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Month: April 2014

Jesslyn Mitchell | Gulu, Uganda | Post 4

Jesslyn Mitchell | Gulu, Uganda | Post 4

Blog Number The Last: In Love In Uganda

I knew my life would change, but I never quite knew how. This is my last blog post, but I still have at least 2 more months here. So now it’s time for nostalgia. All of the nostalgia. I remember the conversations I had during the semester before I left.

“Sam, I am scared. Like, really scared.I don’t want to leave you guys. I have seriously been thinking about just staying,” I told him.

“Why are you scared? You just want us to tell you not to leave. Of course we are going to miss you, but you need to go,” said Sam.

Nataly added, “Baby, you are doing something incredible. You are doing something that your friends who are staying behind don’t get to. You are so brave and this is going to be the best time of your life.”

I couldn’t believe that. I responded, “The best time of my life? How am I going to have fun in a country that has been experiencing war for the last 25 years? I am going there to learn about genocide and death. This is not going to be fun, but you’re right, I need to go.”

This is why you need friends. They are just almost always right. Except when they are wrong, but that’s why you are your friends’ friend. They were right. They were. They don’t even know how right they were. I have never in my life been more of a person than I am now. I wish I could explain what I mean, but I can’t. Now I understand why they call it an “Acid Trip.” Being on my literal trip to Uganda, I have realized that everyday, everything is new, everything is exciting. Not just here because it is a new culture, but because everywhere there are infinite possibilities for existence. But there is always the human constant. You do not need drugs to realize how beautiful sitting under a tree and staring up at the leaves can be. Because if you are with the right people, everything is always right.

Let me tell you, during this trip I have not always been with the right people. But even when the wrong people are present, I have made sure that the right people are present. I have dated a kid who works six jobs including music promotion, an orphanage, documentary work, and song writing, not to make ends meet, but for pure passion. I have dated an entrepreneur, the owner of a bar, a dj, a radio talk show host, and a student. But most importantly, I have dated myself. I read somewhere once, “fall in love and fall in love often.” You learn more about yourself in relating to new people than in almost any other way. Maybe I am taking that too seriously, but what are you supposed to do when you have met the most amazing people in the world?

I am in love. I am in love with this boy, and that boy, and those kids, and that woman, and that girl from Oklahoma who has been right by my side and I am in love with myself. I am not in love with myself because I am awesome (which I am), but I am in love with myself because I am a person. And I am in love with you because you are a person. I am in love with Uganda.

Please, don’t make me leave. Please? I don’t want to. I am not ready. I want to stay, forever and forever and forever. I looked at my class schedule next semester. Rocky Hall 210. I don’t want to be there. That’s where the Jess from before would be. How can this Jess, the now Jess, go back to that place? What if I go back to that Jess? But I know I won’t, because I won’t be going back to that same Nataly, to that same Menen, to that same Sam, or Lorena, or Kiran. I won’t go back to that same Uncle Mark, that same Aunt Renee, or mommy, or daddy, because no matter where you are, you are never the same because you are a person. People are resilient, Uganda has taught me that, but people change. People grow every day. Even when I leave, I will continue growing every day. I am in love in Uganda. I am in love with life in Uganda. I am in love with Uganda.

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 7

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 7

Spring Retreat

I just got back from Japan Study’s (the study abroad program I’m in) spring retreat at Minakami Onsen, a five-star ryokan (hotel with onsen, hot outdoor baths, as well as ofuro, hot indoor baths), about a three hour bus ride away from Tokyo. I am pretty exhausted, but in a good way. The spring retreat complements the fall retreat that our program had at Karuizawa, which has ofuro, sports facilities, and great views of Mt. Fuji. I’ve learned to really enjoy onsen. When I first tried it, I was incredibly shy and didn’t even want to go in, since you have to be fully naked. I thought I would never get used to it, but here I am now, really enjoying it. It’s incredibly hot, so you can really only stay in for about ten minutes before it becomes unbearable, but those ten minutes are really nice. Plus, you can go in as many times as you want, any time you like, so my friends and I would go before and after dinner, early in the morning, and late at night. If you ever come to Japan, you definitely have to experience a ryokan.

Before this retreat I hadn’t really gotten to know many of the new spring Japan Study students who would only be here for one semester, but since the retreat was a required event, I met a bunch of them at last. They seem like a pretty cool group, and I hope we have more chances to all be together like that. We had thought there would be karaoke and nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) but it turned out there was only karaoke. Some people showed off their awesome singing skills, and then me and my friends got up and sang Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” in our best gravelly Louis Armstrong voices.

Since there was no nomihoudai but we all still wanted to drink, our friend Neil, who had worked at the ryokan for his cultural practicum (a volunteer-type program that we all had to do) got one of his co-workers to drive him to the nearest combini (convenience store) to buy alcohol for all of us. We all gathered in my room that I was sharing with three other guys, and proceeded to play games like King’s Cup and Never Have I Ever. Reminded me a lot of freshman year of college, actually. It was a pretty good time, and a nice chance to relax and hang out with people I don’t normally hang out with.

On our way back to Tokyo, we stopped at Dole Land, which is sort of a tourist attraction for Dole (you know, the fruit company). Pretty funny that such a place would exist in Japan. We all went strawberry picking in a giant greenhouse. I watched other people eat them but I refused to eat any–I hate strawberries more than anything in the world. Don’t ask me why, because I really don’t know. There were also these big bees flying around that apparently will kill you if they sting you more than once. So yeah, probably not going back there again. At least they had really good gelato!

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After Dole, we stopped at this nearby place that had a bunch of different touristy activities. My friends and I decided to rent bikes and ride around the area, since it was such a nice day. My friend Jon had just learned how to ride a bike about two months prior, so he was pretty excited to get some practice in. The area was really pretty with lots of open fields and views of the mountains. There were several little shops and restaurants, and we stopped to eat at a soba place.

My frands

My friends
My friends

 

Cherry blossoms still in bloom!
Cherry blossoms still in bloom!

We then tried to go to a place that let you make masks of famous cartoon characters, but unfortunately, it was closed. It was unlocked though, so we went in and took a look around at the masks people had made. I wish I could’ve made Majora’s Mask!

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It was a great weekend, but I think I need to catch up on some much-needed sleep. I promised myself that I would stop going out so much and try to spend more time with my host family. After all, if I’m never home, then what’s the point of doing a homestay, right? But we’ll see if that actually happens.

Also, I think I forgot to mention this in my last post, but I SHOOK HANDS WITH KYARY PAMYU PAMYU. (Don’t know who she is? Take a look at this video.) I’m pretty obsessed with her, and when I found out that she was having a free mini-concert to promote her newest single, and that if you bought the CD you could shake her hand, I knew I had to go. Unfortunately, pictures and getting her autograph were not allowed, but it was so amazing anyway.

Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Angela Della Croce | Australia | Post 2

Angela Della Croce | Australia | Post 2

The mere acts of travel and observation of a culture that is not your own can have a huge influence on your existing perspectives on the world around you. After spending nearly three months immersing myself in Australian culture, I can safely say that I have picked up new views, habits, and principles that will have a lasting impact on my behaviors and beliefs for years to come.

I have learned that viewing the outdoors as a companion one should embrace rather than a frightening nuisance one should dominate will lead to a much greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. Australia has some of the world’s most dangerous creatures, but it also harbors world-renowned sights, wonders and landmarks that are simply breath-taking. We tend to shy away from what’s seemingly hazardous, become too lazy when we see a strenuous journey ahead, or discredit the value of nature altogether and miss out on experiences of a lifetime. By actually learning about the environment and the nature of the creatures that reside there, we can turn blind fear into caution, knowledge and respect for our surroundings and embrace nature at its fullest. The feeling you get when you look over a rocky ledge after a long hike to find an endless sea of lush trees and water masses below or when you are completely surrounded by thousands of hectares of untouched alpine forest or when you feel the warm ocean water rushing over your sandy toes is unmatched by anything else. By embracing the natural environment around me—both good and bad—I’ve had the opportunity to take part in these incredible experiences, and I feel truly lucky to have these memories.

Though rather small and specific, one trend in Australia that really sticks to me is the use of ‘partner’ in place of ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend.’ I was initially confused by the overwhelming use of this term since mainstream US culture normally sees it as a subtle denotation of a same-sex relationship. Yet it made me realize how unnecessary it is to gender our significant others and how obsessed US culture is at placing everything into these static categories. Some couples back home are already using the gender-neutral term; this trip has showed me how important it is to promote and continue this trend.

Most stereotypes are vastly oversimplified or downright false, but the notion that Australian culture is marked by colloquial language and a laid-back demeanor is still a generalization, but a rather accurate one.  There are nicknames for essentially everything here, and they’re recognized nationwide. Hitchhikers are not normally viewed as freeloaders or suspicious people who might murder you like they are in the US. You can even go into many stores without a shirt and shoes, depending on your location. Their social norms and views on being ‘formal’ or ‘polite’ are not as stringent as ours and friendliness and humor are definitely integral parts of the culture. This sense of casualness is one of my favorite aspects about Australian culture. It really fosters a sense of stress-free living and community that I want to carry with me when I return to the States.

The most important thing I’ve learned throughout my travels here is why members of foreign nations, at least Australians, are not terribly fond of Americans or the US. We are everywhere. Our culture is more pervasive and invasive than loose glitter in a shag carpet. I was aware of this prior to my travels abroad, but only in theory. I never fully understood how influential American culture is until I realized that the majority of shows shown on Australian TV were American. I have yet to hear an exclusively Australian song on the radio, and it seems that the people here know more about American politics than Americans! Though Australians certainly have their own unique slang, they were familiar with all of the US versions of their terms. I have also come across way too many McDonalds and Subways, and our icons tend to be their icons too. Though the sense of familiarity helped my initial homesickness, I was really disappointed by the US cultural takeover. The beauty of having diverse customs and traditions is that what is perfectly natural to one culture is fascinating and surprising to another and the opportunity for personal growth and a broadening of views is there for the taking. Instead of experiencing a culture that was truly distinct from my own, I more or less got an extension or adaptation of what I already knew. This is not to say that Australia doesn’t have its own traditions because it certainly does, but the level of American influence is simply staggering. For instance, Christmas here occurs during one of the hottest times of the year, yet Australians are still well aware of the white, snowy holiday the US is familiar with. Halloween is not a practiced tradition in Australia, yet because of our cultural dominance, people here are not only aware of Halloween, they are beginning to celebrate it. The trend of cultural dispersion is very one way, since I’m sure most Americans are unfamiliar with Australian holidays like Australia Day and Anzac Day. It’s beneficial to share ideas and traditions for the progression and enlightenment of all humankind, but when one ideology and way of living dominates, the lack of diversity smothers creativity, discredits alternative ways of life, and sets us back. Whether you study economics, biology, or ecology, we are taught that diversity is a good and desirable trait, and we should promote it. The significance of retaining one’s unique culture never really hit home until this trip, and I’m incredibly thankful that I finally realized its importance.

Bethan Johnson | Eastern and Central Europe | Post 3, Part 2

Bethan Johnson | Eastern and Central Europe | Post 3, Part 2

This is part two of a two part post. Part one is available here.

9. Wander (with a purpose). 

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Be the person who fulfils the hokey quotation ‘not all who wander are lost.’ I spent my first week thinking that I needed to only follow the advice of Trip Advisor or what I had mapped out the day before. My favorite day was the one in which I buried my map into the pits of my backpack in Krakow and explored the city without any agenda. While you will get a bit lost, you see more of the world when you look up from your map for more than five minutes.

Something bordering on a liberating and empowering experience happens when you become the master of your own fate and adapt to the world around you. Having devoted my life to a schedule that demanded I be in this place at this time for so long, as all students have, the fondest memories were when I rebelled against even my instincts and went my own way. Doing this in a safe way, i.e. doing all your exploring before dark and after you have looked at the map well enough to find at least 3 ways back to your hostel, will leave you so empowered you wouldn’t be recognizable even to those people you knew before your trip.

10. Go to houses of worship in every city.

While my religious practices have been described by many as ‘numerous’ and ‘enigmatic,’ I advise people of any or no faith to stroll in to the numerous churches and synagogues of Eastern Europe to learn about the architectural and spiritual beauty of each place. Because many people in these nations maintain an extremely devout belief in God and have had thousands of years to build and beautify these spaces, taking a few hours to stroll around these houses of holy will change how you see these nations. While you may flinch at the idea of paying a Euro to enter a church, in the end the breathtaking sites you will see within the walls will make the surcharge worth it. As I stumbled through Krakow I saw the passion of life in the tiny churches I passed my time in. The countless elderly women kneeling on the cold hard marble floor of chapels praying and leaving flowers before the Madonna on a sunny Tuesday reveals an inner spirituality that is noble. Listening to the booming organ at a chapel in Vienna alerts you to the heartbeat of the city. Walking around the tragically hallow walls of a synagogue in Budapest once filled with men and women makes your heart ache in ways no book can. While sometimes you can make a fool out of yourself in these extremely powerful places—I accidentally participated in a Polish baptism and nearly burned down the oldest Hungarian church when I decided to light my uncooperative candle wick by transferring the spark via my ticket—it will only take a second to realize you would give almost anything to see those sites and feel those emotions again.

11. Take at least 2 hours to stumble around the residential areas of each city.

Everyone can see the tourist spots of a city, and I have learned only the truly brave venture into the great unknowns of a city. The act of walking away from people that speak any kind of English or the places your grandmother wants to hear about when you return home requires guts, but if you are traveling alone here’s a news flash: you have them! To fully appreciate a city you should see every part of it, not just those places you would put on a postcard. Plus, going to those areas teaches you a lot about a population. For instance, I can now tell you the proper districts for antiquing in Budapest (I can hook you up if you are suddenly in need of a low-cost, fully-functional suit of armor) and tell you where at least a few questionable substance deals go down in Krakow. Yes, you will be confused for a local in these areas, something that feels great for about five seconds until you realize you don’t know if you are being yelled at or complimented, but finding the best pierogies in the entire nation will be worth the story.

12. Go to the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague. 

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I understand that this defies the Jack Sparrow-esque guidelines that have been my rules thus far, but I am doing this for the greater good and cannot risk you misinterpreting this as a simply ignorable suggestion (plus I am an enigma like Kafka). Having read Kafka in legitimately every Jewish Studies course I have taken at Vassar, I consider the man fundamental to my view of the world. Whether you feel the same way about this Austrian author is beside the point; the funky noise-machines and nude statues alone make the trip worth the few Euros you will pay. Aside from the hilariously naughty statue featured above that greets every visitor (and a few unsuspecting locals who live on the same street as the museum) the museum is an unfathomable cross between a haunted fair-ground and the average 7th floor of a standard office building. The designers of the building must be given a large round of applause for creating such a perfect paradox of a capitalist museum enterprise and an artsy museum praising Kafka’s literary rebelliousness. The latter half comes out when the museum doesn’t even attempt to translate its exhibits into all languages. Sometimes texts are English, Germany, and Czech; at other points the museum merely selects one and taunts all those lacking the linguistic capacity of the author himself. Selected lines from the museum include:

1. ‘That enigmatic world (ravachol) that penetrated into his being, a trigger to a secret that time was to turn into a stigma that marked an era.’

2. ‘There are common existential conflicts in the lives of all men which feed the background of ill ease that marks our culture.’

3. ‘It is a tribute to the daily descent of Kafka’s soul into the abyss of the blank page.’

Trust me, after an hour here you will be thanking me with the left side of your brain while dreaming up novel ideas with your right.

Other (smaller) pieces of advise:

  1. Murals and artistic installations are amazing in this region. They both teach you about your own life while showing you about the political and social concerns of the countries in question.
  2. Avoid using your map in touristy locations. You may hear this from guide-books or adults, but the real reason to do this is because you don’t want awkward individuals approaching you thinking that giving you directions directly correlates into your desire to kiss them. Since you are traveling alone, you are already a noticeably different kind of tourist to both pick-pockets as well as local and foreign loiterers. Knight-in-shining-armor syndrome can run high near fountains or outside of churches, so avoiding these areas will save you the awkward interaction while producing the same results. Go into the back of a bookstore or coffee shop, or even sit in the pew of a church, to map our your course of action, thus avoiding any mixed signals or unwanted advances.
  3. Don’t go to museums or monuments you actually aren’t interested in seeing. Just because someone put the hunk of bronze in a guide book twenty years ago does not mean that you need to visit it! This is your vacation after all.
  4. Take the free tours offered in these cities. I say this because not only do they fit into your basically non-existent budget, but they are also riff with political commentary that will make you laugh. Prime example: on a six person tour around Jewish parts of Budapest consisting of a family of conservative New Yorkers who were Jewish, a couple from Scotland, and myself, my tour-guide devoted most of his time to discussing political corruption and the evils of the international banking system. Not only did this make the elderly New York father somewhat uncomfortable to a degree that made me literally laugh aloud, it informed and colored my entire perception of how young people in Hungary see their political system.
  5. Finally, be sure to look around and up at the buildings and signs. I have found innumerable puns and political jokes as the names of local businesses, including: a hostel called the ‘Goodbye Lenin;’ a posture for the communist museum of Vienna featuring a stuffed bear holding a riffle; and a hilariously deceptively named strip club called ‘Night Gym.

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Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 4

Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 4

So, this will be my last post, huh? Doesn’t particularly feel like “just yesterday” I was writing my first one–no, it was definitely an internship cover letter yesterday–but that’s what thoughtful people say in times like these. I certainly feel as though my time abroad has been too short; that’s certainly more to the point, eh? Yet I’m not really at the end of it: I still have a month and a bit from the time I’m writing this. What if it feels terribly long by the time it’s over? How am I supposed to conclude these posts if I’m not at the conclusion of my stay?

Formal writing conventions aside, I really did have fun. I met new people, saw fantastic sights, learned a bunch of cool things, in and out of the classroom. Yet barring any clichés, I think my most valuable take-away from this trip has been perspective, both in a global and personal sense–let me count the ways:

Let’s return to my first post, in which I detailed the overwhelming fright with which I began this memorable adventure. Needless to say, I didn’t feel at all prepared. Even apart from the paralyzingly daunting idea of making an entirely new set of friends, the simple act of traveling alone frightened me. I had never gone through customs on my own (they really try to be as intimidating as possible) and had never navigated a foreign country by myself–Metro-North was very nearly the most complicated travel planning I’d ever undertaken (which stops ten blocks from my apartment).

Yet fast forward to a week ago, when I successfully planned and booked an entire trip to Berlin! Granted, I was traveling with a companion, yet I didn’t exactly have too much help coordinating the venture (…at all). And while I’ve taken a year of beginner German at Vassar, that was two years ago and, well, beginner. Nevertheless, the trip went off without a hitch, and I was even able to fly back on my own! Good for me.

Yes, it was a little daunting, but that seems to be the perspective this trip has given me. Even though it may have seemed a bit frightening, I need not worry. I mean, I’m a New Yorker! I’d been underestimating how much that, in itself, had prepared me for this type of of travel. Natural resourcefulness, awareness, and adaptability.

(Plus, everyone really does speak English.)

But that gets me to my next point–the global perspective this trip has begun to instill in me. Obviously, I was already expecting the dubious light in which most countries see the good ole US of A. Yet in one way, I overestimated it–yes our foreign policies and tourists are obnoxious and ham-fisted, but, unlike what I expected, no one really held it against me, personally. Sure there were a few side-swipes at my knowledge of cuisine (but like, if you’re British, don’t even try to school a New Yorker in cuisine, Mr. Mushy-Vegetables-and-Flavorless-Everything) but everyone still welcomed me with open arms.

But in terms of the countries themselves, England, of course, has a bit of an unwarranted pretentious streak. Yeah American tourists are fairly terrible, but the British haven’t yet realized that theirs are just as bad. Their underlying attitude belying their history of colonization still seems to pervade their entire international perspective. Let’s just say, the colonies across the water didn’t land as far from the tree as the tree would like to think.

Yet all in all, this trip has been overwhelmingly satisfying, and has been one of the most valuable semesters of my life (no offense Vassar). I would highly recommend it to nearly everyone–perspective is a valuable asset, and not only in the ways I mentioned. You can’t help but feel a bit more mature, more responsible, when traveling and living relatively alone. You also learn how to live with less, a lesson that was long overdue in my case–you can’t carry but so much on the plane with you, and minor amenities like WiFi in the rooms are not even guaranteed. But, you learn to live with it, for the sake of an eye-opening experience, and, well, your sanity, really. It takes awhile but, you’ll be able to get used to it.

International Top Tips #1-3

1. Priorities: Berlin’s Museum Island is a spectacular place for those who love any type of art, especially antiques. But as you’re leaving, make sure to stop at the gelato truck sitting near the scaffolding across the bridge nearest to the Pergamon Museum. Cheap, and mind-blowingly tasty.

2. Hostel living: Unless you’re rolling in cash, clearly you’ll be staying in hostels when traveling around Europe. Berlin’s Heart of Gold Hostel is conveniently located, cheap, and has huge wall paintings of post-apocalyptic mutant gunslingers in some of the rooms, over the beds. (Not kidding.)

3. Parce que je dit NON: Although catcalling and street harassment are problems for women everywhere, this problem seemed especially present in Paris. It did not seem particularly threatening–it just sometimes takes a bit more than a “no” to be left alone. This is also true for street artists, who will ask “why?!” if you refuse their service.

Bethan Johnson | Eastern and Central Europe | Post 3, Part 1

Bethan Johnson | Eastern and Central Europe | Post 3, Part 1

If I had to name this two-part blog post it would be: How to Make It In Eastern Europe Without Any Friends,  A Little Money, and Five Changes of Clothes. After 8 long weeks of reading about King Arthur’s dwindling machismo and Winston Churchill’s drinking and its hand in saving international politics, I found myself six beautiful weeks of mindless vacation and an opportunity at empowerment. For almost four weeks I would travel to Eastern and Central Europe—places where few people I had spoken to had ever been. With a tight budget and an even slimmer knowledge of the languages of the region—I was fairly certain that being able to sing the entire repertoire of “The Sound Of Music” does not make me a German expert—I planned a hostel-jumping journey through five cities.

I thought that the best way to teach/warn/amuse the world would be a series of awkward anecdotes and photos; enjoy, because goodness knows I did!

1. Realize that traveling across Europe will NOT be like the Lizzie McGuire Movie.

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As much fun as meeting an Italian pop idol and gaining international fame when you expose his scheming ways and terrible voice may be, this will not happen during your time in Eastern Europe. Product of the 1990s that we are, it may be appealing to dream of realizing our best friend is our great love while looking at the Trevi Fountain, the first step in planning your trip to this region is abandoning any kind of romantic notion about your travels. Your wardrobe will not be unlimited; your access to anything remotely resembling a washing machine will be imagined; and the closest you will come to a pop star is ogling a sign you cannot read while waiting for a train you pray is heading in the direction of your hostel. Consider your material needs while traveling through Eastern Europe in many ways like the experience of watching Crossroads, not the actual plot itself: so absurdly flawed and insufficient that it is both hilarious and almost appealing. I will warn you now that with such a limited budget, physical comforts will be few and far between during your travels, but that will only enrich your other memories. I can think of nothing that more perfectly captures the human condition than when I recall looking down at my bloodied heel in a Berlin train station after a day of learning about the Jewish cultural history of Germany. Humans rarely feel the joys, sorrows, and pains of life all in one day, but if you let yourself, you surely can on a collegiate budget.

2. Also, accept that you are staying in HOSTELS and not HOTELS for a reason.

Think of the ‘s’ that differentiates hotels from hostels as standing for ‘satisfactory’ or ‘sleeping-only.’ This isn’t to say that your hostels are necessarily so awful they should be the stuff of legends, but there is a considerable difference between the two experiences. For those used to traveling with parents abroad or even within the United States, forget the Hilton-experience you have come to love. Hostels are full of people passionate about ‘experiencing’ Europe, which is a term loosely used to encompass experiences like clubbing across Hungary or eating their way through Poland, not 50-somethings wanting to be tucked in bed by 10:00 p.m. Hostels at their best will be places where you can suss out the best local places to eat, drink, and explore. At their worst, they are the location that will witness your low moments of showering in the sink and crying over the deplorable treatment of European Jews (I speak from experience).

While you don’t need to make friends with the other people staying in your hostel bunks (goodness knows the poor woman sleeping in the bunk across from me at 9 p.m. in Vienna was not my greatest fan as I tried to plan out my trip with the lights on) you should at least deceive yourself into thinking it’s like freshman year room-sharing again. Also, if you are as paranoid as I am about safety and theft (I have seen way too many crime procedurals at this point; I am looking at and blaming you, Dick Wolf) then do the somewhat ridiculous thing that I did: sleep with your passport, ID, and other valuables tucked into your pillowcase so that you can fight off any would-be hostel thieves. While almost always safe and happy places, I advise any first-time solo travelers that instead of seeking comfort within the four walls of your hostel room, find your place of peace in a local café or an ice cream shop.

 3. You do not need to pack anywhere near the kitchen sink to survive backpacking. In fact, the less you take, the more ingenious you feel.

 

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Again, taking a backpack across Eastern Europe is not like packing for a chaperoned trip of Europe and thus requires far less material goods; forgoing a number of the following items will mean that when it’s your turn to carry a backpack across the Continent your back and legs will silently cry out in thanks to me. As ridiculous as it may sound to the object observer, I basically spent a month thinking of myself as the Bear Gryllis of world-travel, and I could not have been happier. Instead of packing the seemingly necessary goods of soap, shampoo, a towel, or more than one pair of pants, I embraced the dirty and thrifty nature of backpacking and I could not have been happier. A clean t-shirt serves as an almost equally sufficient way to dry off after your temperamental showers as an actual towel but takes up about a third of the space in your pack.

Additionally, since many non-Euro currencies are worth drastically less than an American dollar, waiting until you enter an Eastern European nation to purchase a bar of soap or shampoo will save you precious dollars. After a week of skimping off of hostel dispensed soap (trust me I am not proud of how cheap I am) I finally caved at the idea of buying a bar of soap only to find my spend-thrift concerns were unfounded because a bar of soap costs less than 30 cents in Poland. BE ADVISED: The same does not go for a toothbrush (you never know when you will need this and waiting to get to a drug store in Eastern Europe may not be the safest bet). The name of the game when traveling across Europe alone with a backpack should always be: how long can I survive on the bare minimum of goods to spare my poor feet and back. Realize that literally no one you know will judge your outfit, question the somewhat strange smell of your socks, or care that you have repeated an outfit over the course of a week. That is equal parts liberating, smelly, and gratifying all at the same time (trust me you will only understand this after wearing the same outfit for three days and noting just how little you care about other people’s opinions of you).

4. Learn at least five phrases in each language before you arrive in the country.

Aside from the horribly standard ‘Do you speak English?’ preferably these phrases would include statements about the location of the nearest embassy, bathroom, and pub, but I am not picky. While your accent will never be even remotely perfect nor will you understand the responses if they by some miracle confuse you for a native speaker, the people you are trusting your survival upon will appreciate the effort. Instead of being the obnoxious tourist who assumes everyone understands English if you yell it loud enough, be the person who tries to assimilate for once. As a single person traveling Europe you can’t always be pulling out your handy guidebook for the translation, nor looking to a travel buddy to help you out of a hairy situation. You need to take control of your own fate, which in this case means staring into a mirror as you repeat the phrase ‘Where is the nearest bathroom, please?’ over and over again until you confuse the phrase for your full name. I can say with confidence that while my wonderful experience learning Polish by trading compliments and jovially rubbing the belly of a 60-year-old tour guide may have paid off in spades later that night as I yelled at drunken men, there are better and more socially acceptable ways to learn the words for ‘if you do that again I will scream.’

5. Accept that out of loneliness you will begin thinking in Facebook statuses and realize that you are the only company that you need.

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Without anyone else to talk to all day and almost no English to understand, a portion of your time will be devoted to crafting a way of translating your experiences into popular social media blasts. Personally, mine came in the form of Facebook statuses because I shun/cannot figure out how to use other forms of social media. Accept that your main companion is your online persona, instruct yourself to think about what to write when you eat dinner alone, and move on. Bonus points for people who entirely forgo social media during their travels (although I found that my family tends to like to hear that I am alive and have survived another day without a phone or other means of attaining assistance, even if that proof of life comes in a post about my absinthe-drinking adventures).

6. Throw caution to the wind on occasion and eat local foods from the tiny corner shops and food trucks.

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If you listen closely enough to the free tours you will inevitably take, you will be told about the local delicacies. While I realize that at some point at least one adult advised you to avoid restaurants that parked outside a mall or shops that sell chocolate for almost free, in these situations I say, ‘What they don’t know won’t hurt them!’ After a day of recognisance in each city I visited, I found some local delicacies and stores to try my hand at tasting new food. Thanks largely to my inability to understand the ingredients in many of these dishes, this principle of trying everything led me to some of my favorite discoveries yet. Despite despising the concept of cheesecake (because honestly who hears that word for the first time without cringing at such a food union?), I ate a Hungarian snack consisting of a chilled chocolate bar stuffed with cottage cheese. My tour guide warned me that if we purchased one, we would eventually cave and buy a six-pack, the an idea I scoffed at up until the moment I had snuck into a local grocery store in the wee hours of the day to buy a 10-pack of these treats to ship back to America almost in violation of US Customs law. I also ate a treat called a tredulnik in Prague that can only be described as the ideal culinary love child between a curly fry and an Auntie Annie’s cinnamon pretzel from a random van parked outside of a church. The same can be said for taking advise on beer and other alcohol. The local tour guides, especially the younger ones, can give you the best advice on what to drink during your stay. I can safely say that they never steered me wrong. The best discovery was that over the course of my time I adopted the Krakow diet of eating a full lunch before eating ice-cream two hours later; while my figure may regret this decision one day, my stomach never did. Remember: diets are not meant for vacations not only because the entire concept of ‘experiencing a culture’ does not exclude eating, but also because you technically leave all the excess calories in the country when you board the plane (that is how that works right?).

7. People will feel guilty about you being alone and offer you free alcohol, food, or other precious goods. While you shouldn’t over-indulge, treat yourself!

My favorite indulgences honestly came during dinner because eating alone is an art that requires experience for perfection. Sitting in total silence while literally everybody else around you stares loving or angrily into their significant others’ eyes demands intense focus. Although the waiters should really pay closer attention to the English speaking couple arguing over the state of their marriage in a foreign restaurant where they believe no one else will understand them (trust me there is always one), inevitably the wait-staff will take pity on you when they realize that the lonely sweater draped across the chair across from yours is not saving a space for a date. Like any good friend, Eastern Europeans know exactly how to treat loneliness: alcohol and food. Similar things will happen when you reveal that you are traveling alone to tour guides; the extra attention will flow and you will eventually find yourself trapped in the middle of the front seat of a bus between two Polish men discussing the best way to keep mistresses because they want to shield you from seeing all of the couples that took the same tour as you.

List of free things I received while on holiday alone include:

  1. One shot of palinka (Hungary)
  2. One shot of lemon vodka (Poland)
  3. Free appetizer (Hungary)
  4. Free desert (Poland)
  5. Twenty-percent discounted meal (Austria)
  6. A large beer for the price of a small (Austria)
  7. A two-hour long discussion of Polish traditions, borderline sexist jokes, and advise about Polish men by two men who barely spoke English. (Poland)
  8. An iris freshly plucked from a table display (Hungary) **bonus points for style go to this waiter**

8. Be prepared for the awkwardness that is taking a free tour as a single person.

While I would never put the knock on any free tour in Europe since they have granted me access to so many different sites, I would like to pass on my advice, as learned through a series of mishaps, on how to optimize the experience. As a single person you will almost always be the outlier in any group, especially if you are a young woman. As such, I was subject to the flirtations and awkward conversations of many of my fellow foreigners. Step one: stay towards the middle of the pack. Doing this allows you to hear everything the tour guide is saying without placing yourself in close contact with the tour guide who is guaranteed the other most single person on the trip. Step two: identify the single 30-something male in your group. This guy, inevitably on a week-vacation from work or ‘in between jobs,’ will strike up a conversation with you that borders on uncomfortable, so quickly finding and avoiding this person will make for a better trip. Step three: integrate yourself with the awkward American family in the group, this way no one expects you to say anything, nor do issues of flirtation ever come up. Remember: you are not on the tour to make friends (although you can if you want and are not an introvert like me) so don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t feel like telling the random stranger who asked the name of your first pet. It’s none of their business so just keep staring at the beautiful city.

Other (smaller) pieces of advise:

  1. Learn Italian. While you may be traveling Eastern Europe, the sheer amount of Italian you hear will shock you. I not only ordered a meal in Germany in Italian, I listened to a series of interesting tours in various museums being given exclusively in Italian. Apparently, Italian people of all ages enjoy spending their free Wednesdays attending the Jewish museums of Cracow. Also I am not entirely sure that the Italian secret service has not hired a group of middle-aged Italian couples to follow me across Europe in order to prevent any more off-handed jokes about their politicians or calzones.
  2. Realize that every city you visit will seem like a romantic getaway, when really you are just conscious of the fact that you are alone. Do not throw your ice cream at the annoying young couple blocking your perfect photo opportunity of a sunset over the Danube; just wait, mutter, acknowledge that eating chocolate ice cream is better than spoiling puppy-love, and accept that the single life may afford you a free drink later in the evening.
  3. Have a ‘Jewish culture day’ everywhere you travel in Eastern and Central Europe. It will break your heart every time, but as a passionate Jewish Studies student and avid Fiddler on the Roof fan I firmly believe learning about pogroms and the Holocaust are critical to understanding the history of these nations.
  4. Do not wear black jeans for more than 2 days in a row. I thought that black jeans were the most respectful and tasteful outfit for visiting churches, Auschwitz, and other serious locations. The problem is that after about 2 days the dye begins to stain your legs. By the time you return to some of your friends who are boasting tans from their spring breaks, you will be rocking a decidedly grey-tint to your skin that will not be tamed.
  5. Reacquaint yourself with the art of showering in the sink. Your hair will thank me later.

This is part one of a two-part post.

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 6

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 6

Well, the spring semester has officially begun, and things are off to a great start! Classes seem like they’re going to be a lot more interesting this time around, mostly because two of my classes, Creative Writing and Contemporary Japanese Literature, are taught by an awesome, laid-back, half-Japanese/half-British writer. I’m excited to start writing again; I haven’t exactly written much fiction since high school, even though I’m part of a creative writing club here at Waseda.

I’m also taking a Comprehensive Japanese class (one level higher than last semester), a Kanji class, and a class that compares childhood literature in the US with childhood literature in Japan. If you don’t know what kanji is, it’s the Chinese characters that are used along with hiragana and katakana when writing Japanese. It’s really sad how wide the gap is between my speaking and listening and my reading and writing abilities.

The start of the spring semester means new students, and that means new members of Niji no Kai, the international club I’m a part of. The way Waseda‘s clubs recruit people is kind of like the way Vassar does it, except with a hundred times more chaos. During Shinkan, the club recruitment week, club representatives line up along campus at their booths, trying to get you to take their pamphlets and explain what their club is about. I was trying to get to the Niji no Kai booth to see my friends, but I had to make my way through the hundreds of people shoving papers in my face. By the end of it I was carrying so much paper that I dropped it all in cartoon-like fashion. I was able to meet some of the freshmen, and tried to use my gaijin (foreigner) influence to get them to join. There were several dance performances by some of the clubs, and even a marching band that played the Pokemon theme song! (I fanboyed pretty hard.) I love how much spirit and energy these clubs have, and how much they love their school.

Another thing that the start of the spring semester means is a LOT of nomikai (drinking parties). In April alone there are five, and they’re meant to both welcome the new students as well as prepare for Shinkan Gasshuku, which is an overnight trip during Golden Week in May (a week where there are no classes and people don’t have to go to work). I’ve been to one so far, and I already met too many people to remember all their names. It’s kind of embarrassing actually, especially when someone will come up to me, remembering my name, but I won’t remember theirs at all.

I also went to a fertility festival, Kanamara Matsuri, which literally translates to “Festival of the Steel Phallus.” Yeah, it’s a thing. At the temple there were several statues of penises, including two cannon-shaped ones and penises that stuck straight up from the ground. You could buy penis and vagina popsicles, the proceeds of which go to HIV research, and you could take a picture with a guy dressed up like a penis. Basically, lots of penises. The main event was a procession of monks carrying a heavy pink penis that everyone cheered at. The event is a huge tourist attraction–in fact, I would say about half of the people there were foreigners. It makes sense, I guess–this sort of thing would only happen in Japan. I feel like if it were to happen in the US, there would be a huge uproar and it would be shut down almost immediately. I was a little surprised to see little kids licking penis and vagina lollipops, though.

Due to Japan’s rapidly declining population, I think this kind of festival and awareness of sex and childbirth is more important now than ever. It’s a weird sort of contradiction in Japanese culture: sex is so blatantly out there– porn magazines are right out front at convenience stores–yet when it comes to people actually dating, it’s very secretive and not really talked about. Maybe because it’s so easy to live alone and not date, and instead pretend that you’re dating an anime character (which some people do…maybe you’ve heard of Hatsune Miku?) that fewer and fewer people are dating. I don’t really know, but a lot of research has been done about it, and the concern is a very real one.

There was a monkey there too!

Isn’t Waseda campus pretty?

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 4

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 4

It wasn’t really until I was forced to rest in the hospital last weekend as I recovered from getting my appendix out that I stopped to think about what a wild ride this semester has been so far. As I lay semi-asleep in that mercifully silent hospital room, reveling in the thought that I wouldn’t have to pay a dime for the entire operation and eternally grateful that my doctors and nurses spoke such flawless English, I was dumbfounded to read the date on my hospital bracelet: 4 APRIL 2014. I still have five weeks left here, but the idea that this is my last of four blog posts for the Misc is unnerving. In many other ways, too, I’m starting to become hyperaware that my long-anticipated semester abroad is quickly coming to an end, and on a larger level I’m feeling frustrated with my inability to slow down and savor my time as a college student in general. I’m finally starting to feel at home with my host family, to the point where I’ve really been missing them while traveling this week, and I’m suddenly and unexpectedly dreading the day that I’ll say goodbye to them in the airport next month; how can it be that it’s taken us this long to get to know each other?
And, frustratingly enough, this is all kicking in at a time when I’m more consumed with Vassar happenings than I have been all semester. Sending emails about pre-registration, summer field work, and proposals for my senior recital and independent study projects hasn’t been incredibly complicated, but it’s gotten me feeling nostalgic for Vassar and eager to start a new set of classes. And terrified about becoming a senior.
Now that the bulk of that is over, however, I’m making myself take some time to think about what I want my last five weeks here to look like. And because I’m incurably list-oriented, I’m taping some of my main ideas to my wall:
1. Study/procrastinate on Facebook less, go outside more.
I’m starting to worry that my host family thinks that all Americans, or all 20-year-olds, or both, are incapable of spending more than a few hours away from their laptops, based on the example that I’ve set over the past few weeks. And even though I’m missing friends from home more than I have all semester, I need to reassess my balance between talking to friends from home and getting out of the house to have my own adventures here. The weather is finally not cold and dark every day. Gardens and trees are blooming, and the sun doesn’t set much earlier than 9:00pm anymore. I’m not kidding. Tivoli Gardens is even open. I have no excuse.
2. Stop whining about missing peanut butter and try some new food.
So…I’m vegan, and long story short, I naively forgot how much more convenient it can be to be vegan at Vassar than it can be to be vegan in the rest of the world, at least while still getting acquainted with a new place and its food culture. Most things are ridiculously expensive here (especially food, and especially eating at restaurants), and I’ve gotten into the boring habit of making myself the same meals all the time. Spring is here, and new vegetables are in season, and I hereby declare it time to revamp my food shopping list and hit the farmer’s market for some new ingredients and recipe ideas.
3. Be more intentional about spending time with new friends.
One of the hardest parts about living with a host family has been meeting other people my age. With a nearly 60-minute commute and no way to contact anyone cheaply without wi-fi, coordinating things with friends quickly becomes complicated and exhausting. I feel pathetic simply going home after my classes end every night, but it’s usually so much easier than planning something with a friend who lives on the other side of the city in a crowded homestay apartment. But two of my classmates suddenly left this week to go back to the U.S. for good, and I’m suddenly hyperaware that I’ll probably never see any of these people again after May ends. (What a strange phenomenon that college subjects one’s friendships to, huh?) Time to stop being a grumpy old lady and get out there.
4. Explore Copenhagen more.
Cliche, but I’m slowly realizing that I still haven’t done most of the touristy things in Copenhagen yet, even though I bike into the middle of the city every day for class. This weekend my host family and I were finally able to take one of the day trips that we’ve been meaning to schedule all semester (we went to Hamlet’s castle!), but I still haven’t seen any Hans Christian Andersen stuff, or hung out in Nyhavn (the colorful row of waterfront buildings that you probably picture when you think of Copenhagen), nor have I been to Christiania (Copenhagen’s famous self-governing hippie community). Three months in, and I still feel like I barely know anything about this city and its people. Go figure.
Here are some pictures from the week I spent WWOOFing in Ireland last month!Inline image 1
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Harper Cleves | Santiago, Chile | Post 2

Harper Cleves | Santiago, Chile | Post 2

Maldichos y Memorias

I have learned something new every day in Chile. I suppose that this is true at home, and at Vassar as well, but I feel like my learning here has been more pronounced, and more deliberate.

And while, of course, I have done a lot of learning in class, most of my learning has happened outside of the classroom.

Sometimes these life lessons are just silly. For instance, apparently a lot of mistakes Gringos make in Spanish are of a sexual and/or vulgar nature. A lot of us have learned this the hard way. Phrases like, estoy lista (I’m ready) and estoy acabado (I’m finished) can convey sentiments entirely different than those which you are hoping to convey. Saying me gusta to your host mom, can imply that you have a crush on her, which can be an interesting miscommunication to navigate (this happened to a friend of mine!).

Also, it is considered excessively vulgar to ask someone if you can “use” the bathroom, because you are explicitly stating that the toilet will be involved in your visit to said bathroom (um, duh). Instead, it is polite to use the word pasar in all bathroom-related inquiries. Pasar implies that you are just passing through el bano. Sure, the toilet is in there, but you are just checking things out–washing your hands, powdering your nose, giving yourself a little self-guided tour of the premises. Chileans like there to be an heir of mystery in their bathroom experiences.

Mistakes like this, which happen on a daily basis, can be frustrating, but mostly they are just hilarious. I have definitely had to learn to give myself space for imperfection, and laugh at my errors. Many of you probably knew me when the idea of “laughing” at my errors was absolutely inconceivable. I was the kind of kid who cried when she lost a game of Monopoly, got a question wrong on her math homework, or (my personal favorite) unraveled a whole scarf when she realized her cousin was better at knitting than she was. Learning to shake off HORRIBLE miscommunications and go with the flow has been a huge growing experience for me.

I have had to learn to be flexible not only with my expectations for myself, but also with my expectations for life in general. As much as I try to pretend otherwise, I am a creature of habit. At home and at school, I develop very set routines that I hate straying from. I like to eat certain things at certain times. I have pretty regular schedule for running, relaxing, and sleeping. I try not to impose this schedule on others, but I definitely adhere to it myself. Here, I have had to learn to expect that every day is going to be a little different. As a foreigner in a new country, and a new culture, I cannot expect to live the life I lived at home. I have given up being a vegetarian for the sake of this trip. I eat the food I am given-which, while sometimes weird, has been really fun! I have had more mayonnaise, french fries, and chicken than I could ever need or want, but I have had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, and a lot of good conversations because I have been willing to try everything once.

This is not to say I have been a perfect low maintenance traveler-not in the least! I have basically avoided mayonnaise completely since a weird incident with mayonnaise soaked salad. I sometimes get cranky and irritable when I can’t run when I want to, and I definitely miss my schedule. But my attempt at being flexible has been really valuable for me.

I still have so much to learn. I am only beginning to delve into the complexity of the education system, and I am not sure if I will ever be able to really understand the struggle students and teachers face here. I will also always be learning about the social and political tensions that have developed as a result of a dictatorship that ended twenty years ago. These are topics I am going to have to continue to explore, and write about at a different time.
But I am exceedingly grateful for everything I have learned here-for all of the humorous, silly, uncomfortable, frustrating, sad, and life-changing moments. Not everyone gets to go on journeys like this, and I consider myself one lucky gringa.

And now for some unrelated photos!

Evan visits Santiago for a week before heading off to teach English in up north in Antofogasta.

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Sometimes, you just really miss your food staples at home, and have to buy peanut butter, and greens en masse.

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My favorite mural in Chile thus far-this was in Valparaiso, on Cerro alegre.

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My friends and me posing in front of a weird, moving, foam dispensing, spherical object that was a part of the Lollapalooza festivities.

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Chorrellano: a lunch composed of a MOUNTAIN of fries, fried egg, onions, and steak…this was rough as a former vegetarian, but also kind of delicious.

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Sunset from Cerro Santa Lucia.

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Vampire Weekend at Lollapalooza-SUCH a fun show!

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Morning person for life.

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Modeling our new alpaca sweaters in Vina del Mar.

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Taking a break between shows at Lollapalooza, Chile! This was SO fun. I saw Cage the Elephant, Phoenix, Ellie Goulding, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Portugal the Man, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, and Lorde!

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Our last Spanish class! Our teacher, Mabel, was the sweetest and most adorable woman on the continent

Natalie Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 4

Natalie Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 4

On the eve of my spring break, I feel quite happy to have experienced all that I have in the first part of my semester, and was inspired to write in a different style than that of my previous posts.

Things to be grateful for… In Madrid

1) Parque Retiro

Much like Central Park of New York City, Parque Retiro is plopped in the middle of the city, offering a tranquil refuge from metropolitan life. Here, one can walk, run, paddle in the lake, view a natural skyline of trees, encounter the park’s band of cats, or enjoy a picnic with friends on a lazy Sunday. The park is large enough that you find something new during every visit—I noticed a redwood transplanted from California for the first time today.

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2) An early spring, with pink trees and sunlight until 9pm in early April

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3) The most wonderful hummus of my favorite café here, Ciudad Invisible

4) Free access for students under age 26 to some of the most renowned museums in the world, including the Prado and the Reina Sofía

5) The lacy architecture of the business buildings and hotels in the center of the city

6) Excellent and efficient public transportation

7) The option to walk to most places within the city—Madrid is quite safe and not too sprawling.

8) The magicians in Puerta del Sol, including the floating people that refuse to explain how they float

9) Scores of street and subway musicians

10) Flamenco! I have been taking flamenco dance classes this semester—I love dancing to the soulful guitars, and that the body transforms into an instrument even more than in most dance styles

Regarding study abroad in general

11) The opportunity to live with and adopt a second family while learning about a different culture and way of life

12) Learning what you love and miss about where you come from

13) Dreams in a second language

14) The opportunity to learn about the core of yourself, as your roots are no longer under your feet

15) New friends from around the world

16) The opportunity to take classes not offered at your home university, which can lead to discovering a new fascinating subject or author

17) In many parts of the world (certainly Europe), the opportunity to quickly and cheaply travel to a different country and culture for spring break

18) Learning about your abroad country, your home country, and the world as a whole through a lens shaped by a different history than your own

19) New paths to walk

Picture from a program trip to País Vasco—beach of San Sebastián.
Picture from a program trip to País Vasco—beach of San Sebastián.

20) Being away from home long enough to realize that your mom is right—writing a list of gratitude is an excellent exercise to record one’s surroundings and to promote happiness