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Hello from Cuba!

This spring, I will be far from the mountainous Roanoke region and instead will spend a semester in the heart of Cuba. Throughout the semester I will be taking courses at the Universidad de la Habana, improving my Spanish and taking in Cuban history and culture. I cannot contain my excitement for this opportunity, as traveling to Cuba has been a dream of mine since I first learned about the Revolution. My first few weeks have been admittedly difficult since I am not accustomed to the lifestyle here nor do I have an excellent grip on my Spanish. I am nevertheless still incredibly happy about being here as the challenging nature of this semester will only strengthen my confidence and skills. I look forward to learning more about myself, the island, and the complex relationship between the U.S. and this country while I am here. My friend Maya and I have already traced out our travel plans and they include a hike through the Sierra Maestra, tours of cigar factories, and of course excursions to beaches throughout the island. Take a scroll through the pictures below to learn more about my experience thus far.

 

Overview of Havana Vieja, colonial Havana, with the Orthodox church in the right.

Overview of Havana Vieja, colonial Havana, with the Orthodox church in the right.

Overview of the Plaza

Overview of the Plaza

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It’s practically impossible to resist dancing when you hear Cuban music.

It’s practically impossible to resist dancing when you hear Cuban music.

At Havana Vieja, there’s an installation of bears painted with symbols of various different countries to celebrate the joint world effort to protect the environment.

At Havana Vieja, there’s an installation of bears painted with symbols of various different countries to celebrate the joint world effort to protect the environment.

Chillin at the Malecon

Chillin at the Malecon

Perhaps it’s because everything is so new and novel to me, but it feels like there’s always a surprise at each corner in Havana.

Perhaps it’s because everything is so new and novel to me, but it feels like there’s always a surprise at each corner in Havana.

And a lot of these kinds of promotional posters which I, for one, really like.

And a lot of these kinds of promotional posters which I, for one, really like.

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Prague!

This weekend I visited the magnificent city of Prague! After finishing class on Wednesday, I took a speedy flight that landed me in Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. I headed out to to my comfy hostel immediately after I arrived, and I just crashed! (Being the excellent preparer that I am, I had pulled an all-nighter before my trip to finish writing a paper.) In any case, I woke up early the next morning to an ominously downcast Prague sky. The cold weather and bleak sky did not deter me from discovering the city, though. I spent the first day checking out Prague’s New Town. One of the best aspects of being in the Czech Republic (at least this time of the year) is experiencing a culture that is not completely saturated with tourists. I enjoyed listening to the Czech language, observing the architecture, and even eating local cuisine. The latter effort was rather difficult since I don’t consume pork and pork is the foundation of Czech cuisine. After a delicious meal and blissful aimless wandering, I went back to my hostel to warm up. The next morning I participated in an excellent free tour of the city. My host Diana guided a large group primarily through the city’s Old Town with entertaining historical commentary. We visited the Astronomical Clock and the Jewish Quarters, among other fascinating sites. After the tour, I went to walk across the Karlovy Most (The Charles Bridge) because one absolutely has to experience the bridge during the daytime and the evening. The bridge is a fascinating structure that crosses the Vlatava River. Erected in the gothic style, it is lined with statues of religious figures throughout its length. Also scattered across the bridge are talented musicians, artists, and crafts merchants. I toured the bridge again on my last day, after taking a boat tour of the city.

During my last day in Prague, I also took some time to discover the Prague Castle and the Lesser Quarter. Rife with a wide array of gorgeous architectural styles, the Lesser Quarter was bustling with tourists even in the relentless cold. I grabbed a freshly-baked Nutella-filled cinnamon bread roll as I wandered through the crowds and took in the sights and sounds of the city.

I headed home early on my last day to be able to get ready for my 6 A.M. flight the next morning.

Prague was certainly one my favorite experiences. The city is filled with a rich, diverse history that is not much like that of western Europe’s. Considering that it has only been about 25 years since the Czech Republic relinquished the shadow of the Soviet Union (through a bloodless revolution, as the Czech like to proudly point out) the country has accomplished a great deal. To a tourist, the remnants of the satellite’s inefficient and imperious history is indeed just that: history. It will be fascinating to observe the CR’s evolution in the European Union as its people bridge their disparate histories and world views to create a new, cohesive identity for themselves.

I would love to visit Prague at another time in my life– next time in the summer, when the city glows like a gem in the distance.

The gothic style bridge tower

The gothic style bridge tower

A view of the Charles Bridge with the Prague Castle in the background

A view of the Charles Bridge with the Prague Castle in the background

The advent of capitalism hasn't been entirely positive in the CR. Above is a picture of one of the "rich" parts of town.

The advent of capitalism hasn’t been entirely positive in the CR. Above is a picture of one of the “rich” parts of town.

The Prague National Museum has been undergoing renovation for five years. It will open up next year so sadly, I missed it. That's a picture of national hero Vaclav Havel, the CR's first president and the leader of the Velvet Revolution, on the front of the building.

The Prague National Museum has been undergoing renovation for five years. It will open up next year so sadly, I missed it. That’s a picture of national hero Vaclav Havel, the CR’s first president and the leader of the Velvet Revolution, on the front of the building.

Classy cars

Classy cars

Panorama of the city in the foggy atmosphere

Panorama of the city in the foggy atmosphere

They set up a Christmas market in the Old Town Square.

They set up a Christmas market in the Old Town Square.

The Astronomical Clock

The Astronomical Clock

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Entrance to the Lesser Town

Entrance to the Lesser Town

The Lesser Town, with its colorful architecture in the background.

The Lesser Town, with its colorful architecture in the background.

A statue of Jewish-German writer Franza Kafka, who wrote his novella Metamorphosis (one of my favorite reads) in Prague.

A statue of Jewish-German writer Franza Kafka, who wrote his novella Metamorphosis (one of my favorite reads) in Prague.

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Travels!

During fall break, I had the amazing privilege of visiting Paris and the Netherlands. An overnight coach ride and a ferry took me from London to the heart of Paris, where I visited the Musee d’Orsay immediately after my arrival. The museum contains some of the most notable works of Impressionism, among other pieces. It was amazing to experience the magnificent paintings that I learned about in my Modern Art course in real life! I saw Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette and Millet’s The Gleaners, among other pieces. Afterwards, I made sure to remain in the spirit of Paris and had a crepe and some coffee while I waited for my friend Andrea, who herself was coming from Rome, to pick me up from the museum. Andrea is studying abroad in Paris this semester and guided me through the city for the rest of my tenure. We headed straight to her homestay for a nap first, though. (We fell asleep watching a Spanish movie. So multicultural! :) ) In the evening, we went out to discover the city and ate… Italian food! The next day consisted of a trip to the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral, where I saw the cathedral’s famous rose window. After taking shameless touristy photos, we headed off to the Louvre Museum!

It was simply incredible. The Louvre itself is a piece of art and the works contained inside are some of the most valuable in the western canon. I saw Jacques Louis David’s most notable works (including the imposing, magnificent Coronation of Napoleon), quintessential Manets, and of course the Mona Lisa. By the end of my visit to the Louvre, my friend Corinne, who is studying in Seville this semester, joined us and we headed out to see the Eiffel Tower. The evening ended blissfully as the three of us had cheese and drinks under the luminous glow of the monument, with people of all walks of life surrounding us.

The next morning I took a coach to Amsterdam and arrived at a bustling city around 7. After running into quite some trouble in Amsterdam, I took a shuttle to my hostel in the city of Noordwijk, on the western coast of the Netherlands. There, I unpacked my bags and headed out to the beach, where I watched the stars with a friend. (We saw two shooting stars!) The next day, I went back into Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank House and then strolled through the Red Light District while it was still daylight and PG-13. I headed back to hostel in the evening and enjoyed the Halloween party.

On my last day in Amsterdam, I took time to discover the haunting yet fascinating Van Gogh Museum, afterwards strolling through the beautiful Vondelpark. I worked my way back to downtown through the quirky Waterlooplein flea market, where I purchased souvenirs for my friends. Early Sunday morning, I headed back to London. I spent the following weekend in the wonderful city of Edinburgh and even took a tour of the Scottish highlands!

Although it’s a platitude at this point, it’s entirely true that traveling broadens one’s mind and introduces novel ideas to people. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned on my travels:

1) OK, let me backtrack a little and elaborate on my last statement. I’ve recognized that one does not become smarter simply by merit of traveling! I’ve run into a multitude of people who, despite their vast travels, exhibited very little knowledge of disparate cultures and geographies. One Australian boy, who had been throughout Europe and the U.S. asked me where I am originally from. Upon hearing my answer, he responded: “So you’re from Afghanistan- obviously there’s ISIS in Afghanistan.” *Sigh*

Another girl told me of her travels to India. When I asked her how the experience was, she complained: “well the toilet was a hole in the ground.” You went to the other end of the world to discover that people have disparate lavatory facilities than the ones you’re used to? I don’t mean to be excessively critical. Everyone I met during my travels was very nice and even helpful. That being said, I realized that if you don’t take it upon yourself to be inquisitive and critical of the region, languages, and cultures you observe, traveling alone will not be an enlightening experience.

2) Tourists are profoundly changing the landscape of famous cities. In Paris, for example I went to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, only to arrive at its location and find the painting surrounded by a swarm of tourists. Don’t get me wrong- art is mean to be enjoyed. The more that people have access to art, music, and literature, the better. But I was disappointed to find people scowling at me because I didn’t want to snap a picture of the painting—or better yet, take a selfie with it. I simply wanted to stand in front of the painting and take in its beauty but the cloud of eager tourists made me quite apprehensive and I left.

Amsterdam, too, is a city altered by tourists. Many Dutch people seem to take pride in their pragmatic approach to the pressing issues of marijuana use and prostitution. But to the vast majority of tourists, such liberalism is so novel, that they can’t help but exploit the city’s tolerance. Perhaps it was because of the sheer volume of people relative to the small city center, but the tourists gave the city a rather riotous, arguably hedonistic, vibe.

3) The American identity is so strange. Being Afghan-American is a rather weird experience by itself. But being Afghan-American in Europe- amidst a capitalist world order, in the context of the “decline of the west,” and in the middle of an unprecedented amount of world crises and scientific and technological achievements- is even weirder. And I don’t know if I can explain it any more elaborately. It’s just weird. A boy in my university once joked about the stereotypical “dumb American.” In my mind, I was thinking: “Well you can’t listen to Jay-Z on your iPhone while you’re wearing a ‘Breaking Bad’ t-shirt and call Americans stupid.” Simultaneously, I am incredibly critical of many aspects of Americanism—not least being our government’s crummy foreign policy.

I thinking “Breaking Bad” is an excellent microcosm of the complexities of the American identity. As a brilliant T.V. show, it is a prime example of American ingenuity. However the premise of the show rests on a man who has to resort to methamphetamine production to pay for his cancer treatment because our healthcare system is so decrepit, we cannot secure the health and wellbeing of a man who contributes so significantly to society.

Lest I veer in more tangents, I will conclude my reflection here. I don’t think I’m anywhere near figuring out what it means to be American, but this is one of the many things I’ll continue to think about in the short amount of time I have here.

There are a ton of other intriguing lessons and observations I’ve picked up from my tenure here in London and in my cursory travels throughout Europe. If you’d like to discuss the study abroad experience with me, please feel free to contact me at haidarih@hollins.edu

Meanwhile, I am planning my weekend to Prague! I will keep you updated on my holiday destination.

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With Charlemagne’s statue at Notre Dame

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In front of the Cathedral itself

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the Rose Window

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One of the many love-locked bridges in Paris

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Rally for Palestine: Amsterdam edition

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The Dutch are big on Halloween!

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Against the backdrop of a quintessential Amsterdam street

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More pictureque Amsterdam

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The great Scott monument in Edinburgh, dedicated to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott

 

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The view from Arthur’s Seat, where I caught a view of the gorgeous Scottish city

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More picturesque Edinburgh

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Lakes!

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Tundra! (?)

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Searching for Nessie

 

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Oxford

This past weekend, I took a day trip to Oxford with Madchen and our friend Udita. It was a spectacular experience that included eating street pizza (of course), taking a boat trip down the Thames, and visiting some great museums.

I think many Americans are surprised by the “digestibility” of the U.K. It seems that traveling throughout the region is inevitably easier because of its small size. But I think it’s important to highlight the value of the U.K.’s excellent transportation infrastructure, which facilitates travel greatly. We reached Oxford by a comfortable bus ride that costed £13 (about $21) for a round trip. Conveniently, the coach to Oxford runs every 30 minutes from a bus station easily accessible by the Tube (the subway). Therefore visiting a fascinating city like Oxford and taking in its culture and knowledge does not require a great amount of investment in time or money.

The weather was crisp when we arrived at Oxford. We strolled through the tiny city, taking in its array of architectural sights and myriad sounds, until we reached the city centre. There, we bought our tickets to a 50-minute boat ride and afterwards relaxed in a nearby coffee shop with afternoon coffee.

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After the blissful boat ride we stopped by the Christ Church Cathedral, where I cheerfully pointed out the architectural designs to Madchen. (That’s Decorated Gothic!) We didn’t see the Cathedral’s nave because it required a fee. (It was a little frustrating to see how commodified a lot of the region’s attractions had become.) The most enriching aspects of the trip, however, were free. The three of us stopped by at the fascinating Bodleian Library; Madchen went on to take a tour of the Library while Udita and I went on to the awesome Museum of the History of Science.

We finished the trip off by listening to the Sunday evensong at the St. Mary Church. Adherence to institutionalized religion is quite uncommon in the U.K. so I wasn’t surprised to see that many of the other attendees were also tourists (and a Muslim interfaith group). Nevertheless, the liturgy was a beautiful, calming end to a great day.

Stand Up Comedy!

This Thursday I went out to see Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed live. One of the perks of living in such a cosmopolitan city is having such a wide variety of things to do—all at a pretty cheap price for students!

 

I watched the show at the Soho Theatre, a popular venue for concerts, comedy, etc...

I watched the show at the Soho Theatre, a popular venue for concerts, comedy, etc…

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As a member of the former “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” Ahmed’s work typically centers around identity issues in the post 9-11 world. He delivered great laughs addressing religion and his experiences as an Arab in Hollywood, among other topics.

I have always been a proponent of using humor to shed light on complex and controversial topics such as politics and race and ethnic issues. I do firmly believe that providing a space where people can laugh about the shared experiences of displacement, generational gaps, and identity crises—experiences all too common for immigrants—can be a very progressive act. I think that sharing these common experiences creates a sense of camaraderie among people who might otherwise feel alone in their “otherness.” Even more so, through trivializing serious issues such as discrimination, comedians such as Ahmed succeed in highlighting the absurdity of such practices.

Ahmed’s routine at the Soho Theatre consisted of more than just racially-charged humor, though. He also addressed dating and family life. I think broadening his comedic act was a positive move on Ahmed’s part. By conveying that he faces some of the same issues as other single middle-aged men (Arab or not), Ahmed illustrated the honest, if trite, idea: “we’re not all that different”.

 

I took a picture with Ahmed after the show!

I took a picture with Ahmed after the show!

As I mentioned in my last blog, there is a wealth of culture and fun to soak up in London. I’ve been taking time to independently enjoy some more of these gems in the past weeks. First, I went out to the Tate Museum of Modern Art, where I spent hours admiring, learning about, and sometimes simply being confused by, the various pieces.

 

I found this piece to be one of the most provocative in the Museum. It is A self portrait by Christian Schaad. Click the link to learn more about this piece.

I found this piece to be one of the most provocative in the Museum. It is a self portrait by Christian Schaad. Click here to learn more about this painting.

My favorite piece, nevertheless, was an untitled one: a mirror. =D Just kidding!

My favorite piece, nevertheless, was an untitled one: a mirror. =D Just kidding! Check the Tate website out to learn about this piece. The description at the Tate read, “While you stand and stare, fixing your hair, posing for a photo-you unwittingly become part of this work.” So I felt obliged to take a selfie. =)

After the Museum, I took some time to stroll through the Borough Market. The explosion of colors, sights, smells, and sounds in the market really create an exuberant, lively environment!

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You can find everything from Thai food to fudge at the market. And you can taste a ton of free samples too!

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And they make fun of Americans for our unhealthy ways.

And they make fun of Americans for our unhealthy ways.

Pictures from Bath: a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. Upon arriving to the site, I was immediately drawn by the color of the city’s landscape. All the buildings in the stone are made of limestone, which, as my Architecture professor pointed out, gives the city a sense of unity despite the meandering, Medieval-style streets. From afar, the whole city stands out with a gorgeous rose gold luminescence.

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Across our hotel, there was a house that was very tastefully decorated. This made me smile. =)

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This gorgeous tree was in the middle of a square filled with chocolate shops and cafes.

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The Roman baths, where ostensibly people of all classes met to relax and socialize.

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Aside from experiencing the actual Roman baths, visitors could tour through a museum that illustrated British Rome, its religious beliefs, society, etc.

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Pulteney Bridge. The Medieval Architecture professor explained the intricacies of the glass windows, and the bridge’s exceptionality for housing shops. When you’re walking across the structure, you would not know you’re on a bridge unless you look out of one of the shops.

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Listening to our professor elaborate on the significance of the glass windows, I realized how much knowledge and history there is to discover in the world…

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We also visited the Assembly Room, where wealthy Georgian-era Brits would meet to socialize. Unfortunately, Bath was heavily bombarded by Nazi soldiers during World War II. After British forces attacked historically and culturally significant sites in Germany to decrease morale, the German retaliated by doing the same. Therefore, this room is a reconstruction of what once was.

The next day, we toured through Longleat House. The estate was build in the late 1500s as the official residence of the Marquesses of Bath.

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Finally we went to Wells Cathedral, where the students in Medieval Architecture guided the rest of the group through a tour.

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I was in charge of explaining the Chapter House to the students. This was a grand room where clerics conducted church business. The sophistication and elegance of the technology used to build the chapter house prevented the columns in the room from becoming too imposing, giving the room an ethereal nature.

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These are the stairs that led up to the chapter house.

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Chillin outside on the grass because why not?

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Here’s the group walking down a street from the Medieval Ages. The houses to either side of the street belonged to church officials. Behind us is the chapter house itself.

 

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We found Rapunzel’s home! Just kidding. This structure is what remains from a Gothic building. Instead of restoring the deteriorating structure, officials simply incorporated it into a garden, where social events are held.

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The ruins give a romantic ambiance to the garden, as our Architecture professor pointed out.

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Children’s story time tent!

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London

London!

This year, I am fortunate enough to be spending the fall semester in London. In this cosmopolitan, architecturally elaborate, and unbelievably friendly city, there is never a shortage of things to do! From museums to cafes, to historical sites, there’s a breadth of knowledge and fun available for anyone seeking it. And virtually everything is accessible by public transportation!

I have been here for just over a week so I’ve gotten only a rudimentary look at the city and its surroundings. It has all been fascinating nonetheless. Let me guide you through my time here thus far!

The brisk London air at Heathrow International Airport greeted me upon arrival on 7 September. One of my favorite characteristics of London is that it’s always sweater weather. Good thing I stocked up!

My taxi drove me to West Hampstead, a charming little city nestled far enough from the city to stay sane but close enough that I can see the London Eye from my room. I’m living in a homestay with a lovely family during my time here. The homestay arrangements are an excellent aspect of the Hollins Abroad program; they give students a candid look at the lifestyle here. One thing I’ve observed about Londoners so far is that they are quite politically active. In America, I seldom had a political or sociocultural discussion with my friends. Here, however, it is completely normal to have a vigorous debate at the dinner table. Especially since this is such a crucial time in U.K. history as Scotland tries to gain its independence!

 

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The London Eye is that red semicircle towards the right on the picture

 

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At London, you can get a latte/cappuccino anywhere! Literally, you can walk into a falafel shop and ask for one. My roommate Madchen and I had a drink at the local Costa, which is a chain coffee shop here in the U.K.

I’ve gained a great deal of knowledge from my homestay family about the British education system, its political landscape, socioeconomics, and etc. To me, one of the most productive things you can do while abroad is just talk to people—so I find my homestay to be blissful!

The group spent the first few days doing shamelessly touristy stuff like taking night tours of the city. The taxi tour took us through central locations like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and of course the London Bridge.

Here’s a picture of me looking at the London Bridge on a full moon night! It really was a sight to behold.

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The next day the group went to visit the British Museum, where a tour guide led us through parts of the Egyptian exhibition. I found the guide to be quite entertaining because he had that stereotypically British humor that I’m so fond of. I’m looking forward to going back to the museum to see many of its other displays, including the pieces on Islamic art and history.

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The Rosetta Stone

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Isn’t the interior beautiful?

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Finally, the group visited the Windsor Castle, a royal residence built in the 11th century. I did not take many pictures while I was here because this was such a surreal experience for me. While being totally ensconced in my handy audio guide, I thoroughly worked my way through the many breathtaking rooms in the castle. Each of the rooms was so elaborate and intricately built and decorated, that one can easily spend hours examining its detail and beauty (as I did).

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I finished my trip off by having a nice latte at a whimsical café next to the train station. In the meantime, I reflected on my experience that day. The Windsor Castle and all of its artifacts are undoubtedly marvelous and awesome. Nonetheless, the Castle is a stark symbol of the gross inequality of its age.

Indubitably, there is a great amount of inequality in America today. And, as I am realizing from debating with my host family and partaking in class discussions, even the U.K. (as a “welfare state”) is not quite the egalitarian utopia some Americans make it out to be. Nonetheless, in terms of the greater human experience, the world is arguably a much better place now than it was in 1066. In this world, it is possible for a middle class, first generation Afghan-American immigrant to enjoy the benefits of visiting a whole new country, taking in invaluable knowledge free of cost, and even drinking a latte from time to time. =cD

And although this experience itself is available to only the very privileged of our age, at least that group of people is bigger now than it was in the 11th century.

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Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I don’t have any classes today and I there’s a world-class city for me to discover! Below are pictures from Camden Square Market.

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