Two of the Schoenstatt sisters read the morning paper in the center's dining room. They are particularly happy because the center was mentioned in the paper!

Most student travelers decide to stay in hostels or with host families when they go abroad. But my friend Leesha a junior at the University of Minnesota, relies on the hospitality of Catholic sisters in different convents around the world.

I asked her why she chose such an unusual travel experience, what the living conditions are like, and whether non-religious people are welcome. Ever the English Major, Leesha took her assignment seriously, describing the two weeks she spent in Australia in 2008:

So what made me want to stay with a bunch of nuns? Well, being Catholic, I knew there were places I could stay internationally that would be clean, safe, and cheap. These places are convents or even monasteries.

The Schoenstatt sisters of Mary are part of laity in Catholicism which means that they minister specifically to the lay people, and are not a cloistered convent, in which the sisters are mostly or entirely removed from secular society. The Schoenstatt (sh-uhn-shtah-tt) shrines are places of pilgrimage.

In Australia, the Schoenstatt sisters had three buildings, plus the shrine itself. The bedrooms usually have two beds, and we were able to do our laundry at the shrine while we were there, a much-needed amenity.

I found out about the Schoenstatt sisters through friends of mine. As for other convents, I have friends who know different orders in the various countries I hope to visit (France and Italy, for example), so I’ve been asking them for the email contacts or phone numbers of these orders.

One of the orders I found out about through some friends are the Little Sisters of the Lamb. They are a mendicant order, which means that they beg for their food daily. In spite of their poverty, the sisters are very hospitable, so my friends assure me.

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I am leaving for Europe in less than a month and my packing list is still too big, but after hearing this story my mom told me, I will not be bringing shorts with me to Germany!

“I am an avid runner, and when I lived in Duusburg, Germany that didn’t change. The first few days of running I went alone. I ran along a path beside the river.  It was safe, and easy, and one direction one way, and then straight back.  What I found a bit weird, was the expressions of the men that were working on some sort of construction project along the path.  It was a very large project, and the workers were up very high on scaffolding.  Because of the extreme heights I could not really make out what they were saying, but I was pretty sure it was directed at me.  I just shrugged it off to bored construction guys that were being entertained by an older than average jogger.

“Well… the days went on, I continued to jog the same route.  Sometimes I would bring one of my grandson’s with, but the route remained the same. The comments from the construction guys seemed to become more frequent, and almost in a funny sort of way.  The day I figured it all out was a very busy one.  I wanted to get my run in, and my daughter-in-law had errands to tend to.  I told her I would take one of the grandson’s with me on my run.   We had a plan. We would meet up at the Kodak picture store in one hour.

“Off we went.  Me and my grandson on our run, and she to run her errands.  I had on the same clothes that I always ran in.  My nylon running shorts, my t-shirt, and a wind breaker if needed.  For some reason I felt a bit more adventuresome that day.  Maybe it was because it was such a beautiful sunny day.  I ventured off of my regular route and was loving it!  There were many more people on this route. Lots of people walking and shopping.  For some reason, I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. I thought that people were laughing at me.  I thought that maybe it was because I ran so slow, or because I was so old, or because I was running pushing a baby in a stroller.  I didn’t know what it was, but it was something!

“An hour later, I met up with my daughter-in-law at the Kodak store.  I mentioned to her that my run was good, but that I thought that people were laughing at me.  She shrugged it off, and we continued to walk to the Mcdonalds down the way.  As we continued on, she also noticed that people were laughing at me.  I started to check my self over, like you do when you think your zipper is down.  Everything seemed fine to me!  Well…..fine to me in America, is NOT FINE in Germany!  After several conversations with the locals, I came to understand that you don’t jog in shorts in Germany unless you are of the male species!!  You see….to them, it was like I was jogging in my UNDERWEAR!!!   Women do not wear shorts, much less nylon running shorts!!!  Joke was on me!!”

Hong Kong

I know of one way to see the world without a study abroad program.

My friend Jamie, a 22-year-old American studies major at Yale University, is a singer and was a part of the a cappella group The Yale Spizzwinks(?) (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled—question mark, too.).

In May 2007, the Spizzwinks(?) toured China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam. In tailcoats and peak lapels they rocked high school auditoriums and downtown nightclubs.

And the praise they received was unforgettable: At a high school in Shanghai, students presented the group with a large banner of a Spizzwinks(?) publicity photo, blown up life-size. “It was a bit un-nerving to say the least,” Jamie said. “Our reception over there was unlike anything we received in the States… they treated us like rock-stars.”

Yet there were no mosh pits. “I think the most amazing thing was how silent they were during the show,” Jamie said of a performance in China. “Complete silence during each musical number, and enthusiastic but polite clapping after every song.”

A Spizzwinks(?) performance is a combination of music, skit, and comedy. While the language barriers made parts of their shows hit or miss, the humor was never lost on their audiences. “We did have them laughing out loud when we tried to introduce ourselves in Chinese,” Jamie said. “The one Chinese guy in our group taught us all to say, ‘Hello, my name is_________ and I study ______’ before the show, but needless to say we all butchered the language during the actual performance.  I think they found it endearing! ”

The group performed every other day on average, Jamie said, and in their free time they were “full-time tourists.” Jamie witnessed the heavy construction going on in Shanghai, host of this year’s World Expo. They experienced a Chinese spin on Karaoke–the difference, as Jamie described, is that you get to avoid the bar crowd. They rented a room, ordered drinks, and sang to Chinese renditions of U.S. pop videos.

They braved new foods and were…well, brave: “We all wanted to be outgoing and challenge ourselves with the strange Chinese delicacies we were offered” Jamie said. “I think that attitude eventually got the best of us, since we all ended up getting sick at one point or another…there was definitely a period when I was feeling very ill and refused to eat anything but Oreos and Ritz crackers.”

But it takes more than indigestion to discourage the Spizzwinks(?). They have since toured New Zealand, Europe, and Africa.

Watch Jamie and the Spizzwinks(?) perform Billie Jean.


I’ve noticed among my friends that in addition to Spanish, French, and German, Japanese is a popular language to study at the University of Minnesota.  My good friend Dane Christensen, a double major in Asian Languages and Literature with a focus on Japanese and Political International Economics with a focus on Southeast Asia, studied the Japanese language for 3 years before he studied abroad in Tokyo for about a year.  He plans to live abroad for several years after graduating college.  I wanted to get a feel for what living in Japan would be like compared to Minnesota, so I asked him about his experience.

Desiree:  Did you have a lot of free time?  Was it just like being at school at the U?

Dane:  The school I went to was the 4th most prestigious school in Japan for private universities.  The classes I took were harder than classes at the U.  School took up a lot of my time, but I also worked a lot as an English language tutor.  Japan is an expensive place to live, so I had to work since I was broke a lot.

Desiree: Where were your favorite hangouts during your free time?

Dane: I would spend time in Kabukicho, which was an area near a very popular place called Shinjuku at the center of Tokyo.  I would spend time there because my friend lived there.  I would also frequently visit Yokohama where my then girlfriend was living.  We knew the cheap bars, the fun bars, and so whatever we felt like doing in the evening we knew a place we could get to by subway.

Desiree:  Besides bars, where else did you go?

Dane:  That was just the nightlife, but we would also go out to arcades sometimes, which are still popular things in Japan.  With my friends, I’d go out to dinner.  There are a lot of different districts in Japan.  Tokyo is sectored off into categories based on things you can buy.  The technology district was pretty cool, but there was also a different section you could go to just for clothing, etc.  During the day, there are also a lot of beautiful parks to go to.

Desiree:  You mostly hung out off campus then?

Dane:  My university that I attended was a place I also hung out at because I was in activity clubs at the school.  In Japan, these clubs function the same way intramural sports leagues do at the U of M.

Desiree:  What kinds of activity clubs were you a part of?

Dane:  I was a part of basketball, hiphop dance, and capoiera (a Brazilian traditional dance).

Desiree:  What made you join these clubs—besides the fact that you are always a part of some club?

Dane:  Well of course I joined the clubs because I was interested in them, but then when you join these clubs you become friends with the people in them.  These friends are your social crowd.  That is the social norm in Japan to hang out with the people that you do things with at school.  It becomes sort of like an obligation because the clubs would set up social gatherings in addition to practice and meetings, etc.  It’s a good way to meet people though.

It seems as if Japan is one of the easiest places to assimilate into.  After hearing about Dane’s experience, I would love the chance to check it out!

A common rumor about Europe is that Europeans hate Americans for, well, being American. But how true is this rumor? I myself have heard it on several occasions, and I’ve witnessed it firsthand during my travels to France. As far as I could tell, after being in France for a week, the French did not particularly like American tourists, at least not the ones that refused to attempt the French language.

My good friend Alasdair, a Natural resources major at the University of Connecticut, filled me in on what he thought.  He spent almost a year studying in Germany, and had some surprising things to say about the rumor. According to him, Europeans that he met were indifferent to the fact that he and his friends were American. He said that he didn’t notice any outright hostility from the citizens of Germany. He mused about the possible reasoning, “I feel that after Obama was elected, most Europeans sort of had a renewed faith in Americans.” His girlfriend Amanda accompanied him on his trip to Germany, and together they had some interesting experiences.

“While Amanda and I were in Brugge, Belgium, we were in a grocery store purchasing provisions when a little old lady overheard us speaking English. We got to talking and we asked her some good local places to see and do in town. She got so excited she invited us back to her house around the corner and was telling everyone in the streets ‘I’m with Americans.’ She was so adorable and excited to be hosting Americans. At her house, she helped us plan the rest of our Valentine’s weekend, treated us to a glass of wine in her finest crystal, and let us meet her adorable dog. She also gave us a teddy bear because it was Valentine’s Day.”

Since I know Alasdair to be very well mannered and educated, I couldn’t imagine that he would encounter a European that disliked him. And after reading his responses, I concluded that any hostility directed toward Americans was due to their actions, and not their nationality. “I came across a few more stereotypical Americans once in a jazz cave. They were pretty drunk and trying to bust their way on to the stage. I guess because it was a pretty loose jam, they thought it was open mic night or something. Everyone there got pretty upset about it and they were obviously American (baseball hats, jeans, etc.).”

Maybe it’s just Germany that contradicts the rumor, but either way, this rumor has a lot less truth to it than it’s given credit for.  When studying abroad, it’s even easier to make a fool of yourself as it is in America.  Be aware of the customs and the culture, and you’ll be just fine.

We’ve all experienced head-smacking moments during our travels. We realize that we forgot to bring enough cab money, or that the person who described December weather in Mexico as “cold” has clearly never been to the Midwest. Despite the plethora of travel guides available, there are some things that only an experienced traveler can tell you.

My friend David, a junior double-majoring in Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering and Spanish, has been studying abroad in Toledo, Spain, since January. I asked him over email about some of the surprising things he’s discovered about life in Spain over the past few months.

1.  What was the first thing you bought in Spain?

Food, I think, as in groceries.

2. What was the last thing you bought?

A beer.

3. What do you wish you had remembered to pack?

My cord to connect my camera to my computer (luckily my brother brought it when he came to visit).

4. Was something insanely expensive there?

Food in restaurants. I love going to restaurants in the states to try new foods and was expecting to do so here. But unless you want to destroy your wallet, you don’t really go to restaurants.

5. What is surprisingly cheap?

Bread is surprisingly cheap. They eat baguette type bread with everything (you can get it anywhere) and it’s really good. It [costs] as low as 40 euro cents for a loaf of it, which is very filling. That’s less than a dollar.

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My friend Ashley, a University senior, was studying art in Florence last spring. Her only complaint was that it was hard to access authentic Italy because tourism often seems to overtake Florence. Still, every now and then she was able to see a quieter side of Italy.

“I was drawing an Italian liberator statue in the middle of this piazza. There was this old man sitting by me, and he asked me what my name was and what I was doing, and I told him I was an art student. He asked me about some of the things I had seen in Italy, and I responded I’ve seen that and that etc. and he said ‘well have you seen the face of Michelangelo?’ I was confused because I thought I had heard him wrong—by the way, all of this was in Italian—and I was like what? But then he said va va which means come, come with me, so we walked over to the city hall and there, on this twelfth century building, [the Palazzo Vecchio] was a carving of what appeared to be Michelangelo’s face. The story goes that Michelangelo was admiring the David* from that spot where he was sitting, and proceeded to draw his own face on the side of the wall**.”

*The David is one of the most famous statues in the world; it the idealized figure of the biblical David, sculpted by Michelangelo. Ashley explains that the original statue once stood in the place she describes above, but today a copy of it graces the spot.

**This face is more popularly known as I’ importuno, or “annoying”. Apparently Michaelangelo drew the profile of an annoying or drunk passerby here, though versions of the story differ.

My friend Brooke, an architecture student, just got accepted into Syracuse University for graduate school—congrats Brooke! Last year she went to the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Copenhagen. When she got back she filled me in on all the amazing things she did, but this story is amazing in a creepy crawly way.

I don’t know if it’s typical of architecture students, but I don’t know anyone who studies as late as Brooke. Even in a different time zone, she was up until 1:30 AM. “After brushing my teeth I went back into my room” she said, “only to find the hugest bug I have ever seen.”

It was “hanging on the lamp above my room, which actually hangs about even with my head.” I drew a picture of it as evidence because my camera was out of battery,” said Brooke, ever the architecture student. A few words here are worth a thousand pictures: “It had legs like a daddy-longlegs spider, a quad set of wings, a head the size of a pea with a Gonzo (the muppet) snout, 4 antennae sticking out of it’s head, and the body of a long, thick maggot—so, I about died.”

Unable to actually approach it, she considered her options. She could wake up Nina, her host mom, or call 122 (the Danish 911). The drawing was over. She turned off her right brain and turned on her left:

1) The bug would stay in place as long as the lamp was on.
2) I could not kill it, because I didn’t have a large enough shoe, and the lamp was an expensive Danish design that was all wavy with no flat surface to get a good hit.
3) It was only a few feet from my bed, and I didn’t want to be that near to it
4) There was no way I was sleeping in my room that night.

The next morning the “damned thing” was still there, but Nina finally came to her rescue. “Oh these things are in the garden, they won’t bite you!” Nina said. Brook wasn’t buying it:.“Ya, the thing could potentially have swallowed me whole.”

Despite their best efforts, the maggot-spider-Gonzo impersonator eluded them.” To this day, I have no idea what became of the bugger,” she said “I hope it died.”

I eat a lot of pasta.  I love Italian food and I prefer having it over anything else, whether I’m eating out or staying in.  I grew up with an Italian step-grandpa and so many family dining experiences were at the local favorite, St. Paul’s Buca di Beppo.  It’s probably not the same as eating in Italy, but it’s the closest I can get while not traveling abroad.  My personal favorite Italian dish is my mom’s spaghetti pie, a tasty spinoff from regular spaghetti.


¾ lb of ground beef or Italian sausage

¼ cup of chopped onion

1-1/4 cups of spaghetti or marinara sauce

¼ tsp of Italian seasoning

1 egg, well beaten

5 oz of spaghetti noodles, cooked and drained

¼ cup of grated Parmesan cheese

1 tbsp of butter

¾ cup of drained cream styled cottage cheese (optional)

½ cup (2 oz) of shredded mozzarella cheese


Brown the meat and the onion in a saucepan.  Add sauce and seasoning, stir together and let simmer for 2-3 minutes.  Cook spaghetti noodles according to package instructions.  In a mixing bowl, stir together egg, cooked (hot!) spaghetti noodles, Parmesan cheese, and butter.  Press noodle mixture into bottom and up sides of the pie pan (glass dishes work best) as if forming a pie crust.  Spread the drained cottage cheese over the bottom of the noodle crust.  Spread meat and sauce mixture over the cottage cheese.

Choose one of two cooking options:

  1. Cover with wax paper and place in microwave for about 9 minutes.
  2. Place in oven uncovered at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.

After the pie has been cooked, sprinkle the top with mozzarella cheese and let stand for about 5 minutes, or until cheese is melted.  Serve pie by the slice, with a side of steamed asparagus.

I love this dish, and I can guarantee you it will taste delicious.  If you’re interested in other homemade Italian dishes, check out my friend Antonietta’s cooking blog, Cipolli, which also has helpful pictures!

My friend and co-worker Minji Kye  is a 21-year old exchange student from Korea studying design at the U of M.  She has been in the United States for several years already. According to the Open Doors website, there are many more international Korean students that travel to the United States rather than American students traveling to Korea. The other day, Minji mentioned the Easter celebration she had with her host family.  It made me wonder what kinds of holidays she normally celebrates in Korea.  She gave me a list of some important Korean holidays, which I then proceeded to read up on.

Chuseok is the most important holiday in Korea. It falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, and lasts 3 days. Koreans consider it their duty to visit their family’s ancestral graves, and to participate in Bulcho, the cutting of the weeds around the graves. In the morning, they perform Chare, memorial rites, where they pay respect to their ancestors. Women participate in a circle dance, called Ganggangsulle. There is also a game played during this time called Gama, where two teams have four-wheeled sedan chairs, and they try to take or destroy the other team’s chairs.

Seol-nal is the celebration of the Lunar New Year. It is more popularly known as Chinese New Year. During this time, Koreans travel to their hometowns to reconnect with their ancestral roots.  It’s celebrated in many parts of Asia, and is the second most important holiday in Korea.

Samil-jeol is celebrated on March 1st. It’s the Independence (or movement) day to remember the anti-Japanese demonstrations against the Japanese occupation of Korea on March 1st in 1919. As part of a special ceremony, the declaration is read in Tapgol Park in Seoul.  As a related holiday, Kwangbok Jeol is Liberation Day. It commemorates the Japanese accepting the Allies’ surrender on August 15, 1945, thereby liberating Korea from Japanese occupation.

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