The Trip isn’t Over Yet

All of my friends from Finland have returned home. Most of the other people I know who were studying abroad in other countries have already made their way home, or are finishing up post-study abroad travels. The summer study abroad groups are out in the world, with the clock already ticking on their returns.

And my trip isn’t over yet. 

The Finland part of my trip has been over for a few weeks now (though I’m still working on the long list of blog posts about Finland), and I’ve only recently finished up the rest of my school work for classes there. But I’m not home yet, though my return is drawing closer.

I’m in the midst of what I jokingly call the longest layover ever. It’s not really a layover, since I had to go out of my way to get here, but it’s my pause between Finland and the United States. The real way of describing it sounds a bit pretentious: I’m spending the summer in France.

I’m incredibly lucky in this respect. I lived in France for seven months in 2010, and now I get to spend another two months in the South of France. It’s something like a vacation, though I’m really just living with family, working on various things (…mostly blog posts), with some traveling and exploring on the side.

It feels normal to be living in France. I’m staying with my dad, who moved here two years ago with his wife and my three stepsisters. I’m older than all three of them; they’re all taller than me. My dad and I talk in English; my stepmother and stepsisters speak in French. We all change between French and English and often end up speaking the bastard child of both languages: ‘franglais‘.

Life in France is a treat. There’s always bread and dessert with dinner (and sometimes, lunch). Saturdays and Sundays are American pancake days, even if we don’t eat the pancakes with syrup. Chocolate hour is between 4-6 pm daily. There’s always tea on hand, though these days my dad and I have been making sun tea. Iced and sweet, a truly American treat.

Days are hot and sunny here. Sometimes it’s so hot that the hills and mountains on the horizon gets blurry, obscured by smoggy heat. After months of living in Finland and feeling as though winter weather could happen at any moment, the Mediterranean summer is unyielding. I don’t think I’m quite used to it yet. I long for air conditioning and sometimes I miss my drafty Finnish room.

Aix on Provence is lovely, and getting to explore more of France makes me happy. I’m truly “Aly en France”, as I have been on the internet since 2009, again. And I have new stories and pictures to share, though I’m not quite there yet… I should finish telling some stories from Finland before I start rambling about the places I’m visiting in France.

Since I don’t have much else to do, expect those to start appearing more frequently. I hope to catch up on most of those before I head back to the US in July!

Cooking and Baking Abroad

I love cooking and baking, but as an American student studying/living abroad, I have found accomplishing these things to be a challenge. 

The problem with cooking (and baking) abroad comes in two parts: ingredients and conversion. Finding the right ingredients (and sometimes, figuring out what they are called in a different language or what the equivalent ingredient would be) usually requires research, and converting US measurements into metric is not always easy.

Recipes do not always translate well– especially if you do not have access to as many cooking utensils as you would at home! I found it useful to look up recipes on British websites like allrecipes.co.uk, where they are already posted in metric. Some ingredients are different, but for the most part it’s easier to go that route than converting an American recipe.

In 2010, during my study abroad in France, I didn’t have many opportunities to cook or bake for myself. I lived with a host family, so most of the time I was not in charge of cooking anything. On a few occasions, I was able to have baking experiments: chocolate chip cookies, and another time while on a trip, macarons.

Failed chocolate chip cookies

Round 2 of the failed cookies were slightly better

Neither of these experiments were successful. Converting what I see as the “classic” American cookie (the Toll House Chocolate Chip cookie) recipe into French took more work than I thought, and finding the ingredients was tough. When my friends and I finally got around to baking them, the ingredients weren’t quite right and we ended up with a thin block of crisp chocolate chip cookie that bore little resemblance to my beloved gooey and soft chocolate chip cookies. The second half were slightly better, but still not as good as they should have been.

The macarons were a disaster. My friend Any and I didn’t have all the ingredients, so we substituted ground almonds for almond flour and tried to assemble delicate macarons from this lumpy concoction. We ended up with cookies that were more like balls than smooth macarons. We called them “macaboules”, and they were truly horrific. (To be fair, macarons are not the easiest to make, and I haven’t tried making them again since then!)

In Finland, I lived in an apartment with two other exchange students. This means that most of the time, I was cooking my own meals. The cooking was fine– though I will admit that I ate lots of very strange combinations of food, not all of which are worth recreating. Baking happened somewhat accidentally. I always tried to buy fruit, and one week I waited too long to eat bananas so I ended up with overly ripe bananas that were more or less inedible as they were. I didn’t want to waste them, but all I could think of to do with them was to make banana bread. So that’s what I ended up doing.

My friend Charlotte and I during the cookie experiment of 2010.

My French baking experiment friends: Charlotte and Camille!

My friend Mareike and I made cookies together one during one of the last few weeks in Finland.

I ended up baking a lot in Finland. I had a strange schedule and more time on my hands than normal. Almost every week I would make scones, banana bread, or chocolate chip cookies. Often I ended up sharing these treats with my friends, many of whom had never had them before. Banana bread and American-style chocolate chip cookies were particularly special. And baked treats were great to bring on trips to cut down on food expenses while traveling!

For those of you that WANT to bake while abroad, here are the recipes I used. These are all very easy to make, though banana bread/banana cake usually seems to involve getting more bowls and utensils dirty and takes the most time overall.There is a lot of room for variation in these three recipes. The comments section of many recipes often includes suggestions from others on ways to improve the recipe; I highly recommend clicking through to the original recipes and reading some comments if you want ideas! I’ve included my own suggestions here.

Note on measuring: A kitchen scale is useful for getting precise measurements, but you can also find measuring cups similar to ones in the US. My flatmate had a measuring cup (well, more like a jug) that came in 100 gram measurements, with different lines for rice, flour, sugar, and water. This worked just fine for me, but if you don’t like estimating amounts, a kitchen scale or a select number of measuring cups/spoons might be worth the investment! Often, if you have teaspoons and tablespoons, you can use those to approximate the amount based on American measures (i.e. 8 tbsp = 1/2 c). This chart is helpful.

*****

The first banana bread.

Chocolate chip & walnut banana bread

Banana Bread/Cake (original recipe)

Makes 1 loaf of banana bread, about 12 servings.

  • 250g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • 115g butter
  • 115 g sugar*
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 – 3 over-ripe bananas, mashed

Directions:

Time: prep ~ 15 min, cook time ~ 1 hr

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Lightly grease a 23x13cm loaf tin.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt.
  3. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar (chop the butter into small chunks to make this easier if you are creaming by hand with a fork). Stir in eggs and mashed bananas until well blended. Stir banana mixture into flour mixture until well combined. Pour mixture into prepared loaf tin.
  4. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 65 minutes, until a knife inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. About halfway through, if the banana bread is starting to get golden brown or is cooking too fast, you might want to cover it with aluminum foil and/or reduce the heat so that it does not burn. Reducing the heat will make it take a bit longer. Leave to cool in tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire cooling rack or a plate.

Notes: The original recipe calls for 115 g of dark brown sugar. Light brown sugar works just as well. I like to use a mix of 1/2 granulated sugar and 1/2 brown sugar. You can also make it with just granulated sugar. Brown sugar makes it more moist than white sugar and gives it a slightly different flavor.

Variations: Add a handful or two of chocolate chips/chopped dark chocolate, chopped nuts (especially walnuts or pecans), dried fruit (I’ve done this with cranberries, though raisins would be good too!). Chocolate + nuts is particularly good, and makes it a bit more filling. I also like to add some cinnamon and vanilla extract/sugar, and plain banana bread with “chai” spices like allspice, clove, cardamom, and nutmeg would also be delicious!

If you don’t have a loaf tin but have muffin tins, you can make this into muffins as well– according to a comment on the original recipe, a 12-muffin tin will make 2 batches using this recipe. Fill muffin cups up halfway and bake for 20 minutes at 150 C or until a knife, when inserted, comes out clean.

***

Chocolate chip cookie ingredients

Cookie dough!

Chocolate chip cookies

Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies (original recipe – also translated into French!)

The full recipe makes 60 cookies. Making half (30 cookies) seems to be sufficient most of the time, unless you eat a lot of dough first 🙂

  • 150 g chocolate chips (dark or semi-sweet)
  • 160 g flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 100 g butter, softened
  • 90 g sugar
  • 90 g brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract*
  • 1 egg

Directions: 

Time: prep ~ 15 min, cook ~ 10 min

  1. Preheat oven to 190 C.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients through the salt. Cream the butter and sugar and vanilla. Add egg and beat well.
  3. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in chocolate. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto greased baking sheets or baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
  4. Bake for 8 – 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool two minutes, move to wire racks (or plate) to cool completely.

Store cookies in airtight container. Putting a slice of bread in with the cookies will keep them from going stale as quickly (and help soften them up if they’re hard!), though it will get you weird looks and questions. 🙂 If you have a freezer, you could freeze them as dough balls for quick baking later.

Notes: You don’t have to be very precise with this. 100 g of both sugars will work, as will using 150 g of flour. It gives a slightly different texture, but it tastes like it should! If you don’t have access to chocolate chips, chopping up dark chocolate will work as well. The original recipe calls for vanilla extract, but you could use vanilla sugar. This blog explains how to use the full vanilla bean.

Variations: Some people make Toll House Cookies with chopped nuts. Using this recipe, 1/2 cup (about 50 g) of chopped nuts would be ideal. Try white chocolate instead of dark chocolate. This even works as a sugar cookie– just omit chocolate entirely. Add cinnamon to the chocolate-less dough and sprinkle sugar/cinnamon on top if you want a snickerdoodle-like cookie. You could substitute some oatmeal for some of the flour if you wanted oatmeal cookies.

***

Blueberry-lemon scones.

Blueberry Scones (original recipe for Lemon-Blueberry scones – uses American measurements)

  • 300 g flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons (70 g) butter
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 lg eggs
  • 125 g powdered sugar*
  • 50 – 100 g blueberries (fresh or frozen)*

Directions:

Time: prep ~15 minutes, cook ~15 minutes

  1. Preheat the oven to 230 C. In a large bowl combine the flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Mix them well to make sure there are no clumps and everything is combined evenly.
  2. In a smaller bowl, combine the milk and eggs. Whisk well.
  3. Cut the butter into chunks and put it into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Using your hands, “smoosh” the butter into the flour over and over until there are no more clumps and it is completely combined with the flour. It should look like coarse sand.
  4. Stir the blueberries into the wet ingredients then pour all of that into the bowl of dry ingredients. Stir it all together until everything has combined (thorough mixing is not necessary). The dough will be very wet and sticky, don’t worry.
  5. Liberally flour your countertop (and your hands!) to keep the wet dough from sticking. Dump the ball of wet dough onto the floured surface and pat it down into a circle about 8 inches wide and one inch thick. (Alternatively, dump it right onto your baking sheet, covered in parchment paper/foil and pat it down.)
  6. You can cut the circle into 8 wedges and space them out or bake them in a circle and cut them later — this method keeps the inside slightly more moist, in my opinion. Place the scones on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper or foil (for easy clean up).  Bake for 12-15 minutes.
  7. If you’re using icing, make it while the scones are baking. Place one cup of powdered sugar in a small bowl and add milk by the tablespoon into it. You want the icing thick but still loose enough to drizzle over the scones.
  8. When the scones are golden brown on top, remove them from the oven and let cool. If you’re using icing, make sure they’re cool before you ice them 🙂

Notes: The powdered/confectioner’s sugar is for making icing. If you don’t have it, you can just sprinkle about a tablespoon of granulated sugar or coarse sugar over the top of your scones before baking (use a milk or egg wash first if you want, but it shouldn’t be necessary). For the blueberries, the recipe calls for half a cup — you can eyeball that, or add a couple handfuls of blueberries. Whatever you want, really!

Variations: Almost any fruit will work! I’m partial to blueberry and raspberry scones, but apricot, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and cranberries all make delicious scones! Different dried fruit would also work. Add chocolate chips if you want your scones to be more like dessert– white chocolate and raspberry is a delicious combination. Adding orange, lemon, or lime zest is great. Try chocolate chip and orange, raspberry-lime, or lemon-blueberry. Make the recipe without any fruit or sugar for a plain scone that would be great with butter or jam (though you might want to add more milk, it might be pretty dry!). Try cinnamon scones by adding a couple tablespoons of cinnamon to the recipe (and of course no blueberries), and sprinkling cinnamon sugar over the top, or making a cinnamon-vanilla icing! The possibilities are endless.

*****

At any rate, I highly recommend having a baking experiment or two while abroad! It can help ease homesickness and stress, and making foods from your home country to share with friends can be a great way to share culture, especially if they join in!

Other resources: 

  • food.com has the option to show recipes in metric measurements, though they will not convert the temperature.
  • JSWard has a guide to converting recipes and cooking in metric, very handy.
  •  This website does conversions of cooking measurements for you – just make sure you put in the ingredient (it also has temperature conversionsbutter conversions, and “common conversions” for other measurements used in the kitchen)
  • In chart form, common conversions from US to Metric, as well as conversions between US amounts! Includes dry and liquid measurements and even pan measurement equivalents.
  • More British sources for recipes… BBC Good Food and Sorted Food.
  • If you don’t mind doing conversions yourself, I love Budget Bytes and (US) Allrecipes.

Have you had any experiences with baking or cooking food from home while abroad? How did it go? I’d love to hear your stories! 

(Also, if you have any questions or if you would like to see more posts like this, let me know!)

Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.

Joensuu

Hello, all!

Joensuu airport

Flying out of Finland

Now seems like a good time to write this post. I have left Finland, headed South to places that are both familiar and foreign to me.

I lived in this city for 4.5 months, and I’ve called it “home”.

My first views of Joensuu

My first views of Joensuu — Art Museum is on the right

It’s funny– Joensuu is a city I had never heard of before I started applying to study abroad. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. I doubt many people have heard of it, even inside of Finland. Or, if they have, it’s the sort of small town that you wouldn’t go out of your way to visit unless you had friends or family here or if you happened to go to university here.

As you may have gathered, Joensuu isn’t the most exciting place to live. It’s somewhat a university town, and while there are plenty of student events going on, it’s not a bustling metropolitan area.

Joensuu is beautiful, though. The river that cuts through the city is lazy and lined with trees; there are bike paths along it and barbecue spots perfect for spending an afternoon. The lake the river feeds into is gorgeous. It’s huge. I’ve only been to a few small areas of it, swimming at the polar bear sauna or snowshoeing by a peninsula. A beach or two, grassy-sandy areas where a few afternoons were happily wasted by the lake in beautiful sunny weather with my friends. And once, venturing onto the lake itself, canoeing but mostly just drifting along with the wind and current.

The river in winter

The lake in winter — frozen over

IMG_2009

Canoeing on the lake

I honestly haven’t explored Joensuu enough. There are hidden corners of it where you forget you’re in a city at all, where you’re surrounded by woods.  

Sunset on the river

Despite not being the biggest city or the most exciting place, Joensuu quickly felt like home. There are reasons for this that go far beyond the city itself, but it’s a special place. Joensuu is Finland for the Finns– the everyday sort of place where you start to recognize the cashiers in the market you go to every week, the bankers, the bus drivers, the people in the sauna… they might  not speak to you, but you recognize them and they might even acknowledge you with a smile. It’s the sort of city where you’ll be sitting in the mall, and an elderly Finn might sit next to you and start speaking to you in Finnish. You can easily find help when you ask, and people aren’t offended by your silence or awkwardness or lack of understanding of their language.

Snowshoeing on the lake

Joensuu is the sort of town where you don’t really get lost. Once you’re familiar with some main roads and trails, you’re bound to find your way where you want to go– signs help when you aren’t sure. The city center is easy to navigate, and there are rarely crowds– at least, there weren’t when it was cold. When the sun comes out, the city bustles. Unless it’s a Sunday.

IMG_4085 IMG_4087 IMG_4088 IMG_4089

It’s the sort of place where the stores close early but the bars are open surprisingly late, where you know what to expect but might still be surprised. The kind of place where you find a favorite coffee shop and restaurant and become something of a regular.

It’s the sort of place that you might not even notice holds beauty. The Art Museum, the church, the peninsula, the lake… the Town Hall which (much to my surprise) was actually designed by a famous architect (Eliel Saarinen). It’s a place of those sort of hidden gems, places you could ride by hundreds of times as I did and not even realize were there, or what they even were. 

The Town Hall

Center square on Vappu

The Wolf statue, something of a local landmark

This little city let me get away with not learning Finnish. It taught me that I can be tough– those long bike rides across bridges to city center and university were daunting. It provided amusement and new experiences and a place to think. A place to see Finland as something besides a winter wonderland.

Joensuu, however unlikely a place it is, will always be extraordinary to me for being exactly what it is. For being the place where I met some amazing people and forged friendships that I truly believe will last beyond our departure; for being the place of life lessons, memorable events and stories, long winter days and joy at every moment of sunshine.

IMG_4115 IMG_4110– Aly

* This post was inspired by this prompt on the Daily Post.

 

 

Sauna Days

Hello, all!

Well, it’s been three months since I arrived in Finland! Time is still passing too quickly for me, but life has settled into something of a routine— however much of a routine you can have when your classes are never the same from week to week!

On the way to the sauna with Carmen!

One of my absolute favorite routines is going to the sauna. Not just any sauna– the polar bear sauna!
For those of you unfamiliar with the Finnish tradition of sauna, here’s the overview:
  • Sauna is a major part of Finnish culture! According to VisitFinland, the Finns will “start feeling incomplete”. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this centuries-old tradition is amazing, and after incorporating sauna time into my life, I can see why!
  • Saunas in Finland are a near-religious experience. While everyone in the sauna is accepting of strangers, conversation is not essential. Sauna is a great time for deep conversation with friends, or a relaxing time in your own head.
  • When you’re nearly (if not fully) naked around strangers, you learn a lot about body acceptance. You just can’t be self-conscious about yourself or judgmental of others in the sauna. That might be because everyone is sweating buckets, but nonetheless… sauna time is not a time for being self-conscious, it’s a time of introspection!
  • Going to the sauna has tons of health benefits! This includes stress relief, relief from sore or achy muscles, flushing out toxins, cleansing the skin, and many more. Read about some of the benefits here. I’ve noticed some of these myself!
  • Spending time in the sauna followed by dip in cold water increases circulation and heart rate. After going to the sauna a few times, I’ve noticed that my heart rate increases after the time in the sauna and a dip in the lake. You really become aware of your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation.
For those of you interested in a longer explanation of the sauna experience, I recommend reading this post.

Looking towards the sauna & ice swimming hole

The Polar Bear Sauna

The polar bear sauna in my town (check out their website!) is a pretty decent size. It’s only 3-4 km away from my apartment, so I usually walk there. The polar bear sauna costs 95 euro for a membership pass for a full year, but since we’re only here for a few months, we get a guest pass for 5 e. Since the polar bear sauna is a public sauna, swimsuits are mandatory, even though that isn’t the norm for most Finnish saunas. Members have these patches that they sew onto their swimsuits.
My friends and I have made Sundays our semi-official “Polar Bear Sauna” day, though on Wednesdays, there’s a sauna available for (free!) use in my apartment complex for residents. Women and men have a separate time, and clothes aren’t mandatory there. It’s a very small room, but it has the same effect– even without the lake!
The inside of the polar bear sauna is a typical sauna with heated rocks in the center flanked by two water troughs, with scoops for water hanging on the edge of the wooden frame around the rocks. The entire sauna room is made of wood, with a chimney in the center over the rocks, tiny LED lights in the ceiling and along the edge, and small windows facing the porch (overlooking the lake) and the parking out out front. There’s a clock on the wall so you can keep track of time.

The sauna building

Before you go into the sauna, you change into your swimsuit in the locker room in the main building, then walk outside a short way to the sauna building. If you want, you can hop in the lake first or rinse off, but my friends and I usually just slip off our flip-flops in the mud room (with taps and a towel rack) before opening the door to the sauna, where you are suddenly blasted with stifling hot air! (I admit this may be the wrong way to do the sauna, but we’re foreigners so I think we’re excused…)

Excited about the first time at the Polar Bear Sauna!

The first time at the sauna, this was quite shocking. The people in the sauna– mostly older Finns– kept adding water to the stones to make steam, which meant that we were sweating profusely within seconds and most of the time, it was difficult to breathe! With a room so hot, it felt like we were breathing fire— or at least, trying to. It was awful! We could barely stay inside for 10 minutes at a time, and even then, we had our eyes closed and our hands covering our face, trying to cool down the air before breathing.
(For the record, that method is helpful but also results in more sweat running down your face from your hands… which is kind of gross.)
The rule of thumb seems to be “stay in the sauna until you can’t stay in any more”. For my friends and I, this means 10- 15 minutes in the sauna, or until we can’t breathe. Breathing is important, so when that becomes difficult, it’s a good time to go outside. Sometimes, you feel like you could stay in the sauna forever! In the sauna, it’s essential to listen to your body– if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or have difficulty breathing, then you should get out! Sometimes sauna time can be physically taxing, and making sure you are safe is far more important than braving out the fire-breathing dragon-steam.
The first time we went to the sauna, it was REALLY cold outside– something like -8*F! This made for a beautifully clear day, but the lake, which was already frozen over, was insanely cold. We only made it in a few times, but mostly we stood outside for a while and enjoyed the feel of sunshine on our skin as we cooled off. This remains a very pleasant way to shift from the heat of the sauna to a normal body temperature, instead of the shock of the extremes. Definitely my favorite, though less effective now that we’ve been having warmer temperatures.

Still steaming from the sauna…

Getting into the lake…

VERY cold!

The extreme shift in temperature is part of what makes the sauna experience so great, even if the first time it is horrible! It’s very hard to force yourself to go down a ladder and swim in a frozen-over lake, even for a few seconds. Everything in your mind is screaming at you that it is a bad idea, and sometimes the water is so cold that your chest clenches up and you swear that your heart stops for a moment. In that moment, you are hyper-aware of every inch of your skin and then suddenly, you’re climbing out again.
And then you drink some water (from a bottle, not the lake!) and head back into the sauna to do it all again… which seems crazy.
After a few circuits, it’s time to leave. We usually make it about an hour or an hour and half, in 10-15 minute intervals of sauna and 5-10 minutes of lake/outside time. At the end of it all, we’re slightly sweaty but very relaxed, if not a bit sleepy.
This is definitely one of the strangest and best experiences I’ve had in Finland. It’s a quintessentially Finnish thing to do, and although it seems crazy the first time, there is something magical about the experience as a whole. After weekends of partying or unhealthy eating, there’s nothing quite like a sauna (and ice-swimming!) day to make you feel fresh and ready for the week… even if you will definitely need a shower!

At any rate, I hope you have a chance to try something like this one day! It’s definitely an experience, and you may fall in love with it.

Feeling good after the sauna!

A bientot,
Aly

On Friendships & Study Abroad

Hello, all!

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately. Navigating the shifts in a friendship as lives and people change can be tricky. Friends come in and out of your life, and sometimes that experience can be heartbreaking.

Studying abroad is one of those Major Shifts in friendship; depending on how far away you are, your schedules are unlikely to match up well and your experiences abroad are far different from those of your friends at home. While abroad, you miss out on a lot that happens at home with your friends and family, and there is no guarantee that any of your relationships will be exactly the same when you return. And it’s even harder to realize that sometimes the friendships that you anticipate lasting forever can and will end. It’s scary.

Even with friends that you’ve had forever, leaving for a long time forces both people to re-examine the relationship. You may find that you talk to your friends from home frequently… every day, every week… or you may find that you don’t talk to them at all. That is not to say that the entirety of a friendship is based on consistent communication, but it certainly helps in the maintenance of a friendship, especially over long distances.

When I studied abroad a few years ago, it was my junior year of high school. Many of my friends were graduating seniors, and I knew that I would be missing some milestones in their lives. That was the sacrifice I made by going abroad when I did, and it is a sacrifice I’m making again, this time in college.

In high school, I did a horrible job of keeping up with my friends at home. While no one is to blame for our failure to keep in touch, the result is the same: I came back and discovered that I had lost some friends and that many of my other friendships were limping along. It took time and effort to repair the distance that my trip abroad put between us. I never regret going, but it’s interesting to note the effect that study abroad had on those relationships. Looking back, I feel like the damage done was the biggest negative impact of study abroad on my life. Though that sounds dramatic, it’s true. I made wonderful friends while abroad– but even those friendships have fallen apart as we grow older and I talk to them less.

There is a part of me that misses those friends; those people that were there for me and experienced Significant Moments in my life with me. On the other hand, many friendships inevitably end and while that is sad, it is a necessary part of growing up. As I get older, I’m realizing that relationships are difficult to maintain. There must be effort on both sides, and those Major Shifts make friendships harder. My friends are graduating, heading off into the world, getting real jobs, getting engaged, so on and so forth– all of those are challenges to overcome.

Those changes aren’t the end of a friendship, and they don’t have to be. The extra effort needed to stay in touch with friends that live far away (in another city or another country) or friends whose lives are going in a different direction than your own is not too much to ask. For some relationships, it will be– but in those that really matter, there will be a way to make it work. Even if it means re-building a crumbling relationship upon returning.

Knowing this gives me hope for the future as I study abroad again; that distance may not be insurmountable and those Major Shifts don’t have to be a shift away from each other.

A bientôt!

Aly

Finding A New Dream

Hello!

For most of my life, my Ultimate Dream was to live in France and to speak French. I don’t know what brought that idea to my mind– perhaps my love for Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a child– but nonetheless, I had been dreaming of those things. I announced to my mother at age seven that I wanted to go to France for the New Millenium; I’m not sure what kind of seven year old is so determined, but I knew what I wanted. After that I spent ten years working towards that goal. When I finally accomplished what I set out to do, I found myself at a loss. Accomplishing my dream is an awesome experience, but afterwards, I realized I had no dream quite like it to work for.

I’m one of those people that loves to have some Big Plan for my life. Having a specific Big Goal to work for drives me to be active and do things I love. It serves as motivation for me. Working towards a specific goal gives me a plan, and while I never quite anticipate what would happen if I don’t accomplish what I set out to do, I find that the journey to that place is fulfilling in and of itself.

For the last few years, following France, I haven’t had a specific Ultimate Dream. I’ve had a vague direction, the career path that I am working towards, the Ridiculously Complicated job title that is so perfect for who I am. There is no guarantee of accomplishing that, and working towards such a vague and far-off goal has left me without motivation or much direction.

It’s like I am looking out across a landscape that has this far-off mountain, but I can barely see it above the horizon; it’s obscured by forest and thunderstorms that seem dark and frightening from where I stand. While I have the courage to go forward towards it, and know that I can probably make it to the mountain, all the way up to the top even, I have a long way to go until then. It isn’t a straight line; I don’t have a map to guide me on my way.

That’s not to say it is impossible, but I need a Big Goal that is closer. A way-point along my path to the mountain.

I finally found it. A Big Goal to work towards that isn’t quite the distant, giant mountain. Something large enough that I will have to work to accomplish it, but not big enough that I feel as though it is insurmountable.

I have a new dream, and at long last, I am walking along the path to a way point and the mountain in the distance isn’t looking so far away or scary from here. The breeze is nice through the trees and I am protected from the thunderstorms.

 A bientot!

Aly

Something Like Adulthood

Hello!

I remember the first moment when I felt like an adult. It came out of the blue and struck me and I realized that somewhere along the line, something had changed for me, and I couldn’t quite explain it.

In the spring of 2010 I set off on vacation for a few weeks. This was when I stopped going to my French school as exams approached for my classmates, and I wanted to travel. My English teacher helped arrange for me to end my school year early and I  set off to Tours and Bordeaux, my second solo trip in France (following my spring trip to Bordeaux and Toulouse). There was a lot going on for me at that time and I left Fréjus feeling overwhelmed and confused about my experience in France and what I was going to do afterwards.

I love taking trains. They feel magical to me, but that is probably the Harry Potter nerd in me coming out. I was running away from some heavy problems, and the long train ride from St. Raphael to Marseilles, and then to Bordeaux, gave me plenty of time to think about everything.

When I left Fréjus, I was doubting myself. I questioned whether the trip was the right thing to do; was running from an uncomfortable situation the mature way to handle things? Was traveling instead of finishing up the school year with my friends really the best decision? Did I accomplish what I set out to do by going to France? Was the experience worth it?

(The answer to those questions was ‘yes’.)

As I rode and wrote, read and watched the scenery going by, I started to sort those things out.

I thought about my experiences up to that point. France was not fully what I expected, but it was still a place I loved and I loved living there. It took me some time, but I was doing well in school and I had made friends. The predictions made by people that doubted me that I wouldn’t learn to speak French were false; I had already discovered that I could communicate effectively en français. I wasn’t held back by my lack of language, and although I would never speak as well as a native speaker and my vocabulary wasn’t all-encompassing, I could now say with certainty that I spoke fluently in French. That had been one of my goals in going to France.

I thought about the situation I was dealing with in my host family; how I could act independently of authority figures and I could be happier for it. I could do things I want to do despite opposition and it was good for me to do so.

I realized as I traveled across France alone for the second time that I had reached a stage in my life where I was an adult. Going away from an unhealthy situation was good for me, and making that decision was the best thing I could have done.

School wasn’t the most important thing to me. It hadn’t been for a while, but on that train ride, it seemed to me that the experience of French school was just as important to me as travelling. The value of my adventure was not defined by my grades or the hours spent in the classroom; the immersion in the classroom and with my friends was ultimately the most important thing. My friends would still be there when I returned; I would see them again, and missing out on unnecessary exams was not going to deprive me of an essential French experience.

That recognition was rare and special; I didn’t know anybody at that time that had encountered something similar. I was in a different place in my life than my friends on either side of the Atlantic. I was shifting forward, challenging myself in a new way, accomplishing something I had dreamed of for years. It’s a weird to be 17 and think about that widening gap in my understanding of the world. At home, my friends were looking at colleges and taking AP exams; I had barely even thought about what I would do after returning from France, and AP classes were months away for me. I had just started figuring out what I wanted to do with my life but I was still shaky on the how or why of it.

On the way to this trip, and on the return of many others, it occurred to me how lucky I was that much of me is defined by travel.

Have you ever had a startling realization while traveling?

A bientôt!
– Aly