Category Archives: Western Europe

The Return and Reverse Culture Shock

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G. K. Chesterton

I surprised myself in so many ways when studying abroad in France, I experienced culture shock and homesickness like I never have before. While everyone told me to expect it, I figured that as a seasoned traveler and someone who’s lived abroad before, I would not miss New York so severely that I’d want my fun experience to end. However, between clashing with some aspects of the culture, finding myself lost at my host school, and balancing my U.S. life with my French life by keeping up with friends, family, and my involvements at school and work, I wished more and more each day that I could just give up the experience and go home. I remember crying to a friend, telling her how much I missed the Bronx.

 

Bronx

When I got home, I went out and took so many pointless pictures of the streets and things around NYC because I had missed them so much. This picture was taken on a particularly beautiful day in the Bronx.

 

This is why I am surprised to be going through some common symptoms of reverse culture shock. I was excited to return home for so long, and my return was truly phenomenal. Meeting friends and family, giving out gifts, telling stories, and even reuniting with my good friend A at our school’s graduation kept me from feeling the burn. But with every adventure I spoke about, with every story I told, and with every song I played that made me nostalgic for Paris, I felt more sadness to not know when next I will return to these wonderful places.

 

family

I left behind my wonderful papa Victor, who I know I won’t see for at least another year. I also left behind many other family members who I won’t know when I’ll see next. Finding pictures like these all over my family’s home in Germany really got me nostalgic for a return.

 

As time goes on, it gets increasingly difficult to explain my experiences as thoroughly as I wish I could – experiences that I feel genuinely shaped the course of my life. While in Paris, I couldn’t amply describe what it felt like to have no one from my culture to relate to around me. I realized the stages of culture shock were hitting me hard. I definitely felt excitement to return home, which was even more amplified when I got home.

 

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My first weeks home have been wonderful! I am so excited to be in New York to carry out a fun summer ’17 in my favorite place in the world!

 

I felt a bit of frustration and sadness at the inability to buy 3 euro bottles of wine and fancy cheese three minutes from my apartment. I missed the welfare state, where a doctor’s appointment without insurance cost me 23 euros; here in the US, now that my insurance hadn’t been renewed since my leaving, an appointment at my local clinic would cost $125 starting. I felt real sadness at the impossibility of traveling 4 hours to Germany to see my family, and a little bit of material frustration at the added shipping costs of some of my new favorite European vendors like Asos and Yves Rocher.

 

food

While I no longer have access to delicious, fresh German spargel (asparagus) which had just come into season while I was there, I could make do with what I found in supermarkets and still eat my nostalgia’s fill. Didn’t taste like Germany, but definitely satisfied my cravings for German food. (Baked potato with quark, spargel, and meat.)

 

Now, I genuinely feel as though I’m beginning to fit back into my old world, but with a new me. My new experiences, the knowledge I’ve gained, new tastes, all have turned me into a different person. Sure, my friends and family still love me and see me the same, but even without my repetitive stories of the good times and wonderful experiences I had abroad, as well as the shocking stories of bad experiences and weird adjustments, they know that I am different.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

Mom Abroad: Challenges and Adjustments During My First Week in Italy

“I’m signing up to study abroad in Italy, which is 4 weeks long, and I may stay over a few weeks longer to visit friends in Europe. I know that life for you will be very different with me gone all of June, and maybe most of July, but I really need to do this.” My four children looked at me, at each other, and back at me. Then the question I was waiting for fell out of the 17 year old son’s mouth, “But…who will buy the groceries?”‘

 

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The most recent photo of all four of my children, taken in December 2016. They’re kinda just chilling in the backyard- hard to get teens to take a photo!

 

As a single, forty-one year old, work-at-home mother (and primary caregiver) for my four children, committing to a study abroad program was not an easy nor simple decision. Many considerations had to be taken into account. Who *would* actually buy the groceries? How would my 17 year old get to work? My sons are old enough to manage themselves. But, what would I do with the girls? They certainly couldn’t just stay home – alone – for two months while I bounced around Europe. Planning for this experience abroad has been both overwhelming and exciting. Between my last minute anxiety about being so far away from my children to spending my third night in Florence at the local ER, getting to Italy and settling in has come with its fair share of ups and downs.

At the root of my struggle has been the internal conflict of being a fully autonomous adult in America versus a suddenly very dependent study abroad student in a foreign land. For my younger classmates, being here in Italy isn’t that much different than being in the dorms at college. Run out of money? Call Dad. Get lost? Smartphone Map App to the rescue. Health takes a turn for the worse? Mom will call your family doctor and take care of you. But when I ended up in the ER (dehydration is a buzz kill!) calling my study abroad contacts (teacher, program, insurance) was the last thing on my mind! As a health-conscious adult, I knew that I was dehydrated to the point of needing medical attention. So I took myself to the local hospital and communicated as best I could with the staff. After a long, frustrating, night in the ER, it finally occurred to me, “I should totally have brought an Italian speaking person with me.” I mean, obviously, right?

It’s here in these little moments where I realize as an older, non-traditional, study abroad student my mindset and outlook on things is just different from my classmates. Over the last week I’ve learned to ask for help with more things, double check my prerogatives to make sure I’m not being overly ambitious, and communicate with my group about my day-to-day agenda more than I ever would have to if I were stateside. Personally, I think it’s a great lesson for me in the value of community. So many times as Americans, we operate in a sort of self-imposed solitary confinement. And for the most part, it probably works for most of us. However, experiencing the value of an in-person team has taught me more about myself than I expected.

 

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My study abroad group with our Texas State University banner at Palazzo Pitti. I’m in the back with my hand up.

 

This is the power of a study abroad program. Yes, I am a 41 year old mother of four. But I’m still on a journey. I’m still growing and changing. And I’m so grateful to be able to experience the whole of this experience. And as for my 20, 17, 15, and 13 year old children? They are fine. I get a text from one or two of them every day asking me things like, “How do I use the toaster oven, again?” to “The iPad mini isn’t working, Mom!” To which I’m having a lot of fun replying, “Sorry, can’t really help you with that while I’m 5,000 miles away. YouTube it!” My children are not youngsters anymore. They do not need me to personally feed and water them every day. They must learn to be more independent and what a better way for them to learn some life-management skills than with me in Italy?

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Filed under Sarah in Italy, Western Europe

The Clearing After a Storm

After my last exam, I walked aimlessly across the city – visiting my favorite spots one last time. With friends, I walked through Burrough Market, grabbing Ethiopian food from one of the many stands lined up outside. It was sunny, a rarity in London, a beautiful day that called for us to sit outside in the grass.

 

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On the grass in front of the Tate Modern Museum

 

The next morning followed a similar pattern. Making the most of my last full day in London, we started the day with a small picnic on the grounds of the Victoria and Albert Museum, complete with scones and clotted cream. We visited galleries in the Kensington area and spent the rest of the afternoon walking through Westminster, past London Bridge, Big Ben, and St. James’s Park. We winded through the city, purposefully making our way through all of our favorite places.

 

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Scones & Clotted Cream.

 

Still, it never solidified that I was leaving until I was well past the security checkpoint at the airport, which served as a tangible barrier between me and a city that I had grown to love. Frazzled, I spent the next 8 hours of my flight trying to make sense of conflicting emotions. Upon landing, I messaged my parents to let them know that I was safe. Mechanically, I lugged myself past crowds of hasty travelers and through U.S. customs.

 

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With friends in front of Big Ben on Westminster Bridge.

 

However, as I caught up with the world and scrolled through social media, an eerily familiar Safety Check notification turned on. During my time abroad, Safety Check had allowed me to let people know that I was okay during the attacks in Westminster. This time, it was Facebook, seemingly unaware of my transatlantic flight, that let me know that something else had happened. As I read the news, friends reached out asking if I was still in London. Quickly, we located each other, making sure that everyone was accounted for.

While it is often difficult to understand why these things happen, it was clear that the placement of these tragedies were meant to target the spirit of England. Only two weeks after the attacks in Manchester, the developments in London depicted harrowing images of London Bridge and Burrough Market. Yet, it was during this time that it was truly possible to see the heart and soul of what makes the United Kingdom so special. Beloved to both locals and visitors, Burrough Market is place that frequently serves as a meeting spot for hasty professionals, aspiring hipsters, and self-proclaimed foodies. As international students, it was a place where we felt welcomed. At 10:00 am, only eleven days after the attack, Burrough Market promptly reopened, reminding the world of England’s unbreakable spirit.

It is hard to put into words how rapidly, and often violently, the world is changing. During my past few months studying abroad, I never once felt unsafe. Yet, I also witnessed a country, like my own, go through unsettling ideological battles. I saw how broken communities across the world struggle to come together during a time when our differences often seem to overshadow our similarities. Still, in times of tragedy, I saw how those same communities stood together in solidarity – consistently reminding us that humor, charm, and unity outshine even the darkest parts of humanity. There is always a clearing after the rain and this type of hope, as it turns out, is a universal lesson that I’ll always remember.

 

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A clearing in the rain.

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Filed under Elizabeth in England, Western Europe

How to Get Around (Europe) Without a Car

One thing that may come as a shock to a car culture like the States, is that cars are not necessarily the primary mode of transport in other parts of the world. In Europe, most places are just as accessible by rail as car. My mum and I will never forget what a great time we had taking the cross country rail from London to Oxford in ’09. There was a surplus of unoccupied space and we were able to walk around, explore the dining car, and find a seat to ourselves with plenty of leg room from which to enjoy the gorgeous English landscape scrolling by. The rail service in the UK is dynamic, and rail travel is usually comparable time-wise to commuting by car, when it isn’t faster. On the down side, you have to share space with strangers and relinquish some control of the schedule and route, but the upshot is you can kick back and take in the sights, read or get work done all without worrying about navigating unfamiliar terrain, contending with traffic lights or congestion, or the driver of an oncoming vehicle being drunk or incapacitated at the drop of a life-threatening second.  But in 2009 I spent more time on the London subway, aptly known as “the Tube,” than on the international rail service, and I’ve learned a lot more this time around about the finer nuances of rail travel.

 

london underground

London Underground.

 

Admittedly, it got off to a rocky start. The railway doesn’t go directly to my Scottish hometown of St Andrews, so you have to book into a little town called Leuchars and then take a short bus ride from there. I figured this much out with the help of Google Maps, but when I was standing in the middle of the flurry of activity that is Edinburgh Gateway, I couldn’t find Leuchars anywhere on the Departures display. I didn’t realize that the display typically broadcasts the final destination, and Leuchars was just a minor port en route to Dundee. Unlike flights, train routes aren’t identified by number so a familiarity with the geography is terrifically useful; a fact which is perfectly useless to a foreigner like myself.  Googling every place on the board to see if it lined up with my stop seemed unrealistic, so I consulted the person at the information desk. Unfortunately this well-meaning individual was as deficient in the commodity his counter advertised as I was in British geography, and he hesitatingly directed me to platform 16 with the caveat that I should ask someone else. That someone else consulted a chart and rerouted me to platform 18, which I was delighted to overtake before it had entirely evaded me. But I could still find nothing posted to assure me that I was in the right place, so I applied to one of the train’s operators for confirmation.  To my dismay he shook his head and told me I wanted 14! Exiting the carriage, I dragged my luggage to the nearest bench and had only time enough to eject an enormous sigh when that same operator came running to inform me of his mistake; that this train would indeed take me where I wanted to go.

Thankfully, I’ve come a long way since then.

Now when I take the train, I look it up on the Departures display according to the time. I then google the route to see what the end destination is and confirm that I’m on the right track. You can also ask a staff person at the ticket counter or turnstile, as they are typically better informed than my inaugural string of failures had implied.  (The information changes constantly, so it’s remarkable that a massive operation such as this functions as fluidly as it does, on the whole.)  If Google shows my stop on the route headed to the place name displayed, I check the platform number and make my way to it. Usually another display at the platform has a list of all the destinations the train will be “calling at” and I can reaffirm that my stop is in the list, but since the display rotates you do have to know where to look.

 

St Pancras International Rail Station

St Pancras International Rail Station.

 

Train tickets can be purchased at the time of travel, subject to what’s available, or in advance from ticket booths at the station or online. Advance ticket prices don’t necessarily increase as the time looms nearer, as with airline tickets, unless seats on a targeted route are particularly popular. Sometimes you can get advance tickets at a great price just a day before departure or even on the day of travel. But if seats are selling out, then prices do go up and the cost ranges dramatically. When I tried to change a ticket that I’d purchased for a little over 20 pounds the day before I was to travel, the only remaining seats were over 70 pounds. Alterations in travel cost a 10 pound fee and can only change time of departure but not destination, so my options were to increase the cost of my ticket to 80 pounds or swallow the expense of the original ticket and purchase cheaper ones on a different route. In my case, the direct line from Durham to Leuchars had spiked, but I could still get a cheap 10 pound ticket to Edinburgh and a connecting train to Leuchars just a half hour later, so I scrapped my original ticket and paid another 20 pounds, which still came to half that of the alternative.

 

London Paddington Station

London Paddington Station.

 

Tickets purchased at the counter on the day of travel are typically the most expensive. It’s also important to watch out for what type of ticket you buy, as some are good for the specified train only, where others are flexible – but these, too, have restrictions. At one point I purchased a so-called “Anytime Ticket” for my return. This should allow me to take any train traveling to my destination along a similar route, but I failed to realize that it was good for one day only, so when I attempted to return the next day I found the turnstile unresponsive to my ticket. The attendant sent me to the ticketing agent and I had to purchase a new ticket at twice the cost of my original one. Not a fun thing to do.  On the other hand, if you buy an “Open Return” then the date, too, is flexible, but you’re limited to “off-peak” trains, or anything not running at rush hour.

 

Baker Street Station

Baker Street Station

 

Another thing to be aware of is that the trains leave at the time specified, so you actually want to be on board well before that, if possible. Sometimes the trains don’t actually arrive at the platform until a minute or two before departure, but often they arrive well in advance. You should aim to be at the station at least twenty minutes early and then use the Departures board to determine if your train has been assigned a platform. If it has, make your way there to board or await its arrival (one train I’d awaited over an hour came and went in the time it took me to descend a short flight of stairs).

 

British countryside seen from the train

British countryside seen from the train.

 

Most seats aren’t reserved in advance and even when they are they are not guaranteed. If you order online you are sometimes given the option to request seating preferences (which is awesome, as you can specify everything from which direction you’re facing to noise levels), but availability varies according to the train and seats left, and sometimes things just don’t work out. In one case I had reserved seating on a carriage of the train that was separated from the rest of the carriages due to a fault, forfeiting any existing reservations on that carriage. Another time, I had reserved a window seat at a table, but arrived to a very full train and the discovery that all other seats at the table were taken and I would be locked into a corner. I didn’t have far to go, so I opted to stand by the door at the end of the carriage. As I was doing so, the trolley cart guy (did I mention trains have snack trolleys?) who was awaiting his shift suddenly folded another seat down from the wall, and I realized that I had one, as well. It was slightly less luxurious but a lot more comfortable than the reservation, in that case.  So things mostly work out, after all.

 

Dunkeld and Birnam Station 2

Dunkeld and Birnam Station.

 

The trains themselves vary pretty dramatically. Since they can be driven in either direction, most, but not all, have seats facing in both directions, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get stuck with a backward-facing seat. On one train I observed a couple relocate to another carriage in order to be facing forward, only to have the train reverse course at the station causing them to be facing backwards again!  For most people the direction doesn’t make much difference, except that we’re used to seeing where we’re going rather than where we’re coming from. The trains also have a limited number of tables and outlets, which is why it’s worth attempting to reserve or arrive early to claim one, but newer models are better equipped and, after all, cars don’t have outlets at all.

 

My brother enjoying the luxuries of first class

My brother enjoying the luxuries of first class.

 

When my brother was visiting, I was booking a trip from Salisbury to London when the agent offered me an upgrade to First Class for just a few extra pounds. Typically the price difference is considerably more, so I opted to accept this once. It was so atypical that I completely forgot about it when we boarded the train, and was fortunate that the conductor who checked our tickets was kind enough to point it out and redirect us to the elite carriage. There was only a single other occupant in First Class, so it was extraordinarily quiet compared to the rest of the train. Every chair had a table and outlet, and the seats were plated with gold. Okay, scratch the last bit, but the former are certainly a luxury I don’t scoff at. It was so peaceful and accommodating, I had no trouble knocking out a chunk of my To Do list while the country sped quietly by beneath my feet. When I finally strike it filthy rich, this will definitely be my preferred mode of transport. Here’s hoping this new wave way to travel picks up steam sometime in the States.

 

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Filed under Jordan in Scotland, Western Europe

Then and Now

Before traveling abroad, many people take on an overly confident tone that they can handle anything that life throws at them. After all, this is nature’s fight or flight mode kicking in. When faced with a challenge, you can either decline it and run away, or face it head on and do your best. Of course, when faced with the challenge of study abroad, I decided to tackle it headfirst through applications, purchasing a plane ticket, and researching the culture I hoped to become immersed in. It wasn’t until now, the end of my experience, that I can take note of my hubris in my abilities to bear certain stressful situations. It is not simply “fight or flight,” but a long process of determining what you can and can’t do and how to enjoy the process along the way. Additionally, no one likes to see themselves as a villain, so it was difficult to admit that I’d struggled with prejudice against those who didn’t share similar moral and/or political beliefs – something that is all too clear to me after my experience at a school where I seemingly held most of the population in contempt.

 

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Taken four days before departure, this photo shows how excited I was for the season and for my upcoming adventure!

 

Before departure, I considered myself someone who could lead, handle difficult situations, and was as tolerant as anyone could be. I was a confident beacon of multi-culturalism among friends and my community members back home, so I thought an exchange in a developed country I’ve already been to would be easy. I found afterward that I was overly confident – I was not as prone to adaptations or functioning under high ambiguity as I thought. I’ve discovered in myself a person more rigid than I thought I was, adamant in my own personal beliefs and politics, unwilling to bend. However I did also find that I am not nearly as disheveled as I thought I was. I am someone who truly can live independently – managing my time well, conducting research, managing small crises, and resolving problems efficiently.

A lot of the things I thought would be a breeze, like meeting new people and working with different kinds of folks turned out to be my biggest challenge. Affluence made me uncomfortable in this elite environment, and I felt myself as an outsider among organizers and communities in need, like the refugees I got the chance to meet and work with. Having come from a community of need myself, I felt in an awkward position that I belonged to neither group – something I realize might be social culture shock. I was not able to look past certain viewpoints in people I met. In these ways, I disappointed myself. But for me, study abroad represented a prime opportunity to confront some of these weaknesses and move past them in my character. Through this work, I’ve discovered that I can handle mediating arguments and I’ve learned when to walk away from certain topics. I use my time wisely in accordance to what I need and I’ve grown stronger as an independent woman.

I feel as though I’ve improved in several ways that I wanted to before I left – I’ve become more patient, a better listener and observer, and challenged my survival skills. I’ve become even better at asking for and receiving help, and am more willing to confront my problems and look for alternative solutions.

Overall, I see major improvements in my way of living and my personality. This experience has really taught me the need to enjoy situations in which I do not have control and may not necessarily feel constantly comfortable.

 

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Taken on the last day of class I had in Reims, even my friends noticed that my smile is a bit strained, as I was anxious to be done with the semester and return to Germany to see my family before returning home to NY.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

Elizabeth’s Recap of London

 

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Filed under Elizabeth in England, Western Europe

The Sickness

It starts off as a slight pang
A post, by a friend, of a food you miss or a person you’ve not seen in a while
Your heart twitches
And your brain sighs, closing the laptop.
Go outside and do something fun, you tell yourself
The group chat is blowing up, people want to see you
People want to travel
Everyone’s making plans and if you don’t, you’ll be lonely, and stuck with your thoughts this weekend
But you? You don’t really want… any of that…
You want, to get snacks at your bodega
One you know is thousands of miles a way
And you want to meet up with your partner, and your best friends,
Even though you know you’re six hours ahead and you can’t even Skype them, because they’re still sleeping…
You want to wake up to the smell of bacon, which people don’t eat here, especially not in the morning.
You look outside and the French “skyline,” with the gorgeous view of the Cathedral you could not stop talking about months ago,
The tiny houses with gorgeous balconies and windows,
Cloud your memories,
The fond ones you have of the foggy, starless New York skyline,
One which blinds you and wakes you up,
Thrills you.
It starts to dawn on you,
I really miss home.
Ah, there it goes. The realization.
You should’ve never let that thought in your head because now that it’s there, it will plague you
Over the next few weeks, you try your best to keep enjoying the things
That are no longer novel to you
The cheese, the rich flavor of which, you are now used to
The fancy wine that is beginning to taste the same as Barefoot,
Even though you swear you can tell the difference
Now that it has sunk in,
The sickness has you obsessed with what’s better and so wonderful about your home.
You find yourself discussing what to eat,
Realizing, that Chinese takeout a la New York City is not on the menu
And French people don’t make collard greens
And roti, curry goat, oxtail, bake and sardines, and aloo is nowhere to be found,
And your family is light-years away, so you can’t have it.
You miss the sound of your culture’s accent.
That sing-song Trinidadian accent,
It’s so beautiful
But it’s difficult to find any Caribbean people that you can befriend here
No one who knows the joys of being Caribbean
You flashback, to a night you hosted friends,
One guys asks you,
“Is that the Confederate flag?!”
He’s Austrian, he doesn’t know you
But still, you’re shocked
It’s TRINIDAD. It’s not the Confederate flag! How does he not know that???
Relax
You can barely recognize any flags or capital cities or languages,
So you aren’t entitled to your anger
But still, it hurts
You are somewhere where your culture is unknown
Yet you feel it missing in your bones, and it boils in your blood
Thank God I have family across the border in Germany
Seeing them will soothe me, but there’s weeks to go
So thank God I grabbed that hot sauce from my Oma
If I can’t have Caribbean food, or really, good ethnic food,
I’ll make it myself. And I’ll burn my mouth with Trini-style hot sauce
And I’ll act like it’s the spices when tears roll down my face
Because I don’t just miss the cuisine or the cultural smorgasbord that is my group of friends and family back in the States
But, I miss… feeling at home
Sometimes,
The adventures can be too much
Too much fun? Maybe
Too much novelty? Maybe
Too many memories? Maybe
But maybe it’s just, not enough similarity
Maybe being homesick is what I get for pushing myself to the edge of my comfort zone
Maybe this is
The small price to pay
For experiencing the wonders of world travel, exploration of culture, and new experiences
It hurts
Every day
And it’s getting worse,
Especially as my course load piles up and the time approaches for me to make homecoming plans
But instead of being depressed
Instead of responding to the pang in my heart
And the emotional breakdown
I will embrace it
I will live with the ache in my heart,
Longing for my friends, my family, and my home
But,
I will continue to enjoy my time here
Until this place makes me feel as comforted as the thoughts of home do.
This homesickness is just another simple ailment
With clear symptoms which are treatable:
A few doses of newfound friendship,
A steaming cup of French culture,
And a teaspoon of fond memories before bed,
And I’ll be cured.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe