Avoid Wrecking Your Study Abroad Experience

Mickey_Mouse_Graffiti_War

The bartender leaned across the dark stained wood that marked a bar that had heard and seen the drunken adventures of revelry makers for decades.  In a thick Irish accent he rambled off, “What’ll ya’ take darlin?” with the practiced look that demands a quick and well-organized response.  The young American girl – in her late teens or early twenties  – quickly shot back, “Two Guinness and two Irish Car Bombs”.   The bartender paused and a quick shadow of annoyance swept across his face.   My brother and I, both leaning lazily against the bar a few steps away watched in silent amusement.  We were in a well-known tourist watering hole in the Temple Bar district of Dublin with a reputation for sassy staff.  The crowd was starting to thicken and the din of drunken antics was loud, but not so loud that we couldn’t overhear the conversation.  Earlier we’d had a good laugh with the bartender exchanging friendly jabs and stories and now we found ourselves trading a small smirk with him.  This promised to be interesting.

He leaned in to the girl willing to give her a chance to reconsider and catch her mistake, “What?”  She pressed on blissfully unaware of the nasty faux pas she’d just committed. Annoyance scrunched her face as she re-stated her order, only this time in an even louder, sharper, and somewhat slower American accent, “T-W-O Guinness and T-W-O Irish Car Bombs”. Obviously not impressed he frowned, stood up straight and in one motion rolled his eyes in our general direction. He shook his head and pointed at the next person waiting to place their drink order.  My brother and I shot each other knowing looks.  We were tempted to jump in and explain the situation to the girl but were curious to see if she’d piece it together herself. We decided to wait a bit longer.

Her face contorted in a mixture of frustration and casual rage. From her point of view the bartender was being an ass and no doubt hated her because she was an American.   To make it worse you could see she’d already concluded that part of the problem was that he must not understand her sharp “American” accent.  She fidgeted for a minute or two and then pulled out a 20 euro note which she prominently displayed on the bar while the bartender filled a few more orders.

Now some of you may have already identified what’s wrong in this story.  For those that have not, the Irish Car Bomb is a type of American drink that consists of a half pint of Guinness, and then a shot mixed with Baileys Irish cream and Irish whiskey.  The shot gets dropped into the Guinness and quickly “explodes” or at the very least begins to curdle while you quickly guzzle it down.  By itself a somewhat harsh but not overly offensive drink.  The trick comes in the name.  As those familiar with Irish history might recall, they’ve dealt with decades of violent conflict which in many ways tore areas of Ireland and Northern Ireland apart.  If wikipedia is to be believed “The Troubles” as they’re modestly referred to left 3,529 dead and more than 45,000 injured – many by way of brutal car bombings. To this end, walking into an Irish Bar and ordering an Irish Car Bomb is similar to ordering a Black and Tan in other parts of Ireland and tends to be poorly received and in culturally insensitive.

Eventually our very Irish bartender decided to give her another chance and returned to her place at the bar.  He leaned in and said, “Try again. What’ll it be?”.  Now thoroughly annoyed and convinced he was picking on her for being American she repeated her order. This time even slower and louder than before making the mistake many travelers make. Let’s face it, speaking louder and treating the other person like they’re stupid isn’t going to help them understand you one bit…especially when they very likely already understand you perfectly.

He paused. We waited. He sighed. Then leaned in and said, “Deary, we don’t sell those here but tell you what. I can whip you up two 9/11s”.  Very different types of shock blossomed across our collective faces.  It was obvious she was about to burst into tears. The look on her face said it all – now she knew the Irish hated Americans.  Not only was it confirmed, but apparently he was reveling in one of the worst disasters to strike America.  We erupted into laughter. Not because making light of Sept. 11th is any laughing matter, but because of how brilliantly it turned the situation around. Ordering a “9/11” in parts of the US would likely get you sent to the hospital.  Yet, that’s essentially what thousands of young Americans on study abroad do on a regular basis in Dublin. If we’d left it there she would have no doubt gone back to her friends in tears, shared the story of how the Irish hate Americans, how they joke about American’s darkest moments, and then carried those stories on to Facebook and back to the US with her. Not only might it have ruined her night, but in many ways it likely would have flavored her entire stay in Europe. It’s something I’ve seen countless times and for a variety of reasons.

Still obvious that she had not, and now clear that she would not make the connection between Irish Car Bombs and September 11th, we decided to intervene. We tapped her on the shoulder, and quickly explained what some might consider a mild, and others a rather grave cultural misstep she had just made.  As we explained the connection recognition blossomed across her face. Offended rage transitioned quickly to embarrassed annoyance. Collectively we all had a good chuckle about it, she got her drinks, and we learned a valuable lesson.  Now, to be fair, the bar tender WAS being a bit of an ass about the whole thing and the vast majority find it more amusing than offensive. Still, to this day it stands out in my memory as a powerful illustration of how easily things can go wrong when you’re operating on a limited set of assumptions.

I see things like this happen all the time.  That one experience might have been enough to poison her experience both that evening and during the rest of her stay.  But it likely would not have ended there. The story would have spilled back to the US, and been repeated to every student she talked to who was considering studying in Europe. Why?  All because she was blissfully unaware she was making a culturally offensive error and couldn’t be bothered to connect ordering an “Irish Car Bomb” in a country wracked by terrorist attacks with the situation she found herself in.

Now, as a traveler or study abroad study consider how often you may have had negative experiences that were similar in substance to my Irish Car Bomb story.  Consider how those experiences may have shaped your views on people, your experiences, and how you enjoy your over all program.

Error #2 – Creating Bad Luck By Being Stupid

In addition to blogging about topics related to travel and study abroad here on VirtualWayfarer, I’m also active across the web in a number of forums where I try and respond to people’s questions about travel, study abroad, solo travel, and expat life.  Over the years I’ve observed a lot of travelers and a lot of students.  I’ve seen them make mistakes and I’ve made more than my fair share in the process.   As a new semester starts up here in Copenhagen, a small army of new students has descended on Denmark eager to kick off what for many is their first study/living abroad experience. For many it is also likely their first time in Europe and/or abroad in any way/shape/form.  It’s a process being duplicated in cities around the world and it really is a wonderful thing.  Especially for young American students since we typically don’t partake in the traditional gap year that many other western countries view as a natural part of the learning process.

I see and respond to a lot of threads on basic (and not-so-basic) concerns.  Most of these are great questions and relate to concerns and frustrations that go with the territory.  They’re the fabric that makes travel, study abroad, and life abroad such an incredible growth and learning experience. I enjoy joking about the times I’ve been lost, felt overwhelmed, or in over my head. The little moments – like when I bought a 2kg bag of beets thinking they were sweet potatoes – are humbling, frustrating, humiliating, and deeply beneficial all at once.  However, I also see other stories and types of students on a semi-regular basis that I have learned to avoid. These are the individuals that will either have a grand epiphany somewhere during their trip, or – far more likely – will return home with stories of their nightmare experiences that intimidate and discourage other potential travelers from taking the road.

I recently found myself reading through a posting by one of these individuals on a popular discussion board.  While I won’t pretend to know the exact specifics of her experience, it became apparent that she was the type of individual that subconsciously did absolutely everything in her power to sabotage herself while being completely oblivious to what she was doing and blaming everyone else in the process.  You know the annoying blond girl at the start of the movie “Taken” that gets them both abducted?  Yeah. That type of person.

I find this bothersome and unless they’re in desperate need of immediate help, I refuse to engage. In fact, it can actually be somewhat dangerous to do so as these individuals quite often manage to bring all their bad behavior and bridge-burning with them.  However, while I opted out of responding there were many others who did with a wealth of help and advice. They were being polite, friendly, and sympathetic.  This is a wonderful, beautiful thing and really embodies the warm nature of the international community.  However, experience has also shown me that this will do very little to help her change her behavior. Unfortunately, it likely just reinforces and reaffirms it.

For the sake of this post though, let’s all be honest with each other:  If you find that you’re “disaster prone” or have “terrible luck”, there’s a good chance that you’re at least partially responsible.  You’re likely putting yourself in situations that are conducive to bad things happening, sabotaging your relationships, failing to take accountability for your actions, being mind-numbingly culturally insensitive and/or just generally being a putz.

If you find that your purse, phone, wallet, or passport repeatedly gets stolen or lost, it’s time to grow up and accept the truth of things.  It’s not because you have bad luck. It’s because you are being a moron. In addition, if you don’t know how to handle alcohol, then either stop drinking in public or do what the rest of us do and stop behaving like a drunken buffoon.

Similarly, if you find that “everyone hates you and you just don’t know why” it’s probably because you’re an asshole. Well, that’s unfair.  You and I both know that you’re probably not an asshole at heart (after all, you were cool enough to decide to study abroad!) but chances are some of your behaviors are driving other people away.

So, if you find yourself preparing to embark on a study abroad trip, traveling abroad, or as an exchange student I encourage you to be extremely mindful of where you are, of how you engage and interact with people, and above all that you not only take accountability for your actions but also for your own behavior and the ramifications of that behavior.  At the end of the day you are not helpless.  You are not abandoned. The system is not out to get you. The locals are not at war with you.  You WILL face challenges and setbacks…but how you respond to those when they do occur will shape the nature of your experience and the willingness of people to help you.

Let me be clear: YOU are the greatest threat out there to having a safe, enjoyable, social, and wonderful learning experience.

I encourage you all to enjoy every moment of your trips and hope that moving forward we’ll see fewer and fewer people sabotaging themselves and their experiences.  It’s the little things that add up. Change those, re-frame them, and push yourself to be more than you were yesterday and you’ll do great.

Have fun and safe travels!

Hopefully this post was something you knew already, but perhaps you know someone who needs to read it.  If you do, send it on to them and let’s all push for the best, most enjoyable study abroad experience possible!

Oh, and for the love of all things decent. Please, please, please remember that most people DO understand English and likely CAN understand you and they probably DO hear you.  It’s amazing how many people seem to think its acceptable to comment about people sitting right in front of them (often in less then complimentary terms) simply because they’re not in a native English speaking country.

The Incredible Power of Social Networks Illustrated By Studying, Living and Travelling Abroad

Nyhavn Harbor in Copenhagen


Housing in Copenhagen

When I signed the agreement and notified the University of Copenhagen that I was headed to Denmark I assumed I’d face a lot of challenges upon arrival.  Things like visa issues, language barriers, and a drastic change in weather.  What I didn’t expect was the housing nightmare that greeted me.  I arrived in Copenhagen on July 20th.  Four months later, after aggressively scouring available housing outlets, my search was finally rewarded. On November 29th, I moved into an apartment that should last me for the next 12+ months (and hopefully the remainder of my stay here in Denmark).

It was my well-developed, trans-continental social network that saved me.  Utilizing contacts, new and old, I was able to keep an affordable roof over my head while I undertook an arduous search. Without this  ace in my pocket ,  I would have been camped in hostels and hotels for months, spending an exorbitant amount of money with no room for my luggage. My story illustrates the importance of a social network and what a powerful tool it can be.

United States Based Trip Prep

Between 2004 and 2007 I worked for a commercial real estate company in Phoenix, Arizona.   I worked closely with many brokers and their teams.  In 2007 I left the company to travel Europe for 3 months. When I returned to Arizona, I took a job as an analyst with a business sales, mergers and acquisitions company. I stayed in touch with past colleagues and my social network continued to grow. Fast forward three years.  I informed my boss that I planned to return to school to pursue my Masters and would be moving to Denmark.  While sorry to see me go, he eagerly accessed his mental rolodex for ways to help me with the move.  This is where it starts to get complicated and the obscure beauty and power of a network starts to really come to light.  He recalled that one of the real estate team members who had helped with the purchase of our new building had dated a Danish guy. The head of that team and her boss was an old contact that I happened to also know, independently, through our mutual time spent at my previous job in the commercial real estate company.  In an odd twist of overlapping networks, when the time came to purchase a new building my boss reached out to his friend and contact: the real estate broker from my old company.  Over the course of the purchase and move into our new building, I ended up not only re-connecting with my old real estate contact, but also meeting his team, which included the woman who had dated the Danish guy and I mentioned previously. Whew, confusing right?

Back to my meeting with my boss – on the spot he picked up the phone, called, and made the connection for me.  While no longer dating the Danish guy, she spoke highly of him and because she knew me offered to put me in touch with him.  A few minutes later, I fired off an e-mail with general questions about Denmark, housing, phones, and language barriers.  I continued my trip prep while my new Danish contact responded with great suggestions, and things moved forward.

Copenhagen’s Unexpected Rental Market

After arriving in Copenhagen I realized that not only was it going to take much longer than expected to get my visa, but housing was both more expensive and significantly harder to find than I had assumed.  To be fair, the University had warned that finding housing in Copenhagen was expensive and difficult.  On the flip side, they did just short of nothing to help with the process.

As someone coming from Phoenix, I was met by a whole different world.  In Phoenix we have such a glut of available apartments and housing that you can sign up with an agent for free who will then show you around various apartments.  The agent is compensated by the apartment complex(s) who regularly offer signup bonuses. If that fails there’s more than enough housing from private landlords available.  The search for an apartment seldom lasts more than a week.

In Copenhagen the situation is the exact opposite.  It’s not uncommon for people to search for an apartment for 3-6 months.  Renters sign up on a mixture of free and pay sites to gain access to apartment rental listings.  A listing inside the city proper in the 3,000-4,000 DKK per month ($600-800 USD) rental range typically garners between 80 and 250 e-mails in the first day!  There is also a heavy preference among renters for female and Danish tenants which added an extra layer of difficulty as a male international student.

After my fifth day in the hostel I followed up with the Danish contact I had been introduced to.  Luckily, he had a spare room available for a month before his tenants moved in and he graciously offered to let me use it.  With a huge sigh of relief, I figured I’d be all set. After all, a month is a long time…Right?

As August drew to a close, it became apparent that my visa would not be arriving any time soon and that the one offer which had been made by a “local” dorm, was too far out of town (45 minutes) to justify accepting.

Luckily, here again my network made a huge leap forward. My host reached out to a friend of his who also doubled as his house cleaner.  She was willing to host me for a month or two, but was hesitant as the apartment didn’t have doors for about half the rooms.  A long time hosteler, I mentioned it wasn’t an issue for me. It turned out that she and I got along well.  She was a gracious host and between our busy schedules the shortage of doors in the apartment wasn’t an issue.  I can’t stress how wonderful she was to allow me to invade her apartment like that.  Especially when one considers just how obscure my connection to her was.

Eventually, my visa came through as my hunt for an apartment continued.  I was hampered by my class schedule and the need to use public sources of internet to endlessly scan, and then pounce on room postings.  While I looked at several, nothing came through until I finally had an offer for a room on Amager near campus.  It looked great.  It was a guy and his two dogs.  He smoked but that didn’t seem like it would be an issue.  He was extremely friendly, nice, and happy to help with things.

After a week I was able to move in and started to get settled.  Everything seemed to be going well until it became obvious that we had two extremely different lifestyles that were not compatible. I moved out the next day.  Luckily, the female Danish friend I had been staying with came to me rescue and welcomed me back without so much as a grumble.  We had a good laugh about the mis-adventure and my search began once again with renewed vigor.  Contacts and my emerging network in Copenhagen shared several opportunities with me, but none panned out.  Desperate to be able to unpack/get settled and with the semester coming to a close, I took a new approach. I started offering more than asking rent. It turns out that money trumped being male, and an international. Within a week and a half I had a lead on a place.  It took another two weeks to finalize things before I was able to move in.

Now, I finally have what I hope will be a semi-permanent home for the remainder of my time here in Copenhagen.

It has been an adventure, and to be fair, I could have found a place much quicker had I been willing to live 45+ minutes outside of the city.  As an international student, and someone who has experienced the incredible power of networks, I felt it was extremely important for my immersion, social activity, and overall experience here in Copenhagen to be in or near the University. The cost of commuting was also a key factor. Ultimately the need to be somewhat centrally located has made things more difficult and somewhat more expensive.  In the long run though, it has also been well worth it.

It’s important to note that I only had the opportunity to make that choice, however, because of the incredible help offered to me through my network of friends and contacts.  I owe a lot of these individuals a huge debt of gratitude and their open, helpful, and friendly nature has really inspired me to pay-it-forward and to be mindful of how I can help my friends, contacts, and their extended network.

At the end of the day, I hope this helps you all remember to never, ever, ever, underestimate the power, capability and influence your network can bring to bear.

To all those that helped along the way.  Thank you.

Delta Airlines Pre-flight Turbulence

Call me old fashioned if you want, but when I enter into an agreement and make a commitment I take that commitment seriously.  Once you’ve placed your trust in me and I’ve committed to something, you know I’ll get it done. I guess it’s too much to ask, but that’s the level of commitment I’ve always expected from companies I’ve paid for a service. When you sell me a product or service, and I pay good money – i expect that service to be delivered as agreed upon. Want to go above and beyond? By all means feel free, but you do not – I repeat – do not deliver something inferior to what you contracted with me for.

If I go to buy a Silver Cadillac XLR with 500 miles on it and you’ve agreed to sell me a Silver Cadillac XLR with 500 miles on it, you don’t try and swap it out for a Pink Cadillac XLR with 15,000 miles on it and several scratches when I show up at the dealership.  Especially if I’ve already paid you for the vehicle.

Unless of course, you’re Delta Airlines and it’s an international ticket paid for months in advance.  I booked Saturday’s airfare between Phoenix and Dublin through Delta on March 19th.  At $623 I got a decent deal, but could have waited and purchased a ticket on special through another airline/vendor for $200 less. In fact, I booked with Delta – and paid extra – in part because I thought they’d be better than US Airways. I paid more and booked directly through Delta.com.

Months later, on July 11th at 6:00AM I was scheduled to be at the Phoenix Airport for a flight from Phoenix -> JFK -> Dublin.  I live 45 minutes away from Phoenix Sky Harbor, which meant I had to recruit someone to drive me to the airport at 3:30AM Saturday morning – that’s a pretty big favor to ask.

I’m not a small guy, at 6’4″ and 200 pounds I’m thin but tall.  Airplanes aren’t made for people my size. Leg and knee space is an issue and I’m too tall for the molded and shaped seat backs on most aircraft. So, it’s worth added energy, time and in some cases money to get an early reservation and to secure an emergency row seat.  Especially on long duration flights. So, shortly after placing my reservation in March I called in to reserve seating.  I secured isle rows for several of the legs of my trip and assumed everything was taken care of.  As far as I knew I had adequate seating, one layover in JFK and everything was squared away.

In late May I called in once again to confirm that nothing had changed with my seating. The agent seamed helpful enough, went through the seating assignments for Phoenix -> JFK, JFK -> Dublin and the return legs. Then mentioned something quickly about a stop in Salt Lake City. At the time, I thought it strange but when I asked about it, he said everything was in order on the ticket and made no mention of the changes that had been made to my booking. It threw me off slightly, but without a visual itinerary in front of me, and since I had not received any type of notification that my reservation had been changed it sounded like a quick stop and go included in the original ticket.

July 8th

Fast forward to July 8th, just days before I’m scheduled to leave I receive Delta’s automatic confirmation message, ” We’re Reconfirming – So You Don’t Have To!” – great! I glance at it, see I’m leaving at Phoenix at 6:05AM (5 minutes later than my original booking) and arriving in Dublin at 7:50 AM and assume everything in the middle is as booked. I’ve already re-confirmed the info several times so think nothing more of it.

July 9th

Fatefully, I read a Phoenix Business Journal article about Delta Airlines and United Airlines getting fined for more than $375,000 (Delta) and $80,000 (United) for shady flight cancellations and wrongfully bumping passengers on oversold flights.  Less than an hour later I set to the task of photo copying my passport and credit cards while printing out copies of my flight itinerary and the confirmation which arrived on the 8th.  As I’m doing so, I notice that I’m no longer scheduled on the flight from Phoenix -> JFK -> Dublin.  I’ve been switched to a Phoenix -> Salt Lake City -> JFK -> Dublin route.  Surprised and wondering how I accidentally booked a flight with 2 layovers, I pulled up my original confirmation (now made months previous) and confirm that I’d been switched to a completely different flight without ever receiving any form of notification.

Needless to say, I was livid.  The fact that they completely re-routed my flight without notifying me aside, I paid a premium for a ticket that had 1 layover. A layover isn’t a minor trivial detail.  It drastically increases the potential that baggage gets lost, that there are complications and flight delays and negates the whole point of reserving my ticket months in advance by scrapping my seating preferences. Not to mention it’s a complete pain in the ass.  It’s the worst type of bait and switch and in addition to being dishonest, is downright disrespectful.

Aggravated, I immediately called Delta to see just what the hell was going on.  After spending 5 minutes on hold and working my way through an obnoxious voice driven call interface I finally was put on with a Mrs. Huber.  In a frustrated but respectful fashion I asked what was going on and expressed my frustration with Delta over the change and my anger about not being notified.

The agent explained that Delta no longer flew into JFK but that she’d be happy to re-route my already re-routed flight through Atlanta Georgia instead of Salt Lake City.  No longer flew into JFK? I expressed my surprise and confusion as she quickly explained the Georgia re-route.

Something didn’t make sense.  How could 1) Delta “No longer fly into JFK” but 2) Still route both my return flight and the Salt Lake City->JFK->Dublin leg of my flight through JFK?  I inquired and was insistent. I wasn’t about to get stranded or have to try and fix my return flight details from Ireland. My confusion repeatedly earned more than one sarcastic, “What don’t you understand?”. What don’t I understand? Well, it turns out that Delta DOES still operate out of JFK and that by “We no longer fly into JFK” the agent meant – the Phoenix -> JFK leg had been canceled on July 11th. Never the less, apparently I’m the 24 year old Honors grad/idiot who didn’t get it.

Bitchy attitude, sarcasm and general rudeness aside – we move on. She checks the Phx -> ATL -> Dublin re-direct and with a terse “Do you want to go through Georgia or not?” gets my approval to update the booking.

Already severely annoyed with each other, Mrs. Huber and I press on as I try and identify how an Airline can change my booking completely without bothering to notify or clear it with me.  Turns out that according to Delta I was notified.  Confident that I didn’t miss a phone call and hadn’t missed any e-mails from Delta I was, as you might imagine, rather surprised.

Apparently that quick comment made as I re-confirmed my seating on May 20th over the phone?  The agent should have told me that my route had been hijacked and a extra layover added.  I remember the call clearly.  I was not notified beyond mention of the seat number that my reservation had essentially been thrown out the window and completely re-worked. Was it his fault or Delta’s?  I have no clue.  I can tell you it sure as hell wasn’t mine though. Was there ever an e-mail or phone call to confirm the change?  Nope. Any type of direct mention of the change? Nope.

Growing increasingly annoyed by Mrs. Huber’s tone I hung up and re-dialed. The 2nd agent I got was was pleasant, friendly and eager to help – to an extent. She confirmed my new (third) route through Atlanta, which now departs at 12:15PM and arrives at 10AM in Dublin.  Keep in mind my Dad is driving from Prescott and staying the night at my place to take me to the airport at 3:00AM and my brother who’s currently in Europe and difficult to contact is planning on meeting me at the Dublin Airport at 7:50AM. Both of which I need to now notify about the changes. The 2nd agent (who’s name I unfortunately didn’t write down) set to re-assigning my seats on the new flights and managed to secure 2 isle seats. The catch? I’m looking at 43G from Atlanta to Dublin. That’s not an isle seat and it’s anything but near the front of the Aircraft.

Delta’s response to the whole thing? An insincere apology and a shrug of the shoulders over not notifying me correctly. No effort to make things right until they got caught, completely unwilling to offer any sort of upgrade for the inconvenience and anything but apologetic about the whole affair.  Oh, did I mention that Mrs. Huber had the nerve to try and up sell me hotel and food add-ons at the end of the call? 180 degrees from what she should have been offering. Astounding.

Delta’s approach to customer service? Apparently it’s a – we’ll do whatever we want and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.  It looks like I just ended up with that Pink Cadillac XLR with 15,000 miles and a dent.

So, to my readers and the travel community – add Delta to your do not travel list.  They’re just another group of dishonest crooks.  If the economy takes them out, the only tears I’ll be shedding are tears of joy.

If, on the off chance someone at Delta is embarrassed by this whole thing and does want to make things right I invite them to e-mail me via alex[at]virtualwayfarer.com. I’ll be waiting for a sincere apology.