1. Introductions, 2. Going places, 3. Wayfinding, 4. Communicating, 5. Quotidian life, 6. Books (1), 7. Authenticity, 8. The "art" of travel, 9. Great good places, 10. Books (2), 11. Genius loci, 12. The comfort of strangers , 13. Epiphanies, 14. Tips, 15. Farewells
Hemingway is a claim to fame here. It almost feels as if any bar or restaurant that dates back to the 1920’s has the authority to claim that Hemingway spent time there, and there are plenty that do. It’s interesting because Hemingway might be internationally known (well is actually), but Madrid was chock-full of important intellectuals during the pre-Franco, 1920’s. In fact, based on what I learned this semester, 1920’s were probably Madrid’s artistic and intellectual hay-day. We’re talking Dalí, Buñuel, Garcia Lorca, Einstein, Marie Cure, really big cats.
The Sun Also Rises gets at this Bohemia of sorts, although it revolves around a group of Americans (there main interaction with Spaniards centers around relationships with the Spanish bullfighting culture). Lady Brett is much like the early 20th century ladies of Spain, of whom I learned this semester. She is like the protagonist of César Arconada’s “Mujer Vestida de Hombre,” she goes out and is social, independent, and knowledgeable of the world; in essence she is a vanguard. Brett’s character is complicated, swayed by the affection of men, which is not of the style of early 20th century Spanish women. Still you can see their character in her. Undoubtedly, Hemingway met many of these prominent Spanish women during his travels in Spain; they could not have helped but make an impression.
The funny thing about the Sun Also Rises is that it touches on some of my favorite spots in the city. Reading it feels familiar in a comforting way. For example, the popular Madrid restaurant/landmark, El Sobrino del Botín and its suckling pig appears in the novel. Most things are nicely familiar except when it comes to the discussion of the bulls. I have not been to Pamplona, true, but I have been to Las Ventas, one of the remaining Spanish holdouts for bull everything, and I saw what I thought would be a running of the bulls. I suppose I can see why Hemingway would find the ceremony of it intriguing or curious, and worthy of some thought. I, personally, found the actual event, which is still very much historically intact, somewhat cruel and unnecessary. It is, however, certainly a symbolic of Spain’s preoccupation with masculine virility, a theme that appears in the novel.
Is it poetic that I am writing this final post from Prague’s airport or is it pitiful?
The last few days have been a whirlwind of activity emotions for myself and my friends. We celebrated our final night in Prague approximately three times. There was a mix of sadness, for the obvious reasons, excitement about returning home, and probably a good dose of regret: regret at not visiting certain sites, missing the opportunity to travel to a certain country or city, or for a meal that will have to wait until ones next time in Berlin or Prague. (But perhaps not only the undone things, but even the nights remembered, or those nights whose events cannot be recalled.) I would imagine there has been a fair amount of self-reflection and even self-doubt: in a program as small as Prague’s, there’s extra pressure to get a little misty-eyed during farewells (even if they happen on the gloomy dance floor of Cross Club) and to make promises like “we’ll see each other again soon on the other side of the pond.” Don’t fear, dear reader: I am planning to keep most of these appointments.
A few of things I will miss about Prague include the cheap price of groceries and thus-far unparalleled affordability of beer, and Castle vantages when my daily tram crossed the river, as well as the Czech language, which, when muttered, is as ticklish as a bushy Slavic mustache. Listening to the podcast of This American Life while being very much not in America or touching base with the day-to-day drudgery of American politics by watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (commercial free?) have been curious reminders of the digital, hyper-globalized world that I am apparently studying. I’ve had a hard time brainstorming what I will miss less. ‘GMail assuming that I read Czech’ is more a minor quibble, and the throngs of tourists that clog Old Town Square is an overly obvious complaint, though unfortunately, the journey that my friend Dan and I are taking for the next few weeks will bring us through some of Europe’s other most highly trafficked tourist cities, including Paris, Florence, Venice and Rome. (Any last-minute advice?)
Though its a week late, an extra realization that’s dawning on me as we plan our jam-packed itinerary and gradually lose the mindset of being ‘settled’ in Prague is that everyone travels quite differently. Some people (like Dan and I) will try to see literally all of Paris’s great museums in a day, racing from one to the next only because of the novelty afforded by Nuit Des Musees – the night when many are open until midnight or 1am – but many others will prefer hours of people watching in cafes, or strolls through the Jardin Luxembourg. My experiences travelling this summer in Europe have made me more aware of the similarities of landscapes city-to-city and so ideally, I’ve prefered to maximize my time that which can be more challenging to experience (if not altogether grueling) but which cannot be replicated elsewhere. It’s no surprise that this has often been in the artworks and music of the place, with the occasional local night-time haunt, but in the future I’d like to try to focus on the natural beauty outside the city proper, as well.
It’s been a pleasure getting to know a little bit about the people behind the icons and reading your reports here on the site, and I hope you’ve enjoyed skimming my own. I wish you all restful summers, and hope that maybe we can have a reunion (IRL), once we are back in New York. As they say to end cell phone calls all over Europe, Ciao ciao!
[My photo, as usual. Illustrating the crush of tourists that have descended on the square. A sight I will not see for a while now. It was so much fun to walk in that gap they left at the front and take pictures of the crowd...]
On the eve of my departure from Ghana, I am plagued by many reflections. My time here has been an experience unparalleled by any other in my life. When I came to Ghana I unknowingly embarked on a journey that would teach me more about the world than I imagined possible. Everybody told me: You will change so much. Traveling is such a life-altering experience. You will come back a different person.
It’s not that I didn’t believe that I would change, but I had no idea as to how I might be different. Would I come home to America and scoff at the luxuries and commercialism, having gained a newfound appreciation for all things rural and poverty-stricken? Maybe I would find a deeply rooted passion for our Homeland Africa and reject the notion of spending my life anywhere else. Or perhaps I would learn that I am an American princess who cannot deal with lizards and insects in mud huts and the absence of running water in my home.
Instead, what I have learned is that I am independent and capable, curious and thrill seeking, but sensible and contemplative. I discovered these tools within myself that have enabled me to travel all around West Africa, a region of the world that is completely opposite from my home. I have befriended persons that would have previously been dauntingly foreign to me, and grown accustomed to relying only on strangers and myself.
I have learned the truth in the cliché: the world is full of possibilities. Moreover, I now know that I have the ability to take advantage of those opportunities. Nothing is too foreign, too uncertain, too far away. In fact, the experiences in which I have sought out the unknown have been by far the most rewarding.
Traveling to rural villages in the East of Ghana, to Burkina Faso, and the Northern Regions, I had a recurring out-of-body experience. I would look around at the villages, wild goats and cattle roaming the red-brown dirt on the roads. Then at my method of transport: at best, a visibly aged trotro bumping over the pothole-ridden roads; at worst, piled into the back of a van driven by a Burkinabe man who speaks not a word of English, feeling the burning heat of the malfunctioning engine as we speed down dark, deserted dirt roads in the bush. I depend upon and utilize these uncertain means, and survive.
I took this picture at Mole National Park in the Northern region of Ghana. It is one example of the breathtaking, unbelievably awesome things that one can see through travel.
I’ve been leaving for a long time now. At least twice a year for the last 6 years I have moved, picked up all my belongings, put them in suitcases, and boxes, and trash bags, carried them home, to a home which is only barely mine now, more symbolic and sentimental than practical. I’m what you might call a perpetual leaver, and it never used to bother me before. When I was 15 and first decided going to boarding school would be a good idea I never thought about the consequences; how it would affect my family and friends, or my adolescence. I was talking to my old roommate about this last weekend while I visited her in Barcelona. We’ve been stuck in a holding pattern for a bout 6 years now because there isn’t a great difference between boarding school and college. A couple fewer rules and little more distance, maybe, and less class, that’s about all. I didn’t feel some radical “going away to college” shift my freshman year, but I’m feeling something now.
The longer you’re in this holding pattern the harder and stranger it is to get out. I knew I needed something different, and that’s a lot of the reason I decided to go abroad. I thought it would be a big change that would help me to feel like more time had passed and get me ready to start transitioning out of college. That’s not quite how it worked.
My family is moving on now. For the first time they are taking their own new adventures. My brother is off at college. My mom is selling her house and moving to California. My dad is going to be living with his fiancé while they look for a place on the Cape. I’m so excited for them, but at the same time it’s strange because now instead of having a choice of whether I want to grow up or not, I have to.
Being a senior means making real decisions about where I’m going to live and what I want to do and the type of person I want to be. Study abroad helped me with at least one of the three. I know I want to be a person who lives as fully as possible, as hokey as that may sounds. And I want to live in the way I want to live. I want to give myself chances and opportunities, and I want to push myself hard but also cut myself some slack. It’s only just dawned on me that I am no longer sharing control of my life with my parents. From here on out I make all the decisions.
So I made a permanent decision. I got a tattoo. It was something I’d actually been thinking about for a long time, but I have issues with permanence; I’m always concerned that I’ll regret the decision later. I didn’t exactly say fuck the consequences, but I made a deal with myself that I didn’t want to live basing on my decisions on future regret. If you live wisely and richly you might make mistakes, but I’m not sure you’ll ever have regrets. That’s the life I want for myself and that’s what I discovered here in Madrid, so I got the word vividora (an older Spanish word, which means something a long the lines of an epicurean or a bon vivant) tattooed on my foot. I’m not sure I love it yet, but I certainly don’t regret it and I’m proud of myself for being decisive in my own life.
I want to thank the people in the class for listening. It was really nice to have a place to vent, explain, or work through everything that was going on during my time abroad. Learning about your experiences not only opened my eyes to the diversity of study abroad experiences, but also to possibilities for my own. I think I appreciate Spain much more having had to write about and having seen reactions to my experiences. I guess all I can say is that I really appreciated this class and everyone in it.
This experience has been… oddly life changing. I mean, I expected it to be life changing, but the ways in which it has changed me are definitely things that will stay for a while. Thinking about doing things on your own never really quite feels as hard or as anxiety inducing as when you actually do have to do things on your own. I am 100% glad I had this opportunity to come and figure out learning on my own and navigating a new city without the aid of my GPS on high speed.
It feels so weird to say that it’s all over! After taking my last final yesterday I think I can properly reflect on the academics of it all instead of focusing on all of the social changes that happened throughout the semester. The Art of Travel has definitely been a really cool experience, and I’m glad I was able to find out about it! Blogging about everything that’s going on while having direction for our thoughts has put a lot of little facets of life here into perspective. I realize I definitely appreciate my ability to navigate the city more after the navigation post!
As excited as I am to go home in a few weeks (I’ll be travelling for a while throughout Europe), I know I will miss certain aspects of life here in Paris, and I will definitely try and incorporate some of that in my life back at home. It’s not as cumbersome to bring your own bags to a supermarket as I thought, so that will definitely be a change in a greener direction for me. I will miss hot baguettes on virtually every street corner and the really cool window displays at the Gap (seriously, the Gap here is really fashion forward for some reason. Why can’t they sell some of this stuff at the one at home?).
It’s hard to say what I might remember years from now, since it’s often odd details we keep with us instead of well-rounded memories. I hope I will remember this feeling of independence I feel now, and I hope I remember my appreciation for having a comfort zone. I can get pretty down on America from time to time, like most of us do, so I hope I can remember the appreciation I feel now for it.
It was really amazing getting to know you all. Hearing about your adventures everywhere helped me to feel like I was a part of something awesome. Really! I know most of us don’t know each other’s names/really know what each other looks like, but I know at one point or another we will see each other in Gallatin whether we know it or not. So see you all back in New York!
Picture is not by me, but it is the obligatory Eiffel Tower picture!
Still, saying farewell is overwhelming for me. I’m still writing essays, still meeting with friends, still trying to cram this city into my experience. And, of course, I’m denying that I have to leave on May 29th. I feel a compulsion to purchase house plants, food staples, tea cups, the things you purchase at the beginning of the semester when the nesting urge kicks in. But, obviously, I can’t. I can still run around Berlin like I’ll never leave, still go out to Hisar near the S-Bahn for döner or to that thrift store on Potsdamer Strasse to complete my second-hand Dirndl ensemble, but reality will always follow.
Oh, Berlin, the things I have learned from you. Yes, I could opine about German history, identity, and society, but I won’t. I have to write about these things for all of my other classes. But, honestly, there are things I’ve gained from this city. First and foremost is the ability to love a place and still be highly critical of it. I recognize that I have idealized my home in Oregon, but being in Berlin has put me in a position in which I cannot idealize where I am. This city wears its shame on its sleeve, for it has to. I’ve had to look Berlin’s imperfections in the face, and hopefully I’ll be able to bring that back with me to Portland.
And I have really begun to see, to feel, to understand the privilege of being an American, an undeserved privilege one gets for no reason other than one’s country of origin. I remember the predominance of the English language at the Berlin International Film Festival (catering not to British film professionals but largely to Americans). I’ve seen how English has become the lingua franca for cross-cultural interactions due to American cultural and economic imperialism. Even though I speak German, I could very easily get around without it, save for “danke” and “entschuldigung”. It’s as if the rest of the world, especially in these metropolitan cultural capitals, has to learn how we communicate, while we can just sit back and enjoy the privilege of keeping inside our little American boxes. We export our culture, but are not expected to import that of anyone else. Our movies reach millions of eyes worldwide, our songs millions of ears, pushing out other, non-American possibilities. And, honestly, I think this is wrong, disturbing, and lacking the beauty that cross-cultural interactions ought to have. But I also don’t know how to change it. Maybe it’s in the little things, like learning the language and using it, challenging the need for others to bend to our needs. Us Americans have it far too good in this world.
But it is this understanding, combined with all of the other wonderful things I’ve experienced here, that I really and truly love about being in Berlin. Still, I think back on what I’ve done, and my first reaction is to say that it isn’t enough. That it could never be enough. The other night, some friends and I had a conversation about leaving. We talked about how long we could imagine ourselves in certain cities: a friend who studied in Prague last semester said she could spend maybe almost a year there; I said I could deal with a few years in New York. However, we decided that we could stay in Berlin indefinitely. Indefinitely. Whenever I think about the trip home, that word echoes in my mind.
At the same time, though, I’ve done quite a bit. I danced to drums next to people spinning fire poi; I participated in a renowned film festival; I waltzed to German polka at a burlesque show; I took walks to nowhere just because I could; I faced some of the ugliest facets of humanity at Sachsenhausen and the Haus der Wansee Konferenz; I picnicked with good friends, homemade bread, and sunshine in Berlin’s parks; I danced to ska at a (very Berlin) goth bar; I laughed and talked and cried on the U-Bahn, breaking the unspoken “transit quiet time” rule; I lived here. And, for the next couple weeks, I will still live here.
So, Auf Wiedersehen, dear Berlin. I truly ache when I write that. But I cling to that little linguistic shred of hope – the possibly of actually being here again.
Dear fellow bloggers and Professor Hutkins, thank you for coming on this journey with me. Your thoughts have been wonderful, and it has been fantastic to see what all of you are doing and how you react to each other. See you back in New York!
The picture above is, quite honestly, nothing fancy. It's just a lovely little park near my apartment in which I've spent some time. While the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm are fine landmarks, my heart clings closer to places like this park.
[The image is of tortilla española, cerveza and olives, the Madrid bar scene staples]
It is a sad process, leaving a place. Especially knowing that you probably won’t be coming back in the near future. A lot of the memories we’ve made are engrained in this place, and in shared experience, which makes it difficult to explain to people unless they had been here at the same time and with the same people. That is why I am SO glad I have been in this blogging class all semester. Sure, it was a painful at times for me to reflect seriously on some of the experiences I went through; sorting out my feelings, and picking the proper anecdotes to explain them was more challenging than I expected. However, I am so glad I took the time to pause and write. Now I have a catalogue of memories to look back on that I may have otherwise forgotten. It is good to be able to look back and see how you felt being in place—to see what was going through your head at the time, like reading a diary entry you wrote years ago.
The one regret I have about study abroad is that I didn’t take advantage of just walking around the city. I don’t really regret not seeing specific places, because those will most likely be here when I get back, but more, just being in the moment and being aimless. Of course, there were moments, but I wish I had acted aimlessly more.
Typing this, I actually feel, for the first time, like I am actually saying bye to Prague, and it is bittersweet. I am excited about free water at restaurants, and the energy of NYC, and seeing my friends and family back in the states, but I also am going to miss the laidback but fun atmosphere of Vinohrady, and the awesome teachers who taught me more about life than any others that I have had, and the people I met who were willing to take last minute trips to the middle of nowhere with me. If I could take anything away from this experience, it would be that you can truly make a home anywhere—as long as you are willing to help build it.
Thank you so much for a great semester! And Steve Hutkins, for a great class!
Overall this has led a very new relaxed version of me. I don’t worry so much about things out of my control, and I don’t constantly think about what will I be doing this summer, next fall, next year, after I graduate, 10 years from now etc... I hope I can take this point of view back home with me and I certainly hope I can remember this relaxed feeling in New York where so much of my time is spent being stressed about something.
One thing I hope I can remember is my grasp of the English language. One of my friends who likes to read my blog posts pointed out to me that my writing skills seem to have diminished or at least taken on the form of an educated ESL speaker. On the one hand I’m very proud that this is noticeable, it means I’ve probably been spending an adequate amount of time speaking Spanish. On the other hand I’ll need my writing skills back when I’m taking Gallatin courses which in my opinion are harder than any other courses at NYU particularly in comparison to courses at NYU-BA.
Finally I invite you all to come introduce yourselves in person to me next semester! I spend a lot of time in the Gallatin student lounge and I also, publicly announced today, will be your Gallatin Student Council senator. You can come to me with any complaints or suggestions or compliments about Gallatin and I will listen intently and do my best to help! I look forward to an excellent semester with all you next fall, and again, I look forward to meeting you.
A word on the photos: i’ve noticed that some people have avoided posting pictures of themselves while i’ve posted many featuring myself. I swear i’m not a narcissist! I just think including pictures of me gives my blog a more personal feel and allows you and other readers to connect more. Just a theory. This photo is me at Iguazu falls. The NYU program took a trip there recently.
Living in Ghana has been nothing short of a wild ride. I definitely hit each and every one of the “stages” of cultural adjustment—at times thinking Ghana was the best country in the world and at times wishing I was anywhere else. I’ve grown tremendously by learning about a vastly different culture and being weaned off of some of our “1st world” amenities and luxuries. I’ve made great friends (both Ghanaians and Americans) and had incredible, once in a lifetime experiences. I’ve gone across bridges over the canopy of the rainforest, played in the base of a waterfall, stayed in a rural village, “backpacked” through other parts of West Africa, gone to Ghanaian night clubs, balanced mortar on my head, worn traditional African clothing, sang my national anthem in front of a bunch of Europeans, implemented a grasscutter project, eaten foods that I’d never heard of before coming to Ghana and so many other wild, bizarre and fun things. And as I am getting close to the end I’m panicking a little bit (and at the same time wanting nothing more than to leave), feeling like, even with all of the great things that I did, I still didn’t do or see enough. At the same time, I can’t help but hear the Twi phrase yɛbɛhyia bio —“we will meet again.”
When I lived in Mississippi was not at all aware of the opportunity that I had there. The fact that I was getting an entirely unique experience that would influence and be with me for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until after I had left, disgruntled and frustrated because of the stress cause by my job that I realized how attached I’d become to that small, rural town. I missed Clarksdale desperately after I left and found a way to visit again within my first semester in college. I can’t help but feel, even know that Mississippi has a special pull on my heart (one that has tugged even harder since being in Ghana coincidently enough) and after being just a little bit older and a little bit wiser, I think I can see, even in my adamant disdain for Ghanaian time and this overbearing heat, that Ghana too will have that special pull on my heart. I don’t see myself coming back here within the next year, but truth be told I can’t imagine that at some point in my life I won’t be back. Ghana, I think, has become too much a part of who I am, and even when there are times where I curse the entire country, I think it is a place that I’ve grown very connected to. The reasons for this are unclear to me. Maybe it is part due to the fact that it is much like the American South or maybe it is just because the people here are so hospitable or it might just be because I have actually lived 4 ½ of my so far very short life here, but I think it is safe to say that Ghana is now very important to me. I know that back in the states I will be cooking Ghanaian meals, listening to Ghanaian music, wearing my Ghanaian clothing and nostalgically looking at my Ghanaian photographs wishing I could go back. It’s too early now, to say for what or how long I will come back to Ghana, but I feel like based on my experience here in addition to my goodbyes, I can confidently say, “Ghana, yɛbɛhyia bio.”
(This image is one of me and my rural homestay mother and father...this was definitely my favorite weekend in Ghana and I think it is in part representative of why I want to come back!)
2. Travel in Spain. One of the most incredible things about studying abroad in Madrid is its location in the dead center of this amazing country. Buses are cheap, 30 euros, and Madrid is 5 hours at most from any magical corner of Spain. Bilbao and San Sebastian in Basque Country, Granada and Valencia (and the Mediterranean coast) in the South, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (the NW), Santander in the NE, and of course Barcelona in the East. The options are truly supreme. Each region in Spain really thinks of itself in a very autonomous way; when you ask a Spaniard where they are from, they don’t say, “I’m Spanish.” They say, “I’m Andaluz,” or “I’m Gallego.” Each region is fantastically different, in climate, topography and food, and all are beautiful.
3. Enjoy the free (or cheap) life. It just takes some seeking out. My favorites:
Tabacalera, an alternative cultural/arts center in an old tobacco factory that hosts a ton of free workshops in anything you can think of; dance, art, music. I’ve written about that place quite a lot in previous posts. Even just go for 1-euro beer or coffee and do your homework (free wifi!) in the wonderfully funky café inside.
Hare Krishna temple, on Calle de Espiritu Santo in Malasaña: Free delicious vegetarian dinner at 8:30 on Sunday nights, and cheap lunch at 3pm every day.
Caixa Forum and La Casa Encendida: Two Spanish-bank sponsored galleries, both free, and both beautiful. There is an incredible vertical garden in front of Caixa Forum, and a great wifi café on the roof of Encendida. Fantastic spots.
Boteón: This is the word for the concept of drinking outside on the street, or often in plazas (the small squares scattered all over Madrid; one at least every three streets). People sell beer on the street for a euro, and there is nothing more fun than hanging out outdoors on a nice night with the entire young population of Madrid.
Calamari bocadillos: Calamari sandwiches, 2-something euros. Don’t doubt their goodness. In the same vein: Döner kebap, but only in Lavapiés, the barrio where you’ll find the most authentic kebap shops.
4. Get out of the NYU bubble! Go up to people in bars, and introduce yourself. This isn’t weird, just friendly. You’d be surprised how worthwhile swallowing your pride/shame/vergüenza etc. can be.
5. Speak Spanish! Always. Sometimes people won’t understand you, but try to explain what you mean using other Spanish words. It is worth the struggle and any embarrassment that might occur. You’ll be happy you did within a month. Really, you’ll be shocked at how much you’ve improved.
Madrid, it can be said, is a bit backwards; in fashion, in food, in politics, in life style. But you’ll find it endearing soon enough. I loved this city, and you will too. It takes a little while, though. Let it grow on you. Come the end of the semester, you’ll be planning how to get back in the future.
[The photo is of Plaza Dos de Mayo in Malasaña, one of the best boteón spots, and a generally beautiful place to spend a sunny afternoon.]
This is the longest amount of time I have ever spent away from home let alone out of my native country. And at times it may have been hard for both my close-knit family, and me, yet, I think it has helped me gain more independence and confidence in being on my own. I am the first person in my family to have ever studied abroad, but I really hope I am not the last. I think being on my own, without the prospect of taking a bus back to my home in Pennsylvania where my family resides, times was a little more than intimidating, but I have begun to overcome that fear and the separation has also helped me to make a new home here in London.
Now the roles seem to have changed, and leaving is going to be harder than staying in London, my home of the last 4 months. I am not leaving till the 21st and I am already having fits of nostalgia for all the wonderful things I have done here.
It’s going to be hard to leave my family of friends here, the friendly atmosphere of Bloomsbury, the history of the city of London, and my room in Byron Court where all my friends live down the hall, downstairs or across the room. Even so, more than being sad about leaving I am proud of everything I have accomplished this semester.
Between staying on top of my schoolwork, cooking and cleaning for myself and making new friends, I have managed to travel throughout Europe, volunteer, and explore London and England and the history they hold. I know that when I go back to the U.S.A. I will look back on this experience as an amazing time, but also an important accomplishment in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, it will be great to get back to certain comforts of America, the familiarity and the things that I really miss there (like the U.S. Dollar, the exchange rate is definitely something I won’t miss from here). But London you will always have a piece of my heart!
See you soon Amurica! X
Image: Earlier in the year we hosted an American-themed party to celebrate the things we missed the most, some friends and I found these "classy" American Pride Sweaters in a chain store here!
1. It is okay not to leave your study abroad site city all the time. Seriously. It is. I know students who left Berlin nearly every single weekend, and they barely spent any time exploring the city. Of course, for me, the decision to limit travel was partially financial, which is totally valid, too! Sometimes being at NYU can make you feel like everyone else has so much available money, which can be pretty alienating. But don’t worry! There are plenty of people who can identify with having financial difficulties! And the place in which you’ve chosen to study is probably pretty awesome as well. Being in Berlin on the weekends is truly wonderful.
2. Take walks. Of course, exercise due caution regarding where and when you walk. But, still, take walks. Take walks not knowing where you’re going. Take walks with a map in your bag and the desire not to rely on it. Take walks without listening to music. Take walks in (rather than “to”) places you don’t know. Take walks and breathe and smell and feel where you live. Just take walks. I tell myself this to get me out of my room, since I can tend to be a homebody. This is a pressure-free way to GET OUT and enjoy the city.
3. Go to Schlecker or Rossman (there’s a Schlecker across the street from the Kulturbrauerei, near Konnopke’s Imbiss) for normal “drug store” type things (toothbrushes, shampoo, condoms [because I’m interested in your sexual health and safety], soap, and so on). Go to an “Apotheke” (pharmacy) for medicines. Yes, you will have to ask the pharmacist for over the counter drugs like ibuprofen, and the crotchetier ones may ask you why you are requesting painkillers. I propose giving the most embarrassing explanation possible loudly and confidently.
4. If you are, for some reason, stuck in the dark ages and don’t have online banking set up, fix this immediately. It is the only practical way to keep track of your finances abroad. Also, some American banks have partnerships with other banks internationally that will make it so that you don’t have to pay extra fees when withdrawing from these banks’ ATMs. For example, Bank of America has a partnership with Deutsche Bank, which means that you B of A customers are lucky, lucky people (Deutsche Bank is EVERYWHERE). Credit/debit cards are not very widely accepted in Germany, so have cash on you.
5. Don’t expect to suddenly make tons of friends from the country you’re in. Remember: you’re at an NYU site. Having pre-departure fantasies of drinking coffee in cafes with your fancy European friends is totally fine, but expecting this to happen by virtue of being abroad can lead to disappointment.
6. In relation to that last one, it’s always productive to try to reach out of that infamous “NYU bubble”! Go to events you’re actually interested in (instead of just going out to random bars). Participate in the language tandem program! Just make sure you’re doing things that you would want to do in the first place, rather than just focusing on meeting people. It’s more fun that way, and you’re more likely to find people you’d actually have something in common with.
7. Take that class with Martin Jander. You know you want to. He’s fantastic, and he’ll take you on fun field trips. He loves the zoo, double-decker buses, and the news. Refer to my blog post on him to realize how wonderful this man is.
8. Check out these places: Balkaymak (Turkish restaurant) and Maharaja (Indian restaurant) in Schöneberg; the Märchen Hütte (after dark, of course); Brecht’s East German theatre, the Berliner Ensemble; Ostbahnhof Flea Market; the 6th floor of the department store Kaufhaus des Westens (it’s the food hall); Wild at Heart, if you’re interested in bars with retro themes and burlesque shows; Kreuzberg in general; Schlachtensee, a lake in Berlin; lastly, find a Tchibo coffee shop and try to tell me that this isn’t one of the strangest business models ever.
9. You can love where you are and still be critical of it. I suppose this should be expected of me, since living in Berlin is like being hit over the head with German history every day. But no matter where you are, it’s important to be able to see what is not quite right about the place. Of course, it’s also important to see the positive, wonderful aspects of your study abroad site, and to cherish these. Sometimes we Americans have a tendency to be hyper-critical of our own nation, but then idealize other countries too much!
10. If you’re coming to Berlin, be ready to have your assumptions challenged. Even me, the Germany-nerd, had to face a lot of surprising, wonderful, or disconcerting facts about this place. Come with a desire to learn, to grow, and to soak up this place. Know your privileges, know the stereotypes or idealizations you hold, and try to address them.
Many of these seem kind of “woo-woo” and over-general, but I really hope you can find something useful. You may love Berlin, you may not, but really try get to know it. It can seem huge and crazy and complicated, but you can always try to wiggle into its nooks and crannies, to get deep into the mud (metaphorically, of course) of this city. OH! And a final mini-tip: learn the German. Feel the German. Love the German. And try to speak it so the cashiers at Rewe will stop complaining about American students!
The photo above is of the U-Bahn leaving the station in Berlin. The Berlin transit system is a beautiful thing.
1) Don’t bring high heels
This may seem like a very small and insignificant detail (especially if you are a dude), but I think it is an important stepping stone to understanding Czech culture. Of course, there are practical reasons not to wear high heels in Prague—they are not compatible with cobblestone, nor are they a comfortable for that 4am walk when you decide you are done waiting for the night tram—but they are also just unnecessary. In general, the Czechs dress very casual. Even out at night, clubs and bars alike, I see many people sporting jeans and a t-shirt. Coming from New York City, where you see people with Manolo Blahnik’s at sports bars, this is a huge change. So, to gauge Prague on a New York scale, I would suggest you dress like you are going to a rooftop party in Brooklyn. In general, I think you will find the going-out atmosphere in Prague more conducive to singing Czech drinking songs than to shaking your booty to Beyonce, however, there is surely a place for both in such a diverse city.
2) Skip the KFC
The temptation of American fast-food chains in Prague is ever-present. There are about as many KFC’s in Prague as there are Starbucks in NYC (and there are plenty of Starbucks here too). I am not saying that you shouldn’t indulge your cravings once and a while, just that you should always try to expand your horizons. I mean, when else will you be able to order pickled sausage with a side of bread dumplings and a Pilsner? Prague has many “authentic” Czech restaurants on the major squares, but I encourage anyone who is coming to Prague to avoid even these, wander the side streets and find a place that sees less foot traffic. I guarantee you will probably get better food, for a cheaper price, and be given better service. The best places I have been were often last minute options when we got lost on our way to a restaurant that got rave reviews in some guidebook. It is easy to fall into a routine once classes start and visit the same places over and over out of familiarity, but I think it is important to try to go somewhere new at least once a week. Eating in Prague is relatively cheap, so (excuse the stupid pun) you can afford to
3) Don’t travel in Groups…. (of five or more)
My first trip of the semester was to Vienna, and although it was a lot of fun, it was also very frustrating. See, I went in a group of 11 people, and every time we wanted to go somewhere we had to practically hold a tribunal to try to decide what we were going to do. Traveling in a huge group is hard unless you all know eachother very well, and no one has a problem splitting up. This was not true in my case. Since it was the first week, no one had really formed any solid groups of friends, and it seemed like we were all too scared to break into smaller groups because we didn’t want to miss anything. Traveling in a big group is hard mostly because of the logistics of fitting 10 people into small places. Visiting big, public spaces, like the museum, was fine, but for dinner we had to call places hours in advance to make reservations, and oftentimes they were unable to accomodate us. Then, as far as going out at night—forget it. Finding space in a bar for 10 people is near to impossible. I know that at the beginning of the semester, nobody wants to leave anyone out, but I suggest that you try to break up into smaller groups, just to make the decision making process easier. With a smaller group you have much more freedom to see the things you want to see, without compromising for the sake of the group, while still having people to share it with. At the same time, make sure you schedule some valuable alone time, either in Prague, or maybe even a solo weekend trip. Traveling alone is a great way to get to know a city in its purest form, without distractions of conversation. Plug in your ipod and take a walk, or jog around a park, or take a tram you have never taken before and see where you end up. Plus, there is the added confidence boost that comes with traveling alone, being able to navigate a foreign city is a valueable skill that will continue to be helpful, both home and abroad.
4) Get to know your professors
Yup, this one sounds lame, but I think one of my favorite things about the Prague program are the teachers. I swear, about half of the NYU Prague staff played a crucial part in the Velvet Revolution—there are dissidents, student rebels, scholars—not to mention that the director is pretty famous here in Czech Republic. They all have amazing stories that they are very open and willing to share, and that will definitely make you look back painfully at how little you’ve accomplished in your 20 years on the planet. Being in Prague, with such small classes (my biggest had 8 people!), has really opened my eyes to what it means to learn. While some of the teaching styles are a bit unconventional, they alter your sense of reality in a way that doesn’t happen in New York. I have done much less passive learning here, and more active thinking—about myself within the context of what I was being taught. They are not lessons that will fade over the summer, but things that have now become a part of who I am.
5) Join a club
I had never been involved in student government before coming to Prague, but I thought student council would be a great way to meet new people, and be able to influence the events here in Prague. Well, I did get to organize events, but the people I met in student council ended up being the same people I hung out with anyways. That being said, being of student council together has brought us much closer, and allowed us to do and see a lot of things that we wouldn’t have otherwise—and for free! I also volunteered to tutor English at CTU—a local university. That was by far the most immersive thing I did during this semester. I met people from all different countries, and although I was supposed to be teaching them, I ended up learning a lot in return. I wouldn’t have learned how Czechs interpret animal noises (“moo” becomes “bu”!) or how different we interpret the word “menu,” if it weren’t for that class. Joining a club or activity is the best way to interact with a culture in a physical and sociological sense.
At the same time as I am writing this, I am torn over whether I want you, mysterious reader, to take my advice. I think that the best way to learn a city is by making a few mistakes. So now that I think about it, screw everything I just said. Prove me wrong. Do Prague your way.
At the outset, don’t expect the same amount of warmth of Mediterranean-adjacent cultures or the joie de vivre of Parisians from these Central Europeans, but once we got to know some Czechs on a day-to-day basis, like staff and professors, they warmed up, were a lot of fun. Even the fairly prominent guest speakers in my Reporting the Arts, who we would only meet for one day, were quite warm and casual as they spoke about their photography, architecture, documentary filmmaking, etc. As the Czech Republic is such a small country (and Prague is such a tight-knit community for a certain strata of intelligentsia and artists), they were very forgiving of our unfamiliarity with their work and milieu. So befriend some Czech people – this might be easier if studying Czech, or teaching English to native speakers, which is also a volunteer option here.
Also, as you may have seen from my previous post, there are a few soccer fields new our dorm (which, for a number of reasons is widely acknowledged to be the best option), and I highly encourage next semester’s students to go and utilize it – sometimes, a few neighborhood Czech teenagers join us.
Lastly, general travel advice that I should have been following better:
As I’m sure most of you students based in Europe already know, traveling here is tremendously pricey. Beyond the unfavorable exchange rates (fortunately we’re not yet on the Euro here in the Czech Republic!), there are often little fees and charges that arise when trying to buy train tickets, plane tickets, or book hostels. Eating out frequently also adds up – though it’s cheap enough here, a good weeks-worth of groceries doesn’t cost much more than two meals out. That said, I would quite often convince myself not to buy touristy souvenirs like these smart retro Victorian-Nouveau postcards to send from Budapest or a tote bag for my mom from The British Library emblazoned with the phrase “The Riot Act Has Been Read,” making good on that warning she always gave me as a kid. I’m not sure when I’ll get my next chance to get either of these things and I regret it slightly: all I have to show for a many of my travels is a lot of photos, some ticket-stubs and quite a few postcards. As great as memories can be, a few tangible reminders aren't bad either.
[On the topic of the just-under-the-surface charming Czech attitude, here's a picture I took of our neighborhood's boar going out for his afternoon walk. I can't explain it either.]