STUDY ABROAD TIPS
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Hi! I am about to be a postgrad student in Dublin, Ireland, but I lived last year in France as an au pair and am originally American. Since leaving the US in 2013, I also have traveled to Sweden, Italy, and the UK. Here are a few tips.
Back-up everything, scan important documents and have them on an external hard drive. Know all your important info—bank accounts, whatever. This varies depending on how old you are and what kind of insurance you have and where you are going (plus what they require for the visa). Try to have several forms of photo ID and extra ID photos. For Americans, know your Social Security Number by heart.
On a more sentimental level, it’s nice to have photos of people/places/animals/things you will miss. Try to take a few before you go (or have old ones saved on your laptop or flickr or something).
You can use vacuum seal bags to compress clothes, but remember that they will still weigh the same (just take up less space). Luggage is a pain to deal with and you will inevitably forget something you could have used. If you have a willing co-conspirator at home, ask them to send you a package at some point while you’re away rather than trying to pack every last thing. Particularly helpful with winter coats! Just remember it all has to go back. My rule of thumb is that your favorite and/or most immediately useful clothes (for me that’s usually my favorite 10 pairs of underwear, a pair of jeans, a couple tee shirts, and a sweater) should go in smaller luggage along with important/fragile items (passport, laptop, camera), and extra things can go in a big suitcase. My theory is that you could lose everything that you don’t personally carry, so it’s best to at least keep a minimum supply with you if possible. I’ve never actually had an issue with lost luggage or anything though. For mini-trips (trips once you get to your big destination), ALWAYS pack light— you should be able to carry everything you bring, because you don’t know if you’ll be able to drop stuff off right away.
THINGS TO DO:
I found out that I am crazy about botanic gardens while I was in Lyon, and now that’s something I try to find wherever I go. Especially living in cities, now, I’m always keen to find gardens—just to spend time in, to have a different aesthetic experience (different immediate surroundings in an immersive way), and to draw or take photographs. I also love when you can do very ‘normal life’ things in different places and see how different cultural norms work. In Sweden I went to an open community meeting (with my Swedish friend) and it was fantastic to meet non-tourists and get to have that shared experience. Also, for the benefit of you and wherever you go, try to appreciate it for what it is and reap the benefits rather than making constant comparisons. Venice is not a clearly laid-out pedestrian city—enjoy getting lost.
Know that wherever you go, you will not be able to see it all or do it all. I was in France for 10 months and spent a grand total of 7 hours in Paris and really very few days outside the city where I lived, Lyon. However, I was able to visit other European countries using France as a base. This year I’m trying to stay closer to home (Ireland) and explore in more depth around here. Don’t worry about trying to fit in all the major stuff. You can have a good time in less well-known places as well—sometimes better because people there may be more interested in giving you tips on local attractions and that sort of thing.
I use kayak.com to book a lot of flights, but if you notice that one airline is the major one between two places you want to go, also check prices and schedules on that airline’s website directly. To get from the US to Europe, going through Iceland (IcelandAir) is often radically cheaper. To Americans traveling in Europe: Remember non-flying/non-car options! I took a long time to adjust to this, but am now very converted to bus or rail travel in preference to flying or driving. In France, iDbus is great and cheap, connecting a lot of major cities (varying throughout the year). Ireland and the UK both have good, affordable rail systems. From Berlin to Sweden there is an overnight train you can take for about $80. A friend and I wanted to go to the beach this summer and we went from Lyon to Nîmes for 15€ (bus), then found a 1€ local train direct to the beach from there. Sometimes if you just want to travel, a good way to decide where to go is to follow good deals like that! Also, get creative and flexible about how you travel. I went to Oxford to visit friends over my birthday and used a series of three busses, with stops long enough in Paris and London to do a few things there without paying for hotels. A lot of time on busses but definitely worthwhile! Finally, a lot of major European cities have bike share programs now which can be great for day explorations. At night, if you can’t use public transit (a lot of last bus/Metro connections are at 11.30 or midnight), consider splitting a taxi or going at least part of the distance via taxi.
No matter what you are going to compare your experience at home and abroad. It’s important to make sure you stay as objective as you can… you will probably have stronger biases about your native culture, and it can be really eye-opening to step into someone else’s cultural lens and consider your own culture from afar. At the same time, some stereotypes may seem to prove true (about where you go), but you have to remember that they are still stereotypes and there are always exceptions.
Try to be aware of how much you immerse yourself. For English speakers especially, it can be easy to hide away in a community of fellow Anglophones and listen to the same music you listened to at home and all that. Try listening to local radio, using the websites from the country you are in, meeting and hanging out with locals. At the same time, yes, you want to be immersed in another culture, but you are not going to ever be a native of that culture… it’s okay to stay in touch with your own culture as well. About halfway through the year, I started listening to American public radio again and it was really reassuring to hear the same voices I’ve listened to since being in the womb. However, I would still try to listen to French news radio and watch French movies and play French music as well.
Biggest tip: DO RESEARCH:
I went to France thinking I would just wing it and somehow naturally learn everything there was to do in Lyon once I was actually there. It took me months to get used to the public transit system and figure out where to go to do different things (even down to which websites to use to look up local cinema times, for example). I did figure out things eventually, but I lost a lot of time kind of floundering. In Dublin, I’ve used some of that experience to find things here and so far it’s been a much easier transition. I also have a better understanding of how much time tasks take when you can’t rely on a personal vehicle or doing things over the Internet. Most importantly, although I don’t really understand the detailed geography, I have a decent general sense of Dublin from studying maps and really paying attention to area names while I was apartment-hunting. In Lyon, I didn’t even really understand where the place I lived was in relation to other parts of the city until I got there and walked around for weeks. Don’t believe that if you do research, you can’t do anything fun or spontaneous. That’s not true at all! Just do research on things like transportation, food, banking, phone plans, and fun stuff to do. If you figure out a lot of logistics in advance, you can enjoy more of your time there doing cool stuff. Also, if you have some idea what a place has to offer, you’ll be more able to dive into those communities.