leukemia. By December 23, 2010, I became his marrow donor, when I was only 12 years old. You can read about that first bout with cancer here. About five years later, in April 2015, my brother’s cancer came back. I wasn’t able to be his marrow donor again this time, and we had to search the national marrow registry.

There was a major problem: my brother and I are both mixed-race, Filipino and white. Marrow matches, unlike blood types, are much more specific, based on your tissue type (specifically your human leukocyte antigens, or HLA type). These are genetically passed down, making it much more likely for you to match with someone of the same ethnic background as you—although not always. However, the national marrow registry in the United States is mostly white, making it much harder for people of color and especially mixed-race people to find matches. According to Be The Match, the National Marrow Donor Program, the likelihood for a white person to find a match is 77%, but for black people, the likelihood is only 23%, making it even more urgent for people of color to join the marrow registry.

Miraculously, Yvonne, a German woman from East Germany, was my brother’s match. 

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When she found out that she was a match for an American child, she headed to Cologne (Köln) because marrow donation specialists were there and not in Berlin. (As I write this post, I am currently on a train from Berlin to Cologne—a roughly five-hour journey.) She needed to spend two days there—one for a physical exam and the next for the donation itself—but because Gamescom was happening during the week of her marrow donation, she couldn’t find a single hotel with an open room. She and the friend who accompanied her spent the night in her car, knowing how incredibly important this life-saving procedure would be.

On September 1, 2015, Yvonne donated her marrow. There are two ways to donate: one is a non-surgical procedure much more similar to donating blood, in which peripheral blood stem cells are filtered out of the donor’s blood and the rest of the blood is returned. The second is through an outpatient surgical procedure in which marrow is extracted out of the hip bone. Both Yvonne and I went through the second procedure, which as I understand it is common for when the patient is a child.

On September 2, 2015, the marrow made it to Dallas, Texas, and my brother received his second marrow donation.

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“Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.”

Much has happened in between September 2, 2015, and today. What’s often forgotten in stories about cancer is that the marrow donation is not the end of the story; rather, the marrow donation is usually the key to having the chance to fight another day. Between liver complications, graft vs. host disease, and other complications both common and uncommon for post-transplant cancer patients to experience, it was certainly no guarantee that we would get to the position we are in today, where the sky isn’t completely clear but the darkest clouds have certainly parted.

On December 30, 2018, as part of my travels through Europe, I had the opportunity to meet Yvonne and her family. Together, we did a walking tour of the city of Berlin, seeing so many of the major historical sites that make Berlin such an interesting city. With Yvonne, I tried currywurst—my new favorite German comfort food!—and schnitzel for the first time. And at the end of the long, four-hour walking tour, we took a break from the cold to have glühwein—this time a non-alcoholic version: warm blackcurrant juice so that the friend I’m traveling with (who doesn’t drink) and their under-16 year old son could join in.

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Currywurst

Here, holding our cups of glühwein to keep ourselves warm, Yvonne told me the story of her marrow donation. As she told me, when there was a child in need that she could help, she believed she had an obligation to do so. And thank God she did, because if she didn’t, my brother would have likely never found a marrow match. So much of this story was, to me, a miracle. The odds of him finding a match were already not ideal, but Yvonne turned out to be a perfect match—ten out of ten of her HLA markers matched Jude’s. The fall of the Berlin Wall set up the conditions for my brother to find his marrow match, first allowing Yvonne and her husband to enter West Berlin and then bringing her to join the marrow registry a full twenty-five years later.

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Now, in Berlin, I have family: my brother and Yvonne very literally have the same blood. The city has since become my favorite in Europe, partially because Berlin on its own is an incredibly unique and exciting city, but also because I will have such fond feelings for the city that gave my brother yet another chance at life.

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As I close out this blog post, I want to end with how you too can make a difference. If you are between the ages of 18 and 44 and in the United States, you can join the marrow registry through Be The Match. If you are outside the United States, other organizations like DKMS operate in Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Chile (as well as the United States). If you are in a different country, you can still join the marrow registry through other organizations. It does not matter through which organization you join the marrow registry, whether Be The Match or DKMS—joining the registry with any organization will make you available to people who need marrow transplants from all over the world.

Additionally, if you are in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, Children’s Health, where my brother was treated and I volunteered & interned for years in high school, hosts their annual marrow drive every February 14, Valentine’s Day.

Lastly, I wanted to share my friend Brooke’s Hero Fund through St. Baldrick’s, a charity that funds research on childhood cancer. Brooke is a Stanford student set to graduate from Stanford at the end of this school year after being diagnosed with cancer in the middle of her college career. Today, she has been accepted to medical school, and her hero fund aims to support research in young adult survivorship and graft vs. host disease; as I mentioned before, marrow transplants and cancer itself aren’t the end of the story, and very few resources have been invested in improving the quality of life for children and young adults who may be experiencing chronic medical issues after their cancer experiences. I asked for donations to her hero fund for my twentieth birthday, and today, to celebrate 2019, I encourage you to do so again.

The Joys of Christmas in Paris

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IMG_1618As I look to my right, I see cute, small houses next to the train tracks. Not long ago, I boarded my train in Basel, a city on the Rhine River in northwest Switzerland, en route to Berlin, Germany, where I’ll be for the next few days. Traveling through Europe by train has been the perfect change of pace to a surprisingly restful week in Europe, a far cry from the hustle-and-bustle of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the exhausting experience that is flying through JFK.

Paris was, in one word, beautiful. I was staying in the southern tip of the Latin Quarter, in Les Gobelins, in a hostel called—and I’m really not kidding—Oops!” Unlike Brooklyn Heights and the DUMBO area, a surprisingly charming neighborhood where the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge can be found that completely surprised me in terms of how much I enjoyed being there, Paris was actually about what I expected—in the most magical ways. I thought it would be much more hectic given that it was Christmas, after all. But after coming from New York City, I don’t know if anywhere can feel as hectic and overpopulated.

Side note about Les Gobelins: there were a bunch of giant teddy bears dotted throughout Les Gobelins—on benches, on the metro, and even in storefront windows! That’s why the featured image at the top of this post is me next to a bunch of bears…

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My first full day in Paris was Christmas Day, which began with a short metro ride from Les Gobelins to Montmartre, where the Sacre-Cœur Basilica was. That morning was actually the cutest morning in Paris, bringing me my favorite memories of Paris: Getting off the station, my friend and I began walking our way through Montmartre to look for Sacre-Cœur. Because it was Christmas morning, the streets were quiet. Fat pigeons—and I do really mean fat… the pigeons here are really quite plump—followed us on our walk through the streets, as the basilica began to appear in the distance. I hadn’t eaten yet, and I ended up stumbling upon a small bakery on a random street not too far from the train station; I bought a slice of quiche lorraine and an espresso, as older French women went in to buy baguettes and pastries.

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Even just eating my quiche and drinking my espresso on a bench nearby felt serene. (It helped that the quiche was delicious.) It didn’t totally feel like Christmas, but there was a certain simple magic to it that I hadn’t experienced in a while, especially since being a student at Stanford is just stressful all the time. Christmas Mass at Montmartre started less than an hour later, where one of the cardinals was presiding over it. I haven’t gone to a Catholic Mass in the longest time—maybe since last Christmas?—since I’ve started attending non-denominational Protestant services in the Episocopal style at Memorial Church at Stanford, but even though those church services look nearly the exact same as a Catholic Mass since Anglicanism/Episcopalianism isn’t really all that different, the universal, repetitive nature of Catholic Masses were of comfort since it was in French, a language I don’t understand.

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Ironically but unsurprisingly, Sacre-Cœur was much more hectic than the rest of Montmartre that morning, but even as we were leaving the Montmartre area a little past noon, it was clear that people were just beginning to walk around. Even a few stores were beginning to open, which seemed odd to me given that it was both the early afternoon and Christmas Day.

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Angelina

The next stop after Mass was the Tuileries Garden. My friend and I wanted to go to Angelina for lunch, partially because it was one of the places that we knew for sure would be open on Christmas Day. I was surprised that the wait for a table was only about five minutes, and even when we went back the next day to try the full brunch menu there was only a very short wait.

My friend and I had taken a weekly French cooking class at Stanford in the fall before we came to Paris, one of the most sought-after, “must-take” classes at Stanford—behind social dance and wine tasting. (I took social dance my freshman year and absolutely loved it, and wine tasting—along with beer tasting—is on my list of classes I’m planning to fight for a spot for when I return to Stanford in my senior year.) I went in with pretty realistic and achievable goals—I wanted to be able to crack an egg, which I can say that I pretty definitely achieved, especially after making shakshuka in my house’s kitchen with the Israel Fellow at Stanford! But I think more valuable than the recipes was actually just being exposed to different staples of French cuisine: one of those being the croque madame.

The instructor for French cooking was actually another Stanford junior, who himself had spent a good amount of time in France and spent a summer at Le Cordon Bleu. While in New York, I messaged him on Facebook to get restaurant recommendations, and Angelina was on the list! I had actually been there once with my family the last time I went to Paris—when I was about nine years old—and I just remember that the hot chocolate was to die for. This time around, because I hadn’t eaten, I went straight for the croque madame, and luckily the hot chocolate there is so rich that my friend and I were able to just split one serving. There’s more bread and less cheese than I would’ve liked—compare the first picture of the croque madame at Angelina with the second picture of a croque madame that I had on my last evening in Paris to see what I mean. It was a little pricey, but it was good enough to make us want to come back the next day for the full brunch course.

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Croque madame and hot chocolate at Angelina

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Croque madame in the Latin Quarter

Christmas Market & Champs-Élysées

Full from our surprisingly large meal, we wandered into Tuileries Garden, where there was a Christmas market happening. And what better time to go to a Christmas market than on Christmas? I had heard so much about Christmas markets—one of the staff members in my house at Stanford studied abroad in Berlin last year, and he mentioned that I should definitely check out the European Christmas markets—that I didn’t know exactly what to expect. It felt a bit like a bazaar of sorts, with people selling everything from hot fried foods to jewelries and scarves. I decided to treat myself to chaud vin, mildly-spiced hot wine, usually thought to only be for special occassions but I think Christmas in Paris certainly counts. (I didn’t actually like it all that much—I prefer normal-temperature wine, actually—and if I went to a different Christmas market, I think I would’ve preferred just getting a hot cider.)

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Look at the mulled wine cup I’m holding—very festive!

I didn’t realize the Christmas market was really close to the Louvre, too, which was a great surprise. It was closed for Christmas, but that didn’t make the area surrounding it any less pretty. If anything, it was probably even prettier because fewer people were in the area! From the Louvre, we walked down Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. There were a few notable things: first, there was a Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue and Station—it used to be named after an Italian king because Italy was an ally of France in World War I, but when fascist Italy (and the king) ended up aligning with Nazi Germany in World War II, the French decided to rename it after Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American president who allied with the French during the Second World War.

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Place de la Concorde

Second was that some of the windows of the storefronts were actually partially shattered. I’m pretty sure this was a result of some of the yellow-jacket protests in Paris that had been taking place in Paris every weekend since the end of November. These demonstrations were because of French dissatisfaction over inequality, as my Uber driver told me, and raising of the gas tax that affects mostly the lower and middle classes. Because these protests connected themselves to the French Revolution—yet another uprising over inequality in French society—yellow-jacket protestors marched down Champs-Élysées and to the Arc de Triomphe, a very clear call-back to the French Revolution itself.

If anything, that was the thing I found most interesting about Paris: its connection to its history. It felt like I was constantly stumbling on sites from the French Revolution—from Notre Dame, which was sacked, pillaged, and transformed into a Temple of Reason during the ban on Catholicism; to the Jardin des Tuilieres, which is what is left of the old Tuileries Palace that was burned down in 1871 and was, back in 1789, the holding place for the Royal Family before they were executed; to the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were executed by guillotine.

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Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in revolutionary histories (of both the left and the right), especially after spending the last quarter at Stanford studying the Spanish Civil War—where fascist dictator Francisco Franco led a coup of the democratically-elected socialist government of Spain—in the Spanish class I was taking. I never took a European history class—only world history was offered in my high school, and I am so glad I took that class seriously (to the point where I did 180 hours of extra credit for it in second semester of senior year), so a lot of my learning about the French Revolution, one of the most foundational moments that set up the world we live in today, has been both drawing from my own history education and researching more about the different places that I’ve been stumbling upon. This connection to history certainly isn’t unique to Paris—tomorrow, I’ll be doing a walking tour of Berlin with my brother’s bone marrow donor, and I’ll be studying at the oldest university in the English-speaking world for the next few months (Oxford).

What’s Next…

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IMG_1464 12.01.44 AMI’m currently off to my third country on this Grand Tour of Europe: Germany. Geneva, Switzerland, was beautiful, and being there made me think really hard about how I would maybe want to work for the United Nations one day, which I think would really fit the global character of my interests—I am an anthropology major, after all. France too was wonderful, and I’ll actually be returning to Paris for a weekend before I head to Oxford; that weekend will be a bit more about R&R and writing since I’ll be mostly alone, although I’ll be meeting a friend or two from Stanford before they officially start their winter quarters in Paris. On the theme of meeting friends, completely by chance, my trip to Paris overlapped with a different friend from Stanford, who lived in my freshman dorm with me! Since she studies classics, she’s here for a Latin program until the school year starts again. (It was actually with her that I had the other croque madame that I posted here!)

IMG_1241I am going to be continuing to eat and drink (more of the former, less of the latter) my way through Europe—in Berlin, London, and Paris (again) before a much longer three-month stint in the United Kingdom… which is still in Europe as much as it seems to not want to be! It turns out that I won’t have completely used my Eurail pass—I’ll have about one or two days left of train travel on it—so you can bet that I’m going to try to escape the United Kingdom at least once in Germany to reach the mainland.

At the same time as I’m gearing up for three months at Oxford, I’ve also been preparing for the following three months in Santiago, between buying plane tickets and having to update my resume to be considered for internships and volunteer opportunities. I recently heard back from the director of the Stanford in Oxford program about the Spanish directed reading I’ll be taking, so now I know who my tutor will be; I’m excited to be seriously devoting myself to language learning again, something I knew has been important to me since high school. As a side note, my time in France and Switzerland has made me even consider the possibilty of studying French on top of Spanish—French, of course, is the other key language of international politics (other than English), so who knows? It’d fit the UN theme, too!

Until next time!

Embarking on My Grand Tour of Europe

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Yet again, I’ve found myself in the place I know best: in the sky, over thirty-seven thousand feet above the ground. As I write this, I’m currently flying over Memphis, Tennessee, en route from Dallas–Love Field to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, which will mark the beginning of one of the most exciting trips I’ve ever been in—and that comes just months after my other “most exciting trips” through parts of the United States; Venice, Italy; Koper, and Piran, Slovenia; and parts of Israel and Palestine, which included both Israeli cities like Tel Aviv and western Jerusalem and Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Bethlehem.

If the summer had no real geographic base—coast to coast in the United States, a bit of Mediterranean Europe, and the Holy Land in the Middle East—this trip is focused in Europe. I start by spending the weekend in New York City, where I’ll be in Manhattan and Brooklyn. On Sunday night, I take an overnight flight to Paris, where I’ll be spending a few days, including Christmas. After that, all of my travel in Europe will be by train, starting with a short train ride to Geneva, Switzerland, followed by a much longer train ride through the German countryside and into Berlin, Germany, where I’ll be ringing in the new year. After that, I go from Berlin to Brussels, Belgium, where I’ll have a one night stop before taking a train to London, England. After spending a few days in London, I return to Paris to spend the weekend with friends who’ll be arriving there before I go back to the United Kingdom—Paris to London to Oxford. And finally, I’ll be spending the next term at the University of Oxford, the oldest English-speaking university in the world, studying social theory in the context of anthropology.

My “Grand Tour”

In some ways, this trip vaguely resembles the classic Grand Tour, extended travels of Western Europe undertaken by wealthy Englishmen in the 17th and 18th centuries when they came of age (about twenty-one). Even Leland Stanford Jr., the namesake of Stanford University, went on a Grand Tour of Europe in the late 19th century with his parents at the age of fifteen, although that journey ended tragically with him catching typhoid in Athens before dying in Florence. In the 19th century, the development of railroads led to the opening of the Grand Tour to the middle class. And thanks to commercial aviation, the Grand Tour was upended yet again, so that by the 1960s, traveling through Europe became popular with college students who’d backpack through the continent.

With my journey, the “Grand Tour” is being turned on its head—no longer is this trip reserved for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants with considerable wealth and privilege, but instead it’s more reminiscent of the later developments of the Grand Tour: train travel and accessibility for the middle class. I’m shirking backpacking, partly because that doesn’t really appeal to me, and instead I’ll be bouncing between a bunch of hostels, hotels, and Airbnbs. My friend Kendra (another Stanford student) and I will be traveling together, and we’ve spent the last few months planning everything from the sites we want to see to the logistics of making it all work—planning train travel was surprisingly complicated! While most of our friendship has been during our time at Stanford, we actually met by chance in freshman year of high school before bonding over college chemistry and economics classes, all while we were discovering our academic passions—sociocultural anthropology for me and cultural psychology for her.

This trip is happening at a particularly interesting time in the world. As I write this, it’s unclear whether the government will shut down tonight, depending entirely on whether or not Donald Trump decides to sign bipartisan measures to keep the government open. A shutdown shouldn’t affect us too much, although I doubt the unpaid TSA agents will be very happy about having their pay delayed. Paris has been experiencing some of the worst riots in decades, “yellow vest” protests over Emanuel Macron’s hike in the gas tax—which predominantly affects the middle class—and his other economic policies that have favored the rich and the elites in French society. It seems as though the rioting has subsided, and monuments like the Arc de Triomphe have reopened; plus, demonstrations had been scheduled for weekends, so I probably won’t see any of the yellow vest protests themselves. And last of all, the United Kingdom has been in (pretty unsuccessful) negotiations with Brussels over its departure from the European Union, or “Brexit.” Brexit takes effect immediately after I finish Hilary term (winter quarter) at Oxford, making these few the months the last couple months when the United Kingdom will be a part of the European project… barring any sort of revote—which would also probably happen while I’m there.

What’s Next: Oxford and Santiago

In a few hours, I’ll be exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art and eating pizza by the slice, something that everyone in Venice kept on the lookout for me since it’s one of my favorite quick bites. Then, I’ll be embarking on my European Grand Tour, followed by three months at the University of Oxford, where I’ll be an affiliate of Brasenose College. After that, it’s looking more and more likely like I’ll be spending my spring break in Madrid, Spain, and Marrakech, Morocco. And, as of a few minutes ago, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be spending the spring (April through mid-June) in Santiago, Chile, instead of returning to Stanford! I’m lucky enough to be a year ahead in my coursework, and instead of trying to graduate at the end of this year, I decided it’d be more fruitful to take advantage of another year at Stanford, which itself is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, by using its money and resources in its well-established study abroad programs.

It’s currently not clear where I’ll be spending my summer, but as of right now, it’ll most likely be in Charleston, West Virginia. I was in Wheeling, West Virginia, this summer, and I loved the state so much that I knew I had to return. But more on that later.

So here begins the next six months of my life: traveling through New York City, Europe, and South America. See you soon!

6 Things I Learned in Venice

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What a whirlwind it’s been! I’m currently at a Starbucks near Penn Station in New York City, finally having returned to New York City after spending three weeks in Venice and the surrounding areas, with a short stop in coastal Slovenia. (If you haven’t yet, read my blog post on Slovenia, “The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa.”) After drinking delicious cappuccinos and espressos every day, I’ve officially switched back to good ol’ American brewed coffee, something I never thought I would’ve missed!

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1. Walking doesn’t stop you from gaining weight.

I’ve definitely gotten a little pudgier since I was last in the United States. Part of that is my fault… I maintained an eight-day streak of getting one to two scoops of gelato each day, and even when the streak broke, I didn’t give up this Italian gift to the world. Eating mostly various pastas and pizzas for three weeks straight, while amazing for my taste buds for the first week and a half, was ultimately less amazing for my physique. And this is all without factoring in the many Aperol spritzes and glasses of wine I’d have before, during, after, or between meals!

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Everyone had assured me that the sheer amount of walking that I’d be doing would stop me from gaining too much weight. I can emphatically report that that’s bullshit. I don’t know what kind of black magic everyone else has been practicing, but I walked so much that my feet blistered, spent three days literally pickaxing the earth, and yet, I still gained a lot of weight.

Did I maybe overdo how much I ate? Sure. Of the seven deadly sins, I most identify with envy. But for these past three weeks, gluttony started a coup d’état and overtook the throne. And let’s be honest: temperance certainly isn’t the most exciting virtue, especially when surrounded by fresh pasta, delicious cheeses, seafood of all types, a sauce for every mood, and delicious desserts. But you know what? Fuck it. This was my vacation. (Yes, I’m a Stanford student, which is why I considered a two-unit summer course in which I had to prepare a presentation and write a paper as “vacation.”) My goal was to treat myself during this unique experience, and if that means gaining some weight, so be it.

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The whole month of September—when I’m on campus working on my thesis and no one will be around—can be devoted to actually getting my diet and exercise habits back on track. Maybe. We’ll see. I might just ban all mirrors and scales instead.

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2. Catholicism is a perpetual piece of my identity.

The Roman Catholic Church has an obsession with perpetuity. In the Catholic tradition, the Mass connects the past, the present, and the future in its pivotal climax: the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the literal Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Mary reigns perpetually as Queen of Heaven, and she remained a perpetual virgin throughout her entire life, despite her marriage to Joseph—a belief not held in Protestant denominations of Christianity.

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I, too, have this same obsession with perpetuity. Once someone has earned and won my trust and respect, they hold it forever. I crave stability, desperately clinging to my family and my closest friends to keep me grounded during my naturally volatile teen years and twenties. And—as much as I often hate to admit it—I am public-facing; I want to make an impact, but a public one. I want my most well-thought-out ideas, my painstakingly detailed solutions, and the inherently political nature of my existence and my resistance to be remembered. I want to inspire. And I want to make change, but without suppressing my identity and agency in the process.

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IMG_4447 2The Sacraments of Initiation bind an individual to the Catholic Church forever. And the culturally hegemonic role that the Church inhabits in places such as Italy, the Philippines, and Latin America continue to bind individuals who received any of these sacraments to it forever. That couldn’t have been clearer here in Venice, a former city-state and maritime empire whose historical tensions with the Papal States and deeply-rooted (but fabricated) cultural ties to the Byzantine Empire didn’t stamp out its Catholicism.

A part of me wanted to roll my eyes with every church I entered, especially in the beginning of these three weeks, when most of the churches I visited were adorned in gold and worldly riches and often charged for entry. But it was in seeing the Franciscan monastery of San Francesco del Deserto that I felt deep stirrings of peace and comfort. I’ve entertained changing religions altogether many times, with Reform Judaism and Western forms of Buddhism being the top contenders. And I’ve considered being confirmed in the Episcopal Church, which is something that I’m more likely to do than not closer to a hypothetical marriage, partially because the idea of a church wedding is deeply important to me and the Catholic Church remains deeply regressive, oppressive, and discriminatory—although moving in the right direction under the current pope!—in the way it treats LGBT people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But it was here in Italy, in seeing basilica after basilica, small church after small church, and that one, quiet monastery, that I realized how strong Catholicism is as a piece of my identity and cultural heritage.

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3. Archeology is not for me.

I’m an aspiring social/cultural anthropologist, and in many ways, it’s a perfect fit for me: I love people, I love to listen to people’s stories, I want to better understand the social fabric of the world we live in, and I think there’s significant value in qualitative methods of combining social theory and the ethnographic method to do so. But every now and then, I get fixated on other ideas—one of those, weirdly enough, was pivoting to archeology. Maybe, I thought, I could do an archeological methods class in the fall, do archeology in Peru next summer, and pursue a PhD program in sociocultural anthropology that includes strong training in archeology.

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To give you a sense of how ridiculous that is, consider the following facts: I hate bones. Few things bother me more than dirt. My eyes glaze over whenever anyone tries to convince me of how cool a shard of pottery is. When I go to museums, I try to appear cultured by going to the classical art section, but after about five minutes I venture elsewhere. Just like how I’m not meant to be a chemist or an investment banker, archeology isn’t in my future, regardless of how many people assume I’m an archeology major instead of an anthropology major. My course of study is not even remotely like Indiana Jones; if anything, I’m closer to a brooding pseudo-intellectual who lays on his couch reading ethnographies and philosophical works and then hastily writes long essays the morning I have essays due.

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I blame the fact that I have a Gemini Sun sign, an air sign that floats with the wind and is notoriously averse to commitment and personal responsibility. (In that sentence alone, I refused to take personal responsibility for my lack of commitment and instead chose to blame the constellation I was born under!) But hear me out: unlike all the other passing ideas I flitter in and out of, I actually entertained this one!

I did a three-day excavation on the island of Torcello, a relatively uninhabited island in the Venetian Lagoon about thirty to forty minutes away from Venice by boat. The first thing I gravited to? The pickaxe. “I have a lot of anger I need to release,” I told my Italian colleagues and babysitters, who wanted to help me learn but also needed to make sure I didn’t destroy months of hard work. Turns out, pickaxing becomes substantially less fun after each minute of crushing reused Roman bricks in the beating sun. Also, it turns out I’m terrible at actually finding things. My classmates found pottery shards and even an infant skeleton. You know what I found? Dirt. Lots and lots of fucking dirt.

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4. The United States is my home, and it’s where I care most about.

It’s taken a long time for me to truly feel at home in the United States. This country was not built for me, and much of its institutions were built to oppress people like me, from immigration restrictions to anti-miscegenation laws to the outlawing of homosexuality, to name some of the more obvious ones. This country was built on systems of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, as well as capitalist systems of oppression meant to keep power in the hands of our elite Founding Fathers. But I owe my ability to now consider the United States as my home to the many (mostly black) activists, changemakers, and revolutionaries who have given their lives to fighting and transforming these systems, something which I first began to reckon with and think about more concretely and intentionally this past Fourth of July.

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Even earlier this year, I felt like I was missing an opportunity by choosing to travel the United States for my fieldwork this summer. So many of my peers, both within my discipline and outside of it, took their grant money and left the country, and a part of me had really wished that I was based outside of the United States instead. Funny how actually leaving the United States can really change your perspective on this.

Italy was a tough country to be in. I don’t speak any Italian, so when someone I was talking to didn’t speak English, we had to resort to a difficult and embarrassing game of charades. There are so many things I take for granted in the United States, as small as even just having free water with meals. It’s exhausting to have to constantly think about the whereabouts of my passport, to have a temporary Italian phone number (and to keep getting texts in Italian from my service provider that I couldn’t read!), to not be able to speak about the histories and cultures of Italy with the same depth as I can about places within the United States, and to not know what anyone is saying most of the time.

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I was speaking with my professor on a nighttime boat ride from Torcello after an excavation about this. He’s from Mauritius, attended Cambridge University, and spent much of his time studying in the United Kingdom. I told him that, as much as I love this experience, I realized how clarifying it is to know that the issues within a country like Italy don’t resonate in my heart the same way that issues in the United States do. I have a stake in whatever happens in the U.S., especially within Texas and California. Should I continue down the path of a PhD within anthropology, which I feel better prepared for each and every day, the question of where my fieldwork will be done will inevitably come up, and I know I’m going to stay domestic. Possibly even within Texas, an often misunderstood state that has so much to teach the world about politics, immigration, class status, and the rural vs. urban divide.

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Italy has even clarified what I want to do next summer. It’s certainly too early to be certain, and I’m not even done with my current travels yet—I still have to go to West Virginia, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and parts of Israel and Palestine! But originally, I thought that traveling through Japan next summer would be my goal, returning to the country in which I spent the first three years of my life and exploring its cultural homogeneity and how that influences identity formation, especially in my case as a non-Japanese person. Now, I think I’m ready to travel through the United States yet again. We’re in a unique political moment, and there’s so much that anthropological methods can teach us about the country we live in. By next summer, we’ll have a new Speaker of the House (hopefully a Democrat!), and considering the rise of democratic socialism on the left as a response to Donald Trump, we need bright minds in anthropology to examine our world at home.

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5. I’m (probably) a democratic socialist.

Surprise, surprise! My first day in Venice, while walking through Strada Nuova, a large street filled with restaurants and stores near my hostel, there were people passing out communist newspapers. It was a shock to my ingrained American McCarthyism. A communist newspaper? I thought. What is this ridiculousness? But yes, the United States sits far to the right of the developed world’s political spectrum.

I’ve definitely felt myself lurch to the left ever since Donald Trump was elected president. I supported Hillary Clinton’s run for president since even before she announced her candidacy, and I had absolutely no problem with supporting a neoliberal who was deeply socially progressive, especially on gun control and abortion rights. She was a policy wonk, and at the end of the day, I believed—and still believe—that Hillary Clinton would’ve been a far better president than Bernie Sanders ever would’ve been.

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Hillary Clinton’s loss, which I sincerely believe was an inevitable result of decades of sexist attacks from both the right and the left and the left-leaning media’s attempt to appear “non-partisan” by drawing false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton, ushered in new energy within the left. And as someone who is solidly a leftist, it’s exciting to see left-wing ideas become mainstream and be represented more by someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Bernie Sanders.

Italy helped expand my Overton window, breaking my own beliefs of what I think are reasonable to envision for U.S. politics. I think progressive politics can be bold and unabashed in the Trump era, and like Europeans who’ve been doing this for decades and decades, I’m not afraid to say that my beliefs align pretty strongly with the democratic socialist movement that’s sweeping the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in compromise or won’t vote for more moderate candidates; I’m still a carefully strategic voter who just wants the people who I think will win and will also do the best job in office. But I’m just not afraid to put forward a boldly progressive vision for what the United States can look like.

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6. I’m powerful beyond belief.

I only began to realize my true power when I managed to take a nap during lunch at our dig site in Torcello. (Thanks, chronic exhaustion!) But I didn’t truly realize how powerful I was until I managed to walk away each evening after excavating looking perfectly clean. Ironically, the day I was dirtiest was when I spent an entire day cleaning off bones and pieces of pottery and organizing them for analysis.

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But beyond that, I’ve realized I’m truly a strong and powerful person. I spent three weeks in Italy (and Slovenia) after already spending weeks traveling the United States on my own. I may have packed my summer with more than most people do in a year, but I’m still filled with energy and vigor—although a nap would be much appreciated! Every time I talk to random passersby who aren’t affiliated with Stanford, I always have so much pride in being able to say this is my project. I have a faculty advisor who helps oversee everything and provides support and advice, but at the end of the day, I put in the heavy lifting of coming up with this research, securing funding in a year in which the grant I applied for fell to its lowest acceptance rate in recent history (37%), identifying interlocutors, building relationships with people, and personally planning the jigsaw puzzle of my summer schedule.

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IMG_4245I realize at every step of the way that my natural kindness and charisma carry me through so much. The students who were supposed to just be “interlocutors” have since become some of my closest friends, whether we started as friends or acquaintances. I made some amazing friends in Venice, including one person, Jackie, who has already become a close confidant and will be a colleague and partner this spring as we work to deal with mental health problems at Stanford.

I’ve managed to receive so many votes of confidence from my peers—being asked to join that Mental Health Coalition, being brought in to oversee outreach for the Cancer Coalition, being recruited to fill a vacancy on the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board, being asked by an editor of our undergraduate anthropology journal to apply for an editor position, and being elected to a third year in a row of leadership within the Pilipino American Student Union. It’s so great to feel like I’ve earned the respect and confidence of my peers and my communities simply by being my most authentic self, all without any posturing, manuevering, or begging for any of it. And having earned that much respect is a wonderful confidence boost to start the second half of my time at Stanford.

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***

So what’s the plan now?

Here’s an overview of everything coming up (this is for you, Mom and Dad!):

  • I finally finished On the Road by Jack Kerouac! The next book on my list is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which I picked up at an independent bookstore in Austin due to the recommendation of a trusted friend.
  • Speaking of independent bookstores, I canceled my Amazon Prime account in opposition to the terrible ways that Amazon abuses its workers and in solidarity with Amazon workers who have been striking in Europe. While you’re at it, check out this great article in Jacobin Magazine about the right to strike—and then cancel your Amazon Prime account too.
  • Today, I head to West Virginia, my first time in the state. I’ll be taking a long train ride all the way from New York City to Pittsburgh before my friend picks me up, so I’ll be having a restful and beautiful nine-hour train ride through all of Pennsylvania.
  • I’ll get to go home to Dallas by the end of the week! It’ll only be fore about four days, but it’s better than nothing! After that, I head to Boston, where I’ll be taking day trips to parts of New England and spending time working on this project in the daytime and hanging out with my best friend since preschool in the evenings.
  • I have one more international trip: Israel and Palestine. Stanford’s Hillel graciously reached out to me about participating in a trip to the Holy Land for non-Jewish campus leaders in order to get firsthand experience with the many perspectives and narratives on both sides of the Israel–Palestine conflict. I’ve been grappling with the Israel–Palestine conflict for a while, and I’m excited to continue clarifying my own beliefs and my own strategies for how peace could be achieved.
  • In a little over a month, I become a student yet again! So far, my course schedule looks busy as always, but I’ll be taking anthropology, history, and creative writing courses, including a course about the history and politics of the Spanish-speaking world taught in Spanish.
  • I spend ten weeks studying at Oxford starting this January! I’ll be doing a tutorial in anthropology and a history seminar on Western thought and the origins of semiotics. I’m working on arranging for a Spanish tutor as well so I can stay on track with my Spanish courses.

Until next time!

The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa

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* Names changed, as usual.

For most of the spring and summer, I’d been looking forward to my time in Venice, Italy, as a three-week break from traveling the United States for my independent research project on educational mobility. Or at least, that’s what I told my advisors, my classmates, my family, and my friends when they posited the completely crazy, totally out-of-left-field idea that maybe, just maybe trying to travel to about twelve different states in the span of about six weeks. (That number bumps up to thirteen if you include Oklahoma, which I didn’t stop long in, per se, but drove through on my way to the Texas Panhandle after being re-routed.)

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Inside a church in Slovenia

Turns out, rapid travel is pretty tiring. It’s something I wrote about in my last blog post about Venice and New York, where I found so much magic in the quiet, simple moments in each place. But now, with only about three days left in Italy, I can definitely say that I’ve found peace and rejuvenation.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — Audre Lorde

Spirituality and travel go together. It’s partially why I’m reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a Beat Generation writer whose travels heavily influenced his eventual turn to Buddhism (as chronicled in The Dharma Bums, which takes place after the events of On the Road). My friend Jackie* and I have laughed a lot about how this specific leg of our travels—the Veneto region of Italy—feels an awful lot like the beginning of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Except that it’s mostly been “Eat Eat Eat” instead. There’s no real time to progress to the third part of that book title—”love”—but there sure has been a lot of time for deep spiritual connection and personal contemplation. It’s just that I didn’t expect so much of that to be in coastal Slovenia.

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Piran, Slovenia

I embarked to the coastal Slovenian cities of Piran and Koper for about three days total at the beginning of this month, which was when I posted my most recent blog post on Venice. The purpose of the trip was to understand how cities outside of Venice were influenced by the Republic of Venice, and after stepping foot in Piran and Koper, it was pretty clear that these two cities on the very small strip of coast that Slovenia has were very Venetian in character.

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Streets of Piran

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The city center in Koper

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Excavating in Torcello

I’m not gonna lie—Slovenia ended up being my favorite piece of these past three weeks altogether. Koper and especially Piran had all the character of Venice, but with more open space, fewer people, places where we could actually swim, and so much less humidity. It was perfectly timed, too; our excavations in Torcello, which is an island near Venice that’s still in the Venetian Lagoon, came right after returning from Koper, and there’s no way I would’ve survived the heat and exhaustion of an archeological site if I didn’t have the time to rest beforehand.

Jackie and I made the single best decision of the entire trip: going to a spa together. We found one in Koper that was about €40 per person for 150 minutes in a private spa room, complete with a hot tub, sauna, shower mister, and a few bottles of Prosecco. Our professor, Krish, had told us about how great Slovenian spas are; apparently, because salt mining was a major piece of industry in Slovenia, the spas are wonderful, although you’d have to be naked (unlike Italian spas). As it turned out, the spa Jackie and I went to in Koper was less Slovenian—the name “Veneziana” should’ve tipped us off on that—but considering we only knew each other for two weeks, avoiding full-frontal nudity was probably for the best.

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Those two-and-a-half hours were some of the most restful, rejuvenating, and reinvigorating hours of this whole last year. Jackie and I had brought our books with us—for her, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (she’s an English minor after all), and for me, On the Road—but the two of us ended up not spending any time reading since we were so busy talking and really getting to know each other at a much deeper level. We spoke about everything: past loves, our aspirations for life, our visions of how we want society to look, and the pains of losing a friend. That hottub became a site of deep spiritual and emotional connections, where two wandering souls were finally able to come together and begin wandering together.

It’s cheesy, but getting to know Jackie here in Europe has been so incredibly special. Our paths probably wouldn’t have converged on campus—she studies psychology while I study anthropology, our social circles are fairly distinct, and the areas that we devote our time and attention to on campus are different. But starting this spring, after she returns from studying abroad in Madrid and I return from studying abroad at Oxford, we’ll be working together on one of our shared priorities: improving mental health and wellness at Stanford’s campus. The way I see it, my time at Stanford is not just about learning material; I’m here to assemble a team around me. And Jackie is someone who I’m so excited to be working with through the future, as well as just having as a friend!

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Jackie and me in Pellestrina, Veneto, Italy

The next day, we left Koper and returned to Venice. But before we left, we made sure to eat well, including having some delicious Thai food made by a woman who served as a cultural food ambassador for Thailand! Since coming to Venice, a lot has happened. We helped out with an excavation for three days in Torcello, where one of us in the group found an infant skull. That was pretty freaky… especially since we didn’t expect to find any actual human remains and had been joking for the past week about our trip not being complete unless we find a human skull (be careful what you wish for!). I spent a morning at a cemetery. And I started working on my final paper for this class: an examination of the exertions of state power and the development of biopolitics in the Republic of Venice, using the Jewish Ghetto as a case study.

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Feltre, Italy

Right now I’m in Feltre, which is closer to the Alps. I’ve been sitting outside at a café, drinking an espresso and letting the cool breeze cleanse me. It’s been a pretty emotionally draining last couple days. I’ve been having trouble shaking the weird realization of my mortality after seeing that human skull. Going to a cemetery the next day didn’t help. I had a painful falling out with someone dearly important to me, and I turned to the friends closest to me for comfort—the time zones don’t help, but the love and support they’ve given me have only solidified my belief that I’m assembling the best possible team around me I could ever have. I’m incredibly proud of how I handled the whole situation with a sense of dignity and grace that was consistent with how I believe people should be treated, even when that same respect and kindness is not reciprocated.

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My brother is in the hospital for pancreatitis. He’s been so kind and loving about trying to make sure that I don’t worry from 5500 miles away, but it’s hard not to be worried about him every waking minute. I’ve been visiting quite a few more churches, and every time I go, I make sure to light a candle and say a prayer for both him and me.

Before I know it, I’ll be back in the United States. I’ll be making a return to New Jersey to visit Whitney again (who made an appearance in my post about New York City). It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and it’s not even over! Truly, it’s been such a clarifying experience already. But until then, I’ll just continue sitting here, in Feltre, watching the rain and finishing my espresso.

Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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* Names changed.

Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

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At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

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On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

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I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

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These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

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Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

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Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

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New York City from the Hudson River

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Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!