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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: Bon voyage

Some things don’t change from culture to culture. Whenever I tell anyone my winter break plans, I get the same response.

“But … you’re spending Christmas alone?”

The tone is always some combination of shock and — my favorite — pity.

Most Americans studying abroad for the year go home for the holidays. The break is one month long, so the journey across the world makes sense. But the way I see it is, I have one month free to travel, to have bizarre European experiences and to test myself.

Why would I pass that up?

Let me outline my plans for you:

One day after my last final ends, I fly out to Vienna. From there, it’ll be a whirlwind of poor planning — couchsurfing, hostels when I can’t find couches, scenic trains, overnight buses and desperately trying to stay warm. I’ll be traveling through Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Prague and Bratislava, probably, before returning to Brussels for some much-needed recuperating.

I’ll spend New Years Eve with some European friends, and then I’ll take the train through Belgium and France, eventually winding up in the countryside near Bordeaux. I’ll work on a small organic farm for two weeks, caring for goats, skinning rabbits and making sausages. Then I’ll trek around for a few days, doing something, somewhere.

It’ll be a game-changer, I hope. I’ll be simultaneously struck by so much beauty and thrown so far out of my comfort zone, that something profound will be bound to happen. Seriously, though — a California native, basically homeless in freezing cold Slovakia? Once darkness strikes, I’ll probably end up shivering inside shopping malls until security forces me to leave.

But, that’s the point. When planning my study abroad experience, this is exactly what I wanted. So far, I have pretty much gotten all that I originally hoped for.

I’ve felt part of a culture, made possible by living with a Belgian family and learning the language. I’ve met and befriended Europeans. I’ve done things that locals do in a brand new city. I’ve traveled through five countries thus far and I know that number will at least triple by the time I leave. This winter, I’ll get some solo experience. I’ll get quiet time in a tiny village. I’ll hopefully get some self-discovery. And next semester, I’ll only be able to feel more local, with an internship like a normal person and everything.

I had always assumed that most students wanted something like this out of their study abroad experience. But, alas, this is not the case.

Some students have made traveling their number one priority. There are girls here who are gone for four days out of virtually every week, gallivanting around all of Europe. It’s exactly what they wanted, and they are content.

I have a friend in Spain who has only left Spain once. He wanted an immersion, and he got one. He’s perfecting the language, hanging with locals and truly becoming part of the culture. It’s exactly what he wanted, and he is enthralled.

I have a friend in London who has only left London once. He isn’t doing an immersion, though, and there is no new language skill to be perfected. He has no desire to travel on weekends. He is living a perfectly normal life. He sought out the challenge of starting over, and he got it.

Then there are, of course, those who studied abroad to party. Their satisfaction comes easily.

There is no singular perfect study abroad experience. Everyone comes into it expecting and wanting something different. To experience everything would mean a more permanent move, a transfer, which isn’t all that uncommon either.

My advice?

Deeply consider what you want before choosing your program and location. If you want to immerse yourself in a culture, don’t live with Americans and don’t choose a big city, which will always have an international feel. Travel, of course, but not all the time — you’ll never truly feel at home otherwise. And while it may seem impossible to befriend the locals, do try. The “they aren’t interested in being friends with us” mentality exists on both sides, for no real reason but self-perpetuation.

Don’t be afraid to enjoy the normal and the every day. In fact, don’t be afraid at all. Take the plunge. Go away for as long as possible. Deadlines for next fall are almost here and, a year from now, you could be writing this travel column.

JANELLE BITKER hopes she was decent company this quarter, and she’s always willing to answer your study abroad-related questions at jlbitker@ucdavis.edu.



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