I only have a month left here and I am officially freaking out, which is probably why my friends and I have been traveling more and more: our deadline of going back to our normal lives in the United States is finally within sight, and we're fully realizing how little time we have left overseas and maybe kinda sorta panicking about it. This also explains why I haven't posted as much, because I'm either busy turning in schoolwork early, or I'm busy catching a plane somewhere. At this point, I'm more than prepared to sacrifice a little bit of sleep and privacy if it means I can see as much of the world as I possibly can in the time I have here.
My life has become a series of slightly (very) impulsive conversations with myself that inevitably go as follows: "You know where I've always wanted to go? (Fill in the blank with most of the planet's locations). Oh look, I have a free weekend. Oh look, this flight is super cheap. I'm going." (Hence the title.) I have realized that studying abroad is a complete privilege, one that is within reach of many students but that very few seem to take advantage of, so as a student of the world as I like to think of myself now, it's my duty to sniff out as much of it as I possibly can before I leave. The past few weeks have been jam-packed with adventures and lessons to pair with them. Here are a few I think are especially noteworthy:
There's nothing quite like being in Dublin for St. Paddy's, as every year on March 17th, it pretty much becomes the center of the entire universe (as my very Irish bus driver who escorted us up to the capital humbly phrased it). My dad thought it was going to be a lot like Rio during Carnival or New Orleans during Mardi Gras. To put it simply, it was. I don't think I've ever seen more bright green or more Guinness in a single place in my life. But what struck me as the most odd were all of the Americans who showed up. Yes, there were many, many other European tourists that were there. I heard more non-Irish accents in the capital of Ireland on St. Patrick's Day than I've ever heard in this country (which was very weird for me, I might add). But there were quite a lot of Americans who appeared, looking for something of an Irish experience for the weekend. And this is where I realized that there are essentially three kinds of travelers in the world: (1) The Obnoxious Tourist, who thinks hitting up every tourist trap in another city makes him cultured (it doesn't). He is also the man on St. Paddy's Day in Dublin who very drunkenly started multiple chants of "USA! USA!" in Irish pubs. (2) The Hipster Tourist, who steers clear of tourist traps to attempt to find the local places in an effort to soak up as much actual culture as they can while only being there for the weekend. He is also the man who probably didn't go to the Guinness factory because he thought it would be lame, to which I say "lighten up dude, because it was pretty rad." (3) The Territorial Tourist, who has been living in a place for so long that she has basically become a local until her drunken countrymen show up, making fools of themselves, and she gets just as annoyed as the natives (and maybe more so, because no matter what you do, you'll inevitably be lumped in with them).
If you're going to travel, and I strongly encourage you to, try to be numbers two or three. Perhaps you can't, for whatever reason, pick up and move to another country (although I personally think that at my young age, most reasons people give are really just excuses). Go for a weekend, but be respectful of the place you're visiting. People pretty much everywhere in the world are always down for a good time and a good party, but you went abroad for a reason: you want to experience something different. Don't get there and proceed to act like you would where you came from, otherwise it kind of defeats the purpose.
And yes, I went to the Guinness Factory. I got a sweater and it makes me very happy. P.S. If you're ever in Dublin, please visit Aungier Danger. They have life-changing donuts and I guarantee you will not be disappointed by anything except maybe a mild weight gain from them. But the weight gain is worth it.
This is probably a trip that I am most proud of, even if it seems moderately insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I have always wanted, and attempted, to be more independent. You can ask my mom about this, and I'm sure she'll give you a slew of stories about how preschool me insisted on doing things by myself in a fit of stubbornness. So, because I haven't changed since I was 3, even though I don't speak a word of French, I decided to go to Paris. Alone.
For the record, I wasn't exactly completely alone. I met up with a group of study abroad students through a third party company that takes students around major European cities. We got an authentic Parisian guide (who I can only describe as the single most French woman I have ever met in my life, and it was delightful), tickets to the Louvre and Sacre-Coeur and all sorts of sites around Paris. But I didn't know anyone on the trip before I got there and I was responsible for getting myself there and back again.
And I have to say, there's nothing quite like coming off of a plane completely by yourself into an airport where you have virtually no idea where to go, and realizing that you can't just simply ask anyone because they quite literally might not speak the language. It was mildly terrifying, but I have noticed the longer that I'm here, the more the mildly terrifying things in my life actually are exciting. I navigated my way to my hostel just fine, and I think my previous experience of having gone to London and mastered riding the Tube really helped in this regard. Being from the suburbs of the midwest, public transportation is kind of a foreign entity, so having loads of train and bus rides under my belt, Paris was a cinch.
Of course we went everywhere: Montmartre to see Van Gogh's and Picasso's apartments, Moulin Rouge, Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Notre Dame, the Louvre (and as a sidenote, I have never been more certain that I would've disliked a person than I am now that I know that Louis XIV didn't think it was enough for him, because that place is outrageously enormous), the Eiffel Tower, Le Marais for some quick shopping, and a river cruise along the Seine. It was a packed weekend and I'm so glad that I went. It forced me out on my own in a completely new way that I wasn't entirely prepared for, so I just had to deal and go with the flow. I'm more than confident that I can now pretty much go anywhere and handle it just fine (in Europe at least; Asia or Africa might be something of a different kind of culture shock).
What struck me most about Paris is how well it lives up to its reputation. I've always been that person who assumes that a place really isn't as great as everyone makes it out to be, but Paris really must be one of those places that's an exception to my cynical view. The whole city is stunning (it even smells good!). People are affectionate and romantic all over the place, holding each other on the Metro and curling up together on park benches with a bottle of wine and some cheese. I know I was only there for a weekend, but I can see why so many artists and writers and musicians end up there: it's impossible not to be in love when you're in Paris, even if it's just with Paris itself. (And the bread. I easily fall in love with places where the people adamantly consume carbs, so heads up, Italy.)
Oh, and I ate snails. I used to be the world's pickiest eater according to my mother (guilty), and it's like now that I'm older, I've done a complete 180. Part of my study abroad experience has been to explore the world through food, and explore I have. They taste like clams, which was fine for me because I actually really love seafood. The only gross part is being really aware that it's snails you're eating because they're just so slimy when they're alive. (Sorry to any vegans who stumbled across this.)
If Paris is romantic, Madrid is passionate. That's the vibe that hangs in the air in that city.
This was an awesome trip for two reasons: (1) I got back from Paris and it didn't fully register that I was going to Madrid until the night before I was supposed to leave, so it had this whirlwind "let's jet off somewhere on an impulsive whim" feel to it, which I'm sure would send some people into conniptions, but I'm still at a point in my life where I can just pick up and go and it feels romantic. (2) Spain is... not exactly Europe.
Yes, it's in the continent. But upon our arrival, it was very obvious that Spain is something of a gateway into other parts of the world. Grittier than anywhere else I've ever been (and I say that with absolute affection because I love Spain), it's got influences of Moorish culture from North Africa, hints of Islamic touches and echoes of the Middle East. There is something about Spain that is inherently not European, and I imagine it only gets more and more pronounced the further you get into the country.
The siesta thing is very real. Lunch is a MASSIVE ordeal. Our second day there, we took a "free" tour (you are supposed to tip the guy at the end) with a man from Valencia who has been living in Madrid for years. He ended up taking us to a real Spanish restaurant, not one of the tourist traps that charge you an insane amount around Plaza Mayor. We got appetizers, entrees, dessert, and wine, all for 10 Euro, which is an unreal amount of food for that amount of money. My favorite thing about Spanish food (other than Patatas Bravas, which I recommend getting from any restaurant if you go) is that they love their seafood. The basic Madrid snack is a basket of calamari (YUM). Many of their dishes are seafood based, with fish, mussels, clams, and prawns (aka shrimp) being the main contenders. The Spanish also seem to really enjoy their seasoning, and I cannot complain about that in the slightest. But by the time you're done eating your multi-course, multi-hour lunch, you're exhausted from the effort! So obviously a nap is in order. Accordingly, many restaurants close between 3 and 9 PM, when dinner starts.
That's another thing about Spain not being completely in line with the rest of Europe. France was similar in the regard, but not nearly to the degree of Spain. Dinner in Spain begins around 9:00 or 10:00, but more likely much later. Your order tapas and wine and eat with friends and family until at least midnight. Because of this, the city is busy like it is anywhere else in the world in the middle of the afternoon, only at 1:00 in the morning. When my friends and I went out to dinner, we would walk back to our hostel and see full families with children out in the middle of the night. It was unbelievably bizarre, but I'm also a huge Night Owl so it suited me just fine. (Wine at lunch? A nap after? Dinner at 10:00? Out with your friends until the wee hours of the morning? The Spanish know how to live.)
And, because of this, the nightlife there is insane. Our guide greeted us with "Welcome to Spain, let's go to the bar" because casual drinking is such a normal part of life there. Thus any parties happen way into the hours of the night; clubs don't even open until midnight or 1:00am, and people are apparently out until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. I, however, chose to get SOME sleep (although we did end up at the very famous 24-hour churro place called San Gines at 4:30 in the morning, which I personally think was a great choice). Europe shouldn't be one huge party for you if you study abroad, but culturally, European countries take a much different approach to nightlife than America and it's worth exploring at a little bit, as it is a good chunk of the culture here for you to experience. Just maybe don't have too many nights where you end up out until 6:00am, because sleep is definitely your friend.
Spain is also the only place in Europe I've seen Taco Bell, and it amused me.
I've got a lot more adventures coming up for myself, ones I'm more than excited for. Stay tuned for more updates! And also, a special shout out to my parents who are my biggest supporters (both with encouragement and finances). I appreciate you more than you know.