Sipping tea at a café in Prague; admiring Van Gogh in the Louvre; wildflower fields in the Austrian Alps; exploring quaint cobblestone backstreets and the breathtaking cathedrals they lead to. These are my daydreams. What are yours? Where do you want to go? If you’re anything like me, then the arduous flight overseas is just a glorified drive to the airport, because Germany is where I live and study, but when I planned my semester abroad, I was sure it’d be a jumping off point for trips in every direction. And what better place to adopt a semi-nomadic existence than Europe? Jam packed with unique cultures, blessed with open borders, and zig zagged with high-speed train lines that make distance a problem of the past.
Since the day trip and the weekend trip go hand in hand with study abroad, I’ve talked to some friends about their experiences and goals surrounding travel while living internationally; and because I’ve had my fair share of adventures, I’ll add my own advice into the mix.
On one end of the travel spectrum is Morgan, who goes somewhere new almost every weekend. When asked why, she gives one answer: “because I came here to travel.” Morgan saved up money before going abroad for the sole purpose of funding weekend trips across Europe, and that’s just what she’s done – by train, by plane, by bus; to Prague, Salzburg, Warsaw, and Zürich to name just a few destinations. It isn’t all perfect; Morgan is sad to be missing out on the community she could be building in Freiburg and admits that the experience of constant travel is both exhausting and expensive, but with a set routine for schoolwork, careful budgeting, and the perks of having a student card on a continent that rewards education, she makes it work.
In contrast to Morgan and her jet-setting lifestyle is Maddy, who, other than a day trip and a weekend trip to Berlin, has chosen to stay home. The reasons are understandable – saving money, making time for rest and mental health, prioritizing putting down roots and forming a local community to lean on. Maddy is appreciative of the experiences she had traveling but reflects that they were physically and mentally tiring. All in all, “staying home” may seem boring, but can you really stigmatize it when “home” is Germany?
For my own part, I occupy a position somewhere between Maddy and Morgan on the travel spectrum. Like Maddy, I remember the fantasy of traveling Europe that I had when I was younger, but the reality of it – of planning, of paying (ouch), of constantly being transplanted, can be exhausting. Plus, I have schoolwork to complete, and I also miss spending my weekends sleeping in and doing absolutely nothing! If you had asked me about my planned schedule of travel at the beginning of the semester, I would have presented you with something similar to what Morgan is succeeding at, but since then I’ve gladly settled somewhere in the middle.
Either way, travel is an amazing opportunity and if you have the time, means, and energy, then I say, “go for it!” So here are some recommendations and important lessons that Morgan, Maddy, and I have learned along the way.
If I had to sum up this advice in one word, it would be “flexibility.” If you don’t want those best laid plans to break down, then you better let them bend, at least a little. Not everything works out the way you think it will, but if you acknowledge that preparatory research doesn’t provide the entire picture and if you make room for the opportunities that come your way, then travel might even turn out better than you imagined! For me, this meant abandoning unrealistic dreams of café hopping in Prague and Vienna, and instead visiting museums in Munich, joining my friends’ trip to Milan, and accepting a last-minute invitation for a day trip to Strasbourg, where I toured the old city and ate the best macarons of my life.
Another good idea: forget planning ahead and give yourself the option of planning the day before or even the day of with a Eurail pass. You’ll save a ton of money and have the option to cancel tickets and choose new ones through the app without any added cost. This just about saved my life when I travelled to Milan. On the way there, my first train was running late, so I cancelled it and rode an earlier one. Two days later, when I missed my train home (it was so cringy by the way, I got there when the doors were locked and watched it slowly leave the station), I was able to easily book a new route with a one hour layover in a small town in the Swiss Alps, where I tried authentic Italian gelato while taking in the turquoise waters of an Alpine lake.
Being flexible with the idea of travel that social media and daydreaming have given you is important as well. I learned early on that the image of the independent solo traveler wasn’t going to be me when I took a day trip alone and was mostly stressed and very lonely. I couldn’t help thinking that I wanted to talk to someone, to have someone to point out sites to and reminisce with later on. And honestly, my unrealistic fear of missing my train, running out of battery without an outlet nearby, getting lost, and then having to spend the night on a park bench, seems a little less daunting when someone is there to do it with me.
Finally, the most difficult flexibility involves letting go of deeply held and somewhat unhealthy beliefs about how to live in a place. My advice? Get over it. Many of us assume that adventure is only possible in a new place, but is this really the case? In retrospect, I’ve barely explored my college town of Cleveland, and I have far too little to say about Baltimore, where I grew up. Home, we think, is a place for what is comfortable and safe, but is this really true? Have I really explored Freiburg, Germany, or does this amazing city have more to offer if only I give it a chance? There are museums I haven’t been to, trails I haven’t walked, restaurants I haven’t eaten at, and nearby cities like Basel that I haven’t even glanced at. And in truth, there are movies I haven’t seen that I’d like to see without ever leaving my room. So while Morgan is in Italy and my best friends are in Paris, you can find me in my sleeping bag with a carton of vegan Ben and Jerry’s and Netflix on my laptop. No regrets here.
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Hi there! My name is Isabel Pineo and I am coming to you this semester from Freiburg im Breisgau, a charming city in the Black Forest of sunny southern Germany. The official reason I’m here: to learn about environmental studies in a culture and urban setting known for its emphasis on sustainability. Unofficial reason: to eat amazing food, go on lots of hikes, meet fascinating people both local and foreign, and to focus on putting my physical and mental health first. I guess you could say that I’m searching for answers to the question of what it means to live rightly in the world, for the Earth and for ourselves. Since most of us have been asking that question for a very long time, I’ll be sure to update you on all the answers I find as the semester progresses!