Why I Too Am A Traveler

This week I read an article (or maybe it was another blog) about one person’s opinion of what the phenotype of a girl who loves to travel looks like. It was an enjoyable read and carried a cute message in the end, but I ultimately found that I didn’t entirely see myself in the girl it was describing. But shouldn’t I if I too am a travelling girl?

The writer claimed that travelling girls are free spirits and easy going…. Well I’m not. I make plans like it’s my job and I love to stick to plans, uninterested in spur of the moment adventures. However, I think that makes me just as much of a travelling girl because I make my plans months in advance if possible, I plan for every pitfall, look at all of my options and then I do my very best to stick to that plan. That certainly doesn’t make me a care-free travelling girl; it makes me a travelling girl who knows what she wants and will do exactly what it takes to get herself to that place. I believe a travelling girl is a determined person.

The writer went on to suggest that a travelling girl is somebody who didn’t really follow her heart in college, so has wound up in strange jobs like teaching yoga instead of using her degree. Well I’m a travelling girl who is tapping into my love of the far corners of the world by majoring in international relations. For me, a travelling girl is a person who has found her passion and pursues it through studies as well as travel itself- being an informed traveller can be even more valuable than being a whimsical one.

A girl who travels doesn’t like money… welllll yes and no. Not valuing material things is a spot-on evaluation, but I have to acknowledge that flying accross the ocean or just flying from one end of the US to the other is insanely expensive. And then you have to pay for a place to sleep.

So I am a travelling girl. Yes I am a dreamer, but more importantly I have the determination to travel to those places I dream of. So soon I will be in Madrid because I followed my heart and my head. Also at the top of my list down the road is Machu Pichu and although it’s a distant dream now I know I have the determination to make it happen because I am a Travelling Girl.

So what do you think makes a traveller?

Home away from home

It’s funny how some things can be different, located thousands of miles from home and filled with strangers, and yet be filled with a complete sense of familiarity. Last night I went to a local shabbat service with two of my friends from the abroad program. We were all rather tentative, but the experience turned out to be the highlight of my week.

Although the service was conducted in French and the melodies were different, there was indispensable staple that you find in any Jewish service that infused the whole thing with very familiarity: hebrew. The singing was different (far more powerful than I’m used to- possibly a hallmark of just this particular community), but the words were the same ones that I learned as a child in Upstate New York. My friends and I were able to sing along with ease and reap the same benefits that we do in the States.

Additionally, this community was filled with the most welcoming people I have met in France. The moment we walked in the door they all wanted to talk to us in a whirlwind mix of English and French. They wanted to know whether we were reform or conservative and offer us a place to hang our coats. I think we were there for just ten minutes before they offered for us to do the candle lighting (for non-jews: an honor at the beginning of friday night services). We hesitantly accepted and nervously led the prayer when the time came, clumsily adjusting to one unfamiliar custom in the process and feeling enveloped by the warmth of the community.

I only caught about 20% of the sermon, but I think it was very interesting as the rabbi spoke about the holocaust, which has a particularly interesting local history in the Alsace region. However, I don’t know when he made a tradition to speaking about slavery…

After the service, familiarity again washed over us, as a woman came forward and insisted that we stay for some food. Of course we couldn’t say no, so we sat down to a mix of jewish and french foods and engaged in more mixed language conversation. They were all very eager to talk to us and couldn’t have been kinder. When the food was gone, the rabbi brought the prayer books back out and asked us to lead a couple of American melodies. It was terrifying at first (my singing voice is not exactly award-winning), but when everybody else joined in, it became quite enjoyable.

After having spent over two hours with the Strasbourg liberal Jewish community (liberal is everything except orthodox in France), we finally excused ourselves. Directly outside the door, one of my friends exclaimed, “Can we do that again?!” And I had to agree with her- we’ll be going back. It’s hard to resist such inviting people.

When running errands is not a five minute task…

I didn’t even grab a basket on my way in to the store. I really wasn’t going to buy much and it wouldn’t take me long… or so I thought. I’ve run small errands hundreds of times back home during the past few years (It seems to be intricately entwined with getting a license), so I really didn’t think it could be all that different or challenging just because I’m in France.

I was wrong. I think I spent a half hour in the store just to buy six items (and three of the items were identical to each other!). It didn’t take long for me to realize that although the language is not too challenging, I do need to beware several other factors.

The first problem cropped up when I let myself fall prey to stereotypical views of the French. I didn’t see women’s shaving cream. It should be right next to the men’s right?! Or near the haircare products in the next aisle. As I stood staring at the men’s options, I started to be convinced that French women simply don’t use shaving cream…. So I groaned to myself and selected a men’s brand (how different can they be?!). It was with a strange mix of relief and embarassment that I stumbled across the sparse array of women’s shaving cream five minutes later. I snuck back to the men’s aisle and put the first bottle back on the shelf when nobody was looking.

Once more assured that France is not really so different, I moved on to the second floor of the store. The idea of study abroad is after all to study (at least occasionally), so I needed to buy myself three more notebooks. Another easy task, right? This time I was truly thwarted. Every notebook in the store was filled with the spasmodic and horrifying little boxes that make up graph paper. I’m quite certain of that fact because I think I opened every notebook in the store in my fervent search for basic (American?) lined paper. I was stubbornly determined to find my preferred paper- it’s easier to write on with the wider lines, less painful for the eyes, and simply what I am accustomed to. It was not destined to be though, so i am now the regretful owner of three horrific graph-paper notebooks.

My last task was not challenging in terms of culture shock so much as simply learning to be a self-sufficient individual in a foreign country. I’ll be staying in a hostel for a brief period a month from now, so I need to have a lock. I didn’t realize that my choices would be quite so varied! Do I get one with a key and then worry about losing the key? And isn’t that type more easily thwarted by lock-pickers? But the combination locks were substantially more expensive and require me to actually memorize numbers- not my strength. The choice was further complicated by a rating system for level of security provided by the lock, ranging from one to six, with two and three being the most prevalent. I was about to make my selection when I realized that some also had little pictures that indicated that they’re perfect for luggage, backpacks, or lockers. My hesitation was brief though and I came away with a level three key-opperated lock and renewed determination not to let anything terrible happen while I travel.

If I can adjust to French products and organization as well as make my own decisions all in one place, then I might just be ready for solo travel when the time comes!

On a side note, this was all accomplished in Monoprix, which can be best described at the French Walmart as it had a little of everything at decent prices, but I can happily report that it maintains a slightly classier level than that staple of my own culture.

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Inter-Europe travel and the true meaning of being overwhelmed

Life is full of choices and when you’re studying in a delightfully centrally located European country (France for those of you just tuning in), the prospect of selecting a route to travel for nine days is both exciting and terrifying. So many choices and so little time!

For reasons that still remain unclear to me, my spring break here is during the last week of February (long before any flowers will be brave enough to call it spring!), so I need to begin planning and booking my trip because I have just one month before I will be benignly kicked out of my Strasbourg housing. Students are scrambling all over our Abroad center, finding travel buddies and coasting through the web to book all the best flights and the cheapest hostels from Lisbon to Kraków.

For me the prospect of traveling essentially anywhere in Europe is like offering a child the full array of Willy Wonka’s factory… and then telling that child to take only as much as she can fit in one palm. I want it all, but when forced to choose, I’ll have to go for quality. So I set my heart on Madrid and began planning, assuming that somebody else would think a city with such vibrant night life would be a great idea…. Alas, it seems that in my overeager fervor I may have gone about things in the wrong order. I now have an exciting Madrid and Lisbon itinerary planned, but nobody to travel with. Lacking the bravery to go it alone on my first adult-free foray outside of my own country, I think I need a travel buddy.

Which returns me to the chocolate factory, now nearly salivating at the possibilities. Process of elimination? Some students are going to Central Europe, but I dislike their intended travel pace and intend on going there on my own after the semester anyway. At least one person is headed to Ireland, but I’m shivering at the mere thought of heading further north without a proper coat. Others have thrown around the appealing idea of Greece. And then there are the music students. They’re a part of our group, but a little separate as they take classes at the conservatory. they keep to themselves a lot, but I have the great fortune of pre-existing friendship with one of their number who has introduced me to the others. These delightful non-classmates can’t resist the temptation to go to Italy, home of the best violin shops on the planet. And who could resist Italy?! So tomorrow begins phase two of Spring break planning… perhaps.

The options are overwhelming, but not nearly as overwhelming as the thought of being locked out because I didn’t book my trip soon enough!

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Adjustment and other foreign concepts

I will be living in the home of a wonderful French woman for the next four months, eating her amazing food and sleeping in a comfortable bed that is many times better than my dorm bed back at Syracuse. Based on those factors alone, adjusting to life in Strasbourg ought to be easy, liking slipping into a romantic movie. However, under the thin veneer of both cultures being of the “Western”, one quickly discovers that there are simply some factors that are harder to adjust to.

First is the shower. Americans love showers. We stand under the hot spray and think, we luxuriously rub in the shampoo, and we are like the steam. Some of us spend up to twenty minutes in there! The French don’t necessarily dislike showers… but they see it as a much more utilitarian point in the day. They clean themselves quickly and get out. They do not invest in fancy bathrooms because they simply do not spend much time in there. My host mother made sure I knew on the very first night that Europeans are very concerned with not wasting anything, especially electricity and water. Therefore, the next morning when my alarm blared, I felt my way toward the bathroom through a pitch black hallway, wanting only to use a light for the room I was presently using, and then took the fastest shower of my life. Perhaps I took things to the extreme of her expectation, but I didn’t want to act too American!

And yet… I’m sure I stand out. My French is passable at best, so although I order in French at the restaurants, I quickly slip into English if I need to ask further questions and even when I speak French I must have a heavy foreigner accent! I even wonder suspiciously if somebody just looking at me in the street knows that there isn’t a drop of French blood in my body. Clearly they’ll know when the map comes out… but when I’m walking… Do I greet people with a nod, a smile? Do I ignore them altogether? How obvious will my American status be if I just want to wear my running shoes one day because they’re comfortable?! Would they find it silly that I’m highly bent on buying myself a chocolate eclair tomorrow?

Perhaps I shouldn’t care so much about these details, but to me a big component of studying abroad is attempting to assimilate into the surrounding culture. It’s the best way to see life from their point of view. For that reason, dinner with my host mother is one of the best parts of my day. Talking to her can be eye opening in small ways.

Hopefully, at the end of four months, I won’t be asking these questions anymore. Perhaps at the end of four months I’ll be happy to answer these questions for future study abroad students.

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Culture shock

Anybody who has left the United States is familiar with culture shock. When you travel you encounter “the strange” and wacky in the form of toilet oddities, new foods, and different social customs. I’ve felt it before, in varying degrees, but now I’m reaching a point where I consider myself well-travelled and a strange phenomena is taking place wherein my degree of culture shock is significantly less than it has been on previous occasions. I’m growing comfortable outside of my own home and I’d like to think of it as progress toward being a global citizen.

My decrease in culture shock on this trip is helped greatly by this being my third trip to Europe and at the moment my second trip to Amsterdam specifically. I’m quickly adjusting to the people, leaping into the foods, and finding myself utterly unfazed by the toilets (especially when I recall how I struggled with the toilets in China).

However, there are still little details that catch me by surprise. For example, Holland is currently ranked the country with the highest average height. Either they hadn’t yet attained that rating the last time I was here or I simply didn’t notice how that manifested itself in the buildings. This time around, I have observed ways in which the country caters to extreme height, which hasn’t been easy for me considering I fall well within the short category at a petite 5’00”. It’s most obvious in the hotel room with light switches that are put in the wall at just above my eye level- an uncomfortable reach- and shower heads that can be adjusted to comfortably fit a 7’00” man. And yet the stairs in old buildings are very narrow… so did the Dutch people magically grow over the decades? At least this is one episode of culture shock that I can laugh off while I try not to get hit by one of the numerous bicyclists!

Half a week ago in Paris I also had a small dinner time episode of culture shock (Food surprises are surely the most common aspect of culture shock!). I’d had escargot before and I knew I like the French delicacy, so it was with gusto that I ordered it before my meal. But I never imagined that I would be given a strange torture-device-looking-implement and then given a plate of the delicious snails… still in their shells! I used the tools I was given to pull it out, laughing as I did, but the surprise was hard to shake off!

Culture shock in this diminished form has made the welcome shift from causing home-sickness to the role of being amusing. I doubt it will ever really go away, but I’m happy that the adjustment has become easier!