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If you’re getting ready to study abroad, then this post is for you.  Yes, it does reference going to Ireland mostly, but there are some good pointers for wherever you may be headed!  Aleyse Peterson, my good friend from Augsburg College, fills us in on her preparation experience for studying abroad in Ireland in the fall of 2009.  It wasn’t as much work as she had first expected; the biggest thing on her end was acquiring a passport.

So what is getting a passport like?

According to Aleyse, it’s a simple process.  “You just go to wherever nearest to you they do passports, fill out the paperwork, and they take your picture. Then you wait for however many weeks until you receive it in the mail. For Ireland, if you are there for 90 days or less, you do not need a Visa.”

You can find applications at post offices, learning abroad centers, and on the U.S travel site.

Is there any other paperwork?

“I had paperwork for my program I was going through—one piece of which I had to have signed by a notary.” Notaries do the official verification of legal matters—in this case, financial business.

“The best part is, when I got to immigration in Ireland, the guy I got was really nice, and when I said I was from IES, he didn’t even make me show him the papers,” said Aleyse.  “If you are in the country for only 90 days or less, you don’t need a visa. Well, our program was for 110 days or something like that, so it was up to immigration if they wanted to make us go pay 150 Euros to get a Visa. About half of us had to; I got lucky and didn’t.”

What is packing like?

“It was interesting. You have to try and fit everything you will need for three and a half months into as little baggage as possible! Not easy.” Said Aleyse.  “I ended up taking two suitcases, one bigger than the other, and paying the extra for the second bag. Oh, and I had my carry on.”

Aleyse’s packing style: one bag for clothes, one bag for toiletries and other everyday items, and a carry on full of electronics—especially a digital camera!

“Everything is more expensive in Ireland than here, as it is around most of Europe, so bring what you can with you from the states. That’s just an opinion though.”

There you have it then—a few tips in preparation from an experienced traveler (did I mention she’s been to Costa Rica and a bunch of other states across the nation)!  So good luck to all you future study abroaders with getting your passport, doing any other paperwork, and deciding what to bring with you!

Not as sunny as Greece or as romantic as France (and still recovering from Soviet rule), Poland is usually overlooked by the student traveler. But the country’s eccentric combination of history, nature, and nightlife may help to put it on the map, according to a host of recent travel articles:

Veteran traveler and television personality Rick Steves touts Krakow, Poland, as both “the next Prague” and the “Boston of Poland” in his CNN article. With historic sites at Main Market Square, folksy market stalls, affordable dining, and pastoral countrysides, Krakow has a unique and sometimes wacky spin on history. A salt mine just outside the city, for example, houses an underground cathedral carved entirely out of salt.

According to the New York Times, the city of Wroclaw has an equally unique combination of modernism and history. Over 150 bronze dwarfs, symbolic of the communist resistance movement in the 1980s, have dotted the city since 2001.

But don’t let its quirky exterior fool you: Residents praise the vitality of the “young” town, as evidenced by student-friendly clubs and cafes. The article also lists recommended hotels, restaurants, and sights.

Even the Polish sector of Minneapolis is having its own revival. Previously ruled by Polish delis and clothing stores, the 13th Avenue stretch of northeast Minneapolis is now home to art galleries, restaurants, and record stores, according to the New York Times. Neighborhood artists and students alike can afford nights out at the well-priced Anchor Fish & Chips or the 331 Club (no cover charge).

Experience the offbeat culture of Poland for yourself with a semester-long study abroad program in Warsaw. And since Rick Steve says that it is one of Europe’s least expensive countries, Poland may even be worth an independent trip.

As of Monday, I have 8 days until I arrive in Europe.  I am kind of nervous so I sent out an email to my friends who have gone abroad, and this is the general consensus:

  • Dublin: my friend, Jenny, said I had to go because she “loved it there. It’s way more laid back then London, which you will need when you have been there for a bit.”  She also recommended going on the countryside bus ride because “it is so beautiful.” My other friend, Steph, said that Dublin was fun.  She heard Glasgow is cool and not so touristy, but she never got the chance to go.

  • Italy: Steph said, “If you’re going to go anywhere in Italy go to Rome, there is so much to see and do there.”  Sophie also suggested going to Rome, if anywhere in Italy.  She said she really enjoyed the history, and things to see there.

  • Greece: I have heard great things about the islands, but the mainland is “dirty” and “touristy.” Steph said, “Santorini and Mikonos (the Grecian islands)…is a far plane ride but it was the best trip I’ve EVER taken and I know you will love it! My friend, Brooke, says to avoid Greece.  She said that it was just too hard to get to, and you really don’t have enough time to enjoy it.  She said “save it for the honeymoon!”

  • Barcelona: This is the #1 place my friends said to visit.  Three of them said it was one of their favorite places in Europe.  Sophie said, “I’m not sure if I’m biased but my favorite city is Barcelona by far!” Steph said “It’s amazing and if you go, go to CHUPITOS.  It’s a shot bar and its unbelievable!” Read the rest of this entry »

Two of the Schoenstatt sisters read the morning paper in the center's dining room. They are particularly happy because the center was mentioned in the paper!

Most student travelers decide to stay in hostels or with host families when they go abroad. But my friend Leesha a junior at the University of Minnesota, relies on the hospitality of Catholic sisters in different convents around the world.

I asked her why she chose such an unusual travel experience, what the living conditions are like, and whether non-religious people are welcome. Ever the English Major, Leesha took her assignment seriously, describing the two weeks she spent in Australia in 2008:

So what made me want to stay with a bunch of nuns? Well, being Catholic, I knew there were places I could stay internationally that would be clean, safe, and cheap. These places are convents or even monasteries.

The Schoenstatt sisters of Mary are part of laity in Catholicism which means that they minister specifically to the lay people, and are not a cloistered convent, in which the sisters are mostly or entirely removed from secular society. The Schoenstatt (sh-uhn-shtah-tt) shrines are places of pilgrimage.

In Australia, the Schoenstatt sisters had three buildings, plus the shrine itself. The bedrooms usually have two beds, and we were able to do our laundry at the shrine while we were there, a much-needed amenity.

I found out about the Schoenstatt sisters through friends of mine. As for other convents, I have friends who know different orders in the various countries I hope to visit (France and Italy, for example), so I’ve been asking them for the email contacts or phone numbers of these orders.

One of the orders I found out about through some friends are the Little Sisters of the Lamb. They are a mendicant order, which means that they beg for their food daily. In spite of their poverty, the sisters are very hospitable, so my friends assure me.

Read the rest of this entry »

A common rumor about Europe is that Europeans hate Americans for, well, being American. But how true is this rumor? I myself have heard it on several occasions, and I’ve witnessed it firsthand during my travels to France. As far as I could tell, after being in France for a week, the French did not particularly like American tourists, at least not the ones that refused to attempt the French language.

My good friend Alasdair, a Natural resources major at the University of Connecticut, filled me in on what he thought.  He spent almost a year studying in Germany, and had some surprising things to say about the rumor. According to him, Europeans that he met were indifferent to the fact that he and his friends were American. He said that he didn’t notice any outright hostility from the citizens of Germany. He mused about the possible reasoning, “I feel that after Obama was elected, most Europeans sort of had a renewed faith in Americans.” His girlfriend Amanda accompanied him on his trip to Germany, and together they had some interesting experiences.

“While Amanda and I were in Brugge, Belgium, we were in a grocery store purchasing provisions when a little old lady overheard us speaking English. We got to talking and we asked her some good local places to see and do in town. She got so excited she invited us back to her house around the corner and was telling everyone in the streets ‘I’m with Americans.’ She was so adorable and excited to be hosting Americans. At her house, she helped us plan the rest of our Valentine’s weekend, treated us to a glass of wine in her finest crystal, and let us meet her adorable dog. She also gave us a teddy bear because it was Valentine’s Day.”

Since I know Alasdair to be very well mannered and educated, I couldn’t imagine that he would encounter a European that disliked him. And after reading his responses, I concluded that any hostility directed toward Americans was due to their actions, and not their nationality. “I came across a few more stereotypical Americans once in a jazz cave. They were pretty drunk and trying to bust their way on to the stage. I guess because it was a pretty loose jam, they thought it was open mic night or something. Everyone there got pretty upset about it and they were obviously American (baseball hats, jeans, etc.).”

Maybe it’s just Germany that contradicts the rumor, but either way, this rumor has a lot less truth to it than it’s given credit for.  When studying abroad, it’s even easier to make a fool of yourself as it is in America.  Be aware of the customs and the culture, and you’ll be just fine.

We’ve all experienced head-smacking moments during our travels. We realize that we forgot to bring enough cab money, or that the person who described December weather in Mexico as “cold” has clearly never been to the Midwest. Despite the plethora of travel guides available, there are some things that only an experienced traveler can tell you.

My friend David, a junior double-majoring in Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering and Spanish, has been studying abroad in Toledo, Spain, since January. I asked him over email about some of the surprising things he’s discovered about life in Spain over the past few months.

1.  What was the first thing you bought in Spain?

Food, I think, as in groceries.

2. What was the last thing you bought?

A beer.

3. What do you wish you had remembered to pack?

My cord to connect my camera to my computer (luckily my brother brought it when he came to visit).

4. Was something insanely expensive there?

Food in restaurants. I love going to restaurants in the states to try new foods and was expecting to do so here. But unless you want to destroy your wallet, you don’t really go to restaurants.

5. What is surprisingly cheap?

Bread is surprisingly cheap. They eat baguette type bread with everything (you can get it anywhere) and it’s really good. It [costs] as low as 40 euro cents for a loaf of it, which is very filling. That’s less than a dollar.

Read the rest of this entry »

Below a redwood at Henry Cowell SP

Last month, I spent an afternoon at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

It was 80 degrees outside but felt like 60 in the park. If you’re looking for sunshine avoid redwoods, they own it.

I won’t attempt to describe these trees beyond the fact that they’re huge. But I will say that Henry Cowell Redwoods SP has a couple defining features:  more trees than people, and quietude.

Depending on the nature of your studies abroad, maybe a day at a tree’s pace will do some good. See LonelyPlanet’s list of international tree reserves.

If you’re more than a tree tourist, the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Biology offers international research programs through the National Science Foundation.

In any case, here’s a picture I took of a squirrel at the park:

Spoiled

A few days ago my parents received a photo atlas of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in southern Colorado, authored and illustrated by a family friend. He runs a small photography business from his website, and has gained prestige in the field of digital photography over the years. Last year I interviewed him about his photography, and he offered the following advice to newbies: “Now there are so many possibilities of taking good technical pictures that lots of people can jump into it. A distinguished photo is good or bad based on its composition.”

I’m amazed at how many students that go abroad transform into prolific photographers.  With so many photo ops abroad, it’s worth taking a few minutes to learn some tips on taking good pictures. Here are a few very basic photographic rules from my parent’s friend that are guaranteed to make your pictures better.

1. Divide your picture screen into three equal parts. Try to have the object of a photo in just one of them. This is called the Rule of Thirds.

2. For portraits, make sure there aren’t any background objects that stick out of your subject’s head.  Even shadows can make a person’s head look a little lopsided or goofy.

3. Also for portraits, make sure you don’t cut out any body part at the limbs.  People tend to look disfigured in pictures when this happens.

After watching Kim (Maggie Grace) get kidnapped on her Parisian vacation by sex-traffickers in the movie Taken, I’ve dumped my plan of traveling Europe alone. The likelihood of something similar happening, however, is probably small. Pickpocketing appears to be the national crime of France, and you’re far more likely to suffer from a vehicle accident than from a crime at the hands of a trafficker. Still, I’ve been unable to find out if kidnapping is a serious problem for Americans in Europe or not; there is an absence of public government stats addressing the question. At any rate, it’s best to be safe. Here are three things every student going abroad should do:

1. Leave an itinerary with someone. If people know where you’re going they’ll know where to look if something goes wrong.  Make it as detailed as possible too!

2. Be alert. Be aware. Check out the U.S. Department of State’s student international safety page before you travel. The site has a nice feature that allows you to check out country specific information, such as crime trends.

3.  Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in the U.S. Yes, Prague is pretty at night, but so is Chicago and New York, and you probably wouldn’t scamper through the residential streets alone at night in those cities. This point also has another meaning—don’t break the law. You could end up in prison facing much harsher penalties than in the U.S. According to the L.A. Times, London, a likely study abroad spot, is the #4 city that Americans are likely to be arrested in.

Ok. I’m behind the times on this one. Last week I was at the MSP airport, and while waiting in line for customs, I saw some impressive technology.  I was in the last stretch of those slow-moving Tensabarrier lines, and I was up next to show my papers to the T.S.A. officer. But the traveler ahead of me had no ticket. He just swiped his mobile phone over a small box next to the T.S.A., showed his license, and went on to screening.

The box had a glass face sensor like a grocery check out, and it flashed red when the phone passed over it. I didn’t catch on. It was another security measure I figured. So I dug out my own phone, and asked the T.S.A. if I needed it scanned. I didn’t. He told me that the other guy’s phone was actually his boarding pass.

The New York Times ran a piece on mobile device check in. Apparently, what I saw isn’t new. Half a dozen U.S. airlines including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, and Alaska have adopted the technology. But only Continental allows complete paper free passage from customs to the plane. All other airlines still require paper verification before boarding.

They look cool, and they’re smarter. According to the Times, the electronic passes use a two-dimensional encrypted bar code instead of the one-dimensional bar code printed on paper. The electronic code is tougher to crack, which is why it flies with the T.S.A.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me and use a mobile device without Internet access, you’ll need to upgrade. Palmtop computers or smartphones, like the iPhone, Blackberry, and Razr, will do the trick.