(What they don’t tell you in) Steps to Study Abroad

At the mandatory pre-departure meeting for all Amherst students spending a semester abroad, the Director of Education Abroad explains what you should expect from your trip, going over such issues as transferring credit, emergency evacuations, and culture shock.

If I had culture shock upon touching down in Europe, it was in the best way possible. I didn’t use, during my five months in Germany, any of the Amherst resources I was given before leaving. What I did find, however, was that I could have used some basic (and I mean basic) tips on how to start out in a new country. So, as many juniors prepare to embark on their spring semesters overseas, I offer a less abstract analog to the ‘packing light’ theme I wrote about in September. Here are some thoughts on how to prepare, what to pack, and a few unexpected realizations I’ve had while living in Berlin.

Limit your expectations

In other words, you can and should have a sense of where you’re going without building an anticipated script for your experience. Setting expectations too high might result in something like the Paris Syndrome. Learn to embrace surprise; learn to live and love the present.

Prepare to lose or gain weight

Regardless of whether you love or hate the food of your chosen country, your diet will inevitably change and your body will change with it. And that’s okay! Just don’t be surprised if you end up coming home needing a couple new pairs of pants.

You don’t need as many clothes as you think

Take a minute and look through your tagged-photos on Facebook from the last two years. By virtue of the medium, the outfits that come most often are the ones you feel most comfortable publicly presenting yourself in. Pack those. Lay out everything else you’re so much as considering taking with you; seeing it all at once helps. If you hesitate even for a second, you don’t care strongly enough to bring it on a non-permanent trip. Leave it. You only realize upon leaving Amherst—a place where you run into roughly the same 300 people day after day in your tiny campus circuits—that people in the real world really don’t care if you re-wear clothes. Simply put: pack light.

Dress appropriately

I was lucky enough to move to a city that celebrates the trash-chic look, but other places and occasions might warrant dressing professionally (do you think you could have a job interview?), dressing respectfully (are you going to any religious sites?), or dressing warmly (will there be snow?). Worse than packing more than you need is packing what you don’t need at all. In Berlin, where high heels and gratuitous makeup guarantee rejection at the club door, a lot of my female compatriots saw their beloved accessories gather dust over the course of the semester.

Be prepared for less than ideal laundry situations

Unless you’re lucky enough to have laundry provided in your living space, washing clothes will be a much bigger chore than at home. Even if you have a washing machine, it’s likely that you won’t have a drier—people in other countries tend to hang-dry their clothing. I had both units in my apartment, but one small load cost 5 euro (equivalent of 7 dollars) to wash. Unless it’s stained or particularly smelly, there’s little reason to clean it.

Leave some space in your bag

Again, pack light: you’ll be happier for it when your program ends. You will almost definitely acquire things, whether souvenirs, new clothes, or course materials you’ll find useful later on, and you do NOT want to have to deal with the disastrous (and expensive) process of shipping boxes back stateside.

Bring your toiletries

Most European countries rely on a system of locally owned pharmacies rather than corporate chains like CVS and Rite Aid for the sale of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. This means that a lot of the big brands you’re used to won’t be stocked there. Before I left, everyone told me to leave everything disposable at home—it would make my suitcase weigh more, they said, and I’d be able to get everything I needed upon arrival. But toiletries are consumable and will therefore leave extra space in your luggage. Also, it’s likely you won’t find exactly what you’re accustomed to. Like, no Diet Coke in Europe. And even if you do find something similar, if you’re not totally fluent in the local language you might inadvertently buy the wrong thing. It took me much time and many failed attempts to find a simple daily multivitamin. Also, pack a jar of peanut butter. It’s surprisingly hard to come by elsewhere in the world, and it’s a nice reminder of home. You won’t regret it.

these guys were a little too close for comfort
These guys were just a little too close for comfort

Know exactly where you’ll be living

I knew that my program was located in the southwest part of Berlin, but I had no conception of how geographically massive the city (which is, in actuality, an entire German state) was. It turned out that our apartments were closer to forests and farms than to any recognizable Berlin neighborhood. If I’d have known, I might have looked into independent housing options; more likely, I’d have at least memorized the name of my subway stop before getting hopelessly lost in suburban Brandenburg. Unless you’re a particularly precocious metro rider, such trial-by-fire is the only way you’ll truly triumph over the public transit system of a new place.

Other quick tips

If you have time, travel after your program ends. Just because you finished your last final exam doesn’t mean you need to book your fight home.

Don’t worry about looking or acting too much like an American–like it or not, American you will be, even overseas.

Send post cards often and to many people: friends, family, and professors will all be touched to receive them.

And please, use your eyes and not your cameras to look at things when visiting new places.