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Tips and Tricks for Studying Abroad

One thing that’s amazing about coming from the U.S. to Europe to study is the immense difference in spatial recognition you recognize almost immediately after entering Europe. You’ll notice that the little map on the screen in front of your seat on the plane flies from one country to the next in what seems like 30-60 minutes (yes, that short) and the lines that you see on that map don’t recognize state or provincial borders but rather whole nations. It blows me away that nations can be so tightly packed together and yet so vastly different.

 

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Regions of the U.S. certainly have their own gross differences – the busy pace of the coasts versus the slow lifestyles of the Midwest and South, the drastic differences of English accents across regions (Southern drawl, New England accent, Cali slang, Midwestern accent, etc.), and even the hospitality of the states bathed in sunshine (the South and the West) versus the more distant demeanor of those of us in the North/East. (New Yorkers aren’t mean! We’re just cold and busy!) But ultimately, traveling the U.S. is still exploring American turf. You’re under the same federal jurisdictions, you share the language, and most likely you’ll be at least somewhat familiar with the culture.

Not in Europe. It’s fascinating to live on a continent where driving an hour and a half to the Northeast, I’d be met with Belgian German. An hour after, we encounter Germany. Driving east would lead you to the romantic world of Italy, and even further east and you’re in Eastern Europe, a very different place pretty separated from Western Europe in terms of culture and inclusion in the international realm.

Recently I spent spring break traveling with a bunch of people including my friend from New York, friends from my study abroad program, and some of their friends. We went to Cologne, made a little stop in my hometown in Germany, and then flew to Rome.

 

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Maybe it was just the gritty vibe I got from Cologne (Germany), but this cathedral looks much better filthy, on a snowy day.

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I promise, Rome’s Coliseum is much more impressive in person. Out of maybe 500 pictures, only two of them really dented the vast and magnificent beauty of these ruins.

 

It’s fair to say one of the things all of us international students studying abroad in Europe look forward to is traveling. I mean, why wouldn’t we? We were all bold enough to leave our homes, probably for a place with a new language, and a very different culture… so why not take it further? This blog post is based solely on my personal travel experiences, and I hope the advice in it is helpful to those of you who are already travelers or look forward to studying abroad. Of all the traveling I’ve done, traveling as a student abroad has been some of the most enlightening and interesting experiences I’ve had, and along the way I’ve picked up many tips and tricks that I hope will make traveling a breeze.

10 Do’s and Don’ts of Studying Abroad:

  1. Do plan ahead. See what your cheapest travel options are, and compare prices between companies. Goeuro.com is great for comparisons, but make sure to also look into local car-sharing services (like BlaBlaCar here in France) as well as cheap bus options (like Flixbus, a personal favorite) and airlines (Ryanair is amazing in Europe).
  2. Don’t go crazy trying to plan all the details ahead of time. Give yourself extra wiggle room while traveling. You’ll never know when you (and maybe your friends) want to stop for something to eat. You also don’t want to try to buy tickets for everything you’d like to see in advance because it could be that you all decide to wander around instead of sticking to a schedule, and you don’t want to be anyone’s mom pressing them for time.
  3. Do spend some time alone. I know you’ll be excited to travel with old or new friends, and you might feel safer in a group or with friends, but trust me – this will be necessary to balance your moods and process all the new things you’ll be encountering. I find that most people who travel together (especially new friends) sometimes squabble over small details with people they really like, even over really small things! Most people can get over that, but I find that spending time alone like having breakfast by yourself at the hostel or taking a safe walk in the middle of a large public park in the afternoon can clear your mind tremendously and take the edge off being surrounded by people with their own ideas and agendas the entire time you’re abroad. Make sure to remember to prioritize some self-love and self-care.
  4. DON’T PACK EXCESSIVELY. I cannot stress this point enough, and it really should be the first point. For cheap flights in Europe, you pay for everything, including checked luggage. That means as a financially-strained student, your best bet is a carry-on full of re-wearable (and comfortable) clothing, one pair of shoes, only the essential toiletries, and 100 mL bottles of any liquids you may need. Save room in your luggage for souvenirs and things to bring back. You’ll definitely thank yourself later! Over-packing isn’t just impractical and annoying, but can actually hurt your experience. For example, in Rome, we found ourselves walking for hours every day because there happened to be a taxi strike! Now, please don’t let this happen to you. Me and my good friend were miserable walking around Rome, trying to find a cab, holding our huge carry-ons. Just remember, anything you might find yourself needing you can buy when you get there. Anything you can’t is probably not a part of this society and you won’t need it to survive. Take the leap of faith and enjoy the raw experience for what it is.
  5. Do try and befriend locals! The best way to get to a know a place is through its people. Not only will they be able to help you with the practicalities of their home but they will have the best insight on what to see, do, and eat. Plus, you may end up with a new life-long friend.
  6. Don’t eat at super touristy places, at least not all the time. I get it, you’re hungry. You’ve been walking all day and you see a gimmick food place really near to the last tourist destination you went to. If you can, try to look up places with good ratings or get recommendations ahead of time. I know this is a little bit more work, but it’s always worth it. Those of us coming from big cities know very well that tourist areas are over-priced, and often offer the worst quality of foods that the city has to offer. At first, I thought Rome’s food was waaaay overrated. I was disappointed with the Italian culinary experience I had been fantasizing about for years. It wasn’t until my Roman friends reached out to me on Facebook and gave me recommendations, or when I started looking up popular restaurants on Google, that I found myself in food wonderland. However, keep in mind that if you need something quick and small to keep you going, you don’t have to avoid all the tourist spots forever. Just try not to eat there for all three meals, all the days you’re there!

 

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Pizzeria Bonci in Roma. We made friends with William, pictured behind the counter, a local from Astoria, Queens now living in Italy. He told us that he plans to open restaurants in Chicago this upcoming year and New York the next!

 

  1. Do something every day. There’s no point in wasting time, money, and energy traveling to a new spot just to hang out in the Airbnb, hostel, or hotel. If your friends are feeling lazy, suggest finding a new eatery or a park where you all can lounge. If no one wants to leave, go do something yourself. Being somewhere new is exciting, but if you haven’t been anywhere, what is exciting except for the actual transit?
  2. Don’t carry tons of cash at once. You might think that cash is practical, in case of an emergency and when you’re going out. You’re not wrong. In this case, I support carrying some cash on you at all times (I myself like to keep 30 euros on hand at all times – enough for a taxi ride home in an emergency). But some folks carry too much, and there are a couple of reasons I advise you all not to do this. The first is that if something happens (which I doubt it will!), you don’t want to lose all the money you have. The second is that carrying cash encourages you to spend more (at least according to most people), and if you’re traveling on a student’s budget you might not necessarily want to do that. As a bonus, most places will accept international bank cards. Stay safe, stay practical, stay financially responsible.
  3. Do try to supplement your education with some outside learning. I know, I know. I can practically hear the nerd jokes now. But think about it. Schools and classrooms prepare you practically all of your life to learn about the world in practical ways. For me, my high school Greek, Roman, and world history lessons flooded back as I explored ancient sites in Rome we used to discuss. Seeing these places brought real perspective to some of these lessons, and let me imagine history in a deeper context. Learning about different peoples’ culture allows you to critique the world of politics, pop culture, and social norms from broad viewpoints. Understanding what is happening in places you visit and what they’ve overcome as a state or a city or province is critical to your experience there, and the world we live in that is constantly changing around us. Hearing the German perspective on American politics, after beginning to understand the French perspective, helps me understand our own impact around the world as well as how to embrace the differences in our cultures. Some folks in the world never get to experience the intensity of formal education that we as college students get to, and learning practically is how they become informed adults. Even when we finish our education, we never stop learning, so start learning practically now. You will become a better, well-rounded person, and no one can ever fault you for your openness to learn and your expanding depth of knowledge.
  4. Don’t forget to LIVE YOUR LIFE. Breathe, and take it all in. Try new things, especially things you wouldn’t back home. Eat something your friends stare at you slack-jawed for trying. Attempt to speak the languages in the first words or sentences you might’ve picked up. Learn the culture by embracing it. Prepare yourself to be changed by your experiences. Try to leave all your preconceptions at the door. If you open up to the world, it’ll open up for you and you might just find many new things that shape who you’ll become.

 

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The Trevi Fountain in Rome gave me such good memories and high hopes for the rest of my adventures. Sitting and thinking in front of those gorgeous multi-hued blue waters underneath incredible and ancient art really brought me back to how lucky I am to have this opportunity.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

The Trials & Tribulations of Everyday Incidentals

Imagine you’re 18 and leaving home for the first time.  Your zone of authority has most likely been relegated to one room of the house for your entire life.  It probably doesn’t have a lockable door, or if it does the rest of the household doesn’t take kindly to its employment.  You may have decorator’s privileges, but not without inviting a stream of unsolicited opinions as to the quality of your particular tastes.  Some of them probably have veto rights.  You likely cannot come and go at your pleasure but must apply to the board for approval of your intentions, however well-planned or purely whimsical.  They inevitably demand more detail than you’re comfortable or prepared to produce on a regular basis.  Maybe your music bothers them, or your friends, or your gaming, or your internet search history. Maybe theirs bothers you.  The concept of privacy?  Veritably unfathomed.  Heading into one’s first home-away-from-home, the bar hasn’t been set too high.  Friendly roommates and you’re golden.

Now imagine you’re 36 and haven’t had to capitulate to anyone’s house rules in return for food and shelter in roughly a decade.  You’ve managed to keep yourself alive, to varying degrees of success, for a while now.  Being an adult is not all it’s cracked up to be, but we do it anyway because creating your own home remains the province of the vertically advanced and the youthfully impaired.  You can leave your bed unmade and your clothes on the floor and eat Cocoa Puffs for dinner – all without bringing your maturity into question because no one is the wiser.  You can infiltrate the fridge or commandeer the kitchen at any time, day or night, without petitions or excuses.  Bedeck the walls in whatever apparel appeals without answering for it.  Finally acquire that massaging-recliner or four-poster bed you still resent Santa for withholding.  Find the picket-fenced yard, start a fur family, develop that home theater or game room or man cave or lady lair you’ve always dreamed of.  This is why we trade in our badges for business cards, flying capes for collared shirts, and home-cooked meals for freezer food – to be kids, er, kings of our own castles.

And this king has been unceremoniously uncrowned.

I admit, I was seduced by the brochure.  Sure, I can handle a dorm… if it’s IN A CASTLE.  I’m sure the bay-window reading nook and rustic rock fireplace will compensate for whatever trifling gnats the neighbors may make of themselves.  Arriving in St Andrews, I lugged my backpack and two suitcases off the bus and, after a cursory scan of the horizon, made for the nearest towering, turreted stronghold.  Lower the drawbridge, Dunwyn, I’ve finally arrived.

But the drawbridge never descended.  Although the goal was in sight, it remained inaccessible and impenetrable.  I wound my way around a large green, up a hill, through a parking lot, past the campus field, and finally arrived at the gate which was, rather unwelcomingly, sealed shut.  Making my way around the perimeter I tried various doors with no success.  Finally I followed my ears to a nearby spot of activity and made inquiries.  A staff person led me around to the back of the beckoning stone masonry where a no-nonsense, asylum-looking structure was hiding in its shadow and impersonating its name.  “The main building is under renovation” the girl explained chirpily.  That wasn’t mentioned in the leaflet.  Sorry Mario

 

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The castle and the asylum.

 

The room was, to phrase it generously, a shoe-box.  Four white walls, some recycled office furniture, and a stripped mattress.  One of the more scandalizing discoveries I’ve made about Saint Andrew’s accommodations is that they are strictly BYOB: Buy Your Own Bedding.  They generously offer bedroom and bathroom sets for your purchasing convenience.  Determined to bargain-hunt, I spent the first week sleeping on thrift-store throw pillows and trying to turtle under a jacket.

 

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The shoe-box.

 

Justice in the asylum is maintained by on-site officials aptly called “Wardens.”  Ornamentation is absolutely opposed by the tricky tactic of forbidding all forms of fastening – from tacks right down to poster putty.  Bring a pile of family photos to stave off the homesickness?  They kindly supply a pin board for that which, incidentally, is also utilized for general notices and regulations, not to be removed or obstructed.  I figured I could rig something up with string and clothespins, but the room has been meticulously scrubbed of any lasso-able extensions you might utilize to commit something so scandalous.

Despite the fact that the hallway looks like something out of a horror movie, it quickly becomes a happening social hub for the new arrivals, which I have the benefit of participating in from either side of the sociably eavesdroppable walls.  The tiny window offers a welcome reminder of the breathably spacious outdoors, but the curtains look like they’ve been upcycled from Aunt Gertrude’s old school dresses, themselves upcycled from an antique tablecloth inspired by the lovely color patterns of an upchucked potato stew.  One of my study abroad organizers, herself a former international student, raved about the welcome package included with her room, offering practical items like a UK sim card.  I find a pinstriped french-fry bag filled with a lollipop, bubblegum, and a few pieces of hard candy.  Malcom Gladwell would be proud.

 

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Hallway of horrors.

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Delicious curtains.

 

But these are mere trifles.  The real surprise comes three days into my incarceration when a sharp knock awakes me from blessed semi-slumber beneath my luxurious hoodie-blanket.  Through my sleep-addled brain and the benefit of hotel experience I suddenly ascertained the word, “housekeeping!” and immediately ejected an emphatic, “No, thank you!”  The door swung wide and a woman poked her head in.  “I need to get the bins,” she stated patly.  I sat in my shoe-box as startled as a hounded hare, and nearly as naked.  “Sure,” I mumbled, shell-shocked and dream-dazed.  “Go right ahead.”

In consecutive days, the incident repeated itself courtesy of the managerial staff and the porter.  I studiously composed a pleading appeal to the management to inform me of impending appointments, but soon learned that students do not require such extravagances when my request was politely ignored.  Welcome to the playhouse – it’s great to be a kid again.

The kitchen oven proves another insurmountable hurdle for my simple American mind.  There are two separate knobs, each with its own little series of incomprehensible symbols.  A pro-Googler, I soon learn about the wide array of conduction methods of which the modest English oven is capable.  I expertly select the fan symbol, set the temperature after a quick conversion to Celsius, and watch my dinner sit in the dark, getting colder.  But wait!  Everything, and I do mean everything has a wall-switch in Scotland.  Yes – here it is, marked: “cooker”!  I flip it triumphantly. A little while later finds me improvising with two cookie sheets sandwiched over the graciously functionable stove. (Turns out English ovens can’t cook without knowing the time, and you have to depress a cleverly randomized set of buttons to do it.)

 

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The oven challenge.

 

Not to be shown up by the kitchen, the bathroom has its own set of hurdles in store.  It consists of a small room with toilet, sink and showerhead.  The latter is hung just to the right of the throne in a deformed-diamond shape corner of the oddly-angled room.  It’s partitioned off by a curtain which falls about a foot short of the floor, and a four-millimeter depression in the ground tile.  These are there to present toe-stubbing opportunities and the illusion of containment.  Don’t be fooled: the entire bathroom is your bathtub.  Your toilet will be standing in a centimeter of water on the memory-foam bath mat.  I initially sought to combat this unwelcome wading pool with sand bags strategically placed for maximum trippage, but ultimately found that an extra-long curtain resolved the issue more gracefully.  Score one for Ravenclaw.

 

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The shower challenge.

 

The shower diamond is about 30 inches across at its maximum width and barely sufficient to contain even a skinny sneetch like myself.  A large horizontal pipe additionally protrudes into the space with adjustment knobs at either end for activation and temperature, respectively.  The pipe gives literal meaning to the phrase, “piping hot”, so I spend my mornings skillfully tetrising myself between this and the lecherous curtain.  Most tragically of all, my beloved hand-held showerhead is conspicuously absent from this Scottish dormicile. I’m forced to resort to the medieval method of standing in the stream.

So far, this grand new adventure proves commendably challenging.  Level one starts off with a bang, dumping me into the playing field without even a tutorial (who’m I kidding?  I never use those) and forcing me to relearn the basics.  But I expect no less from this strange new Scottish world.  The princess may be in another castle, but the game hasn’t defeated me yet.

 

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Stranger in a strange land.

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Filed under Jordan in Scotland

Where is My Space?

I no longer feel the everyday high. Ups and downs are constant. One day I feel ecstatic being in the back of an auto-rickshaw, sticking my head out looking at the city traffic. The next day, I am frustrated with the constant noise and air pollution that I cannot seem to escape from. Although I am taking a Tamil language class, I still struggle to communicate with locals. Regardless of how many times I repeat my statement or question in Tamil, the locals do not understand my American accent. Everyday, auto-drivers charge me twice or triple the actual fare. I have been in India for a month and a half now but everyday I face a challenge.

 

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The view of the morning traffic from an auto rickshaw. There are no lanes or traffic laws that anyone abides by; therefore, traffic is very scary.

 

Here in India, nothing is within my control. I’m required to go to the SITA (South India Term Abroad) Center everyday for class. At the SITA Center, I’m always on. I’m constantly interacting with the other students, making lunch plans, or engaging in conversation with professors. As an introvert, this is the biggest challenge I face everyday. Sometimes I simply want to eat lunch alone or escape the “American bubble” that we seem to create wherever we go. When I return home after a long day at school, I still have to be on. In no way am I required or forced to interact with my host family, but I pressure myself to be engaged with my host mother and host grandparents. Although my homestay house is my designated space for the next semester, it’s not really my space. If it were my space I would walk around wearing shorts and a tank top, eat whenever and whatever I felt like eating, and probably shut all the doors and windows so that mosquitoes don’t get into the house. Instead, I always wear a long skirt or pants with a t-shirt that covers my butt. I always eat at 7:30 PM (which is considered an early time to eat dinner, by Indian standards) when my host family decides to eat dinner. And I always sit in the living room, armed with my mosquito bat, hesitant to close the front door and window because I know my host mother finds the outside air to be cooling. At the end of the day I look forward to the moment I go upstairs to my room and sprawl myself out on the floor, looking up at the ceiling with a burnt out brain.

 

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Locals casually burn trash wherever they can find space. I cannot walk past a pile of burning trash without covering my entire face with my handkerchief.

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That split second when you almost get hit by a bus. (Buses don’t stop for anyone. I learned it the hard way.)

 

My time in India has been an interesting one. I have been forced to step out of my comfort zone. Maybe I’ll never find my comfort zone in India. I have yet to find or create a space that is completely mine. I may not sound chipper in this blog post but I’ve learned a lot from my frustrating, stressful, uncontrollable experiences. I have a greater appreciation for personal space. I will never take for granted a routinely Bowdoin breakfast where I sit by myself, read the newspaper, and eat in peace. Here in Madurai, nothing is mine. My status of being a “study abroad student living in a foreign host country” automatically makes me an outsider. I’ve acknowledged that I will never be an insider in the country of India or even in the city of Madurai. I don’t look the part, I don’t speak the language. It is challenging to make a country and a city my home when I clearly do not fit in. Maybe this is the subtle purpose of study abroad: students need to experience being an outsider constantly in search for a place they can call their own.

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Filed under Michelle in India, South & Central Asia

Leaving the Comfort of Home

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things- air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky- all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

The first time I walked around my neighborhood in Paris, I felt small. The buildings appeared to be larger than they actually were. I was in a foreign country and my family was miles away from me. The first two weeks were hard because I was frustrated by not being able to communicate with the locals as well as I hoped I would.

The street that I live on.

The street that I live on.

The area by my school.

The area by my school.

During a particular incident, I felt completely helpless. I wanted to purchase a French SIM card for my phone. I went into several stores I had researched online before leaving home and the employees all told me the same thing: “Our system is down. We cannot activate any SIM cards.” It was raining heavily that day. My feet were soaked and I just wanted to go home. I thought I was getting this response because the store clerks saw me as a tourist, but finally someone told me the truth. The only way I could get a SIM card quickly was to purchase it at a tabac and activate it myself. I purchased a SIM card and inserted it into my phone but it wasn’t working. I wished my tech-savvy brother could help me with this, however it was 6:00 AM in Chicago. Finally, I figured out what the problem was and my phone worked perfectly fine.

After being in Paris for a month, I feel like a local. At times I still have trouble trying to convey what I want and when I need help, but I have learned to be patient. So for all my fellow students applying to study abroad, patience is key. At first, you will want to go home or start counting down the days, but your experience will get easier. Now I don’t want to leave! I start to get sad just thinking about it. Studying abroad in Paris has truly been the best experience of my life. I’m so in love with this city. I can’t wait to continue to travel the world. I’m ready for the challenge.

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Filed under Christina in Paris, Western Europe

The Stages of Culture Shock

As an American studying abroad in England, before I arrived in this country, I did not expect that I would get a big culture shock. I was wrong. The similarities that the United States and England share are just above the surface. Once I arrived in England, I felt that I completely skipped Stage 1 and I went straight to a mixture of Stage 2 and Stage 3. If anything, I experienced Stage 1 before I arrived with my ideas and expectations of what I thought England was going to be, but my ideas and expectations were probably a little bit too high.

The feelings of irritation, frustration, homesickness, depression, and helplessness were experience the first 6 hours I landed in England! But I already talked about that in my previous post. Let’s just say my first day in England was definitely rocky and it didn’t help with my exhaustion and jet lag. Put me into a situation where I am tired, hungry, and have no Wi-Fi or cellular network and I feel very vulnerable and upset.

However, I have grown past all those feelings and have bettered myself to be a stronger and more independent individual. I’ve gone through Stage 4 by taking each day at a time and making new friends while I am studying abroad. When you experience new challenges and changes all at the same time it can be very overwhelming, however the best thing to do is just to tackle each challenge and change one step at a time. I have met new friends from all over the world and it’s so wonderful to learn about their different perspectives in life. It allows me to broaden my mind by being more humble, accepting, and understanding.

Currently, I am at Stage 5. I am well adjusted to my new life here in England and I’ve gotten used to many of the new challenges and changes I’ve experienced in the beginning. There are moments while I’m walking on the street and I just feel so blessed to be studying abroad in England. While it is much colder in England than in Florida, I would not want to go back. If I had the chance to stay in England longer, then I would definitely take that chance! My 5 months in England just doesn’t feel long enough. As much as Dorothy wanted to go back to Kansas, I don’t want to go back to Florida.

culture-shock

 

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Filed under Lily in the United Kingdom, Western Europe