A Travellerspoint blog

May 2016

A Study Abroad Experience in Review

I formally end this blog with a final post about all the valuable life lessons I have learned.

In the blink of an eye, it was over.

The best times in your life always seem like the shortest. This post, though, will be anything but short, unfortunate for those of you who would just like a quick synopsis of the many things I have learned by participating in a semester abroad program. I’m going to attempt to summarize the unsummarizable, truly the greatest experience of my life, and attempt to keep this post somewhat interesting. I’m going to tie some of the things I’ve learned to what I am doing now, and I'm going to offer my broad opinions on some of life’s many treasures. If you want the gist of it, look for the lessons in bold.

I will start with one of the most stereotypical comments about Europe: the public transport really is better over there. It’s just a fact. We Americans have had this vehicle centric lifestyle coded into the fiber of our bodies for our entire lives. Here in Detroit, where I am working at Ford this summer, the entire city is built around the vehicle. I mean, it makes so much sense given that the Motor City has earned its place in history in this fashion. But I have gone from one extreme to the other. In almost every major European city I’ve been, there is incredibly robust transportation infrastructure; huge subways, hundreds of bus lines, even water taxis. You don’t need a car in the city (wait, isn’t that what we are seeing currently with the upwards trend in mobility solutions like Uber?) and if you need to travel, take a luxurious ICE train that will get you there faster. Or, take a 10 euro flight to almost anywhere. While lots of American cities do have great transportation systems (NYC, San Fran, etc.), many of them, like Detroit, simply don’t. There aren’t even sidewalks here; you have huge avenues and medians and one way streets, all arranged in boring square blocks. For the vehicle this makes perfect sense, but as humans transition from needing cars to move to needing merely a way to move, the cities that have these systems in place thrive, as I have seen in Europe.

One of the important things I have learned while traveling a lot is how to navigate a city and adapt quickly. Not just how to look at Google Maps, but actually navigate using the signs, maps, and information at your fingertips. It’s hard to describe how fun it is over the course of a trip to leave knowing you’ve “cracked” the city. Knowing which way of traveling is superior, knowing how to look for information on signs in different languages, knowing that there are always a few different routes to the same place. Taking ownership of your travel experience by figuring out the area and mapping these places in your brain brings a real sense of satisfaction by the end. And, it’s good experience for when you really need to get somewhere. It’s as if you’ve made friends with the city; you know it, and it knows you. Take the time to learn how it all works, and you can go anywhere. Plus, you know the lay of the land when you come back again!

Change is one of those things in life that is inevitable. We all know this, but we all—myself included—don’t necessarily embrace it. It’s hard to change and new things are not easy, but I have learned they are good for you. My study abroad semester has taught me how to better adapt to change, because that’s about all I ever did! I was constantly packing up and flying to wherever, communicating with people of many different cultures, making new and close friends, and learning. Before I went on a trip to Cinque Terra and Venice, I was having a hard time deciding if I should go or not—I would’ve been by myself and needed to study, yet these are places you cannot miss. My dad’s advice? “Just go for it!” These simple words were all it took, yet perfectly describe an important takeaway from this entire experience. You cannot possibly know what changes are ahead for you, but you can approach whatever it is positively and welcome whatever opportunities they might present. I took this attitude to Germany when I started on January 4th, and I honestly believe I got everything I could have out of those short 5 months. I now will approach my summer with Ford and my career in general in the same way.

One of my coworkers and friends that semester told me once, “we are not alone on this planet.” I mean, of course not, there are people all over the world. But have you really seen them? Have you seen where they live, how they live, what they do? No. Traveling is the only way to experience everything in all 5 senses. There is so much value in seeing what lies around you. Traveling is so important to fully see the history of cultures completely unlike your own, and I think it adds perspective to your daily life. To visit Rome and see in one field the ruins of literally thousands of years of civilization, to which we owe many modern ideals, makes you wonder just how impactful the Romans really were. Attending Easter mass at the Vatican with 100,000 people from all over the planet is a perfect example of how humans can be so different, yet come together at the same time and same place, and experience the same thing. We all call Earth home, and we are all in it together. At ZF TRW, I worked closest with a German, an Indian, a Frenchman, and an American. It’s hard enough for 4 people of differing cultures to speak the same language, let alone being able to communicate humor and tone and expression. But in fighting through it all, you learn things from each other, and get to benefit from mutual differences. So through travel or not, we are not alone on this planet, and there are always opportunities to see that.

War sucks. I always knew this, of course, but there was one moment in particular while on a Tauschie trip to Berlin that I remember having this feeling. Thankfully my family hasn’t been directly impacted by any of the violence and war going on around the world, but there was a time where they were. WWII was a tragedy and you wonder why it ever got so bad. My Aunt’s family lived in Berlin during the time when the wall was built and run, and they had relatives who actually escaped from the communist East to the democratic West, and then further to England. The wall itself is awe inspiring in how terrible it was and what it represented, yet there are very few places where you can actually see the entirety of the wall. I always wondered why it was vandalized and not preserved at least in part—from the perspective of a tourist, it’s almost like a monument to all the bad that should never exist again. But after seeing more of the horrors that went along with the wall and the war, the emotions and pain of the millions of people affected, it became so clear to me how ignorant that was. You cannot move forward as a civilization by building walls and starting wars; you have to tear them down and argue peacefully. You have to open up your borders (like the EU does) and allow cultures to mix. Some of these same things are going on now, or might go on in the future, and it’s definitely a scary thought to know that history tends to repeat itself. I hope nothing like that ever happens again, because war sucks.

Another thing I learned from this experience was the value of true friends/family. Not that I didn’t know that; I love my friends and family back home, but having the opportunity to introduce yourself to an entirely different group of people you interact with on a daily basis gives you an interesting look into how you make friends and form friend groups. I formed my friend group on the very first day; I still don’t know how I was so lucky, but I recalled the effort that goes into that kind of thing. remember sitting in a coffee shop with a friend I’d just met, and seeing one of the other two UT guys walk past. I could have let him walk by, but I went out and invited him in. That’s not something I’d usually do, but you need to be open to do whatever, and you need to put yourself out there a bit. And all of a sudden we had gathered 6 or 7 people there, and it was the beginning of our squad. It helped that everyone was so friendly and we were all feeling the same thing, which was that we have no idea what we are getting ourselves into but everything will work out. All it takes is a little effort, but effort in the right places—don’t waste your time trying to be friends with people you don’t click with. If it works, it works.

Finally, although this is something I’ve thought my whole life, I think it was proved to me more times than I can even count over my experiences: there is a tremendous value in learning, and you should make it your goal to learn your entire life. Now that I work at Ford, I think I can plug this Henry Ford quote: “Anyone who stops learning is old. Whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” This is something that resonates so well with me, and I think it’s important to strive for learning in your life. Whether that’s learning through formal education or learning through new experiences, they both do the job. Find out what you’re interested in and do it, regardless of whether or not you know what you’re getting into. I had no idea what I was getting into, dropping my life and starting anew in Germany, but I can tell anyone and everyone with confidence that I learned so much. I learned about myself, about my country, and about this beautiful and amazing place we call Earth. I am forever grateful to my parents (seriously, thank you SO much) and to those who supported me along the way, and I can say now that I have learned about studying abroad.

Thank you for reading.

Posted by jbolt 20:11 Archived in Germany Tagged travel friends family europe abroad exchange final eu lessons study semester learned Comments (1)

Scandinavia: The Cherry on Top of Europe

My (actual) final trip through the best continent during my favorite semester.

sunny 75 °F

Normally, sitting on a train for 6-8 hours would not be considered vacation. Here in Norway, though, this is what it’s famous for, and thus it’s a perfect opportunity for me to put fingers to keys. I know that last time I wrote, I said that it was my last trip studying abroad. Technically, I’m no longer studying, finals are over, and it’s vacation with my parents…okay, I lied: visiting Scandinavia is my official last trip from my amazing “study” abroad experience.

This past week, my parents and I have been traveling around the great countries of Scandinavia: first to Copenhagen (Denmark), next to Sweden, and finally to Norway. They had prefaced this already packed week with a visit to Salzburg and Munich. Both of these places my parents had never been (in fact, my mom hadn’t ever left the US or UK) and were eager to explore. I gather they had a great time, seeing the infamously beautiful Salzburg on a Sound of Music tour and following my footsteps in Munich and the Neuschwanstein castle. We met at the airport the Saturday morning after my last day of finals—which was a feat in itself—and flew DirtCheapButChargeForEverythingRyanAir to Copenhagen. This city, all but fully reclaimed from the water, was a whole new experience for all of us. Never had I seen a more bike-centric city (even more than Austin!), and one surprisingly void of green areas. Of course, making green where there once was blue is an arduous task, so we will forgive them. Our first night was well-spent at a very popular old port full of outdoor restaurants. The next day we spent biking from site to site and hit nearly everything we wanted to see, including the Little Mermaid and the Crown Jewels, in a long but slow peddle.

Monday morning we rented a silly little hybrid and drove 3 hours up the Swedish west coast to Gothenburg. Although much of the highway wasn’t quite on the sea, you still always felt close to it, and it would jut in every once in a while. In Gothenburg I got my fix of cars at the Volvo Museum, and we were essentially on our lonesome for the whole tour. The remainder of our evening foreshadowed what was to come for the next two days: beautiful sea-side views and tons of peaceful picture taking. The Gothenburg Archipelago was unlike anything I’d ever seen and seemed to go on for miles. The ferries danced in between sharp, jagged rocks and smooth hilly islands, and offered a quick getaway to the next destination. We spent most of the time walking around the idyllic car-less villages and soaking up the perfect weather. And to our dismay upon returning late in the date to our not very good hotel, it seems like someone came in our room and stole some money from my dad’s briefcase. Great.

Early the next morning (I mean early as in 5:30am) we got up to head north again to Oslo, capital of the western most country of Norway. We drove straight to our hotel only to find that its housecleaning staff were on strike, something happening with most of the hotels in the city. Fortunately we weren’t staying there until the next day, so it gave us some time to figure out what we were going to do. Instead we parked our car in the mall and hopped on a cross country train towards the second biggest city of Bergen. This coastal port city is a hub for tourists like us hoping to get the most of the beautiful mountains and fjords that is famous to Scandinavia. And boy did we get a lot out of it. Our cross country train went up and down over the mountains providing some of the most scenic views in the world for around 7 hours. That was literally what we did for most of the day, yet it was still packed. The next morning was by far my favorite, starting with a hugely scenic 5 hours boat cruise through the Sonjafjord. Apparently this is known as the King of Fjords, and the most beautiful and famous in the world. It was much wider and larger than I expected, and the width only got thin at the end. Even so, the huge ship was mostly empty and the views were more than breath-taking. To top it off was “Europe’s most scenic railway” (notice a pattern here) straight up past waterfalls and sharp drops of hundreds of meters. This famous train line took us through tunnels and under waterfalls and led back to the main line from Bergen, which we caught back for a late arrival in Oslo.

Oslo was a very multicultural city, old mixed with new, and plenty to see. We first stopped by the Nobel Peace Museum, which although extremely peaceful, was rather unimpressive for the price. Then in true Nordic fashion was the Viking Ship museum followed by the Kon-Tiki museum, with several exhibitions of the Norwegian explorer who sailed thousands of miles and 101 days on a log raft tied together with rope. Finally that evening after an extremely expensive dinner we attended a performance by the Oslo Philharmonic of Mozart and Brahms. Our time in Oslo was two much needed travel-less nights and one long day, followed by another day of travel back to my home base.

The final two days of our trip were spent where I was in Germany and gave me the opportunity to show my parents around Vallendar and Koblenz, and show them what I had actually been doing for the past 5 months of my life. It felt empowering to give this little tour to my mom, who hadn’t seen anything of where I was yet, because what I was describing was more than just another quaint city by the Rhine river; it was my home, a place that had become very special to me and had given me tremendous opportunity during my time in Europe. It was hard to walk through the halls and the streets and all the places where memories were made knowing it would be the last time. But this two day “staycation” for me was actually incredibly relaxing, and helped me unwind in a way. Instead of waking up one morning in Vallendar and then Texas the next, I was able to ease out of the semester and add some perspective on this entire experience.

The Rhineland area, if you can imagine this, is like an endless expanse of vast plateaus and flowing valleys carved through the countryside. One minute you can be driving straight up from the bottom of the river, through dense forest and winding roads, and the next be on top of flat plateaus and surrounded by everything and nothing for miles on end. Vallendar sits right at the base of one such valley, as does Koblenz, Neuwied, and all the major cities in the area. So while I was always within a stones throw of several different types of environments, it became clear that I hadn’t spent enough time simply exploring where I was in Vallendar and the Rhineland. In this sense, it was nice to take a break and spend my last weekend in Europe relaxing at a local resort tucked away up above the Rhine. We toured a local fortress (only took me 5 months to do so), walked around old town Koblenz, saw some of the area’s hidden gems, and ate really good food.

Although this post is a week late, my final post is forthcoming. I promise.

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Posted by jbolt 10:00 Archived in Norway Tagged bikes oslo fjords sweden koblenz copenhagen volvo philharmonic sonjafjord Comments (0)

Itali(u), I Don't Want to Leave

In this post, I Tell U about my final trip through the beautiful Cinque Terra and Venice.

sunny 70 °F

This blog entry comes two weeks late, I'll admit. My two day trip (yes that short) to Italy to see the Cinque Terra and Venice was as last minute a trip as is possible. I had booked 3 flights (no not two, I didn't know which day I had to come back) about a month in advance but, besides that, I had still not made up my mind whether to go or to stay an hour before I had to leave for the airport. I had just barely gotten back from Barcelona, only had the opportunity to study for a few days for finals, and didn't know if I could afford to give up another two days by myself. I quickly figured out, though, that it was not a zero sum game after all: I did not sacrifice studying or doing well on finals for that one last trip. My finals went okay, and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to go to such a beautiful place for my last trip in Europe.

Going on a trip by oneself does not seem like a fun thing to me, or at least it didn't until then. Who would want to be alone and not be able to enjoy the new experiences together with friends, family, or loved ones? This was one of the reasons I didn't want to go. I wasn't scared, per say; I knew I would be okay. I knew that, even though I was flying by the seat of my pants the entire time, booking one night in advance and finding out the ropes while I'm climbing them, I would survive. I just didn't want to be by myself! But something I realized as I hiked for 8 hours in between the 5 cities of the Cinque Terra is that you're never really alone. In these small, historic, and ultra-touristy cities on the steep western coast of Italy, you may one second be hiking all alone, walled off on one side by the huge wall of blue sea and on the other by a thick unforgiving mountain, and then the other meet 5 people from all over the world doing the same thing that you are. And that right there is why you are never alone. My amazing and memorable experiences were shared among so many other people simply by being there together.

It was a Monday night when I left and flew to Pisa. After taking the obligatory leaning against the Leaning Tower pictures, I headed up the coast on a train towards the Cinque Terra, having booked my Airbnb just 8 hours before. I made myself study on every train ride, to combat the other reason that I wouldn't have gone: I had 4 finals the following week. But hey, you only study abroad once right? The thing to do in the Cinque Terra is hike between the cities and enjoy the quaint fishing village culture and beautiful scenery. I did just that, and I am very thankful that I brought my hiking boots. This was probably the hardest day of hiking I'd ever done: I hiked somewhere in the region of 16 miles, almost always straight up and straight down. Most of the time it was me and my thoughts, drumming to the sounds of ferocious waves and a peaceful stirring breeze. After absorbing every ray of the sunset and watching the violent crash of waves for what felt like an hour, I retired to a small scale fish pasta dinner where I met and talked to a recently married couple from UT. It's a small world, and you're never alone. The next morning I hit the 6 hour train to Venice (read: studied the whole time), which is a city I've wanted to go to probably more than anywhere else in the world. It was idyllic and well-preserved, just how I imagined it. You could easily get lost in the labyrinth of canals and alleys barely wide enough for one. This was in fact just what I did for the whole afternoon, until I had to return to the real world via a delayed (due to the airport workers' strike) Eurowings flight Wednesday night (read again: studied the whole time). One of those realities was paying 75 euro for a taxi since my flight was so late, but oh well.

Both of these beautiful Italian jewels are places you'd typically visit with someone else. But I did them by myself, and I loved it. I was able go my own pace to soak in the scenery and was at peace with everything in my life at that time. If you're on the edge about whether to do something or not do something like I was, "go for it!" This was what my dad told me about this trip, and I'm so thankful. In fact, that's what he told me about a semester abroad as well.

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Posted by jbolt 03:56 Archived in Italy Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises canals venice hiking italy sun cinque terra Comments (1)

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