To GT-Lorraine...and Beyond!

Over 25 years of academic excellence and adventure

Author: Aria Amthor (Page 1 of 2)

Barcelona Monday

The train strike calendar.

Life in a foreign culture is polarizing. Trains are now constant companions, yet many of those involved in the system seem to be attempting to dampen my fierce joy in extensive public transportation. I would venture to say that I am experienced in train riding, but all my anxious backup plans and preparation still leave factors I cannot control. The SNCF (French train company) workers have all decided to begin striking.

Now, I wasn’t exactly surprised. I have developed the theory that Europeans don’t actually get more vacation time than Americans, they just strike consistently enough to satisfy any need to take off work. Earlier this semester, the employees of a nearby prison decided to strike and make bonfires every day for a while, which itself was concerning. Now, SNCF took it further and is striking 2 days of every 5 for the remainder of the semester. While I am unsure of the exact implications of this, it seems highly discouraged to travel within France on these days. This is slightly inconvenient as a resident of France. Despite obstacles, we persevere.

For the most part, we GTL students are a nomadic people. This tendency is tempered by the necessity to be back bright and early for 8:30 am circuits class on Monday. As a result, and in keeping with the defiance of the local culture, an underground movement has developed the concept of a “Barcelona Monday.” In entirely unintentional circumstances, it is evidently common for students who have traveled all the way to the titular city to “miss their train,” forcing them to forgo Monday classes for another day in Spain. While the frequency of these circumstances is a bit skeptical, it arises out of the legitimate difficulty of consistently returning on time while maximizing travel. I always try to have backup plans and avoid taking the last train for this reason. An extra hour of travel would be nice but is not worth the 40-minute walk at 2 am if you end up getting back after the last bus.

This weekend resulted in a new level of travel-related struggling. As mentioned, SNCF has designed a schedule as inconvenient and difficult to remember as possible. This wasn’t much of a problem after deciding to leave at 6 am on Friday, instead. On Sunday we miraculously avoid the striking of the French, but were no match for the superior inefficiencies of the Germans. Despite their reputation for engineering, all of my issues with delayed trains (excluding those in Italy which are honestly expected) have been in Germany. This time, a 35-minute delay caused us to miss a 20-minute connection (long by our normal standards). Of course, we had backup options and elected to splurge slightly by getting a last-minute reservation high-speed train instead of taking the option that would get us home after midnight. This plan was promptly jeopardized when our train arrived at the exact latest time we needed to leave to make our connection possible. The clown-car-like amount of people who poured out brought some levity, though this took so long as to dash any hope of making the next train. Just to emphasize the point, the train proceeded to arrive 60 minutes late, leaving most of the passengers stranded.

I am no stranger to the ephemeral homelessness of sleeping in a train station just to be kicked out at 1 am while your train leaves at 4. This night was to be much longer and would still result in being late for my first class. At this point, giving in and paying for a hotel seemed to be the best option, despite the already lost money on the reservation train. Yet in times of trouble, friends come out of the woodwork. This most recent delay resulted in meeting up with 3 other GTL students in the same predicament, as well as accidentally befriending a German-Canadian student on the train, who planned to major in Mechanical Engineering as most of us are doing now. Banding together proved to save the situation for us all.

To attempt to reclaim the money for the reservation, we ran into a crowd at the information desk. In contrast to their spotty work schedule, the SNCF employees worked hard when they were there. We soon found ourselves on a list for a free hotel room, and our fellow GTL student who hadn’t made a reservation managed to make it on the list also. I emphasize the importance in trying. Instead of accepting the fate we were used to, just simply showing up got us handed a hotel stay, a free dinner, and an excuse to miss class, though Strasbourg is not quite as thrilling as Barcelona.

Our hotel instructions were fairly vague, simply stating to go to the Ibis across the street. We were then met with two Ibis hotels, one specified to be the budget version, so of course we went to the full experience first. They feigned ignorance of any accommodation for us, and discretely explained that there were in fact three Ibis hotels: this one (red, for “stop, you’re too poor”), the blue one next door (notably avoiding the word “budget” prominently displayed on its sign), and the green one that we had not seen (speculated to be located in a dark alley on the other side of town). The blue turned out to be our home away from home, and we settled in, thankful for our welfare-esque dinner boxes and shared beds after offering to house other GTL friends who had not gotten rooms of their own. Awkward sleeping arrangements are welcome in comparison to a station bench.

Horror and Fantasy

In its variegated history, Germany has been the setting of fairy tales and real-life terrors. These are joined in Munich. Originally, I chose to travel to this city for my most depressing motivator: the belief that while I am able, I should witness firsthand the remnants of a concentration camp. Poland is a bit out of reach for me, so I decided on Dachau. I will not discuss this much further, as the experience is distinctly disturbing and to detail my thoughts would not be quite in line with my intended mood for this blog.

In contrast to Dachau, my other intention for visiting Munich was to take a day trip to Schloss Neuschwanstein, a nearby castle and the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Despite not allowing any photographs indoors, it is the most photographed building in Germany. This means that tourism runs rampant, and I learned an hour past the deadline that to see the inside of the castle, reservations must be made two days in advance. I held on to the hope that I would be able to buy tickets on site, given that it was snowing, not tourist season, and I intended to arrive at 9 am. It turned out to be a shorter line to buy tickets than to wait in the “express line” for those who reserved in advance. I don’t exactly advocate showing up unprepared, but at least in this case, most things that I was completely unprepared for turned out better than my series of plans and backups. On a whim, I bought a combined ticket that included a tour of the nearby Schloss Hohenschwangau, a much less remarkable structure externally but still another castle to visit.

As with most visitors, my intentions were primarily visual – Neuschwanstein is a beautiful building, after all. The castle was entirely satisfying in this matter, but I found myself most fascinated with the building’s creator. My tour inside this building turned out to be fairly unremarkable, but after further research I attribute this to a lackluster guide. Certain highlights interested me, such as the modernity of its design. Electricity, central heating, and running water (from the mouth of a swan statue into the King’s washbasin) were cleverly designed amenities incorporated in the overall elaborate aesthetic. The entire interior was intricate and beautiful, including such odd choices as a faux cave and extensive murals detailing scenes from the operas of Richard Wagner. This made me question how such things came about – a lucky choice of designer, or a King who actually took the time to think of all of this? The building’s beauty is self-evident, but there were few mentions of the people and stories that normally populate such a project. Small comments in passing hinted at more: the castle is largely unfinished, and only housed the king that built it for less than 200 days, before he died under mysterious circumstances.

 

As I waited for my tour at Hohenschwangau, I began researching this King Ludwig II. It turns out, his life is utterly fascinating. My tour in his childhood home of Hohenschwangau turned out to be fantastically informative of him and his family as well. This actually is a great combination – Neuschwanstein’s beauty attracts you and presents the mystery, while Hohenschwangau, less dramatic in its exterior, holds the information and history of the family. Due to the fact that it was actually lived in, the interior is filled with stunning gifts and intricate details. The king’s bedroom was even outfitted with glowing stars and a moon that changed to match the actual moon’s phase. The details of Ludwig’s life started to come together, centering around the theme of fantasy. He was utterly obsessed, and his entire life seemed to be out of some tale.

Ludwig ascended the throne at only 18 and was known to have little interest in ruling. According to Wikipedia, “he was not prepared for high office, [but] his youth and brooding good looks made him popular in Bavaria and elsewhere.” This trend marked his life and eventual death. His fantasies appeared most notably in his obsession with Wagner, going so far as to consider abdicating the throne to follow him when he left Munich. Instead of getting too concerned in politics, Ludwig wished to elevate the cultural aspects of Bavaria, by investing in the arts and using his personal fortune to build an assortment of castles and palaces. His advisors believed this spending to be unreasonable, though they have now paid for themselves many time over due to the high-traffic tourism. Ultimately, they conspired to depose him and had psychologists declare him insane. The next day, he and his psychologist were found in the nearby lake, drowned allegedly as suicide. As his cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria stated, “he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams.” Perhaps he should have left the throne for a life that suited him better.

As we travel, we unkowingly walk in the wake of uncomprehensible depth of history. I often get caught up in what is availible for me to go see right now, but forget to research the lives of those who came before. Even when there’s no tour guide or sign detailing what was significant, I can take it upon myself to follow leads that interest me, adding significance where little was before. That’s not to say that the present is less important. The entire history of a place should be appreciated and enjoyed. On this note, with my little remaining time in Munich I decided to follow a recommendation by my Grandpa. He travels constantly, and as he is of German heritage, he often comes to this country. As an inspiration in both my desire to travel and to become an engineer like him, he recommended I visit the Deutsches Museum. I only regret not being able to spend as much time here as the museum deserves, given that it is the world’s largest STEM museum, with substantial amounts of English descriptions! Any Tech student would love this museum, and I highly recommend setting aside as much time as you can to explore.

When in France, Do As the Germans Do

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.

A Very French Lunch

“With each hand, make a circle with your index finger and thumb. Which one looks like a b? That’s your bread.” A bit of confused anatomical study proceeded, and a multi-minute debate over which plate was whose was put to rest. Those who drew first crumb had already descended into territorial skirmishes before order could be restored. As students at a top university, the small things are what defeat us, such as having warm, famously irresistible French bread placed unexpectedly on our left, as if they expected us right-handed majority to not continuously grab for a morsel.

Neither college students nor Americans are particularly hailed for their manners, but a bit of advice from those with some manners in their upbringing as well as the occasional tip by Madame Serafin allowed us to avoid complete social faux pas. This “Very French Lunch” arranged by her “On My Radar” program was another smashing hit, feeding the hungry population of college students with a perfectly prepared and authentic meal. Innovation often arises through combining two formerly unrelated concepts. In this case, the culinary college nearby had students who needed to be graded on their abilities, and GTL had students who wanted to skip class to be fed and waited on. This was the complete dining experience: fluffy French pastries, effortless serving, 3 courses, 3 different drinks, and of course, the endless supply of bread. Like most of these events, it was held conveniently on a weekday when everyone is around, and professors even adjusted their schedules so that students could attend. In France, food is given the respect it deserves.

Most of us had never eaten quite so elegant a meal before. Discussions rotated between “The crisis of the 10,000 forks,” “How much bread can a purse smuggle,” and “Is Nutella really a chocolate – but more to the point, can it also go in this purse” while feigning a level of class we clearly did not possess. Pretenses aside, the food was delicious, even if I didn’t fully understand what I was eating. To begin, a puff pastry so flaky I couldn’t contain it, a bright citrus drink, and sparkling water I actually enjoyed the taste of. I’ve been known to draw my fair share of disapproving European frowns as I order my water still in restaurants, but this one did not need to be turned away. The main course was an amalgamation of poultry that I couldn’t tell apart, but one bird seemed to be the result of taking butter and convincing it to come alive. It was honestly the best bird I’ve ever eaten. For dessert, a chocolate mousse and a classic macaron that was my first sampling not provided by the shelves of Auchan grocery. They’re much more pleasing fresh. Of course, the addicting espresso followed: a habit of mid-day caffeine that I can get used to.

The existence of this lunch itself isn’t necessarily anything extraordinary – GTL and BDE often provide an assortment of activities that we can participate in. It’s the details brought in by everyone who came together to participate that bring them to life. Madame Serafin’s bold personality, food covertly traded (despite all eating the same meal), and playful mocking are signature events.

Train of Thought

While Metz has one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe, the station in Antwerp (pictured above) remains my favorite.

My first time stepping off a German train and being greeted with a sign for “Ausgang City”, I reacted with panic at having gotten off at the wrong stop. Ausgang, while charming, I’m sure, had no prepaid Airbnb waiting for me. I often experience unwarranted panic, and it turns out that “Ausgang” just means “exit” and the Germans have not conspired to make every train drop you off in the same, incorrect city. It is fairly easy to start getting the hang of the terms it takes to navigate foreign train stations, as the announcements and signs are much clearer than anywhere else. Consequently, my understanding of foreign languages is extremely limited and largely train related. While it’s fun to throw “uscita” and “nächster halt” into my conversations, I now end up cycling between 4 words for “thank you” before giving up my attempt to courteous in the appropriate language.

Travel by train is the heart of the GTL experience. Europe is known for its public transportation, but above buses, cheap flights, and all else, I praise the train. Flights take hours to ensure enough time to get through security and not miss boarding. Buses get held up by traffic, skip stops, and are usually ahead of or behind schedule. The train never leaves early, and only occasionally leaves late. At this point, students are scheduling trains that leave half an hour after their last class, assuming a 20-minute bus ride and an easy stroll to the platform. As long you get off the bus with about 2 minutes to spare and a Eurail pass, you can meander to the train with confidence that it will be waiting for you.

This consistency can be additionally beneficial if you get a bit creative. When the cold became unbearable, we noticed that the train waiting next to us was scheduled to leave after our actual train, though ours had not yet arrived. Ignoring the fact that this train could take us in the entirely wrong direction if it left early, we hopped on for its luscious warmth. At least our Eurail passes made this technically allowable, though the potential to miss our Monday classes would be frowned upon.

The confusion associated with traveling in Naples is best represented by this image of a sign instructing you not to cross the tracks, next to the crosswalk for crossing the tracks (necessary to get between platforms). Another sign helpfully suggested you wait to cross the tracks until no trains are coming.

That said, the consistency is occasionally heartbreaking. A Viennese tram held me hostage at red light as I watched my train leave precisely on time, while I arrived about 30 seconds later. This led to taking the last train home, leaving no room for error. Even after finally making it onto my last train, I ended up napping slightly and missing the stop. At least Nancy has a bus that arrives at Metz at 1:30 in the morning, but this then requires a 40-minute walk in the cold back to the dorm. The Metz buses stop running sometime around 10 pm, and this should be factored in when planning return trains.

On the occasion that a train is late, much more caution should be taken. I’ve sat through so many announcements changing the time estimate that I believe my German is perfect, if just for that one phrase. One group had a train delayed by 20 minutes, so they decided to go grab food. These delay estimates are notoriously awful, leading to an unexpected arrival and the group having to find a last-minute hotel while the one member who had stayed behind got to attend his Monday classes.

As our experiences build, we get riskier. A day trip to Luxembourg is certainly an option, but if we left at noon on Thursday, we could take 5 trains over 8 hours and be in Berlin before 9. These decisions should not be made too hastily, however. For the longer legs, I highly recommend looking for German ICE trains, as they tend to come with a café and free wifi. These seats are commonly reserved, but you can sit in pretty much anywhere that doesn’t have a sign above it listing specific cities where it is reserved. The comfort makes a long ride tolerable. On that note, night trains are wonderful and often include breakfast, but the beds are a bit too stiff for my back.

The comfort and freedom of the rental car when we got upgraded to a Jaguar may be unparalleled, but trains are by far the easiest, most affordable, and consistent means of transportation. When in Rome, the buses would often take longer than walking would. The metro did lose power once, but I will never underestimate the benefits of having exclusive tracks, except in the case of a tram: the unfortunate mix with the traffic of a bus but the restrictions of a train. I am now preemptively dealing with the sadness that MARTA will bring me.

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

The stairs of Riomaggiore were keen on reminding me that the more difficult is it to get somewhere, the more worthwhile it usually is.

GTL often redefines my perspective. Spring break represents the epitome of travel opportunity, providing the ability to reach unimaginably far and for so long that you miss “home” (GTL) desperately. Yet, I found my plans failing, and the need to improvise. I noticed that my favorite moments were when I decided to slow down and do what I would have previously described as “nothing.” My spring break, while laughably unoriginal in concept (I ran into 6 separate GTL students while traveling), became an entirely alien experience.

Momentous in length and located in Italy – notorious for reservation-only trains and frequent attractions that get booked months in advance – my break necessitated early planning. I had the outline laid out over winter break and felt desperately behind as I booked Airbnbs and flights only weeks before. Ideally, I would have planned more and executed flawlessly, but I ended up being grateful for my sparse plans when I immediately and fatally ruined them.

Ryanair is a blessing. Like a siren, it calls to you with talk of 11€ flights to Sweden, and it wasn’t hard to find an affordable flight to Naples that left after my last class on Thursday. This would allow me to take the maximum time to make my way up Italy and back to Metz. I had often been warned of the catches that inevitably come with such promises and was amply prepared. My bags were sized appropriately, and I didn’t give in to all the add-ons they pushed. I noted which airports were actually closest to me, as Ryanair airports are often ridiculously far from the city they claimed to be located in. All this work was overshadowed by the mania of last-minute packing and being lulled into complacency by the usual ease of travel in Europe, so I found myself remembering this fun fact about airports right when I arrived at the main Frankfurt Airport, decidedly not Frankfurt Hahn, where my flight was departing from. I had left myself plenty of time to catch my flight, but the amazing obscurity of location that Ryanair managed to find made it impossible for me to arrive on time.

After the devastation of finding out that the best gelato shop in Riomaggiore hadn’t opened for spring yet, the beauty of the view was a bit of consolation.

The GTL motto should be “There is Always a Way.” Every student I have talked to has had something go awry, resulting in sleeping in train stations, walking 40 minutes home, or shelling out the money to make it work. In this case, a few hours were spent combing through the possibilities. Can we get our flight changed? Is there another flight tonight? Is it too late for a refund? Most of these resulted in a definitive no. While I had previously basked in the glory of the bargains I had found, I now used the relatively minor cost to accept the entire loss of money. With limited flight options, we flipped the entire trip upside down, booking a night train to Venice for that evening and a flight back from Rome on the last Saturday of break.

From there, no struggle compared. Italy provided all the highest and lowest points of my semester thus far. Venice snowed, then melted into sogginess. Reservation trains were cheap (10 EUR) and easy to book, while regional trains were free with Eurail, saving the cost of metro and buses. My favorite stop of all, however, was the region of Cinque Terre and in particular, Riomaggiore. The Cinque Terre consists of five picturesque towns clinging to the western coast of Italy. While we couldn’t spend much time there and our plans for renting a sailboat fell through, I have never been somewhere so refreshing. I have a particular love for moody ocean cliffs, with wild wind and stormy skies and the only sound the crashing of waves. The hiking trails wind between the towns and out on stony promontories. For a bit of refreshment, it is mandatory to stop for gelato in every town. They will be packed with tourists in a few months, but as of now, it is cool, quiet, and absolutely gorgeous. If I could include a hundred photos, I would.

Rosy, sunny, dark and brooding: Cinque Terre can do it all.

After departing my peaceful retreat, we sped up the pace. I didn’t have much desire to stay in Florence, but we slipped in just in time to see Michelangelo’s David for free, since most museums in Italy are free the first Sunday of the month. We then traveled all the way to Naples and stayed in the most suspicious Airbnb yet. It was located above one of those famous street markets that convince you that you could be attacked by scam artists at any moment, but turned out to be a much more wholesome local market than it initially appeared. Until a man shouted something in Italian that spurred all the vendors to scramble and hide their large trays of cigarettes in such a beautiful whirl of motion that it must have been choreographed.

Naples itself is not particularly noteworthy for anything other than the delicious fried pizza, but nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum are absolutely necessary to visit. Pompeii is massive, and with an audio guide helpfully explaining the meaning of all the buildings as well as a visit to the archaeological museum in Naples, I learned more about life in the Roman empire than I thought was possible in one day. Also, I may be a bit disturbed, but the plaster casts were fascinating to me and caused me to plan a route that included visiting as many as possible.

As Italy warmed up, my newfound temperature scale in which 42 degrees Fahrenheit is “so warm!” screamed in remembrance of summer in Atlanta.

I ended my Italian excursion in Rome, a true must-see city. The traffic was frustrating, and it is essential to stay somewhat near the city center, as the city itself is monstrously large. Still, the city is busy for a reason. The Colosseum and Roman Forum were my particular favorites. As a history nerd obsessed with Greek and Roman myths, I felt I was walking back in time. Rome also contained my favorite museum I have seen so far: the Borghese Gallery. This small Gallery allows only a limited number of guests in at a time, so reservations are required. For only two hours, it seems expensive, but the collection is compact magnificence. The best works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, are held here, and they truly are mind blowing. Fabrics swirl next to smooth plump skin that are all somehow made of the same stone. The rest of the gallery is so amazing that I eventually had to tear myself away, and while I am not nearly as enthralled by paintings as I am sculptures, their setup was exquisite. Each room was themed, with the painting on the ceiling often depicting the same myth as the sculpture immediately below. On the upper floor, sets of paintings would depict scenes from the same story as it wrapped around the ceiling. I came to a new understanding not just of the art of painting, but of myths I had not heard of before and have since researched thoroughly.

When going up famously tall spiral staircases, don’t look up to discover how far it really is.

Italy was polarizing, but so enthralling that it was difficult to leave. With my newly made itinerary, I had to depart Saturday morning and spend the weekend back in Paris. Despite having already been to Paris, I love every moment there. Last time I was mostly crippled, so now I could finally walk the steps of l’Arc de Triomphe. A friend I went to high school with was even visiting Paris that day, so I managed an unexpected meetup. Despite everything, a wonderful trip emerged from the ruins.

Crêpes and Karaoke

Despite being the most popular study-abroad program for undergraduates from Tech’s Atlanta campus, GTL is also filled with international students. The booming graduate program draws in students from nearby French, German, Italian (and more!) universities – and some international undergraduates as well. This adds to the cultural immersion and legitimacy as a study abroad program, given that we are taught in English by Georgia Tech professors. The small population of students means ample mingling in after-school events such as the “Crêpes and Karaoke” night hosted by the Bureau des Etudiants (BDE).

The BDE is a student board that hosts a plethora of exciting events, but I can’t help but be thrilled at this new level of entertainment. Music, food, and alliteration? Sounds like the ideal evening. Apparently, also the perfect time to schedule an exam. While the only alternative was a Thursday evening when I had already planned to be in another country, it was a particular tragedy that my exam fell exactly during the allotted time span of an event involving crêpes. Fortunately, my procrastination and BDE’s initiative meant that the student chefs’ crêpe technique was already being perfected to the beat of some sick tunes while I was studying for my exam the hour before. Considering the size of my class, I was evidently not the only disgruntled and starving pupil, and a new policy was enacted allowing anyone who was going to be taking the exam to have a crêpe early. I believe this boost of morale augmented the exam average by at least 5 percent.

While perhaps unwise, my stomach advised that I devise a competition with myself to see how quickly I could finish the test in order to maximize crêpe-to-stomach flow rate as opposed to academic achievement. Luckily, student love for BDE events tends to cause them to run past their intended ending time, and I arrived with plenty of time to partake. While neither I nor my peers have perfected the crêpe technique exemplified by the French vendors, a healthy slathering of Nutella masks any inconsistency in texture and keeps flavor at a maximum. Unfortunately, it seems BDE needs to increase their dedicated Nutella budget, as I could eat two large containers myself.

Years of study under an orchestra conductor that did not understand that we were not in the chorus for a reason has allowed me to cultivate a relatively decent singing voice. It should never be heard solo, but is acceptable in the impromptu group numbers that musicals convinced young Aria were a fact of life. I never quite got up the guts to go up to perform in karaoke myself, but happily joined in when a favorite song of mine was being performed. The international American hold on music soon was overtaken by a French revival, leaving me with a new game of attempting to predict the melody and sing along regardless. I believe my attempt was admirable, but the main enjoyment was experiencing French songs other than those intended for children that my French teacher in high school favored.

In true GTL style, the night couldn’t be complete without a bit of ping pong. This time, a little less serious. I arrived in the middle of an interesting game involving about 10 people, that seemed to follow the general rules that players on opposing sides of the table would each hit the ball once before moving on to let the player behind them take the next one. This circular pattern followed, with each person dropping out of the game once they made a mistake, eventually resulting in a few players sprinting around the now much too large path in an attempt to make it to the other side in time. Creative, competitive, and a cultural mish-mash, the night epitomized GTL student camaraderie.

Affording Opportunity

Growing up the daughter of an Economics major, weighing opportunity cost was a daily habit. In high school, I often turned down proposals of exotic trips. I worked, and though I could pay for gas for my car and some luxuries while still saving a few thousand dollars for emergency, the cost of a single one of these would take out an astronomical percentage of my savings. My orchestra traveled to Austria in my junior year in high school. For a European spring break trip that included missing a few extra days of school, competing as an orchestra, and eating chocolate with Mozart’s face on it, the price was downright reasonable. For people who consider traveling to Austria on spring break in the first place. Despite persuasive claims that an opportunity like this will never be so affordable, I turned it down.

I now find myself in Vienna, eating Mozart chocolates and rubbing out the aches of a 12-hour train ride. I have already been traveling extensively for months at this point, but this is the city that drives it home for me. The city that was my original opportunity at Europe now represents my furthest distance traveled. GTL is genuinely an outstanding opportunity that this time I couldn’t turn down.

College students are generally understood to be poor, but this comes with the perk of universal pity. From scholarships to Spotify discounts, it’s nice in this instance to be reminded of how much debt you are in when it means you can live above your means while still making self-deprecating Ramen jokes. I’ve personally come to experience a form of income in which the Financial Aid office gives me enough loans to cover the overpriced food and housing of a freshman, but I have since reduced my costs while getting to keep the leftover as “savings” – to be spent on Austrian chocolate, of course. With all this support, European travel has never been so unintuitively affordable.

If you’re an out of state student, like so many are, studying at GTL allows you to pay in-state tuition, effectively saving money by moving to France. This spare cash can then be allocated to your daily pastry budget instead of the debts that you can ignore since you go to a top school and are just waiting for your offer from Google to come any day now. If you are in-state, like me, you get to complain about how you now have to pay for traveling every weekend and there’s no loan for that while your out of state friends loudly remind you of how the sandwich they’re eating costs more than your tuition.

While the only cure for disgruntled non-Georgia residents is to bow your head to their superior debts, there are solutions to your travel woes. Despite my fears that I would technically be able to afford to attend GTL but would end up sitting in my dorm every weekend with no money for a place to stay, I have traveled every weekend while staying hundreds of dollars under my (quite overestimated) budget.

  • Scholarships:

The best advice I can give is to fill out the OIE study abroad scholarship application. It is the easiest application I have ever filled out, and it got me an extra $3,000 unexpectedly. There are so many scholarships tied to this application and every dollar can make a difference. Of course, there are tons of other outside scholarships, but they take considerably more effort to find.

  • Jobs:

Working part time during school or full time in off semesters is an obvious way to get some money, and savings from these earning periods can make affording GTL travel much less stressful. Finding a job while at GTL is less likely, but still possible. Some people write for the GTL blog to get a free Eurail pass. Others are RA’s, but that’s a bit too much interaction with people for me. My years working in the tourist industry have worn through my cheery persona to my cynical core.

  • Financial Scams:

Credit cards are gambling for adults who want to be perceived as financially responsible as they give in to their addictions. I was initially hesitant to get a credit card, but now it is going well, and my credit has been rising steadily. After getting this system down, I wanted more. Higher cash back, better revolving categories, the works. Since I needed to get a new card for GTL without foreign transaction fees, this was the perfect opportunity to spend hours researching. I eventually settled on the Barclay card Arrival Plus, which gave me 40,000 miles as a sign on bonus if I spent $3,000 in the first 90 days. This led to another plot, where I opened a savings account with my bank backed by $1,000 paid from my card, earning me a new account to help with budgeting – and the sign on bonus that has paid for most of my weekend Airbnbs.

The experience at GTL is different for everyone, but can also be affordable for anyone. This really is the most opportune time to drop everything and live in Europe for four months. Vienna lived up to all expectations as the city that is the pinnacle of so many of my long-standing interests. The Spanish Riding School (named for the Spanish roots of their Lipizzaner horses) was the highlight of my trip, despite a hindered ability to breathe given that a decade of daily allergy pills was apparently not enough for me to remember that I’m allergic to horses. My one regret: not following suit after wondering why both people in front of me at Manner chocolate spent 50 EUR on this exclusive treat.

Redefining Celebration

Moving to Europe is accompanied by an unavoidable culture shock. That’s kind of the point, though, so the shock really isn’t that…shocking. As the time goes by, it’s not the everyday that gets to me. It’s when I realize that my 20th birthday is this week. I’m not with family. I’m not with most of my friends. I’m not a teenager anymore. Most importantly, I can’t get the homemade pound cake my mom makes every year from an old family recipe. (It’s seriously to die for.)

Normally, under any resistance, I would be inclined to forgo celebrating my birthday at all. However, the week started off with an unexpected package arriving – my mom’s pound cake, shipped all the way from home and accompanied by candles. While the shipping costs were outrageous, the gesture was so touching and exactly the reminder of home I needed at this point in the program. But as for the rest of my traditions, this year I needed to redefine what it means to celebrate, through a trip to Amsterdam.

It began as usual: cities and museums. The Van Gogh museum provides a refreshing take on an art museum. Instead of oddly modern or historically classical like most art I have been viewing, Van Gogh sits comfortably in the middle. The museum focuses on him as a person, his development, and his techniques. This narrative structure makes every piece more substantial, as you understand his influences and attempts to incorporate new ideas into his work. A favorite of mine was his experimentation with color. Upon learning of complementary colors and their contrasts, he thought to mix them. This resulted in a drab brown that he painted with in various tones. Later, he learned not to mix them, but to place them next to each other in bands of pure color. This creates a fascinating texture up close, but a vividness and overall hue from further away, reminiscent of LCD screens.

Saturday, my actual birthday, was an effort I had been planning for months but only actually became possible at 2 am the day of. For most of my life, before coming to Tech and forgetting what it means to have hobbies, I have ridden horses. For my birthday, I found a place that would allow me to ride one of my favorite breeds of horses on the beach of the island Tershelling. There was one catch: I had to be at the ferry at 8:00am, and the only way that was possible via train was to leave at midnight from Amsterdam, and experience a 3-hour layover with the high likelihood of being kicked out of the train station when it closed. In deadly cold weather.

At the unfortunately early time of 11:58pm, I was abruptly woken and informed that we needed to leave immediately. Until we realized that it was actually 12:58am, and we had actually missed the train entirely. There was absolutely no way to make it on time. Tired, cold, and devastated, we alternated between searching for any remaining option, and just feeling the weight of the lost money, time, sleep, and opportunity. Then, at 2:00am in the morning, we found a car rental open at 6:30am, and at $70, it was worth it to save the money already invested in reservations. To top it off, the drastically shortened commute allowed for a few more hours of sleep.

After that lowest point, the day only improved. We slept. The car we wanted was accidentally rented, so they upgraded us for free to a Jaguar. The drive, though incredibly stressful (the threats concerning damaging the car were numerous) was gorgeous, and gave us a chance to appreciate the open country for once. We made it on the ferry 5 minutes before it left, and then to the barn just in time for the first ride.

I rode for a total of four hours. On my second trip out, I was the only person not fluent in Dutch. While my first guide translated for us, this guide did not seem to have been told that I only spoke English. It’s amazing how much is still comprehensible, as I happily nodded when she asked if I wanted to “draf” or “galop” or laughed along with everyone at the large gestures of one girl as she told her stories. I never expected to feel like such fast friends with a group of complete strangers, not even aware that the quiet girl doesn’t speak their language, while flying down the beach on uniformly enormous black horses. The ride wasn’t without its difficulty, however, leading to one woman falling off at our fastest speed.

My birthday weekend was hectic and fun, like I strive for my life to be. It wouldn’t be complete without sleeping through the Metz stop on the train and accidentally ending up in Nancy. After managing to be on time to everything that weekend, we had to wait for a bus leaving at 11:30 pm to take us back to Metz, and then walk home for 40 minutes in the cold. Above all, I learned that there is always another way to get anywhere and do anything if you’re willing to put in the effort to research.

In Someone Else’s Shoes

Not often do you get to live in another country. Even weirder is living in someone else’s house. Through my weekend travels, I have experienced a range of accommodations, with most found on Airbnb. Each trip feels like a trial run in someone’s life. I eat their food, stay in their bed, and in the case of Amsterdam, experience their near vertical stairs. One even let me borrow clothes, so for fun I tried on a pair of pink velvet boots as I happened to be the same size as the owner. From a hostel room with 8 people to an apartment so nice I couldn’t leave, my weekend housing has largely shaped my experiences.

The attitude for most GTL students is that we simply can’t afford to stay somewhere nice. Travelling every weekend, with no income, means the time to try out that fancy resort is after we have gotten that engineer’s salary we keep hearing about. However, speaking as someone who has been tired my entire life, my sleep is important to me, and it’s not hard to find something cheap and nice. So here, I present my best tips for optimizing your weekend stay:

  1. Book Early

This is obvious. For any sane person going on a trip to Europe, they would book all their major reservations months ahead of time. The thing is, GTL students aren’t exactly sane. We plan new trips to new countries with new people every weekend. When the professor turns his back, we whisper airline confirmation codes. The best way to find a cheap place to stay is to check early and check often. Find a place with a flexible cancellation policy, and you can get your money back if you decide to change your travel plans later. Airbnb prices fluctuate much more than a hostel, so checking as frequently as you can will sometimes allow you to grab a new listing that is cheaper than it should be.

  1. Location, Location, Location

While price is king, location matters. Staying within walking distance of a train station, especially the main one, is insanely convenient and can save money on public transportation. Also, the station is usually a bit removed from the most popular real estate, making it more affordable. I now always check where the station I’m arriving in is located, and look there first. After hurting my ankle in Paris and having to walk up and down the metro stairs continuously, to me it is essential to ensure I have easy transportation. If not the train station, check for other accessible but cheaper locations. In Amsterdam, we stayed just outside the city lines in Zaandam. A train travels into the center often, and we got a ridiculously cheap stay in a gorgeous neighborhood while the rest of the city trended around $70/night minimum.

 

  1. Don’t Discount Perks

While I don’t travel for the housing accommodations, they can be significant. In Berlin, I stayed in an 8-person hostel room. This was the most affordable option, and I’d do it again, but it was incredibly hard having no privacy and essentially no room to spend time in, due to attempting to respect the wide variety of sleeping schedules. In contrast, we had an entire apartment 5 minutes from the train station in Antwerp for 2 people, for about $60 per night. This apartment was the nicest apartment I have ever been in, to the point I could barely get myself to leave, and we cancelled our place in Brussels so we could stay in another night. With its own espresso machine, free food, a giant TV and luxurious sleeping accommodations, I was planning how I could recreate this in my own apartment. The space was huge, and could easily have room for at least two more people on the L-shaped couch. I don’t know the legality of it, but fitting four people in an advertised two-person apartment would make this an absurdly good deal. With the free food, the savings were even greater.

My weekend in Amsterdam was largely chosen for the availability of a new Airbnb significantly under market price. This was the most wholesome ad I had seen, titled simply “My Home” and full of cute suggestions of accommodations the host was contemplating. As we were his first guests, the place was not in perfect shape, but he enthusiastically messaged me frequently as the day got closer. He made us soup upon arrival, later cooked an extensive Mexican dinner (hard to find in Europe), and allowed us to borrow his bicycles for free. We even saw improvements throughout the day, as our room on the upper level was still being built. Notably, a door miraculously appeared after he excitedly told us to expect a surprise upon our return. With all his little details, it really felt like home.

Like with most things at GTL, everyone has a different style in their travels. My personal recommendation is to not immediately base your decision on price, but to weigh the value of other benefits. Beyond just touring in a city, I have gotten the opportunity to live with locals, hear their recommendations, imagine their lives, and have a nice cup of tea on top of it all.

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