The great benefit of GTL as a study abroad program is the pure freedom. Initially, I thought of this in terms of time and space – 4 months of unlimited trains spanning most of western Europe. The longer I am here, though, the more I realize how many different ways this program can be experienced. I have been talking to many other students at GTL about how they have shaped this program for themselves.
The student population is small enough that everyone becomes a familiar face after a while, so it’s not unusual for me to beg for homework help from someone I’m only vaguely sure is in that class. This odd familiarity we’ve found ourselves in leads to small talk of weekends in Italy and bruises from Swiss Alps: the kind of chats I figured only those rich enough to use “summer” as a verb would be having, yet here we are. But my foolproof blueprint for social interaction has begun to fail. It’s almost as if I can’t just ask every person the same question and have conversation flow flawlessly. I thought this was like FASET, where you just ask every acquaintance what their major is and promptly form arbitrary cliques. But now, not every time I ask where someone went this weekend is it met with tales of an exotic trip 4 countries away.
It began with the graduate students. Most of them are not Americans partying abroad, but French or other nearby European students studying in a program that allows them a dual degree from both their home university and GT. To them, GTL isn’t the haven of travel I see it, but could be a bridge to a job in America, or just a diversification of their education. I commend all of them – I can’t understand fluid mechanics when it’s taught in my first language.
My friend Seth, a fellow American undergraduate, has spent, as far as I know, every weekend at GTL in Metz. I was shocked at first. I had once considered doing this as a means to afford going to Europe without paying for travel every weekend, but to voluntarily ignore all the easily accessible countries for just our corner of France? The more he explained though, the more boring my own approach seemed in comparison. Unlike me, Seth has actually learned French fairly well, and he came to France not for “that constant vacation feel” but to solidify his knowledge of the language while forming bonds with those of another nationality. His approach is not to use Metz just as a gateway to other attractions, but as an opportunity to experience living somewhere entirely new. This is an uncommon experience – not just living in a new location, but in a novel country and culture.
Since talking with Seth, I’ve tried to focus more on imagining life in the countries I visit, on a more day-to-day scale. My purpose in coming to GTL was to experience more than my little corner of the world, so I put an emphasis on breadth in order to generally calibrate my understanding of places. Now, I also imagine what living in these locations would look like. France, I can certainly comprehend, as I’m doing it right now (albeit in a sheltered GTL bubble). Regardless, I love the French people, language, and food. More interesting to me, however, is comparing this experience to the other countries I have visited. I have a running theory that the ideal sample of a European country can be found in its public transportation. The Italians sang and played guitar, the Germans passed around beer, and on one train the French were so utterly silent, I was too self-conscious to eat a sandwich. All of these I enjoyed, but in different manners. Italy is a beautiful, lively country, but I cannot imagine myself living there. I’m too introverted for their familiar style, and I prefer the quiet of a French train. The Germans seemed surprisingly jolly in most of my interactions with them and spoke more English than most other countries, making for another appealing option.
Ultimately, my strongest driving factor in evaluating countries is on their food. The Germans brought me the best new food: currywurst. France has the most diverse food, with a surprisingly strong Asian trend that satisfies my cravings. Italy, of course, has pasta, pizza, and gelato to die for, but it seemed comically void of literally any other food. Every meal was simply a choice between the three (yes, gelato is a meal to me). My ultimate favorite remains the glorious Belgian fry. Street carts and café’s devoted to fries line the streets of Belgium, and people wait around the block. Sauces come in more flavors than you can imagine, and the little forks make eating somehow so much more enjoyable. For this alone, I could thrive in Belgium. I may not quite want to give up my nomadic lifestyle for the sake of cultural acclimation, but “playing house” internationally has become my new favorite game.