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.

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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 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

Aly en… Anywhere

Hello, all!

It’s getting to be that timea gain, where my wanderlust sets in and I find myself dreaming of new places to explore and beginning to plan what’s next.

It should come as no surprise to those of you that know me (either by reading this blog or personally know me) that I am an international studies major. At my school, this means that I have to have an “international experience”, which means studying abroad for at least 6 credit hours.

I don’t have any issues with the fact that I have to study abroad– in fact, I think it’s great that my program requires majors to study abroad, because I think the experience of going abroad is probably one of the most useful and necessary experiences to have as a student. Particularly in my major, it makes sense that they require it (or a similar experience).

My major worry is not how or why, but where. Having already fulfilled my dream of going to France, it seems a bit silly to try to recreate the experience or continue to lust after a country and experience that I have already had. That is not to say that it would be the same now, as a university student rather than a high schooler, but for various reasons, I probably won’t be going back to France to attend classes.

So where to, if not France?

This is the dilemma I am faced with this year, as I seek out where I should go next. There are so many places in the world to see, and even though I am focusing my search on Europe (after all, France is just a short trip away from most places in Western Europe), I find myself questioning this blog most of all. If I am not “en France”, as I have shaped my online identity since 2009, am I still “Aly en France”? I mean, I’m not in France now– but I maintain this blog, my tumblr, etc., under that username/title. It works; my near-constant longing for France and nostalgia for the places I have been is a bit ridiculous, even as time passes. My heart still remains “en France”, so far as I (and this blog) are concerned.

But wherever I go in the future– should my blog still be “Aly en France”? France is not the end of my travels; it was the beginning of a lifetime of wanderlust and dreams. It is still an important part of how I perceive the world and my identity as a person. But should my blog always reflect an experience I have already had?

What do you do with a virtual space that holds so many memories and identity you have taken on when it is no longer relevant to your current life?

Do you abandon it, as I have (at least on this site) until a time when you figure it out again? Or is it not necessary for the name to reflect reality?

What if I was just “Aly en Europe” or “Aly en America” or any other combination of place? Does my current reality need to be reflected in my online presence? 

These are some of the questions I am struggling with while I do research about where would be the best place for me to go next. The challenges of international travel await, yet I am preoccupied with an issue of virtual identity, rather than the challenges of reality.

I’d love to hear what you (as a reader of this blog, however infrequent) think!

A bientôt,
Aly