From the Outside Looking In

Helena Haynes
February 14, 2022

Each year, American students study abroad and travel to Europe during their semester-long stay across the ocean. Many people seem like they’re heading to a new country or city every weekend, and on paper, it looks incredible. From the outside, it can feel like something to be envious of. You see their carefully crafted Instagram posts and hear stories about their “life-changing” trips, which can often leave you wondering how they fit it all in so perfectly. As a student studying abroad that has now been on a few trips of my own, I can say that the reality of these trips isn’t always what it’s made out to be on social media. No matter how beautiful the place is, or how much fun you have while you’re there, there’s another side to traveling that the people back home don’t get to see. Each destination is beautiful in its own way, but traveling can come with surprises, stress, and a certain amount of preperation. 

Oxford, England 

When I first got to London, I wanted to take a trip somewhere close and more convenient since I was still adjusting to my classes and life in a new place. One of my best friends from high school is studying at Oxford for the semester, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to see a different part of England. I booked a train ticket and was easily able to navigate to the London Marylebone station to catch my hour-long train to Oxford. The rail systems in Europe never fail to amaze me, especially coming from somewhere where trains are basically nonexistent. 

Walking around Oxford was such a surreal experience. It’s one of those places that’s always talked about with the likes of American universities such as Harvard or Yale, but I never really pictured what it would be like in real life. The architecture on the campus is beautiful and there’s such a unique college-town feel. We ate at the Turf Tavern, which is a dreamy restaurant/pub tucked away on the Oxford Campus. The cast of Harry Potter often went there during filming, which was exciting to hear as someone who loved the series growing up. 

Taking this trip made me appreciate what England has to offer. I think students are often quick to rush out of the country they’re studying in to see something new, but it’s important to immerse yourself in the place you’re living in to gain a greater understanding of the culture in that country. London is always top of mind for people visiting England, but it was honestly refreshing to experience England outside of the big city environment. I also think that if you have the opportunity to visit friends studying abroad in other places, it can make the traveling experience more relaxing and straight-forward in general. 

Paris, France

Ah yes…Paris. Most study abroad students have this destination at the top of their lists for places they want to travel to during the semester. For people who have never been, the idea of going to the “City of Love” is a must. Many of us romanticize the perfect Parisian experience filled with scenic walks, amazing food, and French culture. It sounds like something out of the movies, or Emily in Paris as many may say. From London, Paris is only about two hours away on the Eurostar (again, I love trains), so we decided to go early in the semester as our first trip out of the country. With high expectations and an image in my head of what I thought Paris was going to be, I quickly found myself to be disappointed in certain parts of my experience. 

Something I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that traveling can be all about luck, whether that be the people you meet, the places you end up going, and even the weather you have when you’re there. Don’t get me wrong, Paris is an incredibly beautiful place and my friends and I did enjoy our time there, but it also came with a lot of culture shock. On our first night, we were immediately bombarded in the metro by aggressive French men checking tickets. Since we don’t speak the language and were warned of scams similar to this, we tried to keep walking out of the station with the rest of the people who got off our train. These men ended up being official ticket checkers that do random selections, but the experience did scare us due to how aggressive they were, especially since they were clearly targeting us as tourists. We continued to experience certain attitudes from the French people we met, which was certainly a shock due to what we are used to in London, and I think it impacted our perception of Paris. After reflecting on the trip, I realized that it’s important to experience both the good and bad parts about a country, and it can make you have a greater appreciation for where you’re studying. 

Taking this first trip also opened my eyes to how much traveling can cost, even if it initially seems cheap. You have to factor in transportation while you’re there, food, and even little things like renting towels or locks if you’re staying at a hostel. Being in Europe definitely makes traveling more cost efficient, but it still involves a lot of budgeting and planning if you want to get the most for your money. In a place like Paris, I wish I would’ve spent more time planning for restaurants and other attractions. 

Lisbon, Portugal 

I don’t even know the best way I would describe Lisbon, aside from saying that it felt like it was out of a dream. My friend Riley and I originally booked the trip because of how cheap the flights were (you have to love Ryanair), but it ended up being the most pleasant surprise. Lisbon is one of those places I wanted to see, but wasn’t sure if I would ever end up going. It’s not one of the most stereotypical destinations, but I had heard great things and it all seemed to fall into place. After feeling a little nervous about traveling due to some of our experiences in France, we were relieved to be greeted in Portugal by some of the most friendly people I’ve met. Even though I could tell that some of them weren’t very fluent in English, everyone was so willing to help and provide recommendations for our stay despite the language barrier. 

We had a busy week leading up to this trip, so there wasn’t much time to plan activities or restaurants we wanted to eat at. Even though I think that planning is essential for certain destinations, it ended up being easy to wing it in Lisbon. We were able to find incredible food and drinks for such low prices, which was super exciting for us since London prices are so high. If you get to travel to Lisbon, don’t miss out on getting a pastel de nata, which is a Portuguese custard tart. We enjoyed ours at Portas de Sol, which had an amazing view of the city. Lisbon is one of those places where I felt like every moment was full of so much life. The streets were filled with people playing music, there was fruit growing on the trees, and the tiles lining the buildings were stunning, not to mention all of the stunning views. If there weren’t so many stairs in this city, I probably could have spent all day walking around to take it all in. 

Traveling can be bittersweet, and I’ve come to appreciate the good and the bad of it all. Each place you visit is so different, and there’s beauty in experiencing these differences without expecting it all to be perfect. There’s definitely a balance between coming into a trip with no expectations, while also doing a certain amount of necessary research prior to arriving. Before visiting a new place, look online to get a sense of prices, attractions, and information about the culture, but don’t set yourself up to feel a specific way about a place. You may be surprised by which destinations you fall in love with, but either way, you won’t regret experiencing a new culture. 

Helena Haynes

<p>Hi there! My name is Helena Haynes and I’m a third year student at Penn State University majoring in Advertising with minors in Information Sciences &amp; Technology and Digital Media Trends &amp; Analytics. I love being involved on campus with things I’m passionate about, and I’ve had the opportunity to serve as President of the Advertising/Public Relations Club, Research/Strategy Co-Lead for our advertising competition team, and as a Print Writer for VALLEY Magazine, a life and style magazine here at Penn State. In my free time you can find me cooking, watching Sex and the City, or spending way too much time on LinkedIn. I’m so excited to be studying abroad in London this semester and I can’t wait to explore the city and learn more about the culture. I hope you follow along on my journey with me!</p>

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