By Kayla Weier
So you’ve been accepted to your program, you’ve been to your orientations, you’ve finally gotten your passport back with a probably sub-par photo of you staring back at you from your visa. All that you can do is sit and wait for the impending chaos of study abroad now, right?
Not even close. There are all kinds of things that can give you an extra edge before you even touch down in your host country. Here’s a helpful list of those things those orientations won’t cover from those of us who learned these lessons the hard way.
If you’re going to a non-English speaking country and have no background in the language of your host country, seriously, do your Duolingo. For those of you who haven’t been introduced to this wonder app, you can download it for free on iOS, Android, and Windows phones. It’ll walk you through the basics of most major world languages through pictures, matching, and writing.
Most people swear by this one, but there are also other great apps like Busuu, Babbel, and Fluent Panda. Doesn’t matter if you only get through the first three lessons on the plane to your program- it’s going to help. Being familiar with high frequency words will be incredibly helpful, especially in the first few days. And while you’re at it, commit the phrase “Where is the bathroom” in the country’s language to memory, because literally anything else will be more dignified to try and act out in those first frustrating days.
Check weather averages in your host city
I know this seems obvious, but this was my (and several other Buffs) biggest mistake before going abroad. When you’re wading through subzero conditions in a Colorado blizzard, 32 degrees and drizzle sounds downright tropical. By the same token, an 85 degree dry heat is extremely different from 85 degrees at 100% humidity.
If you think you have a good idea of what the weather will be like without researching, check again. I went to Italy in the winter expecting a mild, Mediterranean winter, and ended up living in a parka for two months, not to mention dropping a good chunk of money on extra winter clothes I didn’t think to bring. To add insult to injury, in many countries heating is limited by law as to how much you can use each day (7 hours in Italy). Older buildings, however beautiful and unique they may be, tend to be drafty and poorly insulated. Likewise, be prepared for no air conditioning in locations with hot summers. If you do this, you’ll be geared up at best, and pleasantly surprised at worst.
Possibly the saddest moment of my life was coming home from study abroad, and then discovering the wonders of CityMapper. It’s like Google Maps, but with easy, straightforward transit directions you don’t have to break out the Deerstalker cap and pipe to decipher. It’s your best friend if you’ll be traveling to or living in any major city abroad. In addition to US cities, Citymapper currently has London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Brussels, Mexico City, Moscow, Rome, Sao Paolo, Sydney, Seoul, and Singapore, to name a few. You may or may not have data while abroad, so look up directions while you have wifi and screenshot them. It works just as well. Seriously, this thing runs on pure magic.
Bring clothes you can say goodbye to.
You’ll probably be traveling and going places much, much more than you’re used to in Boulder, and this can take its toll on clothes- especially shoes. If you’re living somewhere that dryers aren’t an option, line drying can also leave you with starchy, itchy clothes after a while. You’ll probably have at least one pair of shoes fall apart completely. And, inevitably, you’ll lose something.
I’ve heard many a lament of Zeppelin shirts abandoned in Munich, Scotland sweatshirts forgotten under hostel pillows, beloved gloves left behind in restaurants. But there’s a bright side: more space to bring things home!
At the end of your program, some providers will give you the opportunity to donate clothes you don’t want to bring back and aren’t entirely trashed. If they don’t, you can research donation centers locally.
Things won’t fit the same going back anyways (they never do), and this way you buy yourself a little grace and souvenir space at the end of semester. Travel sometimes lends itself to having to make some tough decisions, and choosing to bring clothes you can let go will save you a lot of pain.
Pack towels and a blanket.
While we’re on the topic of packing and clothes- bring towels you don’t care about and a spare blanket. A lot of programs require you to bring your own towels, and having an extra blanket is always a good idea. Some hostels don’t provide towels, or charge to borrow one.
A lightweight blanket is good for those early morning bus rides, late night flights, or an extra layer for your bed. Lay out your blanket and towel at the bottom of your suitcase before you add anything else. Ditch them in your host country at the end of your program. Same deal with the old clothes- donate when you can, and you’ll magically have some extra suitcase space coming home.
Buy an adapter before you leave.
A lot of us have been there, knowing that the outlets will be different, knowing that we’re going to have to get an adapter, but deciding to buy it once we arrive. If this happens to you, it won’t be the end of the world, but bringing an adapter along will make the beginning of your program a lot less stressful.
This is a preference thing, but I also recommend getting a second, cheap adapter if your laptop or phone are known for spotty battery quality. See if you can find a place in-country that won’t jack up the price for tourists. It’s not a necessity, for sure, but it will make home life when you’re doing homework at night a little easier.
Learn how to do laundry in a sink.
Yeah, yeah, sounds gross, but it’s really not so bad. My life improved significantly when I realized I could cut down on the day-or-two long Italian laundering process (between a washing machine that took four hours and line drying in a cold apartment) if I found myself facing an impromptu weekend trip and no clean socks. Even better, if you’re going on a long trip for a week or two, knowing you can flash clean some little things in a hostel sink helps tremendously. It’s pretty easy- warm water, add clothes, add laundry detergent, scrub, rinse in cold water, let dry.
I learned that adding a little hair conditioner can keep things from getting too starchy with this method. Google’s your friend here – there’s a rainbow of hand washing tips and tricks at your fingertips. Bring a plastic baggie with a couple of those laundry detergent pods with you abroad, and keep them for such emergencies while traveling.
Research the trash situation.
This mostly applies to you if you’ll be living in an apartment, but it’s good knowledge if you’re in a homestay or residence hall too. In many countries, garbage protocol varies extensively from the United States. When I lived in Italy, we had to sort our trash into different colored bags by paper, plastics and glass, compost, and general trash. Each type had a different day we had to take it out, at a certain time, in the correct colored bag, at the exact designated spot. Wrong day, time, color, or place? You could get slapped with a fine. It was a serious adjustment when I first showed up, and I found myself thinking about trash approximately a thousand times more than I ever did in the United States. Even worse, the city switched the colors for paper and plastics in the middle of our program. Germany recycles their glass by color, and has something called the “Green Dot System.” In Beijing, inhabitants of a hutong dump trash on a designated street corner, which is cleaned several times a day. Prepare yourself and Google your host country’s garbage guidelines once you know your specific housing situation.
Acknowledge that you’re American.
This is the biggest thing I hear from returned students. Social norms when it comes to interacting with one another are going to be completely different from what you are used to. Many European countries value a certain level of uniform presentation (men and women) before you leave the house. Wear bright colors, leggings, converse, and backpacks? You’re going to get stared at. Stores are going to open and close at different times. In many places, people will be just as curious about your life in America as you are about theirs. People are going to want to talk about American politics- and to an American, that can be a shock to the system. Stateside, politics are a sensitive discussion, but it may not be at all in your host country. During a language exchange event, one of the local students immediately asked my thoughts on gun control, on Obama, on Trump, on every hot button topic under the sun. On the other end of the spectrum, some subjects may be completely off-limits, or social concepts completely alien to members of your host country. Your host culture will likely have a very different system of values from what you are used to. This isn’t to say you need to necessarily assimilate entirely, but it is important to remember to be adaptable, open minded, and respectful when it comes to these cultural differences.
These are a few good ways to start preparing beyond a packing list and really start thinking about your life abroad. While you’re gone, you’ll probably formulate your own long list of things that you wish you had known, but that’s all a part of the experience. You’ll become more resourceful and adaptable, and find your own creative solutions to the challenges your host country may throw you. And this time next year, who knows, you may be passing along your own sage study abroad advice through anecdotes of your own failures and some silly gifs. We look forward to reading.