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

A 1000 Feet Above Sea Level in the Netherlands

Who knew this was possible? I surely didn’t. The Netherlands has hills?! Let alone being above sea level. When I received the email about the exchange student weekend trip to Maastricht that would include a stop at Vaalserberg, the hoogste punt (highest point) in the country, I had to see it to believe it.

Vrijthof, square in Maastricht

A couple of weeks before I had seen and stood on my first dike in the northwest of the Netherlands. This was my first trip to the southeast and it promised quite the opposite to reclaimed land. I didn’t notice, however, much of an incline as our vans passed through ‘s-Hertogenbosch (I tried sounding out the name in my head and was relieved to find out many refer to the city simply as Den Bosch) and Eindhoven. Then we arrived in Maastricht.

The first stopping point on our trip was Sint-Pietersberg, a modest hill, by my standards, at 561 feet. Astonished by the appearance of a hill, a majority of the group took advantage of being up “high” and began taking picture after picture of the city “below.” Then we proceeded to go under the hill. Not only was this hill a spectacle above ground, it was one below ground too.

Map of caves underneath Sint-Pietersberg Hill, Maastricht

There are a large number of mining tunnels underneath Sint-Pietersberg Hill – 20,000 give or take. Originally used for mining of marl by the Romans, the Zonneberg Caves and the North Caves’ use morphed over the centuries and were most recently a shelter during World War II. Today, they are used for tourism. (Facts in this paragraph come from http://www.maastrichtunderground.nl; the broad interpretations are mine.)

The next morning our group headed to Vaalserberg, home not only to the highest point in the Netherlands but also the Drielandenpunt (Three-country point) where the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium come together. I had never been to the Four Corners in southwest US so this was also something I looked forward to. As we made our way to the summit, I again didn’t recall feeling like there was much of an incline. Even the summit was quite level. But the bricked-over bump with the marker stated that this was it, the highest point in the Netherlands, standing tall at 1059 feet.

Hoogste Punt

1059 feet!? I was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike this past weekend and I passed a sign that stated I was at the highest point on I-90 east of a town in South Dakota and that was 1724 feet. My local ski area in the foothills of the Adirondacks has a summit of around 1800 feet. Places I think of as small or low dwarf Vaalserberg. But a highest point is a highest point regardless of how low it might be. Slightly disappointed and not yet admitting to negative comparison thinking, I made my way to the Drielandenpunt marker.

I love geography, particularly boundaries and official lines. Being able to legitimately touch three countries at one time was very exciting for me. I waited impatiently for my turn amongst my group and other tourists. When my turn came (I may or may not have butt in front of some people), I posed happily for my picture. Then I climbed up the tower (in Belgium) in order to see more of the three countries. Unfortunately it was a foggy day and I couldn’t see too far. Germany was the most exciting with forests leading up to the city of Aachen. Belgium had train tracks and the Netherlands had a hedge maze.

Drielandenpunt – Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands

As the vans made their decent back to Utrecht through Eindhoven and Den Bosch, I finally got over my disappointment and began to appreciate where I was earlier that day. In a country that has fought the seas for centuries, with 20% of its land sitting below sea level, and 50% being less than a meter above sea level, standing at a thousand feet is a pretty rare and special place to be.

Posted in Souvenirs, Study Abroad

Don’t Forget The Passport

Many study abroad programs have just gotten under way. For a number of students, they just received their first and potentially only foreign stamp in their passport, the golden ticket to seeing the world outside one’s own country. I love my old, now expired passport. I love looking back through it. The stamps and visas remind me of the few years I spent enjoying a higher proportion of international travel than the years prior or since.

The passport is proof of my travels. It is a souvenir. It’s a bare bones scrap book, if I were a scrap booker. It is a keepsake. The time span it covers is from my first study abroad experience in 2001 to visiting friends in London in 2008. There are two personal “highlights” – if you will – of the collection. One is a stamp, the other a visa.

The Stamp

Way back on page 20 is a solitary stamp. This blue-green inked rectangle marks some exciting and important firsts for me: first major continental getaway, first overnight train, and first time to Eastern Europe. It was fall 2001 and I was traveling with four other girls. The plan was Prague, a stop in Vienna, and then some would return to the Netherlands, and others, myself included, would make a trip to Munich.

The reason this stamp is so coveted is not just because it denotes these firsts, but because this was the only stamp given in the Czech Republic – to any of us. When we entered the country we didn’t receive a stamp; it happened on our way out. We were on the train passing through the border city of Břeclav on our way to Austria. The patrolman went around our train carriage looking through each of our passports. Mine happened to be the last one he checked, and was, therefore, the lucky recipient of the stamp. I had the only (passport) proof we spent time in the Czech Republic.

The Visa

I have four visas in my passport: one for the Netherlands, two for England, as the first one they put in had the wrong date on it, and one for Russia. This last one I think is pretty awesome, if for nothing else than having my name, or a close equivalent, written in Russian. I didn’t have an easy go at getting that visa. It took me two trips to the embassy in London in 2005. It was only open for a few hours in the morning and the queuing started early.

The first time I went, I just didn’t get there early enough. After standing in line for two hours and getting as close as 20 people between me and the front of the line, I went to class empty handed. The second time I went I arrived earlier. I also got sick, literally, and on the sidewalk. Fortunately, I had met a girl in line who was going on the same trip as me. She was gracious enough to hold my spot while I made my way to the nearest public restroom to clean up. Thank you, Starbucks, for really being on every corner. Though I felt terrible and still nauseous, I rallied as I was determined not to have to get up at 5AM again. And I was rewarded for my efforts and sacrifices by being granted entrance and receiving my visa. In the end, the trip was more than worth the hassle.

I now have a new passport and I have yet to hand it over to an immigration officer of a foreign nation, have them turn to any empty page, and place their stamp on the (overly) decorative paper. I can’t wait to see what stamps fill it up.

Posted in Issues, Souvenirs

September 11, 2001

I was studying abroad in Utrecht, Netherlands on September 11, 2001. My friend, Elinore, who is from New York City, and I went to the computer labs after classes had finished. We were in a laughing mood. The computer lab was in a group of older buildings that had been converted. The stations were set up in a number of different rooms, some the size of a class room, others a conference room. There weren’t two computers available next to each other so Elinore and I split up and went into different rooms.

Image: Madhvi Raje Nursing College

The first thing I did was check my email. There was one from my dad. I opened it and it said that the Towers had been hit. What Towers? The image he attached loaded and I saw. But I still didn’t understand. I thought he was playing a joke. How was it possible that two planes hit a Tower each? That seemed like an odd, horrific accident.

Still confused I went to find Elinore to see if she knew anything. I was nervously laughing when I told her that my father said the Twin Towers were hit. She looked up at me and laughed, “What?” I recited the email to her. She was as incredulous as I was. Everything at that moment seemed like a typical day. Nothing seemed odd except the words coming out of my mouth. If something like this had happened why was the busy computer lab so quiet? Why weren’t they talking about it?

To follow was the day after day after day 24-hour news coverage. My parents had concerns about whether or not the program would be canceled, which it wasn’t. Most people seemed to be in a state of shock. I, already dealing with culture shock issues, didn’t want, and, more specifically, didn’t know how to process something like this. It was easy not to try being in a foreign country. Therefore I didn’t. And, honestly, eleven years later I still haven’t.

Domtoren

The Friday after the 11th, I was out shopping for shoes. I loved the fun colors sneakers came in that I couldn’t seem to find back home. At noon the bells in the Domtoren rang. When I finally realized they were playing The Star-Spangled Banner, I stepped outside the store. I noticed that no one in the street was moving. People had left the shops to enter the street to observe the moment. Everyone was standing still facing the Domtoren in silence. I had no idea that this event was planned. Apparently, it had been on the news, but I couldn’t take watching anymore.

Weeks passed and despite my avoidance I felt I should commemorate or have some memento of the WTC. At least that’s what everyone around me seemed to be doing. I knew I’d probably regret it later even if I didn’t really feel up to it at the time. People were buying posters left and right of the New York City skyline or of the Towers. That didn’t seem right for me. Why would I get something so big to commemorate and remember a day I fought so hard to not think too deeply about because I didn’t know what would happen if I did?

I did keep my eyes open for just the right item. Nothing I came across felt right. If I was going to do as others were doing I was going to try and make it personal in some way. That was as deep (or shallow) as I was going to go. I was in an art museum gift shop selecting postcards for my collection when I found it. I instantly knew that this postcard was my personal memorial to 9/11. I added the card to the group and made my purchase. Of course, fitting my modus operandi of avoidance, I rarely look at the card.

copyright 1998 Alwin T. Aronson “Don’t Jump! Manhattan N.Y.C.”

To this day I refuse to read any book about 9/11, fiction or non-fiction. I’ve only seen one film where that day plays a part in the story and I hadn’t known this beforehand. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. The release of tears and emotions I had after watching the movie, however, has probably been the only time I’ve approached a deeper contemplation and mourning. And to my surprise it felt good to have that release.

My train of thought has been that if I try and process that day, then I might comprehend what happened. If I comprehend it, then I might understand how and why people would take such an action. If I understand the how and the why, then I might condone a similar action. If I condone a similar action, then I’ve let my mind cross over to someplace truly dark. And if my mind crosses over, then it might never cross back.

Being in another country when such a tragedy took place in my homeland made it a lot easier to escape and hide. I now have a bit of safety in distance of time and of self. In writing this I can see the cracks in my old logic. Perhaps it is time I purged my mind of what it has kept locked in the closet and swept under the rug for the last eleven years.

Posted in Issues, Souvenirs, Study Abroad

Personal Space

One thing that I wasn’t prepared for or even thought about prior to studying abroad was the issue of personal space. Generally speaking, here in the United States personal space is one of those things that is an universally-known, unspoken rule. Around each of us is this invisible circle usually about three feet in radius. Everyone is mindful of their own circle and usually of others’ as well. The big no-no is when someone’s circle is violated or invaded. What I didn’t know before going abroad was that not everyone knows the rule or knows that there is such a thing as personal space.

Sure, personal space is invaded all the time. You can’t really function without someone at some point being closer than three feet from you. Public transit is a good example of a time and place when people are crossing over that threshold; in most cases it is tolerated. But the idea of strangers meeting for the first time, embracing each other, and exchanging air kisses seems crazy. Actions like those are reserved for family, close friends, and lovers, right? Well, not everywhere in the world.

My first experience with the ‘greeting kisses’ was actually here on US soil. The kisser was a friend visiting from Germany whom I hadn’t seen in about six months. I arrived at the house where he was staying and when he opened the door he bent down and kissed me on both cheeks. My lack of knowledge about how people from other parts of the world may greet one another caused me to totally misconstrue the situation. I had always crushed on him and I thought he might have had some feelings for me too. I mean who double kisses a girl they don’t like? Apparently, many.

Violator of my personal space

It actually wasn’t until my second major moment of greeting kisses that I realized what really happened that first time (and it would have saved me a lot of time spent over-analyzing – ha). The next set of greeting kisses came while I was in the Netherlands. A Czech boy from my exchange student mentor group and I were hanging out at a coffee shop on a boat in one of Utrecht’s canals. He greeted me when I arrived and as he leaned in I flinched away. In my head I chastised myself as I had recently had a conversation with a French girlfriend about the whole greeting thing. I wanted to be more open to it, but clearly 20 years of conditioning couldn’t be wiped away so easily. Fortunately, the boy was very understanding, particularly as he had spent some time in the United States.

I am happy to say that by the time I was studying in London, I was much more aware and open to the greeting embrace and kisses. Becoming best friends with a Mexican and an Italian-Columbian expedited my progress. By the end of my twelve months, I even had little or no issues initiating the embraces. However, I still refrained with fellow Americans.

Upon returning home the issue of personal space was probably the first to go back to ‘normal.’ There are times when I do miss the more intimate connection made with the embrace rather than the usual detached and isolated way of presenting ourselves to potential new friends via a handshake or nod of the head. But regardless of your stance on personal space, remember and be prepared that others you encounter while studying abroad may not share your view, or – more likely – not even be aware there may be an issue.

Posted in Issues, Souvenirs, Study Abroad

Internet and the Study Abroad Experience

An educator recently posed the question to a study abroad listserv I subscribe to about whether or not there have been recent studies conducted comparing the study abroad experience for students pre- and post-Internet. He was seeking to know if the Internet had fundamentally altered the study abroad experience due to increased ability to remain connected to home.

Image: Kevin Law

I find this to be a very interesting and important topic to be discussed, particularly as international educators continue to promote the study abroad experience as being vital for our students, and as technology continues to advance and reach parts of the world that did not have access before. Are the “vital” components being undermined by technological advancements? The research on this topic would have great implications on a number of areas including education, marketing, communications, and economics.

Before I dive in, here’s my technology background: I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I recall life before cell phones, Internet and digital cameras. I was computer-less my freshman year of college and thought nothing of it. My first cell phone was purchased in 2004, was pay-as-you-go, and was used primarily for texting, which was done without a full keyboard.

My initial thoughts to the question posed were that yes it has changed the experience and not for the good. At first glance I see the computer mediation as a hindrance. If a student keeps in contact with friends and family on a daily or hourly basis, what time are they allowing for the act of being present in their new environment, getting to know the people around them, and learning or unlearning parts of themselves? Not only is time being invested, but also the mind and emotions.

My first cell phone looked very similar to this one. Image: ifixit.com

If a student only spent five minutes a day connecting with home, that may be a short amount of time, but there is a much larger deposit in the emotional bank. If he is having a bad day, that five minutes could perk him right up, but what happens when he cannot reach those at home in a moment of crisis? Unfortunately, he’s felt so supported by those at a distance that he has not taken the time to seek out a local support system. Where does he turn in these moments? Also, there may be times when his best friends can’t help him because they are physically not there and he needs someone in person to aide him.

Also, why are students keeping in touch? Are they concerned they will be missing out on their life at home, who’s dating who, and what’s happening on campus? Newsflash. While they’re worried they’re missing out at home, they’re also missing out where they are. People at the host institution who have direct contact with a student studying abroad (fellow study abroad students, native students, advisors, teachers) are friendly and welcoming. They can also perceive when someone is disinterested or preoccupied. I don’t know that I would take the time to get to know someone those first crucial days if I thought they came across that way. There are plenty of other people to befriend.

While in Ireland for the summer I wanted to keep in touch with my friends. I only had Internet access in a computer lab that had limited hours. I would send mass emails weekly letting everybody know what I was up to. I was trying to set a routine early on as at that time I would be away an entire 12 months over the course of both my study abroad programs. I didn’t want them to forget me or lose touch. Eventually people stopped replying (which was frustrating to me) and I became too busy. When things are going well or as expected there is less reason to connect with home. In my experience, only when sh*t hits the fan, issues come up, or something is unresolved does the desire to reach out to a known support system increase and contact is made more frequently.

If, on the other hand, students are keeping in touch as a requirement or request from their parents to contact them at a preset interval or as in one such case I read about where the student’s parents required her to use Skype in order to see that she was in her room each night – that’s a whole other issue. All I have to say on this topic is if you’re okay with your child going, then let your child go.

My second thought was that this might not be that simple because I believe the study abroad experience to be very personal, and, therefore, very subjective and contextual. If I had a friend or family member who had sacrificed a lot for me to go abroad or had never been abroad but was really invested in my experience, I would probably send them a photo daily and tell them I’d go over the photos with them when I returned. Students might be forwarding articles and information about a local event or local opinion on an issue to their friends back home thus feeling connected by sharing a new perspective, and, consequently, expanding the knowledge of the entire group.

As I’ve discussed before, my time in Utrecht, Netherlands was much different than Ireland. Yes, I made friends, traveled, and enjoyed most of my classes. I also encountered minor issues with course scheduling, funding, and equivalences. And some major ones: debilitating anxiety, culture shock, and 9/11. All of these required increased communication with home, either with my parents or my university. Dealing with the school issues made it hard to just get on with my time and achieve some normalcy which is all I wanted while navigating my culture shock and newly found anxiety. Then 9/11 happened and I didn’t know if the program would end or how much I was at risk being an American student abroad. Many people felt on edge and initially we really weren’t turning towards each other for help.

Here’s what I wonder – if Skype had been released and I had been a regular user, would I have reached out to my friends back home during that time when I felt lost, worried, and lacked a local support system, and, consequently, have stayed the whole year?

I can’t ever know for sure but I want to say yes. Not only being able to hear their voices (inexpensively), but to see their faces would have brought great comfort. I know they would have been cheering me on to stay, and talking me through my darker and most paralyzing moments. In that set of circumstances, turning to my established support group so instantaneously, so tangibly, so completely through the technology rather than trying to forge a local one from shaky ground would have been greatly appreciated and wanted. Even if the result wasn’t to have completed my year abroad, having that access at that time would have changed the experience for me and for the better.

Overall, I find this topic fascinating. More thoughts went through my mind on this than I could write, let alone organize for a post. I’ll be very interested to read more research as it’s published and hear firsthand accounts of students as they reflect on their use of the Internet as means of connecting with home and their experiences abroad.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Reaching Slot Zuylen Castle

In the early weeks of my culture shock while in the Netherlands weekends were a fearful thing. I didn’t know too many people yet. My Dutch roommates were often out of town or busy doing their own things. Without school to get me out of the apartment and interacting with others I feared I’d spiral even further downward. I saw a weekend trapped inside my head, and, thus my apartment, as a failure in time usage while I had this opportunity.

I had come from a summer in Ireland where I was very quickly incorporated into a group and was assumed to partake in any weekend plan. In the Netherlands, things weren’t so instantaneous. With people spread out across an entire city it proved more challenging to make friends than living in the dorm-style environment in Dublin where everyone was at my fingertips.

The first weekend in Utrecht in which the school wasn’t sponsoring an event neared. I began to hear about other people’s plans. It frustrated me that I didn’t have any, and my brain translated the fact that I hadn’t been asked to join anyone meant that I was un-liked. And if I was un-liked then it would be a very long, lonely year of limited travel and experiences. It never occurred to me to figure out what I wanted to do and ask other people if they wanted to join me. Not when I was in victim mode.

Two girls I had hung out with a couple of times were discussing how they were going to check out Slot Zuylen Castle located not far from town. They were going to ride their bikes along the Vecht River. It sounded very idyllic to me. Just the sort of local exploring I’d have chosen if I had been thinking that way. The more they went on about it the more I wanted them to ask me to go too. I wasn’t outgoing enough (it would be rude I thought) to just ask if they’d mind a third.

Slot Zuylen Castle

Friday came and they were still planning on going the following morning, but no invitation followed. I was boiling inside to the point of screaming with my thoughts about a failed, unused weekend, being trapped in my apartment, the dread of not having plans and forcing myself to go outside, and feeling un-liked enough to not be asked to do anything by others. I no longer cared if I was being rude. To me, I’d sacrifice being rude to try and avoid the darkness that loomed in my head. So I blurted out, “Can I go with you guys?”

“Of course,” one girl said. “We would have asked you but we thought you had other plans when you didn’t express an interest in going.” I didn’t see that response coming. When she said this something sort of clicked inside my head. I was able to step back from my situation and I recognized how my dealing with culture shock had affected the way I was viewing the scenario. Without my cloud of fear and anxiety, simply saying, ‘Hey that sounds like fun. Mind if I join?’ wouldn’t have felt like a do-or-die, all-or-nothing event. It would have been normal.

On that bike ride to the castle I was thrilled to see a snapshot of the countryside. I encountered my first windmill up close, saw sheep, and saw how the farmers direct and contain the plentiful water supply. Experiencing firsthand a taste of the extensive bike network out of the main cities was cool too. It seemed like something every country should have.

This freak-out, then blurt-out, and resultant positive response was the first step in breaking with my shock. It helped me to see whatever situation I found myself in more than one way. All was no longer doom and gloom. I still had a ways to go but having made that first step was everything.