Traveling to a foreign country can be a unique and exciting yet sometimes challenging experience, especially when going alone. It’s one thing to be a guy and travel around the world but as a college female, different and potentially dangerous risk can occur and without warning. Being aware of the risks involved and making smart decisions can make the experience all the more safe. But despite the obvious risks involved, studying abroad provides cultural experiences, challenges you in many different ways and allows you to learn not only more about the world and different societies, but about yourself.
Over the summer of 2014, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Paris for six weeks. I decided that since I was already in Europe, I might as well see more than just Paris. Let me stress the extreme importance of planning your trip out ahead of time. Not only does it make life so much easier by knowing where your going and when but it’s also cheaper when booking hotels and transportation. Long before I left for France, I booked hotels for Brussels, Belgium, Cologne, Germany, and Amsterdam. So, after extensive planning, I took my chances (and independence) and spent two weeks traveling abroad entirely on my own. As excited as I was, certain thoughts brought fear and anxiety.
First came the airplane jitters – the anxiety of having to sit for however many long hours next to someone who’s either hacking up a lung, infecting the entire aircraft with whatever sickness they might have, or sitting in front of a seven year old who gets off kicking the back of your seat, or even that obnoxious crying baby sitting several rows back. Then there’s the stress of making sure you have everything you need and that it weighs exactly 55 lbs. And then, of course, there’s the idiocy of airport security.
Next came the fear of being alone in a foreign country. Since it’s likely there’s a several hour time difference between where you are and where your going, talking to friends and family isn’t as easy as it may seem. Not to mention, you probably won’t even have phone service where your going – unless you feel like paying an arm and a leg for a five minute conversation with your parents.
Then came all the obvious questions – what’s this country like, do they speak English, how hard will it be to make friends, what happens if I get lost etc. In fact, your head spins with so many questions to the point where you just decide, “screw it. I’m going. I’ll figure it out when I get there,” and that’s that.
I flew into Paris on June 5, and my program ended on July 25. For me, there was no culture shock; the instant I landed in France I immediately felt comfortable. In fact, I felt more at home in the first five minutes of being in France then I ever really have here in America. You know that little stereotype that says all French people hate Americans? Not true, at least not if your respectful and at least attempt to learn some basic greetings of the French language. The French people are extremely nice, helpful and mindful of their own business. And, according to my student orientation, the worst that can happen in Paris is getting pick pocketed or being sexually harassed. “Well, it sure as hell beats getting shot and killed like in the U.S.,” I thought. Paris is a magnificently beautiful place where I felt absolutely safe and right at home.
The six weeks I spent in Paris was pretty well supervised. I studied at the American University of Paris (AUP) and stayed in the housing provided by the University. I took two summer classes, but I highly suggest only taking one. You’d think six weeks is plenty of time to explore Paris and still get your work done but it’s not; it’s actually much more time consuming then you’d think. I had four other roommates, all from different parts of the United States, and it was pretty much just like summer camp – minus singing around the campfire.
Tomorrowland, a major EDM festival that takes place every year at the end of July in Boom, Belgium just so happened to be the weekend my program ended, July 25 – July 27. I had already planned on visiting Brussels, Belgium during that time, so with some extreme determination and without hesitation, I luckily managed to buy a ticket, (my hotel was already booked) and catch a train.
I stayed in Brussels from July 25 – July 29. I went to Tomorrowland, by myself. I explored Brussels, by myself. I hoped on a train to Germany, by myself. And then I ended my trip with a week in Amsterdam, by myself. In fact, the moment I left Paris, I left the comfort of being with friends and having a support group behind me. For instance, if I encountered any problems in Paris, it was easy enough to call a roommate or go straight to the AUP Student Affairs office. But, once my program ended and I ventured off into the foreign, unknown world of Europe, I was entirely on my own.
It’s actually not as bad as you might think. I was able to do what I wanted, when I wanted, without having to worry about anyone else. If I wanted to go to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, I went. I was determined to go to Tomorrowland, so I went. I didn’t have to worry about anyone not wanting to do what I wanted to or be forced to miss out on opportunities simply because I didn’t have anybody to go with. Of course, it would have been totally awesome to have had a friend with me – I would have been able to do a lot more, like go out to the bars without having to worry about being taken, but I didn’t let the simple fact that I was alone hold me back from doing anything that I wanted to do.
I will say though, the entire time that I was traveling on my own in Europe I was aware of my surroundings and the potential risks and dangers involved. As nice and friendly as everybody was, I never once told anybody that I was traveling alone. I consider myself to be quite an adorable 22-year-old American female and I’ve seen the movie Taken and the four hour Human Trafficking special on Lifetime – that wasn’t going to happen to me because I wasn’t going to let it.
When your out with friends, it’s easy to go out, drink a little too much and know that you’re friends aren’t going to let anything happen to you. But when your alone in a foreign country with no family or friends on the same continent, it’s a lot different. You ALWAYS have to be aware of your surroundings. Never tell anyone that your alone or where you’re staying, never drink too much (or take drinks from strangers), avoid being overly friendly and know exactly how to get back to the hotel. Oh, and definitely learn the fire and police department numbers because there different in each country.
I chose to stay in hotels rather than in hostels. Yep, I saw that movie too. Even though hostels are extremely cheap, I was alone and figured it was safer, not just for my own well-being, but for my personal items, to spend a little extra money for a little more comfort and security.
This isn’t to scare you from studying abroad. Obviously, I’m alive and well and the experience I had is indescribable. It’s a tremendous learning experience that you will benefit tremendously from. It’s funny, because after having traveled all summer on my own, I’ve noticed subtle differences about myself. I feel that I am much more open, tolerant and accepting of people, I’m not afraid to be alone, and I’m genuinely much happier. Being on your own isn’t scary; it’s actually quite liberating. But as a young college female, it’s better and safer to be aware of the risks and to be smart about making decisions. But, I can almost guarantee that if and when you do travel abroad, the experience will be forever life changing.
words & photo_melissa mallin