Monthly Archives: September 2015

How to Win Friends and Understand People

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One of the best events of our exchange orientation week was the chance to ask anonymous, off-the-record questions to our ExO leaders to find out more about what life is really like in DC and at GW. One of the questions asked was ‘what annoys you most about GW?’ and the answer was a general attitude of negativity in some people, with the idea of things not being worth the effort.

As an exchange student there can be a tendency to take on an attitude of negativity towards the culture you are in, flagging up the many issues that seem ‘wrong’ or ‘different’ to you and it not seeming worth the effort to think about these differences further. Yes, I sometimes feel that my critical keenness is dulled and I am scared that I have been so absorbed by a different culture that I have lost some of the ability to interrogate it, but achieving an objective distance that can help in future understanding of cultural relations is different to being predisposed to be negative. What one person may find irritating in the behaviour of another may be simply the result of a different culture, and only a few minutes’ conversation is enough to see genuine human warmth behind it. This is not to say that you can’t be frustrated about things and passively accept ‘the system’ – the situation Bahar describes is completely different and not what I mean, I was inspired by another experience I had – but it does mean thinking a bit beyond your initial reactions.

This week has not only highlighted a ‘melting pot’ of different cultures but also of different religions, with Pope Francis’ first visit to DC as well as the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. The last time I lived in an area with a relatively large Jewish community was in New Jersey, and it is fascinating to see how classmates practise their faith, with different attitudes towards the fast and celebration of the holiday.

Differences in religious practice was something I also experienced when I went to the National Community Church at Loews Theater, Georgetown this Sunday – the first time I’ve ever been to a church in a cinema and it worked! That you could potentially order popcorn to listen to the sermon was a strange thought but it was exciting to try something new and I liked the service.

The coming together of different cultures in joint celebration was seen in one of the highlights of my week, getting together with fellow exchange blogger Bahar and friends to create a stereotypical ‘American’ brunch that we felt we had been missing and which we enjoyed on the rooftop of my accommodation, overlooking the city.

The Brunch Club (photo credit: Alicia Gonzalez-Barros)

The Brunch Club (photo credit: Alicia Gonzalez-Barros)

However, the DC brunch culture is strong as the next day I got a second taste of that cliché at the 21st birthday brunch for a friend from my poetry class who was also in Smackdown with me.

Caption: Poor lighting, top people

Caption: Poor lighting, top people

Fellowship over food continued as my cousin treated me to an early birthday dinner a short walk from campus at Nooshi on 19th and L – as the name suggests, a restaurant serving noodles and sushi.

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And I also enjoyed deep midnight chats catching up with an exchange friend over a carton of oreo ice cream.

My weekend was rounded off watching a friend play in the GW water polo team and though sadly they lost this time to Princeton I definitely enjoyed seeing my first game and plan to go again!

This coming week looks to be the most hectic yet, but also the most amazing (I’m finally turning the big 2-1)

See you on the other side,

Grace

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Time to Reflect

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The first month of my semester is officially over. Four weeks of endless readings, weekly Museum visits, many nights on U-Street and amounts of various ethnic foods have come to an end. When I think about it, all of it seems to have happened in racing time, which did not allow me once to sit down and reflect upon all the moments. Hence, I took the opportunity of my 1-month anniversary to replicate all the unforgettable moments, unfamiliar situations and also absurd confrontations while enjoying self-made blueberry pancakes, loads of bacon and fruits on E Street’s rooftop.

breakfast

And while I was eating, – and being extremely surprised by the perfection of my pancakes’ circular shape – a strange wave of emotions hit me. Happiness, surprise, satisfaction, anger and melancholy are few worthy to be mentioned. In that moment, I just realized all the words and actions stemming from the personal interactions I had. In that specific moment, I fully became aware of the diversity of thought within US society including all its ambiguities.

Every time people ask me about the most significant thing that I learned during my high school year in the States, I tell them about the flawed European view on American society, which is perceived as uncritical, extremely patriotic and increasingly arrogant. The US I encountered during the time of 2010-2011 was not only open and welcoming, but it also surprised me with incredibly keen-witted and intelligent people. This view, which I had acquired during my exchange year was, however, constantly challenged by extremely conservative parts of American society tending to be the loudest in the political debate. My fellow Europeans, who never had the chance to spent more than a vacation in the US, only had heard the voices of unprogressive parts of American’s society and political elite. Hence, they never fully understood what I was talking about.

They will never understand, because they cannot see the dilemma of American society & the struggle of progressive sections to change the status quo discourse. What I learned during this last month and my second long-term stay in the States is that these progressive voices are already halted when challenging the mainstream discourse with their criticism. They are simply rejected on a basis of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’. They are perceived by a ‘black and white’ paradigm. And, lastly, they are marginalized without further discussion. I am not talking about the current presidential debate – this text does not aim at conveying my personal opinion about how the political Left and Right is treated in this country. This text is about my encounters at GW – the perfect example of this clash between two major movements within society.

When someone calls me a ‘socialist’, I usually do not get offended. People get emotional in informal settings and due to my socio-political work, this happens now and then. But it is very rare. I do not want to transform this into a history lesson about how socialist ideology has been treated by society and the polity in Europe, Latin America or Asia versus its status in the US. I think the whole Cold War, ‘Red Scare’ and McCarthyism paradigm does definitely offer one of the many explanations for less attraction within American society to feel drawn towards Leftist ideas, but it should not serve as the basis for defining a set framework of America’s political landscape as well as its subversive movements. America does have incredibly bright, deep-read and highly motivated progressive sections within its society that do not fear to criticize the status quo. However, the issue for their slow progress seems to be that they are not invited for a dialogue by the forces shaping the mainstream discourse. And the reason for a lack of debate is the apparent idea that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in politics. But politics is much more than that: It is a constant debate, where various groups and individuals disagree with each other and try to find a compromise. Politics is about good arguments, its about values and lastly it is inherently idealistic. So when I am called a socialist while having a political debate, I am not bothered since it only fortifies my belief in social democracy. When I am called a ‘socialist leftie’ in a country, where this term is despised by several in society, I do not feel personally attacked with regards to my political beliefs, but it  negates progressive societal movements within this country, who want to reform the current political discourse.

I am satisfied with most of my classes, one of them being probably the best class I have taken in my academic career so far. Our professor does not only challenge us with critical theory, but she encourages us to search for dialogue not only with her, but also among the students while discussing political, economic and social events and structures. Her and 95% of my class represent the progressive critical part of society in this country, which is determined to change the status quo for the better. In complete contrast to this stands one of my other classes. The status quo defines our discussions, criticism is taken personally by all involved and a dialogue is not sought. The current political discourse is protected against ‘socialist lefties’ and any other voice that disagrees. A descriptive mode of engaging with the issues dominates the events discussed. Analytical thinking is not requested.

When someone calls me a ‘socialist leftie’, I usually do not get offended. Even if it happens in an academic context. I am not trapped in any ideological mindset and far away from being a radical or revolutionary. I have learned to rather believe in reforms. But I do get offended when I see that the purpose of academia is being undermined. Academia should open up new horizons, it should attempt to represent as much diversity as possible, it should be critical and it should push students to think analytically. It should push students to think for themselves. It should encourage students to criticize without being criticized.

When I was called a ‘socialist leftie’ this past week, I did not get offended as usual. Although, it was used as an attack on a personal basis. Although, it undermined the purpose of academia. Although, ‘socialism’ was used as a dirty word. I was not offended, because I see the big and growing sections of US society, which are pursuing progress. They are critical, they are brave and they believe in the making of politics while upholding their moral values. I saw these people not only during my exchange year 6 years ago, but I see them now, too. Right at GW sitting in the classrooms. And I hope that, as the mainstream political discourse within the United States will slowly change, that also the cultural discourse about alleged American political dullness will finally be abandoned by my fellow Europeans and others around the world.

 

O Brave New World

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This week has again been full of new adventures, bringing out my British side but also challenging some of those British views. For example, I had arrived with the prejudice that all Americans were much more conservative politically than Europeans, but I have been proven wrong and am enjoying that – I have had classes with professors as liberal, if not more so, than any UK lecturer!

However, I did hear ‘socialism’ used as a dirty word in my first real, brief taste of American politics, when watching the CNN Republican Debate with friends. Seeing the debate fulfilled part of the reason I wanted to come to DC, to feel connected to and attempt to understand the US political system, beyond the quite negative and simplistic view I had of it. Having good friends who differ from me politically is both interesting and positive – pushing me to want to learn more about viewpoints that I otherwise would have had less time for.

Three weeks into classes and I have been able to become more fully involved in activities outside of my subject timetable. Theatre societies were something I really enjoyed being a part of in Edinburgh and where I made a lot of friends, so I was keen to investigate the student theatre scene at GW. Everyone has been lovely and welcoming and there are so many things going on! Socially, I have found being involved in a society very useful, as it has been harder to make friends in class than I had perhaps naively assumed – it’s much easier to connect when you have shared interests. One of the theatre societies I have got involved in has been the GW Shakespeare Company and I have had an amazing time rehearsing for and performing in their annual ‘Shakespeare Smackdown’ scene and monologue competition. I also got a flavour of Greek life as the society has adopted the tradition of assigning each new member a ‘big’ – an older member of the society who anonymously gives their ‘little’ gifts and notes during tech week and becomes a mentor figure after their identity is revealed.

Big Love

Big Love

Big and Little- I won!

Big and Little- I won!

Smackdown was a chance not only to make new friends but also reconnect with family, as my second cousin – whom I last saw when I was in America seven years ago – is also in DC for the year and came to give me her support!

This week has completely flown by in a whirl of slight stress and a lot of excitement and next week looks to be the same – but I’m looking forward to it.

Till then,

Grace

Sounds of DC: Julio Bashmore

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It probably has been quite clear that one of the major themes of my blog posts is and will be my love for any type of cuisine. This blog should not be that one-dimensional though. This week will introduce my second major love in life: Electronic music. Whether it is Deep House, Techno or Trance – I do not discriminate, but only show my love for it. After having been a DC local –I probably should not call myself a local, but I like to pretend, that’s alright, isn’t it? – for almost a month, it was time for some kind of pre-celebration. And the best way of welcoming the second month of my exchange was by showing my love for some house music with a good set. Julio Bashmore, a Bristol native, offered the perfect opportunity for that.

I never had the chance to actually go to one of Bashmore’s sets. Soundcloud had introduced him to me and remained to be the only bridge between his music and my craving for his sounds. The set he presented at U Street Music Hall on Saturday was great. The people I shared this good time with were amazing (You guys know, who you are!). Julio Bashmore ‘s sounds are now officially one of the things, which I will always associate with DC. There is this part of me, which easily connects music to places. There are certain songs that just immediately remind me of a certain country, city or location.

Bashmore was my first sound of DC. His single Kong (feat. Bixby) is my personal melody of DC.

I am imagining myself listening to it next year and I will just get lost in all my memories on this vibrant and colorful city. By colorful I specifically mean U Street. Bashmore’s sound is immediately linked to all the fun that I had and will have on U Street:

It will remind me of the casual order of Chili-Cheese Fries at Ben’s Chili Bowl at 3 am.

It will let my thoughts wander to crazy times at Dodge City.

It will cause flashbacks to the most amazing Uber rides with insane Portuguese and Electro Cumbia music filling the air.

It will make me yearn for the moments at Flash.

It will be the evidence for the fact that I love DC. That I love U Street with all of its shady figures.

 

However, there will be more sounds of DC. There are already plans of extending the soundtrack , which I want to prepare for this city. Andhim & Parov Stelar will contribute as soon as they have filled DC’s air with their music. But let me give you the debut for my soundtrack for this city:

Sounds of DC (Track 01): Julio Bashmore – Kong (feat. Bixby)

Enjoy!

 

Cheers,

Bahar

Keeping up with the American Dream

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If you’d told me before I left for America that within the first week of classes starting I’d be sitting in the corridor of a university building at 12.30am, eating M&Ms whilst waiting for my acapella group audition, I don’t think I’d have believed you. Yet that’s how things turned out as I wanted to live the ‘Pitch Perfect’ fantasy – though without quite the voice of Anna Kendrick my own story did not exactly follow that of the film’s.

Auditioning for acapella groups was one of of the many stereotypically ‘American’ activities I wanted to check off my list, and trying to embrace every opportunity has kept me busy. However, the past two weeks have been dominated by the beginning of classes and adjusting to the US college system.

At the pre-departure talk in Edinburgh we had been warned that studying in America might feel slightly like ‘going back to school’ and my own less-than-fond memories of middle school in the States meant I was vaguely worried about this but also better prepared for it. However, myself and other exchange students were still surprised at the relative lack of independence and increase in assignments in comparison to our home universities – it’s a long time since I’ve had homework!

Classes are also very professor-oriented in America in a way I have not experienced at Edinburgh (though as I have not taken honours classes there yet, I’m not entirely sure how much this might change as you progress through your degree). It seems slightly unfair to me that here your grade for a class is so dependent on your teacher’s opinion of you, how harsh or lenient a marker they are, and how they have designed the syllabus, with seemingly no anonymously marked papers, moderation system or degree-wide overall exam. The use of continuous assessment – constant regular assignments, quizzes and small exams that add up to form your grade, as opposed to the more spaced out essays and end of term exams at universities in the UK – does have an advantage in that students are not penalised quite so much for having an off day during the exam period and are measured more on their overall ability. However, as I experienced at thirteen, not having grown up with this system means the long list of reports and papers can be daunting. The mistake I made seven years ago was to allow these to swallow up all my free time and prevent me from doing anything outside of class, and as I want to get involved in as much as possible at the uni and in DC, it means that I have had to get better at managing my time – though as only my credits and not my grades transfer the pressure to do well academically is off.

As a reward to myself for surviving my three-day week, I went with a friend to Buzzfeed-staple Baked & Wired in Georgetown for expensive but delicious cupcakes.

Sugar highs at Baked & Wired - pistachio and red velvet (photo credit: Kelli Jones)

Sugar highs at Baked & Wired – pistachio and red velvet (photo credit: Kelli Jones)

An antidote to class was also found sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial watching dusk (or as a Scottish poet might call it, ‘the gloaming’) settle over the Tidal Basin.

Remembering - and thinking (photo credit: Marcos Falcone)

Remembering – and thinking (photo credit: Marcos Falcone)

 

The text in the picture above at the memorial is an amalgamation of quotes from Thomas Jefferson and though when read is deeply impressive and inspiring, is also a reminder of the selectivity involved in remembering the past. The line ‘nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [slaves] are to be free’ is originally followed by the words ‘nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them’ – this racism obviously not included on the memorial. Those who cannot remember the past may be condemned to repeat it but it is also important to note what is remembered, and by whom.

My weekend concluded by once again experiencing DC brunch culture with a flatmate outing to The Liberty Tavern in Arlington for an all-you-can-eat buffet, which I sluggishly tried to walk off around the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the first I have seen of the many galleries and museums in the city.

Things are currently the right mix between familiar and fresh and exciting, so I’m looking forward to what next week will bring,

Till then,

Grace

From A to B in DC

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So this week has seen the start of classes and I’m already starting to feel like there aren’t quite enough hours in the day. There are so many things to see and do, particularly at the beginning of the year as societies get started up again after summer, and there are also all the errands to run that come with setting up a new flat and getting settled into a new semester in a foreign country.

These errands often involve running around the city and as a result I thought I’d talk about the different methods of transport I’ve used to get around DC this week. However, there are many other transport options such as the bus system and GW’s 4ride service (provided mainly for student safety) that I have yet to try. I’m also looking forward in the future to using the train and bus networks to get out of the city and travel up and down the east coast.

Metro Since neither Edinburgh nor Norwich have a metro system (Edinburgh has the trams, but that’s a sore point) I’m enjoying living in a city that has one. Yes, on the inside it resembles the set of a 1960s dystopian movie, the trains take longer and come with much less frequency than London, and it is quite expensive, but it is simple to follow and has been very useful in getting to places – such as Columbia Heights, one of the main shopping areas in DC. I definitely feel like a local when using my SmarTrip card to swipe through the gates. Again, our orientation was great in introducing us to the metro as a way to get around.

The Vern Express This is a free shuttle bus service provided by GW to ferry its students between the two main campuses of Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon, around 10 to 15 minutes’ drive apart. Although at first it seems like a hassle to use, with multiple stops and buses departing every 5 minutes during peak hours, it is a quick and easy way to attend classes and access the facilities across both areas.

Uber I had never used Uber before as it’s not that popular in Edinburgh or Norwich, so I was surprised to see how much people love it over here. There are arguments on either side as to whether this popularity is a good thing, but it appears to be very convenient and also inexpensive, costing only as much as the metro if a group splits the fare.

Target Party Bus One of the more unusual modes of transport I used this week was part of the GW-organised Target Takeover – an event where GW students were allowed in the store after-hours from 10.30 to 12.30am to buy whatever they needed, with the incentives of price reductions, prize giveaways, and free samples. Intrigued and in need of a hoover, myself and my flatmate, along with a group of other exchange students, boarded one of the especially laid on buses playing dance music and headed to the store. The night was a very strange experience – like a mini black Friday, although a lot less intense – and we left slightly dazed though with quite a few shopping bags.

Walking My favourite way to navigate DC, however, is by simply walking. In Edinburgh I never really took public transport as everything I needed I could get to by foot, and it does slightly frustrate me here that not all the shops and facilities are within as easy reach. However, I like that DC is ultimately a ‘walkable’ city. This week I have enjoyed an evening stroll from the White House to the Capitol and taken my American poetry to study at the back of the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the Potomac (another great tip from one of our ExO leaders). The buildings on GW’s Foggy Bottom campus are all within very easy walking distance, which means it took me only 5 minutes to get to the Smith Center to see a GW win against Princeton for the women’s volleyball team (with Dunkin’ Donuts providing courtside refreshment).

School spirit and coffee!

School spirit…and coffee.

 

This coming week looks similarly busy and exciting, so I’m thankful for this long Labor Day weekend to get caught up on things and to relax with the great weather!

Till next week,

Grace

‘Georgetown Cupcake’ vs ‘Baked & Wired’

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First and foremost, I would like to clarify that cupcakes are on the top of list of things, which make me happy no matter how bad of a day I had. Only avocados and watermelon beat my love for cupcakes. Hence, me dedicating an entire blog post to cupcakes is totally normal, when you get to know me. So while strolling through picturesque Georgetown for the first time, I could do nothing else but run into ‘Georgetown Cupcake’. Seeing all those delicious cupcakes stacked up on cute étagères, it was impossible to listen to reason and I just simply bought two. I bought two cupcakes and ate them both right after the other. No regrets. Well, maybe some regrets towards my blood sugar level. I will gladly share the perfection with you; only in form of a picture though.

georgetown cupcake

Experiencing a city spontaneously without a plan is the best way of exploring its greatest treasures. In the case of DC: ‘Georgetown Cupcake’. But sometimes a little bit of local help and experience can make a stay in a foreign city unforgettable. So, thank you, to every local, who persistently told me that I should visit ‘Baked & Wired’ instead of ‘Georgetown Cupcakes’. You did not disappoint. I love carrot cake and I love cupcakes. To find the fusion of these two in the form of a way bigger cupcake than the one sold at the store mentioned previously made my day full of exhausting readings not only bearable, but also actually fantastic. As you noticed before, the top 3 things on the list of stuff making me happy are some kind of food. So a cupcake can definitely save my day. And, by the way, I had two again. This might become a thing: Me just always casually ordering double. But hey, I am just trying to integrate into American consumer society. Although, my blood sugar might rebel at one point. I am definitely challenging it at the moment.

baked and wired

Of course, I won’t make this whole article about me visiting two cupcake places. I am not that shallow. Maybe you have already noticed that I like to use metaphors, comparisons and analogies. It is somehow my thing and I like to believe that I am actually good at it. So let’s try this stretch: ‘Georgetown Cupcake’ represents my adventurous, independent and curious side. I love to just stroll around DC and explore new places by myself. Without any former opinion. Without any prejudices. I like to experience it myself without being bound to the borders of someone else’s mindset. On the other hand, locals do know the city’s best places sometimes. Places, which you normally maybe would never pass by. A perfect example of that is the Ethiopian food at ‘Zenebech Injera’ close to U Street. Although, I love Ethiopian food, I would have overlooked that place probably. But thanks to my American friend Meg, whom I will refer to as M from this point onwards, I had one of the best nights with lovely Injera. Another example is ‘Baked & Wired’. Hidden in a side road of M Street, I wouldn’t have seen it.

I will get to know DC in the combination of these two modes of exploration: Going out without any plan and just be lucky in finding the right spots  as well as enjoying the comfort of being guided by trusted locals, who know exactly what is worth to go to. Next stop: ‘Maketto’ on H Street.