From Belgium to Bosnia: Reflections On Europe

Fries, beer, chocolate, and waffles all quickly became staples in my Belgian diet. As well as the removal of the word ‘French’ before fries because, as I learned, there is an ongoing dispute between France and Belgium about where the fries were invented. Regardless of the dispute, the Belgian fries were delicious and you eat them with this tiny fork, which I love. A small aspect of my weekly routine that I miss.

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Traditional Belgian ‘frites’ at an outdoor concert by the Atomium

I spent this past fall studying European peace and security studies in Brussels, Belgium. This specific program, while through my host institution, pooled the expertise of the Belgian military, NATO, the European Union, and the Global Governance Institute in discussing contemporary security challenges from a distinctly Brussels view. These courses were incredibly difficult as the professors were very distinguished practitioners in the field of security studies (a bit intimidating to say the least). The students were also primarily graded based on a midterm and a final, something I was not used to at UM. These courses were perfect for studying my GLI theme of social inequality/human rights and the balance between human rights protection and international security concerns. 

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Bosnian ćevapi at an outside restaurant in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In addition to Belgium, I was able to do a fair amount of traveling, and visited 13 countries over the course of 5-ish months. However, one country caught my attention that I wanted to highlight in this post because of the impact it had on me both personally and professionally. Before I proceed, I want to write a trigger warning in this post as I will be talking about a very emotionally difficult subject: genocide. As many of you might know, Model United Nations has been a big portion of my life and something that I enjoy doing. I love stepping into the shoes of other nations and seeing international issues from their point of view. Last year, the UM Model UN team was assigned to represent the Eastern European country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the annual New York City conference. After intensely researching the country for well over a year, I decided that I had to visit this place as plane tickets were not too expensive and I had a week off of school in October to travel. 

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Olympic Tower in Sarajevo Commemorating the 1984 Winter Olympics

I landed in Sarajevo and it was one of the most beautifully complex places I have ever seen. It reminded me of home in Montana, with the mountain ranges and the river flowing through town. It was my first time in a Muslim majority country, and the mosques were so intricately constructed that I could stare at them for hours. Yet, beneath all of this natural and man-made beauty, the scars of the deadliest European conflict since World War II looked fresh and raw. Holes from shrapnel puncture the walls of buildings, graffiti telling stories of the war through art were scattered across town, thousands of white and grey tombstones line the many city graveyards, and 200 ‘red roses of Sarajevo’ mark a spot where at least three people were killed by a mortar shell explosion during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1996. The town, which was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, looked as if it was a city slowly coming out of a coma. 

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Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide

During my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I visited the tiny town of Srebrenica, a place synonymous with a massacre where 8,000 perished. My tour guide was a former soldier who fought for the Bosniak Muslim army during the war when he was my age, and he recounted the war from his perspective. After the tour of the Srebrenica cemetery and memorial, my guide took me to see a woman on the Serbian border who lost many male loved ones during the genocide. She made us traditional Bosnian coffee and snacks, and I was able to have a conversation with her (through my guide as an interpreter) about her life and ways she coped with losing those around her. The woman told me, “for what I have been through, and this country, things are finally okay.” Even though I could see incredible sadness in her eyes, I saw someone who was resilient in the face of unimaginable loss. Courage does not always come from someone who fights with a gun during a war or politicians who command an army, but through individuals who try to pick-up the pieces of their lives even when there may only be a few pieces left.   

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The historic village of Počitelj in southeast Bosnia and Herzegovina

My trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was a surreal experience, one that brought me to tears at times, as well as almost to the bathroom to throw-up from the stories. It pains me that the country is still synonymous with war, chaos and destruction. Many of those close to me, at times, strongly urged me to reconsider travel there because the war stories are still etched into people’s memories. But what I found was a country teeming with beautiful landscapes and the warmest people I encountered in all of Europe. Inspired by my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the year I spent researching the nation, I intend to pursue a law degree focused on humanitarian law, an area of study closely related to my GLI theme of social inequality and human rights. I believe my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina has given me a new, powerful perspective on how international organizations, for lack of a better word, fail to protect human rights during times of conflict. And the thing is that it is (and can) happen again. In various roles at UM, I had learned how to discuss uncomfortable issues in a professional matter, and that was a vital skill that I exercised during my excursion to Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Thank you for reading this somber part of my post. I promise Europe for me was more than learning about the dismal record that international organizations have on protecting human rights. As I adjust back, I am still processing all the ways that I am a different person and, to be honest, while I am, it is hard to exactly write in what way. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t planning my trip back to Brussels to visit my lovely, smart, free-spirited, 82 year old host mom from Germany and her, sometimes terrifying, cat named Blair. 

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The medieval castle Gravensteen in Ghent, Belgium

If I had to take-away one reflection from my time in Brussels, and Europe at large, it is to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You won’t always have all the answers or know exactly what’s going on. You might dress differently or be forced to eat a food you hate because it is the social custom (Brussel sprouts for me). Or you might have to quickly (and discreetly) google translate the words on your menu before you order at a restaurant. I walk away from this experience with a whole new meaning of the phrase ‘c’est la vie,’ and the knowledge that change is possible if we allow ourselves to step into the shoes of other nations.

Finding truth in the desert

My semester learning and living on the Colorado Plateau

Cake for breakfast, five espresso shots, Ira Glass’ voice and midday naps.

This is what I craved upon emergence from the backcountry after two months. After tending to these adventitious desires, I gathered my rather satiated self and began to reflect on the events of the past nine weeks.  

As fall had settled into my home in the Montana Rockies, I chased the waning summer south to Green River, Utah, where I began my semester with the Missoula-based Wild Rockies Field Institute. The concept of place-based learning was one that intrigued me, but it would soon become apparent how much my trio of mind, body and soul craved exactly what my WRFI experience provided to me. 

The desert of the American Southwest was always a dear landscape to me; As a child, my parents, driven by their passion for inhabiting wild places, would tow my younger brother and I south on I-15 to interrupt our high-altitude norm with adventures through deep red rock canyons. When I was presented with the opportunity to study this unique setting through the lens of topics such as land management, geography, geology and indigenous studies, I bought a sun shirt and applied. 

Moving from “classroom” to “classroom” on the Green River. The first section of my WRFI semester was spent in Labyrinth Canyon studying water management, botany and biodiversity among other topics. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

WRFI is unique in many ways, one of which being its setting. The classroom changed on a daily basis, as a component of the semester was traveling and living in the backcountry. This began on the Green River, where I eased into a new way of life cruising down slow late season water in tandem canoes. This was a great way to get to know each of my seven other classmates. After a week on the river, we laced up our boots and set out for a more physically demanding approach. 

My WFRI peer, Phia (right) and I enjoying instant coffee before a morning class at the boundary of Dark Canyon Wilderness and BLM land. PHOTO BY ELIZA DONAHUE

Our first day backpacking, we entered into the Dark Canyon Wilderness, a region formerly encapsulated in the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument designated by Obama in 2016 and reduced in size by Trump just shy of a year later. Our packs were 50-plus pounds, and our feet were soft after the plush week on the lazy river. The first stretch was a mere five miles, but our group struggled to find a comfortable rhythm. A few students had never backpacked before, and it took a few tries to adjust packs before they finally joined the rest of us in the conclusion that carrying life on your back is inescapably awkward and sometimes painful. Despite the initial challenges, we fumbled into a reliable groove. By our third day, we moved like a well-oiled machine through our routine of boiling breakfast water, packing, hiking and settling in for the evening at a new camp. Throughout the entire semester, our boots carried us through Dark Canyon, the Dirty Devil River (yes, through the river) and Horseshoe Canyon.

Just as we were not limited to four walls, classes were not limited to a Monday through Friday schedule. Depending on the weather, energy and a number of other factors, our two instructors would gather my peers and I either before or after a day of hiking for a daily discussion-based class informed by reading materials we were individually responsible for covering prior. With a small and enthusiastic group, our discussions were vibrant and constructive. 

Throughout the course, we discussed the importance of observation. On a solo hike up Cherry Canyon, I practiced my naturalist skills. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER
Eliza observes a rare find: a potsherd, possibly a remnant left behind by a group of Ancestral Puebloans. NOTE: This potsherd was left where it was found. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

The beauty of place-based learning is that readings, lessons and classes are immediately applied. One day, after a morning class, we packed up our gear, helped each other hoist packs into position and headed out on the trail. That morning we had discussed the different types of land management and use. Our trail weaved in and out of Wilderness and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, and as we hiked, we made verbal note of the clear and present juxtaposition of the less-disturbed Wilderness side of the fence, which was devoid of the cow patties and hoof prints that littered the BLM side. Classes often informally bled throughout the day, and even most nights as we laid in a row of sleeping bag bundles under the stars, debating, lamenting and celebrating the day’s topics. 

Lucy (left), Eliza (center) and I observe tafoni, a surreal-esque feature often found in Wingate Sandstone. PHOTO BY EVA CHRIST

.In the middle of the semester, we were privileged to have been hosted by members of the Hopi and Diné (Navajo) tribes in their homes on indigenous land. In Montana, I grew up only a few hours from various indigenous nations and regrettably knew very little about them and the ramifications of a history of genocide and systematic racism that embattle Native Americans on a daily basis. During this time, my peers and I were forced to confront alarming and sickening truths, leaving us with a still shallow awareness of major injustices that occur in our country, many that we even play a role in– and awareness I now seek to deepen in my everyday life.

Exploring slot canyons during a lunch break. My semester with WRFI was academically rigorous, but there was plenty of room for fun and exploration. PHOTO BY PHIA SWART

From these indigenous studies to land degradation to climate change, my brief two months studying with WRFI gifted me a perspective that shed new light on much of the life I’ve already lived but more importantly illuminated the life I hope to live yet. 

Siena (left), Eliza (right) and I probe for quicksand while traveling through and along the Dirty Devil River, a salty tributary to the Colorado. This particular section was 12 days in the backcountry studying geology, climate change and policy among other things. PHOTO BY EVA CHRIST
During our frontcountry section, we visited the Black Mesa Water Coalition on the Diné nation. BMWC shared with us their important work on energy and climate justice. Locally, they work to establish sustainable agricultural practices that combine their traditional knowledge with new innovation. PHOTO BY KATIE NELSON
A late afternoon scene from the property of Tommy Rock, a Diné man who kindly hosted our group for a few days. We were privileged to have the opportunity to learn from Tommy, who earned a PhD studying uranium water contamination on indigenous land. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER, SHARED WITH PERMISSION FROM TOMMY ROCK

On our last day in the backcountry, we emerged from a canyon that had been home for two weeks. As we traversed and climbed the crumbly cliffs and slopes that served as our exit ramp, I frequently looked back over my shoulder, begging myself not to forget any detail of the place I was leaving behind. Finally, we reached the top. Joe, one of our instructors for that section, offered us a parting gift; his last nugget of wisdom to echo off of the stoic red sandstone that had come to feel like a friend. He told us we were about to leave behind a place that had both sheltered and challenged us, that had fostered our growth and forged our bonds for two months. Between the daily pursuits of covering miles, studying and taking care of ourselves and others, there had been little time to look backward or forward– life in the backcountry is inarguably lived in each present moment.

The “real world,” where our smartphones, 24-hour news cycles, friends, family and distractions awaited us, existing in the moment was a hard thing to achieve. We had spent a series of weeks submitting ourselves to a process of growth and self-improvement, and what lay beyond the trailhead threatened all of that. Joe challenged us to consciously consider the people we had become, the people we wanted to continue to be; the characteristics we hoped would live on in us and the ones we preferred to leave behind. 

We took a few moments, breathed in a collective breath and called our wandering desert selves back in. 

Life post-WRFI is an unpredictable blend of grounding and chaos, and always nostalgia. The takeaways I carried with me out of the canyon country give me clarity in many ways but also remind me to question my surroundings, to be curious and brave and to challenge the status quo when change is in order. 

A bittersweet moment at the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, where we celebrated and mourned the end of our time in the backcountry. PHOTO BY SIENA HESTER

Nights nowadays, I close my eyes as the heater hums in the corner of my room and place myself back in the desert, where nights were spent buried in synthetic down and fleece layers. I imagine I can still hear the lullaby rhythm of seven sets of lungs breathing in crisp desert air around me and see the soft light of twinkling stars through my closed eyelids. I picture this until I fall asleep to dreams of red dirt and slickrock, and the truths I found in those places and the courage I cultivated that allows me to share the story with others. I know that one day I will return to this magical landscape, but for now I’ll remain in its trance, abiding by its teachings and honoring its gifts through reciprocity and gratitude.

*To conclude my WRFI semester, I wrote a paper that weaved together concepts from the course with my personal experience. Follow this link to read it.

A Semester in Central Asia

Bride-kidnapping, dining on horse meat, bribes, corruption, a city-wide heating failure in January, stray dogs, the worst air quality in the world… all points of interest that were revealed to me as I researched my host country after enrolling in the Russian language and Central Asian studies program for my out-of-classroom experience.

I was first drawn to Kyrgyzstan for its mountainous terrain and beautiful scenery. After Russian influence and Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan is a great place to practice Russian. With a population of 6.2 million, this small Central Asian country holds over 80 different ethnic groups, perfect for my global theme of Politics and Culture, and my challenge: exploring multiculturalism in Kyrgyzstan and how it influences the political and cultural activity of the region.

Identity in Kyrgyzstan is fascinating. In the capital city Bishkek, where I lived, demographics were flipped after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyz people comprised only 12% of the population; 80% were ethnic Russians. After Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, steady gains have made Kyrgyz 66% of the population and Russian less than 20%. Russian remains the lingua franca and dominant in the city.

I had several opportunities to visit rural Kyrgyzstan, significantly less affluent and more conservative than the city. Islam re-emerged as the dominant faith after the Soviet Union repressed religion for most of the 20th century. Kyrgyz people are also incredibly proud of their nomadic heritage. Some of these traditions are in direct conflict with Islamic practices, convoluting the religious aspect of Kyrgyz culture, already balancing Russian influences.

As a new, democratic nation located between two global superpowers (Russia and China) vying for influence in the region, Kyrgyz politics offers a unique vantage point for international relations and foreign policy playing out on an international scale. Ethnic conflicts at borders and recent revolutions to promote democracy are important topics of national politics, revealing the role identity plays in Kyrgyz culture and politics. The SRAS program included a month-long stay with a host family and many opportunities to engage with locals in their language, which created opportunity to understand differences in culture and there were a lot.

Yes, I ate horse (once), and felt lucky to experience Kyrgyz hospitality. No, I was never in danger of being kidnapped to be a bride but several of my teachers shared personal stories of misfortune and dissatisfaction with arranged marriages, prompting discussion of women’s societal expectations. I pitied the “no-touch dogs” locals ignored. I often had to defiantly argue (in poor Russian) my way out of unfair “extra fees” made up by scheming taxi drivers but could appreciate that the fare was already so low.

There was the one time I was memorably stranded visa-less with my fellow students for four hours on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the latter being an authoritarian dictatorship. An oversight between our school and tour company left us without visas, a guide, and a way to contact anyone. After pleading with border guards and friendly locals who were crossing that let us use their cell phones, we got a hold of the right people and were sent safely back to Bishkek.

These experiences had me practicing patience, flexibility, and receptiveness, all necessary for understanding Central Asian cultural dynamics and valuing my own. I’ve returned to the United States with a much broader perspective, very glad I put myself out a little bit further into the world and in a place so incredibly different from my comfort zone.

hiking in Ala Archa National Park

A Semester Across the Pond

I spent last fall semester studying at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England. I study Health and Human Performance with a concentration in Exercise Science so for my global theme I chose to look at the obesity epidemic. In Preston, I was able to take classes to study this further through their school of Sport and Wellbeing. This was an incredible opportunity to see another culture’s approach to health and wellness firsthand. Following graduation, I plan on continuing my education to become a physical therapist. This is a career that involves constant interaction with people and building relationships with them. Study abroad was the perfect opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate with people from all over the world with vastly different backgrounds. Quality health care is important throughout the world and taking time to learn another culture’s approach to global problems will influence the rest of my career. My time abroad helped show me how important globalization and integration between people are, especially in today’s world.

In addition to taking classes, I was also able to play soccer for the University. Being on the team allowed me to gain a different perspective on the culture’s approach to health and wellbeing. I was able to meet many people through this experience, many of whom were also pursuing careers in health care. I learned so much about the culture through the conversations with my teammates which will greatly shape my future career. I was able to travel throughout North England with the team for games which allowed me to see parts of the country which I never would were I there for vacation.

I am incredibly thankful to have had such an amazing opportunity to learn about the culture in England as well as travel throughout Europe. I learned more about myself and how to navigate new situations while gaining experiences that cannot be learned in a classroom. It wasn’t always easy but the people I met along the way and this unique experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Global Inequalities at the Heart of Western Civilization

I spent last spring semester studying abroad in Athens, Greece. In GLI, my global theme is Culture and Politics. With this in mind, I took classes on Greek history, cultural communication and globalization. When I wasn’t in class, I explored downtown Athens, and various places within the Greek mainland and islands. During my stay, I found myself challenged by living in a foreign country and confronted with issues I had never experienced. 

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The first thing I noticed when I landed in Greece was the graffiti and the crumbling structures. There seemed to be a roughness, an almost worn and tired feeling in the air. It became clear rather quickly that there are two different sides to Greece, the Greece that is featured in Condé Nast Traveler and movies such as Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the Greece that is run-down, struggling with the long-term effects of the 2010 Debt Crisis, migrants and refugees and what the future of Greece holds.

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As a history major, I was fascinated to study in Greece to experience the history of Greece and the Mediterranean and how that history is still into play today. I was overjoyed to be able to explore historical sites such as the Parthenon, Delphi, etc., however when I left for Greece, my knowledge of Greek history was limited to Ancient Greece. What I was unaware of was what followed the Golden Age of Greece, which was centuries of conquests, take-overs, military dictatorships and instability. While, this is the history, Greece actively tries to ignore and forget, I found that this historical trauma has shaped the character of Greece and continues to haunt the development of Greece. This history of being taken over by the Ottoman Empire and later in the 20th century being encircled by soviet states has created an identity crisis for Greece, who has tried to align itself with the west, but has continuously been influenced by Eastern forces. I saw this identity crisis play out in dispute and bitterness of the creation of the Macedonia state.

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Greece has been ground zero for refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East. I was not prepared to experience this reality. I have been interested in and planned to research this issue, however I was not prepared to be confronted with it so aggressively. While, I never felt particularly unsafe in Greece, it became the norm to have beggar and migrants follow you, try to sell you trinkets, or simply beg. I had gotten used to it by the end of my study abroad, I remember a particular incident where my study abroad group had taken a day excursion to the coastal city of Nafpilo and while we were in the city square listening to the instructions of our trip, a child, who’s face was dirty and had no shoes on came to each and everyone of us and cupped his small hands to beg. In these incidents I did not know how to act, while I wanted to help, I found myself unsure how and worried about the potential consequences of such actions. Looking back, I wished I did more to educate myself on how to help.

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While in Greece, I was unsure how I fit. I felt like an outsider, a person who was intruding in on other people’s way of life, customs and issues. However, despite the struggle for me to adapt and find my place, many Greeks went out of their way make me feel like home in their country. I traveled to many different places in Greece and everyone showed so much warmth and kindness that it truly humbled me.

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Greece was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned more about global issues then I have from my entire time at the University of Montana. Greece taught me how to be independent and really recognize both the beauty and and the trauma and difficulties of a place. Moving forward I hope to become a better global citizen, and educate myself on global issues such as immigration, climate change and the harm of politically instability. In my GLI Capstone, I want to address this issues by open a dialogue about the importance of cross-cultural communication and addressing bias, prejudices and racial, gender, socioeconomic inequalities.

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The new era of Berlin

Berlin has long been an interesting city, but for vastly different reasons depending on the era. Its streets have seen a copious amount of bloodshed and sadness and even today the coldness of the soviet union hangs limply between grey buildings streets.

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The “Fernsehturm” or TV tower in Mitte, Berlin. Shot on a Canon A1 film camera

However, when you look a little bit closer at this austere appearing city, you find a vibrant and pulsating atmosphere filled with art and artists, creativity and creatives. A new era of humanity has rebelled against the pain and reclaimed the hurt to create a beautiful and welcoming environment.

Berlin isn’t without its struggles and just like the rest of Europe is trying to figure out what type of player it wants to be in the world scene. As the seat of power in Germany, Berlin deals with its fair share of the new tide of populism and immigration is a top issue across the country.

I lived in Neukolln, which is a primarily arabic neighborhood home to refugees and immigrants from Lebanon, Turkey, Sudan, and Syria. During my stay in Berlin, I took language courses, interned at a radio station, and further developed my photography and storytelling.

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January in Berlin, around the area I lived in for the first few months. Shot on a Canon A1 film camera

I spent a lot of time alone during my stay in Berlin and the many challenges of German bureaucracy and life in a foreign country were extremely formative in how I am now. I had to confront bias I didn’t know I had, I had to learn how to rely on myself, how to self-motivate, how to deal with language barriers, and much more.

Berlin wasn’t always fun and it definitely wasn’t easy, but it was the sort of experience that gave depth and meaning and fulfillment.

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Tempelhofer Feld, a park that used to be an airport. 

Intentionality in Festivities, Food, and Fondness: A Galician Summer

This summer, I spent two months in the autonomous community of Galicia, Spain, in its largest city A Coruna. I traveled there to take Spanish classes and work for a local nonprofit to improve my speaking ability, but I learned so much more than Spanish, specifically in the realm of Culture and Politics.

La vista de las Islas Cies

Learning how to speak Spanish comes with understanding a different way of painting a picture with your words of what you want to say. And learning about a new culture happens the same way; one must observe customs and interactions from an outside perspective, and then they can patch together the cultural foundations of a nation.

Observing and interacting with the customs and people in Galicia taught me the importance of living all aspects of life with intentionality. In short, love your friends and family, eat with gusto, and celebrate the joys and wonders in the world with reckless abandon.

I studied, worked, and what felt like vacationed, in A Coruna, a town in the autonomous community of Galicia. A Coruna has an approximate population of one million people but feels like a small town with a walkable isthmus, safe, family-filled neighborhoods, and large beaches along every centimeter of the city.

Playa Riazor at Sunset

Spaniards practice intentionality foremostly in the sector of fondness. Caring for the well being of one’s family, friends, and neighbors is of utmost concern. Contrary to the commonality of independence in the U.S., for example, the majority of young people aged 25-30 still live at home with their parents.

My fellow students and I had the pleasure of meeting and living with a variety of Colombian families who proved to be extremely welcoming, loving, and caring beyond belief. They cooked for us, hugged and kissed us, and gave us immensely wise advice. Not to mention that friends from work, neighbors, and seemingly Spanish strangers were more than willing to dole out an enormous amount of generosity and love at even a meek request. Learning from the loving Spanish lifestyle, our student group grew even closer as a result.

In Galicia, and in the majority of Spain, stores and restaurants close on Sunday to prioritize rest and family time. It was always a joy to be invited to Sunday lunch at the apartment downstairs and see people in the street traipsing to the homes of their parents and grandparents for lunch. Intentional care and quality time with loved ones was a marked cultural trait of Spain.

Gente de mi familia de casa, mi companeros de escuela, y otros amigos.

Just as Spaniards regard family, they regard food with a serious attitude. The Mediterranean gastronomy calls for quality produce and fresh seafood; food and drink should be fresh and flowing.

An illustration of “pulpo,” the frequently dined upon octopus in Galicia.

While “observing” the intentionality with which Spaniards regard their diet, and, by proxy, their health and well being, I happened to eat a lot of delicious fresh seafood, Spanish tortilla, and empanadas. The rich tradition of Mediterranean cuisine in Spain granted me the opportunity to learn how to make my own Spanish tortilla, which I completed on my own one time!

On another level, the meals are the gathering of family and friends, and restaurants in Spain cater towards this cultural tradition. In the middle of the day for “la comida” menus are designed for families to order shareable “raciones,” bread, and pitchers of beverages. It was refreshing to see a culture enraptured by food but conscious of the quality of the food that they were consuming and the context in which they did so; eating made for a delightful experience for the health, the social life, and the taste.

Spaniards, notoriously, also practice intentionality in the realm of festivities. It was breathtaking to live in Spain during summer, as there are a myriad of festivals and concerts all summer long. On June 23, we were privileged to witness the San Juan Beach Festival. On this night in A Coruna, where one of the largest celebrations of San Juan occurs, hundreds of bonfires light up the sky all night as people barbecue, dance, sing, and watch fireworks. Intended to honor the summer solstice and the magic in the air on this night, the festival also showcases the love that Spaniards have for enjoyment and partying when they have the opportunity.

Thousands of people, including families, friends, and neighbors, lined Playas Riazor and Orzan all day Sunday, playing music and waiting for the sun to set to begin preparing the celebratory meal. At our bonfire spot, we had over thirty people talking, dancing, and singing all day; members of our exchange student group, all the neighbors from our apartment building, the friends of our neighbors, and even strangers that barely knew us felt it was important to spend time on the beach and celebrate. The love for celebration and genuine enjoyment was enchanting as the sun set on the beach and the fireworks came out.

We enjoyed many more fiestas throughout the summer, including free concerts in the Plaza, la Feria Merival, and even a German festival! Coming from the U.S. where there are few days of rest from our busy lives, let alone national festivals, it was refreshing to view the way that Spaniards prioritize celebration and enjoyment in their lives in such an obvious manner. They party often and party hard, and seem better for it.

I observed the festivity habits of Spaniards but also the working conditions, as I interned with a non-profit that assists refugees and their children called Equus Zebra.

Observing the work environment in Equus Zebra provided another lens to understand the culture and politics in Spain. First of all, Spaniards work very hard. Despite having the ability to take a siesta from 2-4pm for lunch, my coworkers and I started work at 9am, worked until 2pm, and then returned at 4pm to work until 8pm.

Not only was the duration humbling to observe, but observing the immigrants, neighbors, and customers that entered and exited Equus Zebra was enlightening. Equus Zebra stretches their thin, non-profit budget to help refugees and their families from many countries in Africa and South America. They provide food, housing and job opportunities, schooling, and childcare to families in need. In addition, the non-profit is majorly supported by profits from the thrift store that operates in the front of the building!

Equus Zebra’s mission and hardworking staff work extremely hard to provide love to all of the people that they assist. I was particularly enamored with the efforts of Mar, the children’s activities coordinator who worked with all of the kids all year round, 5-6 days a week, for 9 hours a day, completely volunteering. Compared to her, I felt like I was doing the absolute minimum feeding and teaching fifteen 3-6 year olds for five hours a day for three weeks!

The kids were so smart and engaging, the neighborhood community was so supportive of Equus Zebra, and it seemed like Equus Zebra garned a positive and happy environment for refugees that were not supported by the majority of the surrounding Spanish community. The Spanish government provides a variety of services to children of refugees, while their parents can barely apply for housing or work in the private sector. The director of Equus Zebra explained to us this dichotomy by pointing out that while working in Equus Zebra you see the children having fun, but when you leave the building and begin your walk back home, you see many adults of African or South American descent selling wares in the street to make ends meet.

A microcosm of Spain’s proclivity for intentionality in action and a prolific supporter of a political minority, I am thankful to have observed and worked with the hard working people and genius students at Equus Zebra.

Estuvimos mirando el puesto de sol en Monte San Pedro. Estoy en la derecha

I miss Spain, writing this from U.S. soil. I miss hugging and kissing the Colombian neighbors in my building every day, drinking 1 euro coffee with friends, and walking by the beach and through my neighborhood with all the kiddos from Equus Zebra. I miss the attitude, the language, and the lifestyle. And, for now, Spain is far from me. But its unique cultural components, which made it an inspirational place to live, study, and work, no longer sit misunderstood or far from my mind. Being surrounded by intentional Spaniards all summer, I was challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone but also garnered an immeasurable amount of love, for which I am immeasurably thankful. Te amo, y hasta pronto, ojala.

Oppdage et moderne Norge, Discovering a modern Norway

Hei, jeg heter Madeline og jeg bodde i Oslo, Norge i seks måneder. Hi, my name is Madeline and I lived in Oslo, Norway for the last six months. 

Having only been back “state-side” it is difficult to look back on my time abroad with perspective. Norway has always meant a lot to me. Growing up, my family made a lot of traditional Norwegian food and even attended an annual “Norway Day” celebration in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When I return home for winter break one of the first things my mom and I do is make a large patch of fresh lefse for the holidays. Lefse is a thin potato tortilla that we like to eat with butter and cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. 

In Norway, friends told me they no longer knew anyone who made fresh lefse. Everyone just bought it in from the store, premade. I had spent my whole life learning about Norway and hearing stories from family members who had visited. 

It sounds obvious now, but I quickly learned that my family was practicing traditions that had been passed down from family members that had immigrated to the United States more than 100 years ago. But, I have also found that many Americans have an outdated view of Norway, if they’ve even heard of the Nordic country. While many Norwegians live on farms in beautiful fjords raising sheep and knitting, Norway is also a powerful oil country that leads Europe in multiple fields including environmental innovation. 

From left to right, Astrid (Dutch), Andre (Australian), Vanessa (Austrian), Izzy (Colorado), myself and Lauren (Australian) pose around 2 p.m. on top of Holmenkollen on one of my first days in Norway. Holmenkollen is a tall ski jump, used in the Olympics, that has a wonderful view of the city.

I was also amazed to learn that many students are heavily involved in one of the country’s eight political parties. Every one of my new Norwegians friends were involved and attended climate marches, held offices in the student union and helped organize large events for nonprofits. This is much different from my experience at home. In high school, very few were even knowledgeable about politics. Meanwhile, at my university, many of my friends are politically active in both political parties and local nonprofits, but I wouldn’t say that’s the norm for the student body.

Within Europe, Norway is frequently regarded as a country that other countries should aspire to be. Their progressive environmental and social policies have made them a leader. And even though many believe the country to be a leader, citizens continue to demand more from their governments. In March, I stood outside Stortinget, translated to “the big thing” aka Norway’s parliament building, with nearly 20,000 Norwegians chanting “Fjerne Erna!” or “remove Erna,” referring to Erna Solberg, the Norwegian prime minister. We were gathered outside the parliament building to demand action on climate change from the leader of the ruling conservative party. Norway, at the time, had been discussing beginning to drill for oil in Australia and the Arctic. 

Izzy (left), from Colorado, and Ingeborg from western Norway hold signs at the Oslo Climastreik (Climate Strike) in Oslo. Ingeborg’s sign reads “We want systems change, not climate change.”

I was inspired by a country full of people that recognized the great life they got to live in Norway and how different that often made them from the rest of the world. But they didn’t allow that to make them complacent, they continued to push for equality and justice.

As someone who has been in climate change work for just over three years our slow progress, and sometimes regression, has been hard to watch. The time we have left to turn this climate crisis around is quickly shrinking. It’s traveling to places around the world whether it is Vietnam, like I did last January, or Norway I am reassured when I see the people who are doing the work around the world. 

Youth hold signs at the March Klimastreik in Oslo, Norway. The signs, from left to right, say “Do something while there is still hope,” “crocodile tears don’t help us,” and “you said clean your room, we say clean the planet.”

Norwegians gave me more hope for our future and our ability to at least slow down the climate crisis that is quickly making the Earth uninhabitable for humans as we do now. There connectedness to the environment was inspiring and their kindness towards one another was moving.

As I go into my capstone experience I am filled with hope that we can shift the American consciousness towards being environmentally aware and politically active for the environment. That was important for me as I had been spending some time feeling dejected with the current regression in American environmental policy. 

From Mental Health to Borshch, the Complexities of Understanding Slavic Culture through American Eyes

“Suicide isn’t a national problem. If someone is so weak that they kill themselves to avoid facing life, it’s not my issue.” The statement wasn’t terribly shocking to me (although I did ask Galya to repeat it, to make sure that I  hadn’t translated incorrectly), as the woman I was interviewing regarding mental health was a fifty-six year old Russian, but when I relayed it to my friends a few nights later, they looked as though they had all been slapped in the face. I grinned slightly. Before living in Russia and UkrainThe Nevae for a year, such a statement would have simply angered me. However, when you’re living in another country, it is not your job to pass judgement on their cultural attitudes, unless it directly affects your safety. Your primary job is to observe.

Any student planning to study abroad will be excited, eager, and energetic to experience a new culture and learn how to see the world in a different light. We all, for the most part, accept this as a wonderful thing. What is more difficult to accept is that seeing the world in a different light doesn’t always mean seeing the world in a positive light. Sure, there are aspects of Slavic culture that I wish we would incorporate into American cultural behaviors. Russians have such a loving respect for elders, and a diehard passion to remember, mourn, and memorialize those who suffered through unimaginable evils so their descendants could live better lives. I feel that is a quality that is too often lost on young Americans. When it came to mental health though, encountering such a stark contrast in fundamental understanding of a topic was challenging. It was arduous on both an academic level, as I accumulated research for my cultural project, but also on a personal level. Trying to talk about medical help for people suffering from depression is difficult when the person with whom you are speaking doesn’t agree that depression is a real illness. This doesn’t mean that either person is somehow less intelligent, but it does highlight how almost unbelievably varied cultures can be. It is simple to pick apart why different cultures have different languages, foods, clothing, and so forth. It is trickier when you try to explain why not everyone has the same moral standards, or how something like depression can be seen as a serious, life threatening illness in one culture, and a mildly irritating symptom of adulthood in another. Going to Ukraine and Russia didn’t change my opinion in any way. I still think that depression is a serious clinical illness, which requires medical treatment. Yet I don’t doubt that my Russian friends and acquaintances have incredibly valid reasons for thinking that depression isn’t as serious of an issue. 

 

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Culture is impossible to measure or categorize, yet we attempt to set boundaries in order to try and process it. For example, borshch is typically associated with Russia, and seen as a national cultural cuisine. Most Russians feel strongly that borshch belongs to Russia. Ask a Ukrainian, and they will tell you that Russia took borshch from them, and that it is their dish. Some Russians would counter that with we are all one Russian people, Ukrainians included. A Ukrainian might respond with physical violence, depending on which part of Ukraine we are in. Culture is complicated. It is a messy, living organism that evolves as humans do. I’ve learned lots while abroad, but it would be impossible to shortly and robustly summarize all of the wonderful, boring, terrifying, asinine experiences that I lived through while in Eastern Europe. If I had to pick a takeaway that has stuck with me the most, it’s that it is okay to disagree with another cultural practice. This sounds a bit stupid and obvious, but prior to my trip, I was conditioned to treat studying abroad as something that would be absolutely magical at every turn. I was told I would love everything about it, and that I would learn so many positive things about different cultures that I never could in the states. I did learn many positive things about Slavic culture while away. I also learned some horrific things that put my own upbringing into perspective. I came away with a newfound love for my own country, and a strong desire to want to change the imperfections I see here. G.L.I. is all about global problems. However, I didn’t understand how messy any cross cultural problem was until I lived in a nation vastly different from my own. If there is one lesson I learned from all this, it’s that a perfect culture does not exist. 

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Summer in Washington, D.C.

Hi blog! My name is Erika Byrne and I spent the summer of 2019 interning in Washington, D.C. as a Baucus Institute Fellow. To be specific, I interned for Senator Chuck Grassley, but more on that later.

Some background about me: I am a Junior at the University of Montana currently majoring in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations and Comparative Politics. I am also pursuing a minor in Business Administration. My GLI Global Theme and Challenge, as you may have already guessed, is Culture and Politics.

The Internship

My internship came about through the Baucus Leaders Program. I applied to the program on a whim, thinking I had no chance at getting in. A few months passed and I was eventually notified that Senator Grassley’s office had chosen me to be one of their summer interns. When I first heard the news, I was shocked. Senator Grassley, a Republican farmer from Iowa, serves as the President Pro Tempore and is the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In other words, he’s kind of a big deal.

Senator Grassley, Mrs. Grassley, and the 2019 Summer Session II Interns (7/22/19)

While interning in Senator Grassley’s office, I got to experience things that I never would have been able to in any other position. I wrote speeches and op-eds, attended landmark committee hearings, and met some of the most influential people in American politics. At one point, I was even able to introduce myself to all three of Montana’s congressional members at their weekly Montana Coffee. (Here’s a tip for anyone interning on the Hill: Networking is heavily stressed. Attending events like these or asking people to coffee is expected.)

Me at Montana Coffee with Senator Tester, Representative Gianforte, and Senator Daines. (7/17/19)

As for my global theme, this experience aligned perfectly with Culture and Politics. Not only did I learn more about American politics, I also learned a lot about how the U.S. functions internationally. A lot of this education can be attributed to the office I was able to intern in. Senator Grassley, being the Finance Committee Chairman, is a very outspoken supporter of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). This trade deal is critical for American businesses, seeing as so much of our exports are to these two countries. Without this deal, we would miss out on billions of dollars worth of revenue. I was able to watch debates about the issue in real time and even got to draft an op-ed outline for Senator Grassley. It was an incredible experience to be up close to the action. I was also able to attend a Foreign Relations Committee Hearing where they talked about the Ebola threat. Listening to an expert panel brief the committee on actions that are being taken in the realm of disease control was eye opening to say the least. It puts into perspective how small the world really is and how important it is that we work together globally to secure a better future for us and those who come after.

The Experience

Working on the Hill was only part of the experience, however. Living in D.C. for six weeks comes with many opportunities and challenges. First and foremost: D.C. summers are absolutely brutal. You don’t know discomfort until you walk to work every day in professional clothes (think pants and a blazer) when it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside with 90% humidity. Living in a big city was also an adjustment. For example, I am now comfortable navigating public transportation with a million other people. Speaking of people, dealing with so many personalities was it’s own challenge. Although these personalities can be overwhelming or even intimidating at first, I quickly realized that it’s really not that big of a deal. At the end of the day, everyone is trying. Trying for different reasons or with different intentions, but trying none the less. I think that’s the biggest lesson I learned while in D.C. and it can also be applied to other areas in life (especially when in a leadership position).

I can confidently say that being in the “room where it happens” taught me more than any classroom or book ever could. Not only did it give me the tools and knowledge to grow professionally, this experience aided in my personal growth as well. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity and I look forward to my future adventures as a global leader.