Tag Archives: washington dc

End of Semester Jitters

5 Dec

After working harder than I’ve ever had to before, my first semester in grad school is winding down. This is the last week of classes, and it seems that because I worked very diligently over Thanksgiving break that I’ve set myself up to cruise into finals. That was not on purpose, and it reminds me of the time I decided to double major by adding on Journalism at UMass. Upon doing so, I was convinced I’d need to take 6 classes from then on instead of the standard 5, and worked extra time that first year. As it turns out, I positioned myself so well ahead of the curve that in my senior year I was able to take 4 classes a semester.

That isn’t the case nowadays, yet I’m helped by the fact that one of my finals won’t even be assigned until the last day of class on Wednesday. It’s a blessing and a curse, because while it has allowed me to focus entirely on my two other finals, I wish I could use the time right now to work on it and I know that once classes are finished, I’m going to be lazier about the last final. Also, once classes are over, I’m going to take on more hours at work and thus won’t have obscene amounts of free time anyway. After frantically rushing around for the last three months, from work to study to class to study, etc, I’m finding it hard to simply sit down and catch my breath. I read about a journalist in the 70s who was working the schedule of two people, and when she went on vacation found it impossible to sit down and relax. After extended periods of time in constant movement and stress, down time becomes the stress factor, as there is a sense of not knowing what to do with yourself.

I feel like I’ve learned a year’s worth of material in just one semester and regardless of whether or not I took the courses I wanted to take, I can say unequivocally that I am smarter in the aftermath. I’ve learned about some extremely interesting things, both good and bad. I’ve become familiar with the government of the United States in ways that I never thought, and though I never considered myself very political, I’ve come to the realization that I need to at the very least understand it. After all, I’m basically studying international politics, not culture. This first semester has given me the chance to meet some amazing people and make great friends, including Americans from all over the country, as well as foreign students who add their own touch to the lessons.

I’ve learned that in order to survive as a grad student, you have to develop some kind of cynical and desperate sense of humor. You have to laugh at how ridiculous your course load is, at how stressed out you feel and how helpless it seems when someone speaks in class and you think you’re the dumbest person because you have no idea what they’re talking about. But you also get your chance to put other people in their place once in a while. The classmates form a little support network and understand in just a few monosyllabic words or facial gestures how exhausted we all are, and when we have an opportunity to go out for a drink, we make the most of it to blow off a little steam.

Still, I can’t complain too much when I think about the students in Buenos Aires, for example. I work 20 hours a week in addition to being a full time student, and I feel like I barely make it week by week. Yet friends back in BA would work full time, which is typically 9 am-6:30 pm, and then have class which could get out at 11 pm, or even start at 11 pm. It’s not unheard of. On top of that, some go to the gym, play a sport, and manage to stay active enough with their friends. It’s probably why people go out so late, and also why most people don’t graduate when they’re 22.

I don’t know if I would have it in me to keep this up for another 6 years, but for now I’m getting the hang of it. It’s a wholly unique experience and is not at all the undergrad life. Again, that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Anyway, now that the first semester is nearly finished, let us never speak of it again.

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Saturday at the Maryland/Notre Dame Game

13 Nov

The Fall is going by quickly and the semester, strange as it might seem, is quickly winding down. Next week I’ll even be heading home to Boston for a few days for the Thanksgiving break. I’ll be spending a few days at home before heading down to New York to spend the holiday at my grandma’s, followed by a quick stop in New Jersey before heading back down to Washington, DC. It’s a little version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Though I’m usually occupied with work and school, this weekend I was able to get out for a bit and see some of the surrounding area.

My friend Fish came down from Boston for the Maryland vs. Notre Dame game, and along with his old friends from the University of Maryland, we went to FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, to catch the prime time game. Our other friend Ben was also at the game, but with a different group of friends. To get to the game wasn’t easy, and I had to make my way to Rockville, Maryland via bus and Metro. Once we all linked up, we drove around the city to FedEx Field, which isn’t exactly easy to get to. The stadium is massive, and though from the outside I said it didn’t seem much larger than Gillette Stadium in Foxboro (holding about 65,000), once inside we could see how enormous it was. It might have held 90,000 seats at one point, but now they have taken out parts of the Upper Deck to put in some kind of “party section”.

Before heading in, however, we were part of a large tailgate party with tables full of homemade food and drinks. Everything from gourmet pizzas, pulled pork sandwiches, jalapenos stuffed with pork, and homemade pumpkin beer were available for the taking. It was nice with the sun out but since it keeps getting dark earlier, we spent most of the time pretty cold. Once inside the stadium, we found our seats way up in the nosebleeds, just a few rows from the top of the Upper Deck. We were so high we were just underneath the speakers. From that far up the players seems like ants, but it was cool because you could see the whole play develop.

Maryland is having a lousy season and Notre Dame is doing OK, but it was no contest from the very start. This was considered a home game for Notre Dame, and they definitely brought out their fan base, probably making it about 50/50 on supporters, despite the fact that we were in Maryland. The halftime show was the best part of the game, unfortunately, and by the third quarter we’d decided that we’d seen enough. With traffic and driving to the Metro to then wait for the bus, it took me at least two hours to get home, but it was still a fun day out of my Northwest DC bubble. We’ll be heading back to FedEx Field next month for the Army/Navy game and the next day for the Patriots/Redskins game.

Living in Glover Park

6 Nov

I’ve been living in Washington, DC for about 2 1/2 months now and people have started to ask me how I like it here. The truth, unfortunately, is that I haven’t been able to see much of the city because I’ve been so occupied with work and school. Originally, I had the idea of going out to see a museum once a weekend, but when football season came around, just after I moved in, that idea went out the window. I’ve been downtown a handful of times and even made it to a Washington Nationals game before the season ended, but apart from that, I spend the majority of my life here in the Northwest DC bubble.

I live in Glover Park, a small, mostly residential neighborhood featuring a bunch of embassies, green spaces, and quiet streets. That is of course, for the hilly Wisconsin Ave, where I live. Day and night I hear the fire trucks and ambulances wailing past, leaving me to believe that either people in Washington, DC are stupid or the emergency services overreact to everything. It’s not like living downtown during rush hour, but you notice the siren when it blares past your window at 2 am. Wisconsin Avenue is your best bet to find any kind of business in this neighborhood, and though there aren’t a great number of options, you can find a few restaurants, cafes and even bars. There are some handy stores, a CVS, Whole Foods, and a couple of gyms.

Yet when I look out my window I see houses and trees, and it appears as though I’m in a suburb outside of the city. That’s a good thing and a bad thing, because while I need to see some wildlife, I also want the feel of being in a city. I want to go downstairs and have a few markets or stores where I can quickly pick up bread or fresh fruit and vegetables. I want a Metro stop nearby, but if you live in Glover Park you’ll need to travel at least over a mile to get to the nearest stop. One night it took me an hour and forty minutes to get to a bar via public transportation, even though it would have been less than a ten minute drive. Because I mostly hang out in this area it only affects me on the weekends when I try to get somewhere else.

Working just down the hill in Georgetown, I walk back and forth to the office each day, taking away the stress of a commute. In two separate six month stints in my two years in Buenos Aires I was able to walk to work and I know how much of a difference it makes on the way you start your day. For that, I’m grateful, though sometimes I think it would be nice to make it farther down just to get out of the area and see something else. I head back to my apartment, study, get in a run if possible (though it’s getting less manageable with assignments and the colder weather) and then make the 25 minute walk to campus.

Depending on the day and how many meetings I have, I’ll spend the rest of the afternoon in Tenleytown at American University, then head home again to continue studying and call it a night. So how is DC? I wish I could tell you. From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t love it but I don’t hate it. Some people do profess a love for this city, but it has yet to grow on me. There’s a weird vibe brought on by the journeymen who aren’t really from here, young go-getters trying to make a name for themselves, and diplomats driving around. By the end of at least two years studying here, I’m sure I’ll have a better appreciation for it, and will be able to talk more about the capital of the United States.

I’m 25 and I Have to Learn How to Write Again

28 Oct

If we were looking at a chart or graph of my confidence in graduate school, it would come out like a volcano. I got here and after meeting other students and professors, I felt good about where I was. We’re all intelligent people, and this is a place where I belong and will learn a lot. Then we started to get assignments and papers to write, when the top blew off, and now it’s all been downhill. The confidence is gone. I’ve always considered myself a good writer, but have a completely different style than what International Relations (IR) professors are looking for.

My background in Journalism and History has given me experience in writing articles and analytic pieces. And let’s not forget over three years of blogging, which is a completely laid back and lazy style which I’ve unwittingly adopted. History papers are much different from IR papers, in which you take what you’ve read and studied and demonstrate that you’ve learned it. You cite references, but the bulk of the work is on you to speak for yourself, and not let the quotes do the work. Yet no one told me that upon entering grad school, and so I assumed it was similar. Thus, my first couple of papers have been a bit of a shock. There is a sharp learning curve here, and as today I need to choose classes for the Spring, it’s proof that time flies in grad school.

An IR paper looks for parsimonious and scientific prose. No nonsense, no flowery introductions, no sense of personalization at all. Political scientists want you to get to the point immediately, use a plethora of sources to prove that you’ve done research and someone else agrees, and then wrap it up as quickly as you started. It’s probably because with so many sources that in trying to prove a theory, a paper can often run upwards of 50 pages.

This isn’t my style, and I’m trying to adapt as quickly as possible. Never having taken an IR or political science class in undergrad, I feel unprepared for this change and wish someone had explained what is expected at the start of the semester. It’s disconcerting to go through life thinking you’re talent is writing and then get back a paper marked in red, knowing that you have to split your time between work and other classes which also demand the same amount of work. Now I’m 25 and feel like I need to learn how to write all over again. There’s no way around it and it’s either sink or swim. I just hope I don’t float away downstream unnoticed.

Headed to Cuba in January!

18 Oct

I got some good news that I was waiting on this afternoon. Though I’m still in my first semester as a grad student, I applied for a new program at American University to travel to Cuba during the winter break and study for two weeks at an intensive course at the University of Havana. I guess my years of experience and hard work have finally paid off because I was accepted and will spend two weeks this winter learning about the culture, economy and contemporary politics of Cuba. This is a great opportunity because I know that in the future things will change with Cuba, and I’m eager to get to see how things are before major tourism opens up.

I’ve already become something of an expert on the Southern Cone and the Andean countries after living in South America for three years, but my experience in the Caribbean countries is admittedly less impressive. In Central America I’ve only been to Costa Rica and because it was years ago, don’t have extremely vivid memories. I’ve been to Puerto Rico a handful of times, but as a tourist. I know that there are extreme differences between traveling somewhere as a student or worker. But mainly, the fact that I am now fluent in Spanish and can converse with people openly opens doors in so many ways. Now I hope to improve my knowledge and understanding of this region which has been off limits to many for so many decades.

It’s funny, but already a number have people have told me to be careful when I go to Cuba. I appreciate the concern, but I wonder what it’s based on. Obviously they aren’t speaking from experience, or even stories from friends who have been there. Why do some Americans (if not most) possess an image of Cuba as dangerous? Yes, they have a different form of government and ideology, and we are in theory enemies, but where is the evidence saying that I’m likely to be robbed? I know someone who was robbed in Havana, but I know many more who’ve been robbed in Quito, Guayaquil, Buenos Aires, Boston, New York, Washington, etc etc. I’ve been told that you generally don’t need to fear for your safety walking down the street in Havana, but don’t worry, I don’t try to push my luck…too much.

Maybe it’s something about having already been through a bus hijacking, but I’m not too worried about travel to certain parts of the world anymore. There was a time when I wouldn’t consider going to Bolivia, for example, but eventually I was backpacking around there on my own. Once a person has fluency in the language, they gain a great sense of empowerment and comfort. So much of fear is based on a lack of language ability. Sometimes you just need to know how to shmooze your way out of a situation.

So Travel Guy will continue to be traveling, and already the prospect of a trip ahead has me excited and anxious to get underway. Still, there are miles to go before I sleep, and though we’re halfway through the semester (yes, already), I have a million other things to work on as well. Here’s to 2012 in Cuba!

Latinos en Washington

9 Oct

Since I’ve moved to Washington, DC, it’s been relatively easy to continue practicing my Spanish. As you would expect in an international city with representation from almost the entire world, there are plenty of Latinos who live here. In fact, at least once a day I hear Spanish while walking in the streets, riding the bus, or heading to class on campus. It’s great for me, and I feel like being able to communicate with native Spanish speakers has opened up other doors to me. I’ve got a wide array of Spanish speaking friends and acquaintances here–a Paraguayan friend and his girlfriend, a Bolivian who grew up in Uruguay, a Columbian neighbor, a Peruvian on our soccer team, and more who I come across on a daily basis.

On Thursday night our intramural soccer team met up for dinner at a Mexican restaurant to discuss tactics, and soon we started talking about Lionel Messi and the World Cup qualifying matches that would be beginning soon. I soon started talking with our Meixcan server in Spanish and he laughed as I said words like “boludo” and “pelotudo”. He found it hilarious to hear them and tried comparing them to “pendejo” or “chinguero”.

I always try to stay in touch with the Argentinian roots that I learned to grow throughout the last two years, and usually wind up drinking mate at home while I study or have a Fernet at the end of the week. I’m now out of Fernet, but have found an Italian shop where they sell yerba for mate and Fernet, though at a marked up price. I’ve also investigated a bit for Argentine expats in Washington, and found CEGA, the Centro Argentino, for Argentinians and friends of Argentina who live in the United States. There are headquarters in Washington, DC, New York and Miami. The club now celebrates its 1oth year of existence, and it looks like it was founded by study abroad kids in Washington. I’ve already sent in my email for more information, and hopefully will be able to meet some other people around here who know how to make a good asado. So even though I’m removed from Latin America for now, in the United States you’re never really that far away.

Fall Instead of Spring

7 Oct

Fall has fully descended on Washington, DC, and it’s already my second autumn this year. I never used to be a fan of this time of year because it meant that colder winter was coming on and school was starting up again. Yet in the last few years of living in New England I truly began to appreciate the foliage and chill of the season. It’s not as intense here in the mid-Atlantic, but I can see out my window that the trees are starting change colors. We went through about three miserable weeks here, with the sun coming out sporadically throughout that entire period, but now we’re enjoining some clear days again, and if it weren’t for the calendar it would feel like it’s spring.

However, my perception of the seasons has forever been changed. After living in South America for the last three years, I can’t help but think that my friends in Argentina are now doing spring cleaning and getting ready for the warmer days ahead. It’s sad to think that I’ll miss out on the spring in Buenos Aires, which is a spectacular time of years for more reasons than might be obvious. The city comes alive again after a downer of a winter, and possibilities abound.

Lately, whenever I get the chance I think back on time spent abroad in Ecuador and Argentina. But I’ve also been thinking about trips taken to Chile and Bolivia, for example. Those little moments spent in the back of a car or looking out the window in silence. Hours in an airport terminal wasted, used for internal reflection and iPod alone time. Life has gotten a lot busier now, and it’s romantic to look back on those days not as time wasted, but time well spent.

When I lived in Spain we took a trip to the province of Extremadura, where we took an all day hike through the mountains to some ancient town with a medieval monastery-turned hotel where we stayed. After settling, we went for a short walk around the village the next day during the siesta. The town was completely deserted and as we explored the streets, we saw a fork in the road where the left created a steep hill, the right staying level. The effect was that if you got a good running start, you would be able to run up along the wall and stay upright for a few steps before gravity took you down. My friend Dave ran up it just as an old man walked by, and for a second I thought he might scold us. Instead, a huge smile broke across his face and he laughed giddily as he said, “I used to do that when I was a kid too.” We exchanged nods and went separate ways.

I wonder if one day in the future I’ll have the pleasure of saying something similar to some kids who are traveling through my village. “I used to listen to my iPod and look bored at airports too,” or “I used to backpack around the globe,” etc. Bah, I’ll get back out there soon enough.

Open Door Policy

25 Sep

Having lived outside of the country for three years, I’ve been given a special view of the United States now that I’m back. This different outlook won’t last forever, but at least for the first few months, I have noticed certain aspects of our culture that most people probably wouldn’t on a day to day basis. Lately I’ve been picking up on something which I hope isn’t a growing trend among people my age. It seems that slackers and go-getters alike in their 20s are suddenly too busy to open a door with their bare hands and will use an electric button meant for those with handicaps to enter a building.

One night while leaving a class, a fellow student and I headed out of the building together. While I naturally pushed open the door, he hit the metal button and waited a second for the door to open for him. He then went on about how he hates doors and stairs and will never open one or take them unless absolutely necessary. I thought he was kidding and goaded him to explain, so he went on to tell me that, in his opinion, we’ve advanced as a society and shouldn’t have to open doors anymore. In his mind, it was a waste of time and the doors of the world should now automatically slide as you walk by. I would still think it was a joke if he wasn’t dead serious and trying to convince me otherwise.

I told my classmate that he was being ridiculous and there wasn’t any difficulty in opening a door. But this wasn’t an isolated case. As I’ve walked around Washington the last few weeks, I’ve noticed many people hitting the metal buttons and waiting for the doors to automatically open. These are young people who have no physical restraints. Their free arms hang at their side when they should be used to manually push a door open. I find the mindset disturbing, and I wonder how far this kind of stuff will go. Will we expect to having moving walkways where sidewalks once were? How far can we devolve? Are people going to start attaching wheels to their legs to avoid building up a sweat while walking? I hope not.