So as a part of a study abroad essay contest, I wrote this to reflect on my experiences. In case you never kept up with my blog that I wrote while abroad, here is a quick reflection essay with tips and advice if you ever decide to take the same plunge!
Fifteen minutes before I had to be at the airport and it looked like I had not begun to pack. Clothes flooded my room as I frantically dug through my bags to see what I could take out to shed off those five extra pounds that pushed my two huge suitcases over the weight limit. After stuffing as much as I could in my carry-ons and bidding goodbye to one of my favorite pairs of shoes that did not make the cut, I marched out the door to and embarked on my journey.
It’s funny to think that tips start before you even leave the house but this is a huge one: Make sure you weigh your bags even before you leave your house. This eliminates problems later at the airport when all you want is the security of sitting at the gate, knowing that you are one step closer to Europe. You can also take the lesson with you overseas. Travelling later on in other countries, you’ll have to remember how to sacrifice not bringing your favorite scarf in order to board the cheap airline that affords you one backpack for your weekend trip to Valencia.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I always knew that I wanted to study abroad. Going on college visits and listening to campus representatives, I carefully weighed their individual programs to make sure where I went would ensure me a good experience. Coming to University of Miami, I saw a wealth of opportunities in countries on every continent so I knew I would be content when it came my time to go! A Spanish major, I knew I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country. So Latin America or Europe? I had been to countries in both before and knew they would offer distinct experiences. I eventually chose Spain because of the opportunities to travel affordably to other parts of Europe and because I always have been drawn by it’s rich culture and history.
With city choice next on the agenda, my city-girl mentality took hold and I knew I had to be in the center of the country’s hustling and bustling capital. After an application, interview, and a new passport, I ended up in Madrid, Spain with nothing more than two suitcases and a fluttering heart, anxious to see what was in store.
The experience of a lifetime does not necessarily equate to a fairytale. I hit more than my fair share of road bumps; but through them all, became a more confident and capable individual. In my four months abroad, I learned more about myself than I have in twenty years, all while gaining a new perspective on our diverse world.
It would be selfish to keep this knowledge to myself, so here you go. A guide on “What to do when…” for some events you might encounter while on your own expedition.
What to do when you realize you have no idea where you are
Bags in hand, I exited the airport terminal and it hit me: I am completely on my own with only an address on a piece of paper to guide me. Not educated on how to use the metro, I settled to take a taxi to my new home. The daughter of my host mom greeted me and helped me lug my belongings up to the second floor where I was shown my new room. With ample closet space and my own bathroom, I felt comfortable there but still felt uneasy about the experience. I started to unpack until dinnertime (I still remember my first meal of fish and potatoes fondly…) prepared by my host mom’s housekeeper. My 80-year-old “señora” did not speak any English and, being out of practice, I was apprehensive at first. I learned quickly this would not do and I needed to get over my fear of the language and speak the best I could. Something that set me up well for the rest of the time I was abroad. My living situation was a bit different from most. Not only was it just she, two cats, and I, I also did not have Internet. This was just one of the many things I had to adapt to while abroad and, in the end, the break from technology served me well.
What to do to take up time because you don’t have Internet
No Internet? No TV? What do you do then? Madrid is a huge city and there is never a shortage of things going on. Everyday I wanted to get out of the house so would find a new shop to explore, a new coffee spot to try, a museum to go to, or place to relax. My favorite book while abroad was from Time Out. They helped me find cool vintage stores to hole-in-the wall restaurants that I shared with my friends. They covered all the different neighborhoods throughout the city and I carried the book around with me at all times.
What to do when you don’t know where you are
I found the metro to be the best way to get around. Of course, you can get lost but after a few connections, you can get to a familiar spot. I also found madrileños to be some of the nicest people. Very rarely do you go somewhere and not strike up a random conversation whether you are waiting in line to pay for groceries or contemplating a Picasso painting in the Reina Sofia. Almost every city I travelled to from Barcelona to Paris had metro systems as well and our main source of transportation.
What to do when nobody wants to spend money on his or her phones
You’re in Europe and the last thing you want to be spending your money on is your cell phone. All of my friends were on a “pay as you go” system and with one text costing .15 Euros, it can be gone faster than you can say “hasta luego.” So what do you do? Plan in advance and make calls QUICK.
What to do when you forget how to study
“Studying abroad” is a term to use loosely. Studying in college equals all-nighters in the library, burying your head in books with a Red Bull in hand. “Studying abroad” in Europe is much more than that. It’s about studying the culture, language, environment, and way of life. Professors understand this and thankfully are not there to keep you swamped in schoolwork, but rather, encourage trips and exploration of the city. But you do have those pesky mid-terms and final exams that can interrupt your idyllic state. That’s ok though. Just buckle down, get it out of the way, and think about all your friends at home spending countless hours in the library to ace that Bio exam.
What to do when you need a break
City life can be exhausting. Walking from place to place immersing yourself in the hustle and the bustle of the city is exhilarating but everyone needs to get away. I found that for every big city in Europe, there is an equally big countryside surrounding it. One of my favorite excursions was a camping trip in El Escorial, a small town outside of Madrid. A local student took a group and me up to the top of a mountain providing one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. Looking for something a little bit closer? Parks are everywhere and the upkeep tends to be extraordinary. In Madrid, Parque del Buen Retiro and Parque Oeste stand out and you’ll always find people there relaxing on a nice day.
What to do when you can’t read the menu
Uh-oh! You get to a restaurant and nothing looks familiar. Even though I am pretty fluent in Spanish, I still found myself questioning what was being offered. Or imagine getting to Paris with a group of five and no one knows French. What do you do? That’s when I usually ask what’s good and order whatever the waiter wants to get me. This led to one of my favorite meals in Lisbon, as well as an extraordinary meal in Sevilla. I have always considered food to be the best reflection of a culture. So step out of your comfort zone and make it a point to try something new! Even if something like bull’s tail sounds disgusting, you just might find it to be your new favorite food.
What to do when you are sleep deprived
Somehow you manage to stay out until the metro is starting up again in the morning and have to be in class in three hours. Thankfully, some café con leche gets you through class but by the end of it, you are exhausted. Well, this is when the Spanish tradition of taking a siesta really pays off! From sleeping to eating, you’ll find that the schedule in Spain is unlike anything you have encountered. My main advice is to embrace the change and you will forget that you knew anything different. The Spanish don’t start their day until about nine, take a long lunch break since it is their biggest meal of the day, take a siesta in the afternoon, and enjoy tapas, dinner, and drinks around ten that will continue well into the night even when there is work the next day.