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Marhaba au Maroc!

Bonjour tout le monde! I’m writing from my cozy little apartment in Meknès, Morocco where I live with my Oomi (mama), father, sister Meryeme, and brother Mohammad. I moved in here in early January after a few wild and crazy days trekking around Morocco with 35 other American students and our resident directors from ISA (International Studies Abroad).

I left home on Jan. 15 and spent some time at Saint Anselm before making my way to Casablanca via Boston, New York, and Madrid. Other than almost missing my flight to Madrid, the traveling went without a hitch. I flew to Casablanca with a rowdy bunch of Hasidic Jews who sang their way across the strait of Gibraltar and into Africa. The man next to me, who was also a Hasidic Jew, muttered something about the “summer camp” in the back of the airplane and then proceeded to smoke a cigarette… on the airplane. I was incredibly groggy at this point so don’t take my word for it. There’s a good chance I dreamed the whole thing up.

In Casablanca, I met up with my group and program directors and we moved into our hotel for orientation. We talked about gender roles, health and safety, haggling, and general tips for surviving in Morocco. The next morning we actually toured “Casa,” seeing the Place Mohamed V, Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur, the old medina, and the Hassan II Mosque. The Hassan II Mosque takes up a massive stretch of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and boasts the tallest minaret in all of North Africa. The prayer room alone can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. The 24th of January just happened to be the birthday of Prophet Mohammad, so nearly everything in the city was closed. Locals were out enjoying the sunshine, walking with family, and playing soccer on the beach.

For lunch we headed to the Mall of Morocco, which is hands down the most impressive mall I’ve ever been in. It boasts stores like Louis Vuitton, Coach, and Galeries Laffeyette alongside such attractions as an indoor theme park for kids, an aquarium, and an Imax theater. It was so interesting to observe the interplay of Eastern and Western cultures: burqa-clad women shopping in H&M, modest clothing options, etc. The mall even had an artificial souk, a traditional marketplace with winding alleys and stalls for vendors.

The next stop on our tour through Morocco was Marrakech, to the southwest of Casablanca. Marrakech is set at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and is more traditional and authentic than Casablanca. It’s bustling and noisy and the streets are jam packed with motorcycles, pedestrians, vendors, buses, cars, donkey, sheep, and camels (think Aladdin, but better). All the houses and buildings in Marrakech are built in a red clay that gives the city a majestic feel, especially early in the morning or at sunset when they catch and reflect the light. Morocco comprises part of the North African Maghreb. Maghreb is an Arabic word meaning “place of the sunset.” We stayed in an amazing hotel with elaborate Moorish architecture and a patio roof from which you could see the whole city while relaxing and drinking mint tea.

The main square in Marrakech is the Djemaa el Fna. It isn’t so much a square as it is a stage for entrepreneurs and those looking to make a few dirham (Moroccan currency; 8.4 dh = $1). Henna artists, snake charmers, magicians, storytellers, boxers, acrobats, and vendors all crowd into the square alongside tourists and regular Moroccans young and old. Just beyond the square is the souk, which is more a maze than a marketplace. The Marrakech souk is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. It’s a winding set of intertwining alleys densely packed with every single good and craft imaginable: leather, beads, lanterns, postcards, scarves, shoes, gloves, furniture, accessories, and just all sorts of bric-a-brac. Most of the stalls are simply ramshackle huts with high walls so you can still look up and see the sky. Haggling is the unofficial national sport in Morocco so each little stall has an eager merchant pestering you to come and look at their goods.

During a free afternoon in Marrakech my friend Erin and I got ourselves so lost in the souk. There is little to no way to actually navigate in the souk because narrow alleys lead to more winding narrow alleyways and anyone offering to show you the way out demands a fee and usually takes you in the wrong direction anyways. Most of the stalls sell similar items so there aren’t any landmarks to go by. At one point we thought we were walking in circles because we kept seeing the same life-size iron greyhound dog before we realized that more than one of the shopkeepers was selling identical copies of the same dog. Erin and I tumbled out of the souk after almost three hours and found a main road.

The next destination on our orientation took us into the Atlas Mountains to the Cascades d’Ouzoud, an amazing set of waterfalls. You could hike around the base and up the side of the falls to a town near the top. There was a little café with a patio view of the falls where I ate a Berber omelette, tagine with vegetables, Moroccan salad (raw tomatoes with onions and oil), olives, and tangerines. A dog we dubbed Ouzoud and some wild monkeys followed us around as we explored. We piled back onto the bus happy, sun burnt, and caked in the orange Ouzoud mud.

The last leg of the trip was spent bumping around on back roads in the mountains with our giant tour bus. I’m pretty sure in some places the bus was wider than the road. We drove through green, sweeping valleys where local shepherds just stared and stared at us as we passed. We had to stop a couple of times to shoo some sheep or goats off the road. My guidebook told me that this is one of the least populous places in Morocco, mostly inhabited by Berbers who have their own distinct language. Most of Morocco speaks French and Darija (the Moroccan dialect derived from classical Arabic).

We arrived at Meknès, the city I’m currently living in, on Sunday evening. Meryeme, my host sister, came to collect my roommate and I at the drop off point and we lugged our bags halfway across town to the fourth floor of a building that houses everything from a medical laboratory to a surgeon to a notary (zoning only exists in the United States). As much as I loved spelling my name with my butt and giggling over my hypnotized classmates with group A in the Dana Center Freshman year, this is one orientation I’ll never forget.


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Prepare yourselves…

I’ve decided to resurrect my blog.



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Meeting Ambassador Howard Gutman

A few weeks ago I attended the 25th anniversary of Vesalius College, at which the U.S. ambassador to Belgium gave the keynote speech. The ceremony took place the Saturday after the tragedy in Libya and Ambassador Gutman spoke at length about the importance of cross-cultural education in fostering peace.

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When in Brussels…

Bonjour, tout le monde! I can’t believe that I’ve been in Brussels for almost 5 weeks! Belgium is truly amazing. It’s unique, beautiful, diverse, and sometimes very frustrating. I’ve met so many wonderful people and traveled so much during this past month that I feel like I’ve lived here forever. Now that I’ve settled into something resembling a routine I’ll update you on classes, work, travel, everything!

For starters, I live in la Commune d’Ixelles. Brussels is divided up into 19 communes, or neighborhoods and I’m so lucky to live in this one. My apartment is situated just 15 minutes from my university (Vesalius College) and is also very close to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the Dutch and French –speaking universities. As such, the area is full of students, cheap sandwich shops, and easy access to the center of Brussels. I also live walking distance from the Bois de la Cambre and Forêt, a 10,000 acre park in southern Brussels that I absolutely love. I often go for runs in this park, but to get there I first have to bypass the Egyptian, Tajikistani, and Tanzanian embassies 🙂

Vesalius, or as the cool kids call it, VeCo, has been steadily growing on me these past five weeks. While nothing can replace Saint Anselm, the college has its own community and many involved, exemplary students. It’s an international college (representing 50 nationalities) in a bilingual city in a trilingual country. In one of my classes I normally sit between a Bangladeshi-Belgian girl and a girl from Germany who lived until just recently in Saudi Arabia. It’s very normal to hear introductions like “I was born in Nepal, but I grew up in Germany and my Mom’s from Turkey, but now we live in Belgium.” The international element lends itself in so many ways and has made my communications class at 8:30 on Monday mornings so interesting. You never know if the student sitting next to you speaks one language or five.

Besides not having many students, the college itself is very small. It’s located on the ground floor of an office building and as horrible as that sounds, it’s pleasantly modern. We’re in the same building with the University of Kent and the Institute for European Studies, which has fostered wonderful partnerships. My first week here was spent in an EU crash course taught by IES staff, my hands-down favorite professor hails from the third floor, and I attended an IES colloquium this week with doctorate-level researchers from the Gulf States. The IES reminds me a lot of the NHIOP, which makes me part-nostalgic and part-ecstatic that there are such accessible opportunities here.

My classes are interesting and fun. They don’t deviate too much from the traditional liberal arts model, which means they’re all quite small and interactive. I was absolutely delighted to learn that Vesalius requires its first-year students to take humanities and I  probably spent the better part of an hour trying to convince one of my Freshman friends how much fun it would be. This semester I’m taking the EU as an International Actor: Civilian Approaches to Security and Development, Common Security and Defense Policy, Human Communication, and Elementary Dutch. My favorite class by far has to be Dutch. Ik spreek nederlands! Get on my level.

I also have an internship this semester with Laffineur Law Firm that counts for credit through the Vesalius Internship Program. Over the summer, I was hesitant about applying for an international internship, but I’m so glad I followed through with it. Four days a week I get to dress up like all the other Brussels bureaucrats, take the tram to Avenue Louise, and do research on EU legislation. It’s been so nice to meet the three other employees at the firm. Everyone comes from such a different background, but they’re all so accommodating of “the American.” It’s especially interesting to hear their perspective on the upcoming election, EU law, and, of course, great things to see, do, and eat in Belgium.

I’ve been eating a lot of disgusting food here… and by disgusting, I mean WONDERFUL. The national foods of Belgium consist of chocolate, waffles (bien sur), beer, and french fries. It seems like every corner has a little friterie with a line around the block. From many an astute observation I have discerned that 7 people in line = 15 minute wait.  What takes so long? They deep fry the fries. twice.

If you had even a passing conversation with me before I left for Belgium, you’ll know that one of my main goals while I’m here is to travel as much as I can. So far I’ve been to three cities outside of Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Tervuren… and I made it to Paris! Silly as it sounds, I had culture shock in Ghent, Antwerp, and Tervuren. Even though Ghent is only 45 minutes outside the city, you won’t find anything written in French. The cities truly exemplify the cultural divide in this country. Luckily Flemish people tend to be friendlier if you butcher their language so getting around was easy and fun. Paris, while always a good idea, deserved more than 26 hours of my time. It was exactly as I remembered it: leafy green, picturesque, upscale, …French. I met up with my friend Samantha from the Hertog Program and we had an absolutely lovely time catching up over wine on Rue Cler, watching the Eiffel tower light up with a million bulbs at exactly 1:00 a.m., visiting Montmartre on Sunday morning, sun-bathing in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and partaking of macaroons (very very good macaroons). I’m so lucky to be able to travel on the weekends, even if I only get 26 hours!

Tomorrow I’m off to the Hague and Delft for the weekend with ISA. I haven’t even checked the itinerary so I have absolutely no idea what we’re doing there. I’ll update you soon 🙂

*Disclaimer: I know I’m a terribly inconsistent blogger. Hopefully you’re a terribly inconsistent reader and will discover this sometime in mid-October when I’ve written reams and posted more photos than you care to see. This is the goal, anyway.


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FAQ about Abby abroad

What language do they speak in Belgium? This is a question best answered by viewing the short little video below, which I watched at orientation:

I speak French, but definitely not German or Dutch. By a strange twist of circumstances I wound up in Elementary Dutch I. Ik ben gelukkig… ?

Are you going to school there? Yes, I am not vacationing. I will be attending Vesalius College on the campus of VUB (the Vrije Universiteit Brussel). The college is tiny, even by USA liberal arts college standards. It has approximately 400 students, 300 hundred of whom are international students. There are over 50 nationalities represented. As VUB is a Dutch campus, all the classes are taught in either Dutch or English.

Where are you living? I live in an apartment 15 minutes from Vesalius College and 7 minutes from the best sandwicherie/bakery on earth. It’s in the Ixelles (SE) region of Brussels (approx. 20-30 minutes from central Brussels on public transit).

 Do you have a roommate? Yes, just one and she’s great 🙂  We have ISA neighbors upstairs.

 How long will you be over there? I will be in Brussels until December 15th. I will then be home for about one month before I cross the pond again to go to Meknes, Morocco on the ISA Morocco Spring Semester.

 Do you know anyone else who’s going? I’m in Brussels under the care of ISA (International Studies Abroad). Based in Austin, TX, the company has programs all over the world. I’m on the Brussels, Belgium program with approximately 30 other students from the USA. I didn’t know any of them before arriving in Brussels. That’s my style.


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Bienvenue, tout le monde!

Welcome, family and friends to my very own study abroad blog! I can’t believe that after 10 months of planning I am finally leaving for Brussels on Saturday. I will be living in a cute little European apartment and studying at Vesalius College (VeCo) on the campus of the Vrije Universiteit Brussels. I’ll try to update this blog frequently during my time abroad with stories, pictures, and reflections on my time in Belgium. You can also follow my study abroad escapades on Twitter (@abkrusemark) and on the Saint Anselm Study Abroad Blog

See you on the other side!

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