Europe According to Emma is a weekly column written by Emma Dell a University of Denver student currently studying abroad in Berlin, Germany. Read other installments here.
With only a month left in my semester abroad (yes, one month. I don’t want to talk about it), thoughts of home and family are slowly starting to creep back into my head like an impending doom disguising its tragedy with the promise of cheap laundry and unlimited Mexican food.
Four months after leaving for my study abroad adventure, I’m back in the good ol’ U S of A… or at least part of me is. I left a pretty big piece of my heart in Germany because I absolutely fell in love with my study abroad experience, and I think that (while it makes for a bittersweet homecoming) this is a feeling that everyone who studies abroad should have the opportunity to experience. Whether or not your study abroad program is the best (trust me, mine was far from) or you’re living in your favorite city in the world, study abroad should do nothing less than leave a heart-shaped impression on your memory. Obviously everyone does this in their own way, but for those of you who are leaving for your own adventures soon or starting to plan for next year, here are a few tips to keep in mind to make sure that you get the absolute best out of what is bound to be an amazing few months.
Spend time in your city
As tempting as it is to plan your study abroad adventure saying “I’m not going to spend a single weekend here” because of your lofty travel ambitions, the best way to feel at home in a new place is to spend some time there. Going out weeknights isn’t always enough to get to know your new home, and it’s only really once you’ve spent enough time to know your way around and start to develop favorite hangouts or spots in the city that you can start to make it yours. So for every two weekends that you plan a trip, plan one to stay home and explore.
Make local friends
I know that some study abroad programs (mine especially) make it incredibly easy to stay inside the American bubble and only hang out with other people from your program, and all that I have to say about that is this – don’t do it. Seriously. I cannot stress enough how important it is to break out of that and find a new comfort zone.
While the people from your program may be from all different parts of the country, or maybe even different parts of the world, make a point to find friends outside of that group as well. They are great for casual hangouts or for making friends that maybe you don’t have to struggle over a language barrier in order to communicate with, but they will never be the same as friends who are locals.
Hanging out with people who are from the city you’re living in and know it better than you is a great way to know your study abroad city on a more intimate level – just maybe don’t go as far as me and actually date one of them, it makes leaving really hard. It will be both the best and worst decision you will ever make (and I know there are some other people out there who can contend to this as well).
Find the native favorites
The natives have been around for much longer than you have, so it’s usually a safe bet that the bars or restaurants that have been deemed local favorites are some of the best in the city. And, hey, what makes finding places like this easier than by making local friends that can take you there? Full circle, folks. Of course it’s always fun to explore on your own and find your own personal faves, but checking out the spots that the natives call the best is always a great way to experience the quality that your city has to offer.
Speak the language
As anybody trying to speak a new language in the company of fluent speakers will tell you, it’s a lot of stress and energy to keep it up all the time. There may be times where you’ll be sorely tempted to walk up to the counter and just place your order in English or ask if the cashier can speak it instead of trying to tackle the native tongue. While this tactic can help in moderation (no use burning your brain out on the language too quickly), there is nothing more helpful to becoming accustomed to a new place or country than by talking like the locals do. Most of the time they’ll help you as you struggle through it, and the amount that your language skills will be able to grow in a short few months if you fully immerse them will astound you. Plus, then you can come home and confuse your friends by switching languages whenever you feel like it. Isn’t that fun?
Take out the headphones
A lot of living in a foreign city (and not having a car) is spending time on transportation. There are certainly times that plugging into your music will make the 45-minute train ride to wherever you’re going pass much more quickly, but try to avoid doing it every time. Transportation is a great opportunity to observe the people that you’re living with, whether you can understand them or not. By switching off your music occasionally and listening to the people around you, you can get a much better sense of the personalities and interactions that are surrounding you in your new city. Then when someone back home asks you “What are people there like?” you’ll actually be able to tell them, instead of just shrugging your shoulders and talking about your study abroad buddies.
Travel enough (but not too much)
Like I said earlier, spending time in your city is an imperative part of studying abroad if you really want to create a second home for yourself across the world. But travel is important too, because it really shows you what you do and don’t love about a city. I may have lived in Berlin, but now after traveling I can tell you that I really loved the small-town feel of the streets of Florence and the warm welcome that I got at every pub in Glasgow as well. Traveling gives you the chance to compare and contrast your cities, as well as create amazing memories of study abroad travel and friends that will stay with you forever.
Never stay in
Sure, there will be some nights that homework (pesky how they still give you that abroad, no?) or illness or exhaustion will keep you holed up for the night, but try as hard as you can to never let a day pass with absolutely nothing happening. Study abroad is not like a normal semester, and while back home you may only go out on the weekends or try and stay in and study all but one night during the week, don’t do that while you’re overseas. As mentioned earlier, the best way to fall in love with your abroad experience is to spend time in your city – and you can’t only do that two nights a week. Take care of yourself, sleep enough to stay healthy, and try not to abuse your liver too much. But never, ever, spend a whole night in your room alone “just because.” There’s always something to do abroad, so go find it!
My four months abroad were amazing. I miss them already, and I wouldn’t have traded them for the world. So whether you’ve already had your experience or it’s waiting for you in the future, I wish you the best of luck and sincerely hope that you fall in love as well.