Avoid Wrecking Your Study Abroad Experience

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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.