How Study Abroad Prepared Me for My Next Adventure

For the record, I don’t quite know what my next adventure will be yet, nor will I pretend to have everything under control when it comes. Study abroad definitely beat that tendency out of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s bring it back a bit.

For many people, including myself, I got to truly travel independently for the first time when I studied abroad. I’d visited out-of-state friends in college, gone on road trips with others, but there’s always an added dimension when “international” gets thrown into the mix. There are more logistics, more languages, and more complications if something goes wrong. Through a few moments of brilliance and many more epic missteps, I learned quite a bit about living and traveling abroad. So, here’s a quick list of tangible ways study abroad prepared me for my next aforementioned adventure:

  1. I navigate a mean airport/bus terminal/metro station

I have spent a lot of time traveling, not in the sense that I have spent a lot of time abroad, which I thankfully have, but more that I’ve been exposed to some hellish layovers and travel days. Coming home from study abroad, I worked my way through four airports over two days of travel. It’s exhausting, and you shortly find that duty free looks the same just about everywhere, but I’ve found that I can navigate my way through almost any transportation hub, at this point. If I can’t, however, here’s a great segue into point 2…

547521_10151673153595028_562258848_n - Copy
I got so good at Ryan Air

 

  1. There’s nothing that you can’t express, unless you’re too embarrassed to mime it

I first experienced complete and utter language confusion when I studied abroad. I was on a bus from Zadar to Split, Croatia, when an elderly, balding man with a significant amount of missing teeth looked right at me and said a sequence of words that my brain was unable to register. Not a word. Not a phrase. Nothing.

So I sat there, I smiled, I nodded, I placed my hands in my lap, and then stupidly stared ahead, blankly, at the colorful, speckled fabric on the back of the headrest in front of me. I’d never felt more useless in my life.

Slowly, though, I learned to appreciate the art of miming and apologetic shrugging. While I never condone complete ignorance, when your faculties fail you, a grateful, wordless plea and the choo-choo noise will point you in the right direction to most train stations. Thankfully, standardized bathroom signs have saved me from ever miming number 1 or number 2.

1382017_10151727340700028_400539066_n - Copy
Thankfully, no miming require in Barcelona
  1. Proactively Google Map

Most smartphones have some sort of map feature, which come in handy quite often. What most people don’t realize is that when you use them, your route is saved in the phone until it either dies or you select another. So, when you’re heading out and don’t have Wi-Fi, map out the route to your destination while you still have Wi-Fi. It will help you get to where you need to go and will give you your starting location as a point of reference for when you need to go back. Please, however, take it with a grain of salt and make sure you’re going to the right place before you leave the warm, safe embrace of free internet.

1237747_10202066647293615_914596083_n - Copy
Also know how to read a real, paper map
  1. Don’t lose your cool

There are some situations where Murphy’s Law always holds true, and one of them is definitely international travel. Somehow, something you’re expecting underwhelms. Now, this can occur in varying degrees along the lines of “Damn, I forgot to pack a lunch, guess I’ll have to settle for a sandwich at the airport!” or “I’m stranded in Marrakech, Morocco without a passport because it just got stolen.” Both occurred to while I was studying abroad, ironically on the same trip.

The key to surviving these situations is to either not lose your cool or have someone there with you who won’t lose their cool. My good friend Ian was with me in Morocco and was instrumental in helping me stay sane as I
became increasingly hangry searching downtown Marrakech for the right documents I would bring to the U.S. consulate. I, on the other hand, was unflappable in finding a wayward friend one of my first nights in Salamanca when her phone was dead. Flexibility, I’ve learned, is key to weathering both the little and large snafus that will happen along the way.

10462506_10152668614870028_1581083004523674250_n
I want to go to there

 

 

Now, as I plan ahead to an epic Patagonian backpacking trip, tramping across New Zealand’s rugged, Middle-Earthen terrain, or exploring the Colombian beaches, I know I have some excellent skills in my toolbox. Undoubtedly, something will go wrong, but, *knock on wood*, it won’t be that serious and I’ll know how to deal with it, or at least fake it until I make it.

-Max Spiro, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant

The End of an Era

I returned to Denver from Milan about 5 days ago and the question I have heard the most from people is, “Aren’t you so glad to be home?” Honestly? No. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to see my friends and family and the mountains, but living in Italy was the experience of a lifetime and I am not ready for it to be over.

The last four months have been the wildest of my life. The amount of change and growth I experienced is unlike any other and I could not be more grateful for the blessing and experience to study abroad. I learned so much about myself and about the world around me, and I want to continue exploring those things.

When you move to a new country alone, you are forced to become an independent human being. You figure out how to survive like everyone else, and you figure out how to do it well. You learn, grow, change, make mistakes, fall down, and stand up again. I feel as though I changed and grew more in the last four months than I did in all of 2014 and 2015 combined. Looking back now, I would say I learned more from experiences than I did at my actual university- and to me, that’s okay. The lessons you learn abroad really can’t be taught in a classroom and they are invaluable.

A dear friend asked me to share a story about my experience abroad which explains my learning and growth, but the truth is I don’t have one specific story which explains such. There was no “Ah hah” moment, and there was no one specific time where I thought to myself, “Wow I just learned an invaluable life lesson which I can later apply in the real world”. No. The real truth: it is something which happens over time, and one day you wake up and realize you are a whole new person. It’s the experience as a whole which shapes and molds you for the rest of your life.

My growth has been for the better, and I am excited to start a new chapter of my life as a better, more confident and independent version of my old self. I see myself taking these new traits with me everywhere I go in life. From an interview, to a new job, to just being around the people that make me happy, I am a new me and that will never change.

So, to Milano, to the people I met abroad, and to the big, small, crazy, and not-so-crazy experiences I say thank you. Thank you for changing me forever and equipping me with the skills, independence, and confidence to face every new experience and challenge head-on, and to conquer the world, because as I have learned the world is my oyster.

It’s the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.

Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 4.29.17 PM
A wise friend once said to me, “You will return home and realize that everything around you has stayed the same, and you are the one who has changed.”

The Abroad Effect

01106ba43bcbde02867eab96c67422e191a2c23783Have you ever had your heart broken? It usually happens when you realize that something incredible, something transformational, something you love, is lost. I have been feeling a little brokenhearted lately because being abroad for the past four months changed my life for the better: it made me a broader thinker, a more aware world citizen, a better friend, and a more confident person than before. But now that time is over. Studying abroad for a semester changed my world and opened my eyes to more possibilities for my future than I knew existed. I constantly struggle with reminding myself that even though the time is up, the impact this experience had on my life and myself as a person will stay with me forever.

As I anticipated, my classes were rigorous and interesting. What I didn’t expect were all the things I learned things that could never be taught in a classroom. By speaking to people from different countries, I learned about various cultures throughout Europe in addition to their perspectives on the United States. I have never been more aware of U.S. politics as I am now because the people I talked to were so engaged with political issues throughout Europe and the U.S. and wanted to hear my thoughts on those issues. Learning from people of various backgrounds about their opinions and beliefs allowed me to expand my perspective regarding multiple issues including the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the terrorist attacks in Paris and around the world, and the best way to run healthcare systems. These conversations encouraged me to consider the United States’ role in those issues from an outsider’s view and ponder solutions to those issues with a more worldly perspective. I learned to be more critical of the things I previously accepted as fact, yet I also learned to appreciate things about the United States which I previously took for granted. I also learned how to communicate better, both verbally and non-verbally as well as to be fearless in trying to speak another language instead of embarrassed about how little I know. Studying abroad gave me the skills, knowledge, and curiosity to speak to people from different cultures about their values and beliefs.

DIS Ambassadors 1

One of the biggest changes I felt in myself was the development of independence and self-sufficiency. I no longer had my familiar city, friends, family, or even language around – yet I managed to create a life for myself. I learned how to navigate public transportation and I learned my way around the city. I had a bike and a gym and a favorite coffee shop and a short cut as well as a scenic route from my apartment to school. I learned how to not only survive, but thrive without my familiar surroundings or usual support systems. I made new friends, some of whom now feel more like family. Living so permanently out of my comfort zone forced me to grow up and rise to the challenges. It forced me to embrace adulthood with a more mature and aware perspective and to learn exactly how much I am capable of accomplishing.

11952944_10207722873456251_1775702090383828748_o

Coping with Returnee-ism

Oh boy. You’re a returnee. You’ve just gotten home from abroad. Now, you’re responsible for validating your existence and entire experience in a 30-second-or-less recap where you attempt to explain a roller coaster of emotions, a sense of self-actualization, loneliness, elation, and tangible experiences. Good. Luck.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve learned the greatest deflecting tactic on the planet:

Acquaintance A: “How was your trip?”

Me: “It was amazing!!!”

For most people, that interaction will suffice. They’ve engaged you to a surface-level point where they’ve shown enough interest to maintain your relationship, but still remain depth-free, and while you’re stricken with guilt knowing you’re telling a minuscule portion of your experience, you are more than happy to avoid talking about your trip’s pit falls and focus on the amazing parts. Win-win.

Japan1
I visited the Miyajima Shrine in Japan, which was actually amazing

Acquaintance A: “What made it so amazing? What did you do? Were there any difficult parts? ”

Once the second probe happens, you buckle down. They’re really interested. You’re not getting away scot free. Winter is coming.

You have to understand, I’m extroverted and still hate this part. I like to think of myself as articulate, but have an extremely difficult time encapsulating the holistic nature of a trip abroad. The peaks feed into the troughs, which then feed into the peaks, in an endless cycle that still affects me well after my return.

For example, during my study abroad program, I directly enrolled in the University of Salamanca, meaning I set up my own classes, lived with a host-family, and didn’t have an immediate support group of Americans I saw every day. I loved the freedom of this lifestyle, where I didn’t have to answer to anyone but myself, but simultaneously was driven crazy by the amount of time I spent alone. Working through the loneliness, on the flip side, remains a great point of pride for me, as I found my own inner strength and moral compass, but doesn’t take away from the fact that I was really lonely at times. In short, my experience was a double-edged sword, which was not always easy to explain. Returnee-ism reared its ugly head.

Vancouver1
The positive, amazing hike side of my double-edged trip to British Colombia      (negative side not pictured)

So, here’s my advice for dealing with returnee-ism:

  1. First, accept the fact that these interactions are going to happen, and are going to happen whenever you come home from an exciting place. I just got home from attending two of my best friend’s wedding in Japan a month ago, and I dealt with the exact same questions I faced coming home from Spain.
  2. Second, if the trip didn’t have a frustrating aspect, then you’re either remembering incorrectly or lying to yourself. Overall, my trip to Japan was one of the best of my life, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t low points. The longer you live somewhere, the more this is magnified. Even if you can’t explain the complete nature of a trip to someone else, be as truthful as possible. Gilding or demonizing your trips can discount what you learned from them.
  3. Third, debrief. I went to Israel during December of 2014 and had an interesting experience, but one that was really frustrating as well. I wrote a blog on it, which really helped me put my trip in perspective. I’m in the process of writing one for Japan, and always travel with a journal. Find whatever mechanism is best for you to debrief, it’ll do you a lot of good.
  4. Finally, internalize everything, and go out again. Each time I’ve traveled after my study abroad experience, either domestically or internationally, I applied what I learned before and gained new skills to boot.

-Max Spiro, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant

 

The Adventures of Grocery Shopping Abroad

There is nothing like figuring out how to shop at the grocery store abroad- especially when you are in non-english speaking country. When shopping in Italy you have two options: go to several different specialty shops around the city to find what you need, or brave the supermarket.

I chose to brave the supermarket because let’s face it, who has time to go to three, four, or even five shops to get food for the week? Not me!

The supermarket in Italy has been an adventure every single time I set foot on the dirty grocery store linoleum. The food is so different than anything I am used to at home in Colorado, and most of it is in a different language. I speak Italian pretty well, but there are so many words in the supermarket that I don’t understand-they don’t really teach that stuff in the classroom. And to top off the words I don’t understand, there are tons of foods I have never seen in a grocery store at home. I usually end up buying and trying something new every week.

And the rules! There are so many rules at the Italian supermarket. For example, when you pick up fresh produce at the supermarket you are supposed to wear a plastic glove. I learned that one the hard way. One of my first times in the supermarket I picked up a zucchini without a glove on and had an old man slap the vegetable out of my hand, start screaming at me in Italian, and then shove plastic gloves in my face! I stood there stunned and actually just left the store. I needed to regroup and try again another day.

Also, at the supermarket when you buy fresh produce, you have to put it on the electronic scale and print a sticker with a bar code on it. I once took all my stickerless produce to check out and was thoroughly embarrassed when I held up the entire line because I had to go back and get all the stickers for my produce.

Please, learn from my mistakes! To help you out next time you find yourself wandering the aisles of an Italian supermarket, I have put together a list of helpful tips.

  1. Leave yourself plenty of time. The supermarket is always an adventure, and usually a time consuming one, especially your first few visits. Leave yourself plenty of time each visit to get acquainted with the supermarket and get what you need.
  2. Know where the gloves are. Take my zucchini horror story to heart and learn where the plastic gloves are. They are usually on a tray on top of the plastic bags you use to carry your produce.
  3. Bring shopping bags. In Italy, you are charged for every plastic bag you use, if you don’t bring your own reusable bag. So bring a big purse, backpack, or reusable shopping bag with you to the store. Plus its easier to walk through the city with your groceries with a durable bag rather than a few plastic bags.
  4. Put stickers on your produce. Don’t hold up the entire check-out line, like I did! When you get your produce, place it on the electronic scale, press the button with the picture of the produce you have, grab the printed sticker, and throw it on the plastic bag. It’s pretty simple, and it will ensure you can scan the produce later when you are ready to check out!
  5. Bag your items yourself. At the supermarket in Italy, even when you are at the regular cash register, you have to bag your own items. The cashier will not do it for you, they will not help you, and there is no bag boy. When I am placing all my items on the belt, I try to organize them so I can easily put them in the bag after the cashier scans them. I also try to bag my stuff up as the cashier scans it so I can pay and immediately leave.

Shopping at the supermarket can be somewhat stressful and it is definitely always an adventure! Just remember to relax and laugh at yourself when you mess up.

Good luck!

 

Dealing with Different Teaching Styles

As students at the University of Denver, we are rather used to a certain teaching style and being held to the highest of standards. Coming abroad, I have quickly learned not every school is like that, and it has taken quite some time for me to adjust.

I can remember a time when I was completely in awe at how relaxed abroad professors are. I was sitting in class taking notes on a lecture, and another student stopped the professor to ask her a question. Before she began to answer, I asked her to flip back to the previous slide. She looked at me and said “Don’t worry about taking notes in class, I will post the slides online.” I was amazed! I’ve never had a professor encourage myself and the class to NOT take notes. What?! I know I don’t learn anything if I just sit there and listen, because in reality I’m not engaged and I’m not listening at all! So I continued on taking notes, and I will continue to do so- because that is what’s best for MY learning.

When you find yourself abroad, and in a classroom setting that you are not used to, I have compiled a list of my best tips to help you through.

18888bb4688cc4b233b88e6db1adfc55.jpg

1. Avoid taking your computer to class. We all know how easy it is to get distracted in the classroom when you have your laptop wide open, especially when your teacher barely speaks English and doesn’t really care if you are engaged or not. Instead, try to bring a notebook and pen and take notes the old fashion way. Really focus on engaging and listening to what your professor has to say.

2. Ask questions. Sometimes, it can be rather hard to understand the professor, both for language barrier reasons and because sometimes they really just don’t make sense. Engage, ask questions, and make sure you know what they are trying to convey to you.

3. Go to class. I know. You’re abroad. All you want to do is relax and travel and enjoy whatever beautiful city you are in. Trust me, I know. I all too often find myself sitting in a classroom thinking that it is just a sin to be spending so much of my time in class when there is a beautiful city around me just waiting to be explored and experienced. But let’s not forget- this is STUDY abroad. Get to class! You never know what kind of important information you could miss when you are in class.

4. Don’t let yourself get behind. I have learned that here abroad, there isn’t much in the grade book. Your grade is essentially attendance and your performance on a project or tests. Staying on top of your work is crucial to getting that passing grade you want and need. Do your work and do not, whatever you do, let yourself get behind.

5. Write it down. Because assignments are so rare, it can be easy to let them slip through the cracks and forget about them all together. When you are assigned something, be sure to write down what you have to do, and when it is due. This will help you to remember to get it done, and it will be one more small thing to help boost your grade.

 

Being in a new and unusual learning atmosphere is strange and often times stressful, but with a few tips and tricks, I’m confident you will triumph with passing grades.

 

Managing Great Expectations, A Tale of Two (or more) Cities

One of the most coveted parts of studying abroad is travel: whether it’s mountaineering, jungles, beaches, ancient cities, or just the tiny winding streets of a bustling metropolis, everyone manages to find new places to explore. What we forget in all our ideas of travel is the how component: finances, traveling companions, or accommodations. For me, how is transportation. Trains, planes, and buses (I know, I really wanted to put automobiles there for the pop-culture reference as well), all seem to offer something different. Trains offer extensive passes that make using vast rail networks affordable and fun to use. For planes, there is the convenience of quick and immediate travel. Then for the truly adventurous souls there are the long bus rides through the countryside that offers eclectic crowds and cheap fares. For me, I chose the former, trains. And it was trains that have truly shaken me to core on what it means to be flexible.

IMG_3677

In the past few weeks I have learned that there are few certainties in traveling. Recently I traveled on a train home from Munich, Germany and a train (partway) to Nice, France. And what do Bavaria and the French Riviera have in common, you might ask? My misfortune.

While traveling home from Oktoberfest my train managed to breakdown at the station in Munich, its replacement arrived 30 minutes later… The time between trains at my connection in Cologne? 25 minutes… After realizing that was the only train back to Brussels that day, I managed to take 4 subsequent evening trains around rural Germany and Belgium to finally catch a midnight train back “home.” After two weeks to recover I boarded another train to Paris, with a connection to Nice, which just happened to coincide with rail strikes and the worst floods the French Riviera has had in decades. Courtesy of an unexpected 20 minute stop in the French countryside, my train arrived late at Gare de Nord in Paris and I was unable to make it to Gare de Lyon in time to catch the last train to Nice. Unfortunately there were no options around France to make it to Nice: Nice is conveniently a small town in Southern France that is hard to get to, was hit by floods and slowly reopened, and railroad strikes simultaneously plagued France and Northern Europe. While I laugh now at these experiences, I definitely took at least a few months off my life.

Flexibility. The buzzword of parenting, the guiding light of the workplace, and the universal doctrine of expats. It is the greatest mind game one can play (aside from doing planks and minesweeper).How far can you push your mind before it breaks. As a guy who loves a plan and back-up plans I struggle with the term flexibility. Prior to coming abroad, flexibility to me was the ability to change the plan to the back up plan on the fly. What I have learned, however, is that flexibility is not simply being able to change the plan but being able to accommodate for the “oh sh**” moments. It’s all about taking a deep breath, accepting that life isn’t in your favor at the moment and pushing forward.

Even Yoda had some “oh sh**” moments, he never really saw the whole Darth Vader thing coming…  Flexibility is saying, you know what, I may be stuck in rural Germany but there’s a McDonald’s and I’ll be ok. Flexibility is the combination of gratitude, a calm demeanor, and the ability to simply make something out of nothing. Of course you’re going to have your buttons pushed traveling, its uncomfortable to have to compartmentalize what you believe is necessary to enjoy your time somewhere, then be treated like cattle under the false pretense that you’re an explorer commandeering your method of transport, only to find out you will be late, tired, and unprepared. The thing is, nobody is prepared for all the ways travel plans can go wrong, but they should be prepared for how to make everything go right.

Life throws us curveballs and new environments, and we teach ourselves something new. There is always a new person to meet, an emotion to feel, and travel makes that possible. To those studying abroad: everyday you find out what you don’t know, but the shock is never supposed to eliminate what you already know. In Brussels, I am always on my toes. Whether it is a professor failing 30 out of 33 students on the midterm exam, the city being locked down for raids to find terrorists, getting stuck two towns away from home when the metro shuts down, or simply trying to figure out how to make a 20 euro bill turn into 9 euros worth of .50 cent coins. Breath, do your Zen thing and move on with it.

Traveling is a constantly evolving practice that lets humans live the nomadic adventure that we crave. Yogis, fruit leather, and Gumby are all flexible. But then again, they never missed the last train to Brussels from Cologne on a Sunday evening.