The bus wound through the scenic Austrian countryside, revealing picturesque views at every turn. I marveled at the strikingly green valleys and snow-capped mountain, the orange glow of the sun going down on the flame-colored leaves of the trees. It almost seemed that all the seasons were happening at once, frozen in time in the tiny Austrian villages we passed. After a 5 hour journey west from Vienna, we arrived at the glimmering glacier of Kitzsteinhorn. At a height of 3209 meters, it towers above the little ski village of Kaprun and the mountains surrounding it. It was stunning and imposing, and the next day, I was going to be up at the peak attempting not to prematurely end my own life as I stumbled around on skis for the first time.
In other words, I went on the IES Abroad Vienna Ski Trip and learned how to ski! I didn’t die, nor did I seriously injure myself, so I count it as a victory! Skiing is very difficult, which I somewhat expected. What I didn’t expect, however, was how much I would learn about myself through the process of learning to ski. As I considered the lessons I learned on the slopes, I realized that many of them could also apply to the process of adapting to a new country and culture.
1. Be patient with yourself.
I am someone who generally picks up on everything pretty quickly, well, everything except physical skills. I am not used to being behind the curve and having to struggle through things, but I did not discover some natural born skiing ability up on the glacier. I had to fall, a lot, and continue to get back up. I got flustered and could have beaten myself up about how hard skiing was for me, but it was still my first time ever trying it and I had to remember that often. Slowly, but surely I would gain new skills and abilities as I kept at it.
In regards to cultural adaptation, you, also, need to be patient with yourself. Have grace. You may not like all the different cultural habits and quirks in your host country, but you will adjust and get the hang of your new life in time. Don't try to tackle everything at once. Take your time to notice and reflect on the differences between your home culture and your new city's culture.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others.
While a significant number of students on the trip were beginners like me, a lot of my friends were also intermediate or advanced skiers and it could feel defeating to watch them effortlessly glide down the glacier alongside the very professional-looking Austrians. I had to get over my pride and remember that I wasn’t going to get to their level of ability automatically. Also, when other beginners picked up skills quickly and I still struggled to come to a stop without tumbling down the glacier, I had to accept that, too.
If your friends seem to fall in love with your host country immediately and adapt to their lives without effort and you don’t, don’t worry about it. Everyone adapts at different paces. Additionally, if you are the one who adapts quickly, be patient with your friends. Listen when they express their frustrations and feelings and be an encouraging friend as they transition to life abroad.
3. You are capable of overcoming far more than you think.
I’m pretty sure I pushed my physical pain threshold far more than I ever have before. The ski boots put extreme pressure against my shins and ankles and weird muscles in my body felt dead after the two days. On day two, when I suited back up to hit the slopes, the pain in my shins was almost so unbearable that I couldn’t even walk. I was certain that I would not be able to ski that day, but I was also determined to try (hey, I paid for two days of skiing, dang it!). In the end, I skied for another couple hours and I was much more successful than I was on the first day. I didn’t even fall once the entire time!
When you have days where it seems like everything is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, know that you will make it through. The struggles you are facing will seem insignificant in hindsight. Don’t underestimate yourself and fall into self-doubt or pity. Keep throwing yourself into the new culture headfirst. You’ll take a few tumbles, maybe get some bruises, but you’ll recover.
4. Know your limits.
It is important to be willing to get outside of your comfort zone, but at the same time, you need to be careful never to overextend and endanger yourself. Some of the beginner skiers had a really rough time the first day and called it quits early on or chose not to go back out the next day, and that is totally fine. They tried, and they recognized that it was not a good activity for them and stopped pursuing it. Some people got injured and had to know when to stop pushing through the pain. It’s always acceptable to stop and take care of yourself.
While study abroad should include lots of experiences that push you out of your comfort zone, if you ever feel overwhelmed and need a day to lay in bed and watch Netflix, that’s fine. If your friends invite you to travel somewhere and you are all traveled out and want to stay back, don’t agree to go just to appease them. Look out for your own needs, and try to help others look out for theirs when necessary.
5. Pain is only temporary, but memories are forever.
When I first put my gear on in the alpine center on the glacier the second day, all I could think about was how much pain I was in. It took everything in me to stand up and walk a few steps. I was so close to giving into my desire to just take the boots off and stay inside all day. I could have just played in the fresh snow that was falling and had a lot of hot chocolate, but I would have regretted it later. My best moments skiing happened on day two. I left the glacier that day feeling very sore and also very proud of myself. I shared little victories with my other beginner friends as well and I will always remember the ski trip with good thoughts.
Studying abroad can be the time of your life if you let yourself be challenged, let yourself feel uncomfortable sometimes. You will eventually stop feeling the “pains” of adjusting and be able to enjoy yourself. Eventually, you will have fun. Don’t be afraid to smile, laugh, and not miss home. Sometimes it can seem wrong to like a new place so much that you don’t necessarily miss where you come from, but it’s normal to feel that way. Allow yourself to fall in love a little bit with the places you visit, with the city you live in. Find places that can be “yours” for the semester. Go on little excursions with your peers and make lots and lots of memories. When you remember your time abroad, you want to think of all the opportunities you did take advantage of, and not the ones you let pass you by.
Skiing and cultural adjustment may not really have that much in common, but I hope the insights that I gained through experiencing both will help you as you prepare for a semester in a foreign country (and maybe for skiing, who knows!). Spending time in a foreign culture will cause you to change and grow in ways you may or may not expect, and with growth comes some growing pains. Don't fear the pain or run from it. Embrace the opportunity to get to know yourself better and to learn to appreciate the good and the bad about both your home culture and your host culture. Above all else, enjoy yourself. The time will run out before you know it.
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<p>Hey, y'all! I'm a cat-loving music education major from good ole Fort Worth, Texas. I sing Brahms and Mozart, but I listen to Taylor Swift, Hamilton, and much more! (My Spotify playlists says a lot about me!) I enjoy traveling because I get to meet new people, experience new places, and try new foods (okay- I'm mostly in it for the food). Follow along to see what kinds of adventures (and mishaps) I find myself involved in!</p>