Wednesday, August 3, 2016

4 Things Learned While Abroad

1.     People are not as different as we think

Living in a rather insulated country like the United States, it’s very easy to acquire an “us vs. them” mentality.  We often see the world through our ethnocentric lenses, and judge other cultures in comparison to our own. This is natural, but it is a grave mistake if left unchecked. Sure, there are real cultural and societal differences between different countries, and oftentimes the differences are great, but one thing I learned by spending so much time around non-Americans is that at the end of the day, we are all much more alike than we believe. I mean, after all, we are all human, with the same base instincts and biological drives. Whether a person I met was from Brazil, Spain, Germany, or Turkey, they wanted things similar to what I want: to enjoy being young, to find a career they love, to travel and see new things, to be happy.

2.     The perception of the U.S. is far from cut-and-dry

Before arriving in Europe, I knew that people abroad had varying opinions of our country, but I came to realize just how nuanced these views can be. Lots of people I came across seemed to have a favorable opinion of the U.S., or at the very least they were just interested in our culture and cities. But many others had a rather negative opinion, citing our involvement abroad, especially recently in the Middle East, and our air of global superiority among other things. I personally took no offense at these opinions, because I enjoy hearing outside views that challenge some of my own, but I was nevertheless surprised by some of the scathing perceptions.

3.     Travel is one of the greatest things there is, but it’s not always easy and not always glamorous

If you have an open mind, an adventurous spirit, and a yearning to meet new people, then the old cliché holds true: travel is one of the greatest experiences there is. However, living in a different country isn’t always fun and games. It can be frustrating not always being able to speak what’s on your mind; it can be scary at times being far away from everyone you’ve ever known; and the cultural differences can be overwhelming. But instead of being a downside to travel, I believe this is what ultimately makes travel enjoyable and meaningful. It’s one thing to take a vacation-like trip to a country and ride the euphoric high of all of the novelty and interesting things for a few days. You never really have to overcome and serious obstacles and the whole experience is temporary and fun. But when you live in a new country for an extended period of time, you’re going to have ups and downs, because as the Buddha once said, “Life is suffering”, and that suffering (bad days, challenges, etc.) isn’t going to stop just because you’re in a cool new place. But I found that rather than worsening my experience, these challenges actually enhanced it and endeared my host city to me. By going through the trials and tribulations of daily life in Madrid, I felt like I was actually living there, not just a visitor passing through. Retiro Park became my escape when I needed to walk and think; my go-to café became my work sanctuary, where I could order my café con leche and get down to business; my gym became a place of rejuvenation.

4.     There’s a big difference between living and visiting/vacationing in a new place

Frankly, after writing this piece, I realized how similar this point is to the last one, but I‘m going to leave it anyway because I think it deserves reiteration. This is something that became very clear to me after leaving Madrid a couple times to spend a weekend in another place. While visiting somewhere, you’re usually in vacation mindset and most everything is new and fun. You know you’ve only got a few days or a week in this place so you make the most of it and pack your days with fun activities. But actually living in a new city, no matter how much fun and how many interesting things there are, always involves ups and downs. After the initial honeymoon phase wears off, and some sense of normalcy sets in, life as usual resumes. Now, this isn’t to say that living longer-term in a new city or country gets exponentially worse. I would actually say the post-normalizing period makes the experience that much richer. It’s one thing to visit somewhere and be on cloud nine the whole time, but actually living life—which of course means challenges and bad days—in this place makes it feel like home. I look back just as fondly on the obstacles I surmounted during my time in Madrid as I do on all of the great times I had there.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Study Abroad Mindset

The Study Abroad Mindset
            In my last post, I discussed some tangible tips that I hope will help students planning on going abroad. This time around, I want to write about something that I consider even more important: the proper mindset to have a great experience while studying in another country. These tips will help the student who wants to see many places during her trip while getting to know her host city well; who wants an authentic cultural experience; who hopes to learn the language well; and who hopes to have many new experiences. As I’m sure most people fall into one or all of these categories, this list should contain something for everyone.

1.    When learning language, you must set aside ego and perfectionism
This is the most important part of language learning. It’s more important than grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. When we learn our first language, a big part of the reason we learn it so well and so fast is because at our young age, we aren’t ashamed to make mistakes. We stumble through sentences, mispronounce words, and butcher grammar, but it doesn’t matter. This is much more difficult with a second language because we already speak a first language fluently and it’s embarrassing to sound like a three-year-old again. We want to be able to communicate our thoughts and dominate the language, but we can’t yet. It’s also more difficult because as we grow older, we become more self-conscious and develop an ego that gets in the way of allowing ourselves to fail.
            When you go abroad, let go of this perfectionist approach to language learning, as it will only block your progress and leave you frustrated. Embrace the opportunity to learn and the challenges that come with it. Make thousands of mistakes and sound like a child, because that is the only way you will improve.

2.    Seek to meet new people and learn about them and through them
If there’s one thing that I can guarantee about a study abroad trip, it’s that you will meet a ton of new people. This usually includes other Americans and foreigners in addition to the natives of your host country. Please take advantage of the incredible diversity and collection of interesting people you will come across. Tell yourself you’re going to aim to meet someone new each day, whether that’s at your university, on the metro, or through a language exchange event. And seek to learn about these people, because chances are many of them come from very different walks of life than you, and they will open your eyes and your mind.
In the heading of this section, when I said to learn “through” people, I was specifically referring to natives, and I mean to learn about their country by talking with them. You will learn a lot about beliefs, customs, norms, and even swear words, through them (honestly, one of my favorite things was learning colloquial sayings and swear words while talking with Spanish people). This is one of the most fun parts of living abroad, and most of this you can’t learn inside of a classroom. Getting close to the native people opens up so many doors and leave you with lifelong friends.

3.    Try to break your routine when you can and do new things
After a few weeks of living in Madrid, I established a routine and living became easier and more automatic. This is a very natural thing and quite necessary if you want to get comfortable in a completely new city. Not having to worry daily about where you’re going to get groceries, how you’re going to get to class, and how much money you should be spending, ends up saving a ton of energy and makes for a much more enjoyable experience. However, this routine also presents a problem: you’ve got a limited amount of time in this new place, and you most likely want to see and try as many new things as possible while you can. My solution to this was breaking my routine.
A routine breaker could be as simple as taking a different route to class or eating at a new restaurant, but it serves a couple importance purposes. First, it gets you in a new environment and around new people, which is the whole point of studying abroad. And second, adventure breeds more adventure. Trying new things will give you more confidence to do so again and again, which will ultimately enhance your trip. The key to breaking your routine is being conscious of it and deliberate about it. You can’t assume that you will naturally burst out of your comfort zone just because you’re in a new country. We’re creatures of habit and once a routine is formed, it becomes automatic and difficult to break. Therefore, be aware of this tendency and do your best to shake things up!

            Note: When I talk about routine breaking, I’m referring to your time in your host city. When traveling, you won’t really have much of a routine since you’re constantly on the go, and due to the fact that you only have a few days in a given place is enough motivation to see all there is to see. At “home” it’s much easier to fall back onto habits because you’ve got much more time there and there are commitments that structure your time, such as class.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Four Practical Study Abroad Tips for a Great Experience

In this post, I’m going to provide some tips for studying abroad that will improve your experience and make things easier in the long run. Some of these tips are things that I learned by not doing myself, and wishing I had done, or by doing myself and realizing that they made a big difference. Please note that these aren’t one-size-fits-all recommendations; know yourself and your goals for studying abroad when deciding whether to heed my advice. Let’s get going.

1.     1. Know the ins-and-outs of your city before arriving

When you are deciding where to study, it’s a great idea to create a list of prioritized criteria. For example, if a nearby airport is a must for you, make sure the cities you’re considering have one. I was fortunate, because I came to realize many of the things that made Madrid a perfect study abroad spot for me after the fact. To provide examples, I’m going to discuss some of the things that I really came to appreciate about my host city, but remember that these are things that were great for me. You need to do some soul-searching yourself and think about what’s going to allow you yourself to have an awesome experience.
            First of all, Madrid has a prime location in Spain. Situated in the center of the country, it’s manageable to travel to any Spanish city without needing to fly or take a high-speed train. For people living in the far south of the country, traveling to Barcelona or somewhere else in the north is quite a long trip, and vice versa. Be aware of other cities or sites you’d like to see in relation to the location of your city of choice when deciding.
The ease of transportation in Madrid was incredible. This goes for all levels: within the city, to other cities in Spain, and to other countries in Europe. With the national airport just a half hour metro ride from my apartment, I never had to fly out of anywhere else. I can’t stress how convenient this is, especially if you are someone who is going to be traveling most weekends.
Next, the Spaniards in Madrid spoke a very neutral Spanish, and were always willing to speak it. This is something I was well aware of before arriving, yet it was still a great feature of the city. If you’re hoping to learn the language, be aware of the accent or even dialect spoken in your city of choice. This isn’t to say that certain accents or dialects are better than others, but it could be the difference between you understanding the language and not understanding a thing. It also depends how you want to speak, and how you want to sound when you speak. Language is extremely dynamic, and can change even from city to city, so do some research on how the people of your desired city talk. For example, in Barcelona, the official language is Catalan, which has similarities with Spanish, but is really a different language altogether. This region of Spain also has a strong independence movement; so many people aren’t exactly keen to speak Spanish, and even prefer speaking English to Spanish-speaking visitors. Therefore, it can be difficult to practice the language. So if language learning is something you’re interested in, keep this in mind.
Finally, there were seemingly endless things to do in Madrid, which kept me busy (and also made procrastination easy) all semester. There are tons of cool cafes and bars to check out, a great theater and musical scene, plenty of green space and beautiful parks, world-class museums, awesome shopping, nearby cities when you want to get away, and much more. I don’t need to explain the value of having a fun and interesting city to live in, and most popular study abroad cities have plenty to offer, but consider your unique interests when researching. For example, as someone who loves to be outside and stay active, having Retiro Park and plenty of other green space in the middle of an otherwise urban jungle proved to be priceless.
These are just a few ideas of criteria to consider when choosing a city, presented along with my personal examples in Madrid. I didn’t apply them to Madrid so you could look for a similar city, but so you could see how this worked out for me. Spending some time thinking about these things on the front end will make your trip far better in the long run.

2.      2. If you’re looking to learn the language, and learn it well, do a homestay or stay in a residence hall/apartment with natives

This is something I learned by not doing, and while I wouldn’t say I regret not living with Spanish-speakers, it definitely would have helped with learning the language. There are of course plenty of opportunities to practice outside of home, but the real value of living with native-speakers is not just that it facilitates speaking the language, but that it discourages, even prevents, you from speaking English. Half of the battle of learning a language is learning the language itself—the grammar, vocab, expressions, etc.—and applying them in conversation. But the other half is getting in the frame of mind of speaking a language, which requires using that language exclusively as much as possible. Living with native-speakers is great for this. It’s also a fantastic way to learn more about the culture and the natives, which is arguably the best part of studying abroad.
            Now, I would be remiss to leave out some of the potential downsides of doing a homestay, which is living with a native family. First, you’re on the family’s schedule, which means you are expected to be present at meals unless you notify them. Obviously, this also means your meals are prepared for you, which can be great or a sense of anxiety, depending on your specific needs and dietary choices. There’s a good chance that your homestay is located further from the center of the city—families tend to live in quieter neighborhoods away from the hustle and bustle. I talked with people who didn’t mind this at all, and to others who really disliked having to take a long metro ride all of the time. I had yet other friends who got a great location for their homestay and loved it. This shouldn’t impede you from doing one, but it’s something to keep in mind. Finally, don’t think that you’ll be tied down in your host city every weekend, unable to travel, because of choosing a homestay. Everyone I knew in Madrid who lived with a family was able to travel as much as they wanted.
            The residence hall or apartment with natives or native-speakers is a great middle ground option. You have complete independence, but will likely still be speaking the language very well. An added benefit of this is that you’re exposed to the modern usage of the language. By talking with people your age, you’ll learn how to speak more naturally and informally.

3.     3. Create a budget and prioritize the big things

Establishing a budget before you leave is very important for two reasons: (1) you want to be able to do everything you want to do and (2) you don’t want to go completely broke trying to do it. There are plenty of methods for budgeting, so I won’t get into that here, but I would highly recommend setting aside money for big-ticket items, like travel, first. Begin looking up transportation and lodging prices for the places you want to visit and make financial space fir these costs. Towards the end of my trip, I began running low on money and didn’t travel as much as I could have in the last couple months, which could have been avoided with smarter budgeting (although being “trapped” in Madrid wasn’t too bad either). This also lets you know what kind of lifestyle you can live while you’re in your host city. If you know you want to travel a lot and it’s taking up a good portion of your budget, then you can cut back on the routine costs like eating out and buying clothes.

4.     4. Journal as often as possible

As we all know, from losing our phones daily to forgetting someone’s name ten seconds after you meet them, our minds and memories are quite fallible. Additionally, research shows that when we recall memories, we inevitably reconstruct them, changing little details each time until they’re almost unrecognizable from the original. So don’t trust your noggin to store all of the memories and thoughts you have while you’re traveling. I highly recommend frequent journaling to record all of these things. I would aim to write daily, even if it’s just a few sentences about something you did that day, but a couple times a week or at least a weekly journal will do the job, too. Besides acting as an external hard drive, journaling also encourages an awareness of what you’re experiencing on your trip. Living in a new country is a blur and it’s hard to digest things on the fly, but writing about them helps as it’s akin to thinking out loud. After a journal session, you may come to realize that you’re getting a little too comfortable in your routine and that you need to do some more exploring and shake things up. Or it may just help you realize how much you’re learning and growing along the way. Regardless, journaling is a great idea for your trip.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these four tips! If you have any questions about something I didn’t cover here, please comment or reach out to me at

Monday, May 16, 2016

Some of My Favorite Spots in Madrid



Alhambra and I go way back. It was the first restaurant I ate at when I arrived in Madrid, and my apartment ended up being just down the street from it. This is without a doubt the restaurant I've frequented most since I've been here—between me and my roommates, we come here at least a few times per week. The best option at Alhambra is the menu del día (menu of the day, in English). For just 12 euros, you get a drink, two plates, and a dessert/coffee. It's a ton of food. The waiting staff is also great, and we've received free shots or a bottle of wine when we only ordered a glass, thanks to singlehandedly keeping the lights on.


I have no shame in confessing that one of my favorite places to eat in Madrid is a burger joint. Bacoa started in Barcelona, and has since extended to Madrid, but I have a feeling they'll take over Spain (if not the world) soon enough. As good as the food is the environment and company culture. Bacoa is very progressive, using only recyclable materials, 100% natural beef, and promoting sustainability and environmental awareness.

Rosi La Loca

Another great restaurant and tapas place that was a staple during my time here.



La Ciudad Invisible

My favorite cafe in Madrid is this travel-themed cafe located just outside of Sol, very close to where I live. It's got great coffee, phenomenal tea, and the environment is perfect. There's a large table in the center (see photo) where you can do work with plenty of space, and smaller tables located throughout both floors where you can meet with someone and have a few drinks. The music here is always on point, too.

Café Federal

One of my favorite cafes, but also one of the best breakfast destinations I've found in Madrid. It's harder than you would think to find a good, hardy breakfast here as the typical Spanish breakfast consists of a piece of bread or a croissant and coffee. But here they serve the closest thing I've found to an American/English breakfast. It's also a great place to work, and has the best café con leche (coffee with milk) that I've tried.


Café Infinito

A smaller cafe located in the Madrid neighborhood of La Latina, Café Infinito is a cool, hipster-ish cafe that's more quite and therefore a great place to get work done. They also have a really cool take-one-leave-one bookshelf.


La Bicicleta

While technically a cafe, this place is as much a bar as anything, and I've used it more as a bar than a study-spot. La Bicicleta is probably the best-known cafe in Madrid, and it's quite well-deserved. It's situated in the hip neighborhood of Malasaña, is really spacious, and has a very chill atmosphere, perfect for chatting with friends, or working on your term paper.



This trippy, 60's-styled bar, also located in Malasaña, is a really fun and unique spot. They have a great fruit-cider beer that goes perfectly with the bowl of popcorn that comes with each drink. 

La Via Láctea

One of the few bars I've been to in Madrid that has a pool table, automatic bonus points in my book. This is a pretty standard bar, but great music is played and there's quite a bit of space to sit if you're looking to get comfortable with a group of friends.


Retiro Park

Retiro is far and away my favorite place to go to escape the big city, move around a bit, and enjoy nature. It's a true gem that's incredibly located in the center of the city and has something for everyone. There are large open grassy areas with plenty of shade where people go to lay out, nap, read, play music, have a picnic, you name it. The park is filled with paths that are a dream for runners, and there are two workout parks where you can do calisthenics training. Near the back of the near, there is also a pond with the beautiful backdrop of el Monumento Alfonso XII, where you can find street performers, hang out on the steps, or even take a rowboat out for a relaxing cruise on the water (I highly recommend bringing a bottle of wine—specifically Rioja wine—if you do this). For people like me who grew up in a more rural environment and need a break from the city life, even just for a few hours, every once in a while, Retiro is the perfect getaway.