Getting from A to B

Blog

I woke up at 5:30, and shot my friend a text. He is the volunteer closest to me, who usually accompanies me on grocery shopping and ATM runs. I was up for the trip and ready to go. He responded:

Let the transportation circus begin. 


Circus is his loving term for the unreliable way we get from one place to another. Unreliable is only partially accurate, though. It is usually always reliable in the sense that you can catch a ride before the sun goes down. The surprise factor is always who it is with, what you will be riding, when it will come, and how much you will pay. Volunteers have many options for transportation, and we often find ourselves utilising whatever gets us from A to B. Some examples are: ox cart, pony cart, trishaw, van, small truck, log-hauling truck (don’t recommend, very uncomfortable on the butt), car, and busses of varying levels of niceness. 

In the city, trishaws, light trucks, and 3-wheels serve as taxis and depending on the city, range from 200 to 500 Kyat a ride (anywhere from 12 to 35 US cents). When using a light truck to travel a main road, it’s normal to pull over for people from other villages hitchhiking into the city. This is a very common practice, especially if you live on a major road. Though hitchhiking hardly feels like the right word, given that someone on the truck usually knows someone in your village and will hold your baby or chicken or groceries while you climb over people, bottles for recycling, and rice bags. Even now, when the truck seems like it can’t possibly hold any more people, I’ll turn to the woman next to me with wide eyes when we pull over for yet another hitchhiker. 

“Don’t worry,” she says, unconcerned, “it’s just a boy. He’ll ride on top.” While the women and children get the dryness and safety of sitting in the bed, men are usually forced to stand on the back and hang onto a rope, or to the top. 

It’s also common for a village-owned light truck to wait upwards of 30 minutes on one person running a little late for the truck. This can be frustrating if you’re from the West and know you’re waiting a half hour on one guy to finish his breakfast, but on the other hand, when I needed to stop at a house to buy honey, not a person on the truck (including the driver) minded waiting 10 minutes, and I doubt they would have cared if I’d taken up the shopkeeper’s offer for a cup of tea, either. Relationships trump time, and as a result, sometimes the “regular car” arrives at 8, other times at 10, and sometimes, not at all. 

On this morning, we were headed to Taungdwingyi to buy some fruit and supplies, visit an ATM, and if we were lucky, have an iced coffee. In our villages, our access to fruit, some school supplies, and an ATM is  limited. Iced coffee is, of course, out of the question.

We were to meet in Taungdwingyi, but we both had to get there separately, as we lived on separate sides of our Township. I packed my backpack with some cash, extra data, extra pants, and of course, ORS. Then at 6:30, I headed to my landlord’s house. I didn’t have the most certain idea of how I was getting there. My monthly trips to Magway were an easy, straight shot, made easier by the constant buses to Naypyidaw and Yangon from Magway city. But Taungdwingyi was going to require some extra flexibility. 

I sat on my landlord’s porch. Her house is on the main road running past my village, and her neighbor is the unofficial bus coordinator, as the bus stop (more like cool bamboo tree bench) sits in front of her house. She had vaguely assured me the day before that I’d be fine, and that the car left at 6:30. While in the West, we’d often consult a bus schedule or maybe Google the answer, most people in Myanmar prefer to call a friend of a friend, or someone who would probably know the answer. 

My landlord came out with fried cornbread and a kettle of tea and we chatted about life, the Myanmar train system, and the weather. While in America, we have a habit of rushing out the door in the morning with a cup of coffee and a granola bar (or nothing at all), Myanmar people are horrified if they find out you didn’t have time to eat breakfast and will promptly invite you in to eat. In Myanmar, nothing important can happen before a good breakfast, and there is absolutely no reason to rush a cup of tea or a bowl of mohinga. In fact, on the other side of Myothit Township, Nathan was experiencing just this. Despite his lucky early start, his car had made a breakfast stop for noodles. 

After about 45 minutes, I asked my landlord when she thought the truck would arrive. 

“Oh, at 6:30,” she replied casually. “Is it 6:30?”

“It’s almost 7:30.”

“Oh!” She said, startled. “Let me go ask the neighbor.” 

She walked a couple steps to her left and shouted over, “Has the 6:30 truck for Myothit left yet?!”

It had. The next car would come at 8:00. My 6:30 truck became an 8:30 van, and by the time it arrived, I eagerly jumped in and thanked my landlord and her neighbour for their help. The first leg of my journey was taken care of, but the next step was trickier. As we made the half hour journey to the intersection, I pondered the meaning of my landlord’s cryptic instructions:

“When you arrive at the intersection, ask where the oil shop is. The oil man inside will help you, but make sure you get a good deal.” 

“Is he a friend of yours? Do you know him?” I tried to ask. She just smiled and shrugged. 

Normally being driven to the middle of nowhere and being dropped off to find a man in an oil shop would produce a bit of uncertainty, but I couldn’t help but feel an irrational sense of calm. People in Myanmar really do take care of each other, whether it means helping them catch a ride or feeding them or directing them to an oil shop at an intersection.

Luckily, I didn’t need to ask for directions. As soon as the driver pulled over, a thin man in a black hat and turquoise UNICEF vest ran across the road to fetch me. 

“Uncle, how much?” I asked the driver. He shook his head. I thanked him profusely and he gave me a shy smile in return.

The intersection was a crossroads between Myothit, Magway, Naypyidaw, and Taungdwingyi. With no stop lights or stop signs and a barren, scorched earth appearance, it seemed like the exact place one could get stuck. (Think ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ house).

“So,” my oil man said, “the next car is a little late. It doesn’t leave until noon. It’s also 5,000 Kyat. Expensive.” He smiled apologetically, despite only being the messenger of bad news.

 Both were disappointing, and I was certain Nathan had already arrived, and the next leg of the journey was 40 minutes or more. I looked at my phone. It was only 9 am. Oh well, I thought, pulling my book out of my bag, I did want to read more this weekend.

But as I sat down in the bench, I noticed there were many “light trucks” headed the direction of Taingdwingyi. Light trucks are short, white trucks with covered beds. This is how most people do short-distance travel and how most villages get their villagers to the nearest market. They also serve as taxis in cities, are hired for the day for pagoda-hopping, and for transporting supplies to markets and distributing goods to store-owners. I was thinking how it easy it would be just to hop on a truck from here for the remaining 16 miles. 

The oil man was thinking it too. 

“What about that one?” I asked as we scanned the trucks together, some taking the road to Magway, and others turning from Mytothit to Naypyidaw. “Is that car okay?” 

“No,” he said, shaking his head, “not okay.” 

We both watched the road and he suddenly sprinted to the other side of the intersection. After carefully inspecting the identical trucks, he stopped one rounding the turn and asked them if they were going to Taungdwingyi. They were, and he quickly waved me across the intersection. 

I thanked him, and he grinned at me as I took off my shoes and sat on the bamboo mats inside. I had barely waited 5 minutes, and we were on our way. Inside this particular light truck were some very delighted people that a foreigner had landed on their family trip. I quickly found out that they were a family going to visit the pagoda for Martyr’s Day (side note… it’s Martyr’s day.) They asked me what I was doing in Myanmar, how I liked it, and in return they introduced me to their family. They invited me to visit the pagoda with them, but I told them I was meeting friends. We took some photos and they dropped me off near the pagoda. 

“Brother, how much?” I asked the driver. He smiled and shook his head.

“Be happy,” he told me, and the family watched me as they drove away. 

Though I’d assumed my friend had arrived much earlier than me because he’d left over an hour before me (and lived closer), we’d miraculously arrived pretty much at the same time. I recounted my journey there and he did as well, both amazed that despite stops for mohinga, crashing a family’s holiday, and various uncertainties, we’d both arrived (and within 20 minutes of each other).

We met up with another volunteer and spent the day indulging in cold drinks, fruit shopping, and site-seeing. I stopped to eat a popsicle every chance I got. As we negotiated in the market the shopkeepers would pause and excitedly tell the person in the stall next to them, “They can speak Burmese! They can speak Burmese!” I bought some pineapples as gifts for my landlord and co-teacher, and some donuts for the teacher’s lounge that week. I also found raisins (!!!). 

 By the time we were ready to do the whole journey home over again, we realised neither of us had a clue how to get out of the city. We met up with another volunteer’s co-teacher for our (2nd) iced coffee of the day, hoping she’d give us some insight. Unfortunately, every van going to Magway would take a highway not passing through my village, or the intersection we both had to arrive at. 

His co-teacher thought, and she took us to the bus station to try our luck. Fortunately, there was a bus that could take us to the intersection. We said goodbye and a very heartfelt thank you to his co-teacher for helping us.

At the intersection, we were surprised to find somewhat of a party waiting for us. When we went to the oil shop, a large man with a wide face and a huge smile greeted us. 

“Hi, I’m your special friend,” he said casually. 

Nathan and I looked at each other and laughed, shocked. “Wait, really?”

So, I should explain- Myanmar (along with other countries, including China) have secret police that monitor where foreigners go and when. This may sound super creepy, but it’s really harmless, and comes as a benefit to us more often than not. Some volunteers never meet their ‘secret’ police officer, so Nathan and I were thrilled that not only had we gotten to meet ours, but that he was dedicated to finding us a ride home. We talked about the people he knew on Peace Corps staff, about our villages, and he introduced us to the other five men standing around and lounging in bamboo chairs, some police officers, some motorcycle drivers, some just men who worked near the intersection. The oil man was also there. They pulled up some chairs for us. 

Nathan found a ride in about 10 minutes, but mine took a bit longer. After about a half hour, the men were relieved to pull over a car with an older man inside. They smiled as they helped me load my groceries into the passenger’s seat, and the policeman offered to follow me home. 

Though in my village people can usually understand my Burmese with its many mistakes, often times when talking with strangers, they have trouble with my flawed sentence structure and accent. Likewise, when people talk quickly or use phrases I don’t know, I usually don’t answer their question right. So I found myself nervous at the prospect of communicating with this man in Burmese for over a half hour. But as we introduced ourselves, I found that the conversation flowed so naturally I surprised myself. We talked about cultural differences between America and Myanmar, the education system, learning languages, his job and his son. We even made a few jokes we both understood! 

By the time he dropped me off, I was genuinely sad the conversation was over. 

“Uncle, how much? Can I pay you?” I asked. He shook his head as if I’d asked something very silly. 

“It was nice to meet you, daughter. See you next time.” 

I was exhausted when I arrived home, but the transportation couldn’t have gone any better. No matter where I’m going, Myanmar transportation, while always surprising, always ensures I meet new people, have patience and flexibility, and am exposed to just how kind people are.

The Ice Cream Man (and Other Motorcycles)

Blog

I was sitting on my balcony in the late morning when I heard the noise. 

Burmese villages often use loudspeakers as way of communicating news about weddings, school, and donation ceremonies. They also play music and chanting during religious holidays. Lucky for me, I’m right next to my street’s loudspeaker and am usually overjoyed to hear music from 3:30- 5:30 am during holidays, especially now, as it’s Buddhist Lent. 

But that’s not what this noise was. This noise was a loud, upbeat song that sounded like it might be from Burmese Kidz Bop. It’s a child’s voice, loudly repeating the same thing, over and over, and it was also… parked right in front of my house. 

I sighed, wondering what he had against me. As I looked up from my book, I realised something for the first time. This was the first time I’d actually seen the source of the noise. And he… had a cooler on the back of his motorcycle. 

No, I thought. Don’t get your hopes up. It’s not possible. 

But,” the hopeful part of my brain argued, “coolers hold cold things, right?”

To adequately convey the significance of the event I’m about to describe, it’s worth noting that we were right in the middle of hot season. So I wasn’t so much just enjoying a morning on my balcony, it’s that I was dripping sweat before noon, with my freshly washed pants and hair both drenched in the breezeless morning. It was a sweat-running-down-your-legs heat. A what’s-the-point-of-showering heat. An “if you don’t do it before 7 am, it’s not happening” kind of heat. I’d also like to add that my village runs on solar power, so while a clay pot can keep my water cool in hot season, this is about as cool as things got for me.

And there was no way a dinky cooler could keep something frozen solid in this suffocating, all-encompassing heat. 

I watched and waited. The man did too. I let myself think it. He’s waiting… like an ice cream man. 

As he leaned against his motorcycle, I leaned further over the banister. At last, as if knowing they were confirming my theory, the kids came running from nearby houses. 

“Umm.. strawberry,” my 7 year-old neighbour told the man, dragging her younger sister along. 

Strawberry what?! It couldn’t be!

They peered into his cooler on tip toes as he helped them pull out what was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. A strawberry popsicle. 

Needing no further evidence, I sprinted down my steps and grabbed my bag before peeling out of my gate, the only difference between me and the kids being a little height and more enthusiasm.

As I met the ice cream man, we both looked like we’d seen a ghost. I looked into the cooler with wonder, and he looked at me the same. I was shocked at the existence of something frozen solid, and he was shocked to see me living in this village. To see a foreigner come running out the location of his usual selling spot was probably pretty weird. 

“How much?” I asked, knowing that I’d probably pay anything at this point. 

I got a coconut milk popsicle for 100 Kyat, or about 6 US cents. 

 As I climbed back up the stairs,  I actually listened to the song for the first time:

“Chocolate.. strawberry.. oh, we have it.” 

How had I literally never listened to the song that was shaking my house once a week? 

That annoying song became my favourite sound in the world, one I have chased down streets, and was delighted to see still coming during the rainy season. We always see each other at lunch time, and he’s since started selling a new product: sweet, frozen palm fruit water. 

Motorcycles are a popular way to sell things in rural areas, easing the lives of the villagers. In my village, the fastest way to stock up on something would otherwise be a trip to Magway city or Myothit to buy from a bigger vendor. We have small house shops that cover most immediate needs, but a trip to Magway will usually take most of your day. 

Since my meeting with the ice cream man, I started to notice the way goods are distributed around my village. 

Probably the most significant is the “zain ka,” or the market motorcycle. There are a few men who have a wooden crate on the back of their motorcycle, and I see them making their rounds, or stopping at their regulars early in the morning, around 6 am when I’m out running. They sell to women who are cooking for the day and need fresh ingredients, and to our local grocers. Their haul is usually eggs, greens, tomatoes, chilli peppers, tofu, cauliflower, fried chickpeas, and a variety of whatever is in season. They’re tied into plastic bags and hung on back to show off that day’s produce. Because of the lack of preservatives in the food and the heat, things simply don’t keep for long periods of time, so it’s important for them to be distributed daily. Aunties will tear the plastic bags off the back as they ask, “Brother, how much?”

Another type of motorcycle is the “mo seinka,” or the snack motorcycle. This man has wire built on the sides of his motorcycle to handle the massive haul of processed snacks he delivers to families and local shops. The shops are in charge of deciding what will sell well with school children, and what their consumers will want for the upcoming weeks. Personally, I find this one the most hilarious to see, just because of the sheer size. Huge amounts of brightly coloured, inflated plastic bags tied onto the sides are reminiscent of pack mules, but with Fun-O’s, Love Cookies, and Pillows. Also included are preserved fruits, sweet biscuits, pizza-flavoured chips, and kimchi and garlic bites. The snack market at school often buys from this man as he passes through to ensure they are stocked up for the upcoming week. 

The next type of delivery man is the bean cake man. I’m not quite sure why he’s so different from the snack man, but he only sells bean cakes of different sizes and quantities. While I was initially turned off from the beige, mushy appearance of these oily pastries, my mind was forever changed one day. I was jumping rope with some kids and visiting a nearby favourite dog when my friend’s family called the bean cake man over. She bought a 5-pack of the circular snacks from him and disturbed them to the children, insisting I take one. While I was initially wary, one bite transformed it into a favourite. In between two fried pieces of dough was a sweet paste made from beans, rice, and honestly, I’m not really sure what else. But it’s really good. 

Many non-weekly motorcycles selling overstock or homemade goods often have a loudspeaker or microphone alerting those even in the deepest of heat-induced naps to come look at their wares. “Ta pye si, TA PYE SI, TA PYEEEE SIIIIII (brooms, BROOMS, BROOOOOMMMMSSSS)” a particularly funny and novel one cried one afternoon. A salesman occasionally arrives for villagers to buy offerings of flowers to take to the pagoda (he has no official name, but I refer to him as the “pan ka”). Another man buys something, although I’m not sure what. There’s even a popular truck selling bedding and blankets I’ve seen a few times that’s quite popular in my village. About anything you could need passes through the village, originating from sometimes a half hour away as they make their way through the countryside. I always think about my ice cream man, making industrial amounts of ice cream in our township’s capital, alternating between one school’s lunch time and the other’s break to make the most sales. 

In the city, I’ve become an expert at spotting ice cream men, but I’ve also taken notice to those selling just about everything else. Some motorcycles have a cart on the side to sell fruit, sometimes raw, but often chopped and covered in sugar and spices to eat as a snack. Fried food and noodles are also sold by motorcycle cart. 

Other than the market car, none of these cars run on a timetable or by regular salespeople or stop at consistent places in the village. It’s like many things in Myanmar- while consistency may be lacking, you will never have to worry about going hungry. Things run on organised chaos and good relationships. 

I’m Addicted to Schedules

Blog

“Have you been going out? Have you been making friends?” My boss would ask me occasionally when I’d come in to work.

I felt oddly guilty answering. “Sure,” I’d reply, knowing full well that my nights usually meant going home from my internship, making dinner, and working one of my two online side jobs until I fell asleep at 1 am. Of course, there had been a few nights when I’d stayed up for a beer with other residents of Les Berges, but it felt more like scheduled social time I “let” myself have in order to keep from going crazy. Mostly, I’d take tram 14 and the train to and from my internship, followed by a dinner eaten in front of my computer.

It wasn’t that there was a shortage of social events or people. I simply couldn’t justify spending time frivolously socializing when I could be working. I didn’t really miss it, either. I saw a paycheck and felt validated in my decisions.

The perk of working online from not one, but two jobs, is that it’s a fantastic way to afford living in Geneva, covering basic expenses like groceries, small trips, and the occasional coffee. I can work from anywhere and make my own schedule, which is ideal. The downside is that any free time becomes potential work time in my mind. There’s that thought when I’m reading a book or staying up late with people: “You could be making money right now.” One of my few outings in Geneva had been going out for coffee…with my laptop in tow, of course, because I needed the coffee to get some work done.

I’d come out of a semester where I’d nearly run myself straight into the ground completing an internship, outside professional organizations, a full course schedule, a study abroad, and multiple jobs. And I’m not bragging. Any American student will tell you this is normal, and even expected. I felt I was just doing what was required of me, sometimes even less. And most days, I was miserable. The worst part was, I found it impossible to relax.

Every weekend, I’d sit for a few minutes, remembering what it felt like to be normal. Then, I’d habitually pick up my phone and ask a friend I hadn’t seen in a month for coffee. I physically couldn’t do nothing. I felt guilty when I got eight hours or more of sleep.

The sudden work culture change of going between America and Europe is astounding. It truly gives me whiplash. It’s not that people aren’t productive, it’s simply that people make a point to enjoy themselves. And the most taboo American thing… Europeans don’t think about work outside of work. It’s incredibly rare someone answers their email on a Saturday.

From friends to my current supervisor, I’m finding a reoccurring theme: the ability to simply be, without the pressure to be productive 24 hours a day.

“What did you do today?” I’d ask friends and coworkers.

“Not much… I studied for a bit, then watched sports,” they’d reply casually.

“Oh,” I would say, wondering if I should lie about the ten tasks I’d completed before noon. I rewarded myself by scheduling “fun stuff.”

I find it difficult to not schedule things, which I’ve been told by many Europeans is stereotypically American. Our work culture is competitive, driving us to believe working until it hurts is a superior, or even loyal behavior. Even now, I’m frequently reminded to do normal things, like taking a walk out of the office, or to not work through lunch. It brings me a lot of comfort, especially when I get that sense that I’m horribly behind or not doing enough, to know the rest of world doesn’t live like this. 

Even solo weekend trips I’d been looking forward to for the sole purpose of having no schedule ended up turning into a race to see if I could accomplish everything I wanted to. I’d start by sitting over breakfast, enjoying a few moments of no expectations… until it began to drive me crazy. Minutes later, I’d write some ideas down…I did want to visit the Jewish Museum…Oh, I’ve been craving sushi forever, that’s lunch…Now, what should I pencil in between 3 and 5 pm?

Before I knew it, I had a full-blown schedule. The problem is “the schedule” consumes most of our time. It makes us lose sight of the experience, and most importantly, it takes away the time that could be spent on things we want to do and focuses it on what we feel like we have to do. If you’re really focused on getting sushi for lunch, you might not take the time to wander around the area and find a new restaurant you like way better. I knew I’d been depriving myself of new experiences in the name of American work ethic.

“Saturdays are for pajamas,” my boss told me one day as we discussed work mentality. Wide-eyed, I thought back to my mom vacuuming circles around my 8 year-old-self as I watched cartoons. Little did I know, in just a few years, I’d begin to call Saturdays my “productive day,” just like her. You know, for all the things I didn’t get done during my work week.

From coffee and long lunch breaks, to month-long vacations, Europeans take relaxation seriously. And if I were going to integrate well, I’d need to fit in. So I decided Sunday, I would make no plans.

It’s incredibly hard even approaching it, because my brain immediately and unconsciously asks “So what are we doing Sunday? You could start the day by getting coffee, then you could read by the lake. You didn’t finish your book yet. You haven’t visited any museums yet either, you could hit several in one day…”

Shut up, brain. We’re not planning anything on Sunday.

Making Geneva Affordable

Blog

As you may have gathered, I’ve spent the last three weeks living in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s been absolutely beautiful, but there has been one thing I’ve been dreading since I stepped on the plane in Pittsburgh: it’s extremely expensive. From casual conversations about local students spending their weekends at $10,000 club tables and checking into five star hotels, I haven’t really stopped gasping at prices since I landed. I’ve been told this is a newcomer side effect to living in Geneva that eventually goes away.

I attempted to prepare myself by asking around to friends who had visited or studied for a semester in Geneva: “How can I save money?” Most shrugged, grimaced and, to their credit, gave me the cold, honest truth: “You really can’t.”

I love a challenge, so of course I immediately wanted to prove them wrong. I scoured the Internet in search of potential back-alley restaurants, under the table jobs, and bars my parents would disown me if they saw me in. Trip Advisor, Reddit, and forums all outlined the reasons why these didn’t exist: strict laws, small city, and complicated bureaucracy.

Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded in Geneva by people who not only have the experience of living here for several years, but the absolute necessity of saving money. Students are some of the greatest budgeters in the world, so I’ve spent the last several weeks gathering advice from locals and generally, trying to gain some experience myself.

To avoid going on a lot of first dates or crashing a funeral or wedding just to get a free meal (no judging), here are some easier ways to make sure you can still have the experience of a lifetime while getting enough to eat:

Skip the Geneva Airport: Flying straight into Geneva is notoriously expensive; but luckily, Europe has incredible public transportation and private bus companies. Trains are the go-to if you want to get where you’re going faster, but can sometimes feel complicated if you haven’t used railways before. They can also be pricier and sell out quickly.

For a student budget, try FlixBus, which goes all over Europe, or you can find country-specific busses like PolskiBus (Poland), OuiBus (France), and more.  Tickets, especially one way, are much cheaper than your average Greyhound (Lyon to Geneva was under $15). Try GoEuro.com to find the cheapest and fastest ground transportation. I flew into Lyon instead of Geneva and saved over $400- and all I had to take was a two-hour bus instead! If you don’t mind a longer ride (around 8 hours), Paris is even cheaper.

And the Bar, for That Matter: It’s no shock that alcohol is especially expensive. While there are a few free clubs to get into, I’ve been told they’re (unsurprisingly) not the ones you want to go to. Cheaper entrance fees are around $30, which for students, isn’t exactly affordable every weekend. I’ve been told horror stories of students who unthinkingly ordered 2 or 3 drinks in a club, only to be presented with a $200 bill at the end of the night. Yikes.

There are a few student-oriented bars like Post’Café, where drinks and food are more reasonable, but there’s an even better option: supermarket beer. Okay, hear me out! Geneva’s scenery is beautiful, so why waste time inside a stuffy club when you could skip $35 Vodka Red Bulls and picnic by the water? Students love sitting down by the river, splitting a bottle of wine, and talking. Wine is so cheap in Europe, and you get to enjoy the beautiful views. Are you sold on a grocery store Heineken yet?

Coffee Over Meals: Despite my love of Asian food, the price of Pad Thai is downright depressing here. Even the “wouldn’t go back there again” restaurants are usually over $15 a plate. Around student housing there are a few places you can get take-out or shawarma for around $12 a wrap. Maybe it’s principle, but I have a difficult time justifying $12 for take-out (my late night college food places ruined my standards). I accepted I would be cooking a lot.

Going out for food is something I genuinely love doing with friends, especially when I’m in a new city and can explore different restaurants. It’s a fun reason to get out of the apartment, so when I realized that wasn’t exactly going to be an option, I found the next best thing: coffee shops. Coffee shop culture is unique in every city, and an afternoon sitting outside drinking a significantly cheaper espresso or cold brew while blogging, reading or people-watching feels better than overpaying for a burrito. (Don’t get me wrong- coffee is still pricey. Skip Starbucks and go local). 

Stop Eating Meat: While this might sound like propaganda coming from your favorite vegan, anyone here will tell you meat is one of the most expensive items at the grocery store. Strict quality standards when prioritizing Swiss meat over foreign-bought, the lack of additives, and high taxes have created the perfect storm of expensive and high-quality products. So while what you’re eating is undeniably better for you than American meat, the price tag will let you know it. You’d probably be just as satisfied eating $1 pasta and produce.

Buy meat across the border or substitute it for significantly cheaper beans and grains.

Take Advantage of Tourist Perks: If you’re only here short-term and staying in a hotel, youth hostel, or campsite, you can get free public transportation during your stay. At normal rates of $45/$90 a month or $3 an hour, that’s a huge save. You can also pick up a free 80-minute pass from the Geneva airport.

Many museums and public events are absolutely free. From the natural history museum, to the Botanical Gardens, to cultural and music festivals, there’s no need to spend much on things to do. Geneva’s tourism website is regularly updated at https://www.geneve.com/en/. Don’t forget your student ID for potential discounts!

Where You Shop Matters: Not all grocery shops are created equal. Unlike the variety we have in the United States, your choice mainly comes down to about three or four grocery stores in Geneva, save for the occasional international food store or Carrefour across the border.

Migros and Denner are the greatest value for your money, but I’ve found a combination of the two is best. It may sound time-consuming, but certain items are significantly cheaper at one versus the other. Being mindful pays off, literally. I go about once every five or six days, but my bill is normally below $25, which is impressive for Switzerland. (Despite the fact that Europeans go every two or three days, I still have to be American and stock up for the week.) My first trip I made sure to load up on grains like spaghetti, rice, and Pad Thai noodles (finally got them), so that way, I usually only need to get the things that go bad quickly, such as vegetables, bread, soy milk, and fruit.

Go Eco-Friendly: Now, this is a tip for the super-broke… but it’s a favorite in the building where I’m staying. Laundry is unreasonably expensive, and if you’re still at a place in life where $10 feels better in your bank account and you’re willing to work a little harder, this one’s for you. You can use laundry detergent to wash clothes in the sink, then hang them up close to the window. It takes longer for them to dry, but I think it’s worth it, and it’s better for the environment!

Bring your water bottle with you instead of buying one. There are places all over the city to refill. 

Whether you’re a college student coming for a weekend, an unpaid intern, or just like a challenge, hopefully this list can give you some insight into the “impossibility” of saving money in the 7th most expensive city in the world. How do you save money when traveling?

Does Location Determine Happiness?

Blog

After 15 minutes online, I had my heart set on Bangor University. I was 16 years old. Not particularly because of any program, just the fact that it was as far away from Ohio as possible.

When pleading with my parents to consider Wales, they understood my true ambition: I just wanted to get out of my small town.

“You know, you can find happiness wherever you are,” my dad would constantly remind me. He wanted me to stay close to home, like many parents, indefinitely. I hated when he gave me this advice. (If you’ve seen Moana, I believe her father sings that exact line as she’s trying to leave the island. I feel you, Moana.)

Location affects so much of what we do. From decisions on where to go to college, to moving for a job, it often plays a large role in where we end up. Certain places affect our mood. We might feel happier in a warm climate, or more depressed in a city where we don’t connect with the people or culture. 

Figuring out where or who we want to be isn’t always easy, though.  From economic factors to pressure we may feel to stay in our home town, our road to self-growth can be stunted in many ways.

Like many people from the Midwest, my hometown is incredibly small. It’s technically a village. I had friends and generally a great time in high school. But I never truly felt like I could relate to anyone’s goals. Mine were always different.  No one really thought about traveling, or even a career in writing, which makes sense considering our tiny high school’s resources. Simply going to college was often times a challenge in itself.

I refused to show any emotion the entire drive to Kent State the first day we toured. I couldn’t believe I was going to school in Ohio. Of course, I fell in love about 30 seconds in. (Somewhere around almost getting hit by a car on South Lincoln in an attempt to reach Starbucks. Oh, irony).

After coming to Kent, I started to understand that this wasn’t only my escape from my hometown. Many people use university as a way to start over.  And like me, many people were initially disappointed to be going to school so close to home.There are more than enough jokes about how many astronauts are from Ohio (they couldn’t get far away enough), and that going to Wal-Mart is the only thing to do.

Looking back, I wasn’t ready at 18 years old to apply for a student visa, or learn how to handle all the pressures of living so far away from home I deal with now. But I always thought about his advice, and how much location correlates with my happiness.  

Despite my initial hesitance, my time at university was the most influential four years of my life, without a doubt. It wasn’t so much the location, but the people who made it such a fantastic experience. I’d never been in a space where so many people were dedicated to the pursuit of higher education, or where sharing your opinions was met with intelligent discussion, and for the first time in my life, other people who shared similar thoughts. I was shocked when I discovered I could study abroad so easily, and that people were encouraging of it. I had resources, closer friends than I’d ever had, and professors who were mentors to me and would later become good friends. I had access to things I didn’t even know existed in my hometown. I was incredibly fortunate to find the financial resources, like scholarships and a job that made all these things possible.

When I go home, I almost always feel this creeping fear that I’m going to undo all the progress I’ve made since I left. I’m scared I will revert back to a version of myself that wasn’t confident, or who didn’t believe in her goals. It’s also hard to be somewhere that doesn’t have resources that support a lot of my interests.

I think location has a lot to do with it. Everything in my hometown reminds me of who I used to be, and that makes sense. On holiday breaks, I would look at my life at Kent, where I had been a few days prior, in wonder of what all I had accomplished there. How had I been brave enough to walk into a room of people I’d never met and make friends? How had I been one of the youngest people in an international class to Cyprus? Of course, when I’d go back to Kent again after the break, it all made sense again. I had resources at Kent I didn’t have at home.

Many of my college friends felt the same way, even restricted at Kent State, and would often lament about the day their life would change when they left Ohio.

So is happiness a choice, or is location a key factor?

My mom’s advice was a bit more practical: “It’s not where you are, it’s what you do.”

When I was in the airport, leaving for Geneva, me and two other women began to complain about the major delay (thanks, Icelandic weather). We started to talk, and I learned one ran her own online coaching company, and was going to a business meeting in Paris to learn about hosting a retreat there. The other was visiting her boyfriend in Dublin, back to New York for a job interview, and then to London to look at graduate schools. We talked about politics, European cities, higher education, health, and much more. They were as interested in my experiences traveling as I was in there’s. This environment, where I was constantly learning, excited me.

As early as 16, this was the key to figuring out where I was happy, even if it wasn’t Wales. 

Some people are comfortable where they are because it has the people they’ve grown up with, or maybe where they’ve met their significant other. For others, having to learn something new every day about where you are is what’s most comfortable (even when making mistakes). I find comfort in the unknown, which can even be found at an in-state school. Which leads me to where I am today:

I was on the train home from a day trip to Art Basel this week with some of my colleagues and students I had met. Between the full day, sunshine, company, and conversation, I melted into my seat on the train as I watched the breathtaking sights roll by.

Some of the colleagues I was interning for were posing hypotheticals to the group, and I eavesdropped from a few rows over, on the blissful edge of falling asleep.

“If you could trade lives with anyone, who would it be?”

I thought for a moment about some of the journalists I look up to and who have an incredible career, but I surprised myself by deciding I wouldn’t want to be any one but me. I enjoy every part of my day, and I work hard to ensure that. I’m doing everything I’ve ever wanted to do, surrounded by people who make it a great experience. I’m traveling and producing content that is meaningful to me. 

Every week, there’s an offer to visit a new city, explore art, make new friends, have good conversations, network, or simply learn more about some of the agencies here in Geneva, like Reporters Without Borders and all the different divisions of the UN. It’s often hard to plan my time, because I’m interested in nearly everything. 

Location has mattered to me because of how I’ve changed through the years. I have interests that are easier to pursue living in another country. I’ve changed my location based on interest. I work incredibly hard, no matter what country I’m in, to continue making sure it’s a life I want for myself, which does include location.

That’s not to say everything’s perfect when you’re in a location you love. When bad things do happen somewhere you’re unfamiliar with, the consequences range from mildly embarrassing to detrimental. It’s also important to understand personal issues will often follow you no matter where you are. I don’t change into a different person when I change location. My bad habits and messy room can be found no matter where I am. 

I think finding out what makes you happy (where it makes you happiest) comes from conscious decisions, every day, even when they really suck. I don’t love applying for visas, but they’re a necessary step to get where I want to go. I don’t always want to stay late and network, but it’s led to meeting some great people who have helped tremendously in where I am today. I follow my interests, which often lead me to new locations. I make an effort every day to be deliberate. 

I think it’s a combination of my mom and dad’s advice. You need to be open to finding joy in any situation, but being an active participant in your own life, instead a passive passenger, is vital.

The Packing List to Get You Through Anything

Blog

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I whispered to my mother in quiet horror.

“You once packed for a week in Europe in small backpack,” she pointed out. I nodded. This was true. But what was ahead was considerably harder.

After moving home from college a week prior, all of my belongings- including two massive containers of clothes, bags of pots and pans, and cardboard boxes dedicated to office supplies and odds and ends- were scattered throughout the basement of my house. For consideration to the length of this blog, I won’t even begin to describe the state of my bathroom.

To make matters worse, I am not the world’s most organized packer, meaning that just because a box was designated for kitchen utensils, didn’t mean I couldn’t find random sweaters or important documents stuffed in the sides.

My task ahead was simultaneously time-consuming and last-minute. It was the night before my six-month journey from Switzerland, where I would be interning for a month, to Madrid to au pair during July and August, and then to China to complete another internship until December.

 To further highlight the complexities of packing, here are several important details about these six months:

  • My journey to Geneva (flight + bus) was partially done on a budget airline, which capped checked bags off at 20 kilograms, or 44 pounds. That’s six pounds lower than the average airline (and those six pounds matter).
  • I was preparing for three seasons in three very different climates. I would be going to the beach with my Spanish host family, followed by a rainy, cold winter in Xi’an. I would be doing everything from playing with kids, to interning in an office, to going out with friends.
  • I was using these six months to travel while I waited on a decision from Peace Corps. If I were accepted, I would need to use the following 45 days to get my visa, and complete several evaluations.
  • My health insurance covered emergencies only.
  • Geneva is extremely expensive.

Based on these details, here is my advice for complex backing situations, divided into four categories.

Necessities:

Beyond important documents*a passport, and a credit card (and a backup), there’s really not much else you need to travel. At least, this is what I tell myself when I’m running out the door, certain I’ve forgotten something. But if you’re post-grad, “kind of employed,” and can’t afford a major mistake, there are certain items that can save your wallet down the road. For this reason, I brought some extra currency so I wouldn’t need to immediately take out money. I also usually bring two sets of headphonesa book or twoextra chargersvoltage converter and adaptor, and small hygiene items like wipeshand sanitizerhand lotion, and lip balm to tuck away in my boarding bag. An iPad or laptop, along with chargers are necessities if you work remotely or are a human in the 21st century. I brought my external hard driveflashdrive, and DSLRbatteries, and battery charger as well.  I’d recommend a sleeping mask and earplugs for the plane/anywhere rough you might be sleeping. Don’t forget a towel and washcloth! I also included an umbrella and a pair of sunglasses in my boarding bag.  Because I was traveling for work, my planner was a necessity as well. Additionally, when I went to college my grandma gave me a sewing kit I always take with me. 

To save money in Geneva until I made it to au pairing, I threw in some Tide Pods so I wouldn’t need to invest in laundry detergent until I went to China long-term. I was slightly concerned these would explode mid-air, but seeing as I’m writing this from the plane, I’ll let you know how it went.

Edit: They did not explode.

Cosmetics & Hygiene

Because of the “emergencies only” insurance issue, I packed a small pharmacy of cold and allergy medicinepainkillersvapor rubcranberry pills, and prescriptions. It’s really hard to get certain medication over the counter in Europe, so I channeled my inner hypochondriac so I wouldn’t need to pay out of pocket.

I travel with anything bar-sized I can. I use bar face soapbody soap, and shampoo when I can find it. This saves me room, weight, eliminates plastic use, and I don’t have to worry about bringing too much liquid if I need to stuff something in my boarding bag.  It also lasts a really long time. Other essentials: hairbrushrazoroil-free face lotiontoothpastetoothbrushcoconut oilsunscreen, and curling iron.

In the last several months, I started using a Diva Cup and am a strong advocator for it. It can be hard to find certain products depending on the country, plus, the Diva Cup is reusable and saves money (and waste!)

Make-up can be difficult because everyone has specific products they like. In Czechia it was hard to find my skin tone, so I brought enough foundation for a few months. Other than that, I really didn’t stock up on much because of the weight. I used sample-sized gifts I’d gotten from Ulta and Sephora for my birthday for products I didn’t use frequently, like lipstick or bronzer. I brought must-haves like a small eye shadow paletteeyeliner (I’m picky), mascara, along with my favorite brushes.

Food

As I said, Geneva is very expensive. I wouldn’t be bringing in major money during this month-long internship, so I decided some basic food could go a long way. I used a gallon bag in my boarding bag for oatmealgranola bars and fruit snacks. I also do this so I don’t immediately need to take my jetlagged self grocery shopping when I arrive. 

I also brought a reusable water bottle, which I always bring for several reasons. It saves money on bottled water, you can dump it so you can bring it through security, it eliminates plastic use, and it can save you money on budget airlines when even a cup of water can cost you. I wanted to order reusable bamboo cutlery, but didn’t get around to it in time. I like to save on plastic use in any way I can. 

Clothing

Surprisingly, this was the easiest part of packing, because a lot of it was non-negotiable. I packed lightweight cotton shorts and tank tops for the hot summer in Madrid that could also be used for something comfy to play with the kids in. I also packed neutral t-shirts and camis that would be easy to layer during the winter. I packed two pairs of jeans (you really don’t need more than this), a black pair of pantsthree neutral dressesone nice toptwo pair of denim shortstwo pairs of workout clothesone pair of leggings, two bathing suitsone sweaterone cardigantwo bralettesone sports braone everyday braone skirtone comfortable sweatshirt and joggers (for planes/sleeping/wearing during cold workouts), one nice romper, and one casual romper.

In past semesters abroad, I would save room in my suitcase by just buying winter clothing at my destination. But you really can only have so many winter coats, so I chose my thinner winter jacketone turtleneck sweaterone chunky sweater, and a large scarf.

Some people say you should limit yourself to a certain number of socks or underwear, but truthfully, I don’t do laundry until I run out of one of those. So I designated an area of my suitcase to as many pairs as would fit.

Shoes were difficult for me. As much as I love my converse, the versatility of my Adidas running shoes was more convenient. I also threw in a lightweight pair of combat bootsheels, and Birkenstocks (“house slippers” for Spain/comfy, casual shoes). All of my shoes are a neutral color.

Two pieces of classic travel advice to live by: roll your clothing and opt for neutrals.

The first time I weighed my suitcase, it was 70 pounds. My mom and I laughed really hard, and then I proceeded to tear up as I removed my converse, spaghetti noodles, small bags of oatmeal, and my bulky camera case so I could carry my camera on me through the flight. I also downsized a lot of full-sized bottles into smaller ones and accepted that I would need to buy some things down the road.  If you’re working with a normal weight limit, you’ll probably be fine.

The good news is my bag weighed in at exactly 20 kilograms when all was said and done!

*Important documents obviously vary depending on your activities. Mine were a copy of my birth certificate, credit cards, passport, drivers license, immunization records, visa applications, bus tickets, and boarding passes.

Finding a Job Abroad: Here’s What I Learned

Blog

Searching for a job out of the country comes with many unexpected challenges, or even gray areas that don’t really rely on any of your past experience. Sure, you can try to work for a company with the hope that one day they might send you to their London office, but for those who want the experience of traveling right away, why wait? If you’re a recent graduate or even a student looking for an affordable way to travel as soon as possible, for as little money as possible, this blog is for you.

Before my tenative service in Peace Corps (still waiting to hear), I had about six months I couldn’t quite decide how to fill. I knew I wanted to work abroad, which started as cheerfully applying to jobs in Spain and England online with the hope of getting a call or email the following week (looking back, I can’t believe how optimistic I was), to realizing how extensive and complicated immigration laws and visa processes can actually be.

Many companies will send you abroad to teach English for a year, but can require costly fees surpassing $1,000 upfront, and can provide limited career fields outside of teaching. If you’re willing to do the legwork, it can save you from having to go through companies like CIEE and World Teach. Both are great options, but they can take away from your choice and individual experience you’d like to have.

Applying on Indeed.com from thousands of miles away can be a dead end, because one of the first questions they often ask is if you’re legally allowed to work in the country you’re applying for. And because, let’s face it, you and thousands of other post-grad wannabe expats are all applying for that perfect travel writing job in Croatia. Many companies don’t want the expense and complication of sponsoring someone right out of college. Basically, if they’re offering you sponsorship, you need to be offering something that many people in their home country don’t have. If you’re a recent grad who doesn’t have exceptional second (or third, or fourth) language skills, then unfortunately your chances of being hired outright by a company are slim. This doesn’t mean you’re not a great hire, it just means that many countries require companies to prove they’ve exhausted all efforts in trying to find someone in their country before hiring foreigners.

It is definitely difficult, but there is hope! Here’s what I’ve learned:

Do your research. Knowledge is power (no, really). Au pairs are highly demanded and have a fairly easy visa process in countries like Germany, Spain, and Switzerland (also, certain western European countries have visas available for citizens to bring their expat girlfriends and boyfriends over… just saying).  Knowing what visas are available to you can make all the difference in the world, as well as knowing how to get those visas. Many European countries don’t require any visas for a stay less than 90 days. Certain countries really need English teachers and are willing to offer visas for those TEFL-certified and/or with teaching experience (Mexico, for example). Five countries (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, and Ireland) even offer working holiday visas to U.S. citizens ages 18 to 26, which makes the process of working abroad much less complicated.

Don’t just stop at researching logistics of immigration. Google what’s expected of you in this new country. Your work culture in China might be vastly different than what you’re used to in the United States.

Use Your Connections. After realizing I wasn’t exactly a major asset to any company in Barcelona, I started to understand how little I actually knew. While at the time reaching out to professors and advisors was an act of desperation; it actually gave me a lot of vital connections and information. Professors who knew my intentions and skill set started sending me university websites that were looking for interns, as well as job opportunities. One professor sent me to an advisor in my university’s Office of Global Education, who sent me to an internship opportunity in Xi’an, China. Friends of friends of friends knew someone who needed an intern in Switzerland over the summer. My Spanish professor knew a lot of great programs over the summer for post-grad students. Reach out to someone who might know the slightest bit about what you want to do.

Schedule meetings, coffee, or appointments to network. These were my greatest help in finding work abroad. So many people had advice, friends, or even companies they could direct me to. Then, I also had a name to give when I emailed them and a better chance of getting an email back. Whether it was an advisor giving me the cold, hard truth that no company was going to offer me a visa, or a friend of a friend directing me to a company he’d worked for a year ago that offered interns a food and housing deal, every bit of information helps.

Know How to Market Your Skills. Who is going to want you, and why? Is it because you have connections from your home university? Is it because of your major? Have you studied abroad before; do you have connections to the country you’re applying in? Think critically and try to remove your own feelings from the situation, because someone who received a random email from you doesn’t know you’re hardworking, or that you’ll even follow through with what you’ve said you can do. Name drop professors or intern supervisors they might know, and give concrete evidence of your skills. If you have a website, keep it in your signature when you email companies so you can direct them to it immediately.

Understand what they’re looking for, and be flexible. If your ultimate goal is to work abroad, don’t split hairs or dismiss an opportunity because it doesn’t fit exactly what you’re looking for (especially if it’s temporary). Any opportunity could be what you’re looking for if you can negotiate well and keep an open mind. 

Learn How to Negotiate. Unfortunately, many internship opportunities are unpaid because of the visa you need to apply for, or because the laws of the country don’t allow them to actually hire you (sometimes meaning no visa at all). Don’t immediately discount these opportunities. Some of the greatest negotiating advice I ever learned was to simply ask for something else. What can they offer you outside of money? Free housing, meals, flights, transportation, or covered visa fees isn’t nothing, and can either immensely reduce or even cover your cost of living. Once again, do your research and know what you can ask for and what your cost of living will look like. Do they have a company cafeteria you can ask for a reduced rate at? Can they cover the monthly cost of public transportation to and from work?

This can be scary, because landing this amazing opportunity in the first place probably took a lot of work. However, start your negotiation by restating you want to lessen your financial burden so you can do the best job possible. They don’t want you to starve either, so you could find they’re willing to work with you on other costs of living.

Bonus tip: working remotely from a company in your home country can help reduce the cost of living and pay for expenses like eating out and weekend drinks.

Get Creative. Follow up with companies. As I learned in college, while it’s easy to ignore emails, it’s a lot harder to ignore people who show up to your office.

Find ways to cut costs once you’re actually in the country (research will seriously save your life). Before my internship in Geneva, I learned to bring a large box of oatmeal and spaghetti noodles in my suitcase to cut costs on groceries. Instead of the $630 flight from Pittsburgh to Geneva, I’ll fly to Paris first and take a bus to Geneva for $250 total.

For graduation, I simply asked for cash to cover my plane tickets. I sold clothes on Poshmark the few weeks between graduation and leaving. I reached out to contacts in my hometown to see if I could pull a part-time job copy-editing remotely for my local paper. It can be hard to make ends meet, but if this ultimately what you want to do, it’s worth it for the experience.

If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Hopefully by writing this blog, I’ve saved you a few months of research. You could absolutely skip all of this work and get a 9 to 5 in your home country, but for fellow travel junkies and those who want to explore as much as they possibly can, if you wanted to do that… you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog. 

What tips do you have for combining travel and work? Comment below!

Taming Culture Shock

Blog

Written for Kent State College of Communication and Information Study Abroad Office


If you’re reading this, it probably means you’re going abroad soon, or at least considering it. And for that, I commend you. Traveling is a choice. It’s entirely your decision to say “Hey, I want to see and learn something new.” By making that decision, you are making effort to better yourself. Maybe you’ve always wanted to travel and that’s why you chose Kent State (same!), but maybe you’ve only recently worked up the courage to explore CCI’s study abroad options. Maybe you just applied for your passport, or had a professor who encouraged you to check out study abroad, or your best friend is going. The point is, you are here, no matter what path led you.

Traveling is an amazing experience, but I don’t need to tell you that. Everyone who’s gone abroad has come back and shown you thousands of pictures, talked about their crazy nights out in Barcelona, or ended every conversation with “Ciao!” (*eye roll*). Take a second to think about the concept of personal progress. Everything that made you better as a person, whether it’s college, a friendship or a new interest, wasn’t always easy. It took courage to talk to that girl you thought was really cool! Wasn’t your ambition and drive tested at times when you were studying at 3 a.m.? But didn’t that good grade feel amazing? The first time you went to the gym might have been nerve-wracking, but you got through it, and you were better for it.

Traveling is no different. You are doing this for a multitude of reasons, but the bottom line is, you want to change your life.You want to see new things and experience another culture.You want to progress. And that doesn’t come without some learning curves and bumps in the road. As someone who has taken every study abroad opportunity I could afford, I can say without a shadow of a doubt the moments that tested me were the moments I grew the most.

Missing our train helps us gain responsibility. Being confused or upset teaches us to ask for help. Getting lost teaches us our way home. When people come back from traveling, they’re hesitant to talk about the moments that made them panic or cry, but I want you to know about my moments like that, because those are the times when I really found out who I was and how strong I could be. These moments are just as important as, if not more important than, the amazing pictures you took in front of the Eiffel Tower.  

I’m not an expert, but I want to share several of the emotions that are NOT uncommon to feel. I felt many of them during my experiences, and I am certain I will feel them when I travel again. Did this mean I had a bad experience? Absolutely not! If anything, these feelings made my experience more constructive. Change is not an easy concept, and that’s OK! If you are experiencing any of these feelings or others you feel you can’t deal with on your own, please reach out to someone you trust. A professor or counselor and a trusted friend or peer would love to help you through your experience.

When you study abroad, it is not uncommon to feel:

Lonely:  You know the phrase “feeling alone in a crowded room?” There’s no greater example than being surrounded by thousands of tourists, locals, and students and still feeling isolated. This may be the first time you’re not with your best friends, and even if you’ve already made friends with your roommates, it’s totally normal to feel like you can’t reach that level of intimacy with people you just met.

Upset: When I’m in a new country, I often feel like crying for the first couple days for no reason in particular. For others, their fifth or sixth week can be emotional, seemingly without reason. After the first couple days, I’m usually overjoyed to be in another country. But for some reason, the first couple days put me through an emotional roller coaster. “This doesn’t make any sense!” I’d want to yell at myself. “You were so excited to be here and now you’re shutting down to everything!” My anger with myself often escalated my feelings until I adjusted to the people and culture around me. When I actually slowed down to pinpoint why I was upset, insecurities came up like, “What if I don’t like it here as much as I thought I would? I’m a successful student, what if I don’t adjust well to being here? Does that mean I’ve failed?” These are all normal feelings and questions.

The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is acknowledge your emotions. The longer you push them down, the harder adjusting is going to be. Know that your feelings don’t have to have a rational basis all the time, and just confronting your feelings and being self-aware can do a world of good. Write down what you’re feeling, and talk about your feelings  with your roommates and friends. It can feel taboo to discuss these feelings, especially when they don’t seem to have any rationality to them (see guilt below), but when you hear other people discussing the same things, it can help move you past this. However, if this feeling persists, talk to a professional who can help you find methods of coping.Talking to someone who is trained to listen well can do amazing things. Faculty and staff can help you find professional resources.

Overwhelmed: Studying abroad can bring with it a massive influx of stimuli. Your senses are always on high alert with new food, languages, and cultures around you. It can be a  struggle to take it all in.

On a field trip to Rome, we were walking through Vatican City. There were at least 60 students walking in a big group, it was crazy hot, and our professors were constantly reminding us to keep an eye on our bags and to stay close to the group. My brain was in overdrive. When we arrived to the museum, I sprinted to the bathroom to just sit down and lock myself inside a stall for a few minutes, away from all the noise. I spent those minutes breathing and reflecting on how it felt to have my own space for a little bit. Those few minutes made a world of difference.

During the tour, the museum was at its peak tourist month, and our earbuds were buzzing from our professor giving us the history of the building. Between the heat, the noise, and the lack of space, I decided to throw on my own headphones and listen to some relaxing music on my phone. While the tours can be very educational, it’s hard to listen to them when you’re freaking out.

You know yourself best. Before going on a field trip or a group outing, think about your triggers. Do you get claustrophobic in large crowds? Do you need to take breaks to be by yourself? As extroverted as I am, 10+ hours of touring and social interaction (which is a typical field trip) can be too much for me. Don’t be afraid to do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Get lunch by yourself, separate from the group (when safe and appropriate), or download some calming music and bring earbuds. If you know you get “hangry” easily, bring snacks!

Confused: Don’t pressure yourself to know everything in the first few weeks. There are definitely going to be learning curves, like grocery stores, directions, and language barriers. It’s important to remember that you are not stupid, and everything takes time.

Out of character: For students like me, studying abroad can surface unfamiliar feelings. As an extrovert, I normally have the most energy at social events and or when making new friends.

However, I found myself isolated and quiet at times, even at social gatherings and outings. I felt hesitant to reach out to new friends, or even acquaintances I already knew. I felt almost nervous to go outside at times. For a long time, I beat myself up for this. I was confused. I had never acted like that before, and I couldn’t find the motivation to force myself to make friends or to walk around by myself for a while.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, I realized this wasn’t uncommon. A friend who studied abroad in Mexico and was going to China through Peace Corps gave me a piece of advice. She talked about her struggle to make new friends, and how she was acting in ways she didn’t recognize. “I think the biggest thing I learned from that experience was to have patience with myself. I did make friends, and so will you, but go to every event you can, and try not to get frustrated with yourself. You’re dealing with a lot. It takes time.” Her words gave me hope that there wasn’t anything wrong with me; it was actually common to feel this way!

Exhausted: The first time I arrived in a foreign country, the only thing I could think about was sleep. I was exhausted. While my group was adamant about going out to dinner and for drinks our first night, I desperately wanted to crawl into bed and process for awhile. However, I powered through and had a great night out exploring with my group. This can be tricky, but ultimately, it’s important to wait until night to try to align your sleep schedule. In transit, I try to sleep as much as possible. When I first arrive and feel like taking a nap, I try to ask myself, “Which of these experiences will I regret not having done?” Usually, sleep isn’t the activity I’ll regret skipping. Ultimately, you know yourself better than anyone. If you can’t function, get some sleep. Your health is more important than anything. I would recommend avoiding naps in the first week or two, but take time to lay down where it’s cool and relax. When you try to nap shortly after arrival, your body tries to fit in a full eight hours no matter what time it is, and you end up feeling more exhausted. Never feel guilty for sleeping, though. It’s a basic human function you need!

Guilty: This was probably the most talked about feeling among my group, and here’s why: There is so much pressure to enjoy yourself when you’re studying abroad! Nobody is happy 100% of the time. You can choose to be positive, but ultimately, situations will occur that disappoint, challenge or even bore you. It’s OK to not like EVERY city you visit! I loved Milan and didn’t enjoy Rome that much, and that’s OK. Are there cities you prefer in America? Of course! Maybe you hate Pittsburgh and love Columbus. You can appreciate a city and not like it. You can have bad food in Italy. You can get tired of pizza. You can get annoyed with the train schedules and frustrated with the language barrier. You can be bored with certain activities. It doesn’t make you ungrateful for the experience. You deserve to experience your full range of emotions in another country.

There’s another type of guilt we experienced, and that was guilt for not doing something all of the time. There’s definitely pressure to be out of your apartment all the time, exploring new places, and eating all the food you can. But we have limits on our energy, money, and time. If we’re not careful, a cycle can begin. A friend and I joked that we would be stressed about not doing something, but then going out to do something would result in being stressed about money. Don’t feel pressured to go out all the time. Some people can afford a trip every weekend and a shopping spree every other day, and some students are struggling to reserve grocery money, along with every financial situation in between. (Keep a money log! Know what you can spend every day.) Someone will always be going out more or less than you, so why worry about it? It’s not always about what you do, it’s about how you do it. There were nights in my apartment where we had more fun cooking (read: almost destroying our kitchen) than going out to a bar or visiting a museum. You don’t need to force yourself to go out. You can watch a movie with friends or do things you would normally do in America to relax and feel perfectly comfortable.

Stressed: The typical misconception about school or internships abroad is that the workload will be nonexistent. The workload isn’t less, it’s just different. You may not have as much day-to-day homework, but you’ll still have projects, tests, and papers to do. When you go into the experience understanding this, the stress won’t sneak up on you.

Homesick: This was an emotion I gravely underestimated. I embraced the “free spirit” persona and insisted to myself that I could adapt to living anywhere. I associated being homesick with being weak, and I most certainly was not going to be considered weak.  To me, the stereotypical case of homesickness involves a student distraught because they miss their family, or they’re pegged as the student who has never been away from their family for more than a night and can’t seem to ‘get with it.’ I went to camps frequently as a kid and never felt homesick, and yet, homesickness still occurred when I studied abroad. Unlike the stereotype, it can affect anyone.

Homesickness can manifest itself as missing the simple routines we had at home, like being able to run the dishwasher and take a shower at the same time, or missing American food or missing the opportunities to go to coffee with friends back home.  It’s OK to miss the things back home. There’s no reason to act like you’re too strong to be homesick (don’t be like me!) because deep down, I really did miss a lot of things about home, and that’s not weak. That’s human. How successful and amazing you are as a person has NO correlation with how well you adjust to another country. Even well-traveled people can struggle the first few days. You don’t get an ‘F’ for the experience if you miss your dog and want Chipotle. Realizing what you miss can help you appreciate different cultures even more.

Anxious: The night before my first trip in Italy, I couldn’t sleep. My head was full of hypothetical scenarios. It’s normal to be anxious, because you’re only depending on yourself, and for a lot of us, that can be really scary.

When we go to college, we’re on our own for the most part, but there’s a massive safety net of professors, friends, advisors, and programs to help us in case we fall (and thank goodness for that!). But when we’re traveling, suddenly all the responsibilities our parents had taken care of on vacations fall on our shoulders (be sure to shoot your parents an appreciation text for all the bathroom breaks they thought to schedule).  Who even knew that we needed to print out extra copies of everything? What happens if we lose our tickets? What happens if we miss our flight, get lost, or can’t get wifi to look up directions? There are a million different ways that each scenario could go, but luckily, a lot of those have great endings. I couldn’t predict every delayed flight, train mishap, and anxiety that came up while I was traveling. But it took those stressful moments to bring to my attention things I had never even considered, like the kindness of strangers, learning French phrases to ask questions, or finding new restaurants as a result of being lost. Plan for worst-case scenarios, but remember that even an anxiety-provoking situation can help you grow — and things do get better.

Finally, some general advice:

The best advice I got when studying abroad was “You are still the same person, even in a different country.” You won’t magically become an extrovert or love group outings if that’s not who you are at home. Don’t expect yourself to suddenly become interested in activities that you didn’t like before, and keep your habits in mind when you experience homesickness or culture shock.

Support each other. A lot of people on my trip would want to voice discomforts, only to have them met with “Well I never felt that way,” or “How could you not love Rome?” If someone feels differently than you, that’s fine. But listening to them and supporting them is just as important. Most times you’ll find that you’ve experienced a similar situation and can help each other adjust.

Culture shock doesn’t come in neat little steps. Your feelings can be all over the place and out of order.

Find ways to cope that are similar to your American habits. If running is your stress reliever participate in 5Ks. Find a gym, cook frequently, read books, journal, or do whatever you would normally do in America. You still want to have a life outside of traveling. This is so important! However, if you find yourself relying on alcohol or any other substance to cope, find help and talk with someone.

Focus on your own experience. I dwelled on the experience of another student I really looked up to, and always found myself comparing my trips to hers. No one wants to come back to America and talk about the things that went wrong, so don’t stress out with “Well, Sarah didn’t cry at Oktoberfest!” Maybe she did and never talked about it. You won’t “ruin” your experience because you didn’t go to Interlaken or did something different than everyone else. You can’t do everything, and FOMO (fear of missing out) is inevitable and normal. The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and make it your own journey.

Studying Abroad: Cohort? Solo? Or Both?

Blog

The longer I stay in Prague by myself, the less I can compare this study-abroad experience to my Kent State cohort experience in Florence, Italy.

Everything from my day-to-day experiences to the food I eat differs incredibly from where I was a year ago. I believe this is because I’ve grown significantly since my semester in Florence in a number of ways. I trust myself more. I’m more confident in who I am and what I want from my life and how it should make me feel. I’m more willing to get off the beaten path, even if I’m on my own. Most importantly, I’m more willing to experience my feelings.

In a cohort, my feelings were often based on what my group was feeling. As much as I’d like to think I’m a completely independent thinker, being surrounded by 200 people experiencing a whirlwind of emotions and posting them to social media, as well as all the research I’d done on others’ experiences and what I learned in orientation, was downright overwhelming at times. Knowing that my friend hated a certain city changed my perception of it, and knowing a coworker had the best experience of her life going to Germany changed my expectations for Oktoberfest.

Understanding the experiences of others certainly has its benefits, like having an inside scoop on the best restaurants and knowing exactly what to pack (right down to the number of T-shirts). It’s a cool experience to help others in the way that I was helped and to provide a shoulder to lean on when it’s the middle of the semester and you’d all kill for some Chipotle. Florence is almost like a big brother/big sister program, like a rite of passage many Kent State students go through when finding their independence outside of the United States.

There were definitely perks to a cohort. I felt relatively safe at all times. There was little guesswork involved when withdrawing money, grocery shopping and taking classes. I avoided a lot of tourist traps and managed not to be pickpocketed. Yet with these benefits came an established social hierarchy. It was easy to take for granted people I already knew. It was also easier to get annoyed within my already small cohort. I think this is what contributed to students sometimes feeling isolated. What do you do when the people you relied on most don’t feel the same things you do?

For some people, having helpful suggestions and prompts from others can be the difference between a good and bad study abroad trip. For others like me, having a clear and unbiased mind going into an experience is the best thing I can do to make it my own. Independence was certainly a running theme of my current semester in Prague, even before my plane left the runway in August. Visa applications, housing arrangements, a taxi from the airport, wiring fees, and figuring out classes were all responsibilities I needed to handle on my own before I even left.

Living Authentically

Life in Prague feels authentic in a way that Florence did not. Although every study abroad problem is relative, the safety net of professors, friends, and Kent State’s 50 years of experience in sending students to Italy took care of most major issues, like health insurance and accidentally falling into the Arno River. The issues our cohort experienced in Florence were valid, but they were also usually easy to fix:   “I can’t find my favorite shampoo brand.” “I miss American food.” “Street signs here are hard.”

Issues when traveling solo need a bit more critical thought, especially when Fabio (Corsini) isn’t a Facebook message away because you locked yourself out of the school building…again. The problems of studying abroad solo definitely require a different part of your brain.

In under a week, I’ve Googled everything from “How do you say Peace Square in Czech?” to “Does this need stitches?” Issues that left me foundering for a hand to grab a year ago in Italy seem like minor missteps to me now. It does take some time to truly be comfortable, but I feel less stationary here than I did in Florence. I feel as though I’m developing in new ways every day, and I allow myself time to appreciate it. I’ll congratulate myself for figuring out a new way home, or for realizing things at the gym are in kilometers and kilograms, and downloading an app to figure out how much I need to lift.

Plain and simple, if there is no one in your room to let you back in.. you will remember your keys. If you don’t have service to map your way home, you’ll find the confidence to ask someone. And most importantly, if you don’t have the comfort of your American friends, you will make new friends, learn different things, and be far more trusting. You will let go of instincts you’ve long held onto, which is both incredibly hard and wonderfully rewarding.

I’ve found it much easier to feel connected to a city if I arrive on my own. There’s a certain camaraderie between Prague and me. Taking the tram or metro successfully gives me a rush of confidence and pride; empowerment in knowing that I figured it out by myself. The friendships I already have feel deeper to me because they were made out of affection, not out of necessity. The people who have helped me here did so out of the kindness of their hearts, not because they had to as members of my cohort.

A really cool part of this is that the friends I’ve made in Prague were a result of my own decisions and choices. I decided on my own that I would like to take a French class, and as a result of that, I made friends who spoke French and were eager to help me learn. The experience defined the friendships, whereas in Florence, often times the friendships would dictate my experiences. I would take classes because my friends were in them, go somewhere new because my roommate was, or choose a certain restaurant because someone in the group was tired of pasta. Going solo, I am open to exploring my own preferences– even if none of the friends I’ve already made are interested in those same things. I’ll make different friends, and I know this because I’ve done it before.

The people and experiences here are authentic in ways I’ve never experienced before. I’ve met people here from over 50 countries, each bringing their experiences, music, food, language, and culture with them. This not only makes for interesting conversation and hilarious intercultural jokes, but also forges friendships that force me to see the world a different way and take a better look at my place in it. It was a huge revelation to discover I was the only person in the room who spoke only one language, or who had insight into American politics. I embraced the discomfort at first, and I’m glad I did, because now I’m thriving and spend every day surrounded by people from all around the world.

Most important, I have learned new things about myself. I’ve discovered that I like spending time by myself. In fact, I love it. Taking a few hours alone at one of Prague’s vast array of coffee shops, finding new bakeries, and going on runs are my favorite things to do here. It’s taught me that even though I’m extroverted, I don’t really need to depend on anyone, which is so empowering and makes the moments you choose to be with someone so much more special. In less than a month, I have learned how to make a life here. I didn’t realize how valuable this skill was until I needed to develop it, but it’s the one I’m most proud of.

In a cohort, so much time is taken in what I call “the big study abroad things,” like partying, eating out, and traveling. All of these things are really fun, but  they constrain our time, energy, and money if we do them too much. Traveling solo allowed me time to figure out for myself and by myself what makes me happiest, and how to incorporate my life back home into my new life here. Even though I’m here for new experiences, my life should have the same stability as it did back home. For everyone this looks different, but for me it’s about working out, reading, writing and cooking. It gives me something familiar and comforting to hold onto when I get a bad grade or forget to pay my rent on time, and most importantly, it gives me a bond to this city.

Both cohort-based and individual-immersion study abroad experiences have their pros and cons. Cohorts can lead to dependence just as traveling solo can lead to isolation. Cohorts can strengthen friendships and traveling solo can strengthen our independence. Both experiences can challenge me and make me a better person. 

Living Plant-based in Prague

Blog

Last summer before my semester in Prague began, I spent some sleepless nights tossing and turning in bed with the question all vegan foodies ask themselves before traveling:

“What on earth am I going to eat?”

I’d been reassured by a professor that Prague was extremely vegetarian-friendly and abundant in fresh fruits and veggies, with farmer’s markets everywhere. I was excited by the prospect, but still uneasy about the gray area between vegetarianism and veganism. My only close experience was at Kent State Florence (Italy), but I’d only been vegetarian at the time during my semester there. Eating was a breeze with margherita pizza and caprese sandwiches everywhere, but upon recalling Nutella brioche piled high in the windows, I was anxious that uttering the word “soy milk” in the Czech Republic would send shock waves throughout the city (a tad dramatic but I’ve seen some adverse reactions in the United States).

Fortunately,  I had very little to worry about. Armed with research and a few restaurant recommendations, I stepped off the plane only to be greeted with “Vegg Bars” every few streets, and coffee shops offering a wide variety of alternative milk products. Most quick snack shops offer pita and hummus, raw pastries, and other creative options for a quick bite.

While I find grocery shopping for the first time in a new country difficult (so many rules, so little time to stuff all these groceries into my bag), the grocer right down the street from me was a good place to start. I began with basics, because reading Czech labels isn’t a strong skill for me yet, so I stuck with fruit, tortillas, beans, and frozen vegetables. Venturing out farther, I discovered larger markets have more plant-based products than an average Kroger or Acme, including food I’d never even known could be vegan, like chocolate pudding, yogurt, and stroopwafel (a Dutch waffle-like cookie). Walking down the Alpro (a popular European plant-based company) aisle is a vegan eutopia.

Traditional Czech cuisine is very meat-centric, and most articles in the local press cite the vegan trend sweeping Europe as the reason for adding more than fried cheese to the vegetarian section of their menus. A few years ago, the Internet informs me, my life would have been much harder and I would probably be eating those frozen vegetables several times a week. However, the vegan trend hasn’t been specific to central Europe, nor is it solely focused on plant-based products. It’s also been a push for substantial, quality food, ingredients plainly listed, and more allergen warnings on menus and labels.

One of my favorite aspects of vegan restaurants here is that they’re quick, ordering is easy, and the prices are pretty cheap. Many are buffet-style, like Veganland and The Loving Hut, both of which have multiple locations around the city. The average meal is under $5 (USD) and has a homemade feel to it, so loading up on kung pao stir fry, sweet potato chili, and ratatouille is a great option for busy evening classes.

Casual eateries like Burrito Loco and hot dog stands list their vegan options proudly for tourists and exchange students like myself. Festivals offer their own varieties of national dishes and are quick to label themselves the “cruelty-free stands.” Events around Prague appear to be competitions to see which local business can put the best plant-based spin on tacos or  burgers. Between raw bakeries (my favorite!) and Mediterranean bistros, food has become an easy way to connect with students and locals alike. Many young people, internationals and locals, identify as vegan or vegetarian, helping me make friends very easily at my school and form a quick bond with Anglo-American University’s fun-loving chef (I’m known as “bagel and hummus girl”):

“You’re the no-dairy girl, right? Are you coming to the barbecue this weekend? These vegan burgers are going to be amazing.”

AAU even has a vegan cooking club, and made sure there were plenty of options at orientation, like veggie and hummus sandwiches, soy shakes, and fruit. Student workers in the cafe at AAU are quick to offer me different options if the soup of the day contains milk, and even get creative because they understand what it’s like to eat vegan. I never fail to smile when the student working in the cafeteria offers me a vegan brownie she specially made and was saving for our group.

I was asked frequently before leaving the U.S. whether I felt like I would miss out on cultural experiences because of my diet choices. I did consider this question a lot and weighed my values, which I always consider a healthy thing to do, but found that the benefits, for both the environment and myself, outweighed the experience of trying meat and cheese for a few months. Beyond that, yes, it’s important to experience Czech culture, but veganism itself has become apart of Czech culture. It’s about more than food. It’s about bonding with locals and other global students who care about animal advocacy and human rights issues just as much as I do, which feels more meaningful and more impactful than going out for gelato with friends.

It’s also become another factor that motivates me to separate from the group and get out on my own. I don’t mind asking a waitress to hold the butter, but asking a group of three or more people to walk out of their way to a pizza place that doesn’t use egg in their dough for me just doesn’t feel right. My friends here have been curious about what I eat and even times opt for the vegan option with me, which is a great aspect of my culture to share with them, but sometimes being the odd one out does require walking a little out of my way. This has resulted in some quality time alone and even better food discoveries, including the best peanut butter pie I’ve ever had, and cute cafes that make their own pita and hummus (a perfect study snack).

When it comes to dining locally or going to a new restaurant I haven’t researched, reactions from locals are usually understanding, but when I inquire about a dish’s ingredients, I’m sometimes met with a frown and occasionally, an ominous “life here is going to be very hard for you.” Fortunately, this reaction usually comes from the very traditional, older locals who don’t quite understand, but are usually willing to help me find something on their menu I can eat. One major and favorite find was a restaurant called Vegan’s Prague, which uniquely offers traditional Czech dishes like goulash and svičková (dumplings and meat in sauce), but with a vegan twist.

So while I do stay away from tourist restaurants listing 10 or fewer dishes, as well as very traditional Czech eateries, most of the time I don’t need to put that much thought into what’s for dinner. There are a few quirks: don’t order plain rice. I had a giggling waitress check up on me at least three times to make sure I thought it was good. (Seriously.)

To all my concerned friends and family who wonder if I’m eating enough: I have more falafel than I do problems. I’m eating very well, thank you.