Lessons Abroad

Lyla Currim

Back in May, I told myself that I wasn’t going to be that junior that returned from a semester abroad and wrote a piece specifically about his/her time in Europe. But here I am, fulfilling that stereotype. Maybe it’s because it’s too cold and I’d like to imagine any place but Hamilton with its increasing inches of snow and violent gusts of wind. Maybe it’s because we’re a little over a week into school and my workload already looks and feels intimidating, and I miss learning for the knowledge and the experience rather than competition and grades. (What this really means: pass/fail mentality is more than sufficient while abroad, and in my experience, classes are generally easier than at Colgate). I have a feeling, however, that it’s mostly because I’m still slowly getting used to being back Gate-side and haven’t quite accepted that my semester abroad is quickly becoming a thing of the past, limited to my memory or the memories of those with whom I shared my time in the Netherlands.

For those of you who are considering going abroad, for my friends reading this who are currently miles and/or continents away, and those of you who have spent some portion of the past two years in a foreign city or country and for the people that will go see the world once they’re done with college, here is a quick list of the things you absolutely must do while abroad.

(1) Spend all of  your money.I think the majority of my study group was practically broke by the end of our three-and-a half month stay. Spend it on clothes, spend it on knick-knacks for your friends, spend it on stupid souvenirs. When you’re inevitably back at school and are too broke to buy groceries (EasyMac and Andr?e), at least you’ll have that fond memory of haggling in French-Arabic-English for your necklace at asouqin Morocco. No, but seriously, some of my favorite items are the random things I picked up in different markets. This drains your budget faster than the ridiculously expensive cheeseburgers and various conversion rates that are never in your favor. If you’re not prepared to scrape the bottom of your savings account and to fully exploit the opportunity, then maybe consider staying at home where paying for ketchup and public restrooms isn’t an everyday occurrence.

(2) Don’t stop traveling:Closely related to not having any money. Usually, you’ll have three months or longer to get to know whatever city in which you are placed. You’re also usually on a different continent with several countries bordering you. Plan long weekend trips, stay in 10-person hostel rooms, pack light. It’s always easier if someone on your trip knows someone who lives in the city you’re visiting. Either way, engage with the natives and the other travelers visiting from their own corners of the world. And join in on the local custom: my fondest (and haziest) memories of Barcelona consisted of one night at a €2-shot bar (Chupitas, if you are ever there) and the next with a sangria tower. Our entire stay in Budapest was punctuated by buying mulled wine, usually from street vendors. In practically every country besides the United States, you are legal to imbibe. Take advantage of it!

(3) Learn the (Bad) Language:Learn all the regular words, too, of course. Know the essentials: how to say hello, goodbye and thank you, and how to ask where the bathroom is and how far to the closest bar. Our Dutch language professor preferred to teach us Dutch swear words before anything practical. Phrases such as “klaarkomen” and “neuken in de keuken” are deeply ingrained into my foreign language ability, but I’m still unsure as to how to order food in Dutch. Even so, in most places, everyone you meet will likely speak English and so learning the local language is more of a bonus or convenience rather than a necessity.

(4) Find Your Tradition:For some people I knew, it was collecting postcards and taking pictures at historically famous sites. Two of my friends preferred hiking and would find a trail to explore in whatever city they went to. One girl’s goal was to pee in an alleyway in every country she visited. I myself proudly own a pair of boxers from each place I traveled to. Make memories and create traditions, even if it’s just for yourself. Monetarily, these will never have any value. Emotionally and mentally, they make a world of difference in feeling comfortable and connecting to your new home, even if it is only a temporary one.

(5) Don’t Forget About Home:It is incredibly important to be independent, to take a few days, or several, for yourself. I would go so far as to say that it’s healthy and necessary for growth, to give yourself a break from the regular personal commitments in your life. It’s even more vital when you’re trying to immerse yourself in a new country and culture. But it’s important to strike a balance. Don’t completely forget about home – your family (who’s likely financing this adventure) and your best friends, who are around to listen to every crazy story. These people are there for the rainy days, for when the homesickness gets too strong, or just for when you need someone to hear you talk. Update them constantly. Thank them regularly.

When you find yourself back at ‘Gate and you’re supposed to sum up an entire semester spent in a foreign country into a single sentence, don’t worry if that seems impossible. No one expects you to and if you did your semester away properly, you shouldn’t be able to.

Oh, and bring Nyquil. When you inevitably catch the flu from one too many rides on public transportation, and don’t have to struggle to find cold medicine in another country’s version of CVS, where all the labels are in a foreign language, you will thank me.