Three years ago to this day, I was getting ready to board a flight to Barcelona, Spain, where I would proceed to experience the best four months of my life. While I am on the verge of being blinded by jealousy as my younger classmates prepare for their own semesters abroad, I decided to take the high road and share some of the most important tips I learned during my time in Spain. Here goes nothing!
1) Branch Out
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times, but I can’t emphasize it enough. It may be a bit of a cliché, but it’s no empty phrase. When I chose my abroad destination, I didn’t factor in where anyone else was going. I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew I wanted to do it alone. My mom was worried about me moving to another country without a travel buddy, but I knew I needed to do it that way. As my departure date approached, I learned that a few Miami students were going to be in the same program. I didn’t reach out to stick together, though. I was serious about this whole branching out thing.
At first it seemed like everyone that traveled abroad did so with a gaggle of friends from home or school. Was I the only one that went solo? People were shocked that I chose to be assigned random roommates in an apartment. Guess what? It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. With no one around to restrict you to a certain identity, you really do learn a lot about yourself.
I even made one of my best, best friends while abroad. Rachel was randomly assigned as one of my roommates. When I saw her Facebook before getting to Barcelona, I was totally intimidated. I didn’t envision us being friends at all. Soon after arriving, though, we just clicked. We still talk constantly and have visited each other several times. In fact, this time next week I’ll be with her in Arizona!
2) Stop and Drink the Coffee
I mean this both literally and metaphorically. Being in a completely new environment and having pretty minimal responsibility is a winning combo. Take the long way to school. Walk around aimlessly for hours. Sit on a bench and people watch. Make each meal last for hours. Stand in line for an hour to get your favorite sandwich, and then sit on the steps of a nearby building enjoying every bite.
Discover your neighborhood hole-in-the-wall coffee shop and become friends with the owner. Don’t ask for a to-go cup – this isn’t America, after all. Watch as the barista decorates your café con leche with chocolate shavings in the shape of a heart. Be patient as you both try to make conversation in Spanglish. And if that fails, communicate with a smile. Sit down at one of the tiny tables with your steaming mug of coffee and just be still. You’re probably thinking this is really corny, but the moments like this in the café around the corner from my Barcelona apartment are some of my favorite memories from my semester abroad.
3) Go Out… Or Don’t
If you know me at all, it’s no secret that I pretty much hate going out. I’m a grandmother in that way. (Yet I chose Miami for college and Barcelona for my semester abroad – the irony is not lost on me.) Going into the semester, I was excited to take advantage of the world-renowned nightlife in Barcelona, but I was also worried about the inevitable moment when I would just be “over it.” Would all of my abroad peers be party animals, or would I be able to find someone to be the occasional grandma with?
Luckily, Rachel (see #1) shared my internal conflict of wanting to be fun but also never wanting to leave the apartment past 11pm. There were many nights when we would just look at each other as our roommates got dolled up for the night, and just shake our heads. That’s when the convenience store down the street came in handy – $11 American dollars for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s? Worth every penny. There were also a few nights that I was the only one who didn’t want to hit the club scene. But you know what? I decided that was ok. You have to go with your gut, even if people call you lame for it. The people that really love you will love you whether you’re drunk at a club or in bed reading Gone Girl on your iPhone for five hours straight.
Don’t get me wrong – I had some of the most fun nights of my life out in Barcelona. There’s nothing like dancing with your girlfriends in a sea of basically anonymous people who are just as carefree as you are in the moment. Holding hands and belting out the latest club music at the top of your lungs while ignoring the boys trying to dance with you? The best. Which brings me to my next point…
4) Don’t Worry about Boys
You didn’t go abroad to meet the man of your dreams. And if you did, well, it’s time to reevaluate. This semester is about finding yourself, making amazing friends from all over the country, embracing the culture of a new country, and having fun throughout the process. It’s not about impressing the cute guy on your program or going on dates. Be yourself, be silly, be carefree. The funny thing is, when you let down your guard and don’t worry about what those boys think of you, you’ll probably find that you get more attention than you ever did before. If that’s what you want, then that’s cool. But if you want to shoo those guys away and make a barricade with your girlfriends so you can dance in peace, that’s perfectly cool, too.
5) Eat, Drink, and Eat Some More
Now is NOT the time to worry about how you’re going to look in that bikini. As far as you should be concerned, the word “diet” doesn’t exist. The only “watching what you eat” you should be doing is watching yourself shovel churros and chocolate in your mouth. Trust me – you don’t want to get home from this European free-for-all wishing you had tried that paella or gotten Nutella on that waffle. Plus, you’ll be doing so much walking that it may just even out!
As for drinking, I’ll just warn you now that alcohol is often cheaper than water in Spain. Yup. When you’re out at a restaurant with your friends, just get a pitcher of sangria. It’ll be cheaper than if you each ordered water, and you’ll definitely have more fun
drinking it. Salud!
6) Travel, but Don’t be a Tourist
While you’re abroad, a lot of people on your program will seem to be traveling Every. Single. Weekend. There will definitely be times when you freak out and think you’re not traveling the world enough. Guess what? Not everyone has a proverbial money tree to fund constant trips around the globe. Yes, it is much cheaper to travel within Europe once you’re already over there, but I would never call it cheap on an average college student’s budget. Did I break down and cry over Skype one night when my parents knocked some sense into me and told me that I had to be frugal? I sure did. Did I snap out of it? You betcha.
As the semester went on, my friends and I actually became so thankful that we hadn’t been traveling constantly. We got to know our city, Barcelona, as our home. We explored nooks and crannies that those frequent fliers never did. We became regulars at certain restaurants and groceries. I went on “exercise walks” that turned into three-hour solo excursions. The people that went somewhere else every weekend had fun, I’m sure, but they had a totally different experience than we did. Don’t get me wrong, I traveled plenty – Portugal, Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland. But instead of squeezing fifteen trips into my short four months in Barcelona, I truly made it mine.
Another spin off of this tip is Don’t Plan Ahead. When I got to Barcelona, I quickly realized that a bunch of people had planned their weekend trips before they even got to Spain! These were, of course, the people that traveled in packs. I didn’t know anyone – how would I plan trips?! Well, this was the best thing I could’ve done. Trust me when I say you will make friends. And the people you travel with don’t have to be your besties! For example, Rachel and I rarely traveled together. This is one of those situations where your acquaintance can become your best travel buddy. You don’t want to be boxed in to plans and people before you even arrive. Things change – go with the flow!
7) Pack Light
My packing circumstances were a little different than most. I had to dedicate an entire carry-on suitcase to my medical supplies. That left me with one normal sized suitcase to fit enough clothes, shoes, toiletries, hair tools, books, etc. for four months in another country. When I first arrived at my apartment and saw how much my roommates had been able to bring, I freaked out. I thought I’d be the only girl constantly repeating outfits.
As time went on, though, we all realized that the last thing on our minds while abroad was how we looked. I’m serious! Sometimes Rachel and I joke when we look back on pictures – we note how bad we looked compared to the glamour shots that the latest batch of abroad girls post. But we don’t care, because we had the time of our lives. (And don’t forget, they have stores in Spain, too.)
When I went to Dublin for a weekend, I brought my tiny backpack. That was it. Hands down the lightest I’ve ever packed. Mind you, this was also the dead of winter, so the clothes I needed were bulky! I wore a lot of layers that weekend to vary my look. Not having to worry about lugging around a big suitcase as we hopped around was amazing. And guess what? Despite my lack of clothing options, that was one of my favorite trips. Go figure!
My main tip would be to bring a lot of basics that you can layer and swap. One of my best examples was the chambray shirt I brought. It can look cute on it’s own, under a sweatshirt, over a sweater, tied around your waist, and more. You don’t have to have a lot of clothes with you to be fashionable – just know how to use them!
8) Sit Alone
You probably think I’ve harped on about the whole ‘sit down and drink a coffee from a mug’ thing enough. But I’m so serious! Some of my happiest times were spent alone, eating a jamón sandwich at a hole in the wall café or indulging in a slice of chocolate cake at a cute little bakery. Yes, I even ate cake alone. It may sound silly or obvious to some of you. But taking this time without any distractions really teaches you to be comfortable with yourself. I’ve carried these lessons over into my home life – I’m not so afraid to do things with just me, myself and I anymore.
This distraction-free thing brings me to my next tip…
9) Leave the Phone at Home
Not only is there no need for you to bring your iPhone out with you, it’s also a huge risk. Unfortunately, iPhones are stolen from clueless American hands abroad more often than you change your clothes. It’s a huge no-no to leave your phone out on your table while you’re dining. It’s even a pretty bad idea to walk through the streets with it in your hand. So the easiest solution is to leave it at your apartment. You won’t really be able to use it until you can connect to Wi-Fi, anyway. You don’t need to Snapchat every landmark and moment. Of course you’re going to take a ton of photos – as you should – and you’ll want to share them. But wait until you’re chillin’ in bed that night to do so. In the meantime, pick your head up and look at those sights with your own eyes.
10) Don’t Be a Princess
My last tip hits very close to home. If you couldn’t tell, I can be a bit of a princess at times. I like my creature comforts. While I don’t see anything wrong with that most of the time, your semester abroad is the time to let your high maintenance self tone down to a medium-to-low maintenance chick. This can take a lot of different forms.
For one, lower your housing standards. This isn’t your parents’ house or the Marriott hotel. There’s a 99% chance you won’t have a dishwasher, a dryer, or a shower that runs hot water for more than ten minutes at a time. My roommates and I had to divide into AM and PM shower shifts for this purpose. Not to mention our bathroom floor flooded every single time we showered. But in a weird kind of way, it was fun.
Next, stay in a hostel – once or twice. I really don’t see the need to stay in one every time you travel, because I was able to find some amazing deals in normal hotels. But there are obviously going to be times when you can’t swing that. So, you bite the bullet and stay in a sketchy room with fifteen suspicious characters snoring within a two-foot radius of you. If you’re anything like me, you’ll sleep with your belongings under your pillow. And by sleep, I mean you won’t close your eyes because you’ll be too paranoid. Regardless, hostels are something that everyone should experience in their lifetime.
Finally, ride the donkey. No, that’s not some sort of code. I actually rode a smelly donkey up a steep cliff in Santorini, Greece. If I made any sudden movements, I may have fallen to my death in the Aegean Sea. Ok, so maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but it was scary! I knew immediately that I wanted to do it, though. If you don’t do weird, unnecessary things like balance atop a dirty animal on uneven terrain up the side of a mountain while you’re abroad, you never will.
So there you have it. My ultimate study abroad guide. Do you have any tips to add or lessons you learned on your trip? Leave them in the comments!
For those of you studying abroad this semester, enjoy it for all of us.
Be safe, be smart, and above all, have the time of your life.