The feeling of being home varies from day to day. Some days I feel so blessed to be back with my family and friends and in a place where I am comfortable. Other days I loathe the familiarity I feel because I am scared I will simply regress back into who I was before I went abroad and it will be like those five months were just a dream, another life. When I first came home it felt as if I went back in time. The streets of my neighborhood appeared to be glazed in sepia tone, like an old photograph exposed to the sun. I felt as if I was living in flashbacks. This was because although everything around me had stayed the same, I had changed so much since I was away.
It is an odd feeling to find everything exactly how you left it and it feels even weirder to know you have a completely different outlook on the world we inhabit now than you did the last time you laid on your bed. Your mind drifts to other places and realities you have experienced that no one else here can relate to. People ask how your trip was but don't necessarily care too much about your response. You want to talk for hours about your journey but instead just smile and say "it was great."
The thing I miss the most about studying abroad is the spontaneity of adventure and ease of going to new places. During my time in Ireland I could suddenly book a trip to Portugal, buy a plane ticket for 30-60 euro and be gone a few days later. The American culture does not coincide with a travel culture. We suffer through 9-5 jobs with only two weeks of vacation time and just assume that is how it is supposed to be. We often do not see past our own culture and look at other countries for inspiration in how to obtain a better quality of life.
It is easy to dwell on these things and cry over how much better things were while you were abroad but instead I choose to embrace the now. While abroad I always chose a positive outlook even when things were bad because I was so fortunate to be there I didn't want to waste a second of it being upset. Why don't we carry that mantra into our daily lives? Why don't we stop worrying and getting upset and simply appreciate how fortunate we are to be alive or to have a happy and healthy family? There are joys and adventures in our everyday lives that warrant celebration. And that is what studying abroad as taught me: perspective. Be thankful for the life you have been given but use your good fortune to help those in need. Find a job that challenges you. Although my bank account is surely saying I cannot travel again this summer, when I am camp counseling I am transported into a child's world. I am a shark chasing my kids in the pool or an under water scuba diver searching for rings. Imagination in our everyday lives can transport us the way travel does because we are opening our minds and in turn, our hearts. Maybe this is sounds like hippie mumbo jumbo to you but to me it sounds like a way to lead a happy and fulfilled life every single day.
Holland is a region in The Netherlands known for its beauty, serenity and incredible cheeses. Before arriving in The Netherlands I did not know much at all about Dutch Cuisine. During my time there I spent most of my meals attempting to eat as much cheese as possible. Gouda is my favorite and their most popular cheese, so I was one lucky gal! I also tried a mustard soup in Zaanse Schans that was surprisingly souper good!
Our first few days were spent in Amsterdam, a city that feels more like a quiet, peaceful town than it does a loud bustling city. I think that has a great deal to do with the sort of transportation the Dutch use. In Amsterdam, it is more common for someone to use a bike as their primary form of transportation than a car or tram. This creates a symphony of bike bells rather than car horns to score the sound of the city. Amsterdam is unlike any place I have seen before and when you are there, you feel as if time is somehow standing still.
Unfortunately, I was not able to see the Anne Frank house because you had to book tickets months in advance, a fact we were not aware of until a few days before our travel. Although I have been fortunate to have seen a lot in my travels, the Anne Frank house is what I regret not seeing the most. I have always been fascinated by Anne Frank, not only by her story but because of the person she was. I have read her diary multiple times and every time I am amazed by how wise she is at such a young age. She wanted to grow up to be a writer and have stories touch others and in death that goal was accomplished. I have always wondered if given an option, would Anne have chosen to grow old and live a mundane life or would she suffer a short life so that millions could be touched by her story? What which you choose: acclaim in death that helps millions comprehend a horrific period in time or a long, painless but unmemorable life? I can only hope that we all strive for somewhere in between: a fulfilled life spent making each day a bit brighter for those around you.
These were the thoughts that cluttered my mind as I wandered through this amazing city. I pictured Anne, locked away in hiding for two years while the world continued on without her.
(Anne Frank's House is the fourth house in from the left)
Now on to some more cheery stories. On our last day in Holland we went to a place called Zaanse Schans. Zaanse Schans literally translates to chocolate river and is nothing short of a fairy tale. The houses look like the real life version of gingerbread houses. Cute, tiny houses with white frosted trim juxtaposed with farm animals and old wind mills truly created a quaint, charming atmosphere.
Also the entire town smells like chocolate because there is a chocolate factory that makes the whole town smell like pure happiness.
Three girls one shoe?!? Now that's a clog!
Overall, my last abroad trip while studying abroad was a success. Of the 10 other countries I visited, no people were nicer than the Dutch. They are such a kind and welcoming people, anyone traveling there feels grateful to have met some of the nicest people in the world!
I enrolled in a dual academic/service learning program through my provider ISA. This meant that I spent my time in Ireland taking classes at NUIG while also volunteering in the community. My service learning placement for the semester was with the Irish Girl Guides. Aside from the lack of cookie selling, (bummer, I know) the Irish Girl Guides are the equivalent to the Girl Scouts of America. They earn badges for tasks and camp just like the Girl Scouts do.
I had the honor of working with three different age groups of Girl Guides and each was a new and exciting experience. The Ladybirds were the youngest and obviously most adorable. They ranged in age from about 5 to 7 and were always a delight to be around. I would walk into Ladybirds and suddenly be caught in an intense game of hide and seek in which I would of course always join in.
The Guides were the oldest group ranging from 10-13 and they were far less interested in games and would always want to know about my personal life or political views (both of which I side stepped and diverted as much as possible). My favorite time at Guides was when the girls put on an Irish heritage party where we ate traditional Irish food, learned to Irish dance and heard performances on the tin whistle. It was so great to see the girls showcase their culture and I loved every second of it.
The Brownies were the most near and dear to my heart because I spent so much time with them. The girls ranged from 7-10 and loved everyday at Girl Guides. One of the things that made my experience so enjoyable was my Guide Leaders Catherine and Caroline. Catherine can only be described as an angelic real life Fairy Godmother. She cares so deeply for the girls and is a ray of sunshine and positive energy. I was so fortunate to work with both her and Caroline as they are both so dedicated to the organization and would do anything for the girls.
At Brownies, I had the opportunity to run the Free Being Me badge. Free Being Me is a body positive, self confidence program designed to teach young girls to value their body for the amazing things it can do, not the way it looks. The girls were outraged when they learned about the photo shopping of models and celebrities in magazines. "But she looks great the way she is!" They would shout and anytime a girl would share something they were insecure about, the girls should rush to assure them of their worth and importance. I have never seen a group of girls more supportive of each other and I can only hope their comradery continues as they enter into secondary school. From doing Free Being Me I noticed that the way we talked to girls is often so appearance driven. I would catch myself calling a girl pretty instead of remarkable. I realized I should be complimenting these girls minds and not their outfits. This program taught me we need to take a look at how we women treat each other and foster the strength and independence we want to see in the girls of tomorrow.
I was so fortunate to have such an amazing Service Learning experience. I loved participating in Service Learning because it connected me to the community I was living in and gave me an active role in bettering its future. If you ever get the chance to participate in Service Learning or volunteering abroad, take it. You will learn so much more about the community and its needs as well as yourself and your own personal areas of growth.
I use the phrase "adventure" in quotation marks because adventure is a loaded word. Adventure, used in its most triumphant manner, means a daring and exciting excursion that is equally treacherous as it is awe inspiring. It is hiking up Manchu Picchu and watching the sunrise or wind gliding over the Mediterranean at dusk. If this is what adventure truly meant, than most of us have never had an adventure in our lives. Adventure to me is anything and everything outside of your comfort zone. It is that first step you take outside of your bubble of comfortability. It is the conscious decision to go against the grain and challenge the conformity in your everyday life. These adventures, if embarked upon, truly shape you who are. Neale Donald Walsch once said, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." Everyday that I have spent abroad reaffirms Walsch's words and although this journey has tested me, I wouldn't trade it for the world.
The thing with traveling is people only see the snapshots. They see the image at the summit and don't know of the difficulties you had rising to the pinnacle. See adventure is also a word used to make the mundane exciting. "Well, at least its an adventure" you say as you take two buses two trains and 21 hours to get to your destination because you missed your ferry (let's just say SNAV ferry and I are NOT on good terms). Adventure is watering down pasta sauce so you don't have to buy more or brushing your teeth in an airport bathroom. Because adventure is about the ups and downs, that's what makes it worth the ride. You eat the same meal for 6 days straight so you can afford to travel to new places and see sights that take your breath away. If I am overemphasizing on the downs of traveling it is only because I feel they are never talked about enough. If you are a broke college student traveling there are certain ordinary amenities that become luxuries. A good example would be washing machines. If you have access to a washing machine AND you don't have to pay you have hit the backpacking jackpot. A dryer in most of these countries is an actual luxury because most people hang dry their clothes instead so if you get your hands on a dryer life is pretty sweet.
I traveled for 23 days straight with just my Patagonia backpack and some awesome travel companions. We started in Lisbon, Portugal where we went to the beach, ate delicious pastries and enjoyed Fado, a style of traditional Portuguese music. We also visited Lisbon's old town Alfama which sits on a hill that overlooks the entire city. After Portugal we boarded a nine hour bus to Seville, Spain. In Seville we explored the Alcázar, the royal palace and gardens that looked like it was straight out of Game of Thrones and ate the most amazing tapas at this restaurant by our apartment. We also went to see a Flamenco show which did not disappoint. Flamenco is an art form native to the Andalusian region and our show incorporated singing, dancing and guitar.
Next stop was Barcelona where we danced our hearts out like the Cheetah Girls and ate overpriced paella. Then we flew to Pisa, Italy where we purposely took as many horribly centered Leaning Tower photos as we could muster before heading to Florence. In Florence we ate as much Tuscan cuisine as we could stomach and tried our hardest to find Duomo, the dome shaped famous cathedral. Despite its large stature, we spent a great deal of time walking towards many dome shaped buildings only to find it was not the correct one. Florence was a place that I had known I had wanted to go to when I studied because of something my brother told me about. There is a place called Piazzale Michelangelo that overlooks the entire city of Florence. People go up there around dusk and watch the sunset over the city. After my brother told me he did it I knew if I was ever in Florence, that it was a sight I simply had to see. So we hiked up the steps and the view was truly spectacular.
Then we headed to Venice which was far more touristy than its Tuscan neighbor but beautiful in its own respect. By the time we had gotten to Venice we were so tired of pizza and pasta we actually ate at a sushi place by our hostel twice to cleanse our pallets.
Next stop was Croatia, a tiny coastal country who only recently won their independence 20 years ago. Our first stay was in Split where we were greeted by our airbnb host Pero. Pero was a kind Croatian man who casually started sentences with phrases like "back in communist times.." and "during the war.." It wasn't until talking to Pero that we realized how recent Croatia's war for independence was and this newfangled freedom carried a great sense of pride for the Croatian people. Split is an incredible city with history as rich and old as Ancient Greece. The Diocletian palace sits in the center of the city and dates all the way back to the 4th century. I have never seen as structure as old as the palace and it truly was amazing to see something with such incredible history.
We also made the trek up Marjan Hill, a hill that I am thoroughly convinced is actually a full fledged mountain. At the top of the hill was a Croatian flag waving over the sights of the city as well as a cross atop the hill.
Our next and last stop was the city of Zadar. Zadar is a small, quiet city on the coast of Croatian that offers a nice relaxing vibe. On our last day in Croatia we visited Krka National Park. Krka National Park is home to some of the most stunning waterfalls in the world and the views were truly remarkable. While we were at the bottom of the falls we saw a man propose to his girlfriend! They did not speak our language so we simply applauded them as they passed and hoped they would have a bright and happy future.
And thus was the end of my backpacking trip. It had been a long 23 days and we were thankful to have landed back in Ireland. The amazing thing about traveling is, the more you do it the more places you want to go. You would think traveling for 23 days straight would make you sick of running to catch trains and find your way around new cities but only 7 days later, we were boarding yet another plane in search of another adventure, this time to Holland. I am so incredibly thankful that I was able to have these remarkable experiences and I will always remember the month I spent traveling around Europe with one backpack, four friends and an urge to see as much as I could.
As most people know, the weather in Ireland is less than stellar. Back in ancient times, the Irish used to worship the sun. It was seen so little, they assumed when it did show that it must be a divine gift of holiness. Despite the fact that most Irish are no longer Pagans, when the sun does shine in Galway everyone seems to stop and worship its beauty. A sunny warm day in Galway is unlike anything I have ever seen. Everyone from all walks of life come outside and soak up the sun. Men are shirtless working on their non existent tan despite the fact that it is only 60 degrees and women are out playing with their children in Eyre Square.
The best place to go when it is sunny is the Spanish Arch. The Spanish Arch is a 16th century arch that was built to protect merchant ships from looting. The arch was an extension to the 12th century wall that was built by the Normans when the Irish natives were removed from city center during their invasion. Nowadays, college students come to the Spanish Arch sit along the River Corrib and enjoy the weather.
One day in April, especially beautiful weather came to Galway and like clockwork the city came alive to celebrate. I had just gotten back from my 23 day long backpacking trip and was enjoying the feeling of my feet planted firmly on the ground and not on one mode of transportation or another. I had dressed up to go visit the Irish Girl Guides, where I did my service learning, to say a goodbye before I left a few weeks later. I was heading to breakfast at Riordans with my boyfriend when I ran into my friend Jill along the way. She told me she was going to jump off Blackrock in Salthill. Blackrock is a place at the end of the Salthill Promenade where there is a diving platform you can jump off which is about 30 feet high. Despite how terrifying it sounded, I had been dying to do it before I left Galway. I told her I would text her if I decided to go thinking I would unfortunately not have enough time to do that before Girl Guides. As I was sitting at breakfast I had to decide: do I jump into freezing cold water from an alarmingly high length and arrive soaking wet to Girl Guides or do I play it safe, keep my hair and makeup intact and look presentable?
After a few minutes of hemming and hawing I found myself overwhelmed with a beckoning to jump. Jump even if its stupid. Jump even if you're shivering all the way to Girl Guides. Jump even if you may regret it afterwards, but just jump. The next thing I knew I was in Pennys buying a swimsuit and towel, since I didn't have time to go back to my apartment, and heading to Salthill.
The walk was much much longer than I remembered and it felt as if we would never arrive. Once I finally got there I was greeted by my friends who were ready to take the plunge. The water was shallow so we weren't sure if we could jump off the high platform and as we were jumping off the lower platform, an Irish boy jumped right off the top and we knew we had to be next. The platform looked high from a far but once you got up and looked off the edge, the height seemed to double. How was I going to be able to jump? It was too high, I was too scared. But the thing is, everything in life that is truly worth doing is scary, falling in love, getting out of your comfort zone and taking risks all include taking a leap of faith with the hope that something catches you. What if I hadn't studied abroad because I was too afraid of the unknown? How many wonderful experience would I have missed if I had stayed on the platform?
It was my turn to jump. Everyone on the platform was counting me off. 3...2...1 and off I went. My heart willed my legs to move fast before my brain could tell them to stop and there I was, flying in the air into the Galway Bay. I was falling for quite some time and screamed louder as I realized I had not hit the water yet and to my relief, I was finally met with freezing cold water. All I could do was smile and laugh. I did it. I didn't think, I just jumped. There is a lot I have to be proud of this semester. All of the things I accomplished, the risks I took and the challenges I met could be encapsulated into that one giant leap into the Galway Bay.
Two years ago, my brother studied abroad in England and my family came to visit him. I was 18 and had barely traveled outside of New Jersey. In fact, that trip to England was my very first time on a plane. Needless to say I was very excited to visit my brother and leave the country for the first time. While we had a wonderful time in England, there was one discrepancy that seemed to complicate our trip. My brother who, god bless his soul, is often a bit forgetful, booked a trip to Paris with his friends on the weekend we would be visiting.
My parents were not exactly thrilled to find out that after traveling 3,000 miles they would only see their son for a few days before he left on his trip. While we were in London with him, I just kept thinking about how badly I wanted to come along with him and his friends. I wanted to ask if I could come but didn't want to intrude. After he left I regretted so much that I didn't say anything or tell anyone I wanted to go. The only way to keep myself from truly being devastated by this missed opportunity was to tell myself that I would go to Paris when I studied abroad.
This experience taught me a very important lesson: seize every opportunity you can to see the world or challenge yourself. Never pass up an experience if you have the means to say yes. Because by saying yes you are an active participant in life instead of an idle bystander. Every since I have gotten to Ireland I have said yes to as many opportunities as possible. Embrace the early wake up call or crappy airport food because every second of your journey is a gift. That being said, I do feel as if I need to preface that not every aspect of you travels will be exciting and glamorous but it is always worth it in the end.
Now back to Paris. So I was originally supposed to go to Killarney with a group of students in my program but the trip was cancelled because they weren't able to get enough students to go. A day or two later I was sitting with two of my other friends in a cafe on campus when we started talking about the cancelled trip and somehow Paris came up. The next thing we knew we were on our laptops booking flights to Paris for the weekend. I could not be more excited to finally go to the beautiful city I had missed out on two years earlier.
Paris held up to expectations. It was scenic and sophisticated and the rich history that surrounded us was absolutely incredible. We visited the Louvre and the Musee D'orsay, both of which we got into for free with our student ID cards and went inside Notre Dame. While all of these spots were amazing in their own respect, one of the places I enjoyed the most was somewhere far away from the tourist attractions, 20 meters below to be exact. My friends and I took a trip to the dark side when we visited the French Catacombs. The French Catacombs were originally built as an underground quarry but began being used as a burial for the dead when the cemeteries above ground posed a huge health problem and places to bury people was running slim. Over the course of 600 years, an estimated 6 million people have their remains in the Catacombs. When I heard we were going to the Catacombs I expected some dark underground stone tunnels and maybe spotting a few old bones but the sight I saw was literally jaw dropping. Femurs and heads are stacked making giant walls throughout the Catacombs to create a visual mausoleum (if you're thinking oh my god that sounds so creepy, you're completely right.) The Catacombs were haunting and astounding all at once. It is definitely a side of Paris majority of people don't see when they visit and despite the creepiness, it is worth a visit if you're there.
Okay so that's enough freaky stories for now. Now on to food. This was one of the things I was most excited for when I came to France and in a matter of two days, I ate my way through my Parisian bucket list. My most daring and adventurous meal was on my last night when I decided to try Escargot. When my meal arrived I stared, perplexed down the shell of the snail. How on earth was I going to eat this? I tried getting the snail out with my fork but to no avail. After fumbling for a few minutes my friend decided to consult google. It turns out you are supposed to have a snail fork which was a utensil I did not know existed until that exact moment. Once we asked our waiter for said snail fork I was off to the races. The Escargot was actually super delicious and my daring decision ended up paying off.
Throughout our trip my friends and I ran into a problem we had yet to face in the places we had visited so far: The Language Barrier. Our previous excursions had all been to English speaking countries and Paris was the first time we had to face the difficulty of the language barrier. Being in a non English speaking country makes you aware of how difficult it truly is to adjust to a new language. I would find myself accidentally ordering something completely in English without even realizing it. You don't realize how innate and instinctive language is until you are in a place where you are not meant to speak your native tongue. Being in France made me think of how fortunate I am to have my first language be so commonly used in other countries. Speaking English and having at least one person in a restaurant in almost any country be able to speak your language to you is a remarkable privilege. How many restaurants in America would be able to have someone help a customer in something other than English? Learning another language is hard so if you see someone struggling with English or accidentally speaking in say Spanish, be patient and kind to them. They are trying their hardest and should be commended for being bilingual.
The last thing I have to talk about is of course, the Eiffel Tower. Most monuments you see you look at and go "yeah that pretty much exactly how it looks in the pictures." The Eiffel Tower is one of the few monuments I have seen that pictures simply do not do justice. When the Eiffel Tower lights up at night it truly is magical. It is a place certainly worth seeing with your own eyes.
I have a rule that I never like to be up before the sun. I have broken that rule many times here in pursuit of wonderful destinations. This 5am wake up call was for Dingle, a tiny little town in the Southwest of Ireland, and as I groggily walked to the bus station, I hoped this trip would be worth it. We got on our tour bus and headed off. Our first stop was in Killarney, a cute Irish town filled with adorable shops and kind people. We found a pub called The Shire a Lord of the Rings themed bar which I can only describe as other worldly. I'm convinced that once we stepped into The Shire we truly did enter into another realm because the sights I was about to see were truly out of this world.
After Killarney we went to Inch Beach and I could not believe how excited I was to see the Atlantic Ocean again. I practically ran off the bus onto the sand and let the ocean breeze fill my lungs. I looked out to the sea and knew that my home was there on the other side. Standing on the shore reminded me of when I was looking out onto the Galway Bay beside a tribute to the Great Famine. I pictured my ancestors in that exact same spot looking out into the ocean before they set sail to America. My heritage has always felt so unknown and shrouded in what ifs. It was then that my ancestors felt like real tangible people, not some unimaginable past I could not comprehend. Being in Ireland has connected me to my lineage in ways I would not have imagined and I am so grateful for that.
Now back to the trip. We rode along until we were now on a tiny road with a mountainside on one end and a devastating plummet to the sea on the other. While this was as equally beautiful as it was terrifying, our next stop would make it all worth it. The bus driver stopped beside a sign that sign 'Hold a Baby Lamb' in which I replied, "Yes please!!" We went up to this family's farm and my dream of holding a lamb finally became a reality.
We then headed for Dingle Peninsula, a place I can only describe as breath taking. I could try to paint you a word picture but I'll just let this photo do the talking.
Our final stop was in the town of Dingle. Quaint and coastal, Dingle did not disappoint. We dined on fresh seafood and savored the last bit of homemade ice cream from Murphy's, content with the amazing day we had. On our way back to Galway, the most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen shot across the sky. Every color was vivid and it fully formed across the entire sky. We literally drove through the rainbow and I wanted to pinch myself because this all seemed too good to be true. For first time I actually saw the end of the rainbow and while there was no pot of gold, I felt remarkably rich.
I arrived at Newark airport filled with nerves and Ruby Tuesday's (a sort of 'last supper' with my parents before they sent me off). I had gotten there hours in advance due to my obsessive nature and my father's neurotic driving and now all there was to do was wait. Luckily, my friend Erin was there to accompany me in what was to be the longest 24 hours of our lives. Our flight arrived 20 minutes late, a detail we did not think much of until we landed in Scotland 6 hours later with only 15 minutes left to catch our connecting flight. We later learned that the gates to our connecting flight had closed before our plane had even landed but before that useful fact was known, we sprinted through the airport desperate to try and catch our flight. Our demise came when a cheerful Scottish Customs worker told us our flight had already left. He said this in such a cheery tone that it sounded as if he was going to part the Red Sea of people in front of us and get us an express pass to get on our flight. Once his words truly dawned on us, we were filled with dread. How on earth were we going to get to Ireland now?
We went to the customer service desk to find that the airline only makes that flight once a day from Scotland and that we were going to have to get a flight to Cork instead, four hours later. So we spent most of the day in an airport in Scotland waiting for what seemed like an eternity. After we landed in Cork we took a 4 hour bus to Galway and arrived around 10pm, a full 10 hours later than we were supposed to arrive. Despite all our misfortune and sleep deprivation, we made it out okay. Ireland seemed to be testing us in ways we could not have imagined and it was only day one. I am happy to say that I have yet to have a day worse than my arrival date. Having that experience showed me that not everything about studying abroad was going to be sunshine and butterflies but it most definitely will be a journey.