Shoeless and Austrian: Thoughts after a year abroad
Louis Nelson lounges barefoot in Italy. His year abroad has taught him lessons concerning language and life. Photo Courtesy of Louis Nelson.
After eight months, change is what I tell people when they ask me how long I have been in Linz, Austria.
Like every student abroad, and at home, will say there are moments when it’s hard, stressful and you feel like no one cares. There are weekends where you do the Netflix binge and eat as close to American as you possibly can, and try to dig in and find the motivation to keep going with your schoolwork. (I personally am about out of things to watch on TV.)
But, not unlike everything else, studying abroad is not without its extraordinary moments. I have spent collectively over a 100 hours on a train. I have been to six new countries I have never been before Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Hungary. I have both seen the Eiffel Tower and ran with the bulls. Literally, I ran with the bulls one weekend in Spain barefoot.
On the surface, my day begins just as every other college student. I get up out of bed hating the fact that I took a morning class, stumble around in the dark until I find a hot cup of black tea, then make a mad dash to my classroom so I am not late. From there, the similarities end. I have been in Linz, Austria, roughly eight months and, to the best of my knowledge, gotten the hang of things.
To be fair, Linz and Knoxville share a lot in common. They both have the same climate, and mountains are not too far away, though the Alps are considerably bigger than the Smokies. The people are nice, and the atmosphere generally resembles a student town. Though, where our two towns shine is culture and Knoxvillians are wildly different from Linzers.
So, coming into Johannes Kepler Universität, or as everyone calls it “Uni,” which is what university is referred to in both German and English throughout Europe. I am greeted with 16,000of my closest friends.
Many people have asked me if American schools are bigger by comparison, I have to explain that my school is about 16 times smaller. For example, the building I currently reside in could easily swallow both Thaw and Bartlett and two out of three of Copeland, Davis, or Gamble. It is among the biggest in Linz.
My living quarters consists of a bedroom and a kitchen that I share with two Russian roommates. Their names are Alex and Cyril (pronounced like breakfast: cereal). I did not think that sounded Russian enough so I gave them the nicknames: Igor and Ivanov. They have learned to adapt to my sense of humor, but, like every living situation, there are disagreements.
In case you were wondering. Austria is totally a barefoot friendly country despite what the study abroad coordinators at home say. Except for January and February, due to the unhealthy amount of rock salt that seems to cut your feet up, I have been barefoot the whole time. Most times I don’t even think of packing shoes.
Unlike most Americans, I cannot make it through the day without changing languages at least twice. And, to add one thing you take for granted back in the states is that you understand every person who is talking around you because more often than not it is in English.
In Europe, it is common not to understand what people are conversing about. On any given day, I hear Spanish, Russian, French, Italian, Turkish and, of course, Austrian dialect to name a few. My official language the past eight months has been a healthy dose of “Denglish,” a combination of German, referred to as Deutsch, and English. As my language skills have improved, it is common to hold conversations in German. Though I don’t fully understand Austrian dialect, much of it has rubbed off in my German and my pronunciation has changed a lot from what I have learned back in the states. For those of you studying German we say “Ja” or yes as “Jo” this is pronounced as “yo” and “nein” or no as “nah.”
After some discussions, people always ask what is the hardest part of studying abroad. For a lot of people, it can be missing your friends or family. I personally have not been able to find much of a shamanistic community, a religion I have had for about six years now, here in Linz, so in adapting I have been studying eastern philosophy with regards to Buddhism. For other people, homesickness can be the little things celebrating holidays like Thanksgiving or the fourth of July, cookie dough since there is no such thing as cookie dough in Austria the only way is to make it) or peanut butter, which is also unavailable.
For all of the difficulties of studying abroad, there will be a couple of things that I will miss. No one in his or her life has the freedom of a study abroad student. The only thing that limits you is your creativity. You can make things as hard or as easy as you want them to be. I, for example, took a bunch of risks and went to great lengths to bond and come to understand Austrians. That carries a lot of hardships but overwhelmingly they were worth it.
I think my biggest moment of self-revelation was during my trip to France, throughout the whole experience through that particular country I was homesick, not for America and peanut butter, but for Austria. In that moment, you really do see how much you have changed. If I had to describe study abroad it would be like this: virtually everything feels exactly the same, but slowly and surely as you inch along things do begin to change. Things that mattered so much to you before, fall away and new things start to matter.
You begin to see all the ideas and possibilities, you think bigger and dream bigger. Then one day someone comes along with a huge mirror and suddenly it hits you how far you came in eight months and change
For those of you thinking about studying abroad, here is my message to you. Do it, if you can for longer than six months. Six months is a vacation and, honestly, by the time you figure everything out, you are going to be on your way back home. Studying abroad is not all lights and glamor; if you are doing it correctly it is likely going to be repetitive and stressful with a lot of failures.
In the middle of the struggles, you will have the time of your life.
And, in looking back at all of the mistakes you made, you will realize the failures were not so bad after all.