My four-month study abroad sojourn in Stirling, Scotland was just like the pamphlets claimed: an educational immersion into a local university.
But, for all the counselors, books and informational sessions meant to make my adjustment easier, nothing prepared me for being chased from pubs by men in kilts, from offending locals when I declined a cup of coffee, and all the other misadventures I experienced as a college student let loose in Europe.
While I still maintain that experience is the best teacher, here are a few tales of caution from those of us who have been there:
PLEASE don’t reinforce the negative stereotypes of Americans.
Maybe it’s just at the universities, but out of everyone I talked to who studied abroad recently, the consensus was that people from other countries tend to stereotype Americans—and not in a good way.
“If you’re American, don’t be obnoxious and reinforce that stereotype,” said Stephanie Ventura, a UC-Santa Cruz student who recently studied abroad in Scotland.
In general, most Europeans I talked to thought two things about Americans: 1) we were all a bit vacant when it came to political current events and 2) we partied way too hard.
“I can’t stress how horrible American education is on geography!” said Max Moy-Borgen, a UCLA student who studied abroad in Taiwan. “Try to learn a few places, politics, and histories about wherever you’re going and the relations with neighboring areas.”
You don’t want to wear an England jersey on a day when Scotland has a football game, and trust me, you don’t want to find out what happens if you do. It is very important that you keep current with the news and visit your news website of choice. The BBC is a good choice because it often provides better coverage on EU politics than typical American newspapers.
If you are going to drink (I should say WHEN you are going to drink), do it responsibly! Remember, beer abroad may contain more alcohol than in U.S. This is not only for the good of yourself, but for the good of your country.
After all, most people look down on those who are projectile vomiting all over the dance floor. If you are in a country where it is important to hold your liquor, as it is in Scotland, not only will you be glared at, but you will be forever known as “the American who puked.”
Please don’t be ignorant about local culture, and more importantly, do not be ignorant about the country you are visiting. “I know that many people were told that you wouldn’t have things like toothpaste, deodorant, tampons, and condoms in Taiwan and that couldn’t have been farther from the case,” said Moy-Borgen.
If you are going to a country where they speak a different language, learn it well. Try doing an “intercambio” as they call it in Spain. That can mean having coffee with a local and speaking to them in Spanish while they speak to you in English.
If you do find something out about the country that you did not expect, keep it to yourself– please don’t start screaming that you are excited that a country like this has Internet access or you will surely hear disgruntled utterances of the words “typical American.”
Be outgoing and try new things—but don’t forget to be practical and do everything in moderation.
Although it seems evident, one of the most important rules of travel is … wear comfortable shoes. This might sound obvious, but you will be surprised to see the number of girls who sacrifice comfort for fashion and pay for it big time with bruised and blistered feet.
One of the first places you should visit is the tourist center. These places often have free maps, and it will save you hours rather than trying to find the location yourself.
Remember that almost everything you do will cost money, so choose wisely. However, if you are an enrolled at an official EU school, a lot of major tourist attractions will give you discounts (in the case of Athens, all monuments and museums were completely free). Also, don’t shy away from a city bus tour just because you feel you can walk the whole city. Although they might cost a lot of money up front, they often take you to all the most important places and can offer you deals on entrance fees if you ask.
If you get lost, ask for directions. Now, this can be hard in countries where you don’t speak the language. Be persistent. It’s better to spend 10 minutes asking for help than waste the day looking for a café that closed down years ago. Plus, you can meet a lot new people this way.
Instead of flying to close locations, take a train. Trains provide unbeatable views of the countryside and are a great place to take a nap. If you are in a country like Italy or Greece, make sure you get your ticket validated in the machines. Although many people won’t tell you to do it because they assume you know better, don’t take the risk of being charged with “fare evasion.” Trust me, it’s embarrassing and expensive.
Booking online is also a huge help, especially for activities that you know will draw a lot of crowds. For example, the Guinness Factory in Dublin not only lets you book online, but lets you cut the lines as well and offers a huge discount if you do.
If you plan to go out at night, remember you are touring a foreign city, where most of the streets may look entirely the same. Remember how hard it was to find that local pub sober? Try finding your way home drunk.
And, if you told yourself after a night of going out that you were going to wake up at 6 a.m. so you could be ready for a 7:30 a.m. class, forget it. Between walking everywhere the whole day and staying up all night, you’ll hit snooze more times than you want to.
Remember: Everything has to come back home.
Unless you are willing to forgo some of your favorite items—in this case, my Uggs, a robe and a few textbooks—all of your belongings have to go back home eventually. You can tell yourself that you will pay the excess baggage fee of $50 each luggage, but trust me: paying money is the easy part.
What you don’t realize is that in order to get from Stirling to London-Heathrow is that you will have to drag your extremely overweight baggage from a taxi to a train to another taxi to another train and then switch trains once you arrive in England.
That’s not it: upon arrival in London, you’ll have to board a bus, pull your luggage through a bustling airport and finally check in. (Was it worth the 12 pairs of footless tights that I got on clearance for 50 pence each? I’ll let you know.)
This also counts for your weekend trips as well. Flying low-cost carriers may be cheaper, but when they say that your luggage has to weight X amount and fit in a certain-sized box, they mean it. Unless you want to start throwing away the brand-new shirts and shoes you bought in Frankfurt, I suggest you pack as light as possible. Buy souvenirs you can wear or that are extremely light.
It doesn’t end here. Here’s Part 2 of “Things I Wish I Had Known Before Studying Abroad.”
By Michelle Castillo for PeterGreenberg.com.
Michelle Castillo is also an author of our Off-the-Brochure Travel Guide: Edinburgh, Scotland.
Learn more about some innovative study abroad programs with Semesters at Sea.
If you’re a student headed abroad, you need to know about Rockin’ the Student Discount.