15 Things I’ve Learned Through Study Abroad
Taking On One City At A Time on Study Abroad
1. Appreciate everything you do and see. If you are studying abroad or planning to go abroad sometime in the future, know that you are extremely fortunate in what you are partaking/ about to partake in. Whether you go on 20 trips or 0 take advantage of everything that you do and see. Walking to class or walking down the Champs-Élysées in Paris take in the people, the smells and of course, the sights.
2. Don’t see the world through a lens. When you’re seeing some of the most incredible sights in the world, it’s hard not be tempted to spend the whole time looking at it through the lens of your iPhone. (I know I know totally contradicting when I said to take more pictures than necessary), but there is a difference between wanting a picture to remember a place or send to family and trying to take the perfect Instagram picture that you miss what is really in front of you. You’ll never be able to perfectly re-create what is right in front of you so don’t miss out.
3. Take the metro in every city. You can tell a lot about a city based on their public transportation system, so take it! Yes, it’s a lot easier to take a cab but so much can be learned from doing something that the natives of that place do everyday. For example, on the tube in London? Don’t expect to hear people talking or any rowdiness. In fact, it’s quiet to the point where some of my best naps have taken place on the tube. Go to Paris, however, and you’ll hear people talking, laughing and if you’re lucky (or unlucky the way you look at it) even the occasional saxophone or violin player looking for a euro coin or two. While in Rome and Germany I was surprised at how unregulated the system was. Paying is completely on the honor system and we found that it took us a while to reason that there was even a place to pay. Although we maybe should have paid, technically we were just doing as the Romans (and Germans) do.. right?
4. Buy into touristy things. Going overboard on t-shirts that say “I love insert any city here is probably unnecessary but wanting to bring something back from a new city you’ve never been before is in no way a bad thing. Whether it be something useful like that olive oil from Italy you got for your parents or a scarf from a Real Madrid game, sometimes it’s nice to have something that reminds you of where you have been. Personally, I have decided to collect a shot glass from every city I go to. I might end up giving some away as gifts but it’s an easy thing to carry in a weekend bag and there’s no city that won’t have them. Shot glasses, postcards, pens etc. whatever it takes to trigger a memory of a new stamp on your passport.
5. Accept that things will not always go as planned. If you think that you”ll be able to plan out every second of your abroad experience, you are surely mistaken. You will without a doubt get lost, lose a friend while out in a group or maybe you’ll even miss a flight. Now luckily I haven’t missed a flight (yet), but I have been separated from friends and I’ve definitely gotten lost. Something that you’ll learn more than ever while abroad is to roll with the punches. You could end up living with strangers, find out a creepy old man is your hostel dorm mate or chase a bus down the streets of Rome after your friend missed the stop. However unexpected, if nothing else at least you’ll get a great story out of it.
6. You’re probably more on your own now than you ever will be. Although I’m sure some day I will live on my own again, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel more on my own than I do abroad. Being away I have found that connecting with friends and family back home is obviously much harder. Forget about the 5 hour time difference or the constant search for wifi, how about the fact that you are experiencing things that most people at home sadly cannot related to. Although this may sound like a negative thing, it definitely has its upsides. Independence is not something that can be taught in a class but it has proven to be more valuable to me than any of my course lectures.
7. So much more to a city than you might think. You can look at the Tripadvisor app and get great suggestions on where to go and what you see. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that there isn’t so much more to a city than what makes the top 100 lists. Walking down a side street on your way to somewhere else can end up being one of the things you remember most about your times abroad. In Florence, after midnight there are secret bakeries that are known only through word of mouth. There is no neon flashing sign on the door or a review written about them somewhere, just a tip from a waiter to head to a red door, knock, follow a man through what you would think is an ordinary office to a magnificent bakery filled with warm pastries and cannolis. The element of a secret bakery in Florence may be well known enough but we never would have tried to find it without the friendly tip.
8. You’ll meet people you may never see again; learn from them. In every place I have traveled to thus far I have met people who I will realistically never get the chance to see again. Although I may not have formed long lasting friendships with all of these people, they all have a story and all have something worthwhile to teach. In what must have been a two hour line for the Musee de L’Orangerie in Paris, we met an older Australian couple who funnily enough had also come from London to Paris. Dennis and Mary traveled the world every year and told us they were spending a total of 2 months away from Australia on this leg of their journey. They went from London to Paris, then to Singapore for a week or two to break up the long 20 hour flight back to Australia. These two had laid foot on every continent and said even though they’d already been to Paris many times, they kept coming back. We must have looked like quite a group, Dennis and Mary a 60+ year old couple and 5 impatient college students yet we were riveted with everything they had to share with us. Even though we split ways in the museum, their travel stories were ones that have stuck with me since our meeting.
9. America is 3000 miles away – keep it there. It’s easy to look at pictures from home and get a little homesick or get frustrated that in London the idea of the tortilla chip is utterly nonexistent. However, the more time I spend abroad the more I have come to realize that I am not in America, I am in London, and the best way to have the best time abroad is to remember that. Things shouldn’t be the same way they are at home otherwise there would be nothing different about spending the semester in a foreign country. Know that when you return you can eat as many tortilla chips as your stomach will allow and move on. Dwelling on what America has that wherever you are doesn’t have will only make you miss all that study abroad has to offer.
10. Immerse yourself in the native culture. Speaking of which.. while you’re adhering to #9 in the place you’re stationed abroad take that attitude wherever you go. Whether you are in the Spain or Italy, be sure to try the native food, drink etc to truly experience what each of these places are like. For example, if you went to bed before 10 pm in Spain you missed out on when most of the hustle and bustle of the city occurs (you also might have gone to bed hungry). In Spain, most restaurants don’t open for dinner until at least 9 pm, and from there it’s dinner, drinks and out to the club at the early hour of 1 am. If the club scene isn’t for you, be sure to try the food at least! You don’t have to go as far as to try the black paella (seasoned with squid ink that is) but give a veggie or chicken one a shot! Hit up a tapas bar and drink sangria. I had friends order pasta and wonder why it wasn’t very good but I’d say the answer is pretty clear.
11. Value the relationships you have. Meeting new people while keeping in touch with those back home is a constant cycle. There are moments where going to your local morning after breakfast spot will sound great, and others where the thought of going home to the same boring routine will make you want to cringe. However you’re feeling, the relationships you form abroad are ones that will stick with you even when you return from abroad. Being thrown into this crazy new life in a crazy new place, it’s only natural to latch onto one another and do whatever it takes to figure it out. However, your relationships at home are the ones that made you who you are today, so don’t leave them behind. Value every relationship you have and know that even though we are meant to grow, it is the people we grow with that end up meaning the most.
12. Pay attention. Something you’ll quickly realize is how prevalent pickpocketing is in Europe. Even in situations that feel completely safe and routine can be one of the easiest ways to get pick pocketed (aka riding the tube). Always be aware of your belongings and your surroundings. Girls: Get a good crossbody bag with a ZIPPER. A magnet or clasp will not cut it. Also, one with zipper pockets on the inside for double protection is even better. One night out a club, a friend found her zippered bag wide open but luckily all that was in the main pocket was some gum. Keep your phone, money, ID somewhere you can be sure it can’t be taken. Guys: Don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket or a coat pocket. At least if it’s in your front pocket you have a better awareness. Some guys go as far as to have one of those clips that attaches to your belt and is put in your pants, especially if you are carrying around you’re passport, but that’s up to your discretion.
13. Find food away from tourist locations. What often happens when my friends and I will start getting hungry, and by hungry I mean completely famished, is that we pick the first place that looks decent and is reasonably priced. After a few barely decent meals we decided we needed to change our food hunting strategy. What we’ve found is that the further away from the tourist sites you get, the better (and cheaper) the food is. Tourist areas know people will go regardless so they can up the price for not the greatest quality of food. By leaving tourist sites, you’ll get more authentic cuisine for a fraction of the cost.
14. Take the advice of others. As much of a stubborn person as I am (see mom I can admit it), taking the advice of others who have been abroad before is the best way to prepare. Take what they say and adapt it to yourself and what you’re looking to get from your abroad experience. You can learn a lot from others and knowing what they did right or wrong can help you avoid the same mistakes.
15. Reflect. Whether you love being abroad or are counting down the days until you are in the land of iced coffee, reflect on your experiences! Write down the places you go and the people you meet. It will only benefit you in the end. Some day when you’re reminiscing on your time abroad you’ll have something to look back on.