How to Survive Reverse Culture Shock 101

My name is Amanda Reid, and I am a junior at Towson double majoring in Spanish and International Studies and planning to graduate in the spring of 2018.  I was born and raised in Bel Air, Maryland, so travelling through ISA to Madrid, Spain for nine months was a huge life change for me.  Before I left for my trip abroad, everyone always warned me about the culture shock that I would feel when I landed abroad.  What they don’t tell you is how strange it is to come home and see that while you have changed so much, everything in your hometown is exactly the same as when you left.  Sure, a store may have moved into the local mall and they finally finished the construction on the road where you always commute, but the place that used to be your whole world now seems much smaller in the grand scheme of things.  After living in Madrid for nine months, coming home to Harford County, MD, and readjusting was definitely a struggle.

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Overall, my time abroad was an incredible experience.  I met people from all over the world, created friendships that will last a lifetime, and made more memories than I can count.  Before I left for Spain, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and after being there I now know that I want to study international management and learn as many languages as I can while I’m still in school.  The harsh reality of coming back is that you want to leave again right away and have another great adventure, but you probably drained your bank account while you were abroad.  Below are a few tips on things I have done since returning home to help me cope with the fact that I currently don’t have the funding to travel everywhere I still want to go.

  1. There are things to do in your home state: Specifically in Maryland you have Baltimore, Annapolis, and Washington, DC, not far from where you are. Plan day trips to go hiking in parks, go to ballgames, go out to restaurants, go to concerts, and learn to embrace the culture of your home.  When I came home, I went to a lantern festival, which was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced and it was only an hour drive from my house.  To quote the movie UP, “Adventure is out there,” and sometimes it may even be in your own backyard.
  2. Find a local hangout spot: this is a huge tip for people who have just returned home. Find a local coffee shop, bookstore, park, etc., and get your homework and papers done there instead of staying at home.
  3. Volunteer with the study abroad office: The study abroad office is full of people who also studied abroad. They are either going through or went through the exact same reverse culture shock you are experiencing, and talking about your travels with someone as equally passionate as you helps make the transition easier.
  4. Plan your next adventure: Plan a week-long trip to visit friends you met abroad in another state, plan a weekend trip to the beach, plan your next trip abroad; planning the next adventure helps take the sting off of the fact that your abroad adventure is over for now.
  5. Find restaurants in your area that serve the same food as the country you traveled to: After my first month of satisfying my Chickfila and Qdoba cravings, I began to crave Spanish food.  Baltimore has a restaurant called Tío Pepe where I was finally able to find some gazpacho and paella. It does not taste exactly the same, but it satisfies the craving just the same.
  6. Continue to stay in contact with the people you studied abroad with: I am still in contact with many of the people with whom I have traveled the world, and we are now organizing trips to visit each other.  Even if you can’t visit each other, they are also learning to readjust to their lives at home just as much as you are and are great people with whom to talk.
  7. Embrace the fact that study abroad changed your perspectives. I experienced so many breakdowns of stereotypes I had based on what I saw in the news, and now that I’m back, I frequently debate with my family and classmates over different topics due to my changed perspective.

Perhaps the most difficult question anyone has asked me since I’ve been back is “How was study abroad?!” the way they would ask how a week-long vacation was.  I was gone for almost an entire year and there is no way I can answer that question with just a one word response, or even a sentence for that matter.  Madrid is my home almost as much as Harford County is.  Although the readjustment to life in Maryland has been difficult, it has helped me come to appreciate the things that exist within an hour drive from me while also giving me time to analyze my time abroad and start organizing the next steps in my life as well as my next adventure.

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STEM student in Spain

Leili Zamini - Spain - Spring 2015Leili Zamini studied abroad in Spring 2015 in Seville, Spain prior to graduating from Towson with a B.S. in Chemistry and a minor in Molecular Biology, Biochemistry and Bioinformatics. Leili applied for and was awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship for study abroad and was recently highlighted by the same program. 

Learn more about the Gilman scholarship here.
Learn more about Leili’s program in Sevilla, Spain here.

Seville, Spain is a city like no other. It is a big city with a small town feel. My study abroad experience there opened my eyes to the ways of life in Andalusia. The laidback way of life in Seville is one of its most well known characteristics. The locals are always outside enjoying a drink or tapa and it is rare to see families spending time stuck inside the house. Besides spending time learning about the culture and enjoying the entertainment Seville had to offer, I also took the time to investigate their healthcare system, especially in relation to dentistry. I was interested in learning more about the dental field in Spain, as I will be starting dental school at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry this fall.

At the International Studies Abroad study center, I took a class called “Spanish for Healthcare Professionals”. This course was taught in Spanish and it covered topics relating to the public and private healthcare in Spain. While the class taught me a lot about healthcare in Spain, it was not until I met with Dr. Mateos that I learned the most about the dental field in Spain. Dr. Mateos, a periodontist and owner of Clínica Mateos, visited our class one day to present about his career in dentistry in Spain. As one of the only pre-dental students in the class, he invited me to visit his clinic and meet his staff one afternoon. I learned from him that dentistry is currently an evolving field in Spain. He informed me that while there is a long way to go, people have become more interested in taking preventative measures for their oral health. During my visit at the clinic, I also learned that dentists in Europe lack many of the newly advanced technology that are utilized by many dental schools in the United States.

My experience visiting Dr. Mateos left me feeling grateful for the dental field we have in the United States, but also inspired to become a part of a larger movement where American dentists have access to exchange knowledge with European dentists. I know that I will continue to stay in contact with Dr. Mateos and his team while I am pursuing my dental career in the United States. The opportunity to see the differences and similarities between the dental field in the United States and Spain left me feeling more knowledgeable about my future profession. My study abroad experience will impact the way I offer care and view dentistry for the rest of my life.

My Follow-On Service Project involved creating a brochure to encourage STEM majors to study or intern abroad. In collaboration with the study abroad office at Towson University, I created a brochure that lists opportunities abroad for students in their related healthcare field. This brochure will be presented to STEM majors next year during their advising appointments. The

brochure also includes ways for students to fund their education abroad. This is where the Gilman Scholarship is promoted and students are encouraged to apply. The goal of this brochure was to provide a resource for students and to let them know that going abroad is possible and they should not let their major or financial status keep them from this valuable experience.

Q&A with one of our previous study abroad superstars!

Dr. Alexandra M. Towns, graduated from Towson University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies.  Her study abroad experiences at Towson consisted of the German Language Immersion program in Summer of 2002 at Carl Von Ossietsky University in Oldenburg, Germany, the Spanish Language Immersion program in Cuernavaca, Mexico over Minimester in 2003, and finally the Butler University Study Abroad at Chilean Universities Program in Santiago, Chile over the Spring semester in 2004.  In 2015 she was also selected to be the Towson Honors College Alumnus of the year.  Dr. Alexandra M. Towns is now a medical ethnobotanist working at Naturalis and Leiden University.

Alexandra Towns

Q: You had the opportunity to study abroad multiple times while at Towson. What (or who) got you started and how did you choose your program?

As an international studies major, I was very motivated to learn about other parts of the world. Studying strictly in a classroom setting, however, was not enough- I realized that I needed to have my feet on the ground to really understand other countries. I was a Spanish language minor, so I wanted to not only improve my language skills in a Spanish-speaking country (Mexico 2003), but also to challenge myself to take university-level coursework in Spanish (Chile 2004). The desire to learn German (Oldenburg 2002) was motivated by my heritage; my mother immigrated to the US as a teenager from Germany, and although I had visited with our German relatives many times as a child, it wasn’t until college that I had a chance to really learn the language.

Q: Have your experiences abroad met your expectations? Exceeded them?

My experiences abroad, both as a Towson student and in my professional life, have continuously exceeded my expectations. Traveling, studying, and working abroad have had a major influence on the person that I am today.

Q: Your study abroad experiences were a large part of your time at TU. How have they affected your career path?

Before even applying to Towson University, it was my intention to work internationally. However, the opportunity to study abroad in different contexts provided the initial occasions to test out my ideas of living abroad and helped to build my skills and confidence. It also helped friends and family adjust to the type of lifestyle I would be living.

Q: Of all the places you’ve been, both study abroad and in your life after TU, do you have a favorite? Where and why?

I’ve been extremely lucky to have traveled and lived in many places across North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. I’ve backpacked across South America, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, completed a doctoral degree in the Netherlands, researched herbal medicine in Benin and Gabon, attended an academic conference in Hong Kong, and traveled and visited friends all over the world. Each place has inspired, challenged, and surprised me in so many ways that I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite. But I can say that one place in particular has a very special place in my heart: Niger. It’s an incredibly humble location- very hot, dry, and dusty with some of the lowest human development indicators in the world- but also with some of the kindest, funniest, and most generous people I’ve ever met.

Q: Many returned study abroad alumni speak about an “ah ha” moment or a particularly powerful memory. What’s yours?

I can’t say that I have one particularly strong memory, but sense of smell is a really powerful source of remembering for me- be it a tea that I was introduced to in a country, a spice that was used in a specific cuisine, the odor of certain leathers used in artisan handicrafts, or just something in the breeze on a random Tuesday- I am immediately transported back.

Q: What would you say to students worried / concerned / afraid of studying abroad?

I would say to take those fears of studying abroad seriously- realize that there are real risks to your health, security, and well-being. Inform yourself how to avoid/prevent them by doing your research, talking with others, and taking all precautions, but then hop on a plane and go!

Towson Student Wins TEAN Scholarship

We are thrilled to announce that Towson’s very own Jarrett Booz has been awarded a $2,500 scholarship from The Education Abroad Network for his studies next fall at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. The scholarship is part of TEAN’s 20 for 20 initiative, in which they are awarding 20 scholarships to celebrate their 20 years of sending students into the world!senior pic

Jarrett is currently a freshman studying computer science and is a member of the Honors College. In winning the scholarship, he demonstrated academic excellence, campus involvement, leadership ability, and a keen awareness of the value of an international education. He also wrote a one-page essay in response to the question, “You are packing for study abroad semester and you need to bring 3 items that best represent you. What are those items and why did you select them?” – a deceptively simple question. It’s hard enough picking just three things to take, let alone the three that best represent you!

When we talked to Jarrett about his upcoming experience, he said, “I chose the RMIT program based on a recommendation from a study abroad advisor at Towson. I knew I wanted to at least visit Melbourne while in Australia but she said that Melbourne is so great that you can’t just visit, so I followed her advice and chose a Melbourne school that had a good reputation in computer science. I am looking forward to going out and seeing as much of Australia as possible, including the Great Barrier Reef for the pre-semester excursion, and any other wildlife that I can visit. I also look forward to touring the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. This scholarship will help by taking a substantial financial burden off my family and allow me to explore the country as much as possible with a little less attention to the cost of tourism.  This scholarship means a lot to me and my family and I greatly appreciate it.”

Congratulations again, Jarrett! We look forward to seeing the pictures from your adventure in the land down under!

A Spring in Israel

Name: Maggy Kay

Year: Junior

Study Abroad Term: Spring 2015

Destination: Jerusalem, Israel

When deciding where to study abroad, what led you to choose your destination?

I have always wanted to study abroad in Israel. It wasn’t that I wanted to study abroad and then chose Israel. I knew that I wanted to study abroad here before I was even at Towson and made sure that all of the schools I applied to had study abroad programs to Israel.

Photo courtesy of Courtney N.

Photo courtesy of Courtney N.

Has your destination met your expectations so far? Why or why not?

Israel is amazing. I learn so much every day. I tried to approach study abroad without expectation because that way there is no limit on your enjoyment, but my experience so far has exceeded everything.

What has surprised you about the culture or lifestyle of your destination?

I do not think I will ever get used to not having a Sunday. In Israel the weekend is really just an early end to Friday through Saturday because that is when Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath is. Thankfully, I do not have class on Sundays, so I am able to still get my full weekend. When it is the weekend here all public transportation, restaurants, stores, basically everything closes to observe the Sabbath. It is nice to have a day of rest and to hang out with friends.

Photo courtesy of Courtney N.

Photo courtesy of Courtney N.

What challenges have you faced since arriving in your destination?

Language is definitely a challenge for me. While many people here do speak English, I am trying very hard to learn Hebrew. I have 10 hours of Hebrew courses a week, but I live with all English speakers, so I sometimes can’t practice my Hebrew as much as I would like. However, I am very good at shopping in Hebrew in the open air market.

What made you decide to study in Jerusalem over other locations, including ever-popular Tel Aviv?

Before I studied abroad in Israel for the semester I went on a program called Birthright, which is a ten day trip to Israel. I enjoyed my time in Tel Aviv, but it is very much a big city, and the “New York” of Israel. I instantly felt at home in Jerusalem and still do. Some people say that Jerusalem is the center of the world, and it truly amazing to see so many people with so many different backgrounds come to the same place.

Over Jerusalem

Photo courtesy of Courtney N.

Did you or your family have any safety concerns about studying abroad in Israel?

Of course, but I wanted to study in Jerusalem and in Israel. If I were to not study where I wanted to, then the people that cause these security concerns will win. I try to live my life as I want to live it while I am here, though I definitely do think about where I go, how I dress and who I talk to wherever I am going. Last Friday, there was another terror attack at the light rail station, maybe a mile away from I live. I checked in with my parents and told them that I was fine and actually sleeping while it happened and went on with my plans for the day.

Did you select your program for the coursework? If so, are you taking an Israeli/Jewish studies courses, and what topics are they covering?

I am in a program at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in their Rothberg School for International Students called the “Spring in Jerusalem” program. “Spring in Jerusalem” is an honors program in conjunction with Harvard University that has monthly lectures and requires you to take classes outside of the international school. I am taking two graduate level courses through this program, one called “Religion in Israeli Society”, and “Jewish Orientalism: Jews in the Orient.” I am also taking “Becoming Modern: An Introduction to Jewish History in the Modern Era,” and “Philosophy and Torah, Harmony and Dissonance: The Writings of Maimonides” through the undergraduate program.

Life in Greece: A Student’s Story

Name: Rachel Urban

Graduation Term: Spring 2015

Major: Speech Language Pathology and Audiology

Hometown: Amity Harbor, New Yorkgreece 183

So tell us about your trip to Greece.

I studied abroad in Greece during the summer of 2012. It was a Towson-led program, meaning a Towson professor, Dr. Ballengee, traveled with us to various cities. There were seven other Towson students from a multitude of disciplines who started as strangers and quickly became great friends. The course we took was about Myth, Ideology and Symbolic Spaces of Greece. Our classroom was often a hotel pool where we discussed our readings, or museums and sites we were able to explore. My favorite museum was the National Acropolis Museum. While constructing it, they discovered ruins in the ground that they preserved with glass floors over. You can look at ancient ruins in Athens while simultaneously looking at this bustling modern city. My favorite assignment was one day when Dr. Ballengee asked up to pick a piece in the museum, sketch it, and spend some time focused it. During my trip, I was able to try the Greek drink, ouzo, and determine that I much preferred Greek food. Some of my favorite dishes were moussaka, pastitsio (like a Greek lasagna), tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber, and garlic dip), taramasalata (fish roe dip), souvlaki (lamb) and, of course, all of the fresh seafood. I had taught myself random Greek phrases while anxiously waiting to go on this trip, and I was able to use them and expand upon my limited phrases. Though, in most cities, most people also know English. greece 072

Sounds like you had a great experience. Is there anything else you would like to share?

An excerpt from a journal entry: Upon returning to my room, I gawked at my balcony view. It was already dark, and the towns literally twinkle. The stars. The stars are pure light. Nature like this can’t go unnoticed. It makes me want to rethink my life for a brief moment. I feel like this could be my life. I could drop all my unneeded possessions, stop worrying about the silly hassles, and just enjoy every second of life in a beautiful place instead of 5 more years of school to have a successful, steady, American-dream life. On the other hand, as long as you’ve got some good people to share and make memories with, life is good. I’m constantly thankful for all the opportunities I’ve been given. I won’t ever let myself forget how beautiful the world is. No matter where life takes me, I’ll look for moments like this. I’ll stare at the stars that millions of other people have stared at, and remember that when it comes down to it, this is what life is about.

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Q&A: Kelly and the Faculty-Led Program to Greece

Kelly Langford, a current senior, participated in last year’s faculty-led program in Greece with Dr. Ballengee. With the program going again this year, we thought it was a great time to speak with her about her experience.

Q: When choosing to study abroad, what led you to pick this program?

A: When I was a first year student I took a class with the program’s professor, Dr. Ballengee, and she would talk about the trip and encourage students to go. I knew then that this would be something I wanted to do in the future and remained in contact with Dr. Ballengee and maintained a fascination with Greece as a destination. As someone who is very busy during the semester the minimester faculty led program proved to be a good fit for my schedule and the stress of preparing for it was very minimal.

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Q: Did your time in Greece meet or exceed your expectations? How?

My time in Greece blended together the ancient and the modern, allowing me to appreciate the rich history of the place while enjoying what the current culture has to offer. This experience exceeded expectations because of this multifaceted dynamic, climbing through ruins of ancient temples and then eating traditional dishes created an environment so much more than just a trip or vacation, it became a way to celebrate a culture and be a part of it.

Q: What was the most rewarding part of your experience in Greece?

To me the most rewarding part was really immersing myself in the culture. I tried to speak in Modern Greek to the staff at restaurants and hotels, order only Greek foods, and to take any opportunity to go on adventures either hiking mountains or navigating cities. Because I made the conscious decision to consistently push myself out of my comfort zone.

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Q: Did this program suit you academically? How?

Academically, the program brings together literature, history, cultural studies, and rhetoric. As an English major with particular interest in politics and rhetoric, the program constantly challenged me to think about the underlying forces that create a nation, to question the way tourism acted as an agent and the role we played in this phenomenon. In addition to considering the business of tourism, the trip made me think about the rhetorical properties of history itself, the way a modern nation may use its history to achieve certain goals. Finally I was made to consider the way the myths of Ancient Greece had their own rhetorical functions and how they helped govern the people in ancient times and remain as an influential element today through literature. All of these concepts were so new to me and really changed the way I view the material I read, whether a poem or a history textbook, forcing me to put it into a larger context.

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Q: What would you say to encourage prospective students to choose this program?

I would tell prospective students that this program has even more to offer than being a beautiful and exciting destination. For me Greece was this exotic place that I never dreamed I would be able to go to, so this program was a way to go somewhere that was truly impressive in every form of the word but also drastically different than anything I had been exposed to before. My time in Greece was filled with delicious food, fascinating museums and archeological sites, and explorations through beautiful beaches and bustling cities. It also was a way for me to learn lessons and understand academic material that I would not have been able to had it been taught in the United States.

Erin go Bragh: Interning in Ireland

Name: Samantha Thompson

Major: Elementary Education

Graduation Year: Spring 2015

Hometown: Bel Air, MD

We’re so pleased to have the chance to talk with Samantha about her experience not once but TWICE in Ireland, first with a provider and a second time as an independent traveler. We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did!

Where did you go abroad?

I went on the Dublin Internship Program in the summer of 2013 and ended up returning on my own to the same internship in the summer of 2014.ireland copy

How was your study abroad experience different from your second abroad experience?

My study abroad experience was VERY different from my second experience abroad. The first time I went to Ireland through Towson and felt supported the entire way through. I had pictures ahead of time of the place I was staying, met the other Towson students who would be going, had an orientation upon arrival, was set up with a bus pass, and all the basic necessities for being abroad.

My second experience involved me on my own. My internship welcomed me back to work and provided me with a host family. I was given their name and phone number. I talked to my host family for about ten minutes on the phone before I left and had no idea what I was getting into. Upon my arrival, I found a taxi on my own and navigated my way to the house. My host father welcomed me and said “By the way, there’s a 22 year old guy from South Korea and a 26 year old guy from Russia here as well.” My heart dropped completely and I panicked. I was not expecting to stay with other students and was very intimidated. Right away I met Song from South Korea and felt better but my Russian roommate was very mysterious. He worked opposite hours than me and it was a week before we crossed paths. He ended up becoming a dear friend and teaching me so much about the world, his culture, and how lucky I was to be American.

So about my internship: Imagine this—you show up to your first day and they give you a group of 35 Spanish high school students to take to Dublin Castle. I had to figure out transportation, facts, and how to navigate/connect with so many people who didn’t speak English in a city that I had just arrived in two days before. Therefore, I knew Dublin like the back of my hand by the time I arrived the second summer.

The biggest difference between both trips was cultural. I wasn’t going home to my apartment with Towson students—I was going home to an Irish family, a South Korean, and a Russian. I thought I had experienced culture shock the first time but nothing could have prepared me for living around a different culture all the time. Because Dublin is very similar to America, I felt that the first summer I was going to work in a different place but then coming back to Towson. It was very different to be around different cultures all of the time. At work I had Irish coworkers but also students from Spain, Italy, Russia, France, China, and Brazil. I thought that the second summer would be easy because I had overcome so much culture shock the first time, but I actually experienced much more culture shock during the second experience.

How did you decide where to go?

Ireland chose me. I have family from there and I’m an education major, so it ended up being a perfect fit. I couldn’t do any classes abroad (especially during the semester) because of my major, so it worked perfectly for my Honors credits that I went in the summer for an internship. I liked how I could work and not worry about classes, so that’s another reason I liked the internship program. In the end, I felt a strong pull towards Ireland and fell in love with the culture.IMG_7645

What were your expectations going in and were they matched by your experience?

Nothing could have prepared me for my experiences abroad. I was afraid, timid, and nervous both times that I went but I left as a completely different person. Ireland made me more confident, fearless, and ambitious. I was expecting to have fun with people from college in a foreign land where I could maybe see a few castles in between working hours. I never expected to lead a group of 78 Italians (my largest group) to multiple castles and become an expert at navigating bus routes with a ridiculous amount of people. I also never expected to feel at home with strangers in a strange place. Ireland changed my view of privilege, culture, and life in general.

Talk about your favorite spot in your home away from home. Where? Why?

My all time favorite place is a small beach tucked away on the cliffs in Howth. Howth is a fishing village in Dublin, about ten minutes from my host family. There is a well known cliff walk there that weaves all through these majestic cliffs. However, many people don’t know about the beach at the bottom. My Russian roommate showed me the path. It is hidden beneath bushes, but there is a steep and sketchy looking rock staircase from the cliff walk that leads down to a beach. It’s hidden away and right in the middle of green cliffs so it has amazing views.ireland copy 2

What would you say to students worried / concerned / afraid of studying abroad?

Don’t second guess yourself. I never thought I would end up the way I am today. Going abroad changes your life and changes you as a person. Never be afraid to step outside your comfort zone because that is when you realize your potential. After my first night in Dublin, I wanted to come home. I thought I was in over my head and would hate it. But I ended up doing everything I could to go back on my own for another summer. Any experience abroad will be amazing and the only thing you have to worry about is the severe case of wanderlust you get once you return home.

How a Recipe Led to a Conversation about WWII

This post is the fifth installment in a semester-long series of posts from Towson senior Allie Woodfin. Allie is studying this Fall 2014 semester at the University of Avignon. You can also follow along on her tumblr at:http://provisoirementprovencale.tumblr.com/

People who travel often tell me that there are some foods that hold major significance for them—a tureen of soup in Hungary, soba noodles in Okinawa, brigadeiro in Brazil. These foods are unique enough that it’s hard to associate them with any other period in life—I’ll always have a deeply rooted memory of the smell of the chestnut cream that my host family eats on their pain au lait at breakfast. However, I think people cherish these tasty memories because they were also learning experiences.

 

In my case, I’ve eaten more endive here than I’ve eaten in the past 20 years of my life, and I suspect that endive will be one of the things I remember most about this experience. It’s quite tasty, so I’m definitely not complaining. Endive is a leaf vegetable that belongs to the daisy family, according to Wikipedia. It looks like a cross between a large white tulip and a head of lettuce. My host family does a few things with it, my favorites being a salad of chopped raw endive with a mustard vinaigrette, walnuts, apples, and bleu cheese; and steamed, buttery endive wrapped tightly in ham slices, smothered in Bechamel cheese sauce.

 

The first time we had endive, I looked at it with the same curiosity as I’d looked at the cheeses they brought in from town—something I was familiar with, but didn’t often eat in the U.S. for whatever reason. They explained that endive was popular in French cooking, but not for the previous generation (their parents, my grandparents)—during World War II, as it was one of the few foods available to eat.

A poster encouraging citizens to use bread rations carefully. Taken from sen51.free.fr

A poster encouraging citizens to use bread rations carefully. Taken from sen51.free.fr

 

Many French adults who lived through that period outright refuse to eat endive today (although I saw my host mom’s parents happily eating both of my favorite recipes when they came to visit). I shared that my paternal grandfather now can’t bear canned fruit cocktail—the slippery diced chunks and the sugary, metallic aroma are a powerful memory of rationed food that he ate all too often as a child.

 

Throughout this conversation, my mind kept going to the line in The Diary of Anne Frank where Anne talks about eating “endive with sand, endive without sand” in the cramped Annex where she spent years before being captured. Conditions were unpleasant and unluxurious in the United States—bad roads, making do with pre-war goods, saving bacon grease and silk stockings for shells and parachutes. Conditions in Europe, however, were a matter of life or death. If I understood my host mom correctly, many trapped in France died of starvation during the war.

 

There was no awkward silence after this exchange, no comparison between the hardships of life in America and life in France during the deuxième guerre mondiale. Instead, there was a brief pause of realization.  Everyone sent their boys to war, civilians everywhere feared for their lives, and everyone went without. There was nothing inherently political or significant about our dinner, but the last pieces of endive resting in the bowl were a reminder of the common ground we shared then, and share now.

Happiness is Private: Studying Abroad for You, Not Social Media

This post is the sixth installment in a semester-long series of posts from Towson senior Allie Woodfin. Allie is studying this Fall 2014 semester at the University of Avignon. You can also follow along on her tumblr at: http://provisoirementprovencale.tumblr.com/ 

“Every form of happiness is private”

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Woodfin in Avignon.

Like a stained-glass window in a cathedral, anything epic, memorable, and beautiful is made up of small, seemingly insignificant pieces. I would absolutely overlook a shard of brilliant blue glass on the sidewalk near Notre Dame, but I would not overlook the magnificent windows—my camera lens was probably already pointed at them.

Before I start, I should say that I think talking too much about the “transformation” of study abroad creates unfair expectations for magic to happen as soon as you step on European soil. I didn’t learn this as soon as I set foot in Charles de Gaulle Airport, and I regret that I discounted my first few days since they weren’t so beautiful. However, what I’m finding is that the best things about study abroad are not your pictures with monuments that anyone in the world can name. Those are cheap. Everyone has those. They’re not the moments that you made happen. The best things are the split seconds of eye contact you make with strangers because you’ll never see them again, the familiar silhouette of the local men and women, the words that you pick up and where you learned them, and the times you realize that you’re functioning in another culture: giving directions to tourists, the only people who know the town less than you; wandering around Sephora and remembering the words for facial features and cosmetics; and hanging up after a 6-minute phone call and realizing that you’ve overcome your worst fear since getting to France. These are things that you weren’t looking for, but that found you anyway.

For example, staying in Avignon during my Toussaints vacation and hanging out with my host family (and my host mom’s adorable parents) was not as trendy and Instagrammable as toasting on a beach in Ibiza, and I felt like a goober telling the other Erasmus students I’d stayed home while they went to Barcelona and Cannes. But one day, we ate the freshest oysters money can buy, and my “host grandfather” showed me how to dress one with mustard, vinegar, and red onions before tossing it back. I took regular naps in the giant rectangle of sunshine that lights up my bed around 2PM. We made pumpkin pie for Halloween. I met a retired lady for coffee and English conversation one morning. I learned how to understand a very different French accent over a week of dinners. There are a lot of other beautiful things that happened during that vacation that, if I told you about them, you’d say “seriously? You crossed an ocean to study abroad and you think that’s cool?” These things don’t matter to someone else, and they’d probably smile and nod while I obliviously chattered about moments that only I saw and only I can understand.

But—that’s okay. As Ayn Rand once said, “every form of happiness is private.” Thinking about it this way has helped me reconcile what every study abroad alumnus has told me, which is that you come home and find that you can’t put into words what the most poignant moments of your trip were. Instagram your trip until it can’t be Instagrammed any more (guilty as charged), but don’t engineer your study abroad experience so that it’s outwardly beautiful. Blow off the monuments for a little while, make a fool out of yourself trying to order lunch at a restaurant on your first weekend (and go back once your French has improved drastically, to the delight of the waiter), take random long walks because you can, and take note of the little pieces of your trip—they’ll make up the magnificent story you’ll remember later.