In late June of 2015, I embarked on a three-week journey that changed my life.
I know it’s desperately cliché to make such a dramatic claim; however, I am willing to put my literary reputation on the line to make this statement: studying abroad changed my life.
Unlike most study abroad students, I only studied in another country—Austria—for two weeks.
The week before my two-week program, my mother took my brother and me backpacking through Europe from Belgium to Austria. We hit three other countries on our backpacking trip, the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic, and seven cities within those countries.
In the two short weeks of my summer program in Seggau Castle in Graz, Austria, I learned more about the world, communication and people (and quite honestly myself) than I have learned in all of my years of schooling.
I have since compiled a list of 21 things that I learned while abroad:
1. Many people from other countries know at least two languages, and more often than not, English is one of them—and they may speak it better than you!
I met a man from Sierra Leone who studies in Turkey and a Bangladeshi man who studies in Germany. Students from other countries knew multiple languages and study all over the world.
As an American, I know only a handful of people who studied abroad, and all of those students were exceptionally privileged.
In other countries, it’s not about how much money you have, but what you will study and where you will go.
2. The English language makes absolutely no sense.
I am an English major in my sophomore year of my undergraduate degree, and even I was stumped by the most simple of questions regarding the English language.
One day, one of my colleagues asked me if I wanted to hang out later that night, and my response was, “I’m up for that!” She scratched her head and asked me, “Can you also say that you are down with that” as well? And they would both mean the same thing?”
After two weeks of these types of conversations with foreigners from various backgrounds, I wanted to remove the English language from my memory.
3. Most of Europe does not have air conditioning.
Prepare to be uncomfortably warm.
4. Most European tampons do not have applicators.
This was initially an unpleasant discovery on my trip.
One day, I needed a feminine hygiene product, and I asked one of my Australian colleagues for a tampon. She handed me one, and it was just the cotton—no applicator! I was alarmed, but took it to the “water closet” anyway and went on with it.
Long story short, the applicator is completely unnecessary and is quite frankly a waste of plastic. I will now be purchasing applicator-less tampons in the future.
5. Which goes along with the notion that Europe and the rest of the world are more environmentally conscious than America.
There was a cornucopia of things I noticed while in Europe that made me think, “Why doesn’t America do this?”
The amount of recycling done in Europe blew my mind—from motion-sensor lights, to solar panels on residential roofs, windmills for energy, and glass water bottles. Europe is trying to preserve the earth, and living here for only two weeks made me feel as if I could make a difference, no matter how small.
6. Tap water will be the cleanest, best tasting water.
I have never tasted better tap water than I did in the Netherlands and Austria—and my skin cleared up while abroad!
However—some restaurants in Europe will not serve tap water, and if they do, they may charge for it.
7. Most restaurants do not serve breakfast.
My mother, brother and I had to learn this the hard way.
One morning, after staying in a B&B (minus the breakfast), we wandered the streets of Kapfenberg, Austria on foot with grumbling stomachs and sleepy eyes. To our dismay, almost every restaurant we stumbled upon was not open for breakfast.
While abroad, it may be smart to bring some snacks in case there is none to be found.
8. The coffee is stronger. Especially if it’s Turkish coffee.
9. The alcohol is stronger, too.
10. A hill isn’t a mountain unless you climb for at least four hours.
While in Graz, Austria on an excursion with my summer school, we decided to take on a huge “hill” to get to Schlossberg. It took us a while to get to the top, and we were all drenched in sweat.
Out of breath, I asked one of my Austrian colleagues how long it took us to climb the “mountain.” Immediately the Austrians laughed and said, “This is a hill. A hill isn’t a mountain unless you climb for at least four hours.”
They weren’t kidding.
11. Dates are written out: day, month, then year.
Maybe this is known by everyone but me, but when I saw someone write on their paper, “29.06.2015,” I laughed to myself, because it looked as if they were saying there is a 29th month! After a few seconds with a confused look on my face, I realized my mistake. At some point I knew this difference in date-writing, but I still wasn’t accustomed to it.
12. Also, celsius, measurements, time—and so on.
Whenever I asked someone for the temperature, they would tell me something between 20-30 degrees. The first time I heard that, I laughed. 25 degrees? We would be freezing! “It has to be at least 70!” I would say, and get the strangest reactions.
I also had to keep conversions on hand, because nobody uses the imperial system anymore. “How far away is town?” I would ask. “Oh, only about 300 meters that way,” a local would say. I did not understand how far they meant, without my handy conversions.
In addition, Europe goes by what Americans call, “military time.” (People from other countries found it quite comical that we call it that).
There is an option on smartphones to change the time to the 24-hour clock—I highly recommend it for travel outside the U.S.
13. The American school system is expensive.
Austrians pay little to nothing for higher education. They do, however, spend about 50 percent of their income on taxes.
I should also mention they get free healthcare.
I prefer their set-up to America’s; we aren’t taxed nearly as much, but even with the money left over from our incomes, most of us can’t afford college or healthcare.
I am seriously contemplating running off to Europe for a less expensive higher education.
14. Shorts are not very popular.
All I packed for my abroad program was shorts, because I thought it would be fairly hot there. Being a 19-year-old, I did not really think about looking professional—all I thought about was being comfortable in the heat.
However, I regretted the decision, because I stood out like a sore thumb. Professional dress was the norm.
Sticking out is not something I was aiming for while abroad.
If I were to do it all over again, I would pack a few dresses, a few pair of jeans and some dress pants.
15. Everything down to a glass of water is presented in a much prettier, more aesthetically pleasing way.
16. A lot of people don’t wear shoes.
Maybe this was just a thing with my summer school in particular, but myself and other Americans in my group noticed many barefoot Europeans.
The citizens of Austria believe in eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, and eight hours to oneself.
Unlike in the States, I could not find a single store open after 10 p.m. There are no 24-hour stores or pharmacies.
Believe it or not, the U.S. has a crazy work ethic that other countries argue is too vigorous. I really enjoyed Austria’s concept of time and how they respected every citizen’s personal time.
18. Bathrooms are much cleaner. However, most of the time you have to pay for their use.
19. Europe has an obsession with Nutella.
There are restaurants in Amsterdam that have Nutella as a main ingredient in every single menu item.
There are giant tubs of it stacked in pyramids in the store window.
20. Other countries don’t perpetuate unattainable, white “cis woman” standards of beauty as strongly as in the U.S.
There is still a strong Eurocentric ideal of beauty in Europe. However, the intense pressures of wearing makeup and being extremely thin are not shoved in your face nearly as much as in the States.
If I were to go to the grocery store without makeup in the U.S., I would get a few strange looks and people telling me I look tired. In Europe, however, not wearing makeup was the norm, and was nothing out of the ordinary.
It was quite refreshing.
21. Eis Kaffee in German is not “iced coffee.”
If you order “iced coffee” in Germany, you will get ice cream in a glass filled with cold coffee, with whipped cream and a few pirouettes.
While it was not unpleasant, it did take me by surprise. (I should’ve known, since I had been studying German for seven years by that point).
So there you have it, 21 slightly life-changing lessons I learned while studying abroad.
Studying abroad was incredibly rewarding, and a quick two-week program was the perfect introduction to traveling abroad.
The people I met on my travels quickly became my family, and I learned so much in so little time.
If you ever have an opportunity to study or travel in another country, I urge you to take it, because it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you cannot get anywhere else.
Author: Alexis Kennell
Apprentice Editor: Rachel Leber; Editor: Toby Israel