On July 12, I was jerked rudely back into reality after a month abroad. My amazing parents gave me the best graduation gift ever — a trip to Europe — and though I was fortunate to see and do a lot, I learned more than just history. Ttraveling forces you to adapt to unfamiliar situations and consider perspectives you never knew existed. I discovered so much from the constant moving, planning and communicating with people speaking different languages, and I was able to come away with a lesson from each country I visited and reasons why they will be useful in college and beyond.
Iceland: Master your willpower and overcome material urges.
You’re going to want to buy everything you see and go everywhere that’s recommended to you; recognize now that that isn’t possible. You don’t have enough money for that chocolate, those magnets and those mugs. Even if you did, it wouldn’t all fit in your suitcase — and how much room do you really have to store it all at home? And are you really ever going to wear that “I don’t speak Icelandic” shirt ever again? Try to be reasonable about what you really need and what will really be useful in the future. While thinking logically is difficult when you’re having so much fun, it’s a skill that is useful in every sort of situation, whether you’re packing for your first semester, picking classes or even deciding what your plans for the weekend will be.
France: Don’t rely on stereotypes, but don’t ignore them either.
You may have been told that French people are snobby, and I did experience some that were. Some of them pretended they cannot speak English and will nearly run you over in the street. But as in every situation, there is more to it than that. I met people who wanted to make my day, who were eager to hear what my plans were and who were happy to help me find my way. Usually, as long as you are courteous and friendly, people will reciprocate. This is true anywhere: Being kind is a gift that will always come back to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re making new friends at orientation or holding the door at the grocery store — be cautious, don’t put too much stock in rumors and don’t judge people before you know them.
Pay attention to cultural attitudes and adopt them. Natives can spot tourists from a mile away, and it’s not a difficult game. Not only are they usually clutching maps and toting cameras, but their shorts, t-shirts and sneakers stand out among the chic European styles. Try sun dresses, nice shirts and sandals instead. Likewise, phrases like “ciao” and “buon giorno” are common greetings, so return them, attempting the correct accent, instead of a half-hearted “hi.” And finally, take note of small things like street crossings: Italians, for example, refuse to cross the road if the “walk” signal isn’t showing. Maybe you don’t care about the snide looks you’ll get when you saunter toward the red hand, but you’ll certainly stand out less if you wait for the little walking figure. And while I’ll be the first to say that standing out is by no means a bad thing, it’s important to respect other cultures and traditions and at least attempt to abide by them.
Belgium: Venture off the beaten path and don’t go to that store right across the bridge.
The touristy locations are that way for a reason; they’re incredible. However, find the back roads and tiny shops, the sparsely populated ones that locals frequent, and you’ll find the true character of the city. Take the road less traveled, so to speak, and save money along the way. For example, don’t rush to the first store you see when you get to a new area, such as across the bridge or right out of the train station, because it’s always more expensive. The employees know that tourists will flock there and succumb to impulse buying, so it’s never where you’ll find the best deal. Instead, try to take it all in and round the corner before making any rash decisions. In life, these ideas show themselves in the concepts of forging your own path and thinking before you act. Don’t follow what everyone else does, and consider your options before diving headfirst into that attractive opportunity. There could be a better one just around the bend.
England: Write things down so you’ll remember.
No matter where you go or what you do, you’ll be overwhelmed. When you get home and your friends ask you what you did, you won’t be able to recant all of your shenanigans, much less in 15 years when you’re considering a return trip. Capture the adventures and the little moments by taking notes, saving quotes and journaling the day’s activities. While journaling does take time and dedication, later on, it will have been worth it to note just what you ate and the wonders you experienced. In this way, it is also important to appreciate the little moments and gestures of your everyday life.
The Netherlands: Don’t rely on your cell phone.
This one is hard. Really hard. But depending on your cell plan, you may not be able to use data abroad, and free Wi-Fi hotspots are few and far between. So bid your friends and (unless you’re careful) your Snapchat streaks adieu because there are days when the only time you can contact anyone is when you’re in your hotel room, and when you’re abroad, there are so many better things to do than sitting in your hotel room. Instead, get up, bring your phone for the camera, and find some adventures! But be careful with that camera — after all, what are you going to do with all those videos? They’re going to take up so much storage on your phone, but more than that, you have to live in the moment; don’t watch the houses rising over the canals through your camera, but rather, right in front of your eyes. They’re way cooler that way. Don’t just watch your life go by; go out and live it.
While I was incredibly lucky to be able to go on such adventures, they were about so much more than fun and good food. Through navigating the logistics and unfamiliarity of a whole new continent, I discovered more about life and myself than I expected, and I know these lessons are going to help me in the next adventure that is college and long past that as well.
Lead Image Credit: Thea Toocheck