Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Going Back to Your Host Country

I’m currently in the beginning stages of planning a trip to the Netherlands this fall. This will be the first time I’ve returned since my time studying abroad in the city of Utrecht twelve years ago. This will be the last of my study abroad locations to go back to. I’ve been to Dublin/Ireland twice since that summer in 2001. The first time was four months after the program and the second was four years later. My return trips to London were similar: four months and three years later. This one, comparatively, is a bit overdue.

Oudegracht, Utrecht, Netherlands
Oudegracht, Utrecht, Netherlands

On my first return trip to Ireland I donned the hat of tour guide for two girlfriends from Utrecht. I knew what shuttle to take from the airport, what hostel to stay at, how to get around easily, and what pubs were the best. I was too busy living up to my nickname ‘Let’s Go Lindsay’ to really pay attention to anything other than showing off my old stomping grounds. This was primarily to keep myself distracted and emotionally disconnected from the trip. I knew it couldn’t possibly live up to the summer and I was fearful that something might happen to tarnish that time.

Inevitably, I began to compare things. The group dynamic was different. These two girls weren’t the six people I hung out with four months ago. The time of year was different. Instead of being able to be outside in the summer sun, it was December with signs of Christmas everywhere and snow keeping us indoors. The overcast days mimicked my mental state.

3rd time's a charm for kissing the Blarney Stone
3rd time’s a charm for kissing the Blarney Stone

But soon I realized that different was also good. With less of us, it was easier to stay together in hostels, or find a place to sit in restaurants and pubs, and there were less personalities to please. These girls wanted to do things that the summer group didn’t. The cold weather showed me another side to the cities and their inhabitants. And who doesn’t want to spend more time in a warm pub? I was also able fill in some missing gaps from the summer such as finally getting my picture taken kissing the Blarney Stone, which my summer photographer didn’t take in time – twice (ahem, Kevy). This trip added to my experience of Ireland, made it more dynamic. Whatever concerns I had before going turned out to be fruitless.

I am really excited to go back to the Netherlands, which is 180 degrees from how I felt when I left. I just wanted to go home and put all that had happened (9/11, culture shock, anxiety attacks, broken heart) behind me. I am returning with a purpose. There are plenty of other travel destinations on my list, but I think it is time I pay homage to a place that was the backdrop to a very formative time for me. Perhaps I’ll even gain some closure on a few things. I’m not quite sure what to expect, or even know yet what I hope will happen, but I’m ready to find out what does and expand my experience of the Netherlands.

Posted in Study Abroad

My Irish-Bred Drinking Habits

Heading to Ireland on my first study abroad program, my 21st year came a year early. Not a frequent drinker, I was going to at least try my hand at Guinness and Jameson with the legal age for drinking being 18. Over the course of the next eight weeks, I unknowingly shaped my drinking habits from that point forward. To this day, from what I prefer to drink to what environment I most enjoy drinking in has its roots in my time in Ireland.

Prior to departure, this was my profile: occasional drinker, not a heavy partier, enjoyed some mixed drinks but mostly enjoyed shots, always drank to get drunk but never knew I was drunk until it was too late to not be really hungover the next day, and preferred drinking at someone’s apartment or dorm to being out. By the time I returned to the US, most of that had changed.

On my first night out in Temple Bar in Dublin, Guinness was my first drink. Yuck! I had to choke down that pint. How could my sister love that beer? It tasted disgusting to me. I wasn’t taking any chances after that so I ordered a Heineken. At least I had tried it, I thought. At the next bar that evening I tried someone’s Carlsberg and was happy to have found a beer I hadn’t heard of before that was palatable. This experience is all about trying new things, right?

Over the next couple of weeks Carlsberg led to Smithwick’s (Smid-icks) which then led to Kilkenny, another Guinness product. This became my favorite beer. I wish I could get Kilkenny here in the States (lucky Canadians). Kilkenny is red in color and, as a cream ale, is thicker than Guinness, which, much to people’s disbelief, is actually relatively light in texture. That I was enjoying a cream ale shocked me; my taste buds for beer had come a long way from Heineken. It was time to try Guinness again. I did and I loved it. Still do.

St. Francis Abbey Brewery in Kilkenny, home to Smithwick’s

As for Jameson, I enjoyed it, but then at some point near the end of my program I lost my taste for liquor. Once I returned to Wisconsin I found that I could not down a shot without my gag reflex being triggered. Still can’t. I had officially switched from being a liquor drinker to a beer drinker.

Limits were a nice thing I learned too. I quickly began to understand that I wouldn’t feel well the next morning if I had more than four pints of draught beer, keeping in mind that an Irish pint is 570 ml or just over 19 oz as compared to the US pint of 14 or 16 oz. I became in control what kind of evening (and the following morning) I was going to have. It helped in maintaining the balance of work and play. Paying attention to how much I’m consuming and of the consequences at different imbibing levels still plays a role in my drinking.

Also, being allowed into bars was new for me. I wasn’t sure how I’d like them. Back in Madison the college bars seemed to be meat markets, something I wasn’t interested in being a part of. Maybe it’s because they were my first highly frequented bars but I loved the pubs in Ireland. From the stereotypical “traditional” pub to the brightly lit workman’s pub to the loud metal bar to the country western pub, I loved them all. What I loved most about the pubs was the seeming overall acceptance of people of varying ages coming together to share a common space, having a pint and enjoying the craic.

I have yet to find a bar in the US where this is comfortably accepted. While their pubs had an air of mutual respect amongst the differing age groups, here in the US there seems a palpable distaste for other age groups. I have to say I’m as much a part of that as those I see around me. I’ve been known to say a negative thing or two about those younger than myself. Is it because I didn’t grow up in a culture where respect across age groups was valued? If I could find a bar that replicated the feel of any one of those pubs (well maybe not the metal bar), I would definitely go out on the town more. As it is, I get a closer feeling at a friend’s house or in my own home.

Upon leaving Ireland my profile became and still is: casual drinker, enjoys beer and trying new beers (I’ve noticed how my preference in type of beer has changed over the years as well – I used to really like wheat beers, now I prefer hoppy beers), I know my limits and pay attention as they change with different drinks, and though I still prefer a house/home to a bar, I enjoy going out now, and I’m still in search of a place that captures something similar to that in Ireland. If I learned to drink somewhere else, I don’t know what kind of drinking profile I’d have today. But I can’t imagine having a better self exploration and transition period from being underage to being of age than I got from my time in Ireland.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Saying Goodbye

It’s August. Summer study abroad programs are coming to an end. Students are packing up, returning home, and within a couple weeks will be headed back to their college campuses for the fall semester. But while thinking about going home, they’re also figuring out how to say goodbye.

I was very tired at the end of my summer program in Dublin, Ireland. It was without a doubt the busiest eight weeks of my life: attending class, doing coursework, going on program excursions, sightseeing around Dublin, and traveling every free weekend. That was just the physical side. Don’t forget the emotional roller coaster of meeting new people, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, and experiencing something new daily. A part of me was looking forward to the rest that would come with being home but I didn’t want to leave this amazing place and these awesome people I had befriended.

As the final week approached there was a sense of things winding down. My friends and I were all in agreement about how special the summer had been and what it had meant to us; we dared not speak a word of it ending. But you couldn’t ignore the sadness in the exchanges when you would run into someone else also doing their last minute shopping on Grafton Street to pick up gifts and purchase those items they’ve long had their eye on. And everywhere there’d be students with their cameras out snapping photos of their friends and sights around the city obsessively making sure they’d captured everything.

Inishmore, Aran Islands

Then came my friends and my last trip together. We headed west to Galway, the Aran Islands, and the Cliffs of Moher. Sure, there had been arguing and attitudes on other trips but there was a different tone this time. Everyone was on edge. We couldn’t decide what we wanted to do collectively. Plans changed numerous times all within the first few hours of arriving in Galway. Splitting up proved to be our best solution – a precursor to what would happen in less than a week.

We came back together that first evening to celebrate the 21st birthday of the girl who became my best friend (and still is). Tension was still in the air but we rallied and ended up having a great time. With our bad moods exorcised, we sailed to the Aran Islands a much more cohesive group. We realized how far we had stretched our comfort zones by how much we found we trusted each other. Our gaiety, lightness, and silliness returned amplified.

On the last leg of our trip we chose to hike the couple of hours from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher along the coast rather than take the 20 minute bus ride. We just wanted more – more mishaps, more adventure, more laughter, more anything. And we got more. There was an incident with an electric fence shocking one of us as we crawled underneath. There was the discovery of someone’s fear of cows, which we had to walk amongst. And there was a moment of panic as we passed an ‘Extreme Danger’ sign as the land rose up higher, the path drew nearer to the edge, and the mud grew slipperier in the falling rain.

While waiting for the bus to take us from the Cliffs back to town, our conversations leaned towards the reflective and back to the beginning of the trip. We began to share our first impressions of each other unedited. This moved into sharing our favorite highlights from the summer. It was bittersweet to know we didn’t have much time to make more memories.

Back in Dublin, the last night arrived. The evening started with a party sponsored by the program. After drinks and dancing we said goodbye to the rest of our program. We headed to our favorite club and danced till the wee hours of the morning. Once back at the dorms we met in the boys’ kitchen for sustenance and some final rounds of our favorite card game of the summer – Hearts. We tried to stay up all night as everyone was leaving early in the morning. Unfortunately, we didn’t all quite make it.

Hugs and goodbyes took place in the kitchen. One girl passed out playing cards on which she’d taped her contact information – an homage to all our Hearts playing. She and I then talked in the hallway outside my dorm suite until I needed to get ready to meet my parents. They had come to Ireland a week prior to do some traveling of their own before we went as a family to Scotland and England.

Cliffs of Moher

I tried to close my eyes for a few minutes before leaving but the sound of suitcases being wheeled across the courtyard below my window as people left to meet their bus, train, or taxi kept me up. It was a somber moment when I did the same. I met up with two others who were also leaving at the same time. I walked them to their bus stop and then went to meet my parents on the nearby O’Connell Bridge.

All the goodbyes felt hasty. None reflected the gratitude, sadness, and elation I felt. I was glad my parents got to meet these people. In some way this made my summer real. Outsiders had witnessed our bond and were given a glimpse at how I felt about these people and this place.This helped the saying goodbye process – a little bit.

As I would be studying abroad the following school year, I wasn’t sure when or if I’d see any of these fantastic people again (we were all UW students). I wanted them to have something that would remind us all of the great summer we seven strangers shared together. With my mother’s help, I made everyone a collage of photos of our time in Ireland. For me, this was how I was able to say goodbye properly.

Posted in Study Abroad

Wednesday, July 4, 2001

While studying in another country, you may miss some of your own national holidays. But they can still be celebrated. They are what you make them. Yesterday was July 4th, Independence Day, here in the United States. I thought I’d share the journal entry I wrote from July 4, 2001 while on my study abroad program in Dublin, Ireland. As I’ve stated before, the style (or lack there of) of journaling I did while on this program was the catalog, boring, “this happened and then this happened” variety. But by the end of the day, our group of Americans managed to celebrate the day with some ‘back home’ touches.

Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Happy Fourth of July! I am wearing green! I had class in the morning. The thing here is that their voices tend to lull one to sleep unlike @ home where it is boredom that puts you to sleep. So this means that I slept thru most of class. Then lunch woke me up.

Me (and friends) awake in class

On our way to class we picked up our play tickets and received info on where to be on Sunday for hurling. Then we went to history. Normally I can understand what he is saying. However, today every time he was saying something important he would turn his head the other direction. I had to look on my neighbor’s notes for many things. Then the next class was boring but somehow the guy’s voice just keeps me going.

Then Kevin, Zara, and I went to buy the tickets for the concert on Friday!!! Lisa is going. So is Becky and Caitlyn. Then we went skirt shopping for Zara. I bought blue pants at T.K. Maxx. Zara got 2 shirts + skirt.

At Bruxelles. It was, at the time, a jazz/blues bar (another American touch). The mentioned Sandy (and friend, Mike) dancing.

Then I went home and cooked dinner, caught up on my journal entries and rested. The speaker about pop culture was good and funny. Then we were treated with a drink at the Buttery. We sang songs – American ones in honor of the 4th. Poncho and I did a nice duet to Son of a Preacher Man.

Then we left and went to Mulligan’s. Then we checked out “Fireworks” which is a dance club. We decided not. Then we went to McD’s and that Big Mac + fries tasted so good. Then we went to this place called Bruxelles. It was cool but a bit smoky in the basement. Sandy & I tried to have open wrists to pick up guys – negative.

The group photos. We posed for a bunch of these. Took us a bit of time to get centered in front of the camera before the timer went off.

Then we went home. We sang the Star Spangled Banner and toasted w/ a shot of vodka courtesy of James. We then took group photos. Then we all checked our email. I wrote Amy, Sam and Trevor and yelled @ them for not writing. Then I walked home and went to bed.

Beers: 3 + 1 shot

Posted in Study Abroad

Hurling with Cúchulainn

It is March Madness time here in the US and I am writing during an unwanted lull after the first week of speed and excitement of the men’s college basketball tournament has come to a close with the original 64/68 teams being whittled down to just 16. As I anxiously await the upcoming four days of games in the second week of the tournament, my mind, in its craving for exhilaration in this downtime, keeps going back to the day when I saw the quickest, toughest, and most intricate sport being played. The sport was hurling.

As part of my study abroad program to Dublin, Ireland, I had the option of attending a hurling match. The excursion included entrance to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) museum at Croke Park, and a ticket to a championship match between Kilkenny and Wexford. Though I had heard about hurling, seen a Guinness billboard with hurlers depicted on it, and had bought a hurley a couple weeks prior, I had little idea of the awesomeness of the sport.

Walking into the stadium I had no clue what I was in for. The museum was great for a historical perspective and had fun interactive stations, but didn’t prepare me. The field itself was enough to give me pause. It was huge. It was longer than an American football field and nearly two times as wide. I had learned that there are 30 players on the field at once, 15 to a side, but even that number couldn’t need that much room, could they?

Before heading to my seat I chose a team to root for. Though Wexford shared the same colors (purple and gold) as my high school, I had to go for Kilkenny (gold and black) for no other reason than I really liked Kilkenny beer. I bought a braided headband, though I didn’t know at the time it was for my head; I just wore it draped around my neck. The space on my head was occupied by what I had considered to be a headband – a narrow strip of cloth with Kilkenny written across the front. It was most likely an armband. Oh well.

I sat next to a guy on my program who was a sports fanatic. He decided to root for Wexford and decked himself out in purple and gold. He had a headband, armband, and a team jersey. He also waved a purple and gold flag. Having chosen our sides, all we had to do was figure out how the game was played.

The crowd was loud and pumped up for the game waving their flags of varying sizes above their heads. I was surprised to see that the two support groups were quite intermingled. There was no real sense of separate home and visitor sections in the stands. I was also surprised the seats weren’t full, this being a championship game. But I paid little attention to these details as I was riveted by what I was seeing on the pitch.

(Author: Peter Wöllauer)

Field hockey was the first sport I thought hurling comprised elements of.  Hurling has two main pieces of equipment, a hurley and a ball. The moments when the hurlers played the ball on the ground or performed small lifts or scoops of the ball with the hurley I felt I was watching hockey.

Once the ball was off the ground the sport added huge dashes of lacrosse, for when they ran with the ball they had to balance it on their hurleys if moving further than four steps, and a pinch of baseball, for when they would toss the ball in the air out in front of them to then swing at it with their hurleys. Rugby can join the mixture with the lack of protection worn for a game that allows some forms of tackling. Handball is the last to lend itself to the concoction with players being able to open-palm pass the ball to each other. Scoring, I eventually figured out, went one point for between the uprights and over the bar, and three points for a goal in the net, below the bar.

The game is fast and tough. The amount of body contact was striking due to the fact that players were wailing hurleys about. One player had to come out due to blood on his uniform and needed to change before he could return to the pitch. I was surprised there weren’t more like him. As someone with good hand-eye coordination but poor something-extended-from-hand-eye coordination, the high level of a multitude of skills involved amazed me.

I left the park that day knowing I had just witnessed something truly awesome in the world of sports. As my words cannot do hurling justice, here is a video I came across to illustrate what I saw that day. I’ve watched it a number of times to help fill the void caused by the tournament’s break. It seems to do the trick. For the rules and other background information click here.

Posted in Travel

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Are Signs

Be them street signs, signs on a building, or informative markers, here are a few of the signs that played a role in my travels abroad.

Dublin, Ireland

(Photo: Benedicto16)

The above sign was the first I encountered in Ireland that, probably shockingly, threw me for a loop, but also helped formulate a bond. It was my first night in Dublin and a group of six or seven of us were in a pub just off Grafton Street. One girl, Lisa, and I were looking at the jukebox when another girl in our group came over to ask us if we knew where the bathrooms were. Neither of us had any idea but I remembered seeing a guy head through the door that had this sign above it and go up some steps. So I said to the girl, “I think that sign means the bathrooms are through that door and upstairs.” She hit me with a look that questioned my intelligence and sobriety and, before moving on, replied, “I think that means Exit.” My brief embarrassment quickly vanished as both Lisa and I fell into hysterics. She and I became fast friends after that.

Siena, Italy

The sign to the right is an unconventional, handmade one from Siena, Italy. I arrived the day after the Palio di Siena horse race. This day the winning contrada, or district, was celebrating its victory by parading through the streets waving flags of their contrada (Torre or Tower), beating drums, and blowing whistles. I encountered the large group when they made their way to the Piazza del Campo, the site of the race. This gentleman is being helpful to the tourists by wearing a sign indicating which way to the fountain and which way to the Duomo, two of the city’s main attractions. Either that or he was just tired of being asked for directions. I never quite figured out where he needed to be standing in the city for the arrows on the sign to be accurate.

Antwerp, Belgium

One sign that was no trouble to understand was this one below, which was on the side of a restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium. Alas, I did not go in to see if the proclamation was indeed true, though I had little doubt it was telling the truth.

Also in Antwerp was the sign for the hostel my friends and I stayed in. The sign was telling us more with its rust than we originally suspected.

Upon arrival we dropped off what we didn’t want to carry for the day. When we returned to our room later in the evening, we found much of the floor, bedding, and walls to be damp from the rain. We gals muddled through laying out wet clothes to dry for the next day and sleeping on top of our towels. It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized the damp, rusty-signed hostel had given me a parting gift of scabies on my hand. Not surprisingly, I do not recommend this hostel, and, according to some of the reviews on-line, other people do not recommend it either.

Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

On our way to the Cliffs of Moher, my friends and I decided to take in the views along the ocean as we walked from Doolin to the main cliff-viewing area at O’Brien’s Tower. This was about three miles of gorgeous scenery. As the terrain rose we came across the sign below that we took as a simple warning as the path we were on was well worn. Walking between the property fence and the edge did produce some heart palpitations as the space was quite narrow making me think twice about disregarding the sign.

Here’s how high we were prior to reaching the ‘Extreme Danger’ sign.

Before we made it to O’Brien’s Tower to see the full view of the breathtaking cliffs, we had one more hurdle to climb – a gate with barbed wire – next to which was a sign telling us in three languages not to take the very path we had just taken. Oops.

Drumnadrochit, Scotland and Cornwall, England

Last, here are some of the street signs that caught my attention for their humorous specificity, imagery and drawn figures. The first was found in Drumnadrochit, Scotland and the latter two were found in Cornwall, England.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

TAKING OFF — Chapter One: Pre-Departure

I was at home in Upstate New York nervously awaiting the start of the single most terrifying thing I’d done to date. I was days away from flying over the ocean to Ireland for the summer on my first study abroad trip. Waiting is bad. Waiting means time. And time is a catalyst for nerves and doubts.

Courtesy of

My mind was on how everyone else at the pre-departure meeting had some familial or personal connection to Ireland. I didn’t (**see note). Dublin was just a back-up plan in case I didn’t get into my year-long program in the fall. My lack of affiliation to the destination made my reason for going to Ireland seem less legitimate and made me feel a fake.

My mind was also on how everyone else was going to get a head start on making friends and I’d be left out. Because I attended school in Wisconsin, the flight to Dublin was a group booking from Chicago to Newark to Dublin. Those flying together on the Chicago to Newark leg would, I thought, already have gone through the awkward introductions, initial assessments, and be well on their way to making fast friends. And I had missed out because I wasn’t from the Midwest.

Images of smiling, laughing faces clustered in small groups of three or four all looking at me, the lone new girl, who oddly wasn’t there in Chicago filled my head. And I say oddly because of a response to a question about Newark I sent to the group email list which said something to the effect of “Why does [whatever I asked about] matter? Everyone’s coming from Chicago.”

The immediate dismissal I felt from this response further enhanced my growing doubts about this undertaking. My defenses were heightened. I began to generalize from the actions of one person. I thought these people to be close-minded for not considering that not everyone was from the Midwest. I thought those who studied abroad were open-minded and interested in learning about others different from themselves.

In the days leading up to my departure I, therefore, had summarily illegitimized myself and my place on the trip, decided I wouldn’t make friends because of one missed flight segment, and had amped up my defenses so much that the accuser was actually one of the accused in the case of close-mindedness. I was off to a stellar start.

Author: Ncmattj at en.wikipedia

At last, the day arrived to fly to Dublin. The waiting was finally over. Or so I thought. My parents were sitting with me at the gate. We were informed that the flight was being delayed due to the Chicago flight being behind schedule as our group was a majority of the flight to Dublin.

More waiting.

Being an overnight flight with a late departure time (that was again further delayed [insert angry, annoyed, fearful, defensive sigh]), the concourse was relatively empty. The quiet offered little in distraction. My mind continued to buzz with doubts and fears and wanting it all to be over.

Oh, I’d still go to Ireland. I wanted to skip over all of the stuff like making friends, and figuring out how the basics worked at my home for the next eight weeks. I wanted to be at the point where I’m in Dublin with friends feeling settled, and I know how to work the shower and toilet. But that stuff, I knew, was a part of what studying abroad was all about.

I began to notice that the silence was no longer so silent. There was a humming sound down the corridor. It grew louder and louder until the source arrived at the gate and my fears were confirmed. A large group of late-teens, early twenty-somethings led by a guy in a Wisconsin hockey jersey were chattering away with each other. See – they did make those initial bonds that could develop into friendships – and I missed out. My self-preservation kicked in immediately and tried to salve my ego by criticizing the fact that the leader was clearly not aware that it wasn’t cool to wear US team jerseys in Europe.

Courtesy of

But both of these defeatist thoughts were quickly shoved aside by the tumultuous upheaval taking place in my stomach. This was the time. It had finally arrived. Time to kiss and hug my parents goodbye. Time to disengage from their safety net and join the group led by the boy in the hockey jersey. Time to take that proverbial leap. Time to see if I had what it took to accomplish a huge personal goal – studying abroad.

I stood up from my seat and something clicked. My skin prickled and my vision focused. All I could hear was my breathing. Calm came over me and I finally and truly felt ready – ready to take on whatever awaited me. The dichotomy of a ‘them versus me’ was gone; we were now an us. No one had a leg up on anyone else. And I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, some of the nerves would come back later but at that moment, as I walked towards the gate, I was never more present in a moment and never more ready.

**Note: My parents informed me after I returned that my maternal great-grandmother was from Ireland.

Posted in Study Abroad

Whack for my Daddy-o, There’s a Fire in the Bar-o

After you’ve been somewhere for a bit, you are bound to find a favorite place. It might be a store, café, park, theatre, museum, landmark, or building. In Ireland, for me, it was a pub. Here’s what happened one memorable night spent there.

At the end of my study abroad program in Ireland, my mom and dad came over. They traveled a bit on their own and then they were to meet up with me before the three of us were to travel on to Scotland and London. I had mixed feelings about seeing them. I was very excited to have them meet my friends (and I think my friends were kinda excited to see parents again, regardless of whose). But seeing them also meant this amazing summer was coming to an end.

The night they met up with me and friends it was raining a true rain and not an Irish Mist. An Irish Mist, by the way, is where nothing is really falling but there are water droplets hanging in the area, like a wet fog. This was a common occurrence in Ireland. But this night the rain was falling hard. We youngsters were running late so we ran along the Quayside and arrived soaking wet at my favorite pub – O’Shea’s Merchant – but the side bar, not the main bar (very important) .

The 9th is taking the photo.

Having introduced everybody, all nine of us squeezed in around one table. The delicious beer was flowing. My dad was asking questions of my friends, something he is known for and has scared away a few friends from ever coming into our house back home. He claims they are simple questions like “how are you doing” and “how’s school going,” but I think otherwise. No one shied away that night so he was content.

There was a live band playing in this small, cozy bar. Their fantastic music was captivating, a perfect backdrop for sharing our stories of the summer. Before too long one of my friends spilled a beer into my dad’s lap. The poor guy felt so badly and was very embarrassed (so much so that when I met his parents months later, that’s how they knew who I was – the girl who’s dad their son had spilt beer on).

An Irish gentleman from one table over decided to show the group how to play the spoons. He was showing my mom but she didn’t really have an interest. One of my girlfriends tried, but failed. The spoons soon ended as we noticed our side of the bar becoming increasingly more crowded. I thought that the bar just hit a popular time of the evening when an influx of people arrive.

That’s when we noticed the firemen in the bar.

Turns out there was a small fire in a room just off the bar. No alarm ever sounded and no one was asked to leave, despite there being some smoke entering the bar area. The firemen were just moving everyone from the right to the left side of the room. The band kept playing, the bartenders kept serving, and the patrons kept drinking. We were slightly baffled by this. But as everything seemed to be under control and no one showed any sign of being concerned about the fire, we cautiously adopted the “When in Ireland” attitude and continued our evening as before.

**Postscript. Upon reading this post, my mother wanted me to add something she recalled from that night. She most remembers when she overheard the firemen suggesting to the dancers that they move over to the left as there might be water on the right side of the dance floor.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Whoo! We’re Blowin’ Bubbles!

There was an AP article in my local paper recently written by Justin Pope called “American students abroad pushed out of ‘bubbles.’” Briefly, the article is about study abroad practitioners coming up with ways to get students out of their comfort zones, away from popular location programs, and, once abroad, getting them to immerse themselves in the host culture. Pope also causally alludes to the idea that bubble-bursting can lead one to being a more marketable candidate to companies.

The ‘bubbles’ Pope writes about are two-fold. First, it is practitioners trying to get American students to go to places different than the “hot-spots like London, Barcelona, and Florence,” where they will be challenged more, forced to be engaged more, and, so, the logic goes, learn and grow more. Second, those students who do choose these non-hot-spots where they do not necessarily speak the language or have many other Americans mucking about tend to stick to the group they came with isolating themselves.

Trinity College Dublin

My first study abroad program was to Dublin, Ireland. It was a faculty-led joint summer program between the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. We lived together in the dorms of Trinity College. We had classes together. We explored the city and country together. The interaction with locals was limited, unless a strong effort on the part of the student was made. I was too busy figuring out who among this large group I’d hang out with to worry about whether or not I was getting to know the locals. I recall during the exam period the Irish TA was talking to my group of friends and he chided us for not branching out and getting to know any UM students as we were all UW students. We all ‘Hey’d’ in protest that we may be all from UW but none of us knew each other prior. We thought that was commendable.

Commendable or not, my goal on this program wasn’t to get to know the locals, as terrible as that sounds; it was to prove to myself that I could go to another country on my own, meet people I didn’t know, see things I had never seen, and learn things I didn’t know. As some might say “Mission accomplished.” Dublin was what it was – a glorified summer vacation where students travel, drink, learn some history, and go home.

As much as I loved that summer and loved the people I befriended, it didn’t prepare me for my time the following fall in the Netherlands. This was a bubble burst for me. It was an exchange program. I lived in the flat of the Dutch girl who went to UW. I had two Dutch roommates. I had taken some Dutch courses prior to going and the program included a language class component. Reading and writing – no problem, but speaking the language was my weakest area. Though the main courses were taught in English, everyday interactions needed to be in Dutch. This added to my already fierce culture shock. I found I had been coddled by my Dublin experience.

Utrecht, Netherlands

Because actually speaking the language to an actual Dutch person was the toughest part for me, the times I succeeded contained the greatest joy. For example, a couple of friends and I went into a sandwich shop for lunch. We all ordered in Dutch. I was the last to go. The man behind the counter complimented me on my skills, knowing clearly we were all foreigners, and asked how long I had been speaking the language and how long we were studying in the town. When I went to sit back down, the others asked me what he had said. I was a bit chuffed with myself as I shared the conversation with them.

Another time I was riding my bicycle home on afternoon and someone on the street stopped me and asked the time. I took my time answering because I wanted to get it right. I replied and sped off grinning from ear to ear. Someone had asked me the time! I knew what they were asking! I was able to answer properly! It wasn’t until I was home that I realized I had given him the wrong time. I was an hour off. But I didn’t care. The interaction had happened. My bubble was getting thinner and closer to popping.

My time in Ireland was a whole lot of fun. The experience of that trip, though safely inside the bubble, made an impression and affected my life in great ways. I don’t knock those “hot-spot” programs. They just need to be understood for what they are, as one student that was on such a program said in the article “her time abroad was a great introduction to international travel that will push her to visit more exotic destinations in the coming years.” For me, that exotic location was the Netherlands.