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.

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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.

 

Never Stop Exploring

How lucky we are to call DU one of our homes
How lucky we are to call DU one of our homes

Do you remember the moment that DU stopped feeling like a new strange place and started feeling like home? Maybe you went away for a weekend and texted your friends that you would be home in a few hours, but were referring to campus. Or maybe you finally figured out the quickest exit to take or the best short cuts around Denver. But I think I can safely assume that at some point, DU shifted from just your school to your home. Well that happens abroad too. Its one of the greatest feelings: you finally know the lay of the land and you can roll your eyes at the tourists like the rest of the locals do when they do silly things like walk in the bike lane or get confused on the metro. You did your time as the foreigner, and now you feel like a member of the community.

However there is something about this shift is equally as dangerous as it is beautiful. You are comfortable. You have a routine, favorite places, and a schedule. The city starts to lose its grandeur and becomes a little less exciting. I am a creature of habit, and I love getting a routine and being familiar with my surroundings, so I would have let my comfort in Copenhagen happen without complaint. Luckily for me, my parents showed up just in time. I absolutely loved showing them my new city and all my favorite places, but I knew I couldn’t entertain them for an entire week on my favorite coffee shops and parks, so I signed us up for the “Urban Bike Tour” by Cycling Copenhagen. This bike tour wasn’t the typical tourist attraction – instead it was an exploration of some of the areas just out of the inner-city. It wasn’t until this tour that I realized how much more there was to discover in Copenhagen! Our tour guide pointed out a tiny shop under a clothing store, declaring it was the best coffee in Denmark. He snaked us through a cemetery that people use like a park, then led us to a gorgeous, quiet canal crowded with dainty boats with hand-painted names peeling from their sides. He showed us the wealthy district with roads three times as large as in the city and some of the world’s best ice cream.

Shoutout to Yelp! for helping me discover a new brunch spot
Shoutout to Yelp! for helping me discover a new brunch spot

I realized had developed my own bubble consisting of my apartment, school, and favorite study spots and parks – but this tour expanded my awareness of the city and re-lit my excitement for learning more about the city. There were bike bridges and paths I didn’t know existed, a remodeled meat-packing district of new restaurants and bars, a street with unique shops and flee markets on the weekends, and more. That day I challenged myself as I am about to challenge you, to explore at least one new place every week, because even when you think you know someplace like the back of your hand, there are still undiscovered nooks and crannies just waiting to be discovered. You might find the world’s best bakery or an astonishingly beautiful cemetery, a fantastic coffee shop or a stunning running trail. Take a friend, or go alone. Spend an entire day somewhere new, or just stop by for an hour or less. Whatever you do, never stop exploring. Your time abroad is limited, so you need to savor every second of it. When you feel comfortable or find yourself talking about your abroad city like home, appreciate your accomplishment of making it your own, but take on the challenge of continuously finding new places.

Word of mouth works for discovering new places too! If you don't know locals to ask, try your professors!
Word of mouth works for discovering new places too! If you don’t know locals to ask, try your professors!

A Word About Homestays

So, let’s set the scene.

You’re a sophomore (maybe a junior by credits, don’t get cocky). You’re about to study abroad. You notice a lot of the coolest places (*cough* Spain *cough*) require or highly suggest a homestay. You wish you had someone to give you advice about the dirty details of the homestay life. You stumble across this blog.

Or, scenario B: you’re a future employer stalking me on Google. You stumble across this blog.

So, either way, here you are, reading my advice about homestays. Homestays are tricky to write about because everyone has such a unique experience. So, I would like to disclaim that my observations and experiences may not hold true for every place, family, program, etc.

To begin, I would like to touch on the type of people who sign up to host a student. The first type of homestay is a family that wants to provide a room to a student in order to supplement their income. As Spain is having tough economic times, this is a very common scenario. The next type of homestay is someone elderly and/or alone, usually a woman, who would like some company. This situation can be weird because you almost feel obligated to spend time with your host family. The last type of homestay includes a family with kids. In this type of homestay, the family sometimes would like you to practice English with their kids.

The three scenarios for homestays are just generalizations, naturally. Sometimes, the host family can be a combination of the different types described above. For example, my host mom Maria* is a combination of the first and second situation. However, sometimes homestays can be nothing like what I described. For example, my friend’s family requested to be a homestay because their cousin hosts students as well.

After realizing the different types of families, the best advice I could give is to fill out the homestay request form as detailed as possible. A lot of other applicants do not take the time to do this. Therefore, if you are more specific you will likely get things you request. For example, I wrote down a specific neighborhood on the form. You could request a specific walking distance from school. Some of the surfers on my program asked to be closer to the beach (however, this did pose a longer commute to school and metros don’t run super late every night of the weekend!). A lot of people request families with kids.

I requested to be near the Guggenheim, a central location in Bilbao.
I requested to be near the Guggenheim Museum, a central location in Bilbao, Spain.

Another important part of the homestay request form is the roommate section. I said I did not care if I had roommate and I was assigned a single. At first I was excited to have a single, because roommates sound like the epitome of freshman year. I soon realized there were pros and cons to living in a homestay alone. For example, it might have been easier to have a friend to work through the language barrier with. It also could have been nice to have a friend to go out with, because it is always safer to walk home with someone. However, living alone helped me be independent from the group and I also got to practice more Spanish! You should consider these things before filling out the form because it really shapes the homestay experience.

Finally, once you are abroad and living in a homestay, remember that it is going to be weird. Maria treats me like a child a lot, as if I have not been living on my own for a while now. For example, after my return from Morocco, my host mom had reorganized my whole closet. All of my sandals are now missing. The same thing happened to my swimsuit top in September. If my bed isn’t made perfectly, she will remake it. She does my laundry, cleans my dishes, and has even blow dried my hair. And I kind of feel helpless because I never had the courage to tell her these things bothered me and that I am a capable adult. I also was not really sure how to say all of these things in Spanish. If I had been honest with Maria, I would have saved a lot of time harboring anger toward her. However, if you are only going to be honest with your host family about one thing, let it be the food. Otherwise, they will cook you the same crappy dish they think you like (think: pigs’ feet).

In the end, I had a lot of trouble getting along with my host mom. But do I regret it? Not really. If I had lived with friends, I would not have practiced Spanish every day. I would have wasted time cooking and cleaning that I could have used exploring. In the end, it is one thing to live alongside a while culture abroad, but my homestay let me live within the Spanish culture.

*name has been changed

Asian Elephants in Thailand

This video provides a brief history about the hardships of Asian elephants and a couple reasons why Thai elephants are treated differently than, say, the neighboring Asian elephants in Myanmar. But the overall message of this video is meant to be positive. Meet Bird and his family who live just outside of Thailand and are trying hard and succeeding in saving sixteen elephants and counting. Meet the elephants I fell in love with and experience all the emotions they are fully capable of displaying.

Some Downsides…


Leaving for abroad, you hear about a lot of things that may happen to you. Administrators warn you about things such as homesickness, theft, and culture shock. Being the ignorant kid that I am, I thought none of this would possible happen to me. I thought DU and my study abroad program were only telling me these things out of obligation. However, after only a month and a half abroad, all three of these things have happened to me. So, if you’re ready, let’s jump on into some of the unforeseen (although definitely should have been) misfortunes of Kerry Nelson’s life abroad.

The first thing I thought would be less of an issue is homesickness. I am 20 years old and I am an out of state student. I have been a full day of traveling away from my parents and home for two full years now. Actually the plane ride home from Spain is only three hours longer now than it would be in Colorado. But what I forgot is I have a home at DU now too. So not only do I occasionally miss my parents and siblings, I also miss my friends at school, the mountains, the campus, and of course, Illegal Pete’s. This is not to say I’m counting down the days till home, but I just really thought homesickness would not be a problem for me. Love being completely wrong.

The next misfortune that has befallen me is a pick-pocket incident in Rome. I’m studying in Spain but during my travels, I found myself in a crowded subway near the edge of the doors. This woman then approaches the door and starts yelling in Italian asking if the subway stops at some stop name that I forget. I, perhaps stupidly, react and say, in Spanish, i don’t know. Then she gets in my face and asks if I speak French (in French). I tell her “no.” I look away for a hot second and then she’s gone. While on the subway back to the hostel my friend and I thought it was so weird what had just happened and we are not too worried. Leaving the
girl-pick-pocket1 subway I decide to check my purse just in case and my wallet is gone. Dope. Shock turns to annoyance turns to a small moment of panic when I can’t pay to get to the airport to meet up with my program, which turns to complete inconvenience in numerous ways once arrived in Sevilla. Like, I can’t buy roller-blades online and a gal just wants to blade. (I also can’t buy plane tickets and bike passes online but this should very soon be rectified. Worry not.) All I’m saying is theft esses a dee in many ways and a lot of times there is nothing that can be done. But one thing would be don’t engage with crazy, yelling people on packed subways. ~the more you know~

The last thing which has happened here is I have learned the definition of culture shock. Culture shock doesn’t have to be completely debilitating or entirely obvious. Culture shock can be going into a café and genuinely not knowing how to order a coffee, like an infant. It can be getting served a full fish, eyes and all, at your home-stay and not knowing how to say in Spanish that’s the sight of this dish, no matter how delicious tasting it may be, makes you want to find the nearest bathroom and hurl. It’s being confused and not knowing how to function as a human person within the culture. The little things become difficult and thus life becomes a whole lot less comfortable. I didn’t quite fully understand the concept of culture shock until recently when people where taking pictures of my friends and I at a café for apparently doing something against the norm and I honestly still have no idea what it was.

Homesickness, theft, and culture shock are three not ideal concept that exist abroad. But do you know what is ideal? Spain. Spain is ideal. When I start to get down about one of these things that haven’t gone exactly my way, I just remember where I am and how lucky I am to get to this experience. Homesickness can be solved with a phone call or a funny conversation with my friends. Theft is not the end of the world by any means. And culture shock just means I am learning by trial and error and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not abroad to have the same experiences I would in the states. I’m so happy to be here and am ready for the next misfortune to come my way.

Life in China (A Series of Mini Posts)

I have come to the humbling realization that despite speaking Chinese at home with my parents for the past 20 years, I still have the language skills of a Chinese 3rd grader. Apparently, there’s more to speaking a language than asking mom what’s for dinner everyday. 

If math were like the Chinese language, we would use a different symbol to represent every number instead of putting digits together to create larger numbers. There would also be 60,000ish numbers but we would only use about 2000 in normal everyday equations. People will often forget how to write certain numbers. They will ask the nearest mathematician who will chuckle with embarassment and shrug because they also don’t know. 

The term “APEC blue” was coined to describe the clear blue skies that appear when the Chinese government shuts down all the factories surrounding Beijing and bans half of the cars on the road to ensure good air quality for important national/international events like the APEC summit, olympics, military parade, etc… Anyway, I think that’s my new favorite color.

Chinese cafeteria ladies are terrifying. Don’t ever waste more than 5 seconds of their time when ordering food. 

My roommate keeps coming home drunk at 3 in the morning, ordering Mcdonalds (they deliver here!), and then promptly passing out after calling them. Which means that I’m left to deal with the angry delivery guy showing up at our dorm at 3:30 wondering why the crap she didn’t answer her phone. This has happened at least 3 times in the last 2 weeks. Every time I have very patiently woken her up so that she could get her food and pay for it. Next time I swear I’m just going to eat it. 

Today was a rare sunny, blue skied, pollution free day. I even saw a cloud! It was so beautiful that I cried a little. 

My program organized a “language partner activity” today where we were paired up with a Chinese student and spent an hour speaking English and an hour speaking Chinese. I’m pretty sure the whole thing was an elaborate ploy by the teachers to set us all up on blind dates.

I’m starting to miss little things about living in the United States. Like salad, and Netflix, and tap water that won’t kill you. Also breathing. You know, just the small stuff. 

Seriously though, like who even came up with this writing system? Also, Chinese dictionaries are ridiculous. In the time it takes me to look up one word, I could walk down to the coffee shop, make a new friend, have them do my homework for me, and still have time to order dessert. (That, my friends, is called opportunity cost.) Thank goodness for smart phones.

ESTOY SUDANDO: I.am.sweating.

Ever wanted to study abroad in the Dominican Republic? Unsure what to except? Well, you’ve come to the right place. My name is Becca Blaustein and I came to Santiago, the second largest city on the island, completely clueless. If you don’t want to make the same mistake as me, I urge you to keep reading.

A little about me: I just started my Junior Year at DU studying Art, Spanish, and Education. In my free time I enjoy, relaxing, drawing, and being outdoors. I’ve traveled to other countries for vacation but beware, there’s a huge difference between “vacationing in” and “living in” another country.

I’ve been in the Dominican Republic for 3 weeks now and it is a miracle I’m still alive. With 70-100% humidity daily, you’d think we’d be experiencing torrential downpours. The truth is, it hasn’t rained here in over 6 months and the temperature doesn’t drop below 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Like I said, it is a miracle I’m still alive. Along with the heat, it is not common here for girls to wear shorts. Yes ladies, that means jeans, skirts, dresses and pants every single day, no matter how cute the new high-waisted jean shorts you just bought are. No matter how sweaty you are. (Unless you don’t mind sticking out more than you already do).

8 things I’ve learned about Dominican culture thus far:

1. Dominicans don’t sweat. Period. 99.9% of the people wear jeans to school every single day. They do so without breaking a sweat, not a single droplet. I tried wearing jeans today for the first time. Here is my advice: Don’t do it.

2. If you’re white, you will be stared at. If you have blonde hair, you will be stared at. If you’re white AND have blonde hair, never expect NOT to be stared at. In the United States, we have something called “a comfort level.” This concept might be foreign to some, but this cultural norm exists when someones behavior exceeds what you feel comfortable with. In return you get mad or offended. OR if you feel something becoming uncomfortable, you immediately find a way to stop it. For example, staring. Most people know when it is not appropriate to stare and know when to stop staring. When you are walking towards someone on the street in the U.S., there comes a point when you look away from the person because you no longer feel comfortable making eye contact or looking at them. This concept doesn’t apply here in the Dominican Republic. Wherever you go, people will stare at you, continue to stare at you and not stop staring at you until you are out of sight. You will lose the starting contest every time. Every. Single. Time. Without fail.

3. This one is called TSSSSSSTTTT “Hello Beautiful,” “Wowww rubia,” y “Ay mamiii.” This is what some people might call “catcalling.”In the DR though these comments are more widely considered compliments. Starting from childhood most boys are trained to compliment or show interest in women as they walk by on the street. Yes, at times commentary can be crude or vulgar, which no woman likes, but mostly these “compliments” are culturally accepted. Something to keep in mind though, as an american female aka, a very small minority on this island, the commentary does happen much more frequent then per say to your average Dominican woman. Boys, not so much a concern for you.

4. Here tigres are a different kind of animal AKA SANKI PANKIS. Quick summary: these dominicans may be charming, they might even be good looking but they just want sex, your money, or marriage…..so they can get a visa to the U.S.A. aka “the land of opportunities.” Boys, yes this is a concern for you too.

5. The majority of Taxi drivers think you are stupid solely because you are a U.S American. Don’t ask them how much a ride costs, don’t ask them their favorite bar, and DON’T get in one off the street. Concho and Taxi drivers will often try to overcharge you because they think you’re rich, dumb and a tourist. True story: some friends asked a driver to take them to his favorite bar because the driver didn’t know where the bar they want to go to was located. The driver drove them 10 minutes and stopped at a bar. This “drive” consisted of going around the block a few times, and then stopping a few buildings down from where they were originally picked up. He tried to charge them double the cost of a normal taxi ride. They laughed and gave him what the ride should have cost and left the car. Another note, street taxi drivers may try to lock you in their car, only call for one from a company you know and trust.

6. Despite the rumors, dominicans DO like to party. On any given night the discotecas and bars can be found full of people. Wednesdays, ladies drink for free. On the weekends you cannot enter a discoteca unless you are WELL dressed: button ups, heels or nice sandals, dresses, dress shoes. Apparently, no nose rings. No gages. They also go out realllyyyyy late, night life doesn’t start until 11. Somehow I’ve recently converted into an early bird bedtimer so lets just say I haven’t been super involved in the night life.

7. Never believe anything the restaurant and bar owners say when you walk down Playa Sosúa. They all have the best prices. They all have the best food. They all have been saving a table JUST for you. They will try to entice you with free wifi, no tax, and free beach chairs. Most of them have free wifi and none of them have tax (here its included in the prices) BUT be careful with the beach chairs. I repeat be careful with the beach chairs. Not everyone offers a chair for free with your meal. They may make it seem like you get one for free but make sure to double check or else you will end up with an umbrella but no chairs to lay under the umbrella. Side note: the beaches are BEAUTIFUL. Clear, warm (and very salty) water; white sand; lots of fish. Try to spend as much time at the beach as possible but WEAR SUNSCREEN. Dominican sun is HOT. (proof in the sunburns, aka as a non-sunscreen wearer, not worth it.)

8. “¿Cómo tu ta?” aka what did you just say? So there’s spanish right, and then theres dominican. Whatever you thought you knew about spanish before you came to the DR is wrong. Just kidding, but you might feel that way at first. Dominican accents are really strong. They like to cut off the ends and beginning of words and make up words and speak spanglish and add tus. Dominicans hate S’s. Its really fun. But don’t worry, you’ll catch on and get the hang of it. This one I gave you means, “¿Cómo estás?”

And soooo, the list most definitely does and will go on but I do not want to bore you too much more. In the next 3 months, 1 week and 2 days (but who’s counting) I will continue to become immersed in and learn about the culture here in the Dominican Republic. Although a lot of it is different from what I am used to, I find comfort in the things that remain the same across cultures; the love for family and friends, the lighthearted jokes and the kind gestures. A small smile goes a long way. The list I have made is not meant to scare you or concern you but only meant to inform you; to rid of any preconceived notions or expectations you may, or may not, have. These are important lessons I have learned and they address the realities of entering another culture and country completely new and different from your own. The DR, along with any other country in the world, does not have the same history, values, government or culture as the U.S.; something easy to forget when you have only vacationed in another country and not actually had the opportunity to live there. I am thankful for this opportunity to learn, grow and understand.