What I Know Now About Studying Abroad in Italy

Your decision to study abroad in Italy will likely be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make. I know firsthand how amazing it is to take off and live in Italy for weeks on end, immersing yourself in the culture, traveling, studying, and eating lots of gelato. Before you book your ticket, you need to make sure studying abroad in Italy is the right decision for you.

Moving to a new country, even temporarily, is a huge decision. You need to consider the cultural differences between what you are used to in the U.S. and what to expect in Italy. College life in Italy is not the same as college life in the U.S. 

There may be cultural differences you do not understand or you find frustrating. On the other hand, you might find differences that are fascinating and interesting! When I studied abroad in Italy, I experienced lots of ups and downs from culture shock and the stress that came with adjusting to a new way of living. Now I am going to share with you my experiences and what I learned while studying abroad. 

Photo by Doug Davey, made available by Flickr-Biblioteca dell'Instituto delle ScienceUniversità di Bologna-study abroad in Italy

1. There’s More Than One Way to Study Abroad in Italy

First off, let’s talk about college life in Italy. There are three ways American students can study abroad in Italy. American students can study abroad in Italy via a faculty-led, exchange, or provider program. Each type of program will give you a different study abroad experience.

For my first study abroad experience, I went on a short-term faculty-led program with my university. This means that the faculty members and students went abroad together in the program. Also, it means the faculty and students worked at or attended my home university. It was a great first step into the study abroad field. I had a bit of a safety net but still had plenty of independence.

My second time studying abroad was through a third-party provider with other American students, but not necessarily students from my home university. This is a great option to meet more people from all over the country and the world. There is more independence and more opportunities if you go this route. 

While I did not go on an exchange program, I think this is a great option for students ready to push themselves and be more independent. You will live like an international student in Italy, meeting locals and people from all over the world. You will need to adapt to the Italian style of education unlike the other two programs, but that’s part of the fun of immersing yourself in Italian culture!

Photo by Sailko, made available by Wikimedia-Villa La Pietra, Home to NYU Florence - Study Abroad in Italy

2. Culture Shock Can Be Confusing

For many students who study abroad, it is the first big international trip they will take on their own. In my personal experience, I found this both exciting and a bit intimidating. You won’t be able to research everything before you go. To be successful abroad, you need to expect the unexpected.

There will probably be some level of culture shock when you can’t seem to find anyone who understands you or speaks English. You may be frustrated when you want to go shopping but the stores are closed in the middle of the day so the workers can relax. Similarly, you might feel out of place in your jeans and flip-flops, when Italians are wearing slacks and stilettos. 

Safety needs to be a priority when you are studying abroad in Italy. Generally, Italy is a safe country, but you should be aware of petty theft. Pickpockets are common in all major cities, and will grab items from your purse, bag, or back pocket without you even noticing. 

Also, make sure to travel in groups at night if you are going to an unknown area. Use your common sense and instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, listen to your gut.   

Cultural differences may be discombobulating and hard to keep track of, but make sure you process what you are feeling. This is all part of the growing process when studying abroad. You will soon be able to compare the culture with your own and realize how one is not better than the other, just different! 

Photo by RG TLV, made available by Flickr-A Busy City Street in Rome, Italy - Study Abroad in Italy

3. Think Carefully About Which City You Choose

I’d say the two most popular cities in Italy to study in are Rome and Florence. Both cities offer a unique Italian adventure for American students. There are so many famous and important sites in each city. From the Roman Colosseum to Michelangelo’s David, you will never run out of things to see and do. 

Keep in mind peak travel season is in the summer months. If you’re studying in a city like Rome or Florence, expect large crowds around then. When I was studying in Italy, it was during peak travel time in June. If you want to avoid the onslaught of tourists that create long lines, busy streets, and more expensive prices, I recommend looking at study abroad programs in Italy during the fall, spring, or even winter semester.    

Rome is an obvious choice when considering study abroad in Italy. It is the capital of the country, has historical ruins scattered throughout the city, and offers access to Vatican City. Rome is one of the best places to study religion, history, and politics. Also, art museums are not to be missed in Rome. They have pieces and sculptures from the early Roman Empire to more modern and contemporary artwork. 

The birth of the Renaissance happened in Florence. It’s the perfect city to study the arts, politics, and humanities. This city is not huge and spread out like Rome. Instead, it’s a very walkable city and pretty easy to get around. Living in this city, students are surrounded by art on the streets, in museums like the Uffizi Gallery, and in its famous architectural accomplishments like the Duomo. 

It’s also a great city to try some of the best food and drinks you will ever taste, in my opinion. Seriously, I had amazing pizza and the best lasagna I’ve ever had in this city. Also, some iconic Italian vineyards are only a quick bus ride away from Florence. This means you can enjoy a bottle of Chianti under the Tuscan sun.

Photo by Bruno Rijsman, made available by Flickr-An Aerial View of the Duomo and Florence - Study Abroad in Italy

4. There Is a Lot of Work to Do Before You Arrive in Italy

You need to figure out where exactly you want to go, pick a program, research visa and passport requirements, arrange for accommodations, and of course, book your flight. Before you take off, there are several crucial steps to take.

At Your University

  • Determine what type of classes you want and need to take. Do you want to take general education courses abroad or focus solely on your major? Are you interested in taking language courses or completing an internship? Reflect on your answers.
  • After pondering what classes you want to take, it’s time to seek out some help. Make an appointment with a study abroad adviser. I did not do this before studying in Italy and I really wish I would have. The advisers can help with scholarship information, answer questions about life abroad, and help you figure out what program(s) are best for you.
  • Compare programs and apply! Use suggestions from your study abroad advisors and start looking at the details of each program you might be interested in. Don’t forget to look at the eligibility section. Usually there is a GPA requirement and sometimes only sophomores and up can apply to certain programs.

At Your University

  • Get a passport and visa. A passport is essential, so you should get one now if you haven’t already. The processing time takes several weeks. Your study abroad program provider will be able to tell you if you need a visa or not. Another resource you can use is via the Italian embassy or through the U.S. Department of State website. Most likely, you will need a student visa if you are staying during the fall or spring semesters. If you do a short-term program in Italy like me, then you won’t need a visa.
  • Arrange housing ASAP. Housing can be difficult to come by in Italy. Luckily, many programs do the hard work for you and give you a designated temporary living space while you study abroad. It can vary from a dorm, apartment, or even a homestay. If the study abroad program provider or university you will be attending does not provide housing, contact the provider or university for tips and leads on housing in the area.
  • Book your flight! Once you have applied and been accepted, it’s time to book your flight and jet off to Italy! Sometimes providers include flights in their budgets and sometimes they do not. Make sure you check as soon as possible.

Photo by Alan Wilson, made available by Flickr-An ITA Airways Plane En Route to Rome - Study Abroad in Italy

5. Studying Abroad Will Change Your Worldview

Studying abroad will change you. You’ll taste food unlike any you have ever had before in the United States. You will feel like you are traveling back in time while exploring ruins and ancient cultural artifacts. 

Living in Italy will force you to throw away your preconceived notions about the country and the world. From a basic understanding like how “soccer” should really be called “football,” to a deeper understanding of personal values and how to live. For example, many Italians (and Europeans) work to live, but American values dictate you live to work. In my experience, my worldview changed and I was challenged on a personal and educational level. 

Photo by Dale Cruse, made available by Flickr-A Plate of Bucatini all'amatriciana in Rome - Study Abroad in Italy

Start Planning Your Italian Adventure!

Deciding to study abroad in Italy will be one of the best decisions you make in college. Studying abroad is glamorized on social media and is looked at as an amazing time all the time. In reality, it’s a mix of challenges and confusing at times. However, it is also filled with fun adventures and eye-opening experiences. I encourage you to give it a shot and push yourself out of your bubble and go live and study abroad!

Interested in learning more about studying abroad? Check out this article about studying abroad in Spain next.

7 Packing Tips to Solo Cycle Around Europe

As those of you who have been following Dreams Abroad may know, I recently finished my first-ever cycle tour across Europe. I cycled approximately 6,000 km (that’s nearly 3,730 miles!) over 103 days. My journey took me through Italy, France, Spain, Vatican City, Monaco, and Andorra. It was hard to figure out what the most […]

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The Capital of Christmas in Strasbourg, France

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Before moving to Strasbourg, France, I had no idea it was considered the “Capital of Christmas.” I always thought that title belonged to some city in Germany or maybe the Laplands in Finland, but surprise, it belongs to Strasbourg. 

Being a “newbie” to Strasbourg in autumn 2021, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this world-famous Christmas market, especially coming out of the pandemic. But I quickly learned that as the start of the Christmas season nears, you can feel the excitement and expectancy in the air, especially from locals. Although it’s cold outside, people are ready. They’re ready to awe in unison as the city lights up. Ready to hit the markets in search of Christmas goodies. Ready to be with loved ones, and ready to celebrate the holiday season. 

A Brief History 

Strasbourg is a small city in the heart of the Alsace region of France. It is known for its medieval half-timbered houses and gorgeous canals surrounding different parts of the city. It is also the formal seat of the European Parliament, Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights, and many European Institutions, making it an international hub. 

In addition to the different European Institutions, Strasbourg also has a renowned university with a large student population. There’s an eclectic mix of history and cosmopolitan, offering something for everyone whether you visit in the summer or during the most wonderful time of the year.

The Capital of Christmas

Strasbourg has been around for a long time, with records dating back to the twelfth century. According to historians, Christmas markets have been around just as long. Throughout its history, Strasbourg has changed hands between France and Germany numerous times. This has embedded German traditions (like Christmas!) in the Alsatian region. 

In the twelfth century, the Klausenmärik (Saint Nicolas market) started as a single day celebration on December 6. In 1570 it was renamed the Christkindelsmärik (Christmas market) when the region switched from Catholicism to Protestantism. The celebration took place in the Place de la Cathédrale (Cathedral Square) for three days leading up to Christmas Eve. Based on this date, it is officially the oldest Christmas market in all of France. The market grew over the years, expanding to add more stalls in more city squares and more days to allow visitors to peruse all the kiosks. In 1992, the deputy mayor of Strasbourg officially named Strasbourg “The Capital of Christmas.” 

Christmas in Strasbourg

Strasbourg hosts the largest Christmas market and tree in the Alsace region. You can feel the Christmas spirit the second you step into the market, even if you are a Grinch! I remember standing in an extremely crowded Place Kléber waiting for the tallest decorated Christmas tree in Europe to light up, signaling the start of the Christmas season. People were buzzing, but they weren’t pushy or rude, just excited! Once the tree lit up, everyone “ooooohed and aweeeeeeed,” and I had a huge smile across my face as I saw all the gorgeous lights and decorations. 

You never really realize how many 300 stalls actually are until you start walking around the Capital of Christmas. It would take literally all day every day of the market period to see all the stalls. However, it really doesn’t matter which squares you go to. From what I experienced, there are very few stalls that sell unique gifts. If you don’t buy the beautiful glass ornament you saw at one kiosk, you will likely find the same one at another stall in another square, and usually with the same price tag. The decorations and lights on the other hand are completely unique to each building and street. Strasbourg is at its most #instagramworthy during the Christmas season. 

Tasty Treats

My favourite thing to do was walk around, sampling the different mulled wines to keep me warm and deciding which delicious treats I would be sampling that day. If you’re not a fan of cinnamony mulled wine, lots of stalls offer artisan Christmas beer and even hot crémant, hot orange juice, and hot apple cider. Most of the food stalls have typical Alsatian fare: baguette flamblée (a portable version of tarte flambée), spaetzle with bacon and munster cheese sauce, bretzels, crêpes with both sweet and salty fillings, and much more. You’ll find the special Christmas treats in bakeries: bredele cookies (a spicy sugar cookie), pain d’epices (spiced bread), mannele (brioche in the shape of a man), kugelhopf (a bundt-shaped raisin-filled pastry), and christolle (a Christmas day breakfast brioche). Thank goodness you’ll be walking all around the Capital of Christmas to wear off everything you eat! 

Christmas in Alsace

Colmar

Colmar is an easy 30-minute train ride from Strasbourg. It’s definitely worth a visit if you have time. Colmar is one of the most famous cities in Alsace, with a picturesque historic centre and venice-like canals in La Petite Venise. The Christmas market in Colmar has one major benefit: it runs until December 29, so there’s time even after Christmas to check it out. Furthermore, the Colmar Christmas market boasts a “gourmet market” with chefs preparing specialty foods, which I highly recommend checking out. 

Ribeauvillé

Every year Ribeauvillé hosts a wonderful medieval Christmas market. Along the streets you’ll find a range of entertainment from dancers to fire eaters. The kiosks are known for their traditional toys and decorations with the vendors dressed in medieval costumes. The squares are filled with musicians and performers, creating an inviting Christmas atmosphere. The most special parts of the medieval Christmas market are the traditional foods like wild boar on a spit, and the nighttime magic of mythical woodland creatures that grace the market with their presence. For me, Ribeauvillé is a must-see, but it only happens during the first two weekends of December so plan accordingly. If you have a car, it’s quite easy to get to from Strasbourg. If you don’t have a car, you can take the Christmas shuttle from the Colmar train station.

Kaysersberg

Kaysersberg is considered the “authentic” Christmas market, and it’s a true delight. The seventeenth century-style market takes place in the streets under the ruins of Kaysersberg Castle. This market is special because the vendors only sell artisanal handicrafts, showing off their unique skills and original gifts. In addition, this Christmas market boasts a farmers market where you can purchase a wide variety of local produce including liqueurs, cheeses, jams, and Alsatian wines…everything you need for a perfect Christmas Eve spread. Transportation to Kaysersberg also requires either a car or a trip on the Christmas shuttle. 

Let the Christmas Spirit In

After having been quite conservative with my Christmas spirit last year, this year I am ready to embrace the “Capital of Christmas” in all its shining, sparkling glory. I’m looking forward to wandering the streets, buying all the ornaments, “ohhhh-ing and awe-ing” with all the other bright-eyed Christmas market patrons, and drinking my fair share of Alsatian mulled wine. I am ready to let the Christmas spirit in!

Interested in learning more about other European cities perfect for visiting around the holidays? Check out this guide to Christmas in Madrid!

What I Know Now About European Travel

Travel can undoubtedly provide you with iconic and life-changing experiences when it comes to life’s greatest pleasures. For me, having the opportunity to experience new places, with new people, traditions, and cultures, is one of the most challenging and exciting things that can happen in someone’s life. In 2019, I had the opportunity to take one of my first solo trips across Europe. For 16 days, I traveled by train through Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Berlin before going to Spain to start as an aupair (a story for another hour!). It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified at first, but a number of tips have helped me through these weeks of European travel. That’s how I got around Berlin, Hamburg, and Amsterdam!

1. My European Travel Itinerary Made Everything So Much Easier!

Weeks before leaving for Europe, I spent many hours researching all my options in the cities I was going to visit. As an extremely anxious person, I planned out each of my 16 days, leaving a few hours and days off in case something didn’t work out. I researched which places were close to each other and bought tickets to many museums and attractions in advance.

As you can imagine, the itinerary at the end didn’t go quite as planned. You need to know that when you travel alone, things happen at your own speed and pace – there is no planning for that. But the fact that I organized everything myself and researched all the places I was going to visit made the trip so much easier! Having a planned and organized itinerary helped me a lot, as I already knew how to transport myself from one place to another, the schedules of the attractions, and also what my priorities were on the trip. When I had free time and still didn’t want to go home, I would just look at my itinerary and see if there was anywhere nearby for me to visit.

2. Having My Own Portable Charger Saved Me Many Times

On a trip, having your own cell phone is now almost mandatory. In it, you get easy and quick information about tourist spots, restaurants, bars, and public transport, and you can easily use the GPS to locate yourself. One thing I learned during my weeks traveling alone in Europe is that using these tools will consume a lot of your mobile’s battery.

Having my own portable charger saved me many times and also made my experience much easier. Mostly because I didn’t have to bother about coming back to my hostel to charge my phone. I could stay out in the city visiting all day long, knowing that I could use my phone if I needed any help. And remember to buy it before your trip, as it can be really expensive in other places.

Portable charger

3. Making Friends While Traveling Can Change Your Experience!

When I was getting ready to travel alone, one of the biggest problems that literally took my nights’ sleep was thinking about how I was going to make friends and meet people so I could share moments and experiences. Obviously, you don’t need to be accompanied to do exactly everything. For some people, company, in general, is not essential. They can travel and have all the travel experiences alone at all times. But for me, meeting people and making new friendships is part of the travel experience! And it literally completely changed and expanded the directions of my journey.

For example, when I arrived in Amsterdam, without knowing ANYONE, I spent almost all my days there visiting, seeing the places, and having experiences alone. On my third day, I missed not having company and people to share this incredible experience with. In my last two days in Amsterdam, I met two Brazilians who lived there. I spent my last days with them, and then I could see the difference. Despite that, I still had amazing days in Amsterdam that I will never forget! But one thing I promised myself was that I would make an effort to meet people and make friends from then on.

4. Mobile Apps for Travelers Helped Me to Meet People and Made the Whole Experience Better

Once I got to Hamburg (a place I was only visiting because I wanted to see a Mariah Carey concert!) I met one guy from Germany and a girl from Nigeria in my hostel, and on the same day that I arrived, we spent all night together! That day, I told them I was traveling alone and wanted to make friends to share moments within every city I’d visit.

From that moment, my whole trip changed! They introduced me to some mobile apps aimed at travelers who wanted to meet new people (fellow travelers, students, residents, etc.). Some of these apps are SoloTraveller and the “Hangouts” option in Couchsurfing. By using them, I made dozens of friends across all the countries and cities I visited! I also discovered a number of Facebook groups for people traveling alone. All these tools literally changed the course and experiences of my trip. In addition to being easy and quick to use, they are very efficient!

Of course, you need to be careful, especially if you’re a woman! Only meet people who have their profiles with a lot of information (feedback from other users as well), and always try to meet with three or more people. Ask for their social media too! Unfortunately, we can’t fully know all the people who are using these tools. We need to take every possible precaution so that our dreams don’t turn into a nightmare.

Couchsurfing app

5. Norms and Rules Vary from City to City

When we plan a trip, decide our priorities, what to visit, where to stay and how to get around, it is natural to feel very anxious. For example, it is common for each city to have its own norms and rules for public transport operation, opening hours of bars and restaurants, and what you can and cannot do on the street. The rules can differ VERY even from one city to another within the same country. 

This may sound normal for some people, but it was very different for me! In Brazil, it is not so common for each district and city to have rules and laws that are so different from each other, even though it is a huge country. For a traveler, all these details that can greatly affect our experience sometimes can escape the mind, especially when taking a big trip with different cities, states, and countries.

6. Connecting with People Who Lived in Cities Helped Me with Planning My Trip

What helped me pay attention to the details and differences of each city I visited was connecting with people who already lived in these places, before and during my stay! So they could help me prepare for my trip and also assist me as my trip progressed. The mobile apps that I mentioned above helped me a lot in this, and it was a big difference in my trip. An example happened in Berlin: in this large European city, as in many others, it is forbidden to drink alcohol on the streets, in unauthorized places, and the person who does that can get a fine (which will certainly not be welcome on your trip). As in Brazil and other cities I had visited before, this rule did not exist. I would never have imagined it, and I could probably get into trouble. 

At the same time, these connections with local residents also helped me a lot in what would be the best options for using public transport. For example, many European cities have their own daily and weekly bus and metro cards that can be much cheaper than a single ticket. Although almost all this information is available on the Internet, the help of people who live in the city you are going to visit can be much more efficient!

7. Buying All My Train, Museum, and Concert Tickets in Advance Was a Great Idea!

Only those who have traveled know how sudden and unpredictable events can be our worst enemies. Suppose you like to sleep, like me, and you always want to enjoy every second of your travel experience. In that case, it’s important to do your best so that unforeseen circumstances don’t get in the way of your journey. Before traveling, I set aside a day to try to buy all the train tickets, and entries to all the museums and attractions I wanted to visit. As my trip took place, I realized what a great idea this was!

On many traveler blogs I read before traveling, writers said that buying short-distance train tickets in advance was not really necessary. When I arrived at my station traveling from Amsterdam to Berlin, I could see several travelers who were extremely sad and annoyed at not having more tickets available for that day. I also realized the difference in price. When I bought it, weeks before, the price was almost 10 euros cheaper! That’s a huge difference.

Also, tickets to museums and attractions can be extremely difficult to get on the same day. For example, Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Tickets sometimes sell out weeks and even MONTHS in advance! In fact, that was one of the reasons why I couldn’t visit it, unfortunately. Don’t leave it to the last minute, book all your tickets and buy your entries as soon as possible. Doing this can even leave you with more time available to get to know the city more!

Wrap Up

Traveling alone can be very difficult and terrifying, but I promise you that the experience, in the end, is extremely positive! The most important thing to do is research A LOT about the places you want to visit before you go, and pay close attention to the details. Look for the best place to stay, for the available public transport and the access to attractions and cool places to visit. Organize your schedule and itinerary and never leave anything to the last minute. All the effort will have been worth it, and you will be another person passionate about traveling!

 

Memories of Studying Abroad in Greece

Maritza while studying abroad in GreeceThe memories I have from studying abroad in Greece are ones that I love to think back to every now and then. Studying in Greece symbolized my first trip to Europe, and an immense transformation I saw in myself both personally and professionally. Like many, I was bit by the travel bug as soon as I came back from studying in Greece, and today, I honor that as a travel writer and as an avid traveler. Here are some of my memories from studying in Greece. 

Being Away From Family for the First Time

Coming from a first-generation household, where my siblings and I were the first generations in our family to be born outside of Mexico, the concept of studying abroad was a strange one for my parents. But then again, many concepts in the U.S. were strange to my parents. Being the eldest daughter, I had to often maneuver these cultural shifts. I often bounced from one culture to the other. I had to make sense of the American way of life for myself and learn how to explain it to my parents in a way they would understand. Figuring out how to create harmony between these two identities was a challenge I was very familiar with. 

When I told my parents that I wanted to study abroad, they were shocked, scared, and worried. They didn’t want to take that leap with me out of fear. Thankfully after some time, they decided to support me. I don’t know where they grabbed the reassurance that I would be ok, or how they managed their fears over letting me go. However, with their blessing, I was on my way to Greece. While I was studying abroad in Greece, I spoke with them as much as I could through Facetime and text messages.

Discovering Independence While Studying Abroad in Greece

In many ways, I look at this Greek program and think how much it not only helped me grow more independent and sure of myself, but how much it helped my parents in trusting in me, the world, and in themselves to be ok to let their kids do things they never did. I appreciate them not passing down their fears to me. They slowly let go of a protective grip they had always had to keep us safe in the only way they knew how to. Studying abroad in Greece was monumental for me as much as it was for them. 

Maritza looking over a valley while studying abroad in Greece.

My First European City

They say that the European lifestyle is one that is favored by many for its laid-back approach to life. There’s the mix of tranquility and liveliness, quality of life overall, and so much more. Greece was the first-ever European destination that I visited. It left me absolutely enamored. It was around 6 pm when I arrived in Athens to study for the next three months. I took my first steps in the cute and picturesque neighborhood of Plaka where our hotel was. I was met with a sample of the charming aspects of European city life. People of all ages — locals and tourists — walked around leisurely, looking for a dinner spot or sightseeing on an unusually warm March evening. 

Athens, the first city Maritza visited while studying abroad in Greece

Crowds of teenagers hung out at ice-cream shops, waiters outside of the restaurant talking to people about their menu. Police patrolled around making sure everything was ok. Coming from a suburb town in Illinois where everyone drove everywhere, where we all lived in our own little world, and where we were all always busy with something, this was a sight I had never really encountered. People leisurely took their sweet time hanging with friends, enjoying a good meal outside next to a Greek ruin or temple. Super casual, and wonderful at the same time. I knew I would like it here right then and there. 

The Greek Language

As a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, I wasn’t sure how I would pick up the Greek language. Would the language be too difficult? Would my knowledge of Spanish and English help me in any way with Greek? 

I learned quickly that Greek was not part of the romance languages. Therefore, making sense of Greek with my Spanish-speaking abilities was simply not going to cut it. However, where my Spanish did come in handy was in my pronunciation of Greek words. I may not know how to order a Freddo, but I could at least hear someone say it and, then, pronounce it in a way where Greek people could understand what I was trying to say. 

Once I remember being in a taxi with three of my classmates when we were trying to get to the Acropolis. The taxi driver couldn’t understand when my classmates said “Acropolis” to the driver, but I had remembered the way it was written and pronounced, so I tried using my Spanish pronunciation on the Greek word “Acropoli” — and it worked! He understood and he replied with “efcharistó” — thank you. It was a small but amazing accomplishment that I will never forget. I had made contact with a local! 

Greek Food

The Greek people don’t like spicy food, but I do. For the first time in my life, I was without any kind of salsa or peppers in my food. This was one of my own personal culture shocks. As a Mexican-American, I was shocked and missing a bit of that spiciness in my food. But as a previous culinary arts student, I was super interested in the ingredients and the typical meals that Greeks enjoyed. Everything from gyros to spanakopita, to authentic Feta, which I never liked before until going to Greece, as well as souvlaki and moussaka. 

Some food Maritza ate while studying abroad in Greece

Studying in Greece gave me the opportunity to try new flavors. I experienced an authentic Greek Easter with the spit-roasted lamb, delectable and fresh Greek salad, flatbread with amazing quality olive oil, and observed and engaged with the culture through its food. When I came back home, I experienced reverse culture shock. I sought out the quality olive oil, the gyros, and the tzatziki sauce. Oh, how the tables had changed. 

The People

My study abroad experience in Greece allowed me to meet people from countries that I had never met before. Do you remember the first time you met a Spaniard? A Greek? Or an Australian? 

What about meeting someone from your own country, who even though you shared a similar language and background, seemed like they were more “worldly” and “cultured” because they were travelers? A conversation with them left you in awe and utterly inspired. Studying abroad in Greece expanded my knowledge of people. It taught me that even though we may come from different places in the world, we all have more than we think in common. A conversation with people outside of your culture will show you that. If anything, you can always share your love for travel and meeting new people. That is always something to bond over. 

The Traditions

I felt a sense of comfort in Greece, that to be quite honest, I was not expecting. I guess moving to Greece to me felt like taking a giant leap into the unknown. What would the people be like? What would the culture and traditions be like? Would I like the food? Though I consider myself to be quite an adaptable person, ready to accept any kind of culture shock that I would potentially experience, I realized that it was pleasantly easy to adjust to Greek customs and traditions. 

It reminded me a lot of my Mexican upbringing, such as the way the Greeks that passed near a church would make the sign of the cross, or how religion and church-going was a significant part of life and culture for many Greeks. The massive emphasis on family and looking after the giagiá and the pappoús and the ritual and love for food were comforting. I felt at times like I was in Mexico visiting my own family. It was almost as if I was visiting a village in Mexico when I was really in Greece. The feeling was special and comforting. I realized that it led to me questioning what home is if you can find that feeling outside of the place you were born in. It was one of the many questions that had never occurred to me until living and studying abroad in Greece. 

The Beginning of My Desire to Explore More

I am forever grateful for the structure of this study abroad program I did in Greece. We didn’t have a university campus where we took all our classes. In fact, our time in Greece was divided up into three different subtopics of study. Depending on that subtopic of study, we would physically travel to the part of Greece with the most physical history and study it in person. 

So I studied the ruins and the Greek god Apollo on the island of Delos while walking around archeological sites. We sat on rocks on the sacred site of Delphi to take notes and learn about this mystical oracle that many people traveled from near and far to ask questions. I presented a project on the important documents stored inside Hadrian’s Library, and the importance of this landmark to my classmates, while standing in front of the ruins of Hadrian’s Library. 

On the Move

Because of the constant traveling, we did throughout Greece, from its northernmost tip in Thessaloniki to the southernmost island of Crete, and everywhere in between, my studies in Greece felt like a hybrid between a fun gap year of staying in hostels and doing school assignments throughout our journeys. For three months, it was hostels, hotels, trains, ferries, buses, and metros.

It was incredible and gave me a strong sense of adventure, learning, adapting, and adjusting to what the day held. Each day was different, and each day we learned something new. One cannot possibly deny the sheer excitement in that. It made me feel excited for the moment, and for life. I was hooked. I wanted nothing less than a life of adventure. The bar had been set high for what I wanted to do after this opportunity, and so my thoughts started to brainstorm just how. 

The Transformation

Study abroad programs, whether they’re year-long programs or just a few weeks, for many, are the first opportunities to travel for many young American college students. I know it was for me. The combination of youthful excitement, combined with a desire to learn and travel — it’s the perfect recipe for major transformation.

Travel transforms people from the inside out. From the people you meet, to the new foods you try that end up being what you crave when you get back home, to the observing of and participation in a new culture, and the physical distance and feelings of being in a place so far from home where virtually no one knows you. It’s liberating. It’s euphoric, and it’s unlike any other feeling. You see yourself maneuvering a new culture, becoming more social, taking more risks, and saying yes more often. You learn A LOT along the way. Finally, you see yourself grow, and you learn more about yourself than ever before as you go through a myriad of different situations, emotions, and adventures. 

Travel is a confidence booster and a transformation. You don’t return home the same. My Greece study abroad program inspired me to start writing, and eventually start my own travel blog. It cleared a career path like nothing ever had. My memories of studying abroad in Greece are a constant reminder of why I do what I do.

How Athletics Turned Me Onto Travel

Paula winning first place in her athletics competition, the European Junior Cup in Punta Umbria SpainAs a kid full of energy, born in Athens, Greece, I have always been encouraged to train at athletics, study hard, and dream big. At 12, I became a student at a school for young athletes. I chose archery. The Robin Hood tournament for kids brought me my first medal and recognition, after surpassing my peers in shooting balloons and apples in the final. 

Step by step, focusing on training more and more, I made it onto the national team. To become one of the top athletes in the country is already a success. However, to win one of three spots on a team that would represent the country in athletics at an international tournament is a long process. It’s a great challenge for any young athlete who just started competing. Prior to every tournament, our archery association would schedule a tournament. There, the best three athletes from different age categories would be selected. It’s been years, but to this day I still remember the excitement and happiness I felt when my coach informed me that I was going to represent our country at my first international tournament, the European Youth Championships in Algarve, Portugal. If only I knew then that this tournament would completely change my life. 

How Athletics Changed My Life

The first time I competed abroad, I was 15. Together, with my teammates and coaches, we spent a week at the Olympic center for athletes to practice and get ready for the competition. Olympic centers are usually located in small towns where athletes could focus on their training without any distractions. Our center was surrounded by woods and it was a big complex of buildings with swimming pools, stadiums, arenas, and gyms. It had anything and everything athletes needed. Hundreds of athletes from different disciplines would train in this center to prepare for their tournaments. 

Paula at the archery training camp at the Olympic Center, famous for athletics training

The moment we arrived we felt an incredible atmosphere right away. As a young team, we got an opportunity to meet Olympic medalists and famous athletes. This feeling lifted me up, inspired me, and motivated me to train hard. In doing so, I hoped to bring glory to myself and my country. Being part of this unique community of elite athletes, people I had watched growing up, my idols, is where suddenly a dream became more real. As a young team of archers, we created a special bond throughout that week. Together, we took off to Portugal in high spirits with big goals to bring the gold home. 

Arriving as a National Team Member

It was the first time I would travel as a national team member and what an experience it was. Although it was a long day spent at airports, we had nothing but fun and lots of laughs throughout the whole trip because of the great bonds we had. It was the moment when we checked in at our hotel when we realized we were surrounded by hundreds of athletes from all over Europe ready to compete with us in Portugal. It doesn’t happen often that most athletes would stay at one hotel. This was a rare opportunity to see each other quite often and get to know each other better. The athletics tournament would last for a week, starting from official training to qualifications, individual and team eliminations, and all the way to medal matches. 

We usually spent half of the day at the archery field and the rest of the day we enjoyed the time exploring the beautiful Algarve. This lovely town where we stayed was wonderfully picturesque. The first day we arrived in Algarve it was already late, but our coaches decided it would be nice to take a walk after a long day spent at the airports and in the air. 

An Oceanside Athletics Competition

It turned out that our hotel was located only a few minutes from the ocean. When we went, it was a magical starry night. The sky was so clear it looked as if it was right above our heads. Both the place and view felt surreal. Left speechless, we knew the coming week would be one of the best of our lives. Hugging each other from all the excitement, we knew that some unforgettable memories would be made that we would cherish forever. 

At the archery field, every one of us was focused and committed to getting the best results. Although we competed individually, each one of us helped each other and supported one another in order to do our best. Before and during the competition we tried to stay concentrated and calm. It’s a lot of pressure to perform well knowing you’re surrounded by the top athletes in Europe sharing the same goals and desires to win a medal. 

The Opening Ceremony

The first moment I saw all of the participating athletes together was the Opening Ceremony at the stadium. Hundreds of athletes together with coaches, all the volunteers, and the event staff made a huge impression on me. It made me realize that I was part of an incredible event. Seeing all the smiley faces, excited to compete with the unique energy and atmosphere, was exhilarating. This feeling was obvious to each one of the athletes. Although most of the athletes representing different nationalities had never met each other before, everyone was friendly and open to having a conversation whenever the opportunity came. 

We often met in the hotel’s restaurant, at the pool in our hotel, in the lobby, or in places where we could relax a bit after a stressful day competing. During that time we were not athletes but teenagers. We felt happy and excited to meet people from so many different countries. Some of them had never traveled before, nor met a foreigner before. Despite different nationalities, cultures, religions, and languages, after some time we all started talking to each other. We started sharing our stories and eventually made some friendships. 

Going Beyond Athletics

At the end of the day, we were a bunch of kids with the same dreams and goals. As athletes, we would compete against each other. However, out of the field, we enjoyed our time exploring the town together, swimming in the ocean, and experiencing some funny situations. 

The second night after we arrived all the coaches had a meeting. Almost everyone gathered at the hotel’s swimming pool while they met. In the beginning, we only hung out with our teams, but after some time we started talking to each other. We eventually ended up throwing each other into the pool. The casual gathering ended up being a blast. We swam together, played, and got to know each other better. In the end, the security guard informed us we were too loud and the “party’s over”, sending us all to our rooms. 

Paula and some friends at an archery competition.

Hotel Shenanigans

If that wasn’t enough, on our way back we found a lot of feathers in the corridor. While some of us were playing at the pool, a few other teams started a pillow fight, leaving traces throughout the corridors. Eventually, the official coach meeting was interrupted by the hotel staff informing coaches that the athletes were having too much fun during their free time. Although it wasn’t anything serious it also doesn’t happen often. The information caught our coaches off guard, making them laugh. They had to remind us we should find different opportunities to have fun together. 

In the future, these memories and stories were brought up multiple times making us all laugh once again. My first European Championships would not only bring me and my team our first gold medal but also some great friends I still stay in touch with after many years. One of my best friends was an archer representing the Netherlands; our friendship started in Portugal. Since then we motivated and inspired each other to train even harder in order to compete internationally and see each other again. We were lucky to meet again at the tournaments in the States, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Georgia. After we both retired, we continued to travel together.

How Athletics Inspired Me to Travel

The reason why I decided to write about this particular tournament is that my adventure with sports and traveling started in Portugal. Since that competition, I have competed at the World and European Championships as well as the European and World Cups. I traveled the world chasing my dream, having the best time in my life. I visited Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Ukraine, Croatia, Italy, Morocco, Armenia, Georgia, China, the USA, and many more. As an athlete, I won five medals at the World Championships, four at the European Championships, and multiple medals at several European Cups. Most of all, I won a chance to travel the world while doing what I love. I made unforgettable memories with some wonderful people. 

by Paula Wyczechowska

Top 10 Things to Do in Krakow, Poland

The Norwegian fjords, the Swiss Alps, the Greek islands, and Italian architecture are some of the famous European landmarks recognized around the world. But what about Poland? What’s the first thing that crosses your mind when you think about Poland? 

When I introduce myself as a Pole, especially outside Europe, I often see the confusion on people’s faces. I’ve met a dozen people who have never heard of Poland or were unable to find my home country on a map. So, it’s no surprise that Poland is not on the top of the list for globetrotters. I’d like to do my part to change that a bit.

Introducing Poland

Before I virtually take you around my favorite Polish city and share things to do in Krakow, I’d like to dispel some common misconceptions about my homeland. Poland is not an ice-locked country with never-ending snowfall. No polar bears are roaming the streets, and Poles do not speak Russian. 

Poland is not a tiny country tucked away somewhere in a corner of eastern Europe. In reality, Poland enjoys an average summer temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius (68 to 77 F) and -3 to 3 degrees Celsius (27 to 37 F) during winter. It’s the 9th largest country in Europe by land size and population. Picture a country with as many people as California squeezed into the land about the size of New Mexico. Lastly, Poles speak Polish which is distinct from Russian. 

The number of visitors to Poland dramatically increased after it joined the EU in 2004. The opening of borders and expansion of tourist infrastructure from EU funds are only some reasons why over 18 million tourists visit Poland annually. But the main reason is its beauty. From amber beaches of the Baltic Sea fringed with white sandy dunes and beautiful cliff shores to the clear, calm waters of the Masurian Lake District to the snow-capped peaks of the Tatra Mountains, Poland has something for everybody. All of my friends who traveled to Poland with me were amazed by its rich history, friendly people, and mouth-watering local cuisine. The Poland they found was far more interesting and complex than what they imagined.

Welcome to Krakow 

The recipe for the perfect city to visit probably involves some combination of fascinating history, great architecture, rich cultural life, fine dining, and a vibrant nightlife — this is Krakow. It is the historical capital of Poland, full of legends, beautiful architectural monuments, and art. If you ever visit the city, give yourself extra time to discover some of its most iconic specialties. Poland proudly boasts many regional cuisines which I plan to introduce in future articles. For now, here are my top 10 things to do in Krakow:

The Old Town

Any list of must-see places in Krakow starts with the Old Town, Stare Miasto. The oldest and the most famous part of the city was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List over 40 years ago. This part of Krakow never sleeps. There’s always something happening 24 hours a day through activities that vary by season. In the summer months, social life revolves around the restaurants and cafes located in the main square, Rynek Główny, and nearby streets. Things get a bit quieter during cold and snowy winters when locals and tourists enjoy mulled wine in old Krakow cellars.  

If the Old Town is the center of Krakow, the Market Square is certainly its beating heart. It is the largest square in Poland and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful in Europe. The square is always noisy and loud. You can expect to hear street musicians entertaining crowds, horse-drawn carriages clattering on cobblestone streets, and the sound of the bugle from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica at the top of the hour. It’s far from serene and that’s part of its charm. For those looking for tranquility, side streets off the Market Square offer an escape from the hustle-and-bustle. For me, this place is what Krakow is all about. I could spend hours in the square watching kids chasing soap bubbles, people feeding pigeons, admiring street artists, or simply enjoying Polish specialties served by many restaurants surrounding the square. 

The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)

Right in the middle of Market Square is Cloth Hall (Sukiennice in Polish), one of the most important historical buildings in the city. It’s considered the world’s oldest shopping mall. Sukiennice includes two rows of stalls selling leather goods, folk-inspired artifacts, hats, lace, jewelry, woodcraft, and souvenirs. A decade ago, a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow opened in its basement. The museum is a real treasure and worth a quick visit for those interested in Krakow’s past.

St. Mary’s Basilica

The basilica is the most prominent landmark of Old Town and one of the most famous churches in the country. It is full of priceless objects, including brilliant stained-glass windows and a magnificent altar.  Two towers top the basilica, the taller of which served as a watchtower during medieval times. A guard manned the tower day and night. He would blow on his bugle to warn citizens of fires, invaders, and other dangers. Even today, a “guard” blows his bugle from the watchtower, though it is done to mark the top of the hour, and it is decidedly more mellow. The bugle call has become the musical symbol of Krakow, and crowds gather to hear it. This watchtower offers a gorgeous, panoramic view of Krakow for those willing to climb its 300 steps. 

Town Hall Tower

Also known as the Krakow Leaning Tower, the Town Hall Tower is the only remaining part of Krakow’s old town hall built in the 1300s. The tower displays black and white photographs of Krakow, medieval costumes, and a nice view of the city. Near the top, there is an old clock mechanism that visitors have a chance to see from inside. There is also a small café and theatre located in the basement. 

Schindler’s Factory

Made famous by Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory attracts record numbers of tourists from Poland and around the world. This museum not only exhibits the life and work of Oskar Schindler but also illustrates both the tragic and uplifting life in Krakow during World War II. In my opinion, Schindler’s Factory is one of the best museums in Poland and one not to be missed during a visit to Krakow. I highly recommend booking your tickets in advance. 

Planty

Planty is the garden that surrounds the Old Town. It is one of the largest parks in the country, with a circumference of over four km. Originally the park was planted with mainly chestnut trees, but nowadays, it’s a home for a variety of the trees like lindens, maples, and spruces. It is the Central Park of Krakow (albeit smaller in scale) where we can find joggers, walkers, and cyclists.  With plenty of areas for rest, the park is the perfect place to relax for locals and tourists alike. 

Florianska

Florianska has always been one of the most important streets in the city. It’s been the center of artistic life for many famous Polish writers, painters, and performers. On both sides of the street, there are beautiful, historic tenement houses, including the oldest hotel in the city from the 1800s and a pharmacy museum that showcases exhibits from over 1,000 pharmacies from all over the country. Today, the street is a major tourist attraction. There are many shops, restaurants, cafes, and similar establishments, but their exterior building has been carefully preserved to maintain their original beauty.  

Wawel Castle

The Wawel Royal Castle on Wawel Hill is one of Poland’s greatest places of historical and cultural importance. For centuries, it was the home of kings and the place where Polish history was made. 

It has become one of the most important museums in the country, and, in 1978, it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List along with Old Town. The complex has beautiful gardens, courtyards, a chapel, a treasury, stately rooms, city views, and, of course, the Wawel Castle itself. Make sure to plan your visit and be sure to pick up self-guide headsets. Allow yourself half a day to discover this magical place. 

Kazimierz

Kazimierz is the former Jewish district situated a stone’s throw from the Old Town. After the Jewish population resettled here in the 15th century, it quickly became an important center of Jewish culture in Poland and the world. Many outstanding scientists, writers, and politicians were born in this area. Before WWII, approximately 60,000 Jews were living in Krakow, but tragically most did not survive the war.

Today, Kazimierz is one of the main attractions of Krakow, buzzing with cultural and artistic life. It tends to attract those who want to feel Krakow’s bohemian spirit. Endless cafes with unique character and artistic flair, as well as many well-known art studios and galleries, fill the district. You can expect to see a mix of historical monuments and synagogues (including the Old Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland from the 1400s) along with highly-rated restaurants and food trucks. 

Vistula District

The Vistula River (Wisla in Polish) is the longest river in Poland. It traverses through four countries (Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland) and cuts through Krakow and Warsaw before flowing into the Baltic Sea in Gdansk. The Vistula riverbank in Krakow is among the most relaxing places in the city, along with Planty. It’s where locals sunbathe, picnic, and go for a leisurely walk or bike ride. There are a wide variety of churches, new developments, industrial parks, and bridges along the Vistula. Visitors can walk along the riverbank or enjoy the view from one of the restaurant ships that dot the river.

You can explore Krakow in multiple ways. Guided tour options include walking, biking, golf carts, and even Segway tours. Traveling couples may opt for romantic boat tours. It’s a city for those interested in history and art as well as culinary and alcoholic adventures. Krakow caters to students, families, and seniors by offering a variety of activities like vodka tasting, traditional Polish dumpling cooking classes, food tours, pub crawls, and museum tours. It’s worth mentioning that visiting Poland won’t break the bank, and your dollars (or pounds or euros as the case may be) will go farther than many other European countries. You will be able to eat, see, and enjoy so much more compared to better-known tourist hotspots. 

Hopefully, I have piqued your interest to discover what is in my mind about the most beautiful city in Poland. I personally can’t wait to be back there again. Stand by for my gastronomic guide to Poland for all you foodies out there.

A Trip to Four Cities in Europe in Two Weeks

Kate Clark

Four years ago, when I graduated from high school, my Dad and I took a celebratory trip through four cities in Europe. He had done this with my sister as well when she graduated from high school. They had traveled around India, seeing the Taj Mahal, eating all kinds of spicy foods, and having a great time. When my turn to plan a trip came around, I couldn’t decide on just one place – so we went to multiple!

Vienna

We started our trip in Vienna for one main reason: the early 20th-century painter Gustav Klimt. I have held a spot for Klimt’s works in my heart for a long time. Seeing the painter’s hometown was something I will never forget. We also got to see one of his most famous works, The Kiss, up close and in person at the Belvedere museum. The Belvedere is full of wonderful architecture and sculptures, as well as paintings from other artists as talented as Klimt. We visited St. Charles Church, or Karlskirche, and got to climb up some (slightly rickety) stairs all the way to the top of the dome. As if that wasn’t high enough, my dad and I also went on Vienna’s giant Ferris wheel. Finally, we did a bike tour, which was our favorite way of seeing the city and visiting the big hits. It also helped orient us into the new metropolis.

Prague

After Vienna, my dad and I traveled by train to Prague. Like the tourists we are, my dad and I immediately go to the astronomical clock and the city center that very night. The next day, we went to Prague Castle, which included almost too many steps but a church and museum that were immensely worth it. It was a little hard to locate the exact museum I researched. The whole of the castle is technically a museum, but we were able to find it. We enjoyed gorgeously decorated rooms, including one with swords as decor. We also went to see the Lennon Wall, a barrier covered in graffiti, featuring Beatles lyrics and other inspirational quotes.

Berlin

In Berlin, my dad and I went to (you guessed it) more museums. Berlin has a whole Museum Island that my dad and I were able to get multiple-day passes to explore as much as possible. Sadly, their main Pergamon museum was closed, but we saw quite a lot nonetheless. That’s always a good reason to schedule a return. Plus, I had just taken AP Art History, and was astounded seeing so much of what I learned in person. The pictures I took and the postcards I purchased also helped me two years later when I took a German Art History course in college. I wish I could have seen these works after I had learned more about them. But it was still amazing to see them. Berlin is also where we hit history harder — visiting pieces of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Brandenburg Gate.

Amsterdam

Our last in our trip to four cities in Europe was Amsterdam, where, as a special twist, we stayed in an AirBnB houseboat! While it sounds fun, the motion of the water isn’t great for sleeping. But we spent our days out and about, so it didn’t matter too much. Our first stop was, of course, the Rijksmuseum. We saw some beautiful art and got plenty of photographs in the “I AMSTERDAM” statue out front. We also went to the National Holocaust Museum and the Anne Frank Huis, which were stunning learning experiences for both my dad and me. Then we did another bike tour, which was a little scary with all the cobblestones and traffic at times. But it was gorgeous going over the various Amsterdam bridges. Finally, I absolutely loved going to the Van Gogh Museum but I did feel rather special already, having seen his Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, only 45 minutes away from where I grew up.

Even though this four cities in Europe trip wasn’t a traditional study abroad, I certainly learned a lot, especially about art and history. This came in handy in college, as I minored in Art History. Now that I’m graduated from college, my dad and I will be going on another celebratory adventure – once the world is open for tourists. The only thing left is to decide where to go next!

Wherever we go, I know I’ll learn even more, and I’m so excited to see more of what’s out there.

A Rainy Day at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Catch up on our visit to Italy’s Cinque Terre before checking out the latest installment in my European road trip series where we take in the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For those of you who have been following my adventure over the last few years, my next few posts may not be as detailed! Unfortunately, I have not been able to finish my travel journal so I am piecing my adventures together based on rogue memory and a few video clips I uploaded to Facebook.

Pit Stop at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Nonetheless, our pit stop at the Leaning Tower of Pisa will stay with me for the rest of my life. Not because it was a gorgeous piece of Italy’s architectural history, but because it is one moment that I really can take pride in myself.

Picture this: our shoes still drying from the rains at Cinque Terre, we stop at the parking lot of the Piazza del Duomo. It is full-blown Florida monsooning outside the bus. Despite being in the early afternoon, it looks near dusk, and the wind is whipping up. It is by far the worst weather we had experienced the whole trip. We waited for about a half-hour to see if it let up. When rains failed to relent, Nikos gave us the option to either stay on the bus or brave the enormous, fat drops pelting the side of the bus.

Lessons from the Past

Almost everyone elected to stay on the bus. I was almost part of that party. But as I sat in my seat looking across the puddles towards the piazza, I remembered something my mom had told me before I left. She recalled her own experiences backpacking in Europe as a young adult. She had somehow wound up on an overnight ferry. My mom hadn’t bathed in three days and she didn’t know a single person. She asked two French girls (who didn’t know English) to watch her stuff. Meanwhile, she tried to wash up in a hidden employee bathroom the size of a small closet. Her travel journal was full of swearing and how miserable she was. To this day, she says the trip was the best of her life and she’d do it again in a heartbeat.

This was going to be my ONLY chance — maybe for my entire life — to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As incredible as travel is, it’s not without its uncomfortable moments. Compared to stealing away into an employee bathroom on an overnight ferry with no access to indoor seating, this was a walk in the park. I’d be damned if I let a little bit (well, a lot) of rain stop me.

A Soggy Reality

In the end, only me, Yennifer, and Dounia followed Nikos out into the storm. With nothing but my thin and not-waterproof raincoat on, we darted between crowds huddled under the few awnings leading up to the square before we were spat out in front of the soggy greenway. We took the obligatory pictures and took it in for all of 10 minutes before scrambling back towards the bus.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Sure, the view definitely would have been better in the sun. We probably would have had a picnic with an incredible backdrop. I probably could have spent a little more time lining up my classic Leaning Tower of Pisa shot. But I didn’t back down, and that’s what makes this one of my favorite memories from the trip. My gut instinct was to give up. I actively decided that that wasn’t going to be the kind of traveler I was. It was incredibly liberating, and I still got the reward of seeing the tower.

Towards the French Riviera

Once back on the bus, I shrugged off my sopping wet raincoat. I tried to dry off with my hoodie as best I could (which wasn’t much). We finished out the bus ride and I felt elated the whole time. I did it. Once we finally arrived at the hotel in Antibes, I finally got to shower. I quickly changed into some drier clothes, appreciating the step up from a ferry’s employee bathroom (sorry Mom). Although I can’t remember the name, I know that we were sandwiched somewhere near the coast between le Fort Carré and the Grande Roue d’Antibes near the Promenade de l’Amiral de Grasse. That night, we explored the downtown area and had dinner at an outdoor café. Ambling along the coast, I knew great adventures were to come the next day as we explored Antibes and its azure coastline.

Moving Abroad While Pursuing My Dream

 

Au Pair Madrid Spain Amanda WhittenAmanda Whitten has been a writer for Dreams Abroad since September 2017. During the 2020 Coronavirus lockdown in Madrid, Spain, she had plenty of time on her hands after moving abroad and living there for several years. She has given teach abroad interviews before, but we wanted to share her experiences moving abroad while pursuing her dreams, too. Amanda is from Oklahoma and has been abroad in Madrid since 2016. She is currently a language and culture assistant at a school in a town called Leganés and is pursuing her dream of living abroad in a different country. 

She was asked similar questions that we ask our first-year teachers but we are still excited to hear about her experience!

When did you arrive in Madrid?

“I first arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in mid-September 2016. I’ve been here for about three-and-a-half years.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad in Spain?

“I chose to teach abroad in Spain for a number of reasons. First, Spanish was the language that I had chosen to learn by default — my high school only offered Spanish. The university I attended offered several languages, but Spanish was the only one with a full major. Because of that, I knew that I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country. I studied abroad during 2012 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and I became aware that they offered teach abroad programs around the world. Since I had already been to South America, I decided against applying to teach in Chile. I came to the decision that my destiny lied ins Spain.”

Had you ever taught before? 

best memory at EAFIT

“Technically, I had taught one or two classes when I completed my practicum after earning my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. Other than that, I was wildly inexperienced and clueless.”

If not, what were you doing before you decided on moving abroad?  

“I had known for the latter part of my teens and my twenties that I wanted to go somewhere special like Spain to teach English. My best friend’s parents had mentioned it to me in passing when I was in college around the time I was 18 or 19. They explained that I could go practically anywhere in the world to do so and get paid for it. I felt intrigued, and the idea stuck to my brain ever since.

I knew for a long time that I wanted to try moving abroad. From 18 until 28, and until I finally accomplished The Dream, I worked in everything from pizza to retail to social services. It finally dawned on me when I turned 26 or 27 that I was going to be 30 soon and that I somehow had to make it all happen. Hello, extra credit card debt! It’s hard to save up for something that feels like an unattainable goal. That being said, before I left, I did manage to save up a little bit for expenses. Now, I fortunately have everything paid off. It was a good investment.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? Where are you teaching? 

“I had very vague ideas about everything. I have to admit that I didn’t actually do a lot of research about Spain. In college, I wrote practically all of my essays and papers about Argentina. I had this very broad, ideal notion that moving abroad would be very dreamy and poetic and that all the men would act and look like young Antonio Banderas, which I think I mentioned in another one of my articles.

When one of my friends suggested that I save up, take a vacation, and go to Spain first to see how I liked it, I felt flabbergasted. I mean, how could I obviously not fall in love with Spain? It was, like, in Europe?!?! All I could imagine was the running with the bulls (which I am now ironically staunchly against), afternoon siestas, lots of walking (which wasn’t far off base haha!), and street-side cafes with terraces and outdoor seating.”

How did you prepare for your teaching abroad job? What steps did you take? 

“I prepared by getting my TEFL a couple of years ahead of time. When actually packing my suitcases, I brought some things from home to show the students (like a yearbook and US dollars). I think planning a bit more would have been a good thing. Nonetheless, the whole venture was so overwhelming and exciting, that I basically just winged everything.”

teaching abroad

What are your perceptions of Madrid?

“My perceptions have evolved somewhat over time. I’m in quarantine now because of the Coronavirus. Something that gave me a sense of pride and belonging happened when people started clapping and cheering outside their windows and doors as a sign of respect and support for healthcare workers every night at 8:00pm. The solidarity is amazing and I have a new-found respect for this city.

Aside from that, Madrid is fast-paced. They are not as generous with their tapas and tap water as other cities such as Granada. The air often has a lot of contamination. It is a multicultural metropolis with an amazing history, jaw-dropping architecture, and a lot to do. Rent is high, but groceries are cheap. There are bad people here, like in any place, but I also feel very safe and secure here. I’m glad to be here, but I definitely am looking forward to possibly changing regions in exchange for a slower pace of life and new, rich experiences.”

What are your goals while you are abroad? How have they changed over the years?

“In the beginning, I thought that I would spend a year abroad, and that would be that. I would move back to the US, buy a house, and adopt a dog. I still have those illusions, but a year has become nearly four, and I don’t really know what is going to happen next. If Bernie Sanders wins somehow and Medicare-for-all gets passed, I might really move back home.

As it is, I have become accustomed to having my taxes count for something that tangibly affects me in a very positive way. I’m also in love with the easy, cheaper travel and the lifestyle that I lead here. It’s really nice, and I don’t have to worry about the disaster waiting for me around every corner. This is not to say that I don’t love the United States. I do, but for right now, all of this is better for me personally.”

Update: Welp. That idea is out the window (concerning Bernie Sanders). Is there still any hope at all out there for a single-payer healthcare system for the US?

What has been the most difficult since you arrived? 

Amanda Whitten art“I would say that navigating the unspoken, unwritten rules of Spanish society and culture that are a given to anyone actually from here has been the most challenging. Example: If you don’t greet every single person that you come across at the school or if every time you enter or exit a room you don’t give a general Hola/Buenos dias/Hasta luego, you will come across as a cold, rude person. This was a mistake that I made constantly for the first year that I was here and even after I learned. I continued to make this error because it’s hard to change a lifetime of little habits.

Second example: I didn’t know that as a new person, I would have to try to ingratiate myself into the lives of Spaniards. I was accustomed to living within a culture where people make an effort to include the new person, where the responsibility does not lie with them, but the veterans of whatever place that they are new to. My advice to newcomers moving abroad is to bring treats like little croissants or pastries to the break room. Make conversation and put yourself out there! Spanish people are so very friendly, but we have to navigate their norms. We are in their country, after all. 

Life Under Quarantine

Another challenge has been enduring quarantine while in Madrid. It’s a big city so it’s taking us longer than other places to return to a more normal life. If I were at home in Oklahoma, I’d be able to go outside into the woods. A positive from this uncertain time is that it’s given me a chance to reestablish good habits and to start new projects. I’ve been making art projects and investing time in myself.

For example, I finally dusted off my old watercolor paints from college, started painting with them. I made a Facebook album titled “Quarantine Art” that I’ve filled up with paintings. One of my favorites is an elephant that I think perfectly captures the melancholy that I was feeling at the time. It’s simultaneously pretty to look at, if I do say so myself.  In addition to that, I made an album called “Quarantine Rainbows” because I noticed during this long stay-cation that I seem to see a lot of rainbows from the window of my room. It kinda makes me happy to randomly look up and see an unexpected rainbow there. I wanted to share that feeling with other people. Therefore, I’ve included a couple of photos in this blog for you to see, as well.”

What has been the best experience?

“Before the quarantine began, I would have had to choose between scuba diving in Malta or navigating the island of Tenerife solo. But the applause and solidarity that I mentioned above happened in a moment of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. It may not have just been the best experience that I’ve had in Spain, but perhaps in my entire life. I’ve never felt something so grand — something that was so much bigger than myself — in my life. It encompassed all of the experiences that I’ve had in Spain as well as a few in my life before. Before this, I had never quite felt at home in Madrid or that I fit in quite as well as I’d wanted, but now it really feels like home.”

How do you feel about the culture so far? Do you feel like you have immersed yourself into the culture?

“I speak English almost every day at high school and I live with people who are originally from Ecuador. I would say that I immersed myself most when I was an au pair for a short time in 2017, where I learned a lot about Spanish culture and the lifestyle of the mid- to high-rollers. It would be very beneficial for my Spanish speaking skills to work for a while as a waitress or at a supermarket, but I have to admit that I am afraid to do that.

I’m afraid of making customers or coworkers upset by fumbling my Spanish or not understanding them correctly. I already worked in customer service in the US, and it was horrible!!! I can’t imagine doing it through my second language. But, I’m getting a little off track. No, I don’t feel like I’ve truly immersed myself. Nonetheless, I’m living the life that I want, and I get to experience a little bit of everything. That’s much more than enough for me.”

Wrap Up of Moving Abroad While Pursuing My Dream

Amanda is waiting to hear if she will continue her role as a language and culture assistant. She has applied for a different location in the Canary Islands as her first choice. The placement letter will inform her as to if her location has been changed or not. If it’s not the region she prefers, she will reject it and try to work with an academy, or perhaps teach online classes — or both. She is anxiously waiting to hear back so that she can plan for her future living abroad in Spain. 

by Leesa Truesdell