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Study Abroad

Here’s To The End

Dammit, you guys, I did it. I blinked. I blinked, and it’s all over. I’m back in the states and happily overwhelmed with the rush of familiarity and the time difference. I’m going to leave you with the last thing I ever wrote in Ireland.

I’m sitting in my gate at Cork Airport, waiting to board my last plane of the semester. (I’ve been on sixteen planes so far, most of them rickety bargain-airline planes, and Meg thinks I’m lucky to be alive. She also loves the consistent turbulence while landing.) Sitting in this airport feels different than most of the other ones I’ve waited in.

  

Two for the road!

Most of the time I’ve spent in airports I’ve been sleep-deprived, fresh off of three-hour bus rides, unshowered and a little smelly, and sprawled all over whatever floor space I could find. I carried only a backpack and a determination to find adventure and some of the world I’ never seen before.

This time feels different from those times, but similar to another journey I took in January. Meg and I checked into our flight, dropped off our bags, and as I waited for her to buy a postcard, I noticed my knees shaking. My stomach felt empty and queasy, and I might have cried if I let myself.

I felt exactly like I’d felt on my way over to study abroad.

I didn’t get to tell you guys about my trip over to Ireland, but it was a bit of a nightmare. My flight was so delayed that I missed another flight, I lost a jacket, and I was wired the whole time. Like, the entire time. I’m not sure how I pulled off being anxious for like 30 straight hours, but I managed it.

I was leaving home for five months. For the first time ever. I was excited, nervous, and not entirely sure I was going to be able to do it. This time it’s the opposite. I’m a seasoned flyer and I’m going home to everything that’s familiar and the people that I love. So why am I teary eyed and nauseous?

I think it’s because in a way, I’m still leaving home. I’m leaving home to return home, which is confusing, and doesn’t mean that my plane will just be circling Ireland then landing back in Cork again. Between the friends I’ve met and the strangers I’ve encountered and the odd places I’ve fallen asleep (the list is surprisingly extensive), this city became my place.

So now, I feel a little torn. I am so excited for the airport hugs and the catching up and for no longer being a tourist. To hug my mom. To kiss my sister’s little round face. But part of me needs to mourn. I’m saying goodbye to friends, to my little city, and to a lifestyle so unique and surreal that I know it can never be recreated. A little part of me knows that I’ll never get all the way home again. I have two places now. Growing pains, my parents would call it. I had to grow a little to make room for my new home.

So to my friends and family who I’m about to see, I ask for your hugs, but also your patience. Mom, if I’m a little moody in a few days, just lock me in my room for a few hours. I’ll nap and it’ll all be better. I’m still beyond excited to see you all, but I might need a little time to come to terms with the fact that this is all over.

Gone are the days of eating gelato everyday in Greece and Rome, staring up at intricate cathedrals and churches (why is it always the churches that have the most badass architecture? Was God really into flying buttresses?) and being able to run my fingers over the history of cities older than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a tough adjustment, back to reality.

And while there’s been some spectacular views, it wasn’t all about the scenery. It was about the people, in large part. About the Irish history that made its way into almost all of my classes, not because it was on the syllabus, but because I was taught by proud Irish men who couldn’t stand not to talk about their heritage. It was about being uncomfortable and wrong and clumsy. It was about being able to go to a bar and order a beer. It was about getting used to asking for help. It was about being away from home for longer than ever before, and creating a home for myself, from scratch.

 

So here’s to the end of #hannahandjulieabroad. I know my nostalgia gland is prone to overreacting, but this feels like one of the most bittersweet goodbyes. It’s been real.

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Study Abroad

Things I Want to Take Home

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” –Paul Theroux

Friends, this is my last post before I leave for home. (If you remember that I used this quote to start my last post before I left for Spain, ten points to your Hogwarts house. If you’re not sure which Hogwarts house you are in, just give those points to Gryffindor. Gryffindor is the fucking best.)

I could write a novel on the feelings that come with the end of a semester abroad. It is outrageously hard to put all of this into words. I can’t wait to get home but I know that going home means the end. The end of this adventure, the end of being this specific kind of uncomfortable, the end of Spanish in the streets and bread at every meal and weekend trips with the same fifteen people. It feels just as surreal as the beginning.

I still don’t really know where I’m going—although Julie and my parents will tell you that I can read a map now, which is a pretty big step up from getting lost on the UNH campus in December—but I do know where I’ve been. Giant snowy mountains and quiet rose gardens. Tiny crooked towns and big loud cities. Airplanes and trains and holy shit, so many buses. I’ve been on such an adventure. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that a week from now, I’ll be back in New Hampshire, eating familiar foods and doing familiar things. There’s a sadness and a profound happiness in that.

Things I Want to Take Home:

Tranquila. Take it easy. No pasa nada.

Silliness. You’re going to make mistakes. (Don’t forget to laugh.)

Humility. The world is bigger than you.

Endurance. You can go further than you think. Don’t build barriers in your head.

Friendship. Family and friends, new and old. Remember the little things.

Patience. You’ll figure it out.

Confidence. You’ve figured it out before.

Adventure. There’s always more to explore.

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I have no idea how to conclude this. There’s too much to describe and all of it sounds like a record of clichés on repeat. But there is one more thing I want to tell you about.

Twelve of my friends and I took a trip to Rome last weekend. We got lost on the outskirts of the city as a group of thirteen, and working together to figure out where we needed to go felt like some weird and hilarious reality TV challenge. We drank a lot of wine. We cancelled the reservations for our last night at the hostel before realizing that the airport didn’t open until 4:30am and the hostel only let us sit in their lounge until 11:30pm. “We are so much more homeless in Rome than Julie was,” several of my friends muttered as we sat on a safe-ish stoop outside and waited for time to pass.

It was an absolute logistical nightmare.

It was physically miserable.

It was fun.

I wouldn’t have expected the semester to end any other way.

#hannahandjulieabroad

(See below for the story in pictures.)

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We fought for our lives to get onto the bus from the airport to the city, and then we swarmed a lot of other places. Traveling in a group of thirteen is like drinking an entire gallon of milk in one sitting – I’m glad we did it for the story, but I probably wouldn’t do it again or recommend it to friends with certain health conditions.

I took a solo trip to visit my sweet friend Pooja in Florence for a day. (The guy we asked to take our picture never took his thumb off the lens.)

 

Our thirteen-pack split up for some touring back in Rome, and we saw some super old things.

 

Then came the longest day that has ever been. It was my 21st birthday, but that was probably the least interesting thing that happened. First we got group-lost.

We eventually found the wrong catacombs, then the right catacombs. I tried to take pictures inside but a bald guy yelled at me. He wasn’t even the guide.

Later that night, we went out to dinner for my birthday, and my friend Jeremy bought a selfie stick.

Then came the homelessness.

We eventually got ourselves to the airport, then to the bus station, then home.

It was an adventure and a half, guys. We made it.

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Sleepless in Scotland

There’s nothing quite like the surge of nostalgia you get when you realize you’re doing something for the last time. You’re sitting in a booth of your favorite pub surrounded by everyone who means a lot to you, and it hits you that this is the last time that these people will all gather together in this place. You walk down the hill towards the center of town and the knowledge that your trips down this street are limited sits heavy in your heart. You’re at dinner one night and some asshat decides to remind everyone that, guys, this time next week we’ll all be gone and never see each other again! (Looking at you, Zach.)

I’m a very nostalgic person. Hann knows this. She makes fun of me for saving notes and doodles we find as we clean out our desks every year. My family knows it. Hopefully Meg knows it too, because she’s the one who’s going to be dealing with me on my last day in Ireland when I’m sniffling quietly into my pint in the corner of a pub.

Last week Hannah talked to you guys about the feeling anxiousness to get home. I was there a few weeks ago. After the semester-long build up to spring break that coincided with end of classes, it felt like this whole thing was over. I’d done my European adventure. I’d seen Hann. I’d been done with classes for almost a month, so it felt like all that was left to do was go home. I spent hours every day fantasizing about hugging my family in the airport and catching up with friends.

I wanted a fast-forward button.

I blinked, though, and May crept up on me. We’ve entered the beginning of lasts and goodbyes. The last trip we’ll take all together, the last time we’ll cook a family dinner in the kitchen of our apartment, the last cider we’ll sneak into a bar and chug in the bathroom. The lulls in conversation are charged with an awareness that all of this is temporary, and we all look around at each other with big, sad eyes.

All of a sudden I want a rewind button.

I know how foolish it is to wish something this awesome away. It’s almost as foolish as getting so caught up in the nostalgia of leaving that you don’t enjoy the time you have left. Just like every other part of this trip, it’s been a challenge to stay completely in the moment. During my first month I checked the calendar every day, hoping that all of a sudden it would jump a lot closer to the day I got to go home. I spent the weekdays waiting for Friday when I got to hop on a bus and explore a new town in Ireland. Now I’m wincing as the days pass too quickly and the “lasts” start to roll by.

I get a familiar flutter of panic when I realize I’m not truly “living in the moment” as much as I could be. I hear the voices of study-abroad veterans and family friends in my head. Enjoy it while it lasts, every minute of it. If I’m not enjoying what’s right around me all the time, am I doing it wrong? This is something that Hannah and I questioned a lot when we got here, and something we still question pretty much constantly all the time.

I don’t think we’re doing it wrong at all. We realized during one of our Facetime-deep-conversations that perspectives and emotions aren’t black and white. They weren’t at home, and they aren’t here. You can be sitting on a bench in Rome with a cup of gelato in your hands and be in awe of what you’re seeing and feel like you want to curl up in a ball and roll all the way home at the same time. You can be anxious to get home and ready to stay forever at the same time. You can be appreciative and present and homesick and happy and exhausted. A lot of the time you are, actually. That’s not wrong. It’s about time I realized it.

These past two weekends, my friends and I took our last ever trips together as a group. Both involved three-hour bus rides to Dublin in the middle of the night, and no sleep. They were physically draining, but we made every second count. Meg comes out to visit me in exactly one week, and I could not be more excited.

  

Wound up in the National Museum of Scotland after about 30 hours of no sleep, so of course this happened.

   Optical illusions!

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Jumping the Rut

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you feel comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” -Clifton Fadiman

My second week in Spain, I decided to travel from Granada to Madrid to spend a few days with my cousin Kristina. (For those of you who have been reading for a while, you might remember Kristina as the friend who can run way faster than me and brought me to a ball in Washington D.C. one time.) Kristina has been kicking ass studying in Madrid since September, so she offered to lead me around the country’s capital for a weekend and give me a few hugs. (Two weeks into a semester in a new country with a new language and new people, I was really looking forward to the hugs.)

This was my first big travel adventure of the semester, and Kristina helped me plan the whole thing out. I had to wake up at 6:30 to be at the bus stop by my house at 7, where I’d take a city bus to the big Estación de Autobuses at the other end of town. Then I’d get on another bus to Madrid, and when I got to the city five hours later, I’d hop on the metro and get off at the Manuel Becerra stop to meet up with Kristina and head to her apartment. The plan seemed straightforward enough.

The night before I left, I had a dream that the bus to Madrid was leaving without me. The bus had a platform, like a train, and a woman with a short, no-nonsense haircut told me that my ticket wasn’t valid. The glass sliding doors of the bus-train began to close and it started to chug away. No! I was determined to get on that bus-train. Somehow I knew that if I didn’t make it on this one there would never be another way to get to Madrid, and then all of my hopes and dreams would be destroyed, and then I’d die. Not getting on the train was not an option.

In the dream, I took a few steps back, adjusted my backpack, and jumped the platform onto the moving bus-train as the doors were still closing. The woman with the no-nonsense haircut yelled something, and there was a big crash. In real life, I dove out of my bed and onto the cold tile floor. I woke up when I hit the ground, completely disoriented. Holy shit. Maybe I was more anxious about this trip than I realized.

The morning of my viaje, everything almost went smoothly. I forgot to pay when I boarded the city bus—probably the result of months of free bus rides with my UNH ID—and when the driver called me to the front to pay my 1.20€, I didn’t have any coins in my wallet. Turns out the bus only accepts coins. The driver told me to get off at the next stop, make change somewhere, and then get back on the next bus. At least I think that’s what he said. My Spanish was still pretty weak at the time.

So I hopped off the bus and found myself alone on a deserted street in the middle of a Spanish city. In late January, 7am Spanish time looks a lot like 4am American time. The sky was still dark. Absolutely nothing was open. I didn’t even know which street I was on. The bus left, and everything went eerily quiet. Holy crap holy crap holy crap, I thought, choosing a random direction to walk in. Alright, Hann, stay calm. Just find somewhere to make change. No big deal.

I found a 24-hour Pharmacy five or ten minutes later, and I knew it was open because its medical-cross sign blinked green above the door. Hallelujah! But even the 24-hour Pharmacy looked like it wasn’t into the 7am-wake-up-call, and there was a locked gate in front of the door. I rang the doorbell and shook the gate until the man in the white lab coat—I could see him in there, and I knew he could see me too, goddammit—took pity on me and came to ask what I wanted. I begged in sub-par Spanish for change. Cambio, por favor! He agreed to break my 20€ if I bought a pack of chicles. I have never been so happy to buy a pack of shitty strawberry gum.

I finally made it onto the city bus with change jangling in my pocket, and I was still early for my big bus ride to Madrid. Kristina and I found each other on the Spanish metro no problem. She gave me lots of hugs and fed me well and took me clubbing in the city to show me that I could. It was awesome. I had survived my first big adventure!

 

Looking back, it’s hard to believe I was so nervous about that bus ride. I love using the Spanish bus system now. I know exactly how to order my ticket online (with PayPal, always with PayPal), I wake up excited for my trips, I chat with the older Spanish ladies in the seat next to me who want to visit New York someday. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that first trip to Madrid.

For the last couple weeks, it feels like I’ve been in a bit of a rut. I’m homesick, guys. I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming. I’ve been here for three and a half months. I’ve figured out the bus system and I’ve flown internationally by myself, twice. I can actually understand Spanish now (most of the time, at least). I thought I’d be at maximum comfort level by now—hitting my stride, watching the days fly by, maybe having a brief yet passionate love affair with a handsome local. I figured the last month of my study abroad experience would be exactly how study-abroad-veterans describe the whole semester: Amazing. Incredible. I would probably give my left arm to go back there.

Don’t get me wrong—so much of this semester has been amazing and incredible and worth giving a left arm for. But lately I’ve found myself wishing time away. I want to get back to my own bed and my own restaurants and my own language. I want to feel comfortable again. I feel homesick and then I feel guilty. How could I think those things when I’m lucky enough to be living in Spain and traveling every weekend? How could I want to go home when I know an adventure like this is probably never going to happen again?

I’m writing this because I have a lot of friends—both old and new—living study-abroad adventures right now. We’re spread out on different continents and eating different foods and speaking different languages, but from the conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks, it seems like a surprising number of us are feeling the same way. This is the final stretch. We’ve been uncomfortable for a long ass time. We’re close to going home, but not close enough to feel nostalgic quite yet. We might just be in a rut.

And friends, if any of you are reading this, it’s okay. It is okay. We can cry and laugh and get angry and anxious and homesick. We can stumble over our words even though we’ve been immersed in this culture for three and a half months, goddammit, and we’d hoped we’d be knock-your-socks-off-fluent by now. We can do this.

I often think of how I felt on that deserted street in late January. (I now know that the street was Camino de Ronda, and it is one of the largest and most centrally located calles in Granada.) It was terrifying, and I was pretty close to frantic, but underneath that fear there was something else too. Excitement. Courage. Adventure. Knowing that I was in charge of what came next. Feeling blind and unsure, but also confident that I could figure it out. I would figure it out. That’s the only option.

My family came to visit me in Granada this week. A piece of home came to me just when I was missing it most. (That same piece of home can’t really speak Spanish, tried to drive a rental car in world’s most un-driveable Spanish neighborhood, and locked a piece of luggage in that same rental car at the airport before their flight home, but those are all stories for another time.) Friends, I know most of you still have a few more weeks to go before your parents hug you too hard at the airport, but I think we can consider this our reset button. Today. Right now. These words, if they help.

There’s fear and anxiety and discomfort here, but there’s so much more, too. There’s the feeling that you get staring out at the sunset through your bus window, like you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. You can feel it growing giddy in your chest. This is it. I am here. This is the adventure. If you stretched out your hands, your fingertips could touch around the earth.

#hannahandjulieabroad

Hiking in Monachil, Granada. My mom grimaced all the way across that rickety bridge. (She didn’t want to cross it at all, but we called her a chicken. Works every time.)

We did some (legal) family drinking.

“Hey guys, this is the two-way street we tried to drive the rental car through!”

Mom, Dad, Sar, and Kissy – thanks for the week of adventures! Love you guys more than Milka.

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Homeless in Rome (Kind Of)

I returned home yesterday from a two-week Eurotrip. It began in Cork then moved on to Granada in Spain, Berlin, Thessaloniki, Athens, some Greek islands, and Rome. This trip has been a long time coming; on orientation day, my first day in Cork, we were handed a schedule for the semester and told that we essentially had the entire month of April off. I turned to my roommates and none of us knew whether to be excited or a little horrified.

What are we going to do in April? was the question that loomed overhead all semester. As it got closer and plans started to form, our nervousness turned to excitement mixed with nervousness, then to frantic anticipation, and, right before we left, blind panic. April was wide open. It was 30 days of opportunity. A chance to travel, to experience, to do whatever we wanted, really, and it all depended on what we wanted to make happen.

And damnit, did we make things happen. By the end of the two weeks, we’d become masters of the skills that you need in order to tour Europe on a study-abroad budget. We nailed down how to fit all of our belongings into one lumpy, overstuffed backpack. Room was made for souvenirs and sneakers were stuffed with underwear, but we made it through five plane rides without having to check a bag.

There’s another aspect of travel that I didn’t anticipate before this semester: problem-solving.

Our April excursion was a trip, not a vacation. We dove headfirst into complex public transportation systems, and at one point we took the metro, to a bus, to a plane, to another bus, to a taxi, to our apartment. From the time I landed in Granada, most of my brain power was going towards wrapping my head around the things I was seeing, trying to be present and appreciative and finding things to say other than, “this is fucking crazy!” But a small, pessimistic corner of my mind was also waiting for something to go wrong. I figured I wouldn’t make it through the semester without at least one goof-up to work through. I tried to not let it scare me, but to look at it as something that would make me just a little more capable.  

And when we finally came face-to-face with our goof-up, everything was okay. The Greece leg of our trip was especially travel-intensive; we stayed for only two days in each city and squeezed in a one-day boat tour of some islands. The days had settled into the routine of about 12 hours of no wifi and no phones, then 20 to 30 minutes of wifi, if we found it, when everyone’s screens were practically glued to our faces between our eyes. Someone decided, by chance, to check our hostel reservations. They didn’t match the dates of our flights.

So basically, we were homeless in Athens for one night and had booked an extra night in Rome. We all leaped into problem-solving mode, booked the extra night for our Athens hostel, and emailed the Rome hostel explaining that we’d be a day late. The mysterious Rome hostel people never got back to us. No biggie.

Hostels are always a bit of a gamble. You never quite know who you’ll be sharing a bunk bed with or whether the person at the reception desk will speak English. But when we showed up to the address for our hostel in Rome, we found ourselves looking at the door to an apartment building. No reception, just a buzzer for our room number. We looked at each other, shrugged, and buzzed. Then buzzed again. But there was no answer.

It was 2 p.m. and we were homeless in Rome. After fifteen minutes of hovering by the door we crossed the street to buy some food from a stand and make a plan. When we noticed someone walking into our building, Matt sprinted across the street to hold the door for us, so now we were at least inside. We knocked on our door, on neighbors doors, and had a few strained conversations with locals who spoke little English. Erin and Shannon got stuck in an old-timey elevator that looked like a pulley, and their screams of terror echoed down the stairwell from the top floor. A kind older woman helped them to pull the emergency lever to get the door open, but because of the language barrier they were both sure that pulling the lever would release the elevator and send them plunging to their deaths. We decided to make our escape once Erin and Shannon were free and the lady realized that the elevator was broken and it was now her problem.

So our first few hours of real “problem solving” consisted of barging into a private apartment building and making nuisances of ourselves. But as we rushed out the door, we ran into a scowling man in a leather jacket. He sized us up, six flustered American kids in sneakers and backpacks, and asked, “hostel?” He spoke little to no English, and he was pissed. He spoke to us long enough to let us know that he’d been waiting for us all day yesterday, despite our email. We followed him around the corner to a different apartment like scolded elementary school children, wincing at his short responses to our apologies and shrugging at each other.

But in the end, all that mattered was that we weren’t homeless in Rome. In especially trying situations, I like to say hey guys, it could be worse. We could be on fire! in an attempt to lighten the mood. It works to varying degrees of success. After our third time trying to call the hostel, Shannon turned and said it to me. That was when I knew that we could make it through anything, probably.

We bought slushies outside the Acropolis, but they don’t tell you that you’re not allowed to take drinks inside so we huddled together and chugged them by the entrance, stomping our feet and making brain-freeze faces. We tied sweaters around our waists to cover our knees in the Vatican. My flight to Berlin almost got cancelled because France decided to be all difficult and call in an air control strike so planes couldn’t fly over it. (Really, France?) But we also jumped into the sparkling blue Mediterranean, ate pesto in Italy, and did handstands in the park next to the track where chariot races were held in ancient Rome.

  

Met up with pals in Berlin, which is a magical place where you can drink openly on the subway.

        It was impossible to take a bad picture in Greece.

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Now I’m two weeks older and feeling a little more capable. I’ve made it through the hoops of security and customs at five more airports, and seen six more cities. I’m both bummed and relieved that it’s over, and so thankful that it all happened.

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On Being Wrong

I chose the enormous picture at the top of this page because it sums up a pretty big portion of how my friends and I have been spending this semester:

Being huge idiots and sticking out like sore thumbs.

Recently, Hannah and I realized something cool about our time in Europe. For five months of our lives, we get to be the minority. Not in all ways, but in some. When I speak, I’m the one with the accent. I’m the one who fumbles with euro coins in line at the supermarket. I’m the one who wears rain boots when it rains, even though no one else really does. I’m the one who gets excited about mundane things, and people smirk at my gasps and wide-eyed proclamations of, “this is awesome!” everywhere we go.

I’ve learned how to be an outsider. For a while I found myself keeping my head down, cringing at myself for wearing rain boots every day. I don’t speak like the people here, I don’t dress like them, and I found myself fumbling through social customs and interactions during my first month. At first it made me uncomfortable. I felt big and loud and intimidated, even though I received patience and kindness from the people around whom I mess up.

After a while, though, I got comfortable with being an outsider. This is due in large part to the fact that I was never really treated like one, I only thought of myself that way, but also because I got good at it. Hann was experiencing something similar in Spain, only she was grappling with the challenges of not being able to articulate herself in Spanish, which is even more nuts. We were talking about how we felt so embarrassingly American when I said, “But, Hann, we are American.” There was no use trying to deny that. It’s not like we could just close our eyes and spontaneously become cultured Europeans who were fluent in three languages. We realized that we were wasting our time trying to assimilate so well into this culture that we were almost missing out on it.

So I started to fight back the cringe that crept up my spine when someone smirked at something I said. I began to appreciate the advice given to me by friends who are from here. Eventually I didn’t wait until I was corrected for doing the wrong thing, I’d walk up to the nearest local and ask. My roommate Jen is probably one of the most enthusiastic and positive people I’ve ever met, and people have taken to imitating the way she says, “wooow!” whenever she gets excited. She never masks her enthusiasm, so I decided that neither would I. I’ve been walking the streets of Cork for three months now, and I still walk with my face tilted up toward the sky, taking it all in.

I hope that I’ve never been a proud or arrogant person, but this semester has allowed me to experience first-hand the different lives that people around the world are living, and it’ been a lot to wrap my head around. When you’ve never left your cultural bubble, it’s hard to imagine that there are people out there who’s perspective and experience has been so totally different from yours. You’ve never gotten to ask their opinions or hear their languages or taste their foods. Living abroad means that you get to inhabit a different perspective, you get to walk the cobblestone streets of a country of people who grew up a world away from you. It’s been a privilege to be an outsider, a privilege to be wrong.

I won’t lie to you guys, I sort of stole this idea from Hannah. But she’s in Amsterdam right now and I was scrambling for a topic today. (So this is happening, Hann. Sorry.) She mentioned to me a few weeks ago how she’s learned how to be wrong. How to be okay with the fact that she speaks in broken Spanish and can’t always say what’s on her mind as eloquently as at home. We’ve both gotten good at not knowing how things work sometimes. We’re masters of receiving corrections graciously and realizing we’re talking loudly in public places. We’re professionals at being wrong.

(Below are pictures of us actively not blending in.)

  

  

 

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Study Abroad

Feminist Girl in Spain

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” –Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl

Today my story looks like this: I heard “Going Down For Real” by Flo Rida in my favorite café over breakfast and danced a little in my chair as I ate my toasted bread with olive oil. (That song will never not be awesome, especially in Spanish cafes.) I got caught in a rainstorm on my way to class and my little black umbrella almost turned inside out. When I got home with wet shoes and tried to plug in my computer, my charger died. I tracked down an Apple store nearby and almost cried at how much my new cargador cost. I got home and Skyped my mom, Skyped Julie. Actually cried. Laughed a lot more and then ate some chocolate. And now I’m here.

Lena Dunham has been in my head a lot lately. I’ve been ripping through her new memoir even faster than I ripped through Season 3 of House of Cards. (Only 13 episodes? What the fuck, Netflix?) If you don’t know who Lena Dunham is and you’re into genius character development/graphic nudity, you should check out her HBO show Girls. Her writing is honest, irreverent, witty, and graphically sexual. Lots of what she has to say makes me uncomfortable. Lots of what she has to say makes me think.

Take the term “girl crush,” for example. I’ve used those words in casual conversation too many times to count, mostly in association with Emma Watson/Emma Stone/Jennifer Lawrence, aka the holy trifecta. I’ve watched that Jenna Marbles video a lot of times. (“I don’t know if I want to be you or be on you!”) Here’s what Lena has to say on the topic:

“I find the term ‘girl crush’ slightly homophobic, as if I need to make it clear that my crush on another woman is not at all sexual, but rather, mild and adorable, much like…a girl.”

Whoa. The nod to homophobia felt accurate, but it was the bigger context of Lena’s observation that struck me most. Mild and adorable. So much was wrapped up in those two words. I had to put the book down for a second.

Girls are expected to be mild and adorable. If we’re not, we get called names. Bossy. Bitch. Slut. How much of my life has been shaped by the expectation of me to be inoffensive, like a girl? How many times have I apologized for asking a question in class? How many times have I swallowed my anger instead of lashing out for fear of looking “crazy”? (If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to discount a girl’s rationale and intellect, just call her crazy the next time she angry-cries.)

Here, I’d like to include a note from Julie (via Microsoft Word bubble comment on an early draft of this post): “It’d be totally cool if you could add another sentence here about how dumb it is that when we’re talking about something and we’re impassioned or upset and someone calls us crazy, we feel crazy. Like crawl-under-a-rock-never-speak-in-public-again-stupid. And all you have to do is tell us to calm down and whatever it was we were saying, no matter how cool or important or right or wrong, it vanishes. It doesn’t matter anymore because we were just being crazy.” She put it way better than I could.

Just now I noticed my voice go up an octave as I thanked my host mom for dinner. Mild and adorable. Do my guy friends have a “thank you” voice? Do they hide their feelings so people don’t accuse them of being crazy? I’m honestly not sure.

The depth of the things I’ve never noticed is hard to wrap my head around. I still don’t always know what to believe or think, but when I find a writer that makes my world feel like it’s expanding and shrinking at the same time and forces me to question my place in it, I feel the need to write about her on the Internet.

So Lena Dunham has been in my head, and she has me thinking about my own story, which might just be the most powerful thing an author can do. I’ve always felt like I have a critically-acclaimed memoir living in me somewhere. (I have this little daydream where Julie and I write a witty nonfiction book together and build a Hannah & Julie empire, complete with fancy pens, signature scents, and a movie deal featuring all three members of the holy trifecta.) But there are a few things about memoir-writing that make me a little nervous.

Names. In nonfiction, changing a character’s name and certain physical characteristics is usually enough to avoid accusations of being a slanderer or a total asshole. It’s not that I have bad stuff to say about a lot of people, but I do have a lot of stuff to say about a lot of people. If I give my friend Pete a mustache and name him Jack, everyone I know is still going to know that it’s fucking Pete. Not sure I’m ready for that kind of transparency.

Interesting-ness. Of course by the time I get around to writing my memoir I’ll have published a few (beloved, imaginative, wildly successful) novels and maybe pushed out a kid or two, but I’m really not sure if I’ll ever do anything memoir-worthy. I don’t plan on hiking the Appalachian Trail by myself or getting pinned by a rock and having to cut off my own arm to survive. I’m way too anxious to try any hard drugs, so the Strung Out Druggie Turned Successful Lawyer/Author/Surgeon story isn’t too likely. I’m not saying I need a gimmick, but I’m probably going to have to be pretty witty to compete with all those other ones.

Boys. Taking the fear of transparency a bit further, I sometimes wonder what would happen when it came time to write the chapters about boys. I’ve only officially dated one—we were fourteen, we made pizza together once—but I have some great ass stories to tell. From a storytelling perspective, the only thing more interesting than dating someone is not actually dating someone. More confusion, more suspense, more hang-outs that you think might be dates but really turn out to be platonic viewings of Dutch movies about trolls. The idea of one of my ex-flings picking up my future memoir and finding himself in some chapter—with a fake mustache, probably—makes me just a little bit nauseous.

Maybe I’ll get my memoir book-deal one day, maybe I won’t. But I think it’s important to know that I have a story to tell, even if it’s just to myself.

I know I wandered a bit from the #hannahandjulieabroad theme this week, but don’t worry, there’s plenty more to come. In the meantime, feel free to enjoy this historical re-enactment of bulls and matadors fighting in La Plaza de Toros in Ronda, Spain.

No bulls were harmed in the making of this montage.

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It’s All About The People

The bond formed between people who’ve been plopped into a foreign country where they don’t know a single soul is pretty unique to the study abroad experience, and it’s the stuff of fairy tales. Allow me to explain.

So it’s a Wednesday like any other, no big deal. Except for the fact that you’ve just been traveling for 20 hours, you’ve only slept for about three of those hours, and all you’ve eaten is half a granola bar. You’re looking out the window of your taxi and trying to comprehend that all of the buildings and fields that you’re seeing are in a different country, that you’re in a different country. You arrive at your home for the next five months, a building you’ve never seen before, you’re handed a key, and shown to your apartment. You struggle to figure out how to unlock the door while keeping your suitcase from falling over. You can hear voices on the other side of the wall. The lock clicks and you push open the door, heart racing.

These are the people you’ve been wondering about for the past six months, the elusive people who you knew you’d be living with, but were unable to find any information on. Would they be American, Irish, or from another country entirely? Would they speak English? Would they be future lifelong friends? These were the most common questions I fielded from curious family members, and the ones that rattled around in my mind for months before I left, unanswered. As I walked down the narrow hallway of my apartment towards my new people, I thought I might keel over from the anticipation.

There were four girls perched on couches and chairs in our kitchen/living room, speaking in American accents. Their names were Jen, Erin, Shannon, and Liz, and they were as excited/freaked out by my presence as I was by theirs. Finally, the curtain was pulled back and the enigma revealed.

Now plenty of situations bring people together. There’s the commiseration of waiting in a long and drudgerous line at the post office when you really have to pee. (Especially if you both have to pee.) There’s the inexplicable joy of seeing someone you kind of know in a place you never think you’d see them. (In an airport, at the top of a mountain, in a public bathroom in Europe.)

Then there’s the study abroad experience. The people you meet here are the ones you rely on when you’re starting over. They’re the people standing next to you as you build a life for yourself in a brand-new place. They’re the people you wake up at 4 a.m. with to travel, the same people you stayed out until 2a.m. with the night before.

I had a few moments recently when I told myself that I’d gotten pretty lucky with my people. One was our Tuesday excursion to London to see one of my favorite bands.

 

We’d gotten up at four in the morning for our flight, and once our feet touched the ground in London, we were going nonstop. We posed with Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Winston Churchill (and friends.)

   

  

  

We all thought this was a great idea.

  

  

We imitated statues, to varying degrees of success.

One of our last stops before checking into the hostel at 3p.m. was Westminster Abbey. At this point we’d been awake and wearing backpacks for almost 12 hours, and a little part of me wanted to die. At least, my body did. My brain was too transfixed with what I was seeing to be anything but awe-struck.

  

I looked around and my roommates had similar hang-dog expressions on, but when I caught their eyes, they smiled and gave me the same this-is-awesome-I-can’t believe-we’re here face. When I asked the questions, do you guys want to fly to London on a Tuesday? At 6a.m.? To see a band I’m forcing you to listen to? I could only hope for a yes, and immediately, I got it. They followed me across the English Channel, all around London, and even into Westminster Abbey, (a detour I pushed hard for.) And even when we got there, they were just as willing to make the most of every minute, despite exhaustion. That day didn’t end until midnight, after the concert, and they laughed with me for all 18 hours of it.  

The second time was during our Ring of Kerry weekend, which was basically three days of beautiful Irish landscapes, cliffs, mountains, waterfalls, and baby sheep.

        

Saturday night was both my roommate Shannon’s birthday, and my friend Bridget’s. We walked out of our hotel towards town in Cahersiveen, Country Kerry in search of birthday debauchery. We didn’t realize how small this town was until we got to the main street and realized that little to nothing was going on, but soon found a small pub with live traditional music. Within five minutes of our arrival, the man singing was taking our requests, and we were dancing with the locals. The average age of this pub was about 70, and the dancing was closer to ballroom style than anything we were used to. But we were welcomed like old friends, and we laughed into each other’s shoulders the whole time.

“We just danced with old-ass Irish ladies and it was pretty fun.” -Matt.

That weekend we were the first ones to the top of the mountain and the last ones to get back to the bus, every time. There were a few times each day that I felt lucky to be with people who knew how to make the most of standing on a rainy, windy mountain and dancing with elderly people on clumsy feet. Jen, Erin, Shannon, Matt, Tobin, and Zach, this one’s for you guys. #hannahandjulieabroad.

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My Body Hurts and This Place is Awesome

Hannah (8:44 am): Running on 3 hours of sleep, about to go tour all day and train home again tonight

Hannah (8:45 am): Might die

Julie (8:46 am): That sounds like the study abroad experience in a nutshell

Julie (8:46 am): PUSH THROUGH YOU GOT THIS

Before I came abroad, I had a lot of poetic notions about traveling through Europe. You eat chocolate croissants on cobblestone streets and listen to the strange music of new languages and discover tiny restaurants with strong wine and warm bread. You get to see the world through new eyes. I mean, just google “travel quotes.” You’ll see what I mean.

Nothing like some white words against a mountain backdrop to make you want to get up and flee the country, am I right?

I love a good “not all those who wander are lost” graphic just as much as the next guy, but I think there’s an important aspect of traveling that so far has not made it into any inspirational quotes: Your body will be supremely uncomfortable 60-75% of the time. (I’m not sure what that would look like in white cursive against a mountain, but it’d probably be less poetic than those other ones.)

My program took an absolutely fantastic trip to Barcelona this weekend. All fifteen of us—sixteen including our program coordinator—piled onto a train at the Granada Train Station at 9:30pm on Thursday night. Then we sat on that train for eleven hours, arrived in Barcelona at around 8:45am, and tried to go about our days like normal human beings.

The thing you should know about overnight trains is that they are the worst. If you pay extra you can get a claustrophobic little bunk or a seat that reclines all the way down with big cushions. We study abroad students were unwilling to pay for either of those things, so we were in the “coach” class with the rest of the peasants. (Guaranteed we had more fun than those bastards in first class, anyways. I was kind of hoping for a lively dance scene like in Titanic, but everyone in our car mostly just slept.) It was like being on a bus, if that bus had lighting like an abandoned mental hospital and drove for eleven hours straight.

It’s a testament to how awesome all the people in my program are that I can say I actually had fun on that damn train. Not the whole time—part of the time was just as miserable as it sounds—but we found the dining cart and ordered a few beers and played card games and ate Pringles. Six or seven or eight hours later, we were in Barcelona.

Thoughts While Exploring a Foreign City Immediately After 12 Hours on a Train:

Holy crap, this is great, I feel great. Somebody sign me up for an Iron Man or something.
This city has all the things! Cathedrals! More cathedrals! I love traveling!
Hm, I’m a little tired. I guess that’s to be expected.
Damn, my feet hurt.
How long have we been walking? An hour? Seven?
You’re telling me we’ve been walking for ten minutes? And we can’t check into the hostel for another THREE HOURS?
Alright, coffee. Coffee coffee coffee.
My body feels a little tingly. Am I drunk?
Okay I’m definitely not drunk. The ground might be moving though.
Only another 16-17 hours until I can go to bed. Solid.

Your face gets hot, your legs get heavy, and you almost definitely can’t poop after twelve hours of snacking on train cafeteria food. But none of that really matters.

When traveling, my body is the least of my worries. It’s really just this vehicle that I have to keep alive in order to see what I want to see. Drink water, wear comfortable shoes, eat enough gelato to stay full until dinner. We took an overnight train both ways and still had a fricken awesome weekend. Barcelona didn’t stand a chance.

  

So yes, physical discomfort is a huge part of traveling on a budget. But honestly, being a little at war with your body sometimes doesn’t take away from the travel experience. If anything, I think it adds to it. The exhaustion reminds you how far your body’s moved. The ache in your legs reminds you how many steps you’ve taken through a new city. The indigestion reminds you that you should really pack a few more fruits and vegetables the next time you get on an overnight train.

It’s better than white cursive over a blue mountain range. It’s the real thing. #hannahandjulieabroad

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Reverse Dog Years

At this point, it’s probably not a surprise to you twelve dedicated readers that Hannah and I sometimes leave writing these posts until the last minute. In fact, we’ve been banking pretty hard on the fact that the East Coast is five hours behind in order to get these posts out on time. At least, I have.

Somehow, it’s one a.m. here in Cork as I begin to write this entry. All hopes of Hannah being able to proof-read for me have gone out the window, as she’s an hour ahead of me and probably planning to get up early and do responsible-people-things. Things that people who start blog posts at one a.m. don’t do. Damn you, Hann.

The thing is, I didn’t mean to put this off until now. I always look forward to writing for the twelve of you, and since I’ve gotten to Ireland there’s never been a shortage of things to say. I mentally plan my post all week, jotting down phrases that keep turning up in my head. And I’ve got plenty of time to carefully craft and revise multiple drafts. So much free time, oceans of it. So why is this happening at 1am on this technically Tuesday morning? I have a few theories.

Mainly:

This semester is a worm-hole where time is elastic.

Somehow, I’ve been here for almost two months. When I got my schedule after the first week, I realized just how much free time I had and almost had a heart attack. There was so much free time. I had classes but no homework, no job, no responsibilities for any clubs, no homework. This place felt like summer camp, only rainier. I probably spent an hour each day wondering what I would do with all of my new free time.

You guys, I don’t know where it goes, but the time goes by in a hurry. You blink and a week is gone. You glance at the calendar and it’s already March. You tell yourself all day that you’re going to write this post, and then it’s 1 a.m. “I’ll see you next month,” Hannah told me the other day, “Which sounds like a lot, but that’s like 10 minutes in study-abroad-time.” And it’s true. We’ve taken to calling it reverse dog years.

Adjusting to a lifestyle of ample leisure time was tough at first. I didn’t realize how much I depended on being busy until I landed in a place where I didn’t have any time commitments. I felt like a lazy alien at first, but now I’d say I’m a pro at being unoccupied. So good, in fact, that having more than a few things to do plus classes completely puts me out. Last week I had to go to the grocery store and write a paper, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off.

I’m not lazy all the time, though. Another theme I’m noticing about study abroad is that life seems to switch back and forth from opposite ends of a spectrum rather than finding a happy medium. I’m either having a relaxing week, getting plenty of sleep, or I’m flying to London at six a.m. on a Tuesday and running off of four hours a night. I don’t crack a book a month, then have an exam and an essay due within two days. I’m either starving or stuffed, overly prepared or a complete mess, but always aware of how lucky I am to be living this semester. I’m never too busy to slow down and marvel in the fact that I’m actually here.

So that brings me here. It’s approaching 2 a.m. now, and I didn’t get around to writing about anything that I had originally planned. Since I last wrote I’ve been to London, watched people eat gross things until they puked, and held a baby lamb. But another hour has sped by in reverse dog years, so I’m going to say goodnight to you all.

     

    

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