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.

24 Hours in Dublin

Dublin - Near Temple bar

My adventure began at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  I arrived a few hours early preparing for the possibility of long lines and delays.  I shouldn’t have worried.  The Phoenix Airport is not only one of the friendliest, but also one of the most convenient I’ve ever flown through.  It took me less than 20 minutes to find my way from curb to gate leaving me with a 2 hour wait before my flight.  I didn’t mind, the extra peace of mind was worth a few extra minutes in the terminal.

I settled in, pulled out my netbook, and streamed an episode or two via Hulu using the Airport’s complimentary wifi service.  Another benefit to flying out of Sky Harbor.

Before long my flight began to board.  We piled on and quickly sandwiched ourselves into our seats.  Unfortunately, mine was the middle seat.  Luckily both of the gentlemen I was sitting next to were of a reasonable weight and friendly.

Then something odd happened.  I’ve heard of and been in all sorts of weather delays.  I’ve had mechanical delays, and scheduling delays…but I’d never had a weather delay on a bright, sunny, Phoenix afternoon.  As it turned out, our flight was delayed by just under an hour – the captain informed us that we were too heavy.  The sweltering Phoenix heat had increased just as the wind shifted which meant we had to drop several thousand pounds before we’d be able to take off.  I guess there’s a first for everything.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. Though initially expecting the delay to be problematic, I made my connection to Ireland without difficulty.  Sleep was more wishful thinking than reality, but that’s par for the course. Some day I’ll learn how to sleep sitting up.  Until then….well, I’ll be thankful for movies on my netbook and a good book.

Dublin

I arrived in Dublin just after 9am.  My lack of sleep was offset by adrenaline and excitement. I seemed to draw new energy from the very ground I was walking upon.  The adventure was finally real.  I’d made it! There was no going back, no chance of cancellations or obstacles.

City Streets - Dublin

I hit the ATM first, then found my way to the tourist center where I bought my bus pass and broke a 50.  There’s nothing quite as obnoxious as having to break large ATM bills while traveling. Why they don’t have a “small bills” option is beyond me. Too inconvenient for the bank no doubt.

The air was crisp and warm, the sky sunny and bright. It would be a beautiful day.

Kinlay Hostel Dublin - Mural

The bus ride lasted about 30 minutes and deposited me on Dublin’s main drag, next to their millennial spire – a gargantuan steel spire that pierces the heavens.  A grin on my face I set off towards Temple Bar and my hostel, all the while retracing old steps from previous visits. Over the river, up past the bar district, past Dublin Castle and then around one last corner before I arrived at Kinlay House, Dublin.

Outdoor Market in Dublin - Food

I checked in, but had to wait until 2 before my bed would be ready which was expected. My main pack in a luggage locker at the hostel I set out to poke around town and quickly tracked down the small out door market I’d discovered on a previous trip.

Outdoor Market - Dublin

A few Euro later found me with a delicious Bratwurst and several small bags filled with fresh goodies — rice wrapped in olive leaves, green olives, and fresh anchovies.  Treats in hand, I made my way across the river to a wooden boardwalk where I settled in and enjoyed my small, savory feast.

Temple Bar District - Dublin

With a full belly I was off to poke around town: A quick stop at Trinity College for some video; a quick hello at the statue of Molly Malone; a pleasant stroll through central park, where I paused and watched a grandfather and his granddaughter feeding the ducks;  a few moments spent on the main market street watching street performers; then a final stroll back through Temple Bar to the hostel.

Little Girl Feeding Ducks and Swans - Dublin

Once back at the hostel I found my way to my room, crawled into my bunk bed and crashed, only to be greeted by strange dreams.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

I dreamed of a parade, of huge crowds, loud music and chanting.  It was odd. I never dream of parades. Why would I?  ….and then I started to slip towards consciousness.  As I drifted up and out of my slumber, the music and chanting remained. It turns out the dreams were a reflection of reality.  The noise was coming through my open 3rd story window from the street below where thousands, if not tens of thousands, people marched along the street celebrating Ireland’s Pride Day.  I’d noticed an abundance of rainbow flags earlier in the day, but hadn’t thought much of it. As it turns out, it was a huge festival filled with color, music, and thousands of people marching for equality.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

I settled in and enjoyed my birds-eye view as cars, buses, and people strolled by chanting, smiling, and singing. A convertible with 5 drag queens preceded the YouTube bus, which was followed by a semi pulling a flatbed trailer which announced the world’s first LGTB circus.  The whole spectacle was a welcome surprise.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

I crawled back into bed and stole another few hours of sleep before finding my way to the common room where I made a few new friends, as we watched the USA’s exit from the world cup.  Starving, I split off and wandered through Temple Bar which had turned into a madhouse.  Streets near gay-friendly bars (most of Temple Bar) were packed with people who had spilled out of the bars, live music, and general revelry.  In more than a few areas the streets were so busy that the crowd was shoulder to shoulder.  The sheer level of positive energy was delightful and the variety of outfits was quite often quite comical.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

After tracking down a bite to eat and a few beers I found my way back to the hostel where, to my delight, I recognized the guy working the front desk.  Hostel workers are typically fairly temporary in nature, so it was with some surprise I recognized a guy from Belgium, also named Alex, who I’d gotten to know during my previous stay in July 2009.  We caught up and bullshitted a bit before I re-joined the rest of the party I’d met earlier, while adding a few new friends. We drank our beers and set out for a night on the town. A few pubs later, we found ourselves deep underground in an old wine cellar-converted into a night club where we danced a decent portion of the night away.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

Jet lagged and tired, I wound down around 1:30amand made my way back to the hostel.  I had a 6am wake-up call for my flight to Norway.  The previous 48 hours had been intense.  The following 24 promised not to disappoint.

Dublin Part III

Still slightly drowsy, we rubbed sleep from our eyes and made our way downstairs. Tossed a few hamburger-like patties in the microwave for breakfast and said our good-mornings.

After recharging cameras, writing a few blog posts, and socializing for a bit David and I met up with three English girls – two of whom we’d met briefly the evening before. After chatting for a while the five of us set off to meander through the city…we made our way down across Temple Bar, past vibrantly colored pubs and wound towards Trinity College and it’s gorgeous campus, situated in the very heart of Dublin. Passing through the huge outer doors/compound walls, the campus opened up before us with large greens, beautiful trees and historic buildings. Pausing periodically for pictures we wound our way through the campus before striking out and heading north towards the bronze statue of Molly Malone – famous fishmonger by day and immortalized lady of the night. You’ll find her name affectionately referenced in a number of Irish songs and as the namesake of a similar number of Irish pubs.

We paused with Molly to take a quick photo, while Lizzie leaned in for a quick squeeze, before cutting across to the Dublin tourist center. The center, like a number of other buildings in the Isles, is in an old converted cathedral. Large, spacious and beautiful, the interior is jam-packed with booths, fliers, and tourist gear.

From the tourist center we found a small bridge across the Lithie River and down along O’Connell Street. Pausing so our English companions could grab a cup of tea, we braved intermittent raindrops and soon found ourselves wandering through a slightly more rugged section of the city. The industrial feel quickly gave way to office buildings and a beautiful river walk. We spotted a 3-masted schooner tied up about a quarter of a mile down the river.

We wound down past a rather powerful monument commemorating the potato famine with gaunt, holocaust-esque bronze figures, before getting a good look at the ship from a narrow walking bridge that crossed the river.

Tired and footsore we climbed up the opposite side of the river-walk and back across Temple bar. Pausing to pick up cooking supplies for dinner at a small market, we found our way home and set to the task of a nap and preparing dinner.

By the time we set to cooking dinner, things were bustling. As we all piled into the kitchen, ducking and dodging each other we made new friends, shared food and stories. Eventually, eyes glazing over with full stomachs we settled in for another round of Kaste Gris. With the Danes laughing along joyfully we butchered the pronunciation, took our turns throwing the small pig-like dice, shouting, hollering and applauding good rolls.

As the evening progressed, we rounded up a good group of Brits, Danes, Austrians and a few others and then set off to the Porter House. There we listened to live music until close, before heading across the street to the Turks Head – a small club/bar which was offering Salsa. A few dances later, they called it a night, leaving us to start our own dance party – congo line included – in the bar/nightclub part of the venue. Eager for new surroundings, we migrated back to the Czech Bar shortly thereafter where we continued to dance, drink, and mingle well into the evening.

Not to be outdone by the previous evening, by the time we finally returned to the hostel, we quickly settled into the common room where Rasmus played a few songs as we sang and wound down.

The City of Dublin Part II

The bus ride into town was straight forward. During a 15 minute wait at the bus stop, I met three American girls who had just arrived from New York. Our bus finally arrived, we piled aboard and hunkered down for the 40 minute ride from the airport.

Before long I recognized familiar sights. Even though a lot had changed since 2004, enough had stayed the same that I was able to navigate my way through the streets and make my way towards Christchurch Cathedral, which Nate had told me, was immediately next to our hostel: The Kinlay House.

As I trudged up towards the doorway to the hostel, a large red blur bust through he doorway. Before I knew what was happening I’d been picked up in a giant bear hug, day pack, main pack and all and was being spun around in a circle, feet flayed out, narrowly missing several shocked couples who had previous been walking behind me. Finally after 6 months Nate and I reconnected. He eventually let me down, and traffic once again made it’s way past us and down the street, while we caught up. The trip was finally real. The adventure had finally properly begun.

In the last 6 months Nate’s grown a mighty red beard, traded weight for muscle and truly come into his own as a social node. Despite only arriving the day before, he’d already befriended most of the hostel and hostel staff and made a name for himself. Ask around and people might have trouble recalling the name of the hostel, but most will be able to tell you about David from Arizona. A fantastic testament to how incredible the experiences over the last 6 months have been for him.

We had a brief wait before the room was ready during which time Nate caught me up on some of his adventures, while introducing me to three Danes, an Israeli girl and a French girl, whom he’d befriended. We sat, became acquainted and told stories.

Before long we were able to check in, deposit our bags, and set out to wander Dublin in search of food. The day itself is a bit of a blur, in no small part due to my jet lag, however, we struck off through the square surrounding Christchurch Cathedral, and headed into the old Viking quarter of the city, before banking down a side street. Looking for cheaper food, we eventually found a nondescript pub that lacked a name and actually looked like it was closed. We decided to give the door a try and to our surprise found ourselves in a fun little pub full of men in their 50s and 60s sitting around B.S.ing and watching the local Irish football game. With a hearty, “Welcome Lads!” and warm Irish smile the attention of the bar panned our way briefly, before returning to the televisions. We saddled up the bar, quickly realized they didn’t serve any food, and decided to pause for a Guinness before continuing our search.

From the pub we quickly found a small market where we picked up food and drinks before winding our way back through a light rain to the hostel. Once there we joined the throngs in the hostel kitchen and added our pasta and supplies to the mix.

Stuffed we retired for a brief nap – I was exhausted – before heading back down to the common area where we met back up with our Danish and Israeli friends, as well as several new ones. Drinks in hand, our group quickly grew with open smiles and ready invites to join. By 9:40 or so we rounded up the masses, tossed on our rain jackets and made our way down the street to the Porter House. A local brewpub on the edge of Temple Bar, the Porter House is a fun 4-story bar that winds up around an open central area which houses a small stage, sandwiched between floors. They had a great Irish band playing a wide variety of music, a little room for a bit of dancing, and plenty of room for socializing and further travel and adventure stories.

By 11:30 they were closing up and we elected to take it easy. The Danes suggested we join them the following morning at 9:00AM for a tour they’d signed up for of the Wicklow area south of Dublin. Eager to get into the countryside we agreed and booked the trip upon our return to the hostel.

Exhausted, I collapsed into my bunk and quickly drifted into a deep sleep.