BY EMILY WILLAUER
For the UAS Whalesong
Photos courtesy of the same
There are many reasons why people decide to embark on European Study Abroad. Maybe it’s because we’ve lusted over a specific country, been Tumblr-ing Europe for far too long, or have otherwise been daydreamed about different opportunities. I had 3 criteria for attending university: To go to a small school, to join an organization and to Study Abroad. Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 gave me that opportunity.
Before I get into the particular paragraph where Emily runs from airport to airport with one carryon bag and low phone battery acting as her map/ticket/lifeline, I want to emphasize that every step is absolutely worth it. From sitting down with Marsha for the first time to discuss choices, to clicking send on the application, to waving goodbye to family at airport security to the whirlwind that travel is to plopping back in that favorite spot back home responding to everyone’s, “How was your trip?”
I did not go on a ‘trip’, nor on a vacation. I lived. I paid rent, I bought cookwear, I had a monthly bus pass. When going on excursions, I referred to my international apartment as ‘home’. I had a favorite local bar, grocery store and coffee shop.
Fall 2016 I was accepted to Study Abroad in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, a tiny town in the northern part that nobody thought was the United Kingdom anyway. Population 30,000. Slightly different than my 14 million population home. The climate was familiar; cold, overcast, wet. Other than the fact that we could drive in and out of town and drove on opposite sides of the road, you’d think you weren’t that far from Juneau. It was fun listening to English speakers, yet not quite understanding English. My roommate, Eaodian, asked me my first week if I wanted “a fag.” I blanched, declining. It wasn’t until I joined the fencing team did I follow two fellow male teammates outside to see how ‘splitting a fag” would be like. Did they keep them around the corner? Turns out it was a cigarette. Who would have thought The United Kingdom would willingly give an American a sword. I learned how to wield and compete in two different swords, foil and epee. While not bouncing around on the iconic rolling hills that looked like a green sky with white sheep clouds, I joked with fellow Nerds with Swords. We saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens together. Our instructors declined our proposal of using the budget for light sabers or putting glow in the dark paste on the swords and fencing in the dark.
School was interesting too: no restrictive attendance policies, small class sizes, interesting content. I took Historical Film Adaptation, The Life of Macbeth and The Beat Generation. Nothing like studying Ginsberg with Lady Macbeth in movie format. Ulster University had a 24 hour computer room. I spent about 4 nights writing essays in that room.
Starbucks was announcing their Christmas cups when I got word I was accepted to study at a university in Lausanne, Switzerland. Turns out the only way for me to get a Swiss visa is through the Swiss embassy in San Francisco, California and could only mail the application from a US address. This posed a problem in Northern Ireland. Thankfully my parents acted as the middle man. This all instigated around thanksgiving, the first time ever I had to go to class on that day. My friend Wendy and I celebrated the college way. Turkey sandwich slices, American beer, mashed potatoes mashed with a fork and store bought pumpkin pie.
As winter arrived, I traveled throughout the United Kingdom a lot. Wales, I’m looking at you for next trip. Public transport wasn’t bad in Ireland. Getting between both countries was a breeze. To get to Dublin, I would take the train from Coleraine to Belfast, Northern Ireland (2 hours) and the bus from Belfast to Dublin, Ireland (2 hours). Flights were significantly cheaper in Dublin; it was the Euro and a larger airport. Friends came from Juneau and we road tripped along the Ring of Kerry, a wonderful scenic route my driver treated like a race course. I visited Edinburgh, staying at a castle-themed hostel twenty feet away from Edinburgh castle. I went back to Dublin as the best tourist ever. After a wonderful traditional English Christmas Dinner in Dawlish, England (another small town nobody knows) and flew to Disneyland Paris in France for $11 before returning to Northern Ireland for a wrap up month.
10 days before I’m supposed to leave Northern Ireland, the embassy required me to mail my passport to them (from said US address). I airmailed it to my parents, who airmailed it to San Francisco which they ground shipped it back to my parents who over-nighted it to me. I received that beautiful, beautiful blue rectangle 20 hours before departing the country. It was difficult saying goodbye to my new family and hello to the unknown without anytime to reflect. What happened in that neutral country is something I like to call culture shock squared.
It’s hard to write from my heart because for me Europe was not one rapid adventurous heartbeat. It was the steady beat of life, you have to go up and down to remain alive. I thrived in Northern Ireland and struggled in Switzerland. I ate the same meal for lunch for 3 weeks because it was the only thing I could afford. I finished 3 television series on Netflix. I had tea at 3 p.m. every day in the UK and gelato at 4 in Italy.
Traveling is only romantic when you’ve returned home. It requires flexibility, perseverance, an understanding of irony and a willingness to get the job done. Regardless if it’s pushing through a dense crowd to get to a train to paying the cheaper fare to get 3 hours less of sleep. I can promise sometimes everything will not go right. Hindsight, those make the best stories. I fell in love with Amsterdam canals and Dairy Farms in England. I ordered coffee in four different languages. I never felt like an American until after I left America. I stand proud of my heritage, not ignorant of other’s differences and influences. Yes, I did amazing things like study inside the Bodleian Library where they filmed Harry Potter library scenes but I also got on the wrong train in France at 11 p.m. just after the attack. I’ve also slept in an English train station at freezing temperature because the airport closed for 3 hours. Studying abroad is not to reinvent yourself, it’s to challenge and to enhance yourself.