A lot of stuff has changed for me in the last month; but most importantly, I’ve actually started exploring Europe – and I’ve loved every second of it. Europe is just undeniably cool, and there’s cool stuff everywhere. Since I can’t talk about everything I’ve seen in the last month, I’ll just hit some of the highpoints here: I’ve seen (depending on the ranking) the third and fifth largest cathedrals in the world (the Seville Cathedral and the Milan Cathedral, respectively). The Milan Duomo is awe-inspiring – it stands in the middle of a piazza – a monolithic testament to the power of hard work and dedication. I got to visit CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), a potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience. The trip definitely brought my (not-so-inner) science nerd out – I can tell you that. That same weekend, I visited Bern, the capital of Switzerland and currently my favorite city in Europe. It’s just an amazing city – it’s surrounded by the Swiss Alps, it’s clean, has great views and great food; there’s nothing not to love (except for the price of drinks – I feel like I spent a whole paycheck on those). My favorite experience of my last month, however, has to be the moment I realized how amazing it was to travel. It hit me when I visited Pisa (this was prior to the other trips I’ve talked about); to see, and then actually walk to the top of, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to experience the baptistery and cathedral, was transformative. And now, just to close things out, some pictures of my experiences from the last month:
It’s surprising, sometimes, to think back on just how important small things are in your life. This summer, when I was taking classes in Norman, one of those small things was eating at Qdoba, one, two, three times a week. Unsurprisingly, food remains a important (and arguably not so small) component of my daily life. There are some great sandwich shops in Arezzo, Dal Moro and Dietro le Quinte being the most noteworthy. The sandwiches are amazing, but there’s something else that’s even better: Gelato. I freely confess that I have become a bit of a gelato snob – there’s just something about it, especially at Sunflower here in Arezzo, that’s just amazing. I think I’d have to say it’s the best ice cream (and really it’s not ice cream – it’s gelato) that I’ve ever had.
Another small thing that I’ve really come to love is walking everywhere. I’ll grant you, sometimes it takes a while to get somewhere, but the very experience of walking is incredible. It’s calming and you experience so much more of the city that you’re in. I’ll miss not being able to walk everywhere when I get back to the states (although the climate will probably make me appreciate the benefits of having a bike or a car).
To finish off this post, being able to go to the gym is essential for me. It gives me a sense of security – the one thing that I’ve done consistently for the last six years of my life (excepting homework, which doesn’t really count), is helps me appreciate this whole experience even more. When I’m out here, I don’t feel like I’m a tourist in Arezzo, I actually feel like I belong. The gym is just one example of this – but it’s the clearest one in my mind.
Long story short here – I’ve really fallen in love with Arezzo. It’s an amazing city; it’s just the right size, not too big, not too small. There’s everything I could want: great food, a gym, and even great weather. It’s about as good as it gets.
*Two disclaimers before this blog post: A) the pictures just don’t do these monuments justice and B) I’m a huge Star Wars Nerd.*
By far and away my favorite Italian experience (thus far) has been visiting the National Archeological Museum of Naples. This was kind of surprising for me, given my love offood (and the truly remarkable dinners we’ve had at the Monastery here in Arezzo). Dr. Kirk Duclaux, program director of OU in Arezzo, considers this to be one of the best archeological museum in the world. There was something truly incredible, and honestly indescribable, about being in the presence of these works of art. The presence, scale, and apparent power of the Roman sculpture shown (most notably Hercules Farnese and the Farnese Bull). These sculptures came from the Farnese collection, an enormous collection of sculptures that was was housed in the Farnese Palace in Roman during the Renaissance. They include some of the most impressive examples of Roman sculpture still in existence today. Besides these two obvious standouts, Jupiter Enthroned was, ironically, an amusing sculpture. But perhaps the best surprise of the museum were the scattered Star Wars replicas, consisting of an X-Wing with R2-D2, a Land Speeder, a Tuscan Raider hut, and a Worrt (the frog-like creature from outside Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi).
Now that I’ve actually travelled around Italy a bit (I’ve now been to Florence, Naples, Rome, and, naturally, Arezzo), I feel like it’s an appropriate time to jot down my first impressions of Italy and Italian culture. First, Italy is beautiful. The Apennines, which cut through the middle of Italy, are nearly always in view, lending a sense of majesty to the vistas. The Mediterranean Sea’s water is a clear, deep blue, very unlike most of the oceans one experiences around the U.S. Second, the food is amazing. Five days per week we have an amazing, home-cooked Italian meal at the monastery (yes, these are the highlights of my days). The sandwiches (which I generally have for lunch) taste fresh, and the bread out here is amazing. In my experience, we don’t really have bread like this in the States. And the pizza in Naples is not overrated; it’s definitely the best pizza I’ve had in Italy. Everything I’ve said thus far is positive, and Italy is really great. But if there’s one caveat to all of this (and truthfully, it’s the one thing I still think is kind of strange), there are no free refills on drinks. In fact, I think I’ve seen a grand total of *one* soda fountain since being here, and there were no free refills there. I miss free refills. But if I’m honest with myself, I really don’t need access to that much soda. So all told, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen of Italy thus far. And the key take away from this post: Italian food is fantastic!
When we think of the Cold War today, we probably think of a few specific things: Russia and Russians (I envision them living in a cold wasteland); tense, high stakes events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Iron Curtain/Eastern Bloc of Europe. Although these certainly highlight some of the key aspects of the Cold War, since it primarily concerned Russia and the influence of the Soviet Union, the Cold War involved much more. At an event hosted at the College of International Studies here at OU, Dr. John Fishel reflected on his experience as a soldier and academic during the Cold War. His primary focus was South America, and he covered tremendous amounts of ground during his one-hour lecture. Although I can’t recap everything that was said during his lecture, two things have stuck with me in the days following this event.
First, our world today, both at home and abroad, appears to function very differently than it did just 40-50 years ago. Obviously, the Internet and improved technology has had much to do with this, but this change extends further than just to individuals. Dr. Fishel noted during his lecture that when he was in the military (and this includes non-military agencies such as the CIA, FBI, etc.), the various branches of the military, such as the Air Force, Navy, and intelligence agencies rarely cooperated in coordinated operations. They each took care of their own business. He had the opportunity to work on one of the first collaborations between these various agencies. This collaborative effort began the trend of the various agencies and branches of the military coordinating their individual efforts while working towards common goals. This collaboration, in Dr. Fishel’s opinion, increased the efficacy of all agencies involved.
The second part of his lecture that struck me is his view of when the Cold War ended. Obviously, many would reference November 1989 when the Berlin wall was opened and Soviet influence in Eastern Europe was significantly reduced or eliminated. Instead, Dr. Fishel referenced August of 1992, a date I had never associated with the end of the Cold War. He referenced this day for a clear and moving reason. At this time, Dr. Fishel was a professor at an American institution, and for the first time, they received an exchange student from Russia. Not only was the student Russian, he was also a former Russian officer. In the eyes of Dr. Fishel, this showed conclusively that the tension and conflicts that defined the Cold War were finally resolved.
Before I attended this lecture, I confess that I thought of the Cold War as ancient history – long since resolved. However, after reflecting on his lecture, I realize that in modern times, we are not so very far removed from the Cold War. Beyond this, the influences of the Cold War are still felt today, whether in the collaboration of American defense agencies or in the tensions that are redeveloping between the West and Russia.
One of the key components of learning a foreign language is being able to understand the language as spoken by native speakers. It can be challenging to gain this experience of hearing extensive German conversations spoken by proficient speakers in the classroom. Fortunately, once a semester, each German class watches a German film. This semester, since there wasn’t enough time in class, one of the German GTAs put on a small event for viewing the film, Der Wunder von Bern, for any students in German 1225 interested in attending. It’s a rare experience for me to be able to hear German spoken as it was in the film. Although there were English subtitles, if I focused exclusively on the German that was spoken, it was remarkable to realize that I could follow a reasonable portion of the dialogs. This experience definitely motivated me to begin watching more media in German, whether using the dubbing offered by services such as Netflix or searching out original German films and TV shows.
The experience of watching Der Wunder von Bern was remarkable, not only for the opportunity of watching a film where the only language spoken was German, but also because the film focused on two critical aspects of German culture: the German recovery from World War 2 and Soccer. The story follows the 1954 German National Team during the World Cup as they attempt to overcome all the odds and bring the championship to Germany. Although I knew that soccer was of enormous importance in Germany, I had no idea the extent to which, at least at this period in history, it defined their national identity. Besides documenting the German love of soccer, the film also highlighted the fact that in the years following their victory in the 1954 World Cup, Germany began a massive economic recovery that would ultimately bring Germany to its current state as an economic powerhouse in the modern world. Der Wunder von Bern viewing party hosted in Kaufmann Hall by Frau Rodriguez was an educating experience that enriched my knowledge of both German language and culture.
At the end of my last blog, I mentioned that Russia’s doping scandals have caught the world’s attention, if only for a moment (and have probably now been forgotten since the Olympics are concluded). However, as I implied earlier, Russia is not a country that should be ignored, although, given the problems that exist at home, it is easy to do. For those who keep track of the news, the Russian elections were recently held, and Vladimir Putin won by an enormous margin over his few competitors.
Although Putin and Russia might not seem to be the biggest story, especially given the headline-generating power of North Korea and Kim Jong-Un, it seems to me, as I look at sources, that overall, Russia is a much greater threat. They have significantly greater military and economic power and have already demonstrated a willingness, under Putin, to expand their power outside their borders (recall the annexation of Ukraine). But let’s briefly discuss the election and what it could mean for the future of Russia and Russia’s relations with the world.
First, there have been hundreds of accusations of voter fraud leveled against the Russian government during this election including everything from large quantities of ballots being forced into boxes by election officials to ballots being found in the boxes before voting had even begun. Will this hurt Putin’s reputation? In Russia, this is unlikely. If we neglect the accusations of voting fraud and the impact they could have had on the election, the most accurate calculations state that Putin won the election with a massive 76% of the popular vote. Despite the importance of the story of tampering with the election results, it is doubtful that it changed the outcome of the election. Putin is undeniably popular in Russia, and even without the results being effected, would most likely have won by a large margin. Having covered the basics of the election, what effects could Putin’s re-election have on Russia, both at home and in its international relations?
To begin this discussion, let’s look at Russia’s military presence. If military spending is given as a percent of GDP, Russia outspends all other nations including the United States. Additionally, Putin has been clear about his desire to make Russia a military superpower and even recently announced the development of new nuclear warheads that could avoid current missile defense technology. Although it is doubtful, at least in my opinion, that these warheads would ever be used, some of Putin’s past decisions indicate that he is not afraid to use Russia’s military power.
Although Putin has succeeded in improving the overall economic condition of Russia, he attempts to dissuade the population from focusing upon material things and to instead focus upon defending Russia from foreign threats and building up Russia’s international power. This emphasis is evidenced by his massive military spending and by the popularity boost he experiences whenever he describes Russia’s strength. He is heavily nationalistic – Russia comes first. It also does not appear as though Putin has much in the way of a moral compass – take for example that he has supported many brutal dictators in the Middle East.
So what is the overall effect of Putin’s re-election? The next six years will tell. But if there is one take away from this blog post, it is this: don’t ignore Russia.
World Literature Today is a publication that is based out of Monnet Hall at the University of Oklahoma. It is one of the longest running literary periodicals in the United States, and its founder, Dr. Roy Temple House, was endorsed for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1948. World Literature Today is a periodical that discusses literature across the world. However, the organization behind the periodical does much more extensive work. Every one to two years, World Literature Today hosts a Puterbaugh festival at the University of Oklahoma for Puterbaugh Fellow of the year. The Puterbaugh Fellow is generally an international author who has gathered acclaim throughout their career. The Puterbaugh festivals are funded by a donation from J. G. Puterbaugh, a philanthropist who loved poetry, and their goal is to celebrate great international authors. This event exposes students and faculty to some of the most influential authors from around the world. The winners of the prestigious award are often current or future Nobel laureates. World Literature Today also offers a variety of other opportunities for students of all ages, including opportunities to attend Puterbaugh and Neustadt festivals, gain experience editing and marketing the periodical, and taking World Literature Today classes. World Literature Today also hosts a book club, of which I am a member. This book club meets approximately once per month. Each month a different book by an international author is read and discussed at the meeting. This provides an amazing opportunity for undergraduate like myself to be exposed to literature from around the world.
The most recent novel read by the World Literature Today book club was The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, winner of the 2017 Puterbaugh prize. This is one of her more recent novels, published in 2014. The novel is a collection of four short stories, in which the protagonist dies differently in each story. The story insightfully examines the dramatic effects that can result from one small change in a person’s life. Stylistically, the novel is unique in several ways. First, between each short story, there is an intermission that investigates the changes that occurred because of the one small life change. And second, there are no names in the story. At times, it is nearly impossible to keep track of which character is which, who is the protagonist, and personality of any character. Although it’s challenging to ascertain why Ms. Erpenbeck made these choices, it seems to generalize this individual’s experience and make it more applicable to each reader. Perhaps because of these stylistic choices, I find myself contemplating the effect of one small change in my life. It has been an engaging book to read, and one that, without World Literature Today’s book club, I would not have had the opportunity to experience.
During the Winter Olympics of 2018, held in PyeonChang, a Russian curler was expelled from the competition because he was found to have meldonium in his system. Meldonium is a drug that increases blood flow, which is thought to improve athletic performance. Although other curlers have admitted there could be performance benefits by taking the drug, it seems remarkable that one would risk their career in a sport, and more than that, their reputation, by taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), especially in curling, a sport where athleticism is not at the fore. I don’t want to focus specifically on the athlete who is accused of doping, but upon the culture that seems to exist in Russia regarding this banned practice.
Much of the world is aware that over the past several years, it has been discovered that a large percentage of the Russian Olympic team, in some cases sponsored by the state, has been caught using PEDs. As a result of this, large numbers of Russian athletes were banned from competing in the 2016 and 2018 Olympic games. Many sports are known to have problems with doping but curling was not one of these sports. This idea appears valid because curling does not seem to be a particularly strenuous activity given its emphasis on skill rather than strength or conditioning.
To be fair to all concerned, doping occurs to varying degrees in all sports, because there will always be individuals who are willing to do anything, regardless of legality, to attain the highest level. However, at the highest levels of government within Russia, there is clearly an acceptance, and possibly encouragement, of athletes using PEDs to increase their chances of achieving international success within a sport. Now, even if this single Russian curler unintentionally used PEDs as he claims, Russia still has a problem with the practice. This is not a problem that Russia sees with itself but a problem the world sees with Russia. If I had to give one simple reason that Russia’s state-backed doping is a problem, it would be because Russia seems willing to do anything to achieve success or even domination in sports. And this desire, as will be explored in other blogs, extends outside the realm of sports. Russia wants to be a respected world power – and doping is just a manifestation of the deeper underlying problem.
Since I’ll be writing this blog for a while, I should probably briefly introduce myself. As can be easily inferred from my URL, my name is Noah Bridges. I’m from Clinton, Mississippi and I’m currently a freshman at OU. As this blog indicates, I’m interested in studying abroad. As much as I’d like to say that’s all you need to know about me, I should expand on these ideas and describe myself a little more. As far as my academic interests are concerned, I love math, and most things related to math. I’m currently majoring in industrial and systems engineering, with the intent to minor in math. Just to briefly discuss my hobbies, I enjoy reading all kinds of books, but especially science fiction, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and classic literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. Besides reading, I’m also a big fan of napping, watching Netflix, and eating; all common loves of most college students. But my passion is CrossFit. I’ve done CrossFit for five years, since I was 14 years old, and I have been coaching at various gyms for almost two years. Currently I work at Koda CrossFit Norman, and I probably spend more time there than anywhere besides my dorm room.
However, since the primary purpose of this blog is to chronicle my journeys abroad, I’ll talk about why I want to study abroad. It all goes back to the summer of 2013, when a German student stayed with my family over the summer holidays. He wasn’t an exchange student exactly – my dad and his father worked together on some projects, and Konstantin wanted to visit the U.S. As a result, he ended up staying with us for the summer of 2013 and part of the summer of 2014. This was my first legitimate exposure to someone from another country, and it was a great experience. We had a great time, discovering a mutual love of great hamburgers (and food in general) and indulging in lazy afternoons by my grandparents’ pool, among many other fun activities. But more importantly, we traveled through large swaths of the country that I had never before seen, such as the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. Because of this incredible experience with Konstantin, it launched a desire to study abroad. This has remained to the present, and next fall my plan is to spend a semester in Italy, at OU’s campus in Arezzo. Hopefully, if circumstances work out, I’ll be able to visit Konstantin and his family while I’m in Europe.