Monday, 21 September 2009

Culture Shock Diary #7 - Having to Translate What I Say

Given that I speak the same language as Americans, I'm often surprised by how much I have to translate. A couple of days ago I asked to borrow some tights from a friend. She looked at me blankly until I explained what tights were, then said 'oh, pantyhose' (now I'm in a fix; I need to go buy some but there's no way I can go into a store and say 'where do you keep the pantyhose' and keep a straight face). Even when the word is the same half the time I have to translate. Today while having coffee with a friend I was talking about my work with former COMbatants in Burundi. After a couple of minutes of looking confused, he asked if I meant comBATants. I guess I did, and I suppose they do sound quite different... but it's a bit disorienting having to translate my own language into... my own language. I'm getting pretty good at it, but definitely surprised by how often I have to.

Stuff That's Good About the US #3 - Savoury Crepes

I think we do have these in the UK, but I'm pretty sure they're not as widely available or popular as they are here. Today while coming back from tea with a friend, I was a bit hungry and couldn't find a sandwich place - I ran into a friend on the street who directed me to a crepe place. So I got a spinich, tomato and basil (bay-zil) crepe with mozarella and it was AMAZING! I'm sure it was horrible for me but so good - don't know how I've coped without them all these years!

Friday, 18 September 2009

Cholera in Burundi

According to World News, there is currently a Cholera outbreak in Bujumbura, spreading rapidly in its crowded outer suburbs and even in the richer area of Rohero. Presumably the fact that everyone in Burundi drinks the tap water, even in rich areas, isn't helping here; I wonder if there are adequate supplies of clean or bottled water, and how the price will be affected. Cholera is not uncommon in Burundi, but it is always a tragedy. Even by East African standards some of Bujumbura's slums are ill-constructed and unsanitary, having been completely destroyed in the war and only rebuilt in the last few years. In these kind of conditions, cholera can spread like wildfire.

The article notes the problem of getting people to hospital, but doesn't mention the almost total lack of facilities once patients arrive there. While in Burundi I was advised that if I ever got sick I should go to the university hospital and refuse to leave, but it's small and the other clinics are woefully inadequate. There are also problems of supply of drugs, with bottlenecks and difficulties of supply, and, according to Morgan, of the wrong type of drugs being available due to kickbacks. I'm not sure how these factors will specifically affect the fight against cholera, but they can't help.

Thinking of cholera, I think of the first time I came across the disease - in a book charting the social history of London, talking about cholera outbreaks in the 19th Century. Cholera is a part of the life that our country has left behind - urban slums, extreme poverty, and lack of sanitation and nutrition for the poor. At the time there was more than poverty standing in the way; they weren't able to prevent it because they didn't understand the nature of its spread. Now, we don't have that excuse. If anything, diseases like cholera are a reminder that what we are glad to see as our past is very much a reality for many people in the developing world - and an indictment of the fact that, while we might be pretty good at vaccines, we're not very good at the interventions that can save even more lives, of even more people - like clean water and sanitation.

Reading this kind of news, I think first of my friends, living in Rohero and Kinindo, and I hope they and their families are well. Then I think of some of the young people living in poorer areas, like Kinaba, that I interviewed, and I'm terrified for them. Thinking of real people with lives and ambitions, whose lives are now at risk from a preventable disease is distressing. This outbreak will pass, as they always do, but it is a constant reminder of how far we need to go to attain even basic standards of living for millions of people.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Stuff That's Cool About the US #2 - The New York Times

The international section comes at the front, which is just about the best thing ever. And better still, you can read it without spreading your arms to full width and really annoying the person next to you. And it's liberal without being rabid or making stuff up (I'm talking to you, Guardian!). While I'm still loyal to the beeb, my news accessing will never be the same again.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Culture Shock Diaries #6 - Really Short Shorts

In the UK we have short shorts on sale, and they are even occasionally bought by normal people. These people even wear them sometimes. On the beach. Or at home, sunbathing or BBQing. Or on holiday. Not in town, doing normal, everyday things. Here, people seem to wear them anywhere, whenever the weather allows. Now I know it's New England and people have to take advantage of what little sun there is, but it does just seem a little too much (or rather too little) sometimes.

Stuff that's Cool about the US #1 - big open spaces

I feel like I'm being a bit harsh on the US with the culture shock diaries, so I thought in the interests of balance I should start recording the cool stuff - then I can cross reference it with what I find wierd when I get back to the UK, or something geeky. But anyway, I thought I'd start with an easy one - there are lots of big open spaces here, fairly close to the city, which is awesome and very different to English urban sprawl, one big grey mass blending into the next. Well, that's what Southern England is like, at least.

Culture Shock Diary #5 - I've been to the UK... Dublin...

OK, this one is a little mean given that I have made a number of embarassing mistakes about people's home countries and/or had to keep my mouth shut and look it up on Wikipedia later (my roommate comes from St Thomas, which is a US overseas territory in the Carribean, but I didn't know that at the time). Having said that, Ireland's been a separate country for some time now, I don't see either it or the UK as particularly obscure on the scale of country obscureness* and (and this is the clincher) - surely if you've been there you should know what country you're in!**

* I guess 1, least obscure would be say the US or China, while 10, most obscure would be something like Niue or Lichtenstein. I would have put the UK at about a 2 or 3 (maybe a 3 people everyone thinks it's called England), but now I'm beginning to wonder. Maybe our fall from power has been greater than I realised!

** In the interests of fairness it's worth noting that at least no-one has thought Ireland was in England (though I'm sure once I venture from the confines of an IR school someone will), and, on the two occasions when someone has made this mistake, it has subsequently transpired that they were confusing 'the UK' for 'the British Isles' and were in fact aware that Ireland was a country. One of the people also thought Scotland and Wales were independent countries and the UK was a geographical term, the other had it pretty much right except for confusing British Isles, Great Britain and UK, which, to be fair, is confusing.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Culture Shock Diary #4 - what kind of coffee would you like?

Um, the kind with caffeine in it? Seriously, before I've had the coffee, I can't make that kind of decision! Not that I would know anyway - at home when you order a filter coffee you get a normal coffee unless you specify something else, which works just fine for me. Here you've got the light roast, the dark roast, and lord only knows what - and does anyone know what the difference is anyway? Which do I have to ask for if I just want coffee. Also, in the supermarket - even the cheapie Johnny Foodmaster, there's a whole wall of different types of coffee beans for grinding at home, that you buy by weight. I'm not even sure where I'd go to buy non-ground coffee beans in the UK - do they sell them in Tesco? I guess this is great for coffee-lovers, but for non-experts it's very confusing and slightly intimidating, especially in the morning when you just want to get a caffeine dose and not be asked questions you don't know the answer to! Maybe next time I should get my own back by saying something like "got anything Burundian? Mmm, that's a shame, in that case I'll have to make do with the dark roast".

Culture Shock Diary #3 - Light Beer

There's so much wrong with this I don't know where to start. For those of you unfamilar with the concept, this is low-cal beer, and it tastes as bad as it sounds. Diet Coke I can handle, but diet beer?! Is nothing sacred?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

A Holiday Weekend

Having taken my economic equivalency exam (not that hard, and I was relieved to pass well – I would have felt that I was letting down IHEID and Professor Wyplosz otherwise!), I was free by 10am on Friday... and since it was Labour Day Weekend, we didn’t have anything until Shopping Day on Tuesday! Time have some New England fun! We kicked off in style with a “scavenger hunt” in downtown Boston. For non-Americans, a scavenger hunt is where you have to photograph yourself at a number of sites as well as fulfilling challenges like spelling ‘Fletcher’ with your bodies, fitting into small spaces, and swapping a plastic bracelet for the biggest thing we could. My group was full of insanely competitive people, so we sped around and managed to get everywhere on the list, as well as fitting into a teeny tiny house in a children’s playground (it collapsed when we crawled out – oops!), and managed to swap our bracelet for a carpet, which the boys carried for half a mile. Along the way, we got to see some of downtown Boston for the first time, including the Make Way for Ducklings statue, which I got very excited about, to the amusement of my team, who hadn’t read the book. The results haven’t been announced yet, but we’re quietly confident, and it was enormous fun! We finished the evening in Red Bones, an awesome bar in Davis Square (near Tufts) with around 30 beers on tap, where I met a few new people, and discovered that a friend from Uganda is here at Fletcher – the world of expatriates is indeed small.

On Saturday, it was time for an excursion. On the basis that if you organise the trip you get to decide where to go, I had sent round some emails suggesting a beach trip, and in the end we settled on Plymouth, landing point of the Pilgrims and home of the Mayflower 2, a reconstruction of the original Mayflower. We managed to all meet up and get the train just in time – lucky as there’s only four a day – and walked the three miles into town (there is apparently a bus, but we didn’t know that at the time and didn’t have any taxi numbers). The town was very pretty and classically New England – clapboard houses (many actually made of plastic over brick – cheats!), tall trees, and wide streets. Eventually we got to the sea – the weather was glorious, and I felt miles out of town. We walked along the shore, and found what can only be described as a fast-food seafood restaurant, where we had crab salad and lobster rolls. It was delicious, not too expensive, and one of those classic New England experiences that you have to have.

From there, we went to the information centre to find out about buses and get some taxi numbers; learning that we had 5 minutes until the bus left for the ‘Plimoth Plantation’, an open-air museum, we ran for it – only to get there and discover that it would cost $24 to get in, and we only had an hour and a half till the last bus. Totally not worth it. So we got a taxi back for $10, and went to the Mayflower II, run by the same people, instead, for $9 – much more reasonable, and the Mayflower still had actors in costume talking in old English, which as far as we could work out was the main attraction of the Plantation. The ship was tiny, especially the beds – it was hard to imaging 102 people crammed into it, but the guides were incredibly knowledgeable, both those in costume who conveyed specific characters from the voyage, and those in modern dress who were able to provide historical background.

I learnt all sorts of things about the period; like the fact that the pilgrims actually set off from Holland, rather than England, and that at this time Englishmen were actually rather well-nourished and comparably tall to today (but slept sitting up, hence the short beds), as well as more ‘subversive’ information – like they never celebrated thanksgiving, which was invented in the 1920s to promote family values. We also learnt that the ‘Plymouth Rock’, where the pilgrims supposedly landed, is a myth – no-one mentions landing on a rock. It’s also somewhat disappointing – about a metre square – so I wasn’t particularly upset to discover this! All in all a great day out, and fascinating to see how well every area of this town has been preserved – without meaning to be dismissive, I think if you have less history you have to preserve it better. And it was a great way to learn more about the US and the history of the region.

On Friday, the second years had organised a tour of Boston’s ‘Freedom Trail’, adapted to exclude sites we’d already visited on the Scavenger Hunt, and to take in sections of the African American Heritage Tour, as well as ‘other cool stuff’. We started out in Beacon Hill, one of the rich areas of Boston that also included some streets where many escaped slaves lived, including some who were probably very famous, judging by the way their names were mentioned and most people nodded knowingly, but who I hadn’t heard of because escaped slaves aren’t really a standard element of the UK history curriculum! We also visited the State Capitol, with its golden dome, and saw a statue opposite commemorating the Mass. 54th Regiment, the first black regiment during the civil war – the statue also notable for being the first in the US to depict black Americans in a heroic and generally not completely offensive manner. As Trevor, our guide put it, US race relations are often about baby steps!

From the State Capitol, we carried on into downtown Boston, visiting, among other places, the Union Oyster House, an oyster house older than this country, much beloved of the Kennedys, and what was the oldest bookstore in the country until Borders opened next door and put it out of business. There was also an H&M there, at which point all the Europeans got very excited that we could buy cheaper versions of the same clothes we would buy in Europe! We also saw Nathanial Hall, where Kerry conceded the election, and the Old State House, with a Lion and a Unicorn on the top – the originals were burnt in rioting after the Boston Massacre, just before the War of Independence, but the British gave them a new set in the 19th Century as a peace offering, and they now grace the building. Since the building is in downtown Boston, space is pretty tight – so they’ve hit on a genius method of preserving the building and also saving space. Stripping out the inside, they’ve turned it into a subway station. Amazing. And not sure you’d get away with it in the UK – there’d be a public outcry and the idea would be dropped. There may have been a public outcry here, but it was a sensible solution and they got on with it. The other interesting thing about the Old State House was that it was surrounded by skyscrapers – I’m not sure we get that much in the UK, as the areas with the skyscrapers were generally pretty heavily bombed in the war, but it’s a very striking sight and really highlights just how tall some of the towers are – definitely higher than I’d want to live! Imagine if the lift broke!

From Downtown, we walked through little Italy towards the docks, where we took the boat across the harbour to the USS Constitution, the oldest still-commissioned ship in the world. We didn’t go in as there was a huge queue and it was under repair, and instead we headed to the Bunker Hill Monument, a giant obelisk build to commemorate an early and glorious American victory in the War of Independence... that ended with the Americans running out of powder and having to defeat. Admittedly the British lost more men, but it still seemed an amusing disconnect between the official history and the reality. Then we went to The Warren, a pub that is almost older than this country, built in 1780 to replace one burnt down during the war, and that was popular with Washington and some of the other Founding Fathers... which was pretty awesome! I’d never been in a pub that was almost as old as a country before, unless you count places in Uganda or Kenya that were build before independence – but I’m not sure that most Ugandans or Kenyans would agree that their countries began at independence (will ask fellow students from the region and see what they think!).

On Monday, we went for a change from the beach, and three of us went inland to Concord, home of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, among others – basically all the Transcendentalists. We had discovered that we could go swimming in Walden Pond, where Thoreau spent a year to try to discover the essentials of life, and walking in the forest. So we caught the train from Porter Square (one every two hours), got to Concord, walked three miles, and there we were. The Reservation was stunning – tall trees, good trails, and the water reflecting like a mirror. The leaves on the trees were just starting to turn – the picture of the end of summer and a promise of fall. The water was cool, but not too cold – I swam for about half an hour, then out we got, walked around the lake, and back into Concord, with just time for a hot chocolate and some food before we got the train back to Boston. A short, but worthwhile outing – hopefully I’ll be able to get out of Boston at least once or twice in the coming semester.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Culture Shock Diary #2 - Paper

The paper's the wrong size. I like English paper. It's especially annoying because I can't work out what size I need to set the paper on my Word to to print properly...

Culture Shock Diary #1 - Cars

Dependence on the car. There isn’t a convenience store anywhere near Tufts; the nearest supermarket is the slightly grotty Johnny Foodmaster, which is the best part of a mile away. To me I’m surprised there isn’t somewhere more local (what if you just want a pint of milk?), but it seems perfectly walkable. The same goes for Whole Foods, which is just over a mile in the other direction. But many in the American contingent disagree, and will wait for someone to be driving to go. My roommate, Ketura, who has a car, wanted to drive to the bookstore, a three minute walk away, the other day; I can see where she was coming from as she needed to pick up a lot of books, but it honestly wouldn’t have occurred to me to drive – until I was struggling back from the store with all my books, when I would metaphorically slap my forehead and think ‘why didn’t I take my car’!

Orient-ing in Boston

Thankfully, after my first day the weather improved dramatically – Sunday was muggy, but sunny, and since then it’s just been sunny. On Sunday I just slept a lot, unpacked and went to Target – many of the students have cars and were driving to a big out of town store over the weekend, so I was able to stock up on cooking equipment, crockery and cutlery, storage boxes, and other essentials. I had already ordered my bedding* online, so didn’t need that, and in the mean time was sleeping in my sleeping bag liner and a sleeping bag that smelt strongly of diesel thanks to sharing the back of a Land Rover with a leaking jerry can in Uganda.

This also gave me a chance to see a bit more of Boston, or at least Medford. Apart from the detached houses, the main difference with the UK is the amount of green around – if you get to high ground and look over the city, rather than seeing a sea of rooves, you see green, with church spires and other tall buildings sticking through it. I think part of this is because the streets are wider, so the trees that line them grow taller, but it’s also that they just have more space – and, of course, we’re in an out-of-town leafy suburb – but in England, as I’ve just realised, suburbs aren’t really that leafy, except for some very gentrified ones. And elsewhere in Europe, suburbs are ghettos.

Last Monday, orientation started – we started out with a load of speeches about how we weren’t admissions mistakes (have to admit I’m wondering whether, as an exchange student, I slipped through the rigorous selection process and therefore am an admissions mistake) and the great background of the Fletcher school, and how we had to learn from each other, and so on. It was all very cheesy, but also very exciting and in between the bullsh*t they did give us some useful advice, like to pick courses on things you don’t know about early on, and challenge yourself to take courses that scare you – this is something that I’ve figured out by myself over the course of the last year in Geneva, but which I really wish someone had told me earlier, and saved me the trouble of taking pointless courses to work it out. We had introductions from the highups in the Fletcher school and in Tufts – the President of Tufts, the Dean and Academic Dean of the Fletcher school, and all the people with whom we will have administrative contact – it’s unlikely that I’ll have much contact with the President and the Deans, but knowing who they are is useful and, again, something that The Graduate Institute could learn from.

In the afternoon, we had an international students briefing, where we were told that 40% of the students were international, meaning 60% were American – again, comparing with Geneva, almost all the students are international – but I wonder what proportion come from Western Europe, which I guess would be the closest equivalent. Finally we had a welcome drink, and afterwards headed out for a student-organised event in Davis Square, near the campus – in an Irish bar that was nice enough, but rammed. I’m getting my butt kicked by jetlag, so it was one drink, and home to bed.

Tuesday, we were subjected to what I am forcing myself to think of as a cultural experience – splitting into small groups and playing teambuilding games. It was pretty cringy, but for the last bit we had brief conversations (like speed dating) with everyone there, which was a pretty good way to get to know some people I didn’t know before. Then we got a tour of the campus, which was interesting – it’s very green and beautiful (at least it is now) – with amazing views out towards downtown, and a fascinating medley of architectural styles (photos to follow). Then back into the auditorium for some more speeches, this time from the alumni office, before dividing into smaller groups for library orientation (boring, mainly because the format is the same as Geneva) and an IT orientation (summary: don’t pirate. You will get sued and banned from the network).

Wednesday we were back in small groups for a Q and A session (pointless for an exchange student) then sessions on reading critically and writing skills. I expected them to be pointless – I have a fair bit of experience of reading large amounts every week, thanks to the whole Oxford Degree thing, and I write well, but I did pick up a few useful tips, mainly on how to improve my skim reading. And I resolved to download an endnote equivalent – they have a licence to give us one programme for free, which I’m excited about as I hate footnoting with a passion!

Having had a night off on Tuesday, I was still pretty tired on Wednesday as I was still waking up at 5am every day – but Eddy offered me a ride to the pub, so off I went. I was slightly amazed by how many students have cars; Tufts is a little way out of town, so it is practical to have one, and all the stores are actually pretty far (minimum 10 minutes for the closest) so I can see why they need it, but it did highlight how far the US, even in interconnected New England, is dependent on the car. But I wasn’t making any snarky comments, as I was glad of the ride, and it inspired me to sort out my zipcar membership – a process that includes getting my driver record from an office of the DVLA that is only open between 9 and 12 UK time. Which is between 2 and 5 am here. Not fun. I got the record, but politely suggested that perhaps they could open in the afternoon once a week or so.

Thursday we had an introduction to the career services, which seem WAY better here than in Geneva, and a group exercise at the end of which we got the results from a Myers-Briggs personality test we’d had to do. I normally hate this kind of thing – they always tell me to be a librarian – but it was actually surprisingly useful, mainly as it focussed on personality types and what kind of jobs you will enjoy and what you’ll hate. And it did highlight why I’ve hated some of my past jobs and why I’ve had issues with past bosses! Perhaps I’m Americanising already, getting used to the idea of psychobabble being relevant! Then back to Blakeley for our last free lunch, before spending the afternoon studying for the economics equivalency test on Friday.

* Note for Americans: Crockery is plates and bowls and things, NOT a crock-pot or any of the other bizarre ideas people had when I said this. Bedding means sheets, pillows, etc, not the mattress or the actual bed.