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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)

Life is Good in Barcelona

I had my toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world, a (fake) mojito in my hand. Life is good in Barcelona.

all seasons in one day 65 °F

My most recent trip to Barcelona came and went quickly. Just like the entire semester, it came upon me in the midst of so much else (other trips, work, studying) and then all of a sudden it was over. My short two day excursion to the beautiful Catalina was packed with too much fun and too little sleep.

I left on a late night flight Wednesday, and got to the city even later. Because my flight was delayed for an hour, I missed the last train into the city. I had to take a special night bus (which thankfully runs all night) and got to bed around 2:30. My hostel was centrally located, and I spent the extra few euros for a private room that made everything that much more comfortable. I brought my laptop to study, and I wasn't about to get that stolen a week before all my finals. Thursday morning early (not really, 11:30) I met my friend Nicole to explore a famous market called La Boqueria, which I'm sad to say I only got to see that one time. It was full to the brim with the freshest food in the city, from chocolate covered everything to fruit salads to fish that had to have been caught that morning. After begrudgingly doing a couple hours of studying, we started to explore what the city had to offer and headed towards the beach. What started out as a rainy day turned into hours of sun for us in the afternoon, and we happily soaked it up while drinking fake (actually--we got scammed) mojitos in the sand. In a weird mix of rain and sun we next climbed up to the city's World War II bunkers to watch the sunset with a lot of the city's young people. The 360 degree view did not disappoint, and the views from here were my favorite anywhere in the city that I went. These bunkers lie in a huge hill situated so that we were surrounded by city. Beyond this behind us were even higher mountains, and in front was the entire city, complete with the beach and the Mediterranean. It was vast and awe inspiring. I could have stayed up there my entire trip and been happy.

Fortunately there was a lot else to do. The following morning, again very early (12:45), we headed to the famous La Sagrada Familia, which has been under construction for almost 100 years. Still, the inside was worth the overpriced ticket: this famous Gaudi-designed cathedral was definitely unlike any cathedral I'd been in thus far in Europe. Although the church is incredibly monetized, I suppose the detail and intricacy on the inside and outside alike command the steep price--25 euro for the full package audioguide and museum pass. I opted for the budget 13 euro entrance fee. That afternoon, after one of the best authentic seafood meals I've ever had, we saw another of Gaudi's major works, the Parc Guell. This beautiful and hilly park offered yet another spectacular view, but I appreciated the designs and nature in the park more. You could walk through the plants, terraces, trees, and open spaces for hours, and we did just that. If you're lucky you can find a peaceful spot to sit and think while talented musicians serenade you with music to complete what can only be described as bliss to all five senses. After a good sandwich dinner on the go, we were just in time for a performance at the Magic Fountain of Montjuic. This huge fountain, built in 1929, "offers a spectacular performance of water acrobatics and lights which generate over 50 kinds of shades and hues." I had to look this up just now because I was utterly unprepared for how cool this show ended up being. I didn't even know it was a show until we got there and it entertained thousands of people for over an hour. The Barcelona nightlife made the 7:10am flight Saturday morning a bit more painful than necessary, but getting Chipotle in Frankfurt after landing was my prize. Trip complete.

I don't want my travels to end. I can't imagine not being able to wake up and decide to visit Barcelona, or Venice, or Anywhere, but that day is coming soon enough and I must return to the real world. Or maybe I can find a way to take some of this lifestyle, this sense of freedom and purpose, this thirst to explore and learn, back with me, wherever it is I go.

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Posted by jbolt 20:34 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona beach fountain spain gaudi europe montjuic sagrada familia magic catalina Comments (0)

The Beginning

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

35 °F

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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