We all heard this as we were about begin our freshman year of college: “These will be the best years of your life!” I believed it…at first. After becoming involved on campus and going to events, I still felt like something was missing. I craved more adventure and wanted to find out more about myself. I heard many older students on campus talk about studying abroad and the amazing experiences they had in another country. I realized this was the adventure I had been yearning for. This was my chance to explore, learn about other cultures, make mistakes (not regretful ones, but ones that help me learn more about myself), and get out of my comfort zone.
Studying abroad in Madrid helped me become the person I am today. It helped me become aware of other cultures and brought me to understand how different everyone in the world really is. Being in a diverse city like Boston, these lessons are crucial in daily life, because you never know who or what you will run into in this concrete jungle. Even though I had numerous people help me prepare for the culture change, the experiences I would have, and the people I would meet, I still wish I had known some more specific tips before traveling abroad. That is why I want to share them with you. Now you can have the most amazing time like I did…but even better.
1. Pack Light: This might sound scary if you are spending part of your summer or even a semester abroad. You’re going to want to bring everything you own and more. But in all honesty, you don’t need it. You will do shopping, not only in the city you are studying in, but in the places you travel to as well. Plus, not all of the clothes you already own will be culturally acceptable in the place you are going. I know from my experience in Madrid that people are always dressed up or in business casual attire. You do not see people walking down the street in workout clothes or yoga pants. The outlets are also different in most places outside the US, and if you can skip bringing that straightener or blow dryer, it makes it even less for you to carry. Usually you can pick them up cheap at different convenient stores in the country you are studying in. If you’re lucky and the place you are staying is occupied by students studying abroad all year, they sometimes end up leaving things behind. Even wait to buy shampoo and conditioner until you get there…unless you need a certain kind of course.
2. Bring empty, mini travel bottles: This is a small hint, but a very useful one. These will be helpful for weekend getaways. Most schools in Europe or the U.K. area have four or less school days a week. This means you will have plenty of time to explore other places on the weekends. We all know that when we are traveling, we do not always want to bring huge bottles of shampoo or conditioner. These little bottles will allow you to just bring a little product from the big containers and save a lot of weight in your bag. Remember, the fam isn’t there to help you when you’re tired.
3. Do not try to mimic your life from back home: Let go of old routines and habits. If some classmates want to go to a museum or go get sangria after class, just do it! Obviously do not let your grades slip away, but don’t resist adapting the routines of this new culture. One of my favorite things about Madrid was how much they loved food and how eating was a whole experience within itself. At a meal you would get three courses, and you would just sit outside and enjoy the company of the people you were with for an hour or two (sometimes even longer). There was no rush like in the US.
4. Getting lost can be a blessing and a curse: Getting lost can bring you to a whole new side of the city, and this is a great way to learn about the area you are in. You will feel more comfortable about where you are. The curse part is getting lost when you are trying to meet people or get to class. Don’t freak out. Just stop, take a deep breath, and think about the amazing place you are in. Just ask someone (who looks decent) how to get to the place you are going. Worse case scenario you tell your professor or friends you got lost. Usually they will understand you are new to this area.
5. Homesickness will wear off: You will be overwhelmed with the time change, the sense of feeling lost or isolated, and getting adjusted to your new surroundings. Don’t worry, it will go away in time, and soon you will be packing to go home wondering where the semester went. Just know that during all the craziness you’re going through, you need to take time for yourself. Meditate, read a book, watch a movie, whatever you need to do to comfort yourself. This is essential so you don’t get too overwhelmed by the culture change, school or whatever other feelings you may be going through.
6. Keep a journal: It only takes about ten minutes each day to at least jot down what you did. In 20-30 years you will want to be able to re-read all of the amazing things you were doing abroad. You may forget something you did that was very meaningful for you. This will give you the opportunity to relive such moments because you had written them down.
7. Download the Viber App: As long as you are connected to Wi-Fi (or “we-fee,” as they say in Spain) you can call or text your parents and friends back home through these apps. I found that it was much easier than Skype or Facebook. There is just something about hearing a friendly voice that will help you if your homesick or just bring a smile to your face. Plus viber is free. Other free international calling apps include WhatsApp and Tango. Make sure to download them before you leave the US, because sometimes you aren’t able to download them once you are abroad.
8. Sort out relationships before you leave: Having a significant other when you are abroad can be…how do I put this nicely…restraining. You are constantly thinking about that person and wishing you could share these experiences with them. But unfortunately you can’t because you don’t have cellphone service 24/7. Jealousy and trust can also become big issues, especially be when communication is restricted. If you have a significant other when you are departing, you should have all the trust in the world between the two of you (literally). Honestly, studying abroad is the true test to see if the relationship will work out in the future, because your communication skills with each other need to be extremely strong. To me, traveling when you are single is the best way to go. You do not have to answer to anyone, and you can just do you. Not having to buy gifts is also a plus.
9. Some Must Brings:
Travelers Scarf: Easy to wear when cold, and you can take off when it’s too warm and wrap it around your backpack or purse.
All-purpose jacket: Self-explanatory, and you never know what weather you will run into.
Pictures: Something sentimental to help you if your homesick or just missing the fam.
Sleep Mask/Ear Plugs/Neck Pillow: Not only for the flight there and back, but also for any traveling you do during your experience.
Hanging, Water Resistant Toiletry Bag: Many places in Europe are shared so this is an easy way to not take up counter space and it is easy to take on the go when traveling.
Passport Holder: Not only does this keep your passport safe, but also other important documents like train/flight tickets.
Power Adaptor: It is best to get one that is world universal in case you travel to another continent in the near future. That way you’ll get your money’s worth. (HINT: Ask for some of these things as presents if you will have celebrations before you leave).
10. Do your RESEARCH: This is extremely important. Make sure you spend at least one day before your trip looking up things you want to do or places you want to go. When you do this, you can also look up customs and acceptable social behaviors. If you have a friend going with you maybe you can plan a weekend trip before you get there so it is cheaper. If you need to pick up products or supplies when you get there, research some places where they can be purchased. Definitely look up the area you will be living in. See if you can find the post office, police station, and a nearby café. Discover the general area and spots so you do not feel too lost at first. Once you get there you will likely be too overwhelmed with everything else to take the time out to research the most logical places to go. You should also ask friends who have studied aboard (particularly in your destination) for their best advice on places to go and things to see.
11. There is nothing like flying over a country at sunrise: I got so excited when I saw the sunlight peaking over the side of the world, shining its light on the new adventures waiting for me. It was beautiful and magical. There is nothing like seeing the day starting out from 10,000 plus feet above the world.