Guest Blogger: Matt Boyce, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
I grew up traveling to National Parks. My parents, more specifically my dad, has a deep appreciation for enjoying nature. As such, nearly every summer I was either in a car or on a plane and by the time I was ten I was a pro at sitting in vehicles for 12-plus hours, making my own entertainment,
and enjoying the great outdoors. By the time I was sixteen I had been to Acadia, Arches, Badlands, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Denali, Glacier Bay, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Sand Dunes, Great Smoky Mountains, Kenai Fjords, Mammoth Cave, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks. And by twenty I had added Crater Lake, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Olympic, and Redwood to that list. More-or-less come August I looked much more like a surfer-boy from SoCal than a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago; I’d have sun-bleached hair, a dark bronze tan, too many scabs, and a plethora mosquito bites to prove it. But I’d also close out each summer with countless pictures and priceless memories exploring absolutely amazing places.
This appreciation for the outdoors was very much reflected in my study abroad decision. As I’ve already talked about in previous blog posts I decided to spend my time studying abroad on a small, arid slab of rock in the Caribbean studying coral reef ecology, catching turtles and/or sharks, cliff diving, chasing the wild donkeys across salinas, and bathing in the ocean. Very much my cup of tea. Then I returned home to Illinois, set aside my alter ego, and once again focused on my studies at a University surrounded by corn. And don’t get me wrong I love my school and I love corn. I’m probably one of a select group of people that thinks driving down I-57 is an enjoyable drive with small, family owned barns speckling the countryside. But if I’m honest with myself, I missed the grandeur of the nature I’d found in the National Parks and Caribbean. I missed living out my modern mountain-man alter ego. You know the guy I’m talking about — the kind who wears faded jeans, old t-shirts, and a backward baseball cap. They prefer finding adventure to sitting around, are genuinely kind to everyone, can start a fire, and need all of a second to decide that it’s a good idea to pull over to the side of the road and take a dip in the ocean. I felt free. And I liked that. So, I made it my personal quest to find that same wanderlust freedom in the Land of Lincoln. Here are my favorite (and in my opinion most feasible) options for U of I students:
No doubt you’ve heard of this one if you’re from the state of Illinois. About 1.5 – 2 hours away from Champaign, this state park is home to a number of waterfalls, river otters, bald eagles, and a host of other attractions that one would probably not expect to find in state. You can go for a hike or swim in the Illinois river by summer, admire the beautiful fall colors in fall, hike to frozen waterfalls in winter, and watch the park thaw out and come back to life in spring.
(Photo Credit: AJ Sus)
This park, located inside Shawnee National Forest, and just inside the Illinois border, is also the coolest in my opinion. Though it is the farthest from campus, at about 3.5 hours away, driving through the southern part of the state is a completely different experience than driving through the northern or central parts. Dixon Springs’ landscape is characterized by rolling hills and rugged bluffs, and is home to a massive rock arch. And for an added bonus, make the short drive to the Cache State River Natural Area and check out the marshes and hundreds of bald cypress trees.
Yes, this one is in Indiana. But our Hoosier neighbors can relate to a landscape dominated by corn. Turkey Run also presents us with the closest park, as it is just over an hour away. This area is home to some awesome sandstone ravines and gorges that you can hike into. And for me, coupling some of these sweet Midwest canyons with options to fish, swim, canoe, and camp… I was sold and I think you will be too.
Guest Blogger: Crystol Dejohnette, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
Why Travel to Jordan? Well… if you want to challenge yourself and perspectives during study abroad, Jordan is a great option. The culture is very different from U.S. culture, Jordanians often have very different values than we do, and the country is majority Muslim. With all this difference there is still an element of comfort. Many students find Middle-Eastern culture to be very friendly and hospitable. For example, it’s not uncommon for you to be invited for tea after chatting with a stranger.
Jordan is also a place of great diversity. It’s found in it’s culture, it’s religions, and even it’s geography.
As a majority Sunni Muslim country, Islam and its values are reflected virtually everywhere you go. But Islam is not the only religion practiced there. There is a significant population of Christians as well as a much smaller population of people practicing other religions. Jordan is included in the region known as the Holy Land which features sites that are significant to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So when traveling and meeting people in Jordan you’ll soon learn that there is a strong culture of respect for others’ religion and beliefs.
Often called the heart of the Middle East, Jordan has a central location and has seen the rise and falls of some the world’s greatest civilizations and empires. Because of this it also maintains a very rich historic legacy.
The region that is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was once a part of the Byzantine Empire and many of its remnants can be seen today. In fact, it’s quite easy to find ancient ruins in Jordan. The most popular ones are the city of Philadelphia which is in the capital city of Amman.
Other civilizations also flourished under the Romans. One of the most famous one is the Nabatean Kingdom which is responsible for building the city of Petra in the southern region of Jordan. Petra, a city carved out of rock has to be the most glorious site I’ve ever been to! If you go be sure to go early in the day because it’s huge and there is oh so much to explore!
While in Jordan I was amazed because despite it being in midst of the most politically heated and war-torn regions of the world, it is safe and people there can retain a sense of normalcy in their daily lives. We visited an area in the north of Jordan where you could see the Golan Heights of Israel and very far in distance the border of Syria and it was one of the most peaceful and humbling experiences I had while there.
We also got a chance to swim in the Dead Sea as well as the Red Sea and each time we were able to see Israel on the other side. At those moments it was hard to imagine that a major conflict was occurring but it was really nice to see people coexist as best they could in light of the situation. I encourage any students interested in learning about the Middle East or Jordan specially to consider studying abroad there. While in Jordan I learned about a region and a society where there’s way more to see than what usually meets the American eye. In Jordan you’ll find a culture that’s rich in history and diversity and is also very eager to meet you!
Guest Blogger: Matt Boyce, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
I like traveling. I like traveling a lot. Exploring the world is one of my favorite hobbies, and if I’m not actually traveling somewhere at the given time, I’m probably plotting out my next adventure. It is pretty universal that one of the first rules of international travel is to “do as the locals do.” But sometimes it’s difficult to do this, especially regarding food. Still, taking a deep breath and trying a new food or custom, while hopefully keeping your “yuck” face stashed away, can show respect for your hosts and the country or place you’re visiting. Fortunately for me, I also like to eat, a lot, and am pretty open to trying new foods so long as it’s not leafy and green. In my personal travels I’ve tried a wide variety of foods, from rattlesnake, to durians, to conch, to jellyfish. Still, there are a number of foods I’m not sure I could muster up the courage to eat and “do as the locals do.” To help give you an idea of the range of foods and traditions out there, and since it is the “most wonderful time of the year,” here are a few of the more unusual winter customs I’ve heard about from around the world:
This Eastern European dish may or may not have been the inspiration for Midwestern and Southern supermarket chain Piggly Wiggly. Because that is really the best way to describe it. Piftie is a garlicky, pork stock gelatin made from pig liver, and is commonly served as an appetizer on Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I like jello and pork products, but I might prefer those two entities remain separate on my plate.
In my family, whenever we get together for the holidays, my Grandma makes a turkey, with the rest of the spread rounded out with green beans, yams, homemade bread, and usually mashed potatoes. But in Japan, it has become more or less a holiday tradition to holiday food provided by a smiling man you and I both know: Colonel Sanders. This custom, embraced by millions of Japanese, began nearly 40 years ago when KFC launched a marketing campaign in Japan in which they presented fried chicken as a yuletide norm. But my favorite part of this tradition is that they dress the Colonel up like Santa during the season. I guess they both have white beards and wear red?
Kiviaq is more or less a winter dish that consists of fermented sea bird. Strange, but not entirely crazy. What makes me unsure about this dish is the preparation process. The BBC describes it in the following manner:
“The delicacy is created by first preparing a seal skin: all the [seal] meat is removed and only a thick layer of fat remains. The skin is then sewn into a bag shape, which is stuffed with auk birds. Once full and airtight, the skin is sewn up and seal fat is smeared over all over the join, which acts as a repellent to flies. The seal skin is then left under a pile of rocks to ferment for a minimum of three months to a maximum of 18 months.“
Night of the Radishes (Mexico)
Noche de los Rábanos or Night of the Radishes is a celebration held in Oaxaca, Mexico on December 23. Though this tradition doesn’t involve the consumption of radishes, it does involve the carving of the root vegetable into intricate scenes and figures. This “rad” celebration (ba-dum-tsss) then continues into Christmas Eve and Christmas, where parades, dancing, and fireworks ensue.
Hakarl is the national dish of Iceland and is actually similar to kiviaq (see above). This delicacy is actually rotten shark meat that is buried and left to decompose for several months, which allows for the uric acid to decay, making the meat edible. After this, the meat is cured for another 2 months before a layer of edible flesh is enjoyed as part of a meal. Though it is now available year round, it was traditionally served at the Midwinter Festival.
If you have the chance to try any of these, and do so, I commend you. Maybe you’ll end up with a newfound favorite food or holiday tradition! If you’re going (or have gone) abroad in the winter, let the Study Abroad Office know about any cool things you tried or experienced.
Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
Throughout my time at the University of Illinois, I have encountered a few well-known rumors that relate to the study abroad process. I have heard people often say, “Well, studying abroad is just too expensive,” or the ever-popular, “Study abroad is a blow-off semester,” and my personal favorite, “I just don’t have time to study abroad.” Those that believe these fallacies do not know of the multitude of resources regarding study abroad that are offered on the Illinois campus. Now, it’s time to shed some light on these topics and put these rumors to rest. I’m here to debunk these popular myths and reassure you that not only is study abroad a unique experience, but also a worthwhile and fruitful investment for your life and your future.
Myth #1: Studying Abroad Is Too Expensive
It’s no secret that attending a four-year university is an expensive period in a person’s life. Tuition costs are on the rise, and many of us get buried under the pile of student loans after graduation, however studying abroad doesn’t add to this cost — it can actually reduce it. That’s right! Studying abroad can actually SAVE you tuition money. Who would have thought? The Illinois Study Abroad Office offers a myriad of programs that are either comparable or less than a semester or year’s tuition at U of I and similar in academic standards. During my study abroad semester in Uppsala, Sweden, I saved my parents $15,000 in the six months that I was there. These savings were not due to the fact that I was “living frugally,” because trust me, I went all out, but they were simply because I had found a suitable program for my budget. Overall, my study abroad experience was less than $8,000. You too, can save this much while studying abroad. In addition, not only does the Study Abroad Office offer low-cost programs but they award more than $850,000 in scholarships every year. One in four students gets the I4I scholarship to study abroad. What if you receive financial aid? No problem! in most cases, your financial aid can cover the costs of your study abroad experience. To find out more, visit the financial aid office to discuss, stop by the Resource Room (112 International Studies Building) to get a list of our low-cost program options and to find out about scholarships and financial aid click here.
Myth #2: Studying Abroad Is Just A Blow-Off Semester
Exciting adventures? Check. Exposure to a different and exciting culture? Check. Major/minor, gen-ed credit? Check. The study abroad programs that the University of Illinois offers have not only been vetted by an academic committee for rigor, but offer courses across all majors and academic disciplines. So not only can you take courses in your major for academic credit, but also electives and general education requirements. Some of the programs are so convenient, that I have known friends and acquaintances who have taken courses abroad and finished an entire minor! There are an array of opportunities which allow you the academic freedom to take the courses that suit your needs. Academics are the most important part of STUDYing abroad, so take advantage of the opportunities offered. Interested in seeing what other students have taken and the type of Illinois credit they’ve received? Check out our Course Approval Database here for more information.
Myth #3: I Don’t Have Time To Study Abroad
The most popular myth by far, is that of not having enough time to engage in a study abroad experience. As students, we are all busy. From studying for classes, preparing for future careers or internships, working and staying involved on campus some may think that time to go abroad is nonexistent. However, when considering studying abroad, it’s important to note that there are specific programs that can fit your tight schedule. Whether your schedule is extremely constricted, such as that of education majors, or if you have strict on-campus course requirements, there are still opportunities out there for you! The study abroad office offers programs with varying lengths of time. From our Faculty-Led Winter Break and Summer Break options (2-4 weeks), to regular summer programs (4-6 weeks), fall and spring semester options, and academic year programs, rest assured that you can fit studying abroad into your college curriculum. All of these programs offer enriching experiences to help you discover a whole new world (literally!).
So, before you write off studying abroad as an experience you can’t afford, an experience you will not receive academic credit for, or as an experience you won’t have time for, come speak to one of our Program Assistants at the Resource Room (112 International Studies Building). Not only are PAs equipped to provide you with all of the information regarding study abroad programs but also in assisting you in during your search to find one that will most adequately fit your needs. Consider the benefits that studying abroad can offer you! An experience like this is one which you will not find after exiting academia, so take advantage of the future doors it may open and the people you could meet while exploring a new culture or learning a new language. Remember, Illini Go Places! Visit studyabroad.illinois.edu for more information.
Guest Blogger: Jenny Aguayo, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
It’s no debate that a lot of food in America is over-processed. Our food travels many, many more miles by the time it reaches our plate, so long-term preservation is a must. For this reason, many foreigners find themselves facing strange foods they’d never dare imagine.
1. Cheese Whiz. Cheese in a can? Only in America.
2. White Sandwich Bread. Most of mainland Europe and other parts of the world embrace fresh loaves of white bread, but tilt their heads at our processed slices of white refined sandwich bread.
3. Root Beer Floats. Sugar is obviously our favorite ingredient. Why not put ice cream into syrupy soda?
4. Biscuits and Gravy. A traditional American food, many foreigners find biscuits doused in gravy a strange concept to grasp.
5. Breakfast Cereal. Breakfast varies around the world. But the amount of sugary cereals available in America is appalling to most. “Marshmallows? For breakfast?”
6. Peanut Butterand Chocolate (together!). Peanut Butter is another typical American commodity, however, a rarity for most of the rest of the world. Combine that with chocolate and we’ve created an oddity. (But really, it’s just this heavenly thing we call Reese’s)
7. Corn Dog. It’sa hot dog. On a stick. Covered in corn bread. As if the concept of a dog on a stick wasn’t weird enough.
8. Beef Jerky. For some, beef jerky is salty savory goodness. For others, it’s processed edible plastic.
9. Bacon in anything. Bacon in waffles. Bacon donuts. Hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Youname it. We’ll put bacon in it.
10. Sandwich Cookies with Icing in the middle. Whether it’s Oreos or Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies, sugar sandwiched in sugar is always the answer.
Want to hear it straight from a source? Read a British student’s account of her culture shock experiences as a study abroader at the University of Illinois!
Guest Blogger: Alicia Daniels, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
“We should come home from adventures, perils, and discoveries every day with new experience and character.” –Henry David Thoreau
Before I stepped a toe into any airport to fly solo to the United Kingdom, I spent months combing over blogs, government sites, and even Pinterest – I’m ashamed to reveal that last source – in failed attempts to piece together clues about what my study abroad experience may look like. Although I have lived in several countries in Europe before I never visited the city my program was being held. I was finally bursting out of the “campus-life” bubble and, even though that feeling was invigorating, the idea of not being around familiar surroundings was terrifying!
However…I made it sixth months “across the pond” and returned home –for the most part- unscathed (sorry for those impromptu ear piercings in France, Mom and Dad)! The most rewarding moments I had abroad were the times that I traveled off the beaten path and explored the cities I was so fortunate enough to be in. Here are three tips that helped me make the most of my time outside of the classroom:
Talk to the locals. “But what if they realize I’m a foreigner?” Well you are, so embrace it! Don’t worry if you think a native will judge you; chances are they will find you to be a novelty and will want to know more about you too. Plus, you may even pick up a few new friends along the way. Locals are a great resource to understand a city’s public transportation system, the best eateries, and the coolest places to blow off steam after long nights of studying.
Don’t be afraid to look like a tourist. Grab a map, your camera, and just go! Your study abroad program will go by much quicker than you think. Before school starts and things really pick up try to map out some tourist locations you would love to visit around town. You may think you’ll have 4-6 months to see it all but between finals, making friends, and traveling you may miss out on some hidden gems located in the city of your host university.
Travel light on the weekends. If you study in Europe, you’ll soon find out that historic towns with cobblestone streets – although completely gorgeous – are not great for rolling around luggage. If you are taking weekend trips to a neighboring city try limiting yourself to a backpack. You really only need the essentials and it will be much easier to carry if you have to wait for a train or need to pass time outdoors until your hostel room is ready.
Fear of the unknown is absolutely normal but don’t let that deter you from exploring something new! Let’s be honest, you’re most likely going to get lost at one point during your journey but you’re also going to come back with memorable experiences and tons of pictures that will make all of your Instagram followers terribly jealous.
Guest Blogger: Matt Boyce, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
When I was really little, I used to think that if I ate the cheese that hangs off the end of a piece of pizza I would choke to death and die. Fortunately, I was wrong. When I was a little older I believed that I if I lost a tooth, a little, magic fairy would come and replace it with a dollar. A little more unfortunately I wrong about this too. I also thought that when my best friend and his family visited “Marco’s Island” they just knew some wealthy Floridian who owned his own island, because if you were in a position to own an island, why wouldn’t you name it after yourself. When I started dating my first girlfriend, I thought that dousing myself in AXE body spray would make me more attractive. And when she left me (probably because of how I smelled), I was once again wrong. In high school, when I began to apply to colleges, I thought that there was no way I was going to end up going to school in the same state I’d grown up in. Then I ended up choosing the University of Illinois over schools in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and New York.
Going into my study abroad experience I thought that I was going to be learning a lot about fish, marine ecology, and conservation biology because I was going to be studying coral reef conservation and ecology. I soon learned that my study abroad experience was no different than melted cheese, the tooth fairy, “Marco’s Island,” girlfriends, and colleges because I was wrong yet again. Clearly I have been wrong about a lot in my life. Probably about everything at one time or another. And while it isn’t always fun, I hope this trend continues for the rest of my life because it is when you are wrong, and recognize it, that you learn the most. You learn without trying. You learn without realizing it. Being wrong means eating arguably the most delicious part of the pizza, recognizing that there are better ways to spend your money than on an island named after yourself, reaping the benefits of living close to home like only needing to drive for 3 hours to get home for Thanksgiving break, and learning about marine biology but also about yourself and life. Here are some of the important lessons I learned from studying abroad:
- YOU WILL BECOME MICHELANGELO
While painting the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo became ill, had to come down from the scaffold, and had the opportunity to view his work. He realized that much of the detail he was putting into his work was invisible to the eye from the floor below. As a result he changed how he did his work and the biblical scenes on the ceiling actually grow larger and less detailed as you look at them. Michelangelo saw the big-picture. Studying abroad will do the same to you. It allows you to see first hand how cultures mesh, what is unique to your culture, and what is universal to all cultures. You realize that humans are mostly the same, with the same needs, desires, irritations, and goals. You realize that no matter how much you see, do, or learn there is always more — that with each new place you travel to there is so much more to the people, culture, and customs than you can even begin to fathom. You realize the necessity of looking at the world in a larger sense, broadening horizons, and refining your perspectives to allow you to turn your life into a masterpiece, just as Michelangelo did with the Sistine Chapel.
Not quite the Sistine Chapel, but a pretty darn good mural my friends and I painted on South Caicos.
- THE WORLD DOES NOT CARE ABOUT YOU
Well that’s a bit harsh. I’m sure there are plenty of family, friends, and professors that care about you. But as college students at home, more often than not, we say hello to the same people, walk to class the same way, get coffee from the same coffee shop, and complain about the same classes. We fall into routines, that when you think about it are really rather boring, and lead to dumb ideals. If you say “hi,” to that one girl you had chemistry lab with freshman year but she doesn’t say hi back, it’s just going to be awkward the next time you see her. Or if you slip on ice walking to class, well tough luck, you walk to class the same way every day and now you’re going to be “the guy who fell and ate it that one time” to everybody you walk past everyday. Really, truth be told, you’re probably better becoming a hermit and having Netflix marathons by yourself because you’re just a walking case of embarrassment. But while abroad, you can’t help but constantly embarrass yourself. Whether it’s trying to understand new accents and languages, or having friends laugh at you during moments of confusion, you will inevitably have a lot of awkward moments. The great thing is that you soon learn something important – literally nobody cares. Not now. Not in an hour. Not in a day. There is no one to impress or please. The vast majority of the the time, it’s just you, yourself, and your mind inventing stories. You realize that people are actually quite accepting and that you have no reason to not be exactly who you want to be.
One month, and too many embarrassing moments later this was where my new friends and I were at.
- LIFE PARALLELS THE MITTENS OF AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILD
I’m fairly confident that it is impossible for children ages 5 through 10 not to lose their winter clothing. Coats, mittens, gloves, hats, scarves, take your pick, they almost always end up lost at some point. They then embark on a journey from playground, to oversized cardboard box, back to their rightful owner. When studying abroad people embark on journeys all the time. In the literal sense it may be to class, to that one bar with the really cheap beer after a tough exam, or on a weekend excursion with friends. In the figurative sense, they probably embark on a journey to “find themselves” or on some higher, personal quest. Still, that one email saying that lecture is in a different classroom will end up in the spam folder, you’ll forget which street to take a left on, or that shortcut you took will turn into a total inconvenience when trying to go on your mini vacation. By removing external influences — the overbearing advisor, the inquisitive parents, the peer-pressures of unsavory friends — you should gain an unprecedented clarity of your life and values and finally achieve that self-actualization you learned about in AP Psych senior year of high school, but just can’t seem to make it click. You end up confused, frustrated, and lost in uncertainty. But at some point you come to terms with this and you grow. You learn to listen for the announcement ahead of time in class, to ask for directions, or how to read a map. You learn to be analytic, open, and non-judgmental. You learn the important life skill of how to thrive in uncertainty. You learn how to be lost and found.
I could have sworn we were supposed to take a right on Fort St…
Guest Blogger: Lauren Andraski
I didn’t title my post with easily translatable Spanish, but with a few words in Basque, that translate to “Gracias, País Vasco” or “Thank you, Basque Country.” I could not have asked for a better place or better people to spend our first vacation with. Our original attempt to plan our trip for Semana Blanca was in vain, and kept changing from Barcelona to Florence to Nice to Bologna…until we finally asked our program director for advice, who suggested we go to Bilbao and San Sebastian. At that point, we were so frustrated with booking tickets that he could have suggested going to the US and we almost would have considered it.
Luckily, the US was not his suggestion and luckily we were willing to put up with an 11 hour bus ride to the northern-most part of Spain. We knew that we would spend the first part of the week in Bilbao, but feared going to San Sebastian because we heard news of intense waves and flooding on the news. When we would ask a Spaniard, they told us how terrifying the weather was only before proceeding to tell us that we have nothing to worry about. While in our hostel in Bilbao, the receptionist (probably the 9th person we had solicited advice from) reassured us that it was in fact very safe to travel there. Our minds were put at ease and we couldn’t be more excited to explore the basque country region!
Almost everyone says that the only reason to visit Bilbao is to see the Guggenheim Museum (pictured above). Despite only seeing it from the outside, we were perfectly content with the rest of our trip there. The first morning, I did my absolute favorite thing to do while traveling. I got ready early so that I could sneak away for my very necessary coffee (yes, I have an addiction. Let’s not talk about that). I like wandering around a new town and peering in coffee shops and wading through the ones that are too crowded and too barren until I find the one that is just right. There, I can strike up a conversation with the barista and ask for their suggestions of the best things to do in town.
San Sebastian has to be one of the best places I have ever visited. World famous for its cuisine and lovely beach, I would recommend a trip here to anyone. Though surely the beaches are nicer in the summer, they are also likely more crowded.
As promised, our friend from Bilbao invited us out with her friends for pintxos (pictured above) and drinks, where they introduced us to the term “bote,” which is where every person contributes a small amount of money in order to buy larger plates of food instead of individual servings. They also introduced us to the term “sobre la marcha,” which essentially translates to “play it by ear,” which was exactly what we did. We would wander around, see something pretty, sit and stare at it for half an hour, and do it again.
Everything in San Sebastian was wonderful. We stayed at a wonderful pension, Pension Goiko, where we met wonderful travelers, cooked wonderful food (eggplant and spinach pasta, to be exact), and spent time with wonderful people.