study abroad

In Review

My WordPress Reader has lately been filled with posts in which bloggers comment on their year 2014 and talk about what they hope for the year 2015.

While I am a fan of keeping private matters off the web (after all, the internet is not an ideal location for diary entries and clouds are not thick enough for nude selfies), I see a strong value in the work done to reflect and look forward. Ultimately, putting things in perspective is one of our defining actions as humans; our ability to think about moments in time and not just re/act “in the moment” is a distinguishing factor (as far as we know and can tell) “separating us from the animals.” Species-ism aside, I think that while such a post may be slightly boring for most readers, it’s hugely beneficial for the writer. The writer can articulate pride, anxieties, and issues that otherwise are left to float in champagne glasses that reflect the lights of fireworks in the sky. Plus, posting about it causes some desire to remain accountable about one’s goals.

So here are my articulations. I actually feel a bit apprehensive of starting a new year, because I fear that nothing can top the one I just had.

I feel like I accomplished so much to be proud of and have been blessed with so many positives, that I worry 2015 will be anti-climatic. On the other hand, I realize an equal number of things that I am not so proud of and have to work on, and those may be the things I want to improve upon in the new year.

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A Good Year – my best five experiences of this past year

5. Teaching university freshman. While this seems ages ago, I am grateful to have successfully completed two semesters of teaching. Since I plan to enter academia and have many more “first days of classes” where I have to learn all the student’s names and second-guess my authority every other minute, this experience will be something I can always look back on with pride. I especially enjoyed being able to design the syllabus myself and chose the works and pace my classes worked at. I kept a teaching journal, so I know there are a lot of things I need to improve upon, but I learned that I can feel comfortable in front of the classroom, and that makes me happy.  Honorable mention: I presented at my first conferences! One was inter-school, so the audience was not intimidating. The other was international! I try not to let that accomplishment inflate my ego.

4. I play forward for a German soccer team!! Of course, not the German soccer team, and not even a huge one. But, I am part of a group of women who play soccer competitively, and I’ve been placed in a great position. Usually relegated to midfield or defense (of course, no less positions that the forward), I have been given responsibility for the team’s success in a way I’ve never had before and, as my confidence slowly grows, I kind of like it. Honorable mention here (since it’s sport related) is running my first trail race in February and securing a PR in the half-marathon.

3. Sugar-free 2014. While it has been a struggle (sometimes more challenging than other times–especially at the beginning and around Christmas), I managed to cut out all sugar out of my diet. I did eat fruit and dairy, so I guess it’s not all sugars, but I cut out the majority of what one would consider sweet food. Catalyzed by a decent amount of self-loathing about how undisciplined I am around chocolate, and news from health professionals that I could be a happier and healthier person (and a better runner!) without it, I stopped eating sugar. No matter the benefits in physical and mental well-being I’ve gained from this move, the discipline I was able to hold is a source of strength from which I will be able to draw upon at any point in the future. I plan to continue being sugar free in 2015, but with a little less vigilance.

2. Based on the promise of my thesis prospectus, I was given permission to write a thesis. I am such a nerd, but I am really excited to be writing about my topic. I am comparing two novels (one English/one German) and examining the use of voice in the “migrant novel.” A better articulation about that here. I also passed my MA oral comprehensive exam. Now the “only” things in the way of my MA degree are completing my courses and the thesis. This work will be defining for my year of 2015.

1. Topping this list, of course, has been my first months studying abroad in Hamburg. This time last year, I didn’t even know if I would be studying abroad, and I remember being able to study abroad through the VDAC as being my main New Year’s wish on Dec. 31st 2013. Wish granted! I’m a student in Germany!!! I continue to be one through the end of the summer term 2015. Through this experience exploring another culture and possibilities than the one I grew up in, I learned a few things about myself that have made me a much different person than I was a year ago. While I hope I don’t have to experience such another transition anytime soon, I feel okay about having the chance to start the new year as more free-spirited and continue exploring.

A few hopes for the year 2015 (but not telling you my specific new year’s wish because I’m superstitious that it then won’t come true):

I hope I complete my requirements for the MA in time so that by the end of July, I have my degree!

I hope my brother successfully earns his BA degree.

I hope to attend another conference and to actually publish an article (or two) in academic journals.

I hope I will be granted a teaching position Fall 2015 as a adjunct somewhere while I wait to be able to apply for PhD programs. In a way, I’m glad I couldn’t make the deadlines for US applications for Fall 2015, because now I’ll have a bit of breathing room post-MA thesis, and maybe have the chance to get more experience teaching something like literature.

I hope I recover from my latest running injury in time to train for and complete the Hamburger Marathon.

I hope the move my family is planning within Florida (planning for retirement, empty-nests, etc.) goes well.

I hope my family and friends make it healthily and without major catastrophes through 2015 to 2016.

I hope the world has a better year than 2014. I realize that while my personal year has been incredible, for the rest of the world it has not.

Here’s to a good year 2015.

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A little bit of southern: A trip to Nürnberg

Despite being barely the size of Texas, Germany is a highly populated country with a largely diversified cultural and linguistic makeup. A lot of this is historically determined and would need a semester or two to explain, but it’s safe to say that Germany is much more than the stereotypical food and entertainment present at Octoberfest. Oktoberfest isn’t even celebrated in a lot of Germany.

I am studying abroad in Hamburg, so I did not experience the twirling dirndls and huge mugs of beer. Instead, I got the tour of the Hafencity and Sunday morning fish-roll at the Fischmarkt (but yes, also a few mugs of beer). Yet, it’s easy to forget that what I experience in Hamburg is not necessarily “German.” Rather, it often belongs to the special brand of “northern German.” I generally like this special brand, but I am grateful for the opportunity to see some southern Germany as well during my study-abroad year.

For the second seminar organized by the VDAC (fondly referred to as “V-dac”  by a lot of my fellow U.S. students), we were invited to spend a weekend in Nürnberg. Known as Nuremberg to non-German speakers, this beautiful, old city has a complicated, fascinating history- both good and bad. Since it is more than a thousand years old, one has to consider its significance far beyond the 1930s and 40s, though the city presents enough opportunities to remember and reflect upon the more recent history as well. Our stay here was arranged by the Nuernberger Frauenklub, and they organized a wonderful trip, including a cute welcome bag from St. Nick and a little gift in front of our doors on St. Nikolaustag on the 6th.

We stayed in the youth hostel of Nuernberg. It’s one of the coolest hostels I’ve ever stayed in… actually part of the fort at the top of the hill that gives Nuernberg it’s name. Formerly the emperor’s horse stalls, the building had been remodeled and renovated into a state funded hostel. I would chose sleeping here over a hotel in the city anytime… even if it did mean hiking up the hill to get back to the rooms from the city. Those sleeping in the upper stories of the hostel got a terrific view, but even sleeping on the second floor, I was in awe of being able to stay here.

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Since it was part of the entire collection of buildings from the Burg, we were actually not far from it.

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We were given a tour of the city by a very knowledgeable native Nuernbergerin from the Frauenklub. This tour opened our eyes to the wealth of history left in the buildings not destroyed by bombings in World War II. There are a lot of churches (more evangelical than catholic… surprisingly in southern Germany), bridges (Nuernberg is like the Venice of Germany), fountains, patrician houses and the house of the famous painter Albrecht Duerer. Nuernberg was an important city for the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, often referred to as an unofficial capital, since, among other things, because the Imperial Diet Reichstag) and courts met at the Burg. We had the opportunity on the second day of our stay to actually see the Burg from the inside and learn a little more about its history.

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Our guide explaining the significance of a certain building.

We also had many opportunities to go on the world-famous Christkindlmarkt (and I thought the Hamburger Ratshaus one was impressive!). I bought so much Lebkuchen for family and friends back home. I think at least five kilo of my luggage weight came from the weight of this delicious German Christmas cake/cookie.

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I also used the opportunity to drink a hot toddy at the international partner city Christmasmarkt, and watched a traditional Feuerzangbowle be prepared at another stand (seeing as it was used with sugar burned over rum, I wasn’t about to drink it though. But I heard it tastes delicious!

As already alluded to, however, Nuernberg’s history also has a dark side. I am grateful that we were given the chance to see both, since in the States we usually think of the city as being the location of Hitler’s Reichsparteitage prior to the war and then hosting the War Crime trials after the war. My fellow VDAC students and I were brought to the Dokumentation Center where the history of Nuernberg as the location of these two events and many of the events (deportation of Jewish people, communists, “gypsies,” dissidents) surrounding them was explained in a very well-done exhibition of the German population’s participation in these events. It was a sobering experience.

Overall, the trip was wonderful and perhaps even more enjoyable than the first VDAC trip to Dresden. It was more laid back and we all knew each other better. I look forward to the next seminar and getting to know a new city in Germany!

One Month in Hamburg

And so it is.

Exactly one month ago at almost this time (8:43 AM) I was in flight over Hamburg, Germany, about to touch down.

My program lasts for 10 months, so this means I am into my first ten percent of the time I’m going to spend here. If this were a race, my GPS watch would read the same thing it does when it buzzes at the ninety percent mark.

I did a lot this month, and if I multiply that amount by ten, I will end up with a very full, full-filling time here!

However, this post is less about the cataloging of time and more about what one should and does accomplish in the first month of a study-abroad program (I could number this, but I don’t want to give the false impression that the things need to be in any particular order):

  • settle into the new living space. If it’s a dorm, like mine, this includes getting used to the morning cleaning routine so that one can take a shower without disturbing the house-keeper’s order and getting used to the kitchen etiquette and floor-mates so that one can enjoy meals outside of one’s room.
  • figure out the local transportation. The best thing to do is navigate one time from “home” to the station/stop and one time from the stop back “home.” It’s okay to get lost; don’t be afraid to ask for directions/help.
  • figure out other transportation. If a bike is available, figure out the routes to the Uni and make sure the bike is prepped for nighttime riding. Driving with lights is such a relief from the harrowing experience of the threat of not being seen by car drivers and other bicyclists (not to mention, driving without lights of a certain standard is illegal in Germany).
  • attend orientation events. For me, the VDAC organizes a seminar within the first weeks of arrival so that students have a chance to get to know other scholarship recipients and learn from each other and from program alumni some of the key methods of initial survival in German culture and bureaucracy. Orientation events are also held by the universities for international students and first-time students. There are usually elaborate programs that one should try to attend at least a few events of. One of my favorite events wasn’t even university related, but rather involved a pub night with the other German Lit. MA students.
  • do some initial traveling. While it would seem more advisable to settle into one’s new “home”-base first, the time before classes begin is the most free time one has (other than the semester break) and it helps to get a larger perspective of the country one is visiting, and the role one’s new city has within that space.
  • take care of university registration issues-pay tuition and fees, notification of local address, internet and online portal logins, library cards, and of course, class registration
  • figure out how to use university services like printers, the libraries, and the cafeterias
  • figure out where the local get their food. Start shopping there. Find out where the most inexpensive food can be found in the area, start finding out where the kind of food one likes most can be found
  • buy local cell phone service if this hasn’t already been taken care of this issue in home country
  • be officially registered as a legal habitat of the area. This includes the residence permit and the visa
  • create a budget. Figure out funds and how much to devote to groceries, toiletries, clothes, travel, and leisure. Don’t forget things like school tuition and fees as well as sport/gym memberships
  • visit at least one museum and at least one “high-brow” cultural thing such as a classical music concert, a play, or a public reading
  • (since I’m a runner) figure out at least two good routes for daily running. One can be an out and back course and the other a pleasant don’t-have-to-repeat-everything-on-the-way-back route.
  • go to class. Seriously, this may seem obvious, but there’s also the constant consideration, at least at the beginning, that it doesn’t matter if one attends class and no one will miss one. But if anything, having a reason to leave one’s room should be taken advantage of
  • make plans of what to do over the coming months so that when classes and studies are not pressing, there’s something to do.
  • try to hang out with people who speak the language of the area as much as possible. It’s okay to
    hang out with other foreigners, and it can be very helpful to have people going through the same situation to talk to, but try to get as much integrated into local life as possible. This is a cultural-exchange opportunity, not (just) an observational platform
  • recognize that there are good and bad days, psychologically, just like there are good and bad days with the weather. Try to see the positive in the bad days and soak in the good ones. For me, personally, I noticed that while the second half of this past month has been overall good, especially since classes started and I’ve been kept busy by schoolwork, I still wake up some mornings and wonder what I’m doing here, or whether I belong. I have learned to recognize that if I want to be here, I belong, and finding the feeling of belonging with other people comes with the time one leaves one’s room to interact with the other people in the living space, the other students in the classes, and the other people in the city. It’s only a matter of time before they become used to me just as I need to get used to them.
  • Take pictures! Write! Try to document time abroad for future self, family, friends and possibly others
This is an old post-office building near the university. With the ivy growing on it, it is thus far the most beautiful thing I have seen so far.

This is an old post-office building near the university. With the ivy growing on it, it is thus far the most beautiful thing I have seen so far.

… and as you can see, I’m trying to do this last thing regularly! Cheers.

Things to do on a Friday night in Hamburg

On a Friday in Hamburg, there are several routes to take:

The Cultural Route or

The youthful/social Route

I’ve done both, and both are enjoyable for multiple reasons. My second weekend in Hamburg, I took the social route and went out to the Sternschanze quarter in Hamburg. During the day, this looks like a rather run-down area , rather boring actually with some kiosks and greasy fast food closets. There are a lot of bars, but they’re usually empty during the day. In the evening, this is the “happening” place for the less well-to-do people of Hamburg. The “well-to-do” head over to Hafen-City and get to sit in fancy white lounge chairs with blankets and watch the ships roll by on the water. Us students and left-wing idealists head over to Sternschanze and drink a few beers, attending open air concerts or the occasional evening demo. After that, some people head home while others make it over to Reeperbahn (the “red-light” district”) or some neighboring city centers where there are clubs and parties. I haven’t explored either of those yet, and I may never, because I’m a Victorian (not necessarily Oscar Wilde\) at heart, but they’re a good way to round out the evening. There’s also house and dorm parties put on by students to attend on the weekends as well, and all it takes is to bring along a bottle of wine to be warmly welcomed, meet some new people and have a pleasant evening.

This week, I took the cultural route.

After plans I made with a good friend fell through, I was forced to reconsider my plans for my Friday evening. Originally, it was going to be: go to a museum with my friend until the museum closes at 1800, then head over to her place for supper, conversation, and some Tatort. Tatort is probably the most unifyingly German thing. It’s a household name for a show that follows police detectives investigating a murder in one of many featured German cities. A different team/city is featured every week, and an original episode appears once a week, every week [except during the Sommerpause] on Sunday at 2015. I was looking forward to it, however, when I got the call from my sick friend, I spent a little while in the school Mensa on my iPod with a cappuccino, and thought about what I could do that would be equally enjoyable. I decided to visit the museum anyway, and as a follow-up, take full advantage of my Uni Frei Karte. I’ve had this for the past two weeks, but it took me a while to be in the mental space to figure out what to use it for. Snapshot_20141025

The Universitaet Hamburg (UHH) offers a cultural treat for the first three months of first time studies at the university. Basically, anyone just starting at the UHH is encouraged to take advantage of everything Hamburg has to offer, culturally, to its residents. This includes theater, music, art, museums, and ballet. The Frei Karte works with a valid UHH student ID to get into most Hamburg museums for free, and into most performances/events for free if there are tickets left half an hour before the show starts. Sometimes shows are sold out, and then one goes home slightly disappointed (or just heads over to Sternschanze), but most of the time, there are very good seats left. In fact, the play I decided to attend today at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus still had enough tickets an hour before the performance that the lady at the Kasse (ticket office) just gave me a ticket… eighth row, near the middle. It was a perfect spot!! It was a ticket that usually would have cost me 50 euro, and I got it for free. That alone was enough for me to enjoy it.

But let me backtrack to what I did before that.

The cultural route for me last night included a visit to a museum (the Voelkerkunde Museum) and a play. The Hamburg Voelkerkunde Museum (museum for ethnology) is actually the fourth largest of its kind in the world. It’s a beautiful museum. It goes through the early civilizations of the whole world, including New Zealand and Tibet, and it’s impressive in the amount of detail that goes into the displays. Entire gates and buildings are constructed to show how the people once lived and how the cultures survive today. I was able to sit in a Maori meeting house, Native American saunas… so much that I can’t list everything here. I was allowed to walk through worlds that I’ve only ever read in books and it was a wonderful experience. I didn’t get to go through all the exhibits in the 1.5 hours I had, but since the museum is not far from the UHH, I can return at any time.

Voelkerkundemuseum-hamburg

I would visit this museum even if it wasn’t free, but the fact that it was made the experience even sweeter. I should mention that I didn’t even need to show my Frei Karte, since Hamburg museums are ALWAYS free to EVERYONE on Fridays after 1300. I know what I’m doing after my Friday seminar from now on.

Not only is the museum fantastic, the building itself is absolutely beautiful. This is the lobby.

After visiting the museum, I spent some time in the lobby deciding what to do next. I was hesitating about doing something else, wondering if I should have a quiet evening at home and get a head start on preparing for classes next week, but then I just decided to head over to the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, which, with its location near the Hauptbahnhof was the closest and most easy to find theater, and see if there were any tickets left for Wassa Schelesnova. I could have headed over to the Thalia Theater and seen Jedermann, but I didn’t feel like spending a long time to find the location. When I arrived at Hauptbahnhof, I spotted the Deutsche Schauspielhaus right away.

This is the facade of another beautiful building with an interior that reminded me of the past. The high ceiling of the theater had a painted mural of a god in a chariot rolling through the sky. There were reliefs on the box sets and curtain frames. It was beautiful just to look at this from the red velvet covered seats.

I stepped into the ticket office and asked how the Uni Frei Karte would work. The man behind the desk looked to see if the performance last night was accepting the Karte (something I hadn’t even considered would be a potential obstacle), confirmed it was, and then told me I would be able to show my card half an hour before the showing and pick a ticket up, if there were any left. This was about 1830, so I decided to bridge the time with a pretzel and a beer (a wonderful combination) and a walk. I saw the other side of the Hauptbahnhof (not the nice shopping district leading to the Alster), but rather the gambling, foreign food market, sex-shop side. I decided this wasn’t where I necessarily wanted to be on a dark Friday evening, and only spent a little time exploring, opting to go into the theater early. Turns out, as before mentioned, getting a ticket was no problem and I was able to attend a wonderful play.  I’d like to be able to see more with the same actors, and for the next two months, I can.  I also want to attend a ballet or two, some orchestra productions, and a lot of different museums. This weekend I’m making a plan for how to do this.

Finally, for those of you who were concerned that I am too much of a cultural snob, I did spend the rest of the evening after getting home around 1030 celebrating a dorm-mate’s 18th birthday. In Germany, 18 is the legal age for everything, including driving by oneself, drinking hard liquor, and signing all ones documents. I joined in on the party and got to know some of the people I live with here a lot better. It was a great way to end a good evening.

So that’s that. Another long post, sorry. But I think I’ve slowly covered all the main aspects of life here as a foreign-exchange student. Things are starting to settle down, and I am developing routines. A big positive smile from me to you this Saturday morning. Hope you have a good weekend.

Fun with Beamte

So that was fun.

Today, I got official permission to live in the beautiful city of Hamburg.

Bezirksamt Altona-Hamburg

After a short sub-way ride and decent walk through some of Hamburg’s famous schietwetter, I made it to the building that hosted the multiple offices for important stuff. The only thing I was interested in there was the Wohnsitz Anmeldung, basically, residence permit.

While waiting in line at the reception, I overheard the woman in front of me be told that she had a 2.5 hour wait. I was happy that the local chair-lady of the VDAC had made us an appointment.

That is, I thought she made me an appointment until it turned out that only one was made for the other US student. I didn’t have one. Yet my German skills came in handy here (and some tips from my mother) and I started saying that I was a little annoyed about this and that I couldn’t understand it and that I hoped I wouldn’t have to wait now. I knew I had an appointment and I said I refused to have to come back again or wait. After huffing like that for a bit, I was told I was at the front of the line, given a form to fill out (to pass the time) and then asked to take a seat in the waiting area.

That was all fine by me and I got set to fill out the form, not able to complete it before being called to a desk. [note: In Germany, as I’ve experienced it, most bureaucratic offices have systems where you go to a reception area, tell the person what you’re there (at the particular office) for, asked if you have all relevant forms, and then given a number. The numbers are based on first-come, first serve as well as based on which official will be dealing with cases like yours. There’s usually an electronic sign in the waiting room which has flashing numbers on it, and a ding usually reverberates throughout the room when a new number is called. The room to which one is called is also flashed, and it’s generally a very orderly system].

At the desk, I handed over my passport and my Mietvertrag (rental-agreement) and the nice young lady in charge of me got set filling out information online while I finished filling out the form.

The Wohnsitzmeldung costs 10 Euro, but when it came time to pay, rather than handing it over to the lady, I was given a card and sent to a machine outside of the room where I inserted the card and paid the amount. It’s as if the German bureaucracy wanted to make it clear that the certain Beamtin was not the one handling my money… it was going straight to the state.

Another thing that surprised me about this process was the fact that I was asked for my religious affiliation; specifically, I was asked whether and in what faith I was baptized. I noted my surprise to the lady and she told me that it had to do with tax purposes. I think that in the U.S., since state and church are completely separate, it doesn’t matter what religion you are when you apply for residence.

About five minutes into the process, I was pleased to be handed a sheet of paper to look over for the accuracy of the info. It looked alright to me and I said so.

That was it!

Woo hoo. The other US student and I (we hang out quite a bit, though he and I didn’t arrive together today because I was running late) decided, after such a successful experience, we would take care of the last bit of bureaucracy while in this country. We had to get our “Aufenhaltsgenehmigung,” or “visas.” In Germany, one is allowed to stay in the country for up to three months without being a citizen. Any time after that, one must apply for permission to stay in the country. This is pretty standard across the globe, I fee, but I don’t know.

I do know that it’s a bit of a pain to get an Aufenhaltsgenehmigung. In order to get the Aufenhaltsgenehmigung, one has to have a registered residence. That’s why we couldn’t do the visa until today. One also has to have a valid reason to want to stay in the country (either work or education). Often, this is a Catch-22, because in order to get work, often one needs to have permission to be in the country. In order to get that, one needs work… and so forth.

The steps to get Aufenhaltsgenehmigung:

  1. Be in the country legally
  2. Have reason to be in the country (study or work; likely asylum as well)
  3. Make it to the local town hall and go to the “Auslaender [foreign]abteilung”
  4. Wait in line to be given a number
  5. Show proof of being in the country legally (passport)
  6. Have proof of residence
  7. Have all the documents that show you’re allowed to be in the country (for study: matriculation document and proof of funding of studies). For me, this meant having proof of the VDAC scholarship.
    1. As mentioned in a previous post, Germany has insurance Pflicht, so in order to study, one needs proof of insurance, so this document is also necessary
  8.  Have form “Erforderliche Unterlagen fuer die Antragsbearbeitung [required documents for the application process]” filled out
  9. Have a passport picture for the final product: the visa (this is something unique to Germany and (?) Europe. In the U.S., pictures are taken at the relevant offices. In Germany, one is expected to arrive at the office with ones own photo. There was a machine outside the office).
  10. Be given a number to wait to give all these documents to someone who plugs it into the computer…
  11. Pay 110 Euro to be allowed to stay in the country
  12. I have yet to see how this adventure continues

My fellow U.S. American and I were able to complete the first steps pretty easily. The Bezirksamt wasn’t far from the Ratshaus (townhall), and the Ratshaus was where we were supposed to go.

Germany has some pretty town halls. And this is only one of many in Hamburg, since each “Stadtteil” has its own. The “real” Hamburg Ratshaus is also its parliament, and that’s a pretty impressive building

This is the official Hamburg Ratshaus. The day of the photo, there were Chinese dignitaries in town. The Germans are hospitable people and don't mind giving up their flag for a day

This is the official Hamburg Ratshaus. The day of the photo, there were Chinese dignitaries in town. The Germans are hospitable people and don’t mind giving up their flag for a day

Yet, after that it went pretty down hill because he (my fellow American) didn’t want to wait what seemed like more than an hour, and I didn’t have my Versicherungsvorzeichnis. I will have to come back to the office at some point and complete the process.

Oh well. The lady at the reception had something up her… anyway, so I don’t mind coming back to deal with someone else. I burned off some steam going to IKEA (which, like I mentioned before, isn’t far from the Alona subway station) and drinking some free coffee.

Now, I have to get to class.