I have a confession to make. There was an oft-repeated phrase that I’d heard countless times before I came to France for my year abroad. My confession is that I too was guilty of thinking this way and I’d uttered the phrase countless times. “I’m going to avoid Americans. I only want to make French friends.” Wow. These words evoke a much different feeling in me now than they did before September 1st. The idea behind this phrase is awesome. I wholeheartedly believe that in order to be successful while studying abroad one must integrate into the host culture. Having friends who are native to your host country is super helpful and can be an enriching experience. The reality is unfortunately rather harsh. You can’t be choosey. Sorry. Here’s how things really go down when you arrive in a new city in a foreign country:
Everything is a whirlwind. It’s normal to initially regret leaving home. Feeling like “Oh my gosh, why did I come here” is actually really common. Then you meet people. Lots of international students arrive within the same week and it’s not uncommon for a large number of international students to live in the same residence. Basically, the first friends you make might be Spanish, German, Finnish, Mexican, or even American. These students are looking for friends just like you and they’re just as lost. My advice is to help people out. Show some people where the grocery store is, help them get their documents together if you have good language skills, or invite everyone for pizza so they have a reason to leave their room.
Then after a few weeks the friend groups are really solidified. If you’re in a foreign country to learn the language then, surprise, you won’t have classes with natives. You will meet natives on the street, in restaurants, in nightclubs, and sometimes at school. Depending on the country in which you study you’ll have varying degrees of success in maintaining these friendships. Don’t get discouraged- just keep making an effort in your target language and you’ll see results in no time!
Having friends from all over the world is one of the best things that results from studying abroad. I’m so glad that I ditched the “no Americans” attitude and let friendships happen. I have American friends from Georgia, Kansas, and New Jersey who’ve helped me to feel at home here in Clermont-Ferrand. I also have made friendships with English-speaking students from Turkey, Ireland, Wales, Greece, The Czech Republic, China, and so many other countries. The perspective that comes along with diverse friendships has further broadened my worldview and added immensely to my study abroad experience.
Basically, don’t sweat about making certain types of friends while abroad. Things will happen organically as long as you keep an open mind.
This semester I’m taking a class that discusses global environmental challenges. We were assigned with a project that explored the potential impacts that the changing climate could have on different aspects of life in Italy. My group and I chose the aspect of tourism, which plays a large role in the lives of many Italians. I was given the task of making posters we could display in public areas that explain the potential effects of climate change on the tourism business in Italy. It was a really fascinating project–I’ll post some of the posters below so you can get a glimpse of what some of my coursework was this semester!
Over the past weeks, I’ve let myself drown in a sea of Netflix and terrible meals. My current favorite form of procrastination is finding new ways to pack my luggage to go back home. The last two days have been spent in the library, “working” away at making Quizlet flashcard sets while practically off my head on caffeine and sugar.
And through it all, I’ve let my blog stay idle, even though it’s the best place to let out my thoughts.
Well, here they are.
I think I’m ready to go home. The rapidly shortening span of time between me and some much needed hugs from my parents has me drooling over the date May 7th like one of Pavlov’s dogs. But it’s a lie. Because I’m also terrified.
In less than three weeks, I gotta fly out of here. And a few days after that, I have to somehow return to the state of mind of my 17-year-old self who freaking loved calculus in order to pass my summer math class. I have to handle this whole “reverse culture shock” thing with less than a 10-day turnaround. I see it sort of like pushing some button and falling through a wormhole back into my old life.
Don’t get me wrong – I can’t wait to get me some America. I’m ready for barbecue, old buddies, and Bernie Sanders rallies. But with exams quickly approaching, is my stress-filled, smudged-glasses, coffee-induced haze preventing me from enjoying my last days on the Emerald Isle? I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, here are some tips I’ve got to listen to myself.
Study with a buddy. Now, take this advice carefully. Bring your friend to the quiet part of the library – the “red zone” as it’s called here at UCC – and use them almost as a workout pacer partner. You can keep each other motivated just by each concentrating on your own subjects. And if you take classes together and can handle it, move to the talking zone to have a study session aloud together.
Take advantage of every resource. Extended lab hours? Test out some code or make some charts to help you study. Review sessions being held during study week? Heck yes, take any opportunity to hear the information said aloud again. Extra office hours by your professor? Don’t feel too shy to ask any last-minute questions about concepts that confuse you.
Drink water. I’ll credit bestie Morgan with this one. During exams, simple things like food and water tend to go ignored for longer than they should. Staying hydrated does wonders for everything: your focus, your comfort, even your skin! Got a headache just from reading for an hour? Check your water intake.
Breathe. Exams aren’t everything. Sure, passing is important, but so are you. Pace your studying and don’t overload. 12 hour sessions in the library aren’t helping anybody if your mental health is suffering. Have a call home, take a little nap – top up your strength (emotionally, physically, and mentally) so you’re not running on empty.
I believe in us.
Best of luck to fellow students as exam season is upon us.
If you’re only keeping track of my semester by reading my blog, it may appear to you that I only travel and never do any actual schoolwork! You will be happy to know (at least if you are my parents or an OU professor) that I am in fact taking classes, and that they have provided me with yet another great opportunity to improve my Spanish as well as to learn as much as I can about the local culture.
I have been blessed with a wonderful schedule – I have classes from 10:30 to 2 four days a week, with one morning class, a 30 minute break, and then one afternoon class per day. I do walk 20 minutes to get to school every day, but getting to wake up at 9 every day has been spoiling me. I actually wake up earlier on the weekends so that I can travel and explore!
I have also had the great fortune to take classes in a variety of areas – I’m taking one on the history of Spanish art, one on the European Union, one on the Muslim legacy of Andalusia (a region in the south of Spain), and one on Spanish for health care professionals. All of my classes are taught by Spanish professors and conducted all in Spanish, which has been amazing practice – when learning a language, once you have enough base knowledge, I think there is nothing more beneficial than simply using it as much as you can. This semester has been fantastic to that end, and my classes are the best part!
This semester, I am getting credits for my Spanish minor, and it has been an awesome chance to learn completely different things than I have been in past semesters. I have loved many things about these classes, but my favorite is how applicable the knowledge is. In my art class, we will discuss Spanish painters and their most famous works, and then I will go to different cities and palaces and museums and get to see the works in person. I’ve been to Toledo, the city that served as El Greco’s greatest inspiration. I’ve seen famous works in El Escorial (a Spanish palace) and in the Picasso museum in Barcelona. Best of all, Madrid (which has basically been my backyard for this semester) contains the Museo del Prado, the Museo de la Reina Sofia, and other small museums like the house of Joaquin Sorolla that contain some of the most famous artwork in the world. It is an incredibly cool feeling to spend days learning the life stories of various artists and intensely studying their famous works before getting to see them with my own eyes the next day.
Also very rewarding is my class about the Muslim legacy of Andalusia. After taking that class, I now see the Muslim legacy everywhere in Spain – in the architecture, in the clothing, in the food, in the festivals, and even in the words. Nowhere is this legacy more prominent than Andalusian cities like Granada, Córdoba, and Sevilla (which I will visit this coming weekend). In the first two cities, it was amazing to be able to point to an architectural detail and name the century it came from, as well as the group ruling Spain at the time. Everything I visit becomes that much more interesting when I have the historical information to back it up.
My class on the EU has been rewarding in a different way; I have always loved discussing international politics and analyzing current events, and every day at the beginning of class, we do just that for roughly half an hour. Then, I get to learn about how the EU, one of the worlds largest and most successful, international organizations, works. It is incredibly interesting, and every day when I leave, I feel like I’ve gained more valuable knowledge about how the world works. (As a terrifying side note, it has been alarming to keep track of the presidential race back home and watch everyone here doing the same. Many Spaniards know just as much about the candidates as we do, and if you think they haven’t noticed Trump, think again. His rise in popularity has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world – I actually just saw a headline in El País, a popular newspaper in Madrid, talking about him. Cue the shudders).
All of my classes have been wonderful, but my medical Spanish class can’t be matched when it comes to giving me new and crazy opportunities. The class actually only met for the first half of the semester – this time was dedicated to learning medical vocabulary and talking about the differences between the private health care system in the US and the dual public-private systems here in Spain. During the second half of the semester, in lieu of going to class, we were each assigned a medical resident to shadow. I have had the great fortune of shadowing a gynecological resident (though here, that really means gynecology-obstetrics). Throughout my time in the hospital, I have met numerous doctors, residents, and nurses, observed patients, and gotten to scrub up and watch two c-sections, one laparoscopic hysterectomy, and one live birth. There has been a great deal of life experience packed into just a few weeks!
I knew about the shadowing opportunity coming in, but I had no idea before this program that during my time here I would get to watch several babies take their first breaths (I tear up every time, and my resident tells me you never really get used to the feeling). During my shadowing, I frequently have “someone pinch me” moments – the opportunities I’m getting here are just crazy! Listening to doctors and patients talk has been excellent practice for my Spanish, and getting to observe the Spanish health care system has been an awesome experience.
All of this basically boils down to an incredible academic experience here, one that I will never forget. I knew that I would enjoy studying abroad, but I had no idea just how many wonderful opportunities would be handed to me. As classes ramp up toward finals, I am a bit swamped with papers and presentations, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This semester has taught me a great deal in so many ways, and I will forever be grateful.
There once was a small town in Ireland called Claddagh (that has since become a part of Galway) that was famous for making a specific type of ring. These Claddagh Rings feature two hands holding a crowned heart. The hands are supposed to symbolize friendship; the heart, love; and, the crown, loyalty. They’re called Claddagh rings because they were (supposedly) made famous by a man from Claddagh, Richard Joyce, who learned intricate metal working when he was a captured by the Moors and sold as a slave to a goldsmith. When King William III was crowned, he demanded the return of all English prisoners, which included Joyce. He returned home to Claddagh and gave the Claddagh ring to the lady love who had waited for him while he was gone.
I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a cool story. I’d heard about Claddagh Rings before I came to the UK but when I saw one, I knew I had to get it. After I got it, I was researching the history a bit when I found something else. Over time, the meaning of the rings have evolved. they still symbolize love, friendship, and loyalty, but now they also indicate the wearers romantic availability, depending on how it’s worn. If it’s on the right ring finger, pointing away from the palm, the wearer is not in a serious relation ship. On the right ring finger pointing toward the palm indicates that the person is in a committed relationship. If it is worn on the left ring finger, pointing away from the palm, the wearer is engaged. On the left ring finger, pointing toward the palm means that the person is married.
After finding that out I had to fix how I was wearing it, but it’s interesting to know the history and traditions behind my ring!
It appears I have let an entire month slip by without posting anything. Not to worry – I have still been having adventures and writing them down, but my personal trip journals are far too rambling and verbose for anyone but myself to find them interesting, and I am just now getting to editing it down to something that others might be wiling to look at! (You’re now, I’m sure, wondering how on earth it is possible that I could be more verbose than these posts already suggest. Just trust me – you are actually getting off fairly easily with the length of my blog posts! It could be infinitely worse).
Nearly a month ago now, I had the great fortune of a visit from my family (my mother, father, and brother) for an entire week during my brother’s spring break. It was an incredible week – I am quite close with my family, and they have always been my very favorite traveling companions – and it gave me some valuable perspective on just how far I’ve come in my time here.
I had not realized just how much I’d adapted to the Spanish culture until my family came, just as unfamiliar with it as I was on day one, and I got to teach it to them. After living here for several months, it now seems perfectly normal to me that, when crossing the street, you don’t wait for the cars to pass, but rather walk in front of them – pedestrians truly have the right of way here, and the cars will stop for you, even if it seems like they won’t. I am no longer phased by the fact that the waitstaff in restaurants are in no hurry to get you out the door, and can in fact be incredibly difficult to track down if you’re looking to pay and leave. My family was shocked that Alcalá wasn’t more full of life by 10 AM, but for the past few months, the reality of life has been that waking up before 9 is “madrugando” (rising incredibly early), and that the Spaniards like to take their mornings slowly.
These are but a few examples of how I’ve grown accustomed to the pace of life here – there are many. On the whole, it took my family visiting to remind me that, as comfortable as Spain now feels to me, I am living in a significantly different way this semester than I have in the past. And I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to do so. For a few months, I have been able to live as a Spaniard, eating their food, keeping their schedule, and seeing their sights. At first, it was a little uncomfortable (it was a lot to adapt to, and as you’ll recall, I am not always the biggest lover of change) but now it is hard for me to believe that I have only been here for just over three months.
Another great thing about my family being here was getting the chance to translate for them – mainly in sales and restaurant interactions. Being able to converse in both English and Spanish begins to feel somewhat like a super power when you are the force uniting two groups with no common language and allowing them to communicate. Of everything I have learned in school, Spanish may be what I am most grateful for. It has literally opened up new parts of the world for me, and that amazes me. I often heard fellow students in high school complain that what they were learning would not help them in the real world. I am here to tell you – without the Spanish that I started learning in high school, the real world of Spain would have been exponentially more difficult to navigate.
Language utilization and cultural realizations aside, my family’s visit gave the the fantastic opportunity to show them around my home city here, as well as several other cities I visited. We explored Alcalá, Madrid, Toledo, and Barcelona, and all were incredible. Though I repeated cities, I had entirely new experiences (exploring the Prado, touring all of Gaudí’s magnificent architectural treasures, climbing one of the towers of La Sagrada Familia, wandering through the Olympic venues of Barcelona, and just getting to know all of the cities better) and I had a lovely time. Showing off Spain is the best, traveling with my family is the best, and it was a fantastic week.
I’ve been back for quite a while now, which seems like the perfect time to write some sort of reflection post. I’ll keep it short, and basically just talk about some things that I’m so thankful for now that I’m back, as well as some other reflections on last semester.
Things I’m thankful for:
1. Being able to talk to my friends and family easily. It’s so nice to only be one time zone away from my family and be able to call people during the day rather than always having to wait until 9 pm.
2. Warm showers, dryers, and other similar comforts. Dryers save so much time. It’s unbelievable.
3. Having a kitchen. China has amazing food for cheap, but I definitely missed being able to just cook for myself.
4. Having my own room. I really really love being able to just have a space that is mine and that I can lock everyone else out of for a while. I guess I didn’t really experience any of the problems with having a roommate freshman year in the dorms because my roommate was amazing, but I definitely experiences some of those problems in China.
5. My primary education in the U.S. Elementary, middle, and high school schedules in China are crazy, because the middle school, high school, and college you go to are all based on your performance at the previous level and on national tests, so the stress of studying for the SAT begins in elementary school, and it’s worse because people only get one chance to take the gao kao. I’m so glad I didn’t have to go through that.
6. Understanding everything. I guess this is a given, but it’s just so much less stressful to immediately understand the language and cultural references.
1. It’s so much easier to get homework done when you don’t know people. I spent so much more time studying in China than I ever would be able to in the U.S. because I didn’t really know anybody to waste time with, and everyone I knew in the U.S. was sleeping when I was awake. I also didn’t really have much internet access which made me extremely productive. Overall, I would much rather have people to talk to, but sometimes I do miss just being able to sit and work on homework without any texts or anyone knocking on my door.
2. Learning a language is really hard. Before I went to China I thought that I would be fluent when I came back. Unfortunately, I still don’t think I’m really fluent. My Chinese has improved a lot, but I still take a long time to understand what people say, and there are still countless characters that I don’t know.
3. A lot of things can become normal. If I thought about it, I would realize how incredible my life was, but if I didn’t remind myself everyday that I was in China it was easy to just settle into a normal routine. Occasionally something crazy like a purple three wheeled truck would catch me off guard, but I was surprised how much I felt the same as I do here.
4. People around the world are somehow both more different than you thought and more similar than you thought at the same time. I would never have been able to imagine any of my classmates’ stories, but at the same time we all had a lot in common. I remember clearly walking home with my classmates one day, and one of them saying “现在，年轻人的性格都差不多”, (“Now young people’s personalities are all about the same”). I don’t really think that’s true, but I do think we have a lot more in common than we might think.
Easter Break has started! Yay!!!!
(Slightly more than) Two weeks of complete freedom! If you ignore the work I have due as soon as we get back. But I’ve already done most of it, and I’m ready for my next adventure. In two days I leave for my trip to Edinburgh, Scotland and Dublin, Ireland with some international friends I’ve met here at Hertfordshire.
But I’ve already had a couple adventures over break! Last Friday I went to a place called Go Ape, a tree top forest adventure with “zip wires, Tarzan swings, rope ladders, and a variety of obstacles and crossings” and some great views.
If you’re ever in the UK I highly recommend it. Ignoring the fact that I am actually quite scared of heights, it was one of the best times I’ve had in a long time. I had one (small) panic attack and I only screamed once. I actually got to a point where I hit a roof on being scared; there was just no room left for me to be more frightened. It was amazing! I really want to go again! My favorite parts where the zip lines (once I got past the whole jumping-off-the-platform bit),
but the worst was definitely the Tarzan swings. You had to free fall before the rope would catch you.
(You can totally hear one of the employees yelling “Well done Margaret” after Brooke convinces me to jump)
So I enjoyed that way more than I thought I would. And then, two days ago, I got to see Les Miserables live for the first time at the Queen’s Theater in London. I’d seen the movie several times, but the stage performance was a thousand times better. I cried at least five times during the show – which is a good thing for a show that’s literally called “wretched.” Getting to London and back was an adventure though. Somehow I got a ticked for Essex instead of Piccadilly Circus, and I’m still not quite sure how that happened.
From swinging through trees to sobbing in darkened theaters, this has definitely been a “Spring” break to remember, in the best way!
Budapest and Prague had always been places I’d love to visit and I made it a priority to see them while I’m studying abroad. I managed to convince my friend Jill to go with me during a week-long break.
The trip began on a Sunday morning with our departure point of course being Clermont-Ferrand. We decided to take a bus all the way from France to Hungary as this seemed like the least expensive option. The bus ride was… interesting. We used the company “Eurolines” and I honestly would not recommend doing the same unless you love adventure. We drove around France for around 7 hours until we ended up in Lyon (which is usually a 2 ½ hour direct trip). Once we’d reached the bus station in Lyon an employee approached us and asked where we were headed. We proudly told him we were headed to Budapest and subsequently learned that we had to get off the bus. Apparently we had a layover in Lyon that we didn’t know about. The ticket office was closed so there was no one to ask which bus we needed to take next. I called the company and they told me that this would be our last bus change and after this our route would be direct. Okay, no big deal. We waited for 30 minutes and the office finally opened. There we got a boarding pass for our next bus. After 30 more minutes of waiting our bus was supposed to leave in a few minutes but was nowhere to be found. We asked the drivers of the waiting busses (we had to ask in English as none of them spoke French) and they didn’t know where our bus was. Our bus finally arrived and we were off!
Somewhere along the way we met Grandma. At one of the stops a man boarded with an elderly woman. She had trouble walking and she seemed to be at least 90 years old. Jill offered her seat to the man who refused, saying that he was simply helping his mother who was travelling alone. An hour or so later the woman offered Jill some mint candy. I was peeling an orange and I decided to give it to the woman. We eventually started talking with her and she was really nice; the only problem was that she was speaking a foreign language and understood no English at all. We decided to adopt her as our grandma and watched over her for the rest of the trip. We had another changeover in Strasbourg so we took Grandma’s bags and helped her off the bus. While we were waiting we decided to figure out what language she was speaking. We flashed “Hello” at her in several different languages with the Google Translate app but no cigar. Finally thanks to lots of hand gestures she said something resembling Macedonia and we decided she was in fact Macedonian. The word Vienna sounds similar in Macedonian and so we knew she needed to get off at the Vienna stop. When we reached Vienna we were sad to see her go, but it was pretty cool to make a new Grandma.
On the final leg of the journey to Budapest we were both exhausted and were getting a little delirious. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we were constantly being awoken for passport checks as we traversed various borders. As we left Bratislava and entered into Hungary the bus driver put on a movie. Much to our dismay the movie was The Pink Panther 2…in Hungarian. The whole experience was kind of funny because the woman seated in front of us was washing her hair with body spray, her son was guffawing at the movie (though he didn’t speak Hungarian), and I was going in and out of consciousness from sheer exhaustion.
We finally made it to Budapest after a 27 hour bus ride. First on our agenda was obtaining money we could actually use. We found an ATM after asking for directions in Hungarian/English (Jo Napót! ATM?). Then we bought metro passes from a man who kept laughing at us. We took the metro to the stopped listed on the hostel-given directions and after a short walk we had arrived! The hostel owner was amazing and gave us directions to an authentic Hungarian restaurant after ensuring we had everything we needed. We ate an AWESOME lunch of goulash and pasta and learned how to say thank you in Hungarian. We spent our first day exploring the city on foot and orienting ourselves in the beautiful city.
The next day we had a free breakfast at the hostel where we met some lovely girls. We planned to meet up later with our new friend Larissa from Holland. We took the metro to the Hungarian National Museum where we figured we could learn a little bit more about Hungarian history. WOW. The museum was so much fun! We learned so much and the artifacts on display were presented in such a neat way. After the museum we were running a little late for our meeting with Larissa so we grabbed some pizza from Pizza King. I’m a bit of a pizza enthusiast and I can say this was the best pizza I’ve ever had. We got pepperoni pizza with corn (it sounds gross, I know) and it was delicious! Two pieces of pizza and a can of Pepsi cost less than 2 euros!
We met Larissa across the bridge and explored the area around Buda castle and an old cathedral. There were men holding falcons and Larissa got her photo taken with a huge fountain! Jill and I decided to take a walking tour which started at 2pm so we had to catch a bus to the meeting point. We got on the bus and almost immediately after the bus filled with a group of at least 30 older women. There wasn’t enough room to move at all! Naturally, my mom called me as I’m squeezed between old Hungarian women, so I told her I didn’t have time to talk.
We made it to the walking tour on time. It was led by two Hungarian girls who explained the history of the cathedral, the parliament building, and countless landmarks. They gave us lots of info about the modern history of Hungary, which was wonderful as the info was coming from locals. Once we got back to the hostel we were pretty tired! We took showers and napped a bit. During our absence some Turkish guy had moved into the adjacent room. That night they invited us to eat soup with them in the private kitchenette of our apartment. After dinner we went out with Larissa and the Turkish guys, Mücahit (sock buddies) and Canpolat, who are studying abroad in Poland. We had an awesome time and ended the night with some kebabs of course! We got home rather late and ended up sleeping for only about 30 minutes before leaving the hostel at 5 am to catch our bus to Prague!
I can’t believe that spring break is already over. I feel like my time here has absolutely just flown by, and I’m starting to dread going home.
My mom and dad came to visit me for their spring break, so we went on a tour through Italy that included Rome, Florence, Orvieto, Arezzo, Cinque Terre, Naples, and Pompeii. We got to see things such as the David, the Colusseum, the ruins of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, and the Mediterranean Sea. I’ll post some pictures below of the highlights of the trip!