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Before you get on your way to a new and exciting country, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re aware of certain things.  After speaking with so many people who have travelled internationally, and after extensively travelling across the United States myself, I have picked up on a few of these “tricks of the trade.”  Here are a few of my favorite quick tips to help you prepare for all of your travels.

  1. Pack light—well, not too light, but don’t forget to leave room in your bags for any new clothes or souvenirs you may buy while abroad.
  2. Know your itinerary (at least have a basic outline).  In my experiences, it’s always handy to have a list of places you would like to see.  Or, make your list elaborate to the point where you have to experience new and exciting things!
  3. Be aware of your finances at all times.  Things happen, but personally I would not like to lose money for any reason.  Just don’t overspend, there’s no need to exceed your limits if you’ve planned accordingly.  And always be wary of pick pocketing; places with higher tourism are stereotyped to have higher rates of stealing.
  4. Have insurance that covers you for any medical issue that arises.  It’s important to know what you will have to cover for any medically related expense.  You can usually get expanded medical through your own provider while you’re travelling internationally, but if not, then check with the program you’re studying abroad with.
  5. Remember to keep updated on any conditions that may threaten your itinerary or your safety. This could be simply weather-related or it could be something bigger such as a riot.  Be aware of all your current events for the area you’re travelling to and you’ll do fine.
  6. Make sure to pack enough “techie” stuff to keep in contact and take photos—everything from cameras, cell phones, and all of the chargers and cords that these things need. Those of us who don’t have the option to travel want to experience new places too!
  7. Last, but not least, know the area basics of your trip.  If you know the location of where you stay, the transportation in the area, and the well-travelled areas in the neighborhoods you’re visiting, then you should (unless you have a knack for getting into a jam) complete your trip quite safely with out any mishaps.

Fashionistas!

I am going to London this summer, and I had to do the normal research to prepare: What should I do while I am there? Where are the best places to eat? What do people wear?  This question may not sound important to some, but to me, and hopefully a few more people, the answers are key to blending in.  It took me a little while, but I found a few websites that helped me answer those questions.  I went to The London Times style page and packed my rain boots. But if you aren’t going to London, don’t worry there are websites for you, too.  If you are going to Italy check out the Milan Daily Fashion Blog; it is full of pictures and it’s in English!  Going to Barcelona? Don’t worry, try on this street fashion website named Trendy Crew.  There are a lot of pictures to base your outfits off .   Oui, Francias? I found a French Elle Magazine website. Warning: it is in French, so not only are you learning how to dress, French style, but you also get to touch up on your French.  Come on, I can’t make it too easy on you.  If you are going to the way far East–Japan–bring your bright colors, according to a website called Japanese Streets.  And finally Australia.  This website named Perth Woman should help you with all your fashion needs.  Alright guys, I hope I made packing, or shopping, a little bit easier on you.

The magical and crazy world of Tim Burton’s newest film, “Alice in Wonderland,” was almost entirely computer-generated. Everything from the giant vegetation to the Red Queen’s castle exists only on top of a green screen. Yet there are a number of very real places that would have functioned well as the backdrop of an imaginary world like Wonderland. I chose a few of the most whimsical buildings that you can visit—without falling down a rabbit hole:

Photo courtesy of the "Works of Antoni Gaudi" sector of the World Heritage Collection

1. Pargue Guell. Any list of fanciful buildings would be incomplete without Antoni Gaudi, who built this site in 1914. A winding wall covered with colorful, recycled mosaic tiles surrounds his public park in Barcelona, Spain. The playful nature of the space is accentuated by the tiled dragon that greets visitors at the entrance of the park, as well as by the caretaker’s lodge, which resembles a gingerbread house.

2. St. Basil’s Cathedral. With its Candyland-inspired “onion domes” and central location in Moscow’s Red Square, this building is as much a symbol of Russia as the Eiffel Tower is of France. Legend has it that after Ivan the Terrible commissioned the Cathedral in the 16th century, he blinded its architect so that another equally beautiful structure could not be built elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of the Hundertwasser Non Profit Foundation

3. The Crooked House. Created by Szotynscy Zalesk in 2003, and inspired by a series of fairytale illustrations, this sagging “house” actually contains a number of restaurants and shops. It is located in Sopot, Poland, and has become the most photographed building in the entire country.

4. The Forest Spiral. This curving apartment complex is located in Darmstadt, Germany and was built by Austrian Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 2000. According to the author of the Armchair Travelogue blog, all 105 of the apartment units are accessible by a series of spiraling ramps, instead of stairs or elevators. Its façade is not only made up of eye-catching bands of color, but also features a garden of various trees on its “green roof.”

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Anyone who knows my good friend Yuliya, 22, also knows that she was raised on chocolate. When I visit her home, I’m always offered fine, imported bars, truffles, or Nutella. They’re ever-present because Yuliya or some other member of her family is always flying somewhere; whether it’s to Switzerland for business (her sister works for Cargill), France to celebrate a birthday (her mom’s), or Ukraine to visit family (where she was born, and which she likes to remind people, is not in Africa). Last year she graduated from Bethel University with a degree in International Business and Marketing. Here she talks about her fantastic study abroad experience.

Agnes:  You are the best-traveled person I have ever met. Is there any country in Europe you haven’t been to?

Yuliya: Yes there are many, I haven’t been to Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland, Croatia

Agnes: You studied abroad not once, but TWICE! Where did you go?

Yuliya: The first time was a semester abroad for International Business at Bethel and we went to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, France, Hungary, England, Czech Republic. I’m forgetting one or two.

We covered like 30 cities in those countries. For my second I went for Science History with Bethel again, and that was for J-term and it was France, Switzerland, England, Germany and Italy. We learned about the origins of science in Europe and how science affected architecture, art, religion. . . we learned about Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Darwin. . .

Agnes: Tell me about your favorite country or place on this trip

Yuliya: Um it’s kind of hard to pick just one, but if I must, I would say Germany. Munich in particular. It’s the “cultural” center of Germany; it’s where the Oktoberfest takes place. The city center has beautiful architecture, its easy to get around, its very clean and safe, and has really good chocolate. And at night they have many beer halls and beer gardens to go to where you can party with the locals and eat my favorite meal wiener schnitzel.

Agnes: That’s a huge compliment coming from you, that Germany has really good chocolate. Which country had the best and worst chocolate?

Yuliya: Switzerland and Germany I would say are by far the best and the worst is Italy and England.

Agnes: How do German bars and nightclubs compare to our own Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit in NE Minneapolis?

Yuliya: Haha um its actually pretty similar except there are Germans in Germany who speak German and say “prost” instead of “cheer.” I would say they eat and drink more and just party harder and longer—oh, and the beer and sausages taste better.

Want to teach abroad instead of just studying? Be the teacher, not the student, with The Japan Exchange and Teaching Progamme (JET). They send recruits to various cities in Japan to teach Japanese students English.

In order to promote internationalism, the JET program doesn’t usually place participating students in large cities. They are placed in medium to small sized cities and rural towns, which is a great way to really experience the culture of the country. The term lasts for a year, and there are a few different positions available. Students can be Assistant Language Teachers, where they directly teach English to kids aged from elementary school to high school. Coordinators for International Relations work in communities on activities dealing with international exchange. Lastly, Sports Exchange Advisors promote international exchange through sports. The website is full of resources for applicants, current participants, as well as former participants. Their pamphlet says it all.

It’s not necessary to have any knowledge of the Japanese language, but the program is fairly competitive (there is an interview process). I took Japanese my first two years at the U of M, and a few people came into our class to talk about the program. A couple of them have gone back to Japan through the JET program more than once, and all the others said they would go again if they had the chance.

This opportunity would result in nothing short of an amazing experience, since it is one of the largest exchange programs out there.

I flew out of town last Saturday, but before I could go anywhere, I needed to figure out how to get to the airport. If you’re not sure how to get from wherever you are to MSP, all you need is ten minutes online to change that.

I used Google Maps. It’s straightforward, and it links to destination websites (if they have one), street views, and bus route schedules.

If you live around campus, driving is the shortest means to the airport, but if you plan to park there, it’s also the most expensive. General parking costs you $8 for the first hour, $2 each additional hour, and maxes out at $20. For more details, visit the MSP. Public transportation triples the time, but costs you a $2 fare at most. Biking, minus luggage, will get you there in a little over an hour, free. With luggage? That spells road hazard. Walking? A small marathon. Google estimates the 11 mile journey at about 4 hours.

I went with public transportation. If you live around campus, take the light rail. Excluding any bus transfers, The LRT will shuttle you straight there. But depending on where you live, there are two LRT stations to consider.

If you live on or near the West Bank the Cedar Riverside Station, near the Bedlam Theater, is your best bet. But if you live east of the river and need to bus it, don’t stop on west bank. Continue to the Metrodome Station. You’re going away from the airport, but a bus trip to the Metrodome beats your walk to Cedar Riverside by six minutes, which might count if you’re flight leaves in an hour. However you get there, it’s important to remember your terminal number. Going south by car or the LRT, Terminal 1-Lindbergh arrives before Terminal-2 Humphrey.

For bus schedules, visit MetroTransit.

All of my friends who have studied abroad suggest one thing: travel.  Although I don’t leave for Europe until May, I have already started planning my To-Do list.  Here are a few of my must sees:

London: Oxford Street is known worldwide for its stores–think Rodeo Drive but cheaper, and more stores.  548 shops, 84 places to eat, and 15 places to stay.  This is the perfect location to buy those souvenirs, but be warned this is the busiest street in London!

Paris: Baz Luhrmann made this place famous again when he made a movie about it.  The Moulin Rouge is located in the Red Light District of Paris.  This cabaret is where the traditional French Can-Can originated, but back in the day this wasn’t a Can-Can you could phone home about.  Since then, it has evolved into a legitimate nightclub, and now, a tourist hot spot.

Pamplona, Spain. Dangerous? Check. An activity rich in culture? Check.  My friend Tommy went to Spain last summer and ran with the bulls.  I don’t think of him as an irrational person, but after looking at some of his pictures, he seems nuts.  If you are in Spain, and a little bit off your rocker, this is something you “have to do!”

Italy is a top choice for the United States collegian who is planning to study abroad.  According to the 2009 Open Doors report on international educational exchange, Italy continues to rank at number two, right behind the number one United Kingdom, even with the increase in popularity of non-traditional destinations such as South Africa.

Italy’s destination status is linked in part to the length of the typical study abroader’s trip.  The Open Doors report stated that the majority of students (56.3%) kept the duration of their stay abroad short-term (meaning either summer term, January term, or eight weeks or less.)  Many schools typically offer more short-term courses in these highly visited destinations.

So with the end of the school year upon us, and many students prepping for study abroad in the coming May and summer terms, I find it only appropriate to fill you in on what can be newly expected in Rome and Venice!

Rick Steves, author and television personality of European travel, posted a recent article on CNN Travel filled with tips that will help you bypass long ticketing lines at the Vatican Museum with its online reservation system and even beat taxi scams to and from the airport in Rome.  He also informs us that Venice, although suffering from the hectic economic downturn and huge crowds, still offers beautiful architecture and pleasant dining.  In Venice, you’ll now see more billboards than murals, but you’ll also receive better discounts at the museums!

Both the Open Doors report and Rick Steves insist that Italy’s classic destination cities do not disappoint. Those recommendations are good enough for me, and hopefully you’ll find them to your satisfaction as well. As Rick Steve’s so aptly puts it, “Buon viaggio!”

If you need to escape from a building abroad, don’t bother looking for a glowing, bright red “Exit” sign. Much like the debate over the metric system and the concern over which side of the road is “correct,” Americans and the rest of the world don’t see eye to eye about their exit signs either.

As Slate Magazine explains in their latest installment of a series about international signs, the American sign has two strikes against it: 1. It’s composed only of words, and 2. It’s red.

Since it’s adoption by the International Organization for Standardization in 1985, most other countries have used a version of Japanese designer Yukio Ota’s green “running man” exit sign, as seen above. The Slate article explains that a recent directive from the European Council, for example, requires that a running man appear on a green background. Advocates say that the green color of the sign implies safety, and that the pictogram can be understood by anyone.

Despite the green running man’s popularity abroad, the National Fire Protection Association (which regulates safety signs in the U.S) says it has no plans to replace the red marker in the near future. NFPA administrator Robert Solomon explains that, “when the NFPA investigates fires, it never encounters circumstances ‘where someone says I didn’t know where the exit was because I didn’t know…what the exit sign was. When they don’t know where the exit is, it’s because there was no signage there whatsoever.’”

While some buildings or institutions in the U.S. are gradually beginning to use green exit signs, Americans shouldn’t expect their familiar red markers to disappear overnight. But student travelers should be ready to remember that, in a foreign country, green means both “go” and “exit.”

Are you in your junior or senior year, and still want to try to travel abroad before you graduate? Then consider this opportunity (because it might be free!). When I was searching for potential scholarships the other day, one of them caught my eye because it was about studying abroad for a year in one of five different countries for a truly unique experience in travelling.

The International Reciprocal Student Exchange Program (IRSEP) is offering a full scholarship to non-traditional travel abroad sites. The IRSEP was founded by students in 1952, making it the University of Minnesota’s oldest exchange program. It’s one of the many programs and scholarships the University offers, except it takes you to really interesting, uncommon places for travel. The five different options are Quito, Ecuador; Tianjin, China; Penang, Malaysia; Berlin, Germany; and finally, Reykjavik, Iceland. They all sound like really cool places, so I know I would have trouble choosing!

Participating students would serve as an ambassador for the program, before and after their travels. To apply, junior or senior status is required. The Learning Abroad Center has more information regarding the scholarship and its destinations.