embracing my inner nerd in patras

(Alternate title: I Would Write Something Profound About the Highs and Lows of the “Academic Lyfe” if I Weren’t So Dang Tired From Traveling.)

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The reason for my trip to Greece was a conference that I found sometime last semester, hosted by the International Water Association (of which I am now a student member). The symposium’s official topic was “Water, Wastewater and the Environment: Traditions and Culture.”  The themes of the conference focused on looking at the water management technology and infrastructure of the past as a way of learning lessons for the future. 

Overall, the symposium was… somewhat subpar. The organization of the weekend was not great to say the least, and I felt like a bit of an outsider since I’m only a student and I wasn’t presenting a paper (as I learned that probably 90% of the attendees were). I got tired really quickly of having to explain to everyone that I met that no, I was not presenting, and yes, I am only a pre-master’s student on a gap year. (And also yes, I am from America, even though, yes, my name tag says Germany.)

However, I was able to hear a few very interesting presentations, meet some friendly people, and see some of Patras, Greece’s 3rd largest city.

On the second day of the conference, I played hooky after lunch and went for a beach stroll along the Mediterranean instead! It was totally worth it.

On the second day of the conference, I played hooky after lunch and went for a beach stroll along the Mediterranean instead! It was totally worth it.

My nerdy little Plan II heart was definitely right at home during a few moments of the conference. The first key-note speaker (and the only one who did not read verbatim off of cards or fail to show up) gave a great talk about the detriment of “environmentalist” pathos to the task of natural resource provision and conservation, which I thought was on point.

In the last session of the first day, I heard a talk from a PhD student at the University of Patras about using mathematical optimization algorithms to solve political conflicts about water allocation! Can you even imagine? What an exciting concept!

The first talk I heard on the second day was a wide, sweeping history of wastewater management trends and developments throughout history–nearly 4,000 years of history!–leading to today’s most cutting-edge treatments, like a reverse-osmosis procedure that Singapore is starting to implement as they attempt to create a self-sufficient water supply!

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The woman who presented on the history of wastewater management was the only other American I met during the weekend, a college professor from Connecticut. (Apparently, she’s originally from near Scranton, PA, probably within 15 minutes of where my grandparents live… Die Welt ist ein Dorf!) We also had some mutual colleagues/acquaintances/people I met once when they were guest speakers in a class I was taking, from Austin, so that was cool.

I really enjoyed talking with her because she was basically the only person all weekend who actually understood me, maybe because of the cultural differences between American and European academia. The idea of changing fields, like I’m currently in the process of doing, is almost unheard of in Europe, in my experience. So it was encouraging to talk to someone who thought it was great (instead of totally weird) that I, a rookie, would attend a conference just out of curiosity! 

The massive, and gorgeous, Rio-Antirio Bridge

The massive, and gorgeous, Rio-Antirio Bridge

(Also, I think Europeans have a different conception of space. I, as an American, wanted to take the opportunity to travel to Greece while I am already in Europe, because who knows when I would otherwise get to go? To someone who lives in Europe, Dresden to Patras is a loooong way to go for a conference you aren’t presenting at. Which, you know, they have a point. But the city of Houston is probably bigger than all of Greece so it’s all relative.)

Despite the frustrations of the weekend, like dealing with Greek lack of organization and having to miss Mass on Sunday, the conference gave me a lot to think about regarding my future career, and getting to hear the talks actually energized me to finish strong with my research this year! I’m toying with the idea of presenting my research at the DAAD conference I’m attending in July… we’ll see how that goes!

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the dos and don’ts of athens

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As a continuation of my semester break adventures, I signed up to attend an International Water Association symposium in Greece. This was really an incredibly flimsy excuse to do a bit more traveling. I flew into Athens, stayed there for several days before attending the conference about 2.5 hours away, and then returned to Athens for a few more days. I absolutely loved Athens, and I’m really glad I got to spend some time exploring the city! I thought I’d share some tips for people who might want to go there someday…

DO bring good walking shoes. (Self-explanatory.)

DON’T buy your walking shoes two days before your trip. (Oops.)

DO go to Athens while you are a student in the EU. Seriously, if you have a European Union student ID, people will throw free things at you like there’s no tomorrow. I got into the Acropolis and all of the other major and minor archaeological sites for free (as opposed to paying a whopping 12 Euros). My visit to the Acropolis Museum was also free (compared to 5 Euros), and I suspect that I would have gotten reduced or free admission to the city’s other museums had I attended any. I also used public transit for half price!

Part of my ticket snuck into this clearly awesome photo, and you can see that I got in for "FREE"!

Part of my ticket snuck into this clearly awesome photo, and you can see that I got in for “FREE”!

DON’T wear a skirt when you go up to the Acropolis. Wannabe hipster that I am, I usually shy away from having “typical” favorites, but my favorite Athens attraction was no doubt the Acropolis, the famous monuments on a hill overlooking the city (including, most famously, the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike). I went up twice because it was so wonderful (and because it was free). The second time, I learned from my previous mistake: it’s super windy up there, and wearing a skirt shorter than probably ankle length is not advisable. I spent the whole time half focused on avoiding a Marilyn Monroe incident.

Clearly not super successful

Clearly not super successful

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DO fondly recall your education in Greek mythology/philosophy as you see the sights. I loved learning about Greek mythology in school (my favorite goddesses were Demeter and Athena, namesake of Athens, and I also really liked Hermes, the wing-footed messenger god). It was cool to see all the ancient temples dedicated to the cults of the different deities. I have also studied Greek philosophy and literature somewhat extensively (thanks Plan II) so it was fantastic to see the Academy of Athens, which is steeped in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the Ancient Agora, the birthplace of democracy!

I'd like to thank the Academy

I’d like to thank the Academy

The Temple of Hephaestus, which honored the snubbed, crippled husband of Aphrodite

The Temple of Hephaestus, which honored the snubbed, crippled husband of Aphrodite

Stately columns at the Ancient Agora

Stately columns at the Ancient Agora

 

DON’T be fooled by disparate English names. Don’t follow my example; I was the world’s least educated tourist during most of my time in Athens. I had a vague idea of the things I wanted to see, but I barely knew the difference between the Acropolis and the Parthenon ahead of time. (The Acropolis is the entire hilltop of monuments and ruins; the Parthenon is the most famous of those monuments/ruins.) And so in my ignorance, I created a bit of confusion for myself… for instance, I knew I wanted to see the “Roman Gate and Tower of the Winds,” but even when I followed street signs and wrote down the exact Google Map directions to this supposed monument, I could never find it… until I realized that I had actually already seen it, and that the signage calls it by a different name (the “Roman Agora”). So, in general, I guess it’s a good idea to be a bit more informed than I was, but when all else fails, remember that the translations into English/the Roman alphabet won’t always be exact…

The confusing Roman Gate/Agora

The confusing Roman Gate/Agora

DO eat ALL the Greek food! Souvlaki, various roasted meats and vegetables, hummus, gyros, feta cheese, Greek salad, Greek yogurt and honey… there’s a lot to love. Try it all! (As I’m not an eggplant lover, I did not try moussaka, but that’s one of the most famous dishes.) Greek beer is also surprisingly wonderful! I was glad I went off the beaten path to find less touristy restaurants with better value. I enjoyed a spicy “drunken” beef stew at a tiny restaurant in Plaka (where the waiter treated me to a free aperitif!), and I had delicious fresh mussels from Lesvos in one of the residential districts north of the Academy.  Also, the pastries are delicious; I had one for breakfast every morning and never regretted the decision (but what else is new?).

DON’T casually look at too many street-side menus as you try to pick a restaurant. Waiters and hosts at restaurants are SUPER aggressive. I had to walk past a strip of touristy restaurants several times in the process of getting money from an ATM, and at the time I was literally eating an ice cream cone, so I figured I would be safe from harassment, but no… one of the waiters actually called after me, “That’s not enough for you. You need more.”  If you so much as slow down in front of a restaurant, let alone look at the menu, you will have a table, a menu, and a glass of water faster than you can say “baklava.”

DO see the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square. I’ve seen several changings of guards now, including the famous one at Buckingham Palace and the less famous one at Prague Castle, and the Athenian version is definitely the most entertaining. It involves ridiculous uniforms, slow-motion marching, and lots of high kicks (also in slow motion). Fun for everyone.

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DON’T be alarmed by the number of intimidating looking police officers everywhere. Around Syntagma, there really are police officers everywhere, ostensibly guarding the parliament building and the many embassies in the area. [I found out later that there were so many police in the city because of the Greek Independence Day Parade, which occurred my second-to-last day in Athens.] They’re really intensely outfitted with shields, large guns, and what looked like gas masks, and around the Parliament building they seemed to gather in large groups. I jaywalked as I rushed to get to the square by the top of the hour to see the guards change, and at that moment a HUGE group of officers started processing through the square. I was convinced for several minutes that they were going to arrest me.

Also, DON’T plan to be in Athens on March 25, Greek Independence Day. The whole city shuts down and it’s impossible to get anywhere because of the large military parade that runs through the middle of Athens. I had Vietnam-style flashbacks from the time I was in New York on St. Patrick’s Day…

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DO climb Mount Lycabettus. It’s the highest hill in Athens and you get an absolutely breathtaking panoramic view. There’s a small Greek church at the top, which is gorgeous. Especially if you’ve already been in Athens for a few days, it’s fun to spot all the different landmarks from way up high!

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

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This view upon summiting the mountain just seemed very Greek to me.

This view upon summiting the mountain just seemed very Greek to me.

DON’T be tempted to take the funicular tram to the top. That was my original plan, but then I realized that I shouldn’t plan to pay for something that I could do for free! So I hiked instead, and it was a really great decision. There were so many gorgeous flowers and beautiful vegetation, and I got to enjoy a range of spectacular views as I ascended the mountain.

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DO take a gratuitous number of selfies if you are traveling solo.

At the Parthenon

At the Parthenon

Climbing Mount Lycabettus

Climbing Mount Lycabettus

On the East Slope of the Acropolis

On the East Slope of the Acropolis

DON’T be ashamed of it.

With the Erechtheon

With the Erechtheon

At the National Library

At the National Library

Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora... are we getting tired of this? Clearly I was not.

Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora… are we getting tired of this? Clearly I was not.

Enjoying a windy day on the Acropolis

Enjoying a windy day on the Acropolis

And a final one at the Ancient Agora to bring us home.

And a final one at the Ancient Agora to bring us home.

unsolicited advice: long-distance relationship edition

And now, the last of my “advice” posts for now. When I wrote it, I was in Spain with Daniel, so I got to run it past him and get his take on what I should write, as well, which I thought was necessary considering that a relationship includes two people, even if one of those people is clearly more opinionated and outspoken than the other! Anyway, as always, I invite my readers to share their wisdom in the comments!

I was initially anxious about dating Daniel long distance after being together for aboooouttt eight months of seeing each other every day, having several classes together, and living a six minute walk apart. (College spoils you, for real.)  From June till September we were “long-distance” aka he was in Beaumont and I was in Houston and we saw each other every two to four weeks, and then I moved to Germany and our definition of “long” was changed for.e.ver. I know that 5.25 months of trans-Atlantic dating doesn’t exactly qualify us for the long-distance champions award, but the more I think about it, the more impressive it seems (and the more respect I have for people in the military, who have to do this kind of thing all the time). I’m writing this post as someone who was apprehensive about the whole thing and has now learned to at least appreciate the merits of long-distance!

Mostly we are happier than this, and that is a victory.

Mostly we are happier than this, and that is a victory.

(You will notice that I will NOT be including the ever lovely tidbit that every single long distance relationship advice article tells you, aka “Have an end goal in mind.” Obviously it is important to have an idea that one day you will see each other again and maybe even live in the same city, but for a lot of the time that we were on separate continents, we didn’t have a firm reunion date set, and at some point it seemed like the nebulous reunion would be pushed back as much as 2 months! 2. Months. But the point is, we survived and the following things were helpful!)

Keep communication lines open. Let’s just take a minute to be glad that this is 2014 and even the Atlantic Ocean and a 7 hour time difference can’t get in the way of the Facebook Messenger App. Amen. It would obviously not be healthy to talk 24/7 and therefore have no life outside of your LDR, but at least a little bit of chat/e-mail time per day is helpful. We love Pusheen for helping us to express emotions we never knew we had.

Our goal was Skype once a week/once every 10 days… international phone calls aren’t a super economical option, so for our future stateside LDR, I guess we’ll probably talk more often…. if we even have that much to say to each other by then! 😉

I guess another thing to add is that it’s important to strike a balance between everyday (trivial) conversation and important, weighty discussions. I think we did a good job of that, although we maybe pushed some of the big discussions till the last minute when one of us was at the end of our rope for one reason or another! It would get tiring to always talk about serious topics like the future, the distance, how everyone is feeling about the future and the distance, etc., but you can’t survive on everyday chitchat alone.

Be flexible. At the beginning (in the summer/wimpy distance time), I would get really anxious and mad if Daniel were late calling me one night, but being REALLY far apart makes it impossible to have a successful relationship without being forgiving and flexible. We would try to Skype on Sundays, but if one of us was traveling, that would often not work so we figured out a Plan B. At first, we tried sending gifts/cards/flowers for anniversaries/birthdays/med school interviews, but then that got expensive/difficult to time so by Christmas we agreed not to do long distance gifts and save our money for a nice dinner when we saw each other. Life’s too short and the distance is too long to get hung up on little stuff like that (says the Queen of Getting Hung Up On Little Things). This could obviously vary depending on the couple… maybe you love sending surprise packages and gifts! I don’t know. The point is, it won’t always be perfect, but that’s actually fine.

Be thoughtful in little, doable, everyday ways. Obviously, sending cards and gifts a long way is expensive and talking every day is time-intensive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be nice and surprise each other from a long way away. When I was having a really hard time with the distance, Daniel sent me an incredibly sweet card and mix CD (we can’t help it, we’re early millenials) that he somehow fit all in the same envelope! It was such a wonderful gesture that made me feel so loved! And I am really bad at giving/sending gifts, but I made a habit of sending 2 postcards from anywhere I visited, even just day trips: one to my parents, and one to Daniel. Thoughtful romance doesn’t have to be unattainable!

Daniel adds that it’s important to always remind your long-distance significant other that you miss them and that you’re thinking about them, even if you assume they already know those things! We made it an everyday habit, after a few rough weeks, to each make sure to send a little encouraging Facebook message that the other one would receive upon waking up.

Enjoy the freedom (within reason, of course). At the 4 month mark, I started to realize something awesome. In a way, our long-distance relationship let me “have it all,” if you will. This year, I’ve been able to live in a foreign country, call a new city home, practice my German, make new friends, visit 10ish countries, bulk up my CV (ha!), and generally experience the best of the “independent” 20-something life. These are things that people assume they can only experience while “unattached,” and that a relationship would “hold them back” from having an exciting life! Please. I was able to do all these things and to share my experiences with Daniel, who is always excited for me and supportive of everything I do.

Along these lines, Daniel adds that it was helpful for him to not dwell on the distance or missing me, choosing instead to concentrate more on productive things like work and school.  He also says that instead of focusing on the negative (aka the fact that we were/are far apart), he would choose in difficult moments to think of the positive: the anticipation of when we would be together, and how happy we would feel in that moment.

When all else fails, remind yourself over and over that, once you see each other again, it will feel like no time has passed. I mentioned above that, thanks to evil medical school acceptance timelines, at some point we were unsure whether we’d be able to see each other in February, as planned, and we thought we’d have to push our reunion back to late April. This was obviously not what we wanted to happen, but there was very little we could do to control the outcome. Inspired by my Christmas trip with my family (I hadn’t seen them for months and was worried about how the reunion would go, only to realize that it was like no time had passed once we were all together!), I made this my mantra: “Once we’re together, it won’t matter. Once we’re together, an extra two months will seem like nothing!” It seems simple, but it really did help. And it was true! We were able to see each other in February after all, but it was like those 5 months of separation had never existed.

I don’t regret transitioning to long-distance dating one bit. We don’t know when the transition will reverse itself, but for now, I am enjoying the fruits that have come out of this so far: clearer communication between me and Daniel, stronger trust in our relationship, greater respect for how awesome, thoughtful, and supportive my boyfriend is, more appreciation for animated cat emojis, and a brighter outlook for a shorter-distance future! 🙂DSC04313

Did we miss anything? Let us know! This list was not meant to be comprehensive, and we still need advice, ourselves!! 

unsolicited advice: maintaining a “Catholic lifestyle” while abroad

This advice was kind of solicited. One of my dear friends who faithfully reads this blog asked me, on behalf of a friend of his, for my thoughts on maintaining a Catholic lifestyle abroad, where one might not have a good community or many friends with similar beliefs and values. (Both he and I have studied abroad before and knew exactly what she was talking about!) This is something I’ve thought about since my first experience abroad 3 years ago, and I was excited to write about it. 

One note: I found as I answered this question that I was speaking specifically to a study abroad experience in Europe, because that’s what I know. If anyone out there has thoughts about experiences in Asia, Africa, or South America, please do let us know!

Studying abroad is a transformative experience, and leaving home to study in another country brings with it many changes: a different city, likely a different language and culture, new friends, a new school, a new living environment… And with all these changes, one aspect of life that can get thrown into disarray is the spiritual. For many of us, our Catholic identity is linked to a particular community, a particular church, or a particular routine, and when those things change, our spiritual growth can suffer if we aren’t proactive. This is one of those times when we, as young Catholics, have to really own our faith.

Being a committed Catholic is not an accident of time or place, and if our faith is to be dynamic and real, it can’t be lived simply through routine or habit. Shaking things up by moving abroad is a real opportunity to be intentional about practicing your faith. I came up with a few lists of concrete actions that young Catholics can take to enrich and nourish their Catholic faith. The lists address two main issues that a young Catholic may encounter while abroad.

Issue One: Pressure to conform to the “study abroad” lifestyle of drunkenness, sex, and general debauchery. 

Many, many, many international students (American or otherwise) use their semester or year abroad as an opportunity to party as much as possible. While I am a huge fun of merriment and alcohol, a lot of the shenanigans that exchange students get up to while abroad don’t exactly conform to our Catholic morality because they lack the virtues of prudence and, most of all, temperance.

If your biggest problem as a Catholic exchange student is the pressure from others to engage in casual sex, excessive drinking, or drug use, I suggest one of 2 basic courses of action, each one challenging in a unique way:

1. If you are hanging out with people who are making you feel compelled to do things you know are wrong, find new friends.

2. Set standards for your own behavior, and challenge yourself to maintain them. I suggest setting a drink limit (or a cost limit!) for a night out, as well as staying away from casual sex and any drug use. Pray for the self-assuredness to be seen as the “strange” one, because you will be, especially if you have been going along with the party scene until now. However, if you’re confident enough in your own morals and decisions, hopefully others will respect them. (If not, see #1.) Be prepared to be appropriately self-deprecating or convicted depending on the situation and your personality. My go-to excuse when avoiding excessive drinking (I’ll admit I used it more when I was under 21) is my “all-encompassing vow of moderation in life.” I’ll have a few drinks and hang around, but that’s it, and I make sure people know it, maybe lightly making fun of myself for it but still standing my ground. This approach is challenging and, if you’re prone to peer pressure, risky.

A gratuitous photo of me drinking wine to demonstrate that it's possible to balance alcohol and class while abroad ;)

A gratuitous photo of me drinking wine to demonstrate that it’s possible to balance alcohol and class while abroad 😉

Issue Two: The struggle to find sources of spiritual growth in a new and maybe less nurturing environment. 

I think this issue may be more in the spirit of the question.

Especially if you are coming from a lively and challenging university ministry at home, it will be a challenge to maintain the same level of “involvement” abroad. Everything about your life is new, and if your spiritual growth gets lost in the shuffle, you may find that this begins to affect your life in other ways, as well. There are two facets to this problem, and I want to discuss both of them, starting with the most important one.

First and foremost, this is a test of your personal relationship with Christ and your discipline in your faith. Don’t be tempted to blame your spiritual failings on anyone but yourself. If it’s important to you, and it seems like it is if you’re wondering about this topic in the first place, take it seriously. As with most spiritual challenges, living abroad is also a huge OPPORTUNITY to grow in your faith. I’ve certainly found that to be the case, and I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve done during my time abroad that have helped me.

1. Spiritual reading. Studying abroad, you will probably have way more “free time” than you do during a normal semester. For me, this meant more time to read, a pleasure I don’t normally get to enjoy while I’m in school. Spiritual reading in particular can actually be a form of prayer. It gives you important things to think about, pray about, and evaluate; you have the time, and you might make some discoveries! Some suggestions for reading that will challenge and nourish you spiritually: 

  • Scripture
  • The lives of the saints: St. Augustine’s Confessions, Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux, The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, Sigrid Undset’s biography of St. Catherine of Siena
  • Daily reflections of some sort. I’m subscribed to Fr. Robert Barron’s Lenten Reflections and they get sent right to my inbox!
  • Catholic philosophy: G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis (Catholic-ish), Jacques Phillippe
  • Catholic blogs: Bad Catholic, Conversion Diaries, and Carrots for Michaelmas are 3 of my favorites. (This recent post from the author of Carrots is fantastic.)
  • And one random suggestion that doesn’t fit in any of the above categories: A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

2. Daily prayer. I will be the first to admit that I fail at this more often than not, whether I’m at home or abroad. However, during Advent I followed this Spiritual Boot Camp (my competitive nature helped me complete it even without any accountability partners, which I normally need). During Lent I am reading two of the Gospels (Mark and Luke, if you’re curious) and finishing the other two during Easter. I have had aspirations of reading a Psalm per day… I’ll find the discipline one of these days! Find a routine that works… maybe 10 minutes at the beginning or end of each day helps you to center your day around God? For short bursts of regular prayer, pick a saint whose feast day is coming up and say their novena. (I use this e-mail service for novenas and love it.) As Catholics we are blessed with so many different types of prayer, so I encourage you to find your favorites and use them!

3. Regular mass attendance. Find a beautiful church to attend Mass at on Sundays (at least!). In Europe, it is much easier to find a truly beautiful church than it is in the US. Let this inspire you to go to mass regularly, even if you go alone. I have encountered some… creative?… liturgy, which seems to be a trade-off with the beautiful churches. If this is going to bother you, I suggest checking out your city’s cathedral for your best bet at a traditional and beautiful service.

3a. Learn the Mass responses in the local language. This will help you immensely to participate in the Mass, even if you don’t always understand the readings or the homily.

3b. Look up and read the day’s readings beforehand so you can comprehend them better during Mass.

4. Other spiritual devotions. Once you’ve found a church or several that you enjoy, see what else they offer (Adoration, weekly Rosary during May or October, etc) and go to those if they interest you. You will likely be one of the only young people there, but that shouldn’t matter if the goal is to fortify your relationship and dialogue with God.

5. Faith-based travel. Go to Rome and pray a rosary in each Papal basilica, or something! (Or get a ticket to a Papal audience!!) Visit a Marian apparition site! In any given city, visit (and pray in) churches that you pass while sightseeing. Experiencing a new and deeply spiritual place, even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of traveling, can be good inspiration if you’re in a dry season.

Procession after mass at St. Paul's Basilica, my favorite of the churches we saw

Procession after Mass at St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome, April 2011

A second concern: finding community to encourage you on your journey. 

Ah, the hardest part. You’ve probably already experienced the wonderful challenge of making friends abroad, and this just adds a whole new dimension! Some thoughts:

1. Pray that God will send you the community you need. This sounds like a super holy roller answer, but trust in God’s providence is important in this regard. He will give you what you need, but not always what you want or what you’re used to. His answer might surprise you!

2. Find out if a Catholic community for university students exists at your school or in your city. In Germany, this will either be called the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (in the west) or the Katholische Studentengemeinde (in the east). I’m not sure about other countries, but something like this probably exists. Go to their meetings, prayer services, masses, dinners, game nights, or whatever it is they offer. In my personal experience (and I in no way speak for everyone or even anyone besides myself), Catholic communities abroad have been wonderful places to meet friendly people, both international and “native”. They offer different activities that are great for getting integrated into everyday life abroad. But they haven’t always been the source of spiritual growth or theological learning that I’ve found in youth groups and student centers in the US. However, if you are working on your own prayer life and spiritual discipline, as discussed above, this doesn’t have to be a huge deal… Maybe you can make a positive change there, or you can at least learn more about the state of the young church in another country!

3. I may be biased because I’m a Schoenstatter (member of the universal Schoenstatt movement), but if you are lucky enough to be in a city with a Schoenstatt shrine or some other Catholic pilgrimage site or spiritual group, check it out. Maybe you’ll meet some nice people.

4. Embrace simple “evangelization.” Don’t be shy mentioning your faith or church when talking to others. This can be hard in Europe because far fewer people are religious than in America, so you might get some funny looks. (Then again, followers of Christ have suffered worse!) I’m not suggesting standing on street corners and telling people about Jesus… It’s as simple as answering honestly when someone asks where you’re going as you’re headed to Mass. When I met my friend Felicitas, she asked how I had tried meeting friends in Dresden. Despite my instinct to downplay the whole religious thing, I said, “Well, I’m Catholic, so I’ve gone by the Catholic center a few times and met some people.” I fully expected her to say “Hmm, well, that’s not really my thing.” but instead, I was met with  “Wow! I’m Catholic, too! Can I come with you sometime?” Now, we attend KSG functions, Mass, and adoration together and it’s a huge blessing!

5. Especially if none of the above have worked, but even if they have: Stay in touch with a friend from home who can be your accountability partner if you’re worried about lapsing in a particular area. Check up on each other: have you been going to Mass? Reading Scripture? Maybe you can agree to pray a novena together or make a “Mass date” for a certain day of the week, since the Eucharist unites the body of Christ around the world every time it’s celebrated!

6. If you are feeling lonely or abandoned because none of your efforts to find community have worked the way you had imagined, Christ is waiting to remind you that He is your truest friend, companion, and confidant. When you are discouraged, He is there to bolster your confidence. When you need someone to listen to your cares, thoughts, and worries, He will. Community is wonderful and the Church is a beautiful gift from God, but no human community can replace your relationship with your Heavenly Father. This is hard to grasp sometimes, especially when you are seeking human companionship and affirmation, which is natural. But the fact that Christ doesn’t stray from your side can be immensely comforting. The companionship you find in Him when all else fails will be the key to your spiritual growth now and for the rest of your life.

A reminder of His love for us on a hike in the Black Forest, Spring 2011

A reminder of His love for us on a hike in the Black Forest, Spring 2011

Did I miss something? If you have thoughts, feel free to comment below… and please, if you think someone you know could benefit from this advice, share it with them!

unsolicited advice: relocating after college

Part two in my gratuitous “advice” series, in which I discuss what it’s like to “start over” in a new city as a young adult, and evaluate different ways to approach the transition! I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too, especially since many of you are more knowledgeable than I!

I am a young twenty-something (are we tired of this term? Not yet? Okay, then.) who graduated from college last year, and I am in the midst of a few post-graduation changes. One of the biggest anxiety-inducing adjustment post-college for many grads, including myself, is the challenge of moving to a new city! In my experience, it’s not so much the new city that’s the challenge, but rather the interesting phenomenon of going from having lots of friends, and a familiar social situation, to potentially having none.

For most people, going to college is the first taste of this kind of complete social upheaval. But I went to school at the “obvious” (yet still competitive and prestigious, mind you) choice, an in-state public university where 30 of my high school classmates also enrolled. I was also lucky enough to live with a high school friend for all four years! So moving away after college is an even bigger adjustment, especially given that many of my best college friends are still living near where we went to school, and I find myself living quite far away and quite on my own.

I had a relocation “trial run” when I studied abroad during college, so I was able to learn a few of the hardest lessons of young adulthood while I still had the safety net of my familiar Forty Acres to fall back on. Now that I’ve relocated to Dresden, and am anticipating a move to Madison later this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what in particular I’ve found challenging, as well as what has been the most rewarding, about striking out on my own in a new place!

So without further ado, here is some unsolicited advice from my own trial and error! 

Challenge 1: Maintaining a sense of self in a new place. 

It can be tempting to throw “the old you” out the window as soon as you land in a new city. But as far as I’m concerned, dealing with an identity crisis on top of all the changes that are about to happen just sounds like a recipe for disaster. Your life story–your family, personality, preferences, strengths, weaknesses–have a place in your new home, too! For me, it has been really important that I continue to place the same emphasis on my faith as I did at home.  Going to Mass every week has been a huge anchor for me… no matter what other crazy changes are going on in my life, the Church is a constant, week in and week out. I can imagine that, if I were a runner or a soccer player, continuing to participate in that aspect of my life in a new place would also be an important stabilizer in a time of instability.

Challenge 2: Structuring your life is harder when your surroundings are unfamiliar.

But it might be the most important thing you can do. Without structure, your free time quickly becomes a black hole of watching Netflix and eating chocolate. (That’s a universal phenomenon, right? No?) For me, this problem is multi-faceted.

A new location can mess up your day-to-day life simply because you don’t know where things are. For instance, it was not a big deal in college if I was out for the day and hadn’t packed a lunch or cooked anything at home, because I knew all the best places to get a cheap/healthy/on-the-go meal. I don’t necessarily know that yet for any given place in my new city. Even after several months here, I find myself running back and forth and wasting a lot of time because I don’t know the best or most convenient place to eat, make copies, get internet access, etc.

The beginning of your time in a new city actually provides a solution to this exact problem, though, because you have a tourist agenda for the first few weeks or months. Make it your job to see all the sights your city has to offer, even if you’re doing some of it alone. It will give you something to do, and at the same time you’ll become more familiar with your new city. Make it your assignment to learn as much as you can about the neighborhoods where you spend most of your time. Find out whether the café near the university has free wifi, and scope out the scene: would it be weird if you camped out there with your laptop for a few hours to get some work done? Try out the take-out restaurants… are they worth a repeat visit?

Once you have some idea about the landscape of your daily existence, establish a routine for yourself. What day should you go for a morning run? There’s a sushi special down the street on Wednesday evenings, so maybe that could be a ritual. The café has longer hours on week nights, so that could be a potential productivity area after work. Creating a routine is also helpful when it comes to scheduling social events, and that’s important because…

Challenge 3: It takes a long time to build a support group of friends.

This is really the hardest part, in my experience. I have had the added burden of a language/cultural barrier both times I’ve “moved away,” but based on the experiences of friends within the U.S., making friends is the hardest part of post-college life in general, especially after moving somewhere new. I learned from my mistake in Freiburg and decided not to live alone in Dresden, which has been a huge blessing. But even with a fantastic roommate whose friends have also kind of adopted me, it has been difficult to establish friendships. I’m not a full-time student with a cohort of classmates, and it’s hard to break into pre-established social circles. Not everyone is always going to be as invested as you are in making friends, and it’s rough sometimes when you’re open to being buddies with someone and they clearly aren’t interested (no matter what language you happen to be speaking).

In my understanding, there are two groups of people you want to be looking for: like-minded people, and people in a similar situation to you. Like-minded people will have similar interests to you, and as I mentioned in Challenge 1, you have to know what your interests are before you can find them! I’ve had success finding like-minded people at church groups, and have also heard that sports classes are great for this (I’m finally taking my own advice next semester and taking a sports class!). Establishing that you and your new acquaintances have something in common is not only a gateway to meeting them in the first place, but also provides conversation topics and possible activities to do together once you become friends!

Finding people who have a similar situation to you, whatever that may mean, is important because you will have a mutual understanding right away. For instance, find an alumni association from your University, or a bar that shows your hometown’s football team’s games, or reach out to the other new coworker who recently moved to town. This time around, it’s been much easier for me to befriend other international students and young people living in Dresden: they’re away from home, I’m away from home, we’re all trying to get by with our sorry German skills… instant connection! Felicitas and I got close really quickly because we are both dealing with the limbo state of DAAD-scholarship life. I’ve also found that the Germans who are most willing to make the extra effort with new people from abroad are those who have studied abroad themselves. They know what it’s like!

One important thing is to be open and to put yourself in situations where you will be able to meet people. This is the hardest thing for an introvert like me (and it’s especially hard when I’m not speaking my native language), but if you are confident enough to brave a new situation, you might be lucky enough to meet kind, generous people who are willing to befriend you!

Of course, sometimes it’s not so easy, and like I mentioned above, sometimes other people just aren’t willing to put forth the effort to become friends. That sucks; it does. But part of being an adult is realizing that maybe not everyone wants to be your friend, and you shouldn’t waste your time on those people anymore. Concentrate your dazzling conversational skills on somebody who seems friendly! (Obviously, I am not the master of any of this advice yet, but we’re in this together! Let’s encourage each other, young adults of the internet!)

Of course, the last key element is time (and patience!). You probably didn’t become best friends with your best friends the first time you met them; building relationships is a long process! Be patient with it. (Again, hard advice! I’m sorry!)

Challenge 4: Incorporating your old life into your new one. 

I suppose this goes along with #1. Just because you’re living in a new city and/or country doesn’t mean that you leave the rest of your life behind or forget everyone who’s ever been important to you. However, the challenge is that you can’t just live a carbon copy of your “old life” in a new city by constantly talking to your college friends or trying to re-live the glory days.

I haven’t fully figured out how to balance the two, and living abroad has its own challenges, but it helps when your friends and family are invested in you, and you are invested in them. I love hearing from my friends and finding out what exciting things the’ve been up to! I am a fan of sporadic Skype dates with my friends, every month or 2, to catch up. I’ve also loved sending postcards when I travel. I would also love to add a pen pal or two.

Sending mail doesn’t have the instant gratification of online communication, which also means it isn’t as all-consuming. Taking the time to write a nice letter to a friend or family member, and then waiting for their reply, is a communication mode that is very forgiving of the fact that you are busy living your new life!

I haven’t fully figured out how to do this, because it’s a total work in progress. Really, isn’t the integration of relationships, places, and experience the work of an entire lifetime? We have lots of time to practice and hopefully eventually get it right.

Any more advice that I missed? I don’t know what it’s like to enter the workforce after college, so I don’t quite have that perspective… an

unsolicited advice: studying in Germany

A few months ago, a friend from college sent me a message on Facebook asking if I would have any advice for a classmate of hers who wanted to study abroad in Germany.  As a fairly opinionated person who feels strongly about study abroad experiences, especially in Germany, I was able to come up with a good number of things that I wish I had known before I first came to Germany, as well as things I’ve learned since I’ve been here that I think would be helpful for someone in the planning stages.

So I’m making my foray into the scary world of online advice blogging! (I do have a few similar posts in the queue, so keep an eye out for those!) I know no one asked, but that’s why it’s called “unsolicited”! Here is a list of things that you should know if you want to live in Germany.

I wrote this list for a student wanting to study abroad, but many items on this list could apply to young adults wanting to get a degree at a German university or work in Germany for a short or long duration, as well!

1. Learn German. Do you already know German? Good. In the time between now and when you set foot on German soil, do everything you can to get more exposure to the language. Read an article or two from Der Spiegel every week. Take or audit a German class at school. Watch a German TV show! (I’ve never seen it, but Türkisch für Anfänger always gets good reviews!)

Wait, what’s that? You don’t know German? Well, there’s no better time to start than right now. I know that plenty of people study abroad with no knowledge of the local language, but I really wouldn’t recommend it. Yes, you can get by with English in Germany, but do you really want to just get by during your time abroad? It’s much easier to establish friendships with Germans if you make an effort to learn some German… not to mention being able to orient yourself in your host city and as you travel around. If you learn as much as you can before you leave and keep an open mind during your time there, your language abilities will improve drastically… I know several people who went to Germany with a very limited grasp of the language, and after a year or so of living and working there, were able to converse quite easily! It is possible!

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Here, I’ll help you get started

2. Go for a year or longer! My biggest regret about my semester in Germany during the summer of 2011 was that it was only one semester! I know that a year abroad sounds like a really long time, especially if the norm at your school is to go abroad for 6 weeks, if that (like it was at mine). But a year goes by quicker than you’d expect (especially if you plan to travel), and one semester is barely any time at all to get adjusted to a new country, language, school, city, and culture, not to mention to make friends!

If a year would not be possible for whatever reason, go for as long as possible. Plan to arrive as soon as possible before the semester begins, and stay as long as possible after it ends. Many programs offer a language course before the semester begins (which would help with #1!), which also provides time to get acclimated to the city and maybe meet some people!

liebe dich

3. Location, location, location. Spend some time deciding where exactly in Germany you want to go, because the city you live in will obviously influence your experience greatly. The different cities and regions in Germany are quite distinct. As you consider, pay particular attention to the size of the city in question, and also whether it is in (former) East Germany or West Germany.

Even 20+ years after Germany’s reunification, there are still some lingering differences between east and west, particularly where language is concerned. In the west, it is much more likely that any given person on the street or in a shop (especially of the older generation) will be able to speak English. If you aren’t yet fluent in German, that could be helpful. However, if you’re trying to BECOME fluent, the atmosphere in the east might be helpful… people may be less likely to automatically switch to English once they hear your accent!

If you will be staying for a year or longer, as I advised you above, choose a larger city as opposed to a small one (or a small city with easy access to a large city). That way, there will be more to explore during your time there. Also, larger cities generally have easy access to smaller outlying towns and attractions and good public transit to get you there.

Basically, do your research to find out whether the city you’re interested in has everything you’re looking for. A few odd tips: living near a border gives you easy access to international travel; living in Berlin will give you an exciting and eclectic, though debatably “un-German” experience; it is really hard to find an apartment in most cities with universities, and Munich is notoriously expensive.

4. Go as an exchange student. (Or directly enroll in a graduate program. Or get a job working with Germans.) Integrate yourself into society!!! I know for some students studying abroad, a university-affiliate or professor-led program is necessary to both study abroad and graduate on time, but if at all possible, do a direct exchange! It will require some proactivity on your part, because all your classes/travel won’t be planned for you, you won’t have a ready-made community of fellow American students, and you’ll probably have to deal with some university bureaucracy, but you will have a more authentic and rewarding experience (and for pretentious folk like me, that’s what it’s all about 😉 ).

5. Be proactive about your living situation. I lived in a terrible student dorm in Freiburg because that’s what I was assigned. However, I have a feeling that if I’d searched around a little more before committing to student housing, I could have found a better option. So before I moved to Dresden, I looked on all the WG websites to find an apartment and roommate. Wohngemeinschafte/living communities are like shared apartments among young people in Germany, and there are plenty of websites to locate people who need to sublet their room. I used wggesucht.de. My roommate, Agnes, is awesome, and living with a German peer has really helped me practice my language skills on a daily basis, make a few friends, and have a nice atmosphere at home rather than the gross, utilitarian dorm of days past 😉

6. Buy a bike. Having a bike gives you flexibility of transportation and allows you to get places quicker so you can do more, plus it’s very scenic and beautiful to ride around during the summer and experience your new city from that vantage point! Hypocrite alert because I don’t have a bike in Dresden (but I might still buy one). This was the most important thing I ever did in Freiburg, though, because I lived far from school and the center of town, and all of my friends had bikes, so if I ever wanted to do something with them, I could just tag along instead of having to meet them somewhere using public transit. Here, the city is big enough that public transit is necessary to get to certain parts of town, and I live within walking distance of most places I go on a daily basis, so I haven’t NEEDED one, but I’m still on the look-out for an affordable used bike, because I love biking!

7. Make German friends. This will help with #1, for sure! It will also help to integrate you into life in Germany. Making friends familiar with your city/region (and fluent in German) is also incredibly helpful as you figure everything out for yourself. It is, in my experience, more difficult to make friends with Germans than to stick in a group with the other Americans/international students (and there is merit to making friends with those people, as well). Two ways I’ve found it helpful to meet people: getting involved at church and taking part in extracurriculars. I’m Catholic, and I’ve been able to meet nice, generous, friendly people at the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (KHG) in Freiburg and the Katholische Studentengemeinde (KSG) in Dresden. The Protestant groups are called EHG/ESG. And this semester I am finally taking my own advice about the sports/extracurricular activities tactic by taking a dance class! I love dancing and thoroughly enjoyed my classes at UT, so I figured I’d keep it up and meet some people along the way.

8. Travel! Self explanatory. Obviously the requisite trips to London/Paris/Milan/whatever are awesome, and you should go for it, but I also recommend day trips in your area and really getting to know your particular region in Germany, as well, because they’re all very distinct and it will cultivate a real feeling of regional identity, which I quite enjoy 🙂

9. Don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. Every person’s time abroad will be unique, so don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that your experience is “worse” because you can see on Facebook that your high school friend has visited more cities than you have. Make the most of YOUR experience… explore the areas around where you’re living, go to social outings, do something new every week, take pictures. Focus on making your memories, not glancing at someone else’s to compare.

10. Find a “life abroad” confidant. For those times when it feels like living abroad is the hardest thing you’ve ever done and no one will ever understand you. Obviously parents are wonderful and significant others are great, but if they’ve never studied or lived abroad, they won’t totally understand what you’re gong through. If you keep in touch with a buddy who has had a similar experience, they will be able to affirm that the loneliness, anxiety, or whatever it is you might be feeling is totally normal, and hopefully they will encourage you to power through the tough parts so you can experience the wonder of living abroad! I know this sounds like the ultimate First World Problem but the truth is that it’s tough to live in another language in a new city with new experiences without an outlet for your frustrations or a sounding board to figure your stuff out. (This person should also be able to give you a good reality check and/or swift kick in the behind if you are being unreasonable 😉 ) Overall, living/studying abroad is a POSITIVE, life-affirming, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you should share those moments with your buddy as well, and meet up once you get back to cook foods you miss from abroad, go on bike rides together, and commiserate about reverse culture shock 🙂

Finally, an outlet for my many opinions 😉 If you are itching to study in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe/the world, I hope I’ve encouraged you at least a little bit!

To my fellow study abroad alumni: is there anything I missed?? Anything you disagree with? 

my 2014 “crisis country challenge”

This year, I’ll have visited four of five countries in the Eurozone that are facing economic crises: Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Italy (just missing Ireland). If I got a free space, I could win Crisis Bingo!

In the fall of 2011, when the fiscal stuff really hit the fan, I was in a macroeconomics class in which we learned about exactly why everything was going wrong for these countries, especially Greece. Every day we came into our lecture having heard more grim news about how badly these countries were doing, which made for great educational fodder, though it seems that three years later things are still moving pretty slowly due to the crisis. It’s referenced quite liberally in Spain and Portugal, as I learned when I was there.

I didn’t plan my trips this year around visiting the crisis countries, but it did happen to work out that way, and now I’m approaching this from a humanitarian perspective. Germany is funding me this year, so I’m introducing my German money to these countries’ economies as I travel. Looks like I’m staging my own personal European stimulus! You’re welcome, depressed Mediterranean countries!

I’m headed to Greece this week, where I will attend my first professional conference and be as far east as I ever have in my life. I’m looking forward to views of ancient monuments and pristine Mediterranean waters, cheaper prices, and warmer weather! Coming up on the blog while I’m gone is a series of posts that have been in the works for a long time. I hope you enjoy them!