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Gap Year Abroad

3 posts from January 2014


When Two Worlds Collide


The best presents I’ve ever received arrived on Solstice morning at the Santiago airport with more luggage than energy, but huge smiles and hugs and love none the less. Their flight was delayed (something I was not aware of), and having no means of communication, I was equally relieved as I was excited to see them exit the security section, the exact same door I had walked through just five months before. Welcome to Chile Mom and Karl!!!

It’s true, sharing stories is fun, but to be able to show my family a first hand  glimpse of what I had been living for the past semester was beyond wonderful. We had an absolute blast. And I, as the tour guide and trip planner, felt an even stronger connection to my life here in Chile, because they were the foreigners, and I was the “local.”



They say that life is cyclical: that we find ourselves in parallel situations either with our own memories, or with new generations. La Serena was the destination of my first trip in Chile, and it was also my last. A couple hours after their flight landed, we headed over to the bus station to take another $24 coach bus. This time, in place of my gap friends, it was my family by my side, and instead of Chris Martin’s voice complimenting the view, it was my mother’s. In hindsight, it might have been cruel to schedule such a long bus ride after all the air travel, but we didn’t have much time, and thankfully we were all sleep deprived enough to appreciate the cozy seats. It’s a good thing I slept too, because the next week was filled with novelty and repetition, as my world from Wisconsin collided with my Chilean home.

Last time I was in La Serena, we stayed in a resort on the beach. This time, I chose to introduce to my family to the Hostel style of life. We didn’t have the best of luck as far as roommates go, but it could have been worse. Overall the Aji Verde was a successful choice, and  we met some extraordinarily cool travelers (for instance two young women who were traveling around the world until their budget ran out) and listened to some good stores (what bus trouble in Nepal can mean and the difficulties of being a tourist in parts of the US), and the staff were helpful in planning out our adventures.

Day one we did what I had failed to do last time; we took a tour of Valle Elqui. From seven in the morning, until just past midnight, my family and a handful of other tourists traveled around the valley in a tour van, visiting what makes this place so famous.

1. Its rich agriculture and impressively fruitful growing seasons. They can grow, for instance, four crops of potatoes in the same time other places harvest once, and they have millions of dollars worth of avocados, papayas, vineyards and whatever else the local farmers are interested in growing. The soil and the climate are practically perfect according to our tour guide. There was always farm land in sight, and the base of the mountains were black with avocado forests. Below Karl and I are eating a peculiar local cactus fruit called a copao. It reminded me of a kiwi, except it was so acidic that it could only be eaten with equal parts sugar and fruit. IMG_2770

2. PISCO! The Chilean (or possible Peruvian -- but we don’t mention that..) alcoholic drink that reminds me of a vodka made from grapes (technically a grape brandy). On our tour we went to the Capel Pisco Distillery to see how the 80 proof drink is made. The grapes, one or more of the select seven types, are fermented exactly like wine, but then the drink is distilled rather than bottled and stored immediately after. Also, Chilean pisco can ONLY be called pisco if it is made in Valle Elqui, which means this valley supplies the entire country with pisco sour, piscola, etc. And if you drink pisco product before it's at the correct proof, it's poison. Here we are in the pisco distillary. IMG_2789

3. Natural Therapy. They say the center of the Earth’s magnetic core, in the current age of Aquarius at least, is located in Valle Elqui in a small town called Cochiguaz. Although we did not visit all the modern day gurus or participate in the hundreds of natural energy, meditation, soul cleansing, spa options, we were able to feel a bizarre tingling feeling in our palms when we opened up our hands face up. Perhaps it was placebo, but since it would be REALLY cool if it was real, I'm going to believe. 

4. The home of Gabriela Mistral, a famous Chilean poet and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1945 (also a close friend of Pablo Neruda and a teacher around the world). We visited her home town, and read a bit of her poetry in her old school house that is now transformed into a museum. She is also on the 5.000 (five thousand pesos) which is roughly $10.  200385_grande

5. And last but certainly not least, the Observatories! This was probably one of my favorite parts of the trip. Imagine what the sky looked like before light pollution, and you can have a pretty good idea of what we saw. I have been to the north of Wisconsin, miles from any large civilization, but still, the amount of stars we saw that night blew me away. Plus we got to go to one of the famous old observatories and use their telescope. Did you know Orion is upside down in the southern hemisphere? Or that Venus goes through phases just like the moon? We got to see constellations, planets, galaxies, star clusters, and so much more at a quality I never could have imagined. Below is not the moon, but actually Venus! IMG_2826


Day two we did what I had succeeded in doing last time, but with our own twist. I took my family through same street markets, but this time, instead of only looking, we bought some of Chile’s piercingly blue national rock, Lapislazuli, as well as papaya candies and other gifts. We went to the same cafe central where I had eaten four months ago, but this time I translated the menus, instead of my dictionary. We walked to the beach along the same path, and sun bathed in the same sand, but with our own ridiculous, laughter-filled conversations. We ate dinner while watching the sun set over the Pacific, but trading Italian food for good ol classic empanadas. And just in case I didn't have enough of the wonderful circle of life, my family and I stumbled upon a Japanese Garden, one that was surprisingly similar to the Japanese Gardens we wandered around in California, two winters ago. It was fun for me to see how much my point of view had changed since I was last in La Serena, and it was beautiful to see how much our family had grown since we last stared at koi fish under a Japanese bridge. Here is my family outside of the Garden of the Heart.IMG_2882

Our La Serena adventure came to a close as we boarded an overnight bus back to Vina del Mar, on to our next chapter of winter break.



Five months wasn’t enough time for me to uncover even a portion of the treasures of Vina del Mar or Valparaiso (I doubt a lifetime would be sufficient), but my next mission was to give my family a taste of these cities and my life there in a day and a half. We arrived in Valparaiso at 6am in the morning after a successful overnight bus journey, and after a cab ride, and a short nap, we were off into Valparaiso. I took them to the port, through the market, around the plazas, past some of the famous buildings I could remember, and finally to Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso home. The only problem was the ascensors were closed (again), so we were forced to conquer the enormous hill with endless stairs and steep roads. It was a good hour of work, but ultimately worth the trek, as my mother and brother both enjoyed the incredible view, the quirky house decorations, and the funny life tidbits provided by the self-guided listening tours. My brother also accompanied me up another hill in order to give a little Christmas gift to my friends at Ancora (the place where I used to go for Friday night dinners). Our walk back down the hill was anything but direct, but we managed to eventually find Cerro Concepcion which is the hill most famous for its street art. Although it was a long walk, once again, it was worth the struggle, and my family greatly enjoyed the murals.

The view from Pablo Neruda's Valparaiso home and his housePicture 5And some street art.. 

The downtown part of Valparaiso (which is the flat part at the base of the hills) was packed with people doing last minute Christmas shopping and whatever else they wanted to be doing. It was loud. It was crowded. I think it was the busiest I’ve ever seen the city. Vina del Mar, the next day, was exactly the opposite. 

On Christmas day, my family and I headed out once again, but this time I took them around Vina del Mar. I almost didn’t recognize the city. Because it was a national holiday, ALL of the restaurants and stores were closed, and there was almost no one on the streets. There was no sopaipilla lady, no street musicians, nobody selling wrapping paper, no street artists, no sushi or food carts or street vendors of any kind. There were hardly any cars, and despite the fact that it was a Wednesday, the metros and the buses were empty. It was like a post apocalyptic city. Shocking. So the weather was less than wonderful and my bustling, vibrant city was a ghost town, but other than that the day was a success! The street below is Calle Valparaiso, and it is always PACKED with people. Except today.  IMG_3077

Our first official stop was the sand dunes, one of my favorite places. Karl and I trudged all the way to the top, and then decided to race down the other side. Letting our legs spin as fast as possible, we flew down the mountain of soft sand towards the ocean, arms open wide. Well that’s how we started at least. He actually made it to our declared finish line, but I pushed myself just a little too fast and ended up eating sand about 15 seconds into the race. Literally. I knocked the wind out of myself and coated every inch of my body in sand, and despite our best efforts to brush off all the sand, I ended up trudging back to my mother a black sand monster. We sat in the dunes for a while after and just enjoyed the view, and then we tried to go down the other side of the dunes, towards the ocean, instead of back the way we came. Possibly a mistake. At first it appeared that we had walked all the way down the dunes only to be greeted by massive cliffs. However, instead of turning around, we kept looking and eventually we found a tiny, extraordinarily steep path with minimal spines and trees. A likely chance of survival. Laughing out of terror and amusement, we slowly slid down the sandy cliff. It was good family bonding. IMG_3011 IMG_3027When we got down to the shore, we walked along the road until we found the perfect rock jutting out into the ocean. Before I left Wisconsin, a family friend gave me a lei from Hawaii. It draped around our rearview mirror until I carefully put it in a plastic bag and brought it with me to Chile and the Pacific. From what I’ve heard, by throwing the lei into the ocean I am respecting the friendship of the person who gave it to me, promising I’ll return, and commemorating a loved one who has passed away. So I tossed it into the breeze. IMG_3053

I also took my family to my university, and showed them where I volunteered or met with my running team. There are tons of additional places I would have loved to show them, but we were limited by time and a lack of rapid transportation. Instead, on my last night in Chile, a couple of friends came over for a small barbeque with one of my favorite foods (choripan!), and we played Uno. Sometime in there I packed all of my things too. Eventually everybody drifted off to bed, and I went out for my true last night in Chile.

The next morning, my host mother dropped us all off at the bus station. We gave our teary goodbye hugs and then boarded yet another coach bus, this time to Santiago. After dropping off all our luggage in the airport, we headed out into the city, one that I was not nearly as familiar with, and one that was as busy and chaotic as usual. Having already had a FULL week, my family wasn’t too interested in a crazy tourism day, so instead we met up with Diego! If you don’t recognize the name, he’s the Chilean I went to Chiloe with a couple of weeks before. Whenever my mom is talking about the trip, she always references this afternoon as being her favorite; it truly was special. Even though Diego met my family that day, we all got along like we had known each other for years. He seriously is a fantastic kid. We went to the grocery store to buy all the typical Chilean foods, we went to a Human Rights museum that focused on the dictatorship (which was fun for me to explain the history to my family or translate words with Diego), we ate sopaipillas on the street, we wandered through the city and the metro system, and we ended the day sitting in a park, eating delicious cookies and just talking talking talking. Throughout the entire afternoon we spoke Spanglish, constantly learning from each others’ mistakes, laughing, and making up jokes. That was another hard goodbye for all of us. When the sun set, we headed back to the airport for the last time, and off we went. IMG_3105



The last important part about our trip was that my family came down on Solstice, and we left on the 27th. It’s common sense that the holidays are always a difficult time to be an exchange student, and I missed both my mother’s and my brother’s birthdays and Thanksgiving. However, I avoided the holiday blues during Turkey day by celebrating my first ever Hanukkah with Dana and a group of her friends, making homemade latkes and applesauce (which her Chilean family had never had before…!), lighting a makeshift menorah, and listening and participating in the traditional songs with her family through Skype.

And for Christmas, my two families were together!

My host mother, my host sister, my mother and I all chipped in to make a Christmas dinner feast, a mix of Chilean foods and American foods. We drank cola de mono, sitting around the huge dining room table, with Christmas music in the background and the tree’s beautiful decorations lighting up the room. At midnight, as it is custom to do in Chile, we opened up presents. My mother had brought some gifts down with her (based of my suggestions), and my host mother had even gotten some for my family. There was much laughter and thank yous and smiling people. A huge success. Even though my mother and brother didn’t know much Spanish, they knew enough and did their best, and I was finally able to be a translator. A great Christmas it was. IMG_2972 My Mothers!!IMG_2987Cata and I IMG_2974My brother and one of the kittens


That concludes my trip to Chile. Done. Goodbye. Leaving home was hard, but in a different way because I knew my life would pretty much be waiting for me when I returned. Leaving Chile was worse (I would have “missed my plane” had my family not been there to take me home…). I know someday I will go back, and I’ll see my friends again, stay with my host family, run with my running team, swim with my sea lions, eat my sopaipillas, shop at my stores, take my metro, dance at my discos, walk through my streets, climb up my stairs, but it will never be my life like it was. I’ll be more of a tourist than a local.

However, I also left having had the time of my life. It was an experience I will NEVER regret, where lifelong friendships were born, a love for a new language took root, and a lifetime’s worth of memories were made.

Chile, hasta pronto.



"Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind." Seneca 

Wow, here we are, and it’s already January 23rd! This past month of supposed winter “break” has gone by incredibly fast. After getting back from Peru I spent an amazing 3 weeks seeing my family and friends, adjusting to the winter, packing up and getting ready for Spain. Being back was great but spending that short amount of time at home made leaving again that much harder. I felt like right as I got comfortable being back home it was already the night before I left for Spain. A quick tip for anyone thinking about doing the dual gap program: make sure if you are going to Spain you get your visa before you leave for your first semester program. I spent more time than I wanted at the Spanish embassy, so figure out your visa situation over the summer before you leave.

Fast forward 4 plane rides and a number of hours later, and I am in Sevilla!! Sevilla is the capital of the Andalucía region, or southern area, of Spain. It is absolutely beautiful, and even after only being here a week I really really like it. I arrived two days before my program started so was able to adjust to the time difference (6 hours ahead of Washington DC) and walk around and see the area a little bit.

After hanging out for 2 days with a friend I packed up my things and went to my host family. In my family I have a mom (Georgina), dad (Joaquin), sister (Marta, who is 19), and brother (Joaquin who is 21). This is a complete switch from my one younger brother, Max, who I’ve grown up with, and my family in Chile but I am really excited to have kids in the house around my age. So far my host family experience has been wonderful! My Spanish is so much better, and because I already have the experience of living with a host family my acclimation into the family wasn’t as difficult. Only a week has gone by, but I really do feel part of the family. I am able to actively participate in meal conversations and not just smile and nod my head like when I arrived in Chile 6 months ago. And after a couple of nights bonding over silly Youtube videos, comparing music and just talking, I feel like my sister and I have already gotten pretty close. The host family is a major part of the experience so I feel fortunate to have already connected with my new family.

First Impressions of the City:

The first thing I noticed was how incredibly beautiful the styles of the buildings are. You can quickly sense the historical importance that each building holds and the architectural detail is incredible. Also looking around in the streets everyone is dressed in the latest fashion trends and you can tell appearance is taken very seriously here. Everything is within walking distance so already I’ve been able to get a good feel for the city by just walking around to and from class and by exploring each afternoon. Aside from the incredible amount of shoe stores there are a number of beautiful plazas that are dispersed throughout the city as well. 

Here are a few pictures from various places around the city.

Photo 1 Photo 2.PNG Photo 2


The first couple of days of the program were long with numerous orientation meetings and tours. We went on a short tour of Plaza de España, the main plaza in Sevilla, an absolutely stunning area. You feel as though you have almost stepped out of the city, into a completely new area. You make your way into the park and then all you see is this grand building with a number of pillars, balconies, and towers as well as a huge patio out front with a fountain surrounded by a canal where you can rent a row boat and row around. Around the base of the building there are little stations called azulejos which are ceramic tiles and represent the different regions or provinces of Spain. Fun fact: Plaza de España was where parts of the Star War movies were filmed.

Photo 1.PNG



Azulejo of Coruña

After that we walked through the park, Maria Luisa, to another plaza called Plaza de América. Right away we all noticed the enormous amount of palomas or pigeons that were surrounding the plaza. If you simply hold out your arm you can easily get 2-3 pigeons to fly up and say hi, intimidating enough. However, if you buy some of the nuts you could seriously have up to 7 pigeons resting on your arms! 


Classes started on Monday and it has been a bit of an adjustment: 1) waking up at 8:00(yeah I know ¡que horror!) and 2) focusing in Spanish for a whole 4 hours straight with an exception for our 20 minute break. But I’m excited because that’s the best way for me to improve my Spanish.

Being in Europe is overwhelming. You feel like everything is so close so you want to take advantage and travel to many countries, yet I am in Spain and also want to really get to know the country I am living in. Poco a poco, little by little, I will figure out my plans, but I know my time here will be adventure-filled!


walking tour through the neighborhood of Santa Cruz 

Ciao for now! 


El Idioma--ESPANOL

Me llamo Katerina (yamo)

Tengo 18 anos

Soy  des de Estados Unidos

Quiero ayudar.

As a parting gift, one of my friends gave me a little notebook to fill with vocabulary on my trip; what you see above is what is written on the first page. For better and for worse, when I arrived in Chile, I did not speak Spanish.



  • My learning curve was exponential which was motivational throughout the semester. There’s no question of whether or not my Spanish improved.

  •    The first time my brother met my host mother on skype, he had a really hard time understanding her because of her Chilean accent, but having never heard a different way of speaking, I never had to to go through an adjustment phase. And a bonus for learning Spanish in Chile: they say if you can understand a Chilean, you can understand any other Spanish speaker in the Americas (because they all speak clearer and slower and with better pronunciation). This I’ve already found to be true after watching Spanish TV.
  • I was never embarrassed to ask questions about really basic concepts, nor was I ashamed when I made simple mistakes (partly due to my personality and partly due to the fact that I was new to the language).

  • Sometimes Spanish classes teach words that are either not useful or not ever used (or only used in Mexico), but because I never learned Spanish in a high school classroom, these words were not part of my vocabulary and they weren’t floating around in my head. For instance, asi asi does not exist, at least in Chile (they say mas o menos).  

  • I will never again have a problem asking questions or for directions because if I could do it in Spanish, English should be a breeze.

  • It is a huge confidence boost. And a great story.. I went to Chile without knowing Spanish!



  • I don’t know the difference between universal Spanish words and words that are only used in Chile (known as modismos). For instance, cereza is the Spanish word for cherry, but guinda is the Chilean word.

  • The entire first month was a REAL struggle.

  • I don’t have any vocabulary except for what I’ve learned here which can be limiting, and if I want to have a conversation on an entirely new topic, I have to learn all the vocabulary (for instance, I don’t know any “Going to the Doctors” vocabulary).

  • For every word I’d learn, it felt like I’d also forget one, just because there were always a million new words. I had to start from square one.

  • I cannot carry even the most basic conversation in French anymore; it has completely disappeared. I can read some, and translate the occaisonal word, but that’s actually it; five years of French, gone. Some people say it would come back really fast, and others say you can only really focus on learning one language at a time until you’re proficient (especially when they’re so similiar). I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do (try and relearn or drop it for now).

  • And finally, I’m not going to go home fluent. Or even anywhere close. I understand a decent amount but not every conversation, and although I can usually get my point across, I don’t always do so gracefully or correctly. Plus, writing is still quite difficult for me as well.


Do I regret coming here with no Spanish? Absolutely not. To be completely honest, I’ve loved the struggle and the daily adventure of just trying to figure out what was going on around me, and it’s incredible to look back over the last couple of months and see my progress.  I’ve also loved watching people’s expressions when I told them I came knowing almost nothing of the language,  especially in the beginning, and their complements were some of the most motivating. There’s no comparison between how much one learns studying in classroom versus living abroad, and I absolutely suggest stepping out of the traditional comfort zone to learn a new language. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.


And as an additional bonus, learning a language through using it (with a little bit of instruction on the side), has lead to enough humorous moments and light bulb realizations to have kept me laughing the entire semester. Here are a few examples of the language battles I’ve faced.

Sometimes I have to read a word out loud before I know what it means because my brain doesn’t recognize the spelling, but it does recognize the sound. Preba was one of those because it sounds more like preva.

I make funny spelling mistakes. Mida instead of mira because that’s how it sounds.

I use words that I couldn’t translate or even define because I’ve only heard them in context. I have no idea what ‘¿cómo amaneciste?” actually means but I ask it in the morning because my host mom always asks me then.

I’ll learn the grammar rules behind why I say certain phrases after. “Que le vaya bien” was part of my daily conversation long before I knew what subjunctive was, and when we did finally learn the basics, I had no problem remembering the irregular conjugations because, like “vaya”, I use them.  

I’ve made some really silly mistakes and had some bizarre problems. One time I was trying to say “you’re going to like this,” and although I’ve conjugated the verb gustar a million times, I didn’t know what it was in its infinitive form.. So it came out more like, lo vas a emm ahh emm gusta gustar?


So how is my Spanish then..?

On the airplane down to Chile, I was proud I remembered tal vez (maybe). On the way back, a young Chilean guy and I had a lovely five hour conversation, completely in Spanish. And I understood everything.

We read a book in French Five, and I depended heavily on my dictionary. I read the same book in Spanish after three months, and while there were words I wasn’t familiar with, it was an easy read.

About two and a half months into my stay, I was working on homework in my host mom’s room when I realized I had understood the conversation on TV. I flipped out. It was the first time I had understood more than a word or two. Now I can watch Vampire Diaries with my host sister and understand almost all of it.

Basically, I understand lots; I can write some; I can say enough; and most importantly, I’m addicted to the language. I can’t wait to learn more!

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