The Promise of “Cheap” Travel

Hello!

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m becoming a skeptic of cheap travel. 

This is taboo to say, I think. Especially for a student.

But hear me out.

Excited to fly to Stockholm. Photo courtesy of my friend Sophia.

Excited to fly to Stockholm. Photo courtesy of my friend Sophia.

I love to travel, and I cannot afford to go all the places I want to go… at least not full price. But the more I travel, and the more I research opportunities to travel, the more I’m realizing how inconvenient it is. I mean, sure, Ryanair and Easyjet are wonderful things, but when it comes down to it: how much are you gaining from the few extra euros?

Everyone and their mother has heard of Ryanair (or Easyjet or Jetblue… insert other budget airline here). It’s a great option, and I will almost certainly be using it at one point while I’m abroad. That hasn’t happened yet, though.

As it turns out, for the places I want to go are not easily accessible by Ryanair. (Or other “budget” airlines!) For example, to get from my university town of Joensuu, Finland to Aix-en-Provence, France (where I’ll be this summer), I would have to take a bus or train from Joensuu to Lappeenranta, then a flight to “Milan”, “Dusseldorf”, or “Barcelona”. None of those airports are actually in the cities associated with them. Mostly, to get from those places to the nearby (bigger) airports, I’d have to take a bus, train, or taxi. And then another flight, bus, or train to Marseille. And then someone would have to come pick me up, or I’d have to take a bus to Aix.

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Sometimes surprisingly cheap: train travel!

And of course, I’d have to pay luggage fees.

That’s just not a reasonable option. While I love train rides and flights, there is nothing glorious about spending so long in transit or hauling luggage around. If I were traveling with a carry-on only (which WILL be the case one day…), I would still worry. Even on bigger airlines, sometimes you end up on planes that are so small that you can’t possibly fit your standard (maximum sized) carry-on luggage into the overhead compartments. The stress of traveling in such a haphazard way when you have a very specific destination to get to and don’t want to waste your time or money city- and country-hopping your way through foreign airports to get there just isn’t worth it. At least for me.

That is not to say that there’s anything wrong with budget travel.

I think the danger of it comes in when travelers unsuspectingly lock themselves into the “budget” option without considering the more standard alternatives… the ones that aren’t “budget”. Sure, a flight from Paris to Marseille COULD be $300, but if you know where to look, a flight on a major airline between the same airports might also be $70. If you’re checking bags, or want to go to specific (more central) locations, rather than the out-of-the-way options provided by airlines like Ryanair, then you should be INCREDIBLY thorough in your research.

Consider transportation to the airport, fees, transportation between airports/your final destination at EVERY leg of the trip. IMG_2778

It takes time and patience to figure it out. Also math. All to answer the question: how can you puzzle together the ABSOLUTELY cheapest option?

There reaches a point where it is no longer fun to play with the endless options. When you realize that maybe the “cheap” options that everyone tells you about aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Or maybe you just find out that an extra 3 euros gets you a better departure time, or an extra 20 gets you a snack and a free checked bag. Or, against all expectations, the budget option is actually MORE EXPENSIVE than the more traditional route. I can’t say which is better– the adventure and stress of piecemeal travel might be your style, and I certainly want to try it out in some capacity!

In the meantime, though, for your convenience…

Here are my suggestions for places to find cheap flights without the hassle. Add your favorites in the comments– I’d love to know how everyone gets around 🙂

Have you travelled on “budget” airlines? I’d love to hear your experiences!

(originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global)

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

The First Two Weeks

Hello, all!

Little did I know, a little over two weeks ago when I first said that I was heading into another whirlwind, how accurate that description would be!

I can’t believe that January is almost over. My time here seems to be flying by! The days are so short but they feel so long. The first week in particular felt like it was so much longer.

Most of my time in Finland thus far has been dedicated to settling in, meeting new people, and figuring out how I’m going to survive here for the next few months. I have just now started taking pictures of all the things that have been going on, but here’s the not-so-brief story about my time here so far!

WEEK ONE

After the insane travel day through Helsinki (during which I wrote this blog post), I made it to Joensuu  (pronounced with a ‘Y’ sound instead of a ‘J’) where my tutor picked me up from the SMALLEST AIRPORT I have ever seen. It was pretty much the size of a mobile home with a conveyor belt for luggage and some seats. It was dark out by then– around 5:30 in the evening, it was just as dark as it would be at 8 o’clock at night in North Carolina!

My tutor, Jouni, gave me a brief tour of the campus and town as he drove me to my hotel, where we dropped off my luggage, including my suddenly-useless rolling suitcase, which does not work at all when the ground is covered in pebbles! After showing me around the center and arranging to meet up the next day, he left me to my own devices. While my hotel had free wifi, I had to brave the cold and foreign land outside to get food, with the knowledge that I lacked a microwave and for the next two days– Sunday and a national holiday– my ability to find food would be limited.

Ready to head out into Joensuu alone!

So I did what any college kid on a budget would– and got a pizza big enough to last a couple of days! Luckily the random pizza place (which appeared to be the only thing open at that hour) had a menu in English, a student discount, and the workers were patient enough with my inability to comprehend what they were saying that I made it out alright, if feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed!

Dinner for the next couple days…

That first night seemed to last forever. Physically and emotionally exhausted, that first night was rough. I kind of expected that based on my experiences in France.

The first night in a foreign country alone can be hard, and that night was no exception. My exhaustion combined with my disappointing dinner and computer issues lead to a not-so-fantastic first night in Finland.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but for the sake of full disclosure– and because it’s hard to talk about the parts of travel that suck– I spent most of my first night crying, before falling into a restless sleep. I didn’t expect it to be so difficult or awkward to be in a country where I don’t speak the language, could barely understand the accent, and where everything felt so unfamiliar. It was isolating, being in a hotel room alone, feeling as though I had been shoved ceremoniously into this freezing and foreign place. The kinds of questions that you must inevitably face while studying abroad sprang to mind, and it felt like I was being beaten over the head with what-if questions and doubts.

When I woke up the next morning, not terribly well rested, I opened the curtains and looked out at the city. A gloomy, cold day– but there was something a bit relaxing about seeing the city in the few hours of daytime, even if there was not much light. The light dusting of snow and the stillness of a gloomy Sunday morning were something of a comfort.

The view from my hotel room

It’s much easier to motivate yourself to explore a new place in the light of day. It doesn’t seem as scary then.

After all, if there’s one thing about waking up in a new city, it’s that the desire to explore will be present. I was still wary of it, and convincing myself to get dressed and wander for a while in the cold was no easy task. Spending all day in my hotel room– or at least, spending the whole morning until I met up with my tutor– would accomplish nothing but make me homesick.

Unfortunately, Sunday mornings in European cities are not bustling affairs. Most shops are closed, and Joensuu seemed pretty deserted. But in the morning light I was able to locate the grocery store– and more important to me– the H&M, the oh-so-familiar European brand of generally cheap fashion, with its signs proclaiming SALE! SALE! SALE!, not ALE! ALE! ALE! (the Finnish version). A strange comfort to me, recalling my time studying abroad in France. One of the first places I went to in Paris was the H&M to buy a pair of skinny jeans– a new, and now essential, part of my wardrobe. (And, of course, a crucial place for pre-Finland preparation, once again buying skinny jeans. I’m noticing a trend here…)

ANYWAY, my tutor picked me and my inconvenient rolling suitcase up and promptly took me to the wrong apartments! We figured it out and made it to my apartment, which was cold and empty. I dropped off the suitcase and he drove me back to the center of town. He gave me a bit more information about the study abroad orientation that would start on Tuesday and told me to meet him two hours beforehand with the tutee group.

And then I was on my own again. 

I wandered around for a bit longer, stopped by the grocery store to pick up some food that would keep in my mini-fridge for a couple days, before heading back to my hotel. I finally heard from my friend Carmen and invited her to come stay with me so that we could catch up (she had been in Joensuu for a few days at that point!) and hang out. So the second night in Finland was not so lonely– we watched Kill Bill volume 1.

The next day– Monday– we met up with her tutor and their tutee group and got a tour of the city and the campus! The day passed quickly and happily, meeting new people from the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, and Spain, and finally seeing more of the town. 

At the end of the day, Carmen, our new German friend, and I hiked out to our apartments– I say “hiked” because we live a whole 5 kilometers away from the center! It was cold and dark and I carried my second piece of luggage so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it the next day when we had orientation. It was a long walk– we didn’t talk much and for the most part, we had no idea where we were going. We made it there alright, and Carmen and I promptly turned around and walked back to the hotel. At this point, my apartment was bare– my room had furniture and curtains, but no linens or anything!

After a sad dinner of mysterious grocery store food, we watched Kill Bill volume 2 and went to bed.

Random grocery store foods

The next few days were insane, with orientation seeming to last forever and not providing much new or interesting information. The list of tasks that we had to complete within that first week was overwhelming, and it seemed as though we would never finish anything in time— particularly since everyone else there had to do all the same things! Signing leases on our apartments, registering with the school, beginning registration for classes, paying fees, renting survival kits from the Student Union, renting bikes, buying anything that we didn’t have, opening bank accounts, setting up internet in the apartments, buying a phone… the list seemed to go on forever!

I managed to do everything I needed to do in that first week— though my apartment was FREEZING and my first night there was horrible! I didn’t have internet or a phone for most of the first week, so I had no way to communicate with anyone, and I became very thankful for the fact that I had a few nights in a hotel room. I can’t imagine how horrible my first few nights in Finland would have been without internet or a phone, in a freezing-cold room without sheets or blankets or even a pillow.

Luckily, the first week was not all stressful things! We met and befriended more people and the ESN Joensuu hosted a “get to know each other” party at a club downtown for free. So one evening was spent talking to people from all over the world, dancing, and singing Karaoke. That was one of the most amazing evenings ever. I never thought I would be singing along and dancing to American oldies in a club in Finland, making up ridiculous dances to incomprehensible Finnish songs, or belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” on stage with new friends from Russia, Germany, and Latvia. 

It seems everyone in the world knows all the words to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As “Bohemian Rhapsody” started, my German and Latvian friends were whooping and cheering, proclaiming that it is the best song ever written. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, I agree. I’ve been singing along to that song with friends for years in the US, and that experience is just as magical, if not more so, in a club surrounded by strangers from all over the world, singing it with new friends.

That evening alone made me feel entirely at home here. Everyone seems to love the Beatles, Queen, and watching different groups of near-strangers get up to sing to songs that I grew up listening to and realizing that everyone knows the words– even if they can’t pronounce things perfectly– filled me with joy. 

And that was not the only adventure for the week!

The view from the bridge on the way to Kerubi, Saturday night

The view out the window from the upstairs of Kerubi

The upstairs lounge

Saturday night found Carmen, her flatmate Tuula, a friend of her flatmate, and I at a club called Kerubi to see a rock festival! We only really went to see a band called Santa Cruz, one of her flatmate’s favorite bands, but we ended up watching a couple other shows.

Carmen, myself, and Tuula

Santa Cruz was great. It was fun to watch– these Scandinavian guys with long hair, head-banging and singing songs that were very reminiscent of the 1980s, while everyone danced and sang along! There was no crowding or pushing like at shows in the US and it was not deafeningly loud– you could stand comfortably near the stage and not feel as though you would go deaf or be knocked over by the sound or the crowd!

After their set, we wandered around the club for a while, talking to strangers, before Carmen found the band and decided that we should take pictures with them– which is just what we did.

For a while, we made our way back upstairs where Tuula and I were pulled into this roaming circle of people by some random drunk guy, a blob of strangers with their arms around each other, laughing and kicking their legs out and spinning about, breathless, drunk, and crazy but so happy and having fun. I couldn’t stop laughing as we were swung about, thinking about how this was insane and so different from the US. As the set ended and the band left, the circle dispersed and the guy who pulled us in to the group hugged us and started babbling about how this must be the next mosh pit– a “love mosh”, he called it– where everyone is friends and loves each other. I love the idea; there was something special about those few minutes of wild movement and closeness to strangers.

We wandered back downstairs, where we re-connected with Santa Cruz and hung out in a hallway talking to them for a bit; took some more pictures, and finally left.

We wandered to a popular bar in town called Jet Set (which the Finnish pronounce as “Yet Set”), a sports bar with some of the cheapest beer in town, where we sat with a group of strangers at a table. I watched a football match for a while, and Tuula left for a bit and came back leading an African man. As he stood near the table and sipped on his beer, Tuula informed me that he wanted to meet Carmen and I — and that he was a male stripper from Helsinki!

That was one of the funniest interactions ever. He introduced himself as “Bone” and told us a bit about how he was born somewhere in Africa, lived in Bulgaria for a few years, and then fell in love with a Finnish woman and moved to Helsinki, where he’s lived for the last 15 years. He and the woman broke up, and now he was travelling for a bit and had just bought a place in the downtown area of Joensuu. He wanted to hang out with us and offered to make us dinner at his place sometime! We didn’t take him up on the offer, but it still makes for quite a story… how we randomly met a male stripper from Helsinki at a bar in a random town in Joensuu! 

We left Jet Set and made our way back to Kerubi to hang out with Carmen’s tutor, Johanna, her boyfriend Antti, and their friends. It kept getting later, and if it had been up to me, I would have left at this point! Walking the 5 km back to the apartments alone sounded like a horrible idea, though, so I stayed. I’m glad I did, too– the rest of the night was just hanging out and talking to Johanna, her boyfriend, and their friends. They were all very nice and I eventually got pulled into a miniature version of the love mosh, made up of these friends, in a close circle where we bumped hips and kicked in unison, all the time spinning in a tight circle, laughing. 

“This is a very Finnish thing!” Johanna informed me when she pulled me into the group.

The “it” drink in Finland right now– Garage

Johanna and I!

The evening slowed down a bit; the club played Elvis, Of Monsters and Men, and some other great songs– many of them oldies that I never thought I would hear in a club or dance to– but there I was, dancing with strangers to songs that I love. 

Finally, we parted ways and made it back to the apartments– exhausted, but happy.

WEEK TWO

Week two was not as exciting as week one. For the most part, it included buying some things that were unexpected necessities– including ski pants– meeting up with friends, and finally attending my first class!

There was one evening of fun– bowling with all the exchange students, followed by a trip to Jet Set (of course), where we wasted a lot of time laughing, telling stories, and even tried to play some card games. As it turns out, playing Blackjack/21 at bar with a group of 9 is quite useless, particularly when most of you are bad at math anyway! It was still a fun experience, and it seemed ‘normal’ — if staying at a bar until 12:30 am on a weeknight is ‘normal’, that is. (To be fair, it doesn’t seem all that strange in Europe, and most of us didn’t have class the next day, so it was essentially a weekend?…)

At this point, I’ve started to settle into my life in Finland. While my apartment is still a bit chilly, my room has started to feel more like home despite the bare walls. I picked up a rug from the entryway to my building that seems to have been abandoned… lucky for me, since my room would look particularly colorless without it!

While week one was “warm” (with temperatures hovering around freezing), the weather started getting colder and more like a typical Finnish winter. I rode to the university or center most days. I never thought I would be riding at least six miles a day in temperatures below freezing, but that is a near-daily activity. The ski pants are essential to making this trip more tolerable (though it seems a bit excessive?) and I am certain that I always look a bit ridiculous in my moose hat, with a massive scarf wrapped around half of my face! But the shared thought here is that it doesn’t matter what you are wearing or what you look like, so long as you are warm. It’s so cold that your breath freezes on your skin, hair, and any fabric near your face. It’s not uncommon to arrive somewhere and look like you have aged 60 years. In those conditions, you just can’t be too picky!

I suspect that I’m starting to adjust to this sort of life in Finland. There’s part of me that feels very tough– I would never imagine myself doing this in the States! But it’s so normal here, and while I still detest the cold, my outlook on what is difficult to do is changing. Zero degrees Fahrenheit sounds like a reasonable temperature, freezing sounds like summer, and after this experience I don’t think I can complain about any walk (or bike ride) that is less than 5 km, especially if it’s in any temperature above freezing!

So, that’s Finland so far. I’m leaving some stuff out, but this blog post is already quite long! I just wanted to give a (not-so-brief) update on my experiences so far! I hope you enjoyed reading and that wherever you are is warm, and if it isn’t– I hope it’s beautiful. 

A bientot,

Aly

The Whirlwind Month

Hello, all!

Well, 2014 is here and I am writing this from Finland (!). The Helsinki airport, actually, since I haven’t made it to my final destination of Joensuu yet.

On the plane!

(Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, I’m late on publishing it…)

It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I am in Finland. The last few months have been a whirlwind, and I am still caught up in it. I’ve spent most of the last 24 hours travelling, and despite the fact that I am sitting comfortably now, I feel as though my feet haven’t quite touched the ground. Though that might just be the jet lag…

I intended to blog some over the past month, and I will probably end up blogging about parts of it more in-depth later (particularly my trip to New York City to get my Student Residence Permit and my trip to Hawaii!), here’s the run-down of my whirlwind month!

At the Finnish Consulate in NYC!

  • Marathon road trip to NYC over Thanksgiving Break with my mom and two girls from my school who are also going to Finland to turn in paperwork and have biometrics taken for Finnish Student Residence Permit

  • Wandering around NYC for a day

Photo by my friend An

  • Celebrating one of my best friend’s birthdays
  • Exams!

  • Student Marshaling at December Commencement with Laura
  • Packing/moving out of my dorm room
  • Finishing up work stuff

Birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant in Asheville!

  • My 21st birthday!
  • Unpacking from school
  • Packing for Hawaii

Hanging out in Hawaii

  • Week in Hawaii to celebrate mine and my mom’s birthdays/Christmas
  • Unpacking from Hawaii
  • Packing for Finland and other preparations for travel
  • Packing up all my other belongings to be moved when my mom sells our house (while I am abroad)

  • Saying goodbye to friends/family

  • Ringing in the New Year with my mom, my brother, my mom’s best friend, and one of my best friends

The view from the Helsinki airport.

  • The trip to Finland so far!

I don’t feel like I have had a moment to breathe over the last month. As it turns out, preparing for study abroad while life carries on with its complications and demands is no easy task; it can be quite overwhelming.

Not to complain, though. The overwhelming qualities of this experience are well balanced out by my excitement and I am incredibly lucky to be having this experience. My friends and family have been wonderfully supportive through everything, and wrapping up the year with so many memorable adventures has been the best send-off.

For all that, leaving is no easier. While I am comforted by the positive attitudes and emotional support of my friends, I remain slightly uneasy about the trip. I feel quite unprepared– still!– even as I sit in the airport, mere hours from arriving the town that will be my home for the next 5 months.

It seems kind of ironic.

So much of my life for the last few months has been spent preparing for this trip, be it editing my (super-specific!) packing list, finishing up paperwork, applying for an apartment, the list goes on… and yet, when it comes down to it, no preparations will prepare you for how things are.

Studying abroad is like any other kind of travel– scary, overwhelming, exciting– but most of all, unpredictable. You can never be fully prepared for everything, no matter how hard you try. And that isn’t a bad thing. So many things about travelling are out of your control. It’s hard to remember that sometimes. And you may have a breakdown in an airport. (I did!)

But the journey goes on, and the whirlwind will continue to whisk you away to new adventures. 

While I may not feel fully prepared, if nothing else, this whirlwind month has given me plenty of stories to tell and small reminders of important life lessons. I’ll never know exactly what is coming, but the fact that I have made it so far (airport breakdown and all!) is a comforting thought.

So here we go… out of one whirlwind and into another!

Aly

The Next Destination

Hello, all!

I’ve hesitated to write this blog post for a while now. It’s been a crazy time of the year for me with schoolwork, but more importantly– I finally found out where I am going abroad next semester!

As some back story, when I applied for an exchange program, my options were the Netherlands, England, Finland, and Sweden. All of the schools I applied to had programs that sounded interesting to me and covered topics that include international studies/law and environmental studies/law, which are my particular areas of interest and the main focus of my studies in the United States.

To be honest, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of not getting my first few choices. In my mind, I couldn’t wrap my head around the potential of the situation turning out any other way.

The program I got accepted to was the one in Finland. The second-to-last school on my list, one that I had barely considered.

When I initially found out, I found myself at a loss of words and overwhelmed with emotions. I was shaking as I opened the email from ISEP, the exchange program I am going through. My fingers crossed, my heart dropped to my stomach as the webpage loaded and revealed the information I’ve been dying to know but did not expect to receive so soon. I didn’t know how to react to this news. On one hand, I was accepted to a program and knew where I was going abroad! Travel is quickly approaching! I get to go to Europe again! These thoughts and the excitement they generated was tempered by the disappointment in not getting my first choice and the uneasy recognition that I knew nothing about the place where I will attend school for 5 months.

I hadn’t really thought about going to Finland before or the possibility that I could be placed there. It was one of those places in the world where I’ve never felt a strong desire to travel to, and there I was– realizing that I would be going to Finland and battling my frustration at not getting my first choice.

The distance between the United States and Finland.

The disappointment went away though. Finland was on my list for a reason, and the more I learn about the country and the school I am going to, the more excited I become about going there. It’s exciting now. Not knowing much about the place I am going may be scary, but it also leaves open so many possibilities and opportunities to learn. I will be forced out of my comfort zone– out of the comfort of a temperate climate that is not much different from the climate at home. I will be halfway around the world from home, further north than I have ever been, farther away from home than I have ever traveled. I’ll fly alone for 22 hours to get there, my first solo transatlantic flight.

It feels significant, that this trip abroad is all of those things and it is largely unexpected.

In high school, my trip to France was largely supported and planned by my parents. I was dependent upon them at the time, and while I am still dependent upon their support, most of the paperwork and preparation for the trip, as well as my situation abroad, will be independent. It makes sense for that to be the case. University is a completely different experience, and this will be completely different from my experience in France.

I think this is for the best. I can’t rely completely on my experiences before to set up expectations about what Finland will be like, especially since I know so little about it.

My trip is quickly approaching. Everything is becoming real and solidified as I complete paperwork, choosing classes and filling out applications for an apartment, for a residence permit… buying plane tickets.

I don’t know what I will think of Finland once I get there, but until then, I am learning all I can and slowly developing a crush on this country that is a complete mystery to me. The language, the people, the culture, the climate– all of these are things that I will experience with an open heart and an open mind.

And I can’t wait!

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

Impatience

Hello!

I’m not, by nature, a patient person. I jump ahead of the conversation with alarming frequency and can’t stand the waiting period for nearly anything. When forced to wait for longer than five minutes for something I’m excited about, I get antsy. I squirm in my seat and fiddle with my phone– anything to attempt to occupy my mind.

I submitted my study abroad application a couple weeks ago, and the waiting period has begun. I won’t know if I got in or where I am going until November and the suspense is driving me mad.

The waiting period has found me searching for flights to and from various places in Europe; wondering if, wherever I end up, I can find a way to the places that are still drawing me in. An impossible task; I applied to seven (extremely) different universities in four different countries. I could end up at any one of them.

Waiting is keeping me from planning but it only fuels my desire to plan more. I have a burning desire to know when I’ll be back in Europe. When can I make the trek to France? When can I go to visit family in Scotland? Even more important: how much time will I have in the United States between finishing classes this semester and before I go abroad?

Waiting leaves too much time for thought; what if I end up at my last choice? My angst isn’t helped by the fact that I don’t really understand the application process.It’s a totally different experience from my last trip abroad, where I knew exactly where I would be studying for months in advance. Arguably, it wouldn’t be that bad; I will still get to go abroad but the sting of disappointment of not getting into my first choices would be all too real. What if I don’t get in at all? All the work and all the anticipation– only to be let down. What then? What if, what if…

I have no idea what to expect at this point. There aren’t other steps I can take to prepare for my trip until I know where I’m going.

There is something about the insecurity of anticipation that is particularly aggravating.

Until I know for sure, everything is out of my control. I am existing in a state of anxiety that I can’t shake off. The best I can do is focus on what I’m doing: school, work, and spending time friends. I’m trying to be present and engaged in what is going on here in Asheville, and trying to shake off my wanderlust with the promise of future adventure. It isn’t quite enough, at least not right now. It’s a shallow critique and a worthless complaint, but until I know SOMETHING about what’s next for me, this is where I am.

Battling my own impatience.

A bientot!

Aly