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Study Abroad

Jumping the Rut

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you feel comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” -Clifton Fadiman

My second week in Spain, I decided to travel from Granada to Madrid to spend a few days with my cousin Kristina. (For those of you who have been reading for a while, you might remember Kristina as the friend who can run way faster than me and brought me to a ball in Washington D.C. one time.) Kristina has been kicking ass studying in Madrid since September, so she offered to lead me around the country’s capital for a weekend and give me a few hugs. (Two weeks into a semester in a new country with a new language and new people, I was really looking forward to the hugs.)

This was my first big travel adventure of the semester, and Kristina helped me plan the whole thing out. I had to wake up at 6:30 to be at the bus stop by my house at 7, where I’d take a city bus to the big Estación de Autobuses at the other end of town. Then I’d get on another bus to Madrid, and when I got to the city five hours later, I’d hop on the metro and get off at the Manuel Becerra stop to meet up with Kristina and head to her apartment. The plan seemed straightforward enough.

The night before I left, I had a dream that the bus to Madrid was leaving without me. The bus had a platform, like a train, and a woman with a short, no-nonsense haircut told me that my ticket wasn’t valid. The glass sliding doors of the bus-train began to close and it started to chug away. No! I was determined to get on that bus-train. Somehow I knew that if I didn’t make it on this one there would never be another way to get to Madrid, and then all of my hopes and dreams would be destroyed, and then I’d die. Not getting on the train was not an option.

In the dream, I took a few steps back, adjusted my backpack, and jumped the platform onto the moving bus-train as the doors were still closing. The woman with the no-nonsense haircut yelled something, and there was a big crash. In real life, I dove out of my bed and onto the cold tile floor. I woke up when I hit the ground, completely disoriented. Holy shit. Maybe I was more anxious about this trip than I realized.

The morning of my viaje, everything almost went smoothly. I forgot to pay when I boarded the city bus—probably the result of months of free bus rides with my UNH ID—and when the driver called me to the front to pay my 1.20€, I didn’t have any coins in my wallet. Turns out the bus only accepts coins. The driver told me to get off at the next stop, make change somewhere, and then get back on the next bus. At least I think that’s what he said. My Spanish was still pretty weak at the time.

So I hopped off the bus and found myself alone on a deserted street in the middle of a Spanish city. In late January, 7am Spanish time looks a lot like 4am American time. The sky was still dark. Absolutely nothing was open. I didn’t even know which street I was on. The bus left, and everything went eerily quiet. Holy crap holy crap holy crap, I thought, choosing a random direction to walk in. Alright, Hann, stay calm. Just find somewhere to make change. No big deal.

I found a 24-hour Pharmacy five or ten minutes later, and I knew it was open because its medical-cross sign blinked green above the door. Hallelujah! But even the 24-hour Pharmacy looked like it wasn’t into the 7am-wake-up-call, and there was a locked gate in front of the door. I rang the doorbell and shook the gate until the man in the white lab coat—I could see him in there, and I knew he could see me too, goddammit—took pity on me and came to ask what I wanted. I begged in sub-par Spanish for change. Cambio, por favor! He agreed to break my 20€ if I bought a pack of chicles. I have never been so happy to buy a pack of shitty strawberry gum.

I finally made it onto the city bus with change jangling in my pocket, and I was still early for my big bus ride to Madrid. Kristina and I found each other on the Spanish metro no problem. She gave me lots of hugs and fed me well and took me clubbing in the city to show me that I could. It was awesome. I had survived my first big adventure!

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Looking back, it’s hard to believe I was so nervous about that bus ride. I love using the Spanish bus system now. I know exactly how to order my ticket online (with PayPal, always with PayPal), I wake up excited for my trips, I chat with the older Spanish ladies in the seat next to me who want to visit New York someday. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that first trip to Madrid.

For the last couple weeks, it feels like I’ve been in a bit of a rut. I’m homesick, guys. I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming. I’ve been here for three and a half months. I’ve figured out the bus system and I’ve flown internationally by myself, twice. I can actually understand Spanish now (most of the time, at least). I thought I’d be at maximum comfort level by now—hitting my stride, watching the days fly by, maybe having a brief yet passionate love affair with a handsome local. I figured the last month of my study abroad experience would be exactly how study-abroad-veterans describe the whole semester: Amazing. Incredible. I would probably give my left arm to go back there.

Don’t get me wrong—so much of this semester has been amazing and incredible and worth giving a left arm for. But lately I’ve found myself wishing time away. I want to get back to my own bed and my own restaurants and my own language. I want to feel comfortable again. I feel homesick and then I feel guilty. How could I think those things when I’m lucky enough to be living in Spain and traveling every weekend? How could I want to go home when I know an adventure like this is probably never going to happen again?

I’m writing this because I have a lot of friends—both old and new—living study-abroad adventures right now. We’re spread out on different continents and eating different foods and speaking different languages, but from the conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks, it seems like a surprising number of us are feeling the same way. This is the final stretch. We’ve been uncomfortable for a long ass time. We’re close to going home, but not close enough to feel nostalgic quite yet. We might just be in a rut.

And friends, if any of you are reading this, it’s okay. It is okay. We can cry and laugh and get angry and anxious and homesick. We can stumble over our words even though we’ve been immersed in this culture for three and a half months, goddammit, and we’d hoped we’d be knock-your-socks-off-fluent by now. We can do this.

I often think of how I felt on that deserted street in late January. (I now know that the street was Camino de Ronda, and it is one of the largest and most centrally located calles in Granada.) It was terrifying, and I was pretty close to frantic, but underneath that fear there was something else too. Excitement. Courage. Adventure. Knowing that I was in charge of what came next. Feeling blind and unsure, but also confident that I could figure it out. I would figure it out. That’s the only option.

My family came to visit me in Granada this week. A piece of home came to me just when I was missing it most. (That same piece of home can’t really speak Spanish, tried to drive a rental car in world’s most un-driveable Spanish neighborhood, and locked a piece of luggage in that same rental car at the airport before their flight home, but those are all stories for another time.) Friends, I know most of you still have a few more weeks to go before your parents hug you too hard at the airport, but I think we can consider this our reset button. Today. Right now. These words, if they help.

There’s fear and anxiety and discomfort here, but there’s so much more, too. There’s the feeling that you get staring out at the sunset through your bus window, like you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. You can feel it growing giddy in your chest. This is it. I am here. This is the adventure. If you stretched out your hands, your fingertips could touch around the earth.

#hannahandjulieabroad

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Hiking in Monachil, Granada. My mom grimaced all the way across that rickety bridge. (She didn’t want to cross it at all, but we called her a chicken. Works every time.)

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We did some (legal) family drinking.

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“Hey guys, this is the two-way street we tried to drive the rental car through!”

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Mom, Dad, Sar, and Kissy – thanks for the week of adventures! Love you guys more than Milka.

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Study Abroad

Homeless in Rome (Kind Of)

I returned home yesterday from a two-week Eurotrip. It began in Cork then moved on to Granada in Spain, Berlin, Thessaloniki, Athens, some Greek islands, and Rome. This trip has been a long time coming; on orientation day, my first day in Cork, we were handed a schedule for the semester and told that we essentially had the entire month of April off. I turned to my roommates and none of us knew whether to be excited or a little horrified.

What are we going to do in April? was the question that loomed overhead all semester. As it got closer and plans started to form, our nervousness turned to excitement mixed with nervousness, then to frantic anticipation, and, right before we left, blind panic. April was wide open. It was 30 days of opportunity. A chance to travel, to experience, to do whatever we wanted, really, and it all depended on what we wanted to make happen.

And damnit, did we make things happen. By the end of the two weeks, we’d become masters of the skills that you need in order to tour Europe on a study-abroad budget. We nailed down how to fit all of our belongings into one lumpy, overstuffed backpack. Room was made for souvenirs and sneakers were stuffed with underwear, but we made it through five plane rides without having to check a bag.

There’s another aspect of travel that I didn’t anticipate before this semester: problem-solving.

Our April excursion was a trip, not a vacation. We dove headfirst into complex public transportation systems, and at one point we took the metro, to a bus, to a plane, to another bus, to a taxi, to our apartment. From the time I landed in Granada, most of my brain power was going towards wrapping my head around the things I was seeing, trying to be present and appreciative and finding things to say other than, “this is fucking crazy!” But a small, pessimistic corner of my mind was also waiting for something to go wrong. I figured I wouldn’t make it through the semester without at least one goof-up to work through. I tried to not let it scare me, but to look at it as something that would make me just a little more capable. IMG_6857  IMG_6791

Granada was a perfect world where you ate this for breakfast and nothing could go wrong. Thanks for a great few days, Hann!

Granada was a perfect world where you ate this for breakfast and nothing could go wrong. Thanks for a great few days, Hann!

And when we finally came face-to-face with our goof-up, everything was okay. The Greece leg of our trip was especially travel-intensive; we stayed for only two days in each city and squeezed in a one-day boat tour of some islands. The days had settled into the routine of about 12 hours of no wifi and no phones, then 20 to 30 minutes of wifi, if we found it, when everyone’s screens were practically glued to our faces between our eyes. Someone decided, by chance, to check our hostel reservations. They didn’t match the dates of our flights.

So basically, we were homeless in Athens for one night and had booked an extra night in Rome. We all leaped into problem-solving mode, booked the extra night for our Athens hostel, and emailed the Rome hostel explaining that we’d be a day late. The mysterious Rome hostel people never got back to us. No biggie.

Hostels are always a bit of a gamble. You never quite know who you’ll be sharing a bunk bed with or whether the person at the reception desk will speak English. But when we showed up to the address for our hostel in Rome, we found ourselves looking at the door to an apartment building. No reception, just a buzzer for our room number. We looked at each other, shrugged, and buzzed. Then buzzed again. But there was no answer.

It was 2 p.m. and we were homeless in Rome. After fifteen minutes of hovering by the door we crossed the street to buy some food from a stand and make a plan. When we noticed someone walking into our building, Matt sprinted across the street to hold the door for us, so now we were at least inside. We knocked on our door, on neighbors doors, and had a few strained conversations with locals who spoke little English. Erin and Shannon got stuck in an old-timey elevator that looked like a pulley, and their screams of terror echoed down the stairwell from the top floor. A kind older woman helped them to pull the emergency lever to get the door open, but because of the language barrier they were both sure that pulling the lever would release the elevator and send them plunging to their deaths. We decided to make our escape once Erin and Shannon were free and the lady realized that the elevator was broken and it was now her problem.

So our first few hours of real “problem solving” consisted of barging into a private apartment building and making nuisances of ourselves. But as we rushed out the door, we ran into a scowling man in a leather jacket. He sized us up, six flustered American kids in sneakers and backpacks, and asked, “hostel?” He spoke little to no English, and he was pissed. He spoke to us long enough to let us know that he’d been waiting for us all day yesterday, despite our email. We followed him around the corner to a different apartment like scolded elementary school children, wincing at his short responses to our apologies and shrugging at each other.

But in the end, all that mattered was that we weren’t homeless in Rome. In especially trying situations, I like to say hey guys, it could be worse. We could be on fire! in an attempt to lighten the mood. It works to varying degrees of success. After our third time trying to call the hostel, Shannon turned and said it to me. That was when I knew that we could make it through anything, probably.

We bought slushies outside the Acropolis, but they don’t tell you that you’re not allowed to take drinks inside so we huddled together and chugged them by the entrance, stomping our feet and making brain-freeze faces. We tied sweaters around our waists to cover our knees in the Vatican. My flight to Berlin almost got cancelled because France decided to be all difficult and call in an air control strike so planes couldn’t fly over it. (Really, France?) But we also jumped into the sparkling blue Mediterranean, ate pesto in Italy, and did handstands in the park next to the track where chariot races were held in ancient Rome.

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Met up with pals in Berlin, which is a magical place where you can drink openly on the subway.

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Bein’ Olympians at the site of an original Olympic stadium

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We got lazy and spent our last day in Rome goofing around in a park and eating gelato.

Now I’m two weeks older and feeling a little more capable. I’ve made it through the hoops of security and customs at five more airports, and seen six more cities. I’m both bummed and relieved that it’s over, and so thankful that it all happened.

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Study Abroad

Together! In Europe!

Before this semester, Jules and I had never really been apart. There have been week-long stretches when one of us is on vacation, and over Christmas break I go skiing and she doesn’t. Even those hiatuses feel long. (After a weekend at home last semester, we group-hugged with our friends/soulmates Meg and Andie in the dining hall like we’d all just gotten home from war. That much love.)

But this was different. We hadn’t seen each other in three months. As I boarded my flight to Cork, I felt like I was about to be united with a long lost lover, only happier, because there wasn’t any anxiety about whether the sex was still going to be good or not.

(I knew the sex was going to be good.)

(Just kidding. Totally set myself up for that one, though. Had to.)

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I caught a glimpse of reddish hair and long limbs across the arrivals terminal, and then she was standing up and running towards me, and I was running towards her as fast as I could while also wheeling a suitcase that I bought for 12€, and then we hugged for a pretty long time. I almost cried. She almost cried. We both pretended like we weren’t almost crying and walked out of the airport—can you believe this is real? I can’t believe this is real—to find a cab.

When we got back to Julie’s apartment, I was hugged by every single one of her friends and handed a bottle of Apple Tree Cider. “This tastes like hangovers,” Jules said, “but it’s our cheapest option.” We played some very creative drinking games and ate a lot of Reese’s. (Shout out to Erin, Jen, Shannon, Matt, Zach, and Tobin: You guys rock! Thanks for being so damn friendly and good at improv.)

Jules and I eventually squeezed into her tiny, uneven, spring-covered bed. It was outrageously uncomfortable, and I felt more at home than I had in months.

The next day we did some parading around Cork.

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Then we did some parading around Cohb (pronounced “Cove”).

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Back in Cork, Jules cooked me dinner! With vegetables! (I was excited about the dinner, but even more excited about future dinners now that my roommate knows how to cook things with pesto.)

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After dinner, we went to a little bar in town with Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. It was mostly old Irish men and us, and the hand dryer in the bathroom didn’t work. We were feverishly happy. We got to catch up—something totally foreign to us. There were all these things that we’d seen and done without each other, all this newness we had to recount. We talked about new things and old things and Europe and kindergarten and home. (And boys. When I said Europe, I really meant boys.) I drank cider and Jules drank Irish beer and made fun of me for drinking cider, and then we went home.

Posing with Jules' beer

Posing with Jules’ beer

Our last full day in Ireland, we took a bus through the Irish countryside to see the Cliffs of Moher. They were breathtaking. Jules kept trying to get as close to the edge as she possibly could, and every time she moved I had a small heart attack as I pictured her tumbling to her rocky, sea-soaked death. I mean, I love heights as much as the next guy, but people have literally died there. There are signs.

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We ran around and took a lot of giddy pictures of each other.

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IMG_4835 Jules threw this apple core off the cliff a few minutes later.

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We spit and watched our lugies drift down towards the water. (They took forever. It was awesome.)

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The day was magical. The whole week was magical. We were together in Europe. We hawked lugies and listened to Frank Turner. Part of me is still convinced it was a fever dream.

We headed to Granada the next day, but I promised I’d let Jules tell that part of the story. She’s currently in a hostel bunk bed in Athens, but she typed an impressively coherent mini-post on her iPhone that she’d like me to share next.

I picked Hannah up on Wednesday night and we might have had the most dramatic reunion ever at the airport. We spoke to each other at about 1.5x speed for the next three days, making up for lost time. We averaged two philosophical life discussions a day, and whispered a lot about God in a cathedral in Cobh. It was a religious experience, you could say.

We blinked, basically, and it was time for Spain.

You guys, I love Granada. I love the food, the cafés with orange-tree-lined patios, and the mountains peeking between all the buildings from the distance. I will always remember this city as the utopian dreamland where I spent three days, largely because I spent them with Hann.

The entire trip felt a little like I was in an alternate universe because for once, Hannah knew where she was going. I somehow let go of my knee-jerk reaction to question her navigational abilities, and I let her lead me through the shaded streets of Granada. Hannah had PLANS. She knew where we had to be, when we had to get there, and even the most efficient routes to take! It was a bizarre and relaxing experience.

She planned the trip wisely, because every place we saw only got more and more beautiful. We took a bus into Granada at night, and I marveled at the dark outlines of distant mountains. I turned to Hann with wide eyes and all she said was, “Dude, this is nothing.”

She was right. Granada in daylight is magical, featuring plazas with more trees in full bloom than you thought could ever exist in one place. Our first day we blitzed the city, and every stop was better than the last. Cathedrals, ancient tombs, palaces and beer that comes with free food. The best part was the company, though.

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Since I left Granada I’ve made stops in Thessaloniki and Athens, Greece, and we head to Rome on Wednesday! So I’ll be back the week after next (I think? I’m not sure what day it is, to be honest) with a more coherent post. But for this week I’ll leave you in Hannah’s capable hands.

So there you have it, folks. Life is better with friends who understand how terrible you are with directions.

A big thanks to our families, old friends, and new friends for making this experience what it is. Only a month and a half of study abroad adventures to go. We’re ready to keep exploring. #hannahandjulieabroad

 

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Study Abroad

On Being Wrong

I chose the enormous picture at the top of this page because it sums up a pretty big portion of how my friends and I have been spending this semester:

Being huge idiots and sticking out like sore thumbs.

Recently, Hannah and I realized something cool about our time in Europe. For five months of our lives, we get to be the minority. Not in all ways, but in some. When I speak, I’m the one with the accent. I’m the one who fumbles with euro coins in line at the supermarket. I’m the one who wears rain boots when it rains, even though no one else really does. I’m the one who gets excited about mundane things, and people smirk at my gasps and wide-eyed proclamations of, “this is awesome!” everywhere we go.

I’ve learned how to be an outsider. For a while I found myself keeping my head down, cringing at myself for wearing rain boots every day. I don’t speak like the people here, I don’t dress like them, and I found myself fumbling through social customs and interactions during my first month. At first it made me uncomfortable. I felt big and loud and intimidated, even though I received patience and kindness from the people around whom I mess up.

After a while, though, I got comfortable with being an outsider. This is due in large part to the fact that I was never really treated like one, I only thought of myself that way, but also because I got good at it. Hann was experiencing something similar in Spain, only she was grappling with the challenges of not being able to articulate herself in Spanish, which is even more nuts. We were talking about how we felt so embarrassingly American when I said, “But, Hann, we are American.” There was no use trying to deny that. It’s not like we could just close our eyes and spontaneously become cultured Europeans who were fluent in three languages. We realized that we were wasting our time trying to assimilate so well into this culture that we were almost missing out on it.

So I started to fight back the cringe that crept up my spine when someone smirked at something I said. I began to appreciate the advice given to me by friends who are from here. Eventually I didn’t wait until I was corrected for doing the wrong thing, I’d walk up to the nearest local and ask. My roommate Jen is probably one of the most enthusiastic and positive people I’ve ever met, and people have taken to imitating the way she says, “wooow!” whenever she gets excited. She never masks her enthusiasm, so I decided that neither would I. I’ve been walking the streets of Cork for three months now, and I still walk with my face tilted up toward the sky, taking it all in.

I hope that I’ve never been a proud or arrogant person, but this semester has allowed me to experience first-hand the different lives that people around the world are living, and it’ been a lot to wrap my head around. When you’ve never left your cultural bubble, it’s hard to imagine that there are people out there who’s perspective and experience has been so totally different from yours. You’ve never gotten to ask their opinions or hear their languages or taste their foods. Living abroad means that you get to inhabit a different perspective, you get to walk the cobblestone streets of a country of people who grew up a world away from you. It’s been a privilege to be an outsider, a privilege to be wrong.

I won’t lie to you guys, I sort of stole this idea from Hannah. But she’s in Amsterdam right now and I was scrambling for a topic today. (So this is happening, Hann. Sorry.) She mentioned to me a few weeks ago how she’s learned how to be wrong. How to be okay with the fact that she speaks in broken Spanish and can’t always say what’s on her mind as eloquently as at home. We’ve both gotten good at not knowing how things work sometimes. We’re masters of receiving corrections graciously and realizing we’re talking loudly in public places. We’re professionals at being wrong.

(Below are pictures of us actively not blending in.)

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So much fun!

So much fun!

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Marginally less fun

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Study Abroad

Feminist Girl in Spain

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” –Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl

Today my story looks like this: I heard “Going Down For Real” by Flo Rida in my favorite café over breakfast and danced a little in my chair as I ate my toasted bread with olive oil. (That song will never not be awesome, especially in Spanish cafes.) I got caught in a rainstorm on my way to class and my little black umbrella almost turned inside out. When I got home with wet shoes and tried to plug in my computer, my charger died. I tracked down an Apple store nearby and almost cried at how much my new cargador cost. I got home and Skyped my mom, Skyped Julie. Actually cried. Laughed a lot more and then ate some chocolate. And now I’m here.

Lena Dunham has been in my head a lot lately. I’ve been ripping through her new memoir even faster than I ripped through Season 3 of House of Cards. (Only 13 episodes? What the fuck, Netflix?) If you don’t know who Lena Dunham is and you’re into genius character development/graphic nudity, you should check out her HBO show Girls. Her writing is honest, irreverent, witty, and graphically sexual. Lots of what she has to say makes me uncomfortable. Lots of what she has to say makes me think.

Take the term “girl crush,” for example. I’ve used those words in casual conversation too many times to count, mostly in association with Emma Watson/Emma Stone/Jennifer Lawrence, aka the holy trifecta. I’ve watched that Jenna Marbles video a lot of times. (“I don’t know if I want to be you or be on you!”) Here’s what Lena has to say on the topic:

“I find the term ‘girl crush’ slightly homophobic, as if I need to make it clear that my crush on another woman is not at all sexual, but rather, mild and adorable, much like…a girl.”

Whoa. The nod to homophobia felt accurate, but it was the bigger context of Lena’s observation that struck me most. Mild and adorable. So much was wrapped up in those two words. I had to put the book down for a second.

Girls are expected to be mild and adorable. If we’re not, we get called names. Bossy. Bitch. Slut. How much of my life has been shaped by the expectation of me to be inoffensive, like a girl? How many times have I apologized for asking a question in class? How many times have I swallowed my anger instead of lashing out for fear of looking “crazy”? (If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to discount a girl’s rationale and intellect, just call her crazy the next time she angry-cries.)

Here, I’d like to include a note from Julie (via Microsoft Word bubble comment on an early draft of this post): “It’d be totally cool if you could add another sentence here about how dumb it is that when we’re talking about something and we’re impassioned or upset and someone calls us crazy, we feel crazy. Like crawl-under-a-rock-never-speak-in-public-again-stupid. And all you have to do is tell us to calm down and whatever it was we were saying, no matter how cool or important or right or wrong, it vanishes. It doesn’t matter anymore because we were just being crazy.” She put it way better than I could.

Just now I noticed my voice go up an octave as I thanked my host mom for dinner. Mild and adorable. Do my guy friends have a “thank you” voice? Do they hide their feelings so people don’t accuse them of being crazy? I’m honestly not sure.

The depth of the things I’ve never noticed is hard to wrap my head around. I still don’t always know what to believe or think, but when I find a writer that makes my world feel like it’s expanding and shrinking at the same time and forces me to question my place in it, I feel the need to write about her on the Internet.

So Lena Dunham has been in my head, and she has me thinking about my own story, which might just be the most powerful thing an author can do. I’ve always felt like I have a critically-acclaimed memoir living in me somewhere. (I have this little daydream where Julie and I write a witty nonfiction book together and build a Hannah & Julie empire, complete with fancy pens, signature scents, and a movie deal featuring all three members of the holy trifecta.) But there are a few things about memoir-writing that make me a little nervous.

Names. In nonfiction, changing a character’s name and certain physical characteristics is usually enough to avoid accusations of being a slanderer or a total asshole. It’s not that I have bad stuff to say about a lot of people, but I do have a lot of stuff to say about a lot of people. If I give my friend Pete a mustache and name him Jack, everyone I know is still going to know that it’s fucking Pete. Not sure I’m ready for that kind of transparency.

Interesting-ness. Of course by the time I get around to writing my memoir I’ll have published a few (beloved, imaginative, wildly successful) novels and maybe pushed out a kid or two, but I’m really not sure if I’ll ever do anything memoir-worthy. I don’t plan on hiking the Appalachian Trail by myself or getting pinned by a rock and having to cut off my own arm to survive. I’m way too anxious to try any hard drugs, so the Strung Out Druggie Turned Successful Lawyer/Author/Surgeon story isn’t too likely. I’m not saying I need a gimmick, but I’m probably going to have to be pretty witty to compete with all those other ones.

Boys. Taking the fear of transparency a bit further, I sometimes wonder what would happen when it came time to write the chapters about boys. I’ve only officially dated one—we were fourteen, we made pizza together once—but I have some great ass stories to tell. From a storytelling perspective, the only thing more interesting than dating someone is not actually dating someone. More confusion, more suspense, more hang-outs that you think might be dates but really turn out to be platonic viewings of Dutch movies about trolls. The idea of one of my ex-flings picking up my future memoir and finding himself in some chapter—with a fake mustache, probably—makes me just a little bit nauseous.

Maybe I’ll get my memoir book-deal one day, maybe I won’t. But I think it’s important to know that I have a story to tell, even if it’s just to myself.

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“American Girl in Italy 1951.” This picture has been hanging on the wall at my house for as long as I can remember. I have no idea who bought it.

I know I wandered a bit from the #hannahandjulieabroad theme this week, but don’t worry, there’s plenty more to come. In the meantime, feel free to enjoy this historical re-enactment of bulls and matadors fighting in La Plaza de Toros in Ronda, Spain.

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No bulls were harmed in the making of this montage.

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Study Abroad

It’s All About The People

The bond formed between people who’ve been plopped into a foreign country where they don’t know a single soul is pretty unique to the study abroad experience, and it’s the stuff of fairy tales. Allow me to explain.

So it’s a Wednesday like any other, no big deal. Except for the fact that you’ve just been traveling for 20 hours, you’ve only slept for about three of those hours, and all you’ve eaten is half a granola bar. You’re looking out the window of your taxi and trying to comprehend that all of the buildings and fields that you’re seeing are in a different country, that you’re in a different country. You arrive at your home for the next five months, a building you’ve never seen before, you’re handed a key, and shown to your apartment. You struggle to figure out how to unlock the door while keeping your suitcase from falling over. You can hear voices on the other side of the wall. The lock clicks and you push open the door, heart racing.

These are the people you’ve been wondering about for the past six months, the elusive people who you knew you’d be living with, but were unable to find any information on. Would they be American, Irish, or from another country entirely? Would they speak English? Would they be future lifelong friends? These were the most common questions I fielded from curious family members, and the ones that rattled around in my mind for months before I left, unanswered. As I walked down the narrow hallway of my apartment towards my new people, I thought I might keel over from the anticipation.

There were four girls perched on couches and chairs in our kitchen/living room, speaking in American accents. Their names were Jen, Erin, Shannon, and Liz, and they were as excited/freaked out by my presence as I was by theirs. Finally, the curtain was pulled back and the enigma revealed.

Now plenty of situations bring people together. There’s the commiseration of waiting in a long and drudgerous line at the post office when you really have to pee. (Especially if you both have to pee.) There’s the inexplicable joy of seeing someone you kind of know in a place you never think you’d see them. (In an airport, at the top of a mountain, in a public bathroom in Europe.)

Then there’s the study abroad experience. The people you meet here are the ones you rely on when you’re starting over. They’re the people standing next to you as you build a life for yourself in a brand-new place. They’re the people you wake up at 4 a.m. with to travel, the same people you stayed out until 2a.m. with the night before.

I had a few moments recently when I told myself that I’d gotten pretty lucky with my people. One was our Tuesday excursion to London to see one of my favorite bands.

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We’d gotten up at four in the morning for our flight, and once our feet touched the ground in London, we were going nonstop. We posed with Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Winston Churchill (and friends.)

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Look, Ma!

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We all thought this was a great idea.

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We imitated statues, to varying degrees of success.

One of our last stops before checking into the hostel at 3p.m. was Westminster Abbey. At this point we’d been awake and wearing backpacks for almost 12 hours, and a little part of me wanted to die. At least, my body did. My brain was too transfixed with what I was seeing to be anything but awe-struck.

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I looked around and my roommates had similar hang-dog expressions on, but when I caught their eyes, they smiled and gave me the same this-is-awesome-I-can’t believe-we’re here face. When I asked the questions, do you guys want to fly to London on a Tuesday? At 6a.m.? To see a band I’m forcing you to listen to? I could only hope for a yes, and immediately, I got it. They followed me across the English Channel, all around London, and even into Westminster Abbey, (a detour I pushed hard for.) And even when we got there, they were just as willing to make the most of every minute, despite exhaustion. That day didn’t end until midnight, after the concert, and they laughed with me for all 18 hours of it. IMG_5444  

The second time was during our Ring of Kerry weekend, which was basically three days of beautiful Irish landscapes, cliffs, mountains, waterfalls, and baby sheep.

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Saturday night was both my roommate Shannon’s birthday, and my friend Bridget’s. We walked out of our hotel towards town in Cahersiveen, Country Kerry in search of birthday debauchery. We didn’t realize how small this town was until we got to the main street and realized that little to nothing was going on, but soon found a small pub with live traditional music. Within five minutes of our arrival, the man singing was taking our requests, and we were dancing with the locals. The average age of this pub was about 70, and the dancing was closer to ballroom style than anything we were used to. But we were welcomed like old friends, and we laughed into each other’s shoulders the whole time.

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“We just danced with old-ass Irish ladies and it was pretty fun.” -Matt.

That weekend we were the first ones to the top of the mountain and the last ones to get back to the bus, every time. There were a few times each day that I felt lucky to be with people who knew how to make the most of standing on a rainy, windy mountain and dancing with elderly people on clumsy feet. Jen, Erin, Shannon, Matt, Tobin, and Zach, this one’s for you guys. #hannahandjulieabroad.

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Study Abroad

My Body Hurts and This Place is Awesome

Hannah (8:44 am): Running on 3 hours of sleep, about to go tour all day and train home again tonight

Hannah (8:45 am): Might die

Julie (8:46 am): That sounds like the study abroad experience in a nutshell

Julie (8:46 am): PUSH THROUGH YOU GOT THIS

Before I came abroad, I had a lot of poetic notions about traveling through Europe. You eat chocolate croissants on cobblestone streets and listen to the strange music of new languages and discover tiny restaurants with strong wine and warm bread. You get to see the world through new eyes. I mean, just google “travel quotes.” You’ll see what I mean.

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Nothing like some white words against a mountain backdrop to make you want to get up and flee the country, am I right?

I love a good “not all those who wander are lost” graphic just as much as the next guy, but I think there’s an important aspect of traveling that so far has not made it into any inspirational quotes: Your body will be supremely uncomfortable 60-75% of the time. (I’m not sure what that would look like in white cursive against a mountain, but it’d probably be less poetic than those other ones.)

My program took an absolutely fantastic trip to Barcelona this weekend. All fifteen of us—sixteen including our program coordinator—piled onto a train at the Granada Train Station at 9:30pm on Thursday night. Then we sat on that train for eleven hours, arrived in Barcelona at around 8:45am, and tried to go about our days like normal human beings.

The thing you should know about overnight trains is that they are the worst. If you pay extra you can get a claustrophobic little bunk or a seat that reclines all the way down with big cushions. We study abroad students were unwilling to pay for either of those things, so we were in the “coach” class with the rest of the peasants. (Guaranteed we had more fun than those bastards in first class, anyways. I was kind of hoping for a lively dance scene like in Titanic, but everyone in our car mostly just slept.) It was like being on a bus, if that bus had lighting like an abandoned mental hospital and drove for eleven hours straight.

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It’s a testament to how awesome all the people in my program are that I can say I actually had fun on that damn train. Not the whole time—part of the time was just as miserable as it sounds—but we found the dining cart and ordered a few beers and played card games and ate Pringles. Six or seven or eight hours later, we were in Barcelona.

Thoughts While Exploring a Foreign City Immediately After 12 Hours on a Train:

  • Holy crap, this is great, I feel great. Somebody sign me up for an Iron Man or something.
  • This city has all the things! Cathedrals! More cathedrals! I love traveling!
  • Hm, I’m a little tired. I guess that’s to be expected.
  • Damn, my feet hurt.
  • How long have we been walking? An hour? Seven?
  • You’re telling me we’ve been walking for ten minutes? And we can’t check into the hostel for another THREE HOURS?
  • Alright, coffee. Coffee coffee coffee.
  • My body feels a little tingly. Am I drunk?
  • Okay I’m definitely not drunk. The ground might be moving though.
  • Only another 16-17 hours until I can go to bed. Solid.

Your face gets hot, your legs get heavy, and you almost definitely can’t poop after twelve hours of snacking on train cafeteria food. But none of that really matters.

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View from our 8-person hostel suite

When traveling, my body is the least of my worries. It’s really just this vehicle that I have to keep alive in order to see what I want to see. Drink water, wear comfortable shoes, eat enough gelato to stay full until dinner. We took an overnight train both ways and still had a fricken awesome weekend. Barcelona didn’t stand a chance.

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We took a bus to Montserrat and saw some amazing views. Hunter noticed I had a camera.

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Elora and I tamed a lion at the Columbus Monument.

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This one's for you, Jules!

This one’s for you, Jules!

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Elora pointed out how much the stadium where FC Barcelona played reminded her of the Quidditch World Cup, I couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the game.

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So yes, physical discomfort is a huge part of traveling on a budget. But honestly, being a little at war with your body sometimes doesn’t take away from the travel experience. If anything, I think it adds to it. The exhaustion reminds you how far your body’s moved. The ache in your legs reminds you how many steps you’ve taken through a new city. The indigestion reminds you that you should really pack a few more fruits and vegetables the next time you get on an overnight train.

It’s better than white cursive over a blue mountain range. It’s the real thing. #hannahandjulieabroad

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