One thing that I have to re-conquer each time I’m in a new city is the transit systems. I feel like I’m playing a game of “Crack the Code” when I am learning a new system. If you aren’t walking or riding a bike, public transportation is most likely your best (and cheapest) way to get from place to place while studying abroad. So you’ll have some sleuthing to do.
Once you enter a new system you have to don your Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap and go to work on figuring out its inner workings. Let’s take a bus system for example. What all do I say to the driver? Do I have to say anything to the driver? What if I don’t have exact change? What if I don’t know exactly where I am going? Will I not be able to communicate what it is I need to know or want to do? What is the bus stop etiquette? Do I have to flag a bus or will it stop automatically? Is there a right or wrong way to flag a bus?
Also, you need to figure out what line or combination of lines will get you to your destination, when, and for how much. It has always been a daunting task for me, never more so than while being in another country. This means making some mistakes and feeling foolish.
Upon arriving in Utrecht, Netherlands, my roommate met me at the train station and led the way to my new home. We had to take the bus. I was exhausted from the overnight flight and on sensory and emotional overload on having arrived in a new land. There was no way that how the bus worked or even what stop we lived at was going to sink in.
The next day I learned what our stop name was (Viaduct – easy you’d think), about the strippenkaart (the bus ticket/pass), and how much I wanted to avoid the whole thing. Fortunately, the bicycle is the national mode of transportation, but even that had its own set of rules to figure out.
I like to use buses as a way of getting to know an area and seeing what’s around – a personal sight-seeing tour, if you will. In Utrecht, I couldn’t easily just hop on a bus and ride it till I was ready to get off. You had to know your destination in order to find out how many lines of your strippenkaart you needed to use.
I could get from home to downtown easy enough due to the main train station being there and my ability to say Centraal Station clearly; it was getting home that always proved a bit more difficult. I had the toughest time saying Viaduct in a Dutch accent. The V takes on an almost F sound and the ‘duct’ sounds more like ‘dookt.’ I would say it as fast a possible, but I was so uncertain and lacking in confidence in my speech that I made the process more stressful for myself by having to repeat it several times to the drivers at a slower pace – clearly giving away my foreigner status.
Eventually I got the hang of it and learned the names of the two or three main bus stops that I would use. But I preferred to use my bicycle as often as possible, even on longer journeys, which was amazingly possible in this flat country.
The nice thing is usually once you use the system the first time, each time after is a lot easier. Like so many other aspects of studying abroad, not worrying about making a fool of yourself is the best way to approach learning the transit systems. Speaking from experience as someone who did not do this, I think the benefits outweigh the momentary feeling a fool.