If I have any advice for college students today, it would be to travel and study abroad. It was by far the best thing I did while in undergrad. There will always be classes you need to pass or credits you need to take to graduate but nothing surpasses the once-in-a-lifetime experience of living overseas, taking classes and traveling.
In January ’06, my second semester junior year, I packed my bags and moved to Florence, Italy for five months. I spent my in time taking classes and traveling. I even got credits that counted towards graduation! When classes were over, I traveled solo for a day or two to meet my friend from the states in Barcelona to begin our four-week backpacking exploration. Often times we saw cities by day and slept on overnight trains by night. Together we traveled to 13 countries: Spain, France, and Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, France and back to Italy. I could write pages upon pages about each country I visited but that will be another day.
When In Rome… Warning, cars in Rome are crazy! Do not make eye contact with the driver or you will find yourself in a race for your survival to reach the other side. I saw cars and mopeds driving on sidewalks and speeding through very narrow cobblestone streets. There is even a name for the madness – Roman Roulette. You can’t escape art in Italy, it is everywhere; from the floors, the walls, the cracks in the walls, the ceilings, the fountains, and just about everything, is covered in art and/or sculptures. I can’t even describe the feeling you get when you walk into a vast room with nothing but intricate art and paintings from floor to ceiling. The architecture is like nothing I have ever seen before and everything is so rich with history. Nothing of the kind can compare in America.
Visiting the “Ghost Town”: If you go to Italy, I highly suggest making the trek to see Pompeii. Pompeii is a town near Naples that got buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. I remember learning about this in history class, but to see it up close and in person was mind-blowing. People and objects were preserved just as they were at the time of the eruption. It continues to be the #1 most visited archeological site in the world. Pompeii reminds you that life can change in a split second and to enjoy the most out of it while you can.
Adventures in Switzerland: The first time I went to Switzerland I went night-sledding with a 106 fever and tonsillitis. I dunked my face in the snow and powered through it! Night-sledding is a night activity where you sled down a windy mountain playing follow-the-leader, except because it is night, you can only see the glow stick around the neck of the person in front of you. The second time I went to Switzerland, I returned on a mission. I wanted to Skydive! Yes, I jumped out of a plane at 1100 feet! The scariest part of the entire experience was the anticipation during the plane ride up to the jump point. And just like that it was over. The adrenaline kept me going for days and I felt like I had a permanent smile plastered on my face. It was the most natural high you can possibly experience. I have never felt more alive! I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Lessons learned from studying abroad:
1) I had more of a culture shock returning to The States than I did arriving in Italy. In fact, I found myself a bit depressed for a few weeks upon my return. One thing I noticed is that everything in Europe is old, I’m talking centuries old, rich with history and art, while America is so young and modern and everything is new! In the life of history and cities, America is just a toddler. Columbus came to America in 1492 but Pompeii had already been destroyed centuries earlier in 49 AD. Crazy, right? As Americans, we think our technology is advanced, but man, are we wrong. Just look at ancient European cities like Rome and Pompeii. They didn’t have the machinery to build their homes and buildings, only slaves, yet they still stand strong today.
2) In Europe, everything is laid back and runs at a much slower pace. You have to ask for your check when you’re ready to leave a restaurant, they will not bring it to you. Everything is so fast paced in The States. Hurry here, do this, do that, fast food, the hustle bustle, urgent world of needing everything Now! is exhausting. This was really hard to adjust to when I returned.
3) America really is a super-sized country, both in our egos and our food. The thing about the food in Europe is that portion sizes are so much smaller. We have fast food joints on every corner in America. Our food isn’t as fresh and our single portions are enough to feed a family! No wonder we’re on the fast track to eating ourselves to death. It is beyond disgusting. Oh my mouth is salivating just thinking about all the scrumptious fresh food in Italy!
4) Talent and intricate art is everywhere there but nothing of today compares to the talent Michelangelo, Raphael or other Italian artists. In generations to come, what artist will we look back on and study?
5) Transportation in Europe is much easier and cheaper than in The States. I learned that it is possible for me to pack minimally and only live out of a backpack. I quickly learned there is something very freeing and liberating about traveling solo or even with a friend in a foreign country. I learned that I can get around Europe on my own. Knowing I could conquer obstacles and rely on only myself to get around was empowering, satisfying and a very rewarding experience. I learned a lot about myself, increased my confidence and helped me be more independent.
6) Have no regrets! I wanted to going skydiving but my travel buddy did not. We split up and each did our adventure activity that we wanted to do. I also wanted to visit Auschwitz so we took a train, hours out of our way, to make sure we had no regrets.
7) No education can teach you more about cultures and yourself than living abroad. I am a far more cultured and well-rounded person for having these experiences. The world has so much to offer, it is important to get out of your bubble and experience new places and things. Be sure to take these experiences by the horns and don’t be afraid to go for a ride of your life!
The Best Of – little pointers to help you on your way:
The Best Gelato: Gelateria on a street right off of Trevi Fountain called Della Palma Gelato Di Roma, in Rome, Italy.
The Best Pizzeria: Restaurant called Yellow Bar, in Florence, Italy.
The Best Weekly Music Bar: Bar called Be Bop with a Beatles cover band every Tuesday, in Florence, Italy.
The Best Most Authentic Italian Restaurant: (and most delicious) La Giostra, in Florence.
The Best Advice Regarding Travel: Travel is nothing like it is in America. Travel is a breeze in Europe. Use trains and cheap airlines (as low as $10!), however, avoid Ryan Air at all costs. It is okay to be spontaneous and last minute.
The Best Kept Secret Beach Spot: Elba – off the coast of Western Italy.
The best Advice to Backpackers: Enjoy every minute of it! Don’t worry about the calories in the pizza or gelato. Take pictures of everything. While I am all about being financially responsible, remember this is a once in a lifetime opportunity – don’t skimp out on the photographer when you go skydiving. You will want those memories preserved, I promise! When backpacking, bring clothes you can mix and match and re-wear. Take advantage of the overnight trains but be sure to sleep with your backpack on you at all times on trains and in hostels and bring a travel bed sheet and quick dry towel for sanitary purposes. Be on the lookout for pick pockets and scammers.
The Best Advice to Students Studying Abroad: Immerse yourself in the culture. Try not to be a tourist – rather live how the natives live. Don’t get caught up in the world of the Internet or missing home. Home will be there when you return. Keep your passport somewhere safe! Enjoy and live in the moment! Don’t put anything off, make sure you do and see everything you can! If you study somewhere that has a foreign language, take that class to learn the language. Challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. And be prepared for experiences and memories that will last a lifetime!