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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.

 

Happy 2014!

This will be a very quick post to simply welcome in the New Year.  I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions or the idea of starting fresh when the second the year changes.  I’d rather try to believe that one can change one’s life at any time…you don’t need to wait for some rather arbitrary date.    However, the new year has already ushered in quite a few changes in my life.  I’ll wait to post further details, but the first thing that I’m really proud of is the fact that during this first week in January, my book, College Abroad, reached the number one on the best seller list in the category of “Student Travel Guides” on Amazon.  To have published a book while also juggling several doctoral fellowships and completing my dissertation manuscript and moving to several different countries is an accomplishment in and of itself, but to see the book doing relatively well and hopefully inspiring others is quite a nice feeling.  So thanks to all the readers and followers of the blog, those that have purchased the book, and also to those have shared my posts, followed me on Twitter and recommended the book to the curious student in your life.

Be sure to check back soon for more details on my next move, as well as a GIVEAWAY! (in case you didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas).  And here’s to a great 2014 of life-changing experiences, cultural exchanges, travel, and a deeper sense of self-awareness than we had in 2013.

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 […]

There’s budget travel…and then there’s BUDGET travel.

There’s budget travel…and then there’s BUDGET travel.

I don’t claim to be a budget travel expert, but part of the allure of being an international student is spending a considerable amount of time living and traveling abroad.  Therefore, I keep up with budget travel blogs and other publications so I can give advice to other international students interested in seeing the world while living abroad (and also to satisfy my own travel itch).  But after subscribing to dozens of “budget” travel guides for several years, I’ve come to discover that there is budget travel, and there is budget travel.  The former is more geared toward American couples or families who work full-time and have some, but not a lot, of disposable income for travel.  The latter is more geared towards young single or childless students or simply wandering unemployed types who actually have little to nothing in their bank accounts.  If you’re an international student attending college abroad, and you want to get out and see more of your host country or the neighboring countries, you’re probably in the budget traveler category.  Furthermore, some of the advice I often see on budget traveler websites is tailored to some of the worst and unavoidable travel habits of Americans, like going back to the same place over and over again, and consuming a place rather than experiencing it by running from one sight to another. (I call this the Amazing Race style of traveling, because it is only slightly slower than the popular television show).  Happily, as an international student you’ll be in a position to avoid most of these silly and sometimes costly mistakes.  Still though, traveling as an international student isn’t quite like an extended backpacking trip, because you don’t quite have that much time, and it isn’t quite like travel hacking either, also because you won’t have that much flexible time and also because as a student, you most likely will not qualify for endless credit cards to score troves of frequent flier miles.  (However, there are some many saving tips from backpacking and travel hacking that can be tailored to the international student). So while I’m not an expert, I’ve traveled to over 40 different countries without any sort of steady income whatsoever over the past six years.  What follows is a set of quick and dirty tips on how to budget travel, and avoid some of the advice of budget traveling sites that just don’t get long-term, international and culturally-meaningful travel.

1.  There are literally thousands of “budget travel” blogs and websites out there.  The key is to find sites that are written by people who fit the kind of traveling you plan to do as an international student.  Focus on sites written by expats, international students (like me!), and backpackers.  You’ll want to find websites from people with extensive travel experience in your host country or on the continent where you’ll be living.  Ignore a blog written by a mom who travels internationally from the US only once or twice a year.  While I understand that most Americans simply don’t have the time to travel more than once or twice a year, in my view that isn’t exactly an impressive resume and doesn’t give them the sort of wealth of experience I would like to tap into (especially if it seems that person travels to the same place frequently).  Of course, the site may be full of great advice for budget travelers, but not for budget travelersBudget travelers consider $100/night apartment in Paris a great deal, budget travelers consider that an extravagant splurge (especially when that same site admits that this Paris getaway included a $350 pass to Euro Disney–quite possibly the worst and culturally-embarrassing money pit in Europe).  Budget travelers will opt for hostels, couch surfing, or crashing at a friends place (and avoid Euro Disney like the plague–seriously–why would you fly all the way to Paris to go to an overpriced and watered-down version of the American theme park and then claim you’re budget-conscious?!)  As a college abroad student, you’ll quickly make friends from near and far who would love to take you home during a semester or holiday break.  Such opportunities don’t typically exist for the American family traveling once a year with only a two-week vacation.  You can also take advantage of the free travel advice from your local friends if they aren’t offering a place a stay.  And yes, staying at a hostel can be a crap-shoot, but I’ve stayed at extremely clean, safe, comfortable and even downright luxurious hostels around the world, often with free WiFi and breakfast (things that usually aren’t free at hotels).  Finding a good hostel is all about following the advice of other budget travelers, and ignore the complaints and fears of budget travelers.

2.  Think twice before ever purchasing a CityPass, and reconsider any site that advises you to do so.  Many American and European cities try to entice travelers with City Passes, but these take advantage of Amazing Race-style tourism, and more than likely aren’t actually very budget-friendly.  Sure, if you take advantage of every discount and offer included in the pass, you could save money.  But no one ever does that, and if you do you’ll be running all over town trying to find that one restaurant where you can use your 10% off coupon (a restaurant that might be overpriced to begin with) and that ship-building museum you can get into for free (even though you couldn’t care less about ship-building).

The discounts that are offered with these packages are usually at gaudy tourist traps that herd you away from local eateries and into superficial places serving hamburgers and fries. You might THINK you’re saving money when you present your coupon, but you could probably eat cheaper without the coupon. Budget travelers will eat street food over restaurants, bring snacks while sightseeing, and since most hostels include a shared kitchen, will make simple dinners like spaghetti or sandwiches. Budget travelers opt to take local transport rather than being bussed around to all the hotspots.  Budget travelers don’t mind getting lost, and we’re happy to simply stroll through a city to experience it rather than hopping from one sight to another. Budget travelers will even forgo spending money to see the sights and museums if entry is overpriced or if there are decent and free alternatives.  For example, I loved Venice but couldn’t force myself to cough up the €80 it costs to ride the famous gondolas, but I wasn’t disappointed because Venice can be just as easily explored by wandering through the narrow bridges on foot and occasionally taking the public water taxis.

View from the water taxi in Venice-around 5 EUR compared to the 80 EUR gondolas.

View from the water taxi in Venice-around 5 EUR compared to the 80 EUR gondolas.

3.  Just because someone on a blog found a good deal somewhere, doesn’t mean that that location is budget-friendly.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a website claiming to be your ultimate guide to Stockholm on a budget, citing some cheap restaurants.  While there are plenty of ways to save money no matter where you go, some places are just downright expensive, and Stockholm is one of them.  I avoided the city, knowing that even hostels can cost more than $60/night, until I had a friend move there and then I stayed with him.  What’s the point of saving money on food if you’re busting your budget on accommodation?  Unless a particular place is an absolute dream location, sometimes extremely expensive places should just be avoided for a budget traveler.  As an international student, you have more time and more choice–you don’t need to go somewhere if it feels beyond your means.

4.  Any travel site that doesn’t give credence to off-the-beaten-track locations is probably

This could be any street in Paris, but it's Bucharest, Romania.  A perfectly walkable and affordable city.

This could be any street in Paris, but it’s Bucharest, Romania. A perfectly walkable and affordable city.

more for budget travelers.  Blogs dedicated to helping an American family go to Europe on a budget will direct people to the Big Three–London, Paris, and Rome.  Because budget travelers only have a limited amount of time, many sites won’t even dare mentioning any part of Europe east of Prague (Berlin is already too “unsure of itself” for some), because these places require more time to get used to and are less tailored to foreign visitors.  But budget travelers will happily skip Italy and the UK for less expensive Croatia, or avoid expensive and popular locations all together and check out Serbia, Hungary, Kosovo, Estonia, or Romania.  Budget travel sites will always direct you to less-traveled places because this kind of traveler isn’t necessarily interested in sightseeing consumption and is more interested in simply seeing a new place, and doing it on an extreme budget.

To me, the biggest difference between budget traveling and budget traveling is that the former essentially boils down to sightseeing while the latter is more about city-seeing and people-watching.  And seeing a city and its people will always be free.

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!

All Things that Go Around, Come Around

The first time I came to Europe, I was on tour with my college’s choir to Spain.  It is tradition for the Knox College choir to go to Spain once every four years and put on performances all over the Catalonia region.  At that time, I truly thought I may never come back to Barcelona, to Spain or maybe I would never see the European continent again.  I feel very lucky that almost exactly 10 years later, I now call Barcelona home (temporarily).
My attitude back then reflects a more general American attitude towards travel:  it is difficult, it is expensive, it takes too much time, and once you do it, it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  But travel and expat life are only these things because we say they are, not because they MUST be that way.  If I could tell my 2003-self in Barcelona that by 2013, I will have studied and lived in Germany, Israel and Hungary and traveled all over Europe, I probably would have either laughed or asked my future self how I came into so much money.  Travel doesn’t have to be nearly as expensive as most Americans assume, especially if you’re willing to give up on some luxuries.  (This post on traveling for 12 consecutive years puts this into perspective).  And living abroad is probably less expensive than living in the US, especially if you’re not paying taxes and if you don’t have a car.  Truth be told, all it takes is the will.  I found the will in 2007 to go abroad and I haven’t looked back.

At the same time, however, I’ve become a bit spoiled.  When I first moved abroad, after doing lots of research, I was prepared to live cheaply and to sacrifice some of the things I had taken for granted in the US.  I was armed with my backpacker’s pack and came with the attitude that I really need is a roof over my head and an internet connection.  Over time, I moved to Berlin and my choice of apartments got more and more expensive and with more and more perks.  I got spoiled with the low Berlin rent and the luxuries I could afford with my rather generous PhD fellowship and the low cost of living.

Moving to Spain has reminded me what it is like to be that “fresh off the boat” international student with little to no money, and having to sacrifice a bit on the creature comforts.  My apartment in Barcelona is a mere 25 square meters (270 square feet).  It has no stove, which I’ve come to realize is rather common in Spain.  There is one pot and one pan provided in the kitchen.  The hot water runs out after 10 minutes in the shower.  It is located in a popular party district which means I can hear just about every motorcycle and passerby that travels down the narrow street.  There is an internet connection but it has only really worked one day out of the two weeks I’ve been here, and my Spanish is not good enough to ask the maintenance man of the building if he can fix the WiFi repeater.  These are all somewhat reminiscent of my first days in Germany, trying to find a hotel where I was supposed to meet with fellow students with my backpack and heavy suitcase and doing my best to piece together a sentence in German from my college courses several years previously.  Waiting for weeks for someone to install internet and not understanding the bureaucracy involved.  Coming home to a very minimalist apartment and bribing one of the few locals with a car to take me to Ikea.  Constantly feeling a little silly and stupid and even infantile because of the inability to communicate and not understanding basic daily routines.  Yesterday I wondered around a very open public square for an embarrassing amount of time, my hands full of bags of trash and recycling, first trying to locate the public trash bins and second to try and distinguish based on my poor Spanish and non-existent Catalan what bin was for what.

This is what it is like the first few days and even weeks of studying abroad.  The learning curve for the most basic routines is steep.  The waiting time for things you normally take for granted is long.  The creature comforts at first are few and far between.  Doubt creeps in and you ask yourself, “why the heck am I here again?”

ImageThe answer to that question is not always immediately clear.  All I know is that I remember standing on the main platform of Park Guell in 2003 looking out over the amazing and completely strange architecture of Gaudi as it faded into the waters of the Mediterranean and thinking I may never see this sight again.  Returning to that spot again after so many years and with such a different perspective on myself and my life has been certainly worth the small apartments, the lack of kitchen stoves, and the strange looks from locals as I try to figure out how to recycle plastic bottles.