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Germany

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)

4 Months Later, I Saw My Country

Took me long enough to get to Berlin and Munich, but they were well worth the wait.

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It has been far too long since I have written a post. I’ve done a lot since my last one, yet haven’t had the time to sit down and think and write. You’d imagine that while on a study abroad semester I would be trying to find things to do with my time rather than wishing I had more—not so. Traveling, having a job, and oh yeah, school, all take their toll. And in fact I only have a couple weeks left. Somehow this entire experience has come so quickly and almost gone.

This past weekend we ventured to Munich, and the weekend before that to Berlin. I am combing these trips into one post, not because I am lazy (well I guess I’m pretty lazy sometimes) but because I had very similar, exciting, and definitively German experiences with both. Berlin was a trip I’d been looking forward to for quite some time—it was our big Tauschie trip that was planned for some months prior. A group of about 20 of us exchange students (and one chill local student, shoutout to Thi) fluttered in and out of the city, all on our own schedules. This was part of the reason why it was such a good experience—we all had our own groups and wanted to do own our things, and although sometimes we’d split up or go on our own, most of the time everyone had the same agenda. It was a jam-packed three days, and full of some of the best memories so far. It was impossible not to have an amazing time with these people.

After a super cheap flight on Friday morning, we wasted no time getting to know the city. What better way is there to sightsee than while drinking a beer on a bike? Our “booze bike” held 16 people, all peddling harder and going slower than what it looks like from the outside. We casually enjoyed beer as we cruised up and down the East Side Gallery. This is probably the largest single remnant of the Berlin Wall, and it is covered in beautiful graffiti canvases that I would call more of art. We sung along to music, laughed too much (and got laughed at), saw the artistry along the wall, and had probably the best time a group of 16 people could possibly have. That night I attended my first professional football game at the Berlin Olympic Stadium. Saturday morning we ventured out on foot, seeing everything from the Brandenburg Gate to the Holocaust memorial to the parliament building, the Reichstag. During the afternoon we did a free walking tour (I did not know that was a thing. The lady did an awesome job) and got to explore a bunch of cool, low-key things you would normally not even know about. Before seeing Kygo (one of my all time favorite artists) on Sunday night, I got to spend quality time with my thoughts during the rainy morning as I explored more of the Berlin Wall. I went all the way out to the actual memorial site, where they have reproduced and preserved a section just like it really was in those times. It was truly moving to walk among the ruins and then to see the wall replica exactly how the people of Berlin did until 1989. As ignorant as it may be, until that moment, I had always pictured the wall from the perspective of a tourist. I wondered why so much of the wall had been torn down or vandalized and why it was so difficult to just see the wall as it was, without any obstruction. As I saw more and more of the horrors that went along with the complete division of a city, and really a country, it became clear to me the anger and emotion that the ruins of the wall represent. The people of Germany were divided, and ultimately many of them killed, over that horrible wall and horrible war. If I had not gone alone to the Berlin Wall Memorial, I’m not sure I would have fully understood Berlin as more than just a lively and successful German city. Nor would I have understood how it was to live for almost 30 years with something like that. The weather that morning so adequately reflected the mood: they were dark times, and during dark times you have to fight.

Springfest in München was very memorable. Even though so much went wrong and I spent a lot of the time trying unsuccessfully to find everyone who I had lost in the huge crowds of drunk Bavarians, the trip was well worth it—even if I lost my bag in the train station and wore the same thing all weekend. Saturday morning early I met up with my cousin Justin who had a layover all day on his way to Georgia (the country, everyone). It was truly amazing how this worked out—the one weekend I was going to be in Munich happened to align perfectly with his big trip, and it was a blast. We spent basically the whole day catching up, and then some. I can tell that as our family grows older we will only grow closer. Springfest, however, can only be described as a giant border-line-out-of-control carnival. The beer tents were full of burly women carrying 10 steins at a time to numerous tables of 20 people stuffed elbow to elbow. Thankfully Justin and I found a place that wasn’t in the hot tent, and instead we had a great time just people watching and sipping on weißbier. Sunday was a highlight for me: I rented a car and drove on the driver’s paradise, the autobahn. We took a day trip to Neuschwanstein (Disney) Castle, home of King Ludwig II until he died, and favorite spot for Richard Wagner, a famous German composer that has a special place in my heart. The scenery was beautiful, the company was great, and the 8 hour journey seemed more like a road trip from a movie. My car wouldn’t go faster than 107mph, but honestly it felt like we were going half that speed. It is truly a testament to how to properly build a highway system—force people to drive well and give them good roads, and everything will be okay.

It took me a while to hit these staple German cities, but they were both worth it. I sit here in the airport writing this on my way to Barcelona, so stay tuned for that. Oh yeah, I got my bag back. Thanks DB.

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Posted by jbolt 11:28 Archived in Germany Tagged football beer berlin castle wall brandenburg reichstag munich neuschwanstein cousin münchen springfest Comments (1)

1st Trip, 1st Month

A look back on the first 30 days and on some nearby cities.

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As promised, this entry will include a description of my first trip to Cologne as well as the festival of Karneval, which is an unbelievably exciting spectacle for millions of Germans every year before Lent, as well as some thoughts about the first month of my time here.

Cologne (Köln) is a large city (really it's one of several big cities in a metropolitan area in the western part of the country) that hosts a festival called Karneval annually. Apparently over two million people travel to the city and its surrounding areas every year, excluding the people that actually live there. The best way I can describe the holiday is a week long mix of Halloween and 4th of July--take the parades and confetti and excitement of the latter and mix it with the crazy costumes and antics of the former. I went to the festival for two days this past weekend, the first to a slightly smaller neighbor city called Bonn, and the second to Cologne. Both days were a blast but wipe you out real fast. I mentioned we had already made the trip to Cologne earlier in the month--it was the first weekend after my dad left in early January. While we originally only planned to stay a night, a booking error with the hostel left us with half the rooms and forced us to stay for two nights. The first night we had a room that was only meant for four, so naturally, we fit 10 people. There were two soft box springs under a couple of the mattresses that we turned into a bed each, making the count 6, and the rest of us shared. It was here that I was told I was sleeping like a business man (by laying with my arms crossed), dreaming of my 401k going up. I'm okay with that. The second night was truly a taste of luxury; we were upgraded to a 6 bed room in a completely empty part of the hostel, and only two had to share. Our one full day was filled with shopping, eating, exploring, and a tour of the Lindt Chocolate factory. We found an excellent hole-in-the-wall bar full of older people dressed like sailors, who were some of the nicest Germans we've encountered--we brought playing cards, sat at a big round table, and got several free rounds on the house. It was a memorable weekend indeed.

So I've been in Germany since the 3rd of January. I've been on a few trips within the country (Marksburg, Cologne, Bonn) and one outside of it (Amsterdam). I've made a ton of friends, and I'm really excited to be doing all of this while at a pretty great school. I am working a part time internship with a prestigious German automotive supplier called ZF TRW, and I think it will set me up nicely for my summer with Ford. Technically I'm learning German, but I still feel like I don't know anything! I also realized a few days ago that I do miss some things from U.S. that I can't find here--my car, my girlfriend, my family and friends, American junk food. Fortunately I'm making a quick jaunt across the ocean next weekend, but more on that later. Being in another country with a different culture and the ability to experience new things all the time is truly an awesome experience, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I can't wait to see what's in store.

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Posted by jbolt 14:19 Archived in Germany Tagged parades cologne abroad study karneval marksburg Comments (0)

The Beginning

Where I'm staying, what I'm doing, and where I'm going

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First things first, welcome. This is the first time I've ever written something like this, so if you have any ideas of what a typical blog looks like, it's probably best to throw them out the window. This semester is a whole bunch of "new" for me, and I'm excited to see what happens.

I'm studying at a school in Vallendar, Germany called WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. It's the most unconventional school experience I've ever been a part of; not because of upside-down classroom models or iPads at each of my fingertips, but because it's so student driven. It's genuinely a good time to go to school here. They have all the necessities--like a gym, excellent classes and professors, and a modern campus--but this school is so much more. You can rent a car from it. Students throw parties in the school's 800 year old cellar (which has beer on tap). International exchange students make up over 10% of the student body. All classes are taught in english. It's probably the most international thinking business school in Europe, and they have some of the best business programs in the world. Point is, I like this school. I'm taking Business Taxation, International Economics, Finance Markets/Derivatives, Software Development for Entrepreneurs, Marketing, and German; these are over two different quarters making up my semester, ending early May.

I also like where I am living. The city of Vallendar is tiny and nestled among the many historic and beautiful cities that run along the Rhine river. The main city of Koblenz is about 15 minutes away and hosts much of the nightlife, and is the famous point where the Rhine and Moselle rivers come together at the Deutsches Eck (German Corner). Around here the land is hilly and scenic, so it's unfortunate that the days seem so short, with only a few hours of daylight when it's not raining or snowing. I live (but don't spend that much time in) a nice flat that's literally one minute away from campus. I've been very fortunate to make a large but close group of friends so quickly, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of the short semester with these people.

Now for where I'm going. We've already made a weekend trip to Cologne, a larger city about an hour and some away, but I'll save that post for when we go back in February for Carnival. This weekend the Tauschies (their name for international students) all took a regional tour to Marksburg castle, a local brewery, and a German restaurant. Next weekend? Amsterdam. Stay tuned.

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Posted by jbolt 07:06 Archived in Germany Tagged beer germany friends school europe abroad rhine study Comments (0)

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