Back in 2003, I spent a semester studying in Florence, Italy (How to Get Hot Italian Girls’ Attention 101,) and traversing all across Europe on the weekends. I hit various towns in Italy, along with the Vatican, Paris, Vienna, Brussels, Zurich, and Geneva. Though my favorite destination was probably the airport in Frankfurt Germany, where I was stranded for close to 10 hours because I missed my flight and nobody could be bothered with getting me on another one.
In addition to whatever crap my teachers were telling me, I learned a lot about how traveling abroad for a long period of time works. Things nobody bothered to tell me beforehand. Such as:
You’re a Political Ambassador, Even if You Hate Politics
I’m not really a political guy. I certainly have my opinions, but they largely boil down to “if you’re a politician, I probably think you suck eggs.” As it turns out, that’s not good enough when you’re an American abroad. I needed to know exactly how the locals felt about my leaders, who value my opinions so much they left me worried voicemails about them at 4 in the morning.
I remember hanging with a bunch of Italian dudes, drinking cheap wine outside my school at 1 in the afternoon (in other words, a typical study buddy session). The topic of U.S. politics came up, and they made damn sure to let me know how much they hated George W. Bush. Spoiler alert: they hated him so, so much.
In fact, one of them even gave me his Top 3 list of most evil people in the world: Number 1, Bush. Number 2, Osama bin laden. Number 3, Saddam Hussein. Why CBS hasn’t hired this guy to write lists for every site they own, I’ll never understand.
Even as a wide-eyed college kid who despised Bush because he couldn’t play the saxophone and kinda looked like Bubbles the Chimp, I knew this was asinine. But more importantly, I didn’t care. I never hinted that I cared. But because I was American, I was now the main ambassador for my country.
As beautiful as Europe is, I’m glad those days are over. Speaking on behalf of 300 million people is quite the heady responsibility.
However Much Money You Saved, It Isn’t Enough
I had a fair bit of money saved up before leaving New York, but I was wholly unprepared for just HOW much money I needed, which was naturally far more than I had. Plus, it would’ve been nice for somebody to suggest I purchase Eurail train passes (the international train line of Europe) while still in America. I lost several hundred bucks as a result of buying the damn things while in Italy. But what fun is it giving people useful advice, honestly? If they truly cared about their lives, they’d become psychics and figure everything out on their own before age 10, like all rich and successful people did.
Also, while still in America, the dollar-to-euro exchange rate was just about 1-for-1, and dumbass me had no reason to assume it would change in just a couple months. I was right; it changed in a couple WEEKS, shortly after Mr. Bush all but told the UN to go screw because nobody wanted to blow up Iraq with him. By the time I had a chance to convert all of my remaining dough to Euros, the exchange rate had dipped to one dollar for maybe .75 European. Buh-bye hundreds of more dollars.
And then there was the time my girlfriend and I took a trip to England, Scotland, and Ireland for the college break. We planned to spend some time in Paris, and then take the Chunnel over. We had hostels booked and everything – it was going to be grand, romantic, and romantically grand.
However, we failed to consider how every other college kid on the freakin’ Continent had the same idea, since we were all on break at the same damn time. The Chunnel was booked solid, and we had no time to book alternate arrangements. Buh-bye MORE hundreds of dollars.
Luckily, Italy was hosting a little thing called the Perugia Chocolate Festival, so we hung around there instead because fancy European chocolate heals all wounds. Well, except for the financial wounds. Those were still pretty damn raw.
Everyone Wants to Speak English with You, Even if You Don’t Want Them to
I was required to take Italian as one of my classes (though not required to learn anything, hence my mastery of maybe four words the entire time,) and was encouraged to speak it as much as possible with the natives to for practice.
This … did not happen. See, the thing about being fluent in the most dominant language on Earth is everybody wants to speak THAT language with you, so THEY could practice it. So you see the conflict of interest here. But I could also see their point; after all, their learning English could help them land good jobs and advance in life, while my learning Italian would only help me land girls and finally figure out what Mario’s been saying all this time. Did you know “itsa me” is Italian for “it’s me?” You do now!
So it came to pass where, just about every time I spoke Italian to an Italian, I would get English back. So much for practicing the language (not that I was doing that much on my own anyway.)
On the plus side, I finally learned how to truly pronounce my name. If you actually paid attention to who’s writing this piece, you might have noticed my last name’s a tad, well, goofy. Nobody can pronounce it properly, which up until my Italy trek, was a nasally eye-uh-no-knee. But to Italians, my name is a beautiful, melodious yuh-known. It’s so much nicer. Too bad I can’t realistically pronounce it like that here without somebody socking me right in my pretentious jaw.
It is Depressingly Possible to do Nothing Foreign in a Foreign Country
Sadly, not everyone who visits another country wants to leave their culture behind, even for a second. Luckily, thanks to massive American influence, and every part of the world being electronically connected these days, you can absolutely fly halfway round the world and spend a day like this one:
Wake up in a Hilton, get in your rented Ford Focus, drive to McDonald’s for breakfast, drive to Walmart and shop for Wrangler Jeans and Vans shoes, drive to the nearest Subway for lunch, take in a replica of the Statue Of Liberty, stop for dinner at Applebee’s, hit a movie theater to watch the latest Bruce Willis blockbuster, and then head back to the hotel to take in an episode of How I Met Your Mother before turning in for the night.
Sounds like a blast, no? And plenty of tourists do this; I remember some of my fellow students openly saying they would only eat at places like McDonald’s. In ITALY, the cuisine capital of the world, where you can buy (as I did) an entire handrolled, oven-baked-right-in-front-of-you pizza for under 5 Euro. And they wanted to limit themselves to Big Macs and shoestring fries because it’s what they were familiar with. On the one hand, it meant more food for me. On the other hand, I still get depressed when I think about it.
But they don’t limit themselves to comfort food. People like that will hunt down familiar chain stores, instead of perusing the local kiosks. Or they’ll stay in their hotel and fiddle on their iPad instead of sightseeing. And then they wonder why their big international vacation didn’t turn out quite like they planned.
You Will Probably Lose Weight, Even While Eating Everything
What’s the quickest way to lose weight, aside from explosive diarrhea? Eating right and exercise, that’s what. More than likely, you will do both if you embrace the abroad part of studying abroad. Cars are much less of a thing in other countries, and public transportation is iffy to say the least. I still remember getting fined 25 Euros for taking a Florentine bus without permission, like I needed to call my Mom and get a note first.)
That, combined with the beautiful and interesting scenery all around you, should make you want to walk more. I walked a lot those four months, and lost at least 15 pounds. At the time, I weighed maybe 160 pounds, on a near-six-foot frame. By the end of my semester, I looked sickly, to say the least.
When my girlfriend and I were crossing out of Switzerland and into Italy, a border guard needed to check me for contraband, since Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union and is therefore filled with criminals. He got really into it, like he was sure I had something illegal on me. Or enjoyed redheads, either/or.
I had nothing, but we realized afterwards he was suspicious of me because I had lost so much weight, my clothes had turned exceedingly baggy and it looked like I was stashing evil stuff inside them. And I wasn’t starving myself, far from it. I had been eating like a damned horse, both in Italy and elsewhere (I had frogs’ legs in Geneva, slathered in green sauce, and ate at least two pounds’ worth.) Thing is, the food in other countries is usually far less processed, and far healthier, than the crap we grab off the shelves of our local supermarket. So I ate healthy, got probably too much exercise, and came out looking trim, to say the least.
Luckily, returning to college life was more than enough to fatten me up nice and quick-like. On the plus side, at least nobody thinks I’m smuggling anything out of the country anymore.
It’s Impossible to be Anything But a Tourist
The tourist industry is huge, and there is no escaping it. Even the tiniest little nothing villages I visited had trinket shops galore, along with several hundred people taking pictures of everything from every possible angle. Any time you think you’ve stumbled upon something unique and uncharted, you learn about a dozen people who were just there and did the exact same bloody thing you just did.
Even if you try to be an anti-tourist, like I did when I refused to “hold up” the Leaning Tower of Pizza, you find that plenty of anti-tourists came and went before you, all refusing to do the same stupid things for the same stupid reasons. Oh, and the law of averages says you’ll end up doing something that you think is different, but that plenty of other people have already done anyhow. Like take a picture of the underbelly of the Eiffel Tower. I did, and apparently so have thousands of other schmoes who thought they were gaming the system.
Even people at home are tourists, because if you don’t bring back a few hundred dollars worth of shirts, mugs, and figurines of the places you’ve been, they think you’ve murdered Santa. So now not only are you a failed anti-tourist, you’re a jackass who didn’t think of his family. Which is a far more important lesson than anything your overseas classroom could have ever hoped to teach.
Jason Iannone writes columns for Cracked and Man Cave Daily, either one of which is totally allowed to finance a return trip to Europe so he can write about European-y things. Track his trip’s progress via Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
If you’re planning to hit Europe not because of vacation or study, but because a politician you hate won an election, Jason would like you to know why that’s a horrible idea.