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Q&A with another College Abroad student

Michelle in Japan

Michelle in Japan

Lest you think that I’m the only one that has made college abroad work and it isn’t something that you can take advantage of, today I’m posting a short interview with another American I met while in Germany who also got enrolled directly in a university overseas, which saved her thousands of dollars.  Her story is a lot like mine, except now she is teaching English in South Korea.  Going abroad for school has a tendency to instill a desire for some sort of international career, as I myself have discovered.  I want to feature others’ stories here on the blog because there was not enough space in the book to do so.  Thanks to Michelle Cosier for answering my questions and agreeing to let me publish it here.

 

When and where did you do college abroad?

I studied at Jacobs University in Germany from 2007-2009, where I studied International Communication, and now I’m teaching English in South Korea at a public middle school.  I plan to go back to Germany this summer.
What kind of program did you complete abroad?

The program was designed to attract graduate students from all different walks of the world.  The instruction was in English.  Usually we had daily seminars ranging from 3-5 seminars per week related to our particular program.  It wasn’t altogether that much different from an American graduate program.

 

Why did you decide to complete your degree abroad?

I decided to complete my degree abroad because the financial opportunity presented itself as a means for me to actually afford a Masters Degree.  Compare to the thousands of dollars I would have paid in the  U.S.A. Jacobs University offered me a full tuition scholarship.*  I also speak German and wanted to use the opportunity to become more fluent, needless to say I left speaking fluent German as well.

*The program didn’t technically charge tuition at all.  All students were given this “scholarship.”

 

Did you also apply to American degree programs?  What, in the end, made you decide to choose the foreign degree program as supposed to the American degree program?

I did not apply to any American degree programs.   In the end, the financial benefit and having an international degree was the reason I decided to go abroad.

 

What were your worries/concerns about getting a degree from a foreign university or living abroad before you left, if any?

The only concern I had, was…. Am I going to be able to complete the program?  I was putting myself in an unfamiliar education system, but what I learned was that it was on a similar scale as my U.S. university education so I became more confident.

 

How supportive were your close friends and family of your decision to do your degree abroad?  Did they have any particularly concerns about your decision?

My close friends and family were very supportive of my decision.  I had a few stragglers that were whining and nervous about me going, etc… but I just ignored them as I knew they had never really travelled before anyway.

 

Did doing your degree abroad save you money?

Yes, absolutely.  I had a fully covered tuition scholarship.**

**By not paying tuition, Michelle also saved money and avoided taking out more student loans.

What are the advantages of doing your degree abroad?

Broadening my worldview more than what it already was & meeting amazing friends who live all over the world.

What are the disadvantages?

Not seeing friends and family as often.

 

How did you pay for college abroad?

I had a scholarship*, and a college fund that I used to help me with my living expenses.  Also living in Germany with a residency permit and student visa I was able to work a little too.

*Michelle’s program didn’t charge any tuition.

How did you find your program?

http://www.daad.de.

Do you have any special tips for what to do or how to prepare to live and study abroad?

Keep your mind open… “you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Read a book about the culture in the country, go to the place you want to study first on a vacation, learn the language to make the most of your experience, make friends in your host c country.  Don’t stick around your own nationality all the time, and diversify yourself..

 

 Did you travel often outside of your host country while you were living abroad?

Yes!

 

What, if any, lasting impressions or life changes have resulted from getting your degree abroad that you think you would not have otherwise encountered?

I am able to impact and counsel others on making a similar decision.  I could have not made a better life-long impacting decision to go myself so why not share that with others.

 

Cell Phones and SIM Cards for living abroad- updated

A lot of you out there probably got a nice new electronic device such as a smart phone or tablet for Christmas.  But, if you’re planning to move abroad anytime soon, you’ll probably wonder whether your shiny new toy will work overseas.  Having a cell phone is really a must even when living abroad–after living in four countries I’ve never had a landline phone and all my friends communicated via cell phone.  Having a data plan can also be a lifesaver especially in unfamiliar places…you can look up directions or public transport connections, currency exchanges, and translations.  I touch on this topic briefly in the book, but I’ve since discovered that people crave a simple, step-by-step Q&A on buying cell phones to bring abroad, or knowing whether your current device will work overseas.  I’ll attempt to answer all the most frequent questions I get here.

Before I start, a brief note.  I’m not going to go into details here on data speeds and frequencies, such as 2G, 3G, and 4G.  Whether you get these different speeds depends on a complex combination of your phone’s capabilities, the service provider you use, and where you’ll be accessing data most often.  If getting lighting-fast data speeds is important to you while abroad, you’ll have to do a little more research than the basic step-by-step I’m going to provide here.  You’ll need to research the leading mobile carriers in the country you’ll be living, and what frequencies they use to provide 4G data, and then you’ll need to make sure your phone is compatible with that frequency.

My recommendation: go prepaid.

The prepaid market is only now getting underway for smart phones in the US.  The prepaid market is much more developed abroad, and if you’re on a budget I highly recommend using a prepaid plan while abroad, whether you’ll be there long-term or short-term.  Unless you use a ton of minutes or rely on a lot of data, prepaid will almost always save money compared to a monthly plan.  It’s also good for college abroad students because you won’t be stuck paying for minutes you’re not using while you’re traveling out of country or when you go back to the US to visit.  This is also why I recommend staying contract-free while you’re abroad, unless you’re absolutely sure you’ll stay for the duration of the contract, you can truly afford the monthly payment, and you are very sure you won’t travel too frequently outside of the country.  Since many Americans aren’t familiar with prepaid plans, or associate them with people who have no credit history, it can be a bit of an adjustment to go prepaid, and tempting to simply sign a contract with a carrier overseas.  But trust me, after being on  prepaid plans, monthly plans, and even a long-term contract abroad, prepaid is generally the best way to go.

I’m only going abroad for a short time as an exchange student.  What should I do?

Even if you’re only going for a few weeks/months, do NOT use your contract phone abroad unless you enjoy getting a cell phone bill demanding hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  Unless you have an out of contract unlocked GSM-compatible phone (see below), I suggest you call your carrier and ask for a temporary hold on your contract.  I know that some carriers will allow customers to put their contract on hold for up to six months, during which time you don’t have to pay the monthly fee, but doing so also extends the life of the contract.  You may need to provide your carrier evidence of going abroad, which could be an acceptance letter to a study abroad program, a scholarship award letter or rental agreement for an apartment abroad.  If you’re lucky, your provider might unlock your phone even while in contract, in which case you CAN use your current phone while abroad temporarily as long as the phone is GSM-compatible.  If this isn’t the case, buy a cheap phone and a SIM card that will work wherever you’re studying (see Step 2 below), and leave your normal in-contract phone at home.  Another option is to allow a friend or family member to use your phone while you’re abroad, while they agree to pay your monthly fee.

Step 1: Can I use my current cell phone abroad?

In order to answer this question, you need to answer several additional questions…

Are you in contract and if so, can you get out of your contract?

The short answer is: probably not unless you’re willing to pay the cancellation fee.  However, if you have an inexpensive phone, or if your contract is nearly up, or if you have a particularly forgiving carrier, you might be able to get out of your contract.  I was able to cancel mine by faxing my carrier a copy of my university acceptance letter before I moved and a copy of my rental agreement in Germany after I moved.  They waived the cancellation fee.  But this was almost seven years ago and the phone was relatively cheap.  Although paying a cancellation fee isn’t ideal, it might make sense simply to get out of the obligation and it could save you money in the long-term.  However, before breaking down and just paying the fee, consider transferring your contract to a new customer.

How do I transfer my contract?

Try these two companies: CellTradeUSA and CellSwapper.  You can also go to your carrier and directly negotiate to switch your contract to a friend or family member.  You have the option to transfer your phone along with the contract, or just the contract.  If you keep the phone and want to use it abroad,  it needs to be GSM-compatible (see below) and you’ll have to get it unlocked (see below).  If you don’t keep the phone, skip to Step 2.

Is your phone GSM compatible?

In order to be able to work abroad, your phone must be able to work on the networks outside the US.  Most of the rest of the world uses a network called GSM.  Up until recently however, almost all of the carriers in the US used CDMA, and most of the phones sold in the US were only able to work on a CDMA network, making it nearly impossible to use your phone abroad.  Fortunately, AT&T and T-mobile now use GSM.  In order to use your phone abroad, it must be capable of working on a GSM frequency.  Many newer smart phones sold in the US today are tri- or quad-band phones, which means they can work on a variety of frequencies, but if your phone was sold by one of the CDMA carriers such as Sprint, it may not be GSM-compatible even if the phone is technically tri- or quad-band.  Therefore, you might contact your carrier and consult the website of your phone’s manufacturer to be sure.  If your phone isn’t GSM-compatible, proceed to step 2.

Is your phone unlocked?

If you’re still on contract, your phone is probably locked.  However, even if you’re out of contract your phone is still probably locked, unless you never had a contract to begin with or you bought your phone unlocked originally.  Most cell phones are programmed with software that “locks” the phone to only one carrier.  In order to use your current cell phone abroad, you need to be able to use it on a different carrier.  You can know for sure if your phone is unlocked by taking out the current SIM card (see more about this below), and insert a SIM card from a friend’s phone.  If the phone works with the other SIM card, it is unlocked.  Rumor has it that Verizon iPhone 5 is shipped unlocked, so while Verizon is one of the CDMA carriers in the US, the iPhone 5 works on both frequencies and therefore a Verizon iPhone 5 should work with GSM carriers both here and abroad.

Can I get my phone unlocked?

If you’ve arrived at this step, you have a GSM phone, which not only means it can work on a network outside the US, but it also means that it uses a chip called a SIM card.  Only phones that use SIM cards can be used abroad, and only phones with SIM cards can be unlocked.

My phone has a removable SIM card and is GSM-compatible.  Now how do I unlock it?

Again, the answer in the form of a question:

Is your phone a dumb phone?

If your phone is dumb…or rather, NOT a smart phone, unlocking is a simple procedure if your carrier allows it.  Just call customer service, or check the carriers website for the unlock code.  Some carriers will charge a fee to unlock the phone, others will do it for free, and many are happy to do so on inexpensive dumb phones especially if it is out of contract or already paid for.

Is your phone a smartphone?

If you have a smartphone, the process of getting your phone unlocked is more complicated because the software on the phone is more complex.  However, your carrier can do it relatively easily if they want to.  First, call your carrier and ask about unlocking.  Explain that you’re going abroad and you’re already out of contract.  It used to be the case that you could get an unlock code from a third party provider if your carrier wouldn’t do it for you, but since March 2013 that has become more difficult due to a small change in the law governing cell phone technology.  You can read about it here.  Such third party providers still exist but since the law change you might find yourself on the wrong side of the law by unlocking your phone without the carrier’s permission (although the White House opposes this law, and the House has introduced a bill to reverse this situation).  I hear these services do indeed work but I’ve never used them myself, and besides being potentially illegal, you might lose your warranty and they charge a fee.

Sooo…to recap: in order to use your phone abroad it must…

1.  Be out of contract.

2.  Be GSM-compatible.

3.  Be unlocked.

I’m in luck!  My phone fits these criteria.  Now what?

Congratulations!  Now all you need is a SIM card that will work wherever you’re going.  You have two options: buy a SIM before you leave or once you get there.  I think it is better to have a SIM before you leave so that you can use your phone as soon as you land (see below).  You can always buy a new SIM with better rates later.

Step 2: My phone can’t be taken abroad.  Now what?

You have two options:  buy a phone while still in the US or buy a phone when you get to your host country.  I’ll take each option in turn.

Bring a cheap temporary phone with you.

I recommend bringing a phone with you along with a SIM card that will work in your host country so you can call as soon as you land (for a taxi, for a hotel, for the person who is supposed to pick you up, etc).  This can be a cheap dumb phone you can get rid of if or when you find a more suitable phone or plan in the host country.

Where do I buy a local SIM card if I’m not “local” yet?

There are a few companies that sell local SIMs and cheap, unlocked cell phones to people in the US who are planning to travel abroad.  I can recommend Telestial, but there are plenty of other options.  These are usually pre-paid SIMs, meaning they come with a certain dollar amount loaded, and you pay per minute, per SMS, and if data is included, per megabyte.  Once the dollar amount has been depleted, you have to recharge the card.  This can usually be done online, or by buying recharge codes at kiosks abroad.  You can get a SIM that is specific to a given country, which is usually the cheapest plan, or a regional SIM that works throughout several countries in the immediate area, or even an international SIM that works all over the world.

Buy a better quality phone in the US to use as your main phone abroad.

If you care about the phone you use and want a better quality phone with you while living abroad, you can buy one in the US and take it with you.  Any phone that is purchased in the US, however, must fulfill all the criteria discussed above: out of contract, GSM-compatible, and unlocked.  Fortunately, you can now find lots of unlocked phones that are sold directly from the manufacturer so the customer can choose whatever carrier s/he wants.  Unfortunately, unlocked smartphones are extremely expensive.  An unlocked iPhone 5 costs $549. Most new unlocked smartphones will cost anywhere between $250-800.  While this is a heavy price, equivalent smartphones abroad will probably be unavailable or much more expensive (this may not be the case in places like China or Korea, where some of these phones are manufactured).  In Germany for example, the iPhone 5 costs 549 EUROS, which is $745.

Can I buy a used phone to bring with me?

It may be better to have an older phone because having a new shiny one could make you the target of theft.  Be on the lookout for friends and family who are looking to upgrade their phones and looking to dump their older phones. Or settle for a lower quality, cheaper model (which are pretty easy to find these days)

1.  If you really want an American cell phone to bring with you abroad, think about buying used on Amazon or ebay or Craigslist.  You can get a used version of the latest model for half the price of buying new.  BUT if you’re thinking of buying used from Amazon, Ebay, or Craigslist, be a little careful.  Take the following into consideration:Ask the seller about all the features mentioned above, such as being GSM and unlocked.  If it is used and out of contract but still locked, it may be relatively easy, depending upon the carrier, to get the phone unlocked.  The seller may not be familiar with these issues and may not know the answer or give you the wrong answer.  Therefore, be as sure as possible that you’re getting what you want.  Amazon and Ebay have good buyer protection procedures, but Craigslist does not.  If you buy from Craigslist, meet the seller in person and bring a SIM card from a GSM network (like AT&T) with you to make sure it is truly unlocked and GSM-compatible.  DO NOT buy a Sprint phone, as Sprint is a CMDA carrier and its phones don’t use SIM cards.

2.  The battery life on smart phones are pretty weak to begin with, but a used phone may not keep a charge for long at all.  Ask the seller.

3. Make sure the IMEI is “clean.”  The IMEI is a unique number assigned to every single GSM device.  If a phone is lost or stolen, the owner can report this to their carrier and the IMEI number is put on a blacklist.  This means that if someone else tries to use the phone, the carrier will see that the phone is blacklisted and won’t work.  You can use a site like Swappa to check the IMEI status.

Anything else I should consider?

Some features to consider if you’re buying a new(er) phone to use abroad: it might be a good idea to get a phone with a decent camera to capture those random moments when you don’t have your actual camera with you.  You might also consider a phone with a dual SIM capability.  This way you can have a local SIM in one slot and a US SIM in the other, for example.

Finally, you’ll still need a SIM card.  You can purchase one from any of the many online retailers I mention above, or you can wait until you get there and buy one.  From experience, it can actually be somewhat difficult to find a retailer locally that sells SIM cards, especially when you’re not familiar with the country yet and how to get around.  I’ve used this site every time I’ve moved to a different country to help me decide which SIM to buy and where to buy it.  Again, I would rather have the ability to call right away in case anything goes wrong when I land in a foreign country for the first time.  Others might be more relaxed about this.

Buy a cell phone locally with a local plan.

If you know for sure you’ll be staying in a certain country for a long time, it *might* be worth it to get a local phone and maybe even a local contract (but see my notes on this option above).  If your Bachelor’s program abroad is three years long, you can easily sign a two-year contract as long as the monthly fee is affordable.  However, it isn’t wise to assume that a cell phone contract carries similar terms as it would in the US.  For example, I learned the hard way that contracts in Germany automatically renew after the initial period, and getting out of a German cell phone contract requires giving them at least three months notice.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to having a contract abroad.  In Europe, for example, the cell phone industry is much more consumer friendly than it is the US.  Contracts are generally easier to get out of, you have the right to take your number to a new carrier, and unlocking is also easier.  Carriers in Europe are more flexible because Europeans move to other countries all the time, so getting out of a contract is pretty easy if you can prove you’re moving away.  Still though, if you plan to travel a lot, or go back to the US and stay for a while, being in a contract can be a waste of money.

Can I get data on a local phone and/or local plan?

Yes!  Just be sure to buy a SIM card with a company that offers data, which most do nowadays.  Some countries may not have extremely fast data networks such as 4G of LTE, but many countries actually have faster data networks than we do.  If you’re using a local SIM with a phone you brought from another country or carrier, you might find that your phone will show that it is connected to the data network (such as showing the 3G icon at the top), but when you try loading a website or using data, things simply won’t load.  This is most likely due to your phone’s APN settings.  Depending upon your phone model and the software version your phone is running, you may be able to change the APN settings manually.  However, there may not be an option in your phone’s settings menu to change it.  But never fear!  While connected via WiFi, go to http://www.unlockit.co.nz.  From there, choose your country and the carrier, and the service will automatically download a profile on your phone that changes the APN settings.  For some reason, this works wonderfully for everything except MMS (sending pictures via text message).

What about tablets?

Tablets are actually much simpler to use abroad than cell phones, because most of them are shipped unlocked and many are sold without a contract.  Therefore, all you need is a SIM card that includes data and your tablet should work (you might have to change the APN settings, however…see above).

Can I bring my phone I bought abroad with me to the US?  Will it work?

Remember that if you buy a phone abroad, it won’t necessarily work in the US when you go home for visits or when your program ends.  Again, it needs to be unlocked and ideally out of contract.  You’ll need to get a US-based SIM card, which fortunately are easier to come by today than it was even two years ago.  You can get prepaid US-SIMs through online retailers such as H2O wireless.  T-mobile sells flat-rate SIMs without a phone, and a company called Straight Talk also has a Bring-Your-Own-Phone program where you pay a flat fee of $45 month, contract-free.

I hope this covers most of the aspects of buying and using your smartphone abroad.  It is based on my experience both bringing a cell phone from the US abroad but also buying a cell phone abroad and trying to use it in the US and other countries while traveling.  I have no affiliation with any of the companies or brands mentioned this post and I wasn’t paid or given any perks to mention these products.  I hope this is the all-inclusive guide you’ve been looking for.  If you have other questions, or other information to add, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments!

Strange and Even Creepy Christmas Traditions from Around the World Part II: Caga Tío

Christmas Market Barcelona.

Christmas Market Barcelona.

Following up on my earlier post on the formidable Krampus, the rather Halloween-ish Alpine Christmas tradition I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand while living and studying in Germany, I am here to report on yet another strange and even creepy Christmas tradition from my current location in Barcelona.  I was out exploring the city recently and happened to run into a Christmas market that very much resembled those that take over German city squares throughout the country this time of year.  I  love German Christmas markets–there is something just absolutely cozy about bundling up in four layers of shirts and sweaters, meandering through all the booths, admiring the handmade arts and crafts, with Lebkuchen (gingerbread) in one hand and Glühwein (hot mulled wine) in the other.  The atmosphere is even better when the streets have been slightly dusted with snow.  So while the snow was missing, I was delighted to come upon a Christmas market in Barcelona.  However, I was not in the slightest prepared for what I found there.

As I began wandering through the booths (and desperately hoping for something resembling Glühwein), I began to notice something that struck me as incredibly strange.  Nearly every booth was stocked with crudely decorated wood logs of various sizes. The logs were all adorned with a painted smiling face on one end and a blanket covering the other end, and each had four small “legs” to prop it up.  Some of the logs were even sporting Santa hats.  While the scene was rather odd, I assumed that this must simply be a popular Spanish Christmas decoration, similar to the cheesy plastic reindeer many Americans put in their yards or on their roofs.

My first encounter with the shitty uncle.

My first encounter with the shitty uncle.

But then things got weird.  One of the booths had a large sign that read “Caga Tío” above said logs, and since my Spanish is not that good and my Catalan even worse, I immediately whipped out my smartphone and opened up my Spanish-Catalan-English translation app.  These applications are always pretty rudimentary even with today’s technology, so I was pretty sure the translation was bad when it came back as, “shitty uncle.”  Yes, I shit you not, that was not a typo, that’s literally what the dictionary said.  Utterly confused, I asked as politely as possible at the booth if the saleswoman spoke English, which she did not, but she directed me to someone who did (sort of).  Assuming still that the translation was a simple case of malaprop, I tentatively asked the young man if he could explain the embellished logs for me.  He got a rather mischievous grin on his face, not unlike the infamous Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 8.06.02 PMCheshire cat that overtakes the Grinch’s glower right before he attempts to steal Christmas.  He told me that in Catalonia, families bring a small log home, named Caga Tío, starting in early December, and every night the family feeds it oranges, nuts, wine, or leftovers like a begging dog.  The log slowly becomes bigger as it eats more and more (hence the various sizes).  Then finally on Christmas day, similar to America’s elusive Mr. Claus, Caga Tío is expected to produce presents for the good children and something undesirable for the naughty children (in this case, the consolation prize for those on the naughty list is herring, fitting for a coastal country, I suppose).  But unlike St. Nick, Caga Tío needs a little convincing.  In fact, he needs A LOT of convincing.  Apparently, children take a small branch and literally beat the presents out of the log, all the while singing a Catalan Christmas Carol, the lyrics of which demand that the log shit presents.  Again, this is not a typo, the children beat the shit out of the log, and the metaphorical excrement are small presents.  If you think I’m just pulling your leg, check out this video of the tradition in action (the lyrics and the English translation can be found here):

When the song is over, the children lift up the blanket to reveal their presents, or their herring as the case may be.  Afterwards, the log is throw into the fireplace, if the family has one.

At this point, I really wasn’t sure if the man was telling me the truth or if he was having some fun at the expense of a naïve foreigner.  Being somewhat speechless, he pulled out his phone and brought up a video similar to the one above.  He was not shitting me.  This is a real and time-honored Catalan Christmas tradition.  I can only imagine what my face must have looked like, and sensing my dismay, the Cheshire cat returned as he took me by the hand and said, “there’s more!”

He brought me to another booth where dozens of little figurines were on display.  “We have, umm, we have…,” he pauses as he struggles for the English word and consults his colleague, “we have your mayor…from Alaska!”  I struggled to make some sort of logical connection between the excreting timber and Alaska, when suddenly I looked down and in my hand the man had placed a figurine of Sarah Palin in a rather, well, compromising position.  I’ll let the picture do the talking.

Just what your Christmas tree is missing, a pooping Palin.

Just what your Christmas tree is missing, a pooping Palin.

Now before you assume that this is some sort of unfair swipe at the former governor manufactured by a left-wing socialist waging a war on Christmas, apparently caganers (“crappers”) draw no partisan or otherwise polite distinctions.  Indeed, a little bit of internet research revealed Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth, Fidel Castro, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and even the Pope, all popping a squat with their butts in the breeze.  I noticed a miniature football pitch on display wherein every current player of Catalonia’s beloved FC Barcelona were giving new meaning to the phrase, “playing like crap.”  Upon even further inspection I realized that amidst otherwise traditional nativity scenes, there was always a caganer lingering somewhere in the background.  The salesman, looking quite pleased with himself, asked me, “what you think?”  I couldn’t really tell him what I was really thinking, which was imagining the inevitable Stephen Colbert caganer sketch.  But instead I simply looked at him and asked the obvious: “why?”

Is a jolly man that employs elves at the North Pole really any stranger?

Is a jolly man that employs elves at the North Pole really any stranger?

“It’s fun.  It’s tradition.”  Sensing my dissatisfaction with this answer, the playfulness melted from his face and in all seriousness he said, “why does a fat man come down your chimney?” And there it was.  As so it is with most holiday traditions: even those that adhere most closely to these traditions often don’t really know why.  It is so normal that rarely do we ever question the origins of our customs let alone stop to consider how completely abnormal these customs truly are.  How many Americans know that our Santa Claus is a bizarre amalgamation of Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop famous for secret gift-giving who presided over an area in modern-day Turkey, the Norse god Odin of war and poetry, the pagan myth of the Wild Hunt where the dead take up weapons, horses and dogs and engage in a spectacular chase across the night sky during the winter solstice, the Dutch folk tale of Sinterklaas and the English folk tale of Father Christmas, the imaginations of 19th Century poet Clement Clarke Moore and cartoonist Thomas Nast, editorials appearing in Harper’s and The New York Sun, and of course, advertisements for Coca-Cola during the Great Depression?  How often are we confronted with the question, “why a fat man with flying reindeer?”

Upon further research, it seems that caga tío and caganer might be derived from the Yule log, also a pagan custom associated with the winter solstice, and the accompanying tradition of renewing or fertilizing the earth in preparation for spring.  Some argue that adding a caganer to a nativity scene gives the episode a sense of reality, rather than folklore.  And as with Santa Claus, the Catalan obsession with scatology have found its place in modern times, albeit an awkward place from an outsider’s perspective.  As my cultural education quickly devolved into a high-pressure sales pitch, I wondered whether anyone back home might have the necessary sense of humor to appreciate a little Catalan Christmas-themed souvenir.  I won’t ruin the surprise, but someone special in the United States is getting a miniature Tiger Woods in of all his glory.

Just in case you need a last minute gift idea...they ship worldwide.

Just in case you need a last minute gift idea…they ship worldwide.

Travel as a College Abroad Student: Girona, Spain

Travel is one the best things about being a College Abroad student, in my humble opinion.  From your home base in your host country, you can explore little-known and off-the-beaten-track destinations nearby and, budget permitting, beyond.  Yesterday I took advantage of a particularly warm December day here in Spain to go to Girona.  Many people […]

My life as a Moat: Denver Broncos Country in Barcelona

The Broncos beat the Chiefs and put an end to their perfect season on Monday Morning Football.

The Broncos beat the Chiefs and put an end to their perfect season on Monday Morning Football.

So if you follow me on twitter, you’ll probably notice that I tweet a lot of international news stories I find interesting, especially when it is related to education or language learning, stories about study abroad or life as an expat, or anything related to student loans and how to reduce them.  But on Sunday nights, my tweets tend to change their tone a bit and switch to American football.  Twitter is a great way to get information out to the world, but it also a great platform to connect to communities of like-minded individuals, and this can be very useful when you’re living physically apart from that community.  I’m a life-long Denver Bronco fan.  My twitter handle is fan4bronco.  My parents have season tickets which they inherited from my grandparents.

My terrible Heisman impression outside of Mile High before a game in 2012.

My terrible Heisman impression outside of Mile High before a game in 2012.

This wasn’t going to change when I moved abroad.  This is part of what I mean when I say that life abroad is about building moats:  some will say that there is “expat DNA,” which allows someone to blend in and adapt to their new environment, and many recommend that Americans in particular shed their “Americaness.”  But I personally think that when you move across oceans, you shouldn’t treat the ocean like a lake: traverse it and leave your life on the other side without looking back.  Instead, you build a bridge between your self in your old home country and your self in your new home country.  There are things about your life and your personality you will want to modify or even eliminate as you find your comfort zone abroad, but you shouldn’t cease to be yourself.  For me, I’m an American politics junkie, obsessed with a select few American television shows, and yes, a huge American football fan.  While there are very few people over here in Europe who like American football, much less understand it or willing to stay up until 6 a.m. to watch a game with me, I have been able to keep up with my team and still retain this part of my identity by connecting with Bronco fans through twitter during games.  It is a poor substitute for being at Mile High with my friends and family, but it is a perfect illustration of what I mean by living your life like a moat.  I may be abroad and this means Sunday Night Football turns into Monday Morning Football, and watching games by myself, and having to endure commercials in Dutch or British commentary on ESPN Europe, but I get a piece of my other home and what makes that life just as special as the one I’m living now in Spain.  Still, though, I pray to the football Gods to give me a Broncos schedule filled with early games.  (Really, NFL?  Two Monday Morning Football games in a row? My Monday productivity is doomed).

While being an American football fan doesn’t exactly win me any friends in Europe, just being a sports fan has helped me integrate into European life. Everyone knows that European football is incredibly popular with practically every country EXCEPT the US. When people here learn that I enjoy watching sports, this inevitably leads to a discussion about the Champions League versus the Bundesliga, the extent of the corruption of the Italian league, or a heated discussion of the “hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup.  I don’t claim to follow all of these discussions in detail, but my love for sports at least gets me into the conversation, and it has opened up invitations to watch European football games with friends, which has led to new friendships.  And it has opened up my interest to American soccer.  So even the least likely example of American culture to translate abroad has opened the door to intercultural dialogue.

Yes, the Berlin Eagles look a little bit like the Steelers' uniforms.

Yes, the Berlin Eagles look a little bit like the Steelers’ uniforms.

I even convinced my boyfriend to attend an American football game in Berlin, who actually had a surprisingly loud and interested, if not small fan-base, complete with a half-time performance put on by a local American cultural club, which included a slightly awkward square dancing performance.  While quaint, I’d actually take that over a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction any day.

Square dancing at half-time.

Square dancing at half-time.

While nothing will quite ever replace my love for the Broncos, I will certainly stay up-to-date with my adopted European football team, Werder Bremen (who are, unlike Denver, having a challenging season to say the least).  This is just one example of the things I will take back with me if or when I cross the moat back to the US someday.

By the way, this Saturday (November 23, 2013) at 3 p.m. pacific time, I will be a guest on the radio show College Smart Radio, on AM 1220 KDOW, the Wall Street Business Network.  I will be talking about how American students can save money on college and avoid or reduce their student loan debt by considering going abroad for college.  I thank Beatrice Schultz, the host of the program, for inviting me on the show!  So if you’re interested, tune in to 1220 AM this Saturday, or you can stream the show live from KDOW’s website.  I will be posting the live audio on this blog as well.

That is all for now, as I struggle to recover from my all-night Broncos bender.  Will I do it again next Monday morning?  My guess is, yes, I will.  Go Broncos!