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Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Slice Of Sicilia


Octopi, wet and salt-soaked, lay sprawled out on a paper-lined table. It was Saturday morning at the Vucciria market in Palermo and I smelled this street before I saw it.

Alessandro and I rented a white Fiat Panda back in Catania, on the opposite side of the island. (The man who sold us the car was nameless, wore black eyeliner, and was adamant that the blinking oil light meant absolutely nothing. We paid cash.) It had been six days and this was our last excursion.

We chose Sicily as our spring break destination due to its proximity to the equator and our quest for sunlight. Paris is gorgeous with a 100% chance of overcast. Plus, despite the fact that “dialect”, or regional varieties of the Italian language, are still spoken all over the country, everyone understands proper Italian. If Ale got tired of translating, he never told me.


It is so important to visit the street markets when you go abroad. In general, the European market is not only a place to buy food. It also serves as a community bulletin board: a place to meet and discuss with the producer who has selected these items for you, to socialize and exchange information with friends, and to experience the noise, smells, and visual excitement of it all.

In Palermo, you’d need to lock yourself in your hostel not to notice the Vucciria. Vendors are armed with megaphones, tiny vehicles, and good food. They skirt the medieval streets, barking about their deals to anyone who will listen. They probably only stop for lunch.

For me, the first challenge when I visit a new place is to blend in. As Ale and I meandered the wares underneath the colored tarpaulins, I felt a weird tension. My bulky camera, slung over my left shoulder, screamed tourist. The separation was more pronounced here than elsewhere in Sicily, perhaps because of Palermo’s rough local culture. Once I stopped to tuck it into my backpack, people finally started talking to me. I kept my mouth shut and my hands to myself.


The atmosphere changed every few seconds. A pocket of air for the blood oranges, as big as my head. A whiff of fresh Mediterranean catch, so many types of fish that even Ale couldn’t name them all. A bar where the coffee was way, way more pungent than all the spilled beer. We decided to eat our way through the sprawl. Breakfast blended into lunch as we savored a cow kidney sandwich, some deep-fried squid, two cannoli stuffed with pistachio ricotta, etc. We even found lemon granita, the sno-cone of Sicily, to wash it all down.

Palermintian markets are vastly different from their Parisian counterparts. They are louder. There is more haggling involved. When you bump into another shopper and apologize, they just shrug and say it’s inevitable, it’s chaos. And it’s true, it’s a beautiful chaos, indeed.

Perhaps the best part of our tasting spree was the panini. In Italy, (provided you speak Italian) you can go into any deli and ask the butcher to please make you a sandwich. Of course, you’ll wait at least 20 minutes. Of course, it will be worth it. For you’re in the land of the freshest meat, the stinkiest cheese, and the softest bread you’ll ever gnaw on. The dude will literally take an entire pig’s thigh to the band saw. He’ll do it gracefully and you’ll just stand there in awe of this beautiful country.

We were munching on arancini when the Vucciria spit us out into the Piazza San Domenico. It was only 4:15, so we headed for the sea.



Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.


Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Long Overdue Post Regarding Christmas

(All photos by Alexa)

December 19, 2014

I can’t stop thinking about the sentence: “You forget what people out of the country of cancer do.” Elizabeth Seydel Morgan wrote it. It’s the first line of her poem “Ten Days in France in April” but I think it could be a feeling about anywhere. As long as it’s not home.

I met Alessandro through the track and field team at Sciences Po, first semester. When he invited me to spend Christmas with his family, I’m sure he didn’t expect me to say yes. But, here I am: in the city of Fagnano Olona, in the province of Varese, in the region of Lombardy, in the country of Italy. It’s six days to Christmas.

His family is the second one to welcome me — stranger, girl, American — so graciously and completely (the first being my host family in Paris). In fact, I think his parents stationed me in their very own bedroom. Mrs. Tronconi is a killer cook and an esthetician, working from a private salon in the attached basement of the house, where local clients come to chat and have coffee. Mr. Tronconi delivers English phrases in a cheery tone and has an affinity for completing odd jobs around the house. Davide, Ale’s brother, enjoys vacuuming the cat’s tail, cycling, and science.


December 20, 2014

At the summit, there’s a small mountain town populated by sunset-tinged buildings and their elusive inhabitants, known only from laundry, which dries on lines stretching from one window to its opposite.


We entered the church and mass began. To watch the room transform from dim and silent to heavy and bright at the organ’s cue was nothing short of, for lack of creative phrasing, a religious experience. Ale dipped into the holy water. I stood up straighter. The priest swung an enormous ball of incense over the altar as the parish erupted into song. I’m not religious, but I liked this.


December 21, 2014

Sleep still crusted over my eyes, a pair of legs ambling down the transformed landscape of my own house, a fire in the fireplace, sugar in the air, a sense of being weightless, or my weight transferred into something bigger, much more beautiful, and family working like gears. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.


Ale, Davide, and I stood on a balcony while the sky lit itself on fire. The lake-water was so still, and the deepest blue. I could see a shallow spot where the sun concentrated lightly. If it hadn’t been winter, we would have been swimming. I was content to dangle my feet and head over the gate, which dug into my torso and made my stomach turn. Happily digesting the world. We must have stood there for an hour. I thought of nothing. I had a mind that was clearly erasing its contents and making room for more. I thought of clouds playing tetris, air like rocks that crack, knuckles and knees, the first frost of the season. I felt things I thought I’d moved past. I had butterflies. I wonder if there’s a better way to say all of this in Italian?


December 22, 2014

There is a train that weaves in and out of the mountains, and it rolls so slowly that you feel more like fog, passing through tunnels of The Five Lands. When we stepped outside and I breathed Mediterranean winter air, warm and soft, I began the first phrase of my broken-record chant: “Wow.” (followed by any combination of “This is unreal” and “Oh my god” and “Paradiso!”). Houses look as if they’ve been built straight into mountain rock, as if pressed there and left to sink in. Locals cultivate the land in accordance with the light of day. Resilient lemons and oranges are tough enough to grow, even at the end of December. We romped around in someone’s private vineyard for an hour.

Cinque Terre.

When we descended onto the rocky beach at Monterosso, I slid my hands into the surf and lapped up the salted sea, scrunching up my nose, laughing. A fish smell filled my pores. Ale and I proceeded to sprawl out on some giant salmon-tinted boulders overlooking the watery wilderness. Happy is an understatement.

December 23, 2014

I had wine and spaghetti for breakfast.


December 24, 2014

Entering a new country is as easy as waving to a guardsman at a small roadside checkpoint that resembles a toll booth.


We ate fresh fontina-prosciutto sandwiches and homemade sugar-frosted biscuits, listening to a man raking leaves, sitting on the top of a Swiss mountain overlooking a lake overlooking more mountains. It was extremely quiet up there. Back on the ground, the city center was slightly more lively. A Christmas market, an ice rink, and low music. Italian, English, French, and German.

December 25, 2014

We sat down in the yellow house and started to eat. The meal began with a toast, champagne and white wine, followed by appetizers. There was feta, vegetable, and ham salad, served cold. There was cheese and prosciutto. There was a pistachio-glazed pastry. There were miniature pizzas of all types. Of course, there was bread. The main course was normal lasagna and salmon lasagna, swordfish, and Brazilian chicken. For dessert, there was pannatone and mandarin oranges. There was chocolate and coffee. There were pictures and red wine. There were gifts and letters. We simply had to dance.

And dance we did. I’m still not sure who was controlling the music. American, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and, of course, Italian blasted on and on. Ale’s aunt led us through a traditional dance which partnered up all participants and, at one point, I learned how to tango. I spun in circles, jumped around, and closed my eyes to everyone’s laughter, including my own. It was ridiculous, all three hours of it.

Then, it was time to play cards. Mercante in fiera. I was too tired to count coins in a foreign language, so I pretended to be on Ale’s team. We won second, and then first place. Eventually, someone switched off the red and green party laser and we headed back to the red house for the night, our bodies worn but full.


December 26, 2014

Inside the grey Duomo, kaleidoscopic colors bounced off of the walls. I was glad for the day, cleared of clouds. We explored the covered passage across the street, complete with a glass ceiling that reminded me of Alice In Wonderland dimensions. A diamond-laden tree dazzled. On the floor beneath it, a small mosaic attracted a substantial crowd. People queued to individually spin around on the bull’s balls, for good luck.


We exited and ate leftovers in cold shade, near an old theater. I felt the bump on my forehead where I fell the night before, about to lean on the shower wall in the bathroom. There was no wall.

The ride to the airport was the end of the world.

December 27, 2014

“The laughter of friends on the path ahead / or heard from another room / so normal and present, so light and healthy, / so oblivious to anyone’s ending.”



Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

french revolution

My battle with My Comfort Zone

(ok so Lady Liberty wasn’t rushing in and there weren’t hundreds of French soldiers but it’s still a battle. Photo by www.tiki-toki.com)

There is nothing more intimate and personal than our comfort zone. It is a place where we feel safe, where we are safe. It is a place that, as its name suggests, makes us feel comfortable. It is a constant in the ever changing variable that is life. Despite its comfy-ness and safety, I’m always recommending you to leave it when you’re preparing for your study abroad. Since studying abroad is all about doing everything in a different way, it only makes sense to get uncomfortable by leaving your comfort zone so that you can become comfortable with constant change once you arrive abroad. I can tell you from personal experience that if you go abroad not expecting to change, it can be quite jarring to realize that you’re going to have to do it whether you want to or not. So it’s better to be at ease with changing by leaving your comfort zone. But it’s not just for studying abroad. I didn’t realize it when I was in college but once you leave your comfort zone, you find out there is a whole new arena for opportunity and experiences. When I was in college, I was Queen Bee of the Comfort Zone. I only ever rarely left and when I did “leave” it, I was never completely out as there was always a toe still in the line. Studying abroad not only pushed me out of my comfort zone, it brutally forced me out. For that I am grateful as it gave me the courage and determination I needed to do other things and branch out in life. But that doesn’t mean that I live outside of the comfort zone; rather, it means that I have adjusted my comfort zone parameters.

Leg_restraint01_2003-06-02(Restraint so good…sometimes. But it’s best to not be in them in the first place. Photo by en.wikipedia.org)

I got a reality check on my comfort zone boundaries over the weekend at a post Christmas bash. It was a pleasant enough soirée chez le chef of my better half. Maybe it was due to hunger or a drop in estrogen due to my impending regles but what I can tell you is that when I saw a new face, I ran away. And since I only knew a few people there, I was running away most of the evening. Sometimes, someone would stop me to say hi and introduce themselves. I returned the introduction, smiled and then scadoodled away. I was completely overwhelmed. The boss’ house was a decent sized home but it felt awfully cramped with 70 people in it. Everywhere I looked there was an unfamiliar face. I had plenty of opportunity to strike up new conversations but I didn’t. I was out of my comfort zone and I wanted nothing more than to be back in it. This party was the perfect opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone and I didn’t take it. The entire time at the party, I wished that I wasn’t letting myself be restrained by my old friend CZ (that’s the comfort zone).  But I didn’t go with the right attitude to this party. I didn’t go with an inquisitive and open mind; I went with an empty stomach and fatigue. Leaving your comfort zone is great practice not only for studying abroad, but for life. You never know what opportunities can come your way. That’s why it’s best to be prepared to put yourself out there, way outside of the comfort zone, at any time, anywhere, by practicing. Practice makes perfect and if you’re always doing something new than you can never truly be comfortable. And that is when you find true success.

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter   so that we can stay connected between posts.

Bonne chance!


Tips from My Scotland Study Abroad

(Featured photo by www.freepik.com; All post photos by Justine)

As a newly-minted Rutgers grad, one question I’ve fielded a surprising number of times concerned my “best memory of Rutgers”. Even more surprising is my answer: the time I studied abroad for a semester at the University of St Andrews.

If you’re not familiar with Rutgers, you should be: founded in 1766 as America’s eighth-oldest college, it is the public research university of New Jersey that’s a member of the Big 10 Conference with alums that include governors, senators, vice presidents, and even media figures like Mario Batali (we’re really proud of you, Mario!). It’s also one of the best universities in the world in terms of diversity, having a sizable chunk of its undergraduate population as the first in their families to attend college.

During my fall semester of junior year, however, I longed for a different experience–the grass is always greener, right? I wanted to experience an international life where I wouldn’t have a terribly difficult time assimilating, nor an unforgivable time difference, and an environment where I could hit the ground running, so to speak, especially if I were only to spend a semester there.

The University of St Andrews was the perfect choice. Situated in St Andrews, Scotland, it was picture-perfect, nestled in a sleepy “town-and-gown” area that 1. was English-speaking 2. had a doable time difference to keep in touch with family and 3. was centrally located enough to reach the touristy bits of London/Edinburgh/Europe but also was isolated and special. I mean, how many people do you know have been to Scotland, even though it’s so accessible? St Andrews is also famous for its golfing, hosting a myriad of golf tournaments that provide for some great celeb-spotting, and the student clubs even get in on it by having golf outings or just holding their special events at the line of hotels on the shore.


From January to June 2013, I was in an amazing, bizarre, grandiose, and illuminating bubble that helped open my eyes to the workings of the world, and I’d already thought myself to be a pretty solid world traveler. First of all, the school itself will demand rigorous attention. I’m very happy that I chose to attend St Andrews over other study abroad programs where I could have floated through my academics. I really didn’t mind the fact that I was taking courses that factored into my GPA because I got to attend classes in halls like these:


In fact, one of my favorite nooks for knocking out essays was in the Classics department, which was situated on prime real estate because you had views like this:

And yes, that’s the ocean you’re seeing!


Since it was such a small university, student life can be quite inhibitive if you’re used to being on a huge campus, like I was. But it was the perfect opportunity to thoroughly explore the town, and if I ever got bored, I could always dip out for a weekend. Students usually busied themselves by indulging in the sophisticated foodie/bar scene thanks to the higher-end hotels in town, or with the societies (student orgs/clubs) that they joined. London was a six hour train ride away, and the nearest major airport (Edinburgh) could take you to a plethora of other European countries for jaw-dropping prices. I bought a ticket to Berlin at only £25 (around $40). I usually got started with a jog on the beach. Literally across the street from my dorm was water and sand in front of me! Fun fact: my friend told me that he was able to watch Rowan Atkinson film his Chariots of Fire skit for the London 2012 Olympics from his room–in the same exact spot where the movie was actually filmed.


Now, making friends is something people fret over right before a big life change. A study abroad experience is no different. Before arriving, I hadn’t realized just how large the American population there was, in terms of study abroad students like myself, or others who named it as their home university. Regardless, if you wanted to fit in with the Brits, an American accent just won’t cut it unless you have an interesting background. Needless to say, I played up my schooling in New Zealand in order to add to my American study abroad friend group. Regardless of that, the town itself is comprised of posh students who fuel their club meetings with port and cheese instead of the old pizza standby, and any party you were invited to was usually implicitly black-tie…sometimes even white.

Studying abroad teaches you so many things that college in your home country doesn’t: how to take care of yourself in a foreign land, how to really pack your day, and how to make new connections with unfamiliar people. In my case, it also taught me a stronger self and to not be afraid to be alone. For spring break, I ended up traveling by myself for three weeks to Milan, Venice, Berlin and London. Believe me, nothing will tell you how independent and strong you actually are like ducking out of honeymooners’ photos near the Grand Canal in Venice or trying to find your hotel at 10pm in a deserted Milanese street!


Justine Yu

Justine is a recent graduate of Rutgers University looking to get started in the public relations, diplomacy, or entertainment industry. If you don't want to keep up with the Kardashians, you can join her journey in navigating the post-graduate world at justineyu.com.