AIFS Abroad Photo Finalist!

I am so honored to have been selected from thousands of submissions for the 2016 American Institute for Foreign Study photo contest!

I, along with 19 other students, are now in the final round of the competition, where we depend on viewer votes to win. Please, head over to AIFS’ Instagram or Facebook pages to like, comment on, or share your favorite photos!

Even better if you choose to Like mine! Thank you all for your support, it is much appreciated!

AIFS Photo Contest
Click above to vote for my photo on Instagram!
AIFS Photo COntest 2
Click on the above image to vote for my photo on Facebook!

Sights, Sounds, and Senses.

There really is no limit to the things I can say in support of studying abroad and international education. In the months since my return, I have been increasingly inspired to advocate every student take the opportunities and explore the world. Not only will you gain a perspective of outside culture, you will gain a new perspective of your own. It sounds cliche, but study abroad surpasses anything taught in classes and anything read in books. It must be seen and heard and felt to truly understand its impact on your life.

While I may not ever fully encapsulate and explain the magic, adventure, and marvel at living in a foreign country, I can do my best to inspire and share my experience in hopes of fostering yours.

Recently, I created a motivational video montage as part of my AIFS Global Scholar Program, and I wish now to share it with the WordPress world at large. Please visit YouTube to watch the video. The audio credit goes to Kevin Schmitz, for an excellent remix of Cecilia and the Satellite.

Video Image
A screenshot of my YouTube video.

Additionally, right now there is a huge  campaign underway encouraging more students to study abroad during their undergraduate career. If you are considering a semester or two overseas definitely check out the #GoStudyAbroad webpage, and apply for generous scholarships which will definitely help you make the most of your overseas experience!

Assimilating in Salzburg

For over a month I have been living in Salzburg, and while there were rough beginnings, I can now say I feel at home.

Last week I traversed the streets of old town, looking at it not through the tourists’ gaze but through the eyes of one who lives here, and I have to say, it was one of my greatest feelings yet on this overseas experience. I noted with appreciation the efficient progression of the construction in old town, I swiftly maneuvered through alleyways and narrow streets directly to my destination, deftly avoiding flocks of tour groups marveling at the baroque architecture and stopping to photograph Salzburg’s massive –and beloved- fortress.

I know when and where to find the buses I need, and more importantly, when they stop running. I accept the weather is at best unpredictable, and mastered the art of dressing in layers. Indoors, it is always too hot, and outside, too cold. I respect that native Austrians will not smile at me directly on the street, but have learned smiling at their dogs will get me a nod and a look of appreciation. I need not be reminded the stores are closed on Sundays, and therefore diligently complete my shopping on Saturdays. I realize no server or restaurant staff will ever rush me out the door, and if I want to leave, I best request the check.

Overlooking the city from the north facing wall of Festung HohenSalzburg.
Overlooking the city from the north facing wall of Festung HohenSalzburg.

When I walk I am careful to avoid hogging the bike lanes, and always keep an ear open to the dinging bells warning me of their approach. I know when crosswalk lights start blinking it is a good idea to pick up the pace, and when it’s red I better hold up. I now know what it means to wear sensible shoes, packing flip flops and stilettos was an absolute waste – blisters turned to calluses and pedicures are a thing of the past. I never complain about hoofing it up hills, I realize a true mountain always awaits on the other side.

While I often feel separate from the crowd due to the language barrier, I do not mind the solitude. I know enough to get me by, and if I am confused I follow the body language and subtle ques of those around me. The time I spend in public without the overwhelming drum of conversation to distract me is something I value very much. Without interference, I can truly appreciate this land, my surroundings, and the culture. Without hearing, I feel the heartbeat of the city, the very pulse of Salzburg. It flows around me, through me, into me.

I am home.

Reflecting on my Arrival

I am now three weeks into my semester abroad in Austria, and I can confidently say life is finally –thankfully- settling into a routine. It sounds cliché, but the time really flies. It seems like only yesterday I lugged a hundred pounds of I-can’t-live-without-it luggage halfway across the world into a country I did not know, into surroundings I could not navigate with people I barely understand, but I am now here, I am settled, and I am ready to proclaim victory over my fears and concerns.

But it was not always so easy, so idyllic. To those of you reading this post in hopes of gaining understanding of what it entails to leave behind your home, your family, your friends, your pets, your towns, and your schools, I will not sugar coat. There was heartache. There were tears. There were profanities, and certainly, there were doubts.

I began my journey with an optional group excursion offered by my program, AIFS (the American Institute for Foreign Study), to London, England. I thought this would be an excellent place to begin my Austrian adventure since my ancestry is, aside from Austrian, English. However, this turned out to be one of the most exhausting weekends of my life. Jetlag was never overcome, and the miles I walked through London’s streets in a mere 36 hours put blisters on my feet I only this week fully recovered from. I did meet many of the people I would be studying with, but many of us were in the same position: We were tired, miserable, exhausted, nervous, stressed, and oh, did I mention tired? Truthfully, the weekend now seems a blur of sightseeing and deprivation, but I will save the details of this for another post, at another time…

Back to Austria.

After an unforgiving 3am wakeup call in London, my exhausted group boarded a plane headed for Munich, which eventually led to a bus taking us to our new home, Salzburg. Regretfully, the day was overcast with drizzling rain, the all too perfect-unperfect weather to match the mood. I had requested a home-stay, and only discovered on the bus I would not be placed in an Austrian home. I was devastated; months of planning, and all my packing, revolved around me living in someone else’s house. For whatever reason, AIFS withheld our housing information until our arrival, so only at the last minute was I made aware of my immediate future of unprepared-for dormitory living. My mood was as gloomy as the afternoon, and it showed no signs of getting better after a brief taxi ride from the city center to my new dorm.

The building -which shall remain nameless- was dark, rundown, and evidently unloved. Entering the lobby through an entrance overgrown with ivy? Weeds? Vines? All of the above? The wet odor of mold, mildew, and emptiness blasted my senses. If not for my exhaustion and my need to drag a hundred pounds of I-can’t-live-without-it luggage, I might have run screaming from the building at that very moment, but I held it together out of desperation and hope. Perhaps there was a mistake? A misunderstanding? Alas, I knocked on the office door and introduced myself to a pleasant woman, and sure enough, I was home.

Thankfully, there was an elevator, which whisked me efficiently to the top floor of the dorm. At the very end of the hall I found my room. Or most of it, in bits and pieces, anyway. The door was wide open, and I discovered a sparsely furnished, dusty space, with bare what-I-call bus-station bench twin size beds. My mini fridge was wide open, the shelves missing –but not totally so, it took me only a moment to find them freshly wiped down and perched upon and into my toilet. The bathroom light did not work, which was for the best, since the darkness kept me from spying the mold thriving in my shower until the next morning. I was grateful and thrilled to see I had a balcony, and with relief threw open the door to let in the fresh air. Unfortunately, this space was also neglected, as I was met with dirty lawn chairs, sun-bleached beer cans and overflowing, soaking wet ashtrays. My only respite was my view: the incredible sight of Festung HohenSalzburg, sitting mightily on its mountain. This famous and beautiful landmark was one of the attractions to lure me to this city, and now, it was my oasis, my reminder, my relief. Defeated and depleted, I sat on my bus-station bench bed and sobbed until I could sob no more.

The next day I was consumed by efforts to make better my stay. I spoke with the AIFS office, and thankfully they saw to it my accommodations were cleaned and repaired over the course of several days. My nights were lonely and uncomfortable. Without the internet, I was cut off from the outside world. My sleep suffered, a week into my stay I was lucky to be getting three hours a night, but always there and always steady was my oasis, my fortress high upon the hill. I learned others too had problems with their housing. They have no elevators, they require two minute showers, they are far from the city center, or they have tiny closet kitchens.

None boast a balcony. None have my views. None see my sunsets.

My Romantic nature was slowly building steam, gaining strength and revitalizing me. I hosted a group dinner for my new friends in my spacious kitchen and felt, for the first time in a week, happiness and contentment. Relationships formed buoyed me through my loneliness, and kept me afloat during long nights battling ancient Ethernet connections and moldy walls. I could not run and abandon my plans to study abroad, so I made the most of it.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Today, my dorm is still the hot spot for group dinners and social gatherings at sunset, although still boasting the same run-down and mildewed walls. A once unknown city is becoming all too familiar thanks to my oasis, my central beacon on the mountain. I learned my university is far closer to me than the home stay I once desperately desired. I am making friends in my dormitory, who, like me, find comradery in our unloved building.

The fortress high upon the hill
The fortress high upon the hill

Three weeks in, and the trials and tribulations of my first days are all but a memory. On weekends, I travel with friends to museums, castles, rivers, lakes, and towns. On weekdays, we attend classes. Coursework and homework distract me from the mold –which I hear will someday be removed- and life has become a comfortable routine of normalcy. I now have no regrets, except that I let myself be so overcome with grief those first few nights. Lesson learned: when in doubt, stand strong, and like Festung HohenSalzburg high on its mountain, you will never be conquered.

Hallo from Austria!

Well, it has been a while… several weeks to be precise, but here I am, ready to post on the first days of my overseas experience. There is much to say, much to discuss, and yet still more to discover, but for now I will highlight my overall first impressions of studying abroad in Austria.

Thus far, living in Europe is both everything I expected and everything I never expected. I knew coming here would be a giant leap out of my comfort zone -and it is- I spent months researching Austrian culture to prepare for such an adventure and inevitable culture shock so I have not entirely been knocked of balance, but there are certainly a few uncomfortable daily struggles I was not quite prepared for. They are as follows…

First, much to my surprise, it appears the European Union may very well be the black hole of WiFi services in the developed world. Don’t get me wrong, many locations and establishments boast wireless availability, but do not expect them to be consistent, reliable, or efficient by any American standards. My super new high-tech devices struggle to find and keep signals, and getting booted by run down, over used connections is an everyday reality now. While my study abroad program assured the students internet connections would be available in the dorms, this is a stretch and a long shot. Even now, a week and several phone calls and complaints later, the connection at my dorm is spotty at best, and nonexistent at worst. Not exactly an ideal situation for someone trying to blog and complete online courses. I am ashamed to admit much of my free time my first week in Salzburg has been spent at McDonald’s, the one place I can find with WiFi services reminiscent of those at home. Frustration and disappointment overwhelm me, I did not travel halfway around the world to work at a McCafe!

My advice to those preparing to study abroad? Bring your older technology, make sure your computer has an Ethernet port, and forget about running anything newer than Windows 8. So far European high speed technology reminds me of America five plus years ago, so be ready. Buy stamps and calling cards. Pray. Dance. Do whatever it takes to get connected when you must!

Next, and this caught me by surprise considering I believed I was coming to the land of coffee aficionados, is the inability to actually find a coffee. I am one of those first thing in the morning drinkers, the kind who can barely think straight without a caffeine fueled kick-start. Uh-Oh for me! Most coffee shops nearby in Salzburg do not open before my morning classes, making it incredibly difficult to gulp down a coffee or two before my day begins. I walk, I bus, I hunt down the nearest places… only to be given tiny portions of my favorite beverage. Another fact: Nowhere yet in Austria have I found a to-go cup even half the size of the ones in America. To those like me, be forewarned: You will not find a 32 ounce big gulp of flavored heaven anywhere in the foothills of the Alps. Just forget about it, start drinking red bull, pack your coffee maker from home, or be prepared to buy one here. The only other option to satisfy your needs? You guessed it… McDonalds. And even still… the large is a medium and the medium is a kid cup.

Two scoops of vanilla instead of Ice!
Two scoops of vanilla instead of Ice!

Are you into iced coffee? Well, unfortunately, you can forget about that too. In Europe, ice cubes are as nonexistent as the WiFi. You can order an ice coffee, and while I guarantee it will be the prettiest coffee you ever saw, it will certainly not come with the watery cubes Americans know and love.

Adaptation is necessary to survival, and I am adapting -albeit rather sleepily- but it has been slow going. Luckily, the land and the culture here are beautiful beyond words, and distract me from the technology and comforts I long for, but more about that next time. Until then…. Auf Wiedersehen!