How Studying Abroad Made A Lifelong Traveler
Institutes of higher education tout their study abroad offerings as a complement to the residential college experience. While I agree with that viewpoint, my study abroad experience provided much more. My time in both Salzburg and Paris launched me into a lifetime of international travel.
You can have one idea in your mind about the results of a decision, but what emerges rarely resembles your original vision. When I arrived as a freshman at a small, private liberal arts college in 1993, I hadn’t envisioned myself studying abroad. One night during freshman year, I was socializing in the dorm, and a guy who had just returned from the university’s Salzburg, Austria study abroad program was raving about his experiences. I had never travelled internationally, but was well versed in domestic travel. Growing up, my family took both road and plane trips to over half the states in the US. I filed the study abroad option in the back of my mind, not expecting it to become a reality.
As my sophomore year came to a close, applications for the Salzburg program were due. I applied and was accepted. After some negotiating with my advisor for my French major, I began planning for my spring semester in Salzburg and my summer term in Paris. Usually, and obviously, French majors study in France for either a semester or a year. I was already apprehensive about leaving the country for the first time, so I convinced my advisor that the introductory and nurturing nature of the Salzburg program would prepare me for the autonomy and relative solitude of the Paris program. I was correct in that prediction.
We planned weekend train sojourns to Munich, Paris, Amsterdam, and other cities that, retrospectively, seemed to require more time on the train than exploring the actual city.
I boarded a group flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt. The group of about 30 students boarded a connecting flight to Munich, then a motor coach to Salzburg. It was the end of January and snowing heavily. As a native Southern Californian, I hadn’t ever experienced long-term living conditions in frigid temperatures. The semester began, and I acquainted myself with the other students. Since we were from a small school, we already knew each other casually. We planned weekend train sojourns to Munich, Paris, Amsterdam, and other cities that, retrospectively, seemed to require more time on the train than exploring the actual city. We travelled to Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Czech Republic on field study trips, where we viewed famous works of art and discussed social and historical events in their native locations. This tactic of transforming classroom learning to experiential learning has informed some of my subsequent travels.
After four months abroad, I missed my family and friends. Instead of taking the two weeks in between programs to travel alone, or even to arrive in Paris early and acquaint myself, I changed my ticket and flew home. What an expensive lesson! When I arrived home and the reunions with family and friends had subsided, I was ready to return to Europe. That taste of independence had fueled my confidence and I was pining for more. I had completed my introductory course in international travel and was prepared for the next step.
I arrived in Paris, excited to meet my host and my roommate. Later, I discovered that some students had arranged to travel with friends during the program. I was paired up with a student who was also on her own. I hoped we would become friends. As it turned out, my hostess was drunk most of the time, so that motivated me to get out of the house early and return late, prompting extensive sightseeing. Also, as it turned out, my roommate had friends who lived in Paris so she spent most of her awake time with them. I really was on my own and was forced to endure it.
As it turned out, my hostess was drunk most of the time, so that motivated me to get out of the house early and return late, prompting extensive sightseeing.
I learned that I couldn’t depend on the group or my tour leader, as I could in Salzburg. Paris was audacious and defiant, a place where you’d better know what you were doing and what you were after. The safety net of group travel had dissolved. I learned to be tough with lecherous men and sought out whatever I needed or wanted. Impressive, as this was before the convenience of the Internet and smartphones as travel aids. I sat at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, navigated the Metro, and completed my homework on a bench in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. I returned to my senior year of college with a boost of confidence and worldliness.
When I obtained my first teaching job, I promised myself that I would visit at least one new country a year. Though on a limited budget, I didn’t want to squander the coveted time off during the summer.
After 15 years of teaching and earning my PhD, I was tired. I needed a career change and wanted to approach education from a different angle. I felt pressured to find a job with my hard earned PhD as a requirement. It wasn’t working out for me, so I devised a new plan: quit job, move out of house, put belongings in storage, sell car, board a plane, don’t look back.
I was intent on capturing that freedom I felt while studying in Paris. I planned the trip as my “Study Abroad – Adult Version”.
I never thought I’d have the courage to do any of those activities, even at the start of my trip.
Before I left California, I booked a three-week tour to Thailand and Cambodia. Though some people assured me of these countries’ safety for a solo woman traveller, I still felt unsure. It’s always the fear of the unknown. Once I experience something for myself, I can make my own judgment. The tour was comprehensive and wonderful, covering Northern Thailand and both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. I was travelling through some rice fields in the back of a songthaew (a converted pickup truck used for public transport) and said to myself, “I don’t want to return to Sydney just yet. I’m going to extend my time in Thailand.”
I’d wanted to visit the beaches and islands of Southern Thailand, but figured I’d shelve those experiences for another time. I summoned that confidence I’d cultivated so many years ago in Paris, and changed my plane ticket. I stayed in Patong Beach for three weeks, in relative solitude once more. I lounged on the beach, discovered numerous Thai restaurants that put American Thai restaurants to shame, and shopped for the best deals from street vendors.
While travelling around Australia and Southeast Asia, I ruminated about how this experience was so much more intense than my time in Paris. I rented a right hand drive car to drive in left hand traffic, went scuba diving, and hiked alone. I never thought I’d have the courage to do any of those activities, even at the start of my trip. Through a gradual process of mini-experiences, you acquire the skills necessary to tackle more challenging feats.
The promising notion is that someday, hopefully in the near future, there will be another departure date that will mark another travel milestone in my life.
When I returned from my study abroad experiences, time was marked according to those memories. Every January 30th was one more year since I’d left for Salzburg. Every June 7th was one more year since I’d left for Paris. Now, September 9th will be that momentous date for me. The promising notion is that someday, hopefully in the near future, there will be another departure date that will mark another travel milestone in my life.
Motivated by the “go big or go home” adage, Anne V. Castagnaro, PhD is a lifelong traveller who prefers to mark her life in travel milestones. A Southern California native, she makes her base camp there while pondering new adventures. While saving up funds for the next journey, she enjoys reading, scrapbooking, nature, and educational issues. Travel and other musings can be found at travelfoodyogabooks.blogspot.com
How Studying Abroad Made A Lifelong Traveler