(Writing from Feb 11th, 2 days before flight). I’m sitting by the television, eating dinner with my family, I turn my head to look at the window. It’s beginning to snow, just a little bit though, not enough to cover much of anything. The weather, though cold, is supposed to be fine for the next few days. Even though the heat is on my step-mom is still freezing, and my sister is cuddled with her set of blankets. This is the life I’m used to. Aside from just ONE semester at New Paltz, this is all I really know.
And that’s the moment it hits: in two days, everything I know is going to change. Instead of cold winter weather, I’ll be hit with the hot Australian summer. In place of Jeopardy with my old-fashioned family, I’ll be watching the sun rise over the Pacific from 30,000 feet. I already said goodbye to my extended family at church today and my friends at New Paltz a week ago, and soon enough I’ll have to leave my sister, father, and step mother too. Cars will drive on the other side of the road, the birds will sing different songs, even the night stars will be different then back home. Heck, for all I know, people will talk backwards and everything will look upside-down.
I’m nervous, of course. I only left home a few months ago to go to college, and now I’m going to have to learn total independence. I’ve never been to a foreign country (save for one rainy and rather dreary experience in Montreal in 8th grade, ending with me getting lost in the Notre Dame), never even been outside of the northeast US. I hardly know anything about my life here, and suddenly I’m about to plunge into a new world ten thousand miles away. The only place I could go further from home is further in Australia (which I intend to do, if I can). I ask myself what my ‘plan’ is after school, as if I have any idea anymore. I ask who I am and who I want to be. I question my future and my part in this world. In part due to my faith, part because of my great support from family and friends, and part perhaps simple hope, I believe that there’s more out there I can comprehend, somewhere a role for me in changing this world into a better place. There’s more than I can possibly know out there for me, if only I can reach out and take it. But how? Where does that journey begin?
Perhaps, this is where that great chapter of my life begins. Going to Australia has been my dream for years, and now I’m actually able to make it happen. I’ve always been fascinated with the culture, the history, landscape, and environment, which is largely unknown in America (unfortunately, P Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney does not actually exist) and want to explore it as much as I can. I even started writing about going to Australia in a novel I’ve been working on for some time. From the looks of it, it’s a beautiful country and I’m eager to see what I can (on a limited budget). Also, looking at home, I realize more and more that even though it’s nice enough where I am, I don’t know that I want to stay. I need to explore the world, see things and grow. And on this trip, I plan on trying to do all of that: learn about other people and the world, become more independent, stretch way out of my comfort zone, grow as a person, and do everything I can to shine light into the world.
I don’t know exactly what will come from all of this. You never do, but I guess that’s how faith works. But I’m certain that, whatever road is planned for me, it’ll lead to a great new perspective on life and shape me more and more into the person I strive to be.
I’ve now been back in America for a few weeks, and it’s been nice. I really did not want to leave Ireland, but there are definitely comforts from home that I underestimated the importance of, and once i got home, I did start to appreciate being home, even though I didn’t want to leave at all. I still miss Ireland, and the other parts of Europe I visited, and I think about it all the time. I miss the people and places I met and discovered, and I definitely want to visit. I am not sure how it will be adjusting to New Paltz. While it will be nice to be back at school, I am really going to miss being in Limerick. I hope to visit Limerick over spring break, but it is not definite. I know I definitely want to go back to Ireland at some point. This experience was truly unlike any other, and I am so proud and grateful to have embarked on this semester-long journey, and I will always keep it near and dear to my heart.
I’m not really happy to come back to America. I’m going to miss being abroad. I’m going to miss the people I met, and the experiences I’ve had while being here. Everything is going to feel so different when i come back. When I first came here, I was so homesick and I wanted to be back home, specifically in New Paltz, but now that it’s time to go, I’m going to miss the people and places. But I’ so glad to have had this experience, and I will always treasure it, and I would totally recommend it to others who are considering studying abroad.
Culture shock is something you will inevitably hear about when you decide to embark on a journey half way across the globe. I was told I’d have trouble adapting to the culture, the language, the customs, traditions, and the currency. I was convinced however, that the term “culture shock” was an exaggeration used to describe how maladapted individuals responded to normal changes you experience when living in another country. I considered myself a versatile and malleable individual who could handle anything thrown my way. Looking back, I realize this was my way of coping with the anxiety I felt from entering the unknown; which of course is 100% normal. The first week in Prague I was actually shown this graph:
I brushed it off as I was also taking in hundreds of other bits and pieces of information. But the wiser more experienced version of myself is now here to tell you that there is a high chance that you will experience culture shock. Plain and simple. If you are living in a country where you are a foreigner, culture shock is inevitable. Once the excitement of being in a new place and experiencing new things wears off, frustration, to some degree, will take over you.
Let me paint a picture for you:
Imagine you are midway throughout your semester and have just been reminded by your professor that your ten-page research paper is due in a week. Now I know what you’re thinking: you’re a responsible student who stays on top of your work and forgetting you have a paper due is not in your nature. But when you’re exploring a city you have limited time in day in and day out whilst traveling during the weekends, due dates are easy to forget. Luckily, European professors do not give homework for the most part but their easygoing character also means they won’t be constantly reminding you of when your big papers and projects are due. So now that you have some context of the situation you may find yourself in, imagine it’s also around the time where you begin to feel home sick. When holidays like Thanksgiving come up or a beloved one’s birthday, you will begin to miss home (I recommend disconnecting from social media as much as possible to counter-act this).
Now picture yourself in this hypothetical scenario, with these things lingering in your subconscious, and all of a sudden you find yourself unable to communicate with someone at a café. They don’t speak English and you don’t speak their language fluent enough for them to understand either; this can be really frustrating!
Halfway through your frustration you remind yourself that you’re a guest in someone’s country and this is to be expected thus allowing yourself to “brush it off.” On your way home (yes Prague became home) you are being stared at and laughed at. You tell yourself that it’s normal to stand out but you feel your blood start to boil a little. This is culture shock. When the excitement of being in a new place wears off you are faced with the fact that you are somewhere where you stand out all the time. You may begin to think everyone’s constantly staring at you and judging you and well, they probably are.
The most efficient way I’ve found to get over culture shock is to accept that you are a foreigner in another land. I find that it helps to think back to all the times you innocently laughed at someone who didn’t speak English, who was completely lost with no sense of direction, or who simply annoyed you because they were “tourists.” Accepting that you are a tourist in another country will make for a less frustrating realization of cultural differences. The faster you can accept this, the quicker this “shock” will pass on by. And trust me, it will pass. If you make an effort to get out of your comfort zone, nine out of ten times you will be rewarded. The reward is life long friendships, new perspectives, gratitude for the people in your life, and personal growth.
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman
I spent a few days in Brussels, and it was a really awesome experience. My hostel was right near Grand Place, which was really convenient, and it’s beautiful. I went to some museums and really enjoyed taking in the surroundings. One museum was the Royal Museum of Art, which is really cool, and quite huge. I also went to a small town called Bruges, which was a train ride away. It’s very small, but so unique that it was so worth it to spend a day there. I had amazing food and delicious chocolate. Brussels definitely has a lot to see and do, and of course eat, and I think I would definitely like to go back and get to see even more of it.
The German phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” means only work can set you free. This sign is visibly seen as you enter the former concentration camp in Aushwitz, Poland. Oh the irony…
It was a six hour overnight bus ride from Prague to Aushwitz. We departed at midnight so naturally none of my peers or myself got a good nights rest. There was one unpleasant and ironically unforeseeable misfortune that backtracked our trip there: a thick fog. This fog caused a lot of traffic as drivers could quite literally not see the road. However, this didn’t stop Eva, our wonderful tour guide, from rushing our breakfast in order to make it to the camp by 7am. It was important to get there at the very beginning of opening hours as typically Aushwitz is extremely packed, ultimately taking away from the experience.
It’s easy to lack empathy when you learn about the history of Jews in a middle school history class. After visiting Aushwitz, every single one of my peers, Jewish or not, shed a tear. I saw the actual gas chambers bodies were disposed of in. I saw thousands of shoes and suitcases that belonged to actual people who were murdered. I walked through an underground tunnel built for the prisoners. I witnessed some of my friends search through a massive book of names of the victims killed; many of whom found their relatives and cried with grief.
What I saw in Aushwitz was terrifying, horrifying, unjust, but necessary to have witnessed. Yes I knew about the atrocities that went on at this extermination camp, they were unfortunate, but distant. They were stories, statistics, numbers, and seemed very far away. Truth is, not very long ago, had you lived in Europe, you could have been a part of this brutal history. What if this was my family? My sister or brother? My cousin? My child? My friend? My neighbor? Visiting Aushwitz makes it personal for you, regardless where you come from.
For all my traveling enthusiasts reading, traveling with the intention to understand the history of a place will make your experience much more worthwhile. It will forever change your perspective of the world and the people that reside in it.
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” Aushwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945
Thanksgiving might be my favorite holiday- it’s a holiday that my family goes all out for. When I was younger, we would sit around the dining room table on Thanksgiving eve and write out gratitude leaves. My mom would make so many dishes- main and side- all from scratch! I always admired her hard work on this holiday. Then, on Thanksgiving day, my grandma, aunt, and cousins (all 20 of them), would come in the afternoon and we’d spend the day eating delicious food and watching Star Wars. Being away from home on Thanksgiving was going to be tough, so I decided to throw my first Thanksgiving with my flatmates and friends who I made abroad. Half of us are American, so we celebrate Thanksgiving every year. But for the other half of us, this was their first Thanksgiving! It really was special to me that I got to share one of my favorite holiday with people of all different backgrounds.
Another thing about me- I L O V E cooking. I made chicken cutlets (because here in Milan, turkey is REALLY expensive), corn, green beans, gravy and an apple crisp. Others brought mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, veggie lasagna, tiramisu, chocolate cake and lots and lots of wine. It definitely was a Milanese Thanksgiving haha.
We spent hours playing card games, eating good food, chatting and more! It was one of my favorite Thanksgiving’s that I’ve spent so far. I am so grateful for all of the people who came- and some who couldn’t make it 🙁 These people are unapologetic and kind and intelligent. I’m so glad I had this opportunity to be here in Milan. I don’t want to leave just yet!
I have not written a blog post since I have arrived. Why you may be wondering? The experiences I have been through in nearly the two months I have been studying in the Czech Republic have been so incredibly life-changing that it’s evoked a feeling of lethargy. Thats weird isn’t it? I expected the opposite to occur; I thought I’d feel alive, empowered, ready to overcome procrastination, and be the best most productive version of myself. But the truth is that it has taken some time to process everything I have been living day in and day out while abroad. I had to give myself time to truly reflect on my experiences here before being able to write about them. So without further adieu, I share with you the insights I’ve gained from my journey here.
For starters, arriving in Prague was like a fairytale. This is one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world. The architecture, the history, the theatre and arts are only some of the various things Prague has to offer. Don’t take my word for it see for yourself:
In the beginning, everything was so fast paced it was truly hard to take it all in. One day I’d be visiting Terezin, the former Jewish ghetto where terrible, horrible atrocities occurred, and the next day I’d be hanging out at a pub with people from all around the world. Now that I have a firm grasp of my surroundings, I have finally been able to settle in and reflect on my experiences. I travelled pretty much every weekend since late September up until late October. I visited Germany, Holland, Greece, and Poland. Each and every single country I’ve visited has somehow taken a piece of my heart. The history I’ve learned and the people I’ve met have undoubtedly changed my perspective on life. I no longer label myself as only being Colombian or American but rather a citizen of the world.
My point in saying this is to emphasize that we are all one human race and identifying ourselves with being of a certain nationality, many times creates a division to understanding people from other backgrounds.
Let me ask you something. What do you see in this picture? Look closely… You see a group of women of different ethnicities and even ages. The woman all the way in the back was my Airbnb Dutch host in Haarlem, Holland (right outside of Amsterdam), which I learned as I arrived is a rich white neighborhood. Now I don’t know how a group of six very different women were able to break the walls within us all, but the openness of our conversation was truly something beautiful.
Our Airbnb host opened up to us about the preconceived stereotypes she had of us when we first walked in. She wanted to express to us the shame she felt just because she was experiencing something she wasn’t used to. We spoke for what felt like hours about racism and thanked each other for destroying many stereotypes our very different societies had instilled on us. Connecting with people in such a raw and real way is what makes traveling so worthwhile.
This post is loooonngggg overdue. I’ve been caught up with traveling and assignments and just living my life that I haven’t had much time to sit on my computer and be consistent with this blog (which I will work on from here on out). However, tonight I am feeling motivated! I went out to dinner with my close friends that I’ve made here; it was the first time I stayed out past 9PM here in Milan. Being out late made me realized how living in Milan no longer feels like a foreign feeling, but like second nature to me. So, I thought, why not use this time to reflect on the changes and differences in cultural norms I experienced during my first weeks here in Milan.
The food here is all pasta and cheese and meat! Sounds like a dream to most right? As a vegetarian/vegan, I actually found it quite hard to go out to restaurants and find a vegetarian/vegan option, let alone find a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. However, I did make friends (unintentionally) who all happen to be vegetarian! We make it our mission to find good vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and we’ve stumbled upon a few so far.
Dress here also happens to be completely different than what I am used to. After all, I am in the fashion capital of the world! At home, I am used to wearing off-the-shoulder tops, jeans and my vans or boots everywhere I go- overall, super casual. Here, you are expected to be more modest yet still fashionable. Exposed skin definitely gets you some glares but it is something I’ve come accustomed to- my collar bones are my favorite feature, how can I not show them off? Another thing I noticed is that women wear sneakers with EVERY outfit which I’ve come to love and be inspired by. Women wear sneakers with slacks, jeans, dresses and so much more; I never considered sneakers fashionable until this point and now, I can’t stop wanting to buy them! I have a pair of Nike Cortez’s waiting for me at home 😉 Overall, being here makes me that much more into fashion and style; not to mention I’m taking a course titled Sociology of Fashion in Milan at my university here.
A social interaction I wish I could bring back to the states with me is aperitivo! Aperitivo is basically like Italians happy hour; you buy a drink (which can range from $8-$12) and then you either get chips, a meat and cheese platter or even a buffet depending on the establishment. Aperitivo is a great way to socialize with your friends after a long week of classes and have a good time.
I’m not going to lie and say that it was an easy transition coming to Milan- like I was warned by the study abroad advisors, I definitely did get frustrated about certain things not being as convenient as they were in America. However, it is safe to say that I finally am in a groove here in Milan, and I am really enjoying my time here.