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Over 25 years of academic excellence and adventure

Category: Tips & Tricks (Page 1 of 4)

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.

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.

Depth vs. Breadth Touring

Maybe it’s the looming exams, but the realization that my time at GTL is finite has hit with full force. I came with dreams of London, Vienna, and every quaint town between. Four months in Europe seems endless, but throw in the stress that is a Georgia Tech education and it becomes much more limiting.

Unable to avoid the tendencies instilled in me by my classes, I’ve been looking at the situation as an optimization problem. How does one have the ideal European trip? Like most problems in engineering, the system in overly complex without some simplification. Ignoring the fact that I have little idea what actually is available to do in most of the places I want to visit, not to mention those I haven’t even decided on yet, it is fairly easy to come up with two general approaches to being a tourist: depth and breadth.

GT students don’t like being conventional. Coming back from stellar weekend just to find out that everyone else planned the exact same itinerary as you dampens what felt like a personalized journey. So, in theory, I’d love to blend with the locals and eschew the tourist traps, but given that I have never been to the continent before, I can’t help but feeling like I am missing out if I don’t go to Paris and Rome. These approaches also apply to how to tour within a given destination. Do you skim and hop, exposing yourself to as much as possible, or slow down to discover the historical context and consequential significance of that statue in the corner?

There is no perfect strategy, but the cliché answer is that everyone needs to find their own approach. My best memories have been longer experiences, some of which I couldn’t plan if I wanted to. On the other hand, I feel like I can grasp the personality of a city better by hitting as many spots as possible. It’s best to do both. Even an individual trip can feel too rushed or as if I am missing out on the entire point of the city. To counteract this, I’ve adopted the strategy of moving quickly at first, to  calibrate to the new city. From there, I keep open to opportunities to stay if something grabs my attention, but try to learn to let go of the things I know are not as interesting to me.

Above all, I advise to put an emphasis on opportunity. The best stories can’t be planned. When in Paris, I missed out on almost everything the city has to offer, but I spent so long in the Louvre that I not only can navigate such a monstrous maze with ease (and my favorite part of these museums is always the building they are in) but I genuinely learned an insane amount about art and history in general. I’ve become a bit of a snob about the dynamics of subtly spiraling contrapposto sculpture. While in Germany, my mobility surprised me, and I ended up waking up
at 4 AM and walking so many miles as to cover the majority of Frankfurt in a day. This led to day trips in the area and a better understanding of Europe outside the major cities..

Starvation Sunday

Written by Aria.

Alternative title: how I was 72% under my food budget the first week.

As Tech students, we all go a little overboard with quantification, but in terms of budgeting I find it helpful. In this case, it instigated genuine concern for my own well-being. Had I really been eating, or do the French stay so thin by inducing some hallucination of consuming endless bread? I had come to France with the anticipation of hemorrhaging money, and my savings were prepared for it. Instead, I seem to be doing better than in Atlanta.

The outdoor market in Metz, with some of the best food around. Unfortunately, only on Saturday mornings.

The secrets to my success are quite simple. Intuitive, really.

  • Skip meals because you woke up too late, forgot to include eating in your
    itinerary, and/or are too tired to grab bread. (Let’s be honest. This has nothing to do with being in Europe. This is college.)
  • While in French cities, have your entire food allotment consist of pastries picked up every few hours, each from a different bakery. Take them to go and keep touring.
  • Your sit-down meals are now a baguette with brie in the park.
  • When you can’t remember the last time you had anything that wasn’t a carb, go to Crous and spend 3.5 EUR for a meal with such novelties as fruit and meat. Don’t forget your side of bread and choose another carb to make up the bulk of your meal.
  • Plan to do your grocery shopping on Sunday. You will soon learn that most
    businesses are closed on Sundays, and that all you have in your fridge is ice and juice. Luckily, the corporate spirit of America keeps even French McDonald’s open. On the walk there, stop from exhaustion (who knows when you last consumed a calorie) and realize the Paul a block from your dorm is also open. Buy a baguette.

Fresson: the best cakes in all of France. Bring cash, because unless you are planning on buying too many cakes even by my standards, you won’t meet the credit card minimum.

College students have adapted to the harsh conditions of their environment. In this culture, they use every part of the baguette. The pointed end is dipped in olive oil for an appetizer as the meaty body simmers in the remaining oil. After Caprese sandwiches are consumed, the meal is finished off with Nutella spread on the fleshy innards. Despite their large size, baguettes are best consumed the day of their acquisition. Those less skilled in the art often partner up to complete the task, as it is frowned upon, albeit possible, to order only a half baguette.

The happiest moment in my life. Then I dropped the chocolate square on the ground.

To embrace the French culture, I highly recommend a diet consisting entirely of pastries. Your wallet and taste buds will drown out the complaints of your heart. While touring, we tended to rack up at least 10 miles a day. Instead of stopping for any significant meal, we simply located the best bakery nearby and shared a few pastries. Most places in France are cheaper if you take the food to go, so this leads to fighting off the pigeons as you eat your cake on the street corner like the desperate wretch you are. This is worth it for the ability to buy more cakes later. Nothing has topped Metz’s own Fresson, which was once voted as having the best cakes in all of France. Their raspberry tart may be the highlight of my time here so far. For a quality shop, their prices aren’t bad either.

The French cuisine lives up to its reputation, making my limited menu tolerable. This is no excuse to survive only on bread, however, so I now am striving to diversity my sampling outside the comfortable bounds of carbs. That flaky spiraled pastry, named “escargot” isn’t quite the same story as the original dish.

Dealing with Homesickness: A Long and Arduous Adventure

First and foremost, I am not one to get homesick. Ever. Yes, usually I’m in Atlanta which is only 5 hours away from Charleston, but a few visits with the family throughout the semester is more than enough to sustain my emotional support/family bonding health points. My 2017 has been very different than normal, though: I was in Europe for both spring and fall semesters while also working in Atlanta over the summer, so the amount of days I’ve seen my family has been quite sparing. I could probably count them on two hands, actually (okay maybe two and a half hands). I myself am also pretty terrible at keeping up with people, and it’s taken some real mental training to fight against this lackadaisical view of reaching out to my loved ones.

I hadn’t been feeling very homesick all year until a few weeks ago when everyone was home for Thanksgiving. My friend sent me a Snapchat of his dog and his wacky grandparents playing in a bluegrass band (I know, too cool), and my stomach nearly fell out. I missed my mom and my grandparents so, so much in that moment. I miss my dog tearing through the house while my grandmother can only hope to catch and cocoon her in a Christmas dog sweater. I miss those late night talks with friends that only happen by chance but last hours into the morning. I’d been missing southern food the whole time, don’t get me wrong, but in that moment I REALLY could’ve gone for a pimento cheese sandwich.

So obviously, talking to your family helps. I will say, though, a Skype call is really at a higher level than a normal phone conversation: you can get distracted by what’s on your screen or by things around you, but on Skype it’s nearly a face-to-face interaction so your attention is naturally all on the other person.

Get you some photos! And don’t have your family send you the same photos that are everywhere in your house: ask to borrow some pictures that are tucked away in family albums from when your parents dressed you up in a Halloween costume for the first time, or just photos of you and your siblings covered in dirt in the backyard. These will remind you of old memories that haven’t crossed the skies of your mind in a while and will make you appreciate your upbringing. Nostalgia is a great thing.

Schoolwork can loom over you and feel like you must hyper-focus to get anything done, but you need breaks! Use those breaks to chill out, of course, but every few breaks use the time to email your grandma or maybe send your dad an article that you’ve seen recently. Don’t shut yourself out or homesickeness is bound to get worse.

Fall/Spring Break: Learn From My Mistakes

Hello! Recently we had a very long break – a whole ten days, in fact – and this is my reflection/how-to-not-be-like-me post. There are some things that I did right, but there are others that I didn’t do so right, and here they are for your enjoyment!

First of all (and this applies to any trip you take), do not expect Europeans to do American holidays! Yes, Halloween is a primarily American/Anglo-Saxon holiday, but all over France and Spain were signs and Halloween party fliers and decorations, and so I figured it would be a big thing! And it is…just not with costumes. European children will go out earlier in the night, and I’m not even sure if they actually go trick-or-treating (I think people just have square parties with candy) but they dress up! So I said okay, it’s Halloween, I’m in Southern Spain and I’m going to be a pirate for Halloween. I went to go play pool at a local restaurant that was TOTALLY COVERED in Halloween gear… and no one else is wearing a costume. Not a single human. Not even the waitresses or the bartender. We were even pointed at and laughed at a bit, so do not make our mistake! You can’t deny it though, we looked pretty legit.

If you want to do anything particularly wild or involved, book it way ahead of time! There were multiple times when we wanted to rent a moped and zoom around the city we were in, but they needed a full day to process our information before renting to us (and we were only ever in places for two days at a time). We kind of winged a part of our trip and thought we might want to hike the most dangerous (not anymore, but oh well) hike in the world in Malaga, Spain, but apparently that thing sells out months in advance. We ended up spending most of our time exploring the cities or doing our own hikes, which was fine, but just keep these facts in mind when you’re trying to have a trip full of adventure: you can’t be totally on the fly about it if it includes rentals.

If there’s anything you take from this post, dear reader, I hope it is this next point: Do. Not. Travel. Too. Much. Don’t do it. If you have a trip planned that involves hopping between 5 places, calculate the total travel time and see if it’s worth it. When it’s split up between an hour here two hours there it doesn’t seem so bad, but once you realize exactly how much precious time is being spent on a train just playing cards, you’re going to regret it.

A Look Into The Typical Week of a GTL Student

I understand not all of you reading this are current GTL students, so I’m just going to delve into the (slightly exaggerated) average week of a GTL student for those of you that may be wondering what it’s like.

Monday Morning: Welp, I’m still pretty exhausted from the weekend, but I’ll make it up later. All I have to do today is buy groceries (I really have to stop eating baguette sandwiches), get a head start on all the homework I have due this week, and maybe I’ll even have time to go to the gym or run at some point.

Monday Midday: Okay, so I may have been weak and bought another Fermie Chaud (curry baguette sandwich) for lunch from the sandwich place, but I swear I’ll go get groceries this evening, and I’ll cook everything else this week. Oh, you want to play ping pong? A few rounds can’t hurt – I have tons of time!

Monday Evening: Yes, I may have just played ping pong for two hours and foosball for one, but I’m going to the grocery store, and I’m cooking dinner! I’ll have a few hours to study afterwards and just do the rest tomorrow. Wait, how long does the lab homework take? Are you serious?? How is that even…okay, grocery store tomorrow, La Boite de Pizza tonight. It’s healthier than any pizza in the US probably. Maybe?

Tuesday Morning: Alright, today is the day! I’m going to catch up so hard from yesterday, and it’s going to be awesome. I still haven’t caught up on sleep because of that lab homework, but as long as the coffee machine works, then so can I! Or I’ll be like my dear friend Ben and bring a literal coffee maker to GTL. After class though.

Tuesday Midday: Only have one more class later, time to sit down and start on more homework. Wait…you didn’t book the hostel? I thought we agreed on that one with the nice rooftop…it’s totally booked? Are you serious? Okay, let’s figure it out – we only have two days before we leave and this homework can wait. I guess I’ll get another baguette for lunch.

*You can imagine how Wednesday went.*

Thursday: I’m exhausted, I’ve only eaten white bread this week and you’re telling me I’m leaving for London tonight when? In two hours?? Well, here we go.

And repeat.

How to Pack Light

Hello dear travelers, let me tell you all that I know about how to not crush yourself with 50 pounds of things you don’t need. I had to learn this the hard way. It was spring break 2017, I was super excited to make my merry way through Greece and Italy, and my backpack ruined everything. This is an over-exaggeration of course, I had a wonderful time, but it honestly would’ve been so much better if I hadn’t brought 10 days worth of clothes and my heavy computer with me. I ended up getting a big hiking backpack with hip straps, but that can only help so much. My shoulders could barely be called shoulders by the end of the trip and it actually took a few days for them to feel normal again. Granted, I am a small female that can’t handle an entirely full school backpack sometimes. Regardless of your size, here are some ways to ensure you don’t have my experience.

Realize you don’t need that many options. One going out outfit, one comfy outfit for trains, and a few normal day outfits will do. (That is, if you’re doing cities. Obviously you don’t need a clubbing outfit if you’re camping in the Dolomites… at least I don’t think so?) Choose carefully, and choose things that can dress up and dress down easily. Don’t bring something you would be iffy about wearing normally. Only bringing about 5 days worth of clothing got me this size Jansport backpack, which is incredible compared to what I had last break.

I mentioned bringing a few outfits, so how are you supposed to make them last the whole trip? You try your hardest to stay in AirBnB’s and hostels with washers. Most hostels have a laundromat either in them or close to them, just pop your clothes in while making breakfast and hang them to dry somewhere during the day.

If you’re positive you’ll be staying somewhere with no access to a washer, get a small thing of detergent and hand-wash your clothes in the sink. It’s a lot easier than you think.

Also – you’re not going to use your computer enough to make it worth bringing, so don’t make my mistake!

Night Trains: For the Long-Distance Traveler on a Budget

Basically, after all of the traveling I’ve done, I grew tired of the Franco-Germanic area and aspired to travel elsewhere, which either requires an 8-12+ hour train or an expensive flight. So, I found a nice solution: night trains! Night trains are awesome. Within France they’re very cheap: I went to Monaco for a 20 euro reservation, which is what you’d pay for an inexpensive hostel. From southern France, it’s just a quick train to Italy, and there are also night trains that go between countries as well. I have some friends that took one to Barcelona for 30-40 euros, and I’m positive the night train to Berlin is fairly inexpensive as well.

The trains have rooms that house 6 beds, and yes, they are super cramped. I’m talking Titanic movie cramped.

 

But, all you’re doing is sleeping, so instead of staying up late and doing homework or other irrelevant things, get a good night’s rest so you can explore all the next day! (I’m joking, although if you are thinking of doing homework on this train, then forget about it. There were no common areas to just hang out in (at least on mine), and don’t expect to be able to sit upright comfortably in your bed.

Also, If you’re tall you may end up like this:

These trains usually leave late at night (mine left at 10 pm) and you arrive at your destination in the morning.

One thing to consider is that unless you buy out an entire cabin of all six beds, you’ll probably be sharing them with other people. So, if you have a group of friends that are obsessed with a card game and are refusing to quit at even 1 am, just be courteous of the people you’re sharing the cabin with and try to move out into the hallway. That doesn’t sound fun but it’s better that than pissing off some French women who will 100% use the entirety of their vocabulary to make you shut up (totally not based on personal experience). Also, it’s always good to be conscious of your things, but that’s a bit hard to do when you’re asleep. I cannot sleep with one eye open, and I doubt you can either, so I suggest getting a money belt/something similar so you can keep your passport and phone close to you without fear of prying hands. Get out there and see some far away stuff!

Solo Travel: A How-To

As GTL students travel all over the continent, there may be times where someone wants to go somewhere or do something specific that absolutely no one else wants to do. If you’re one of those people, but you’re worried about traveling by yourself, have no fear! I’m here to tell you how to do it right (as I’ve come to experience) and safely.

One thing you have to keep in mind is how you appear to others. If you’re worried about getting pick-pocketed or being scammed, try not to look über-touristy. Save your fanny pack for another time and maybe zip your jacket up over your American flag t-shirt. If you’re lost, stop and find a map or look at your phone on a spot away from a street corner where you would stand out. Maybe try to go to less-touristy places instead. I mean, there’s so much to see in these incredible places you’re exploring, and especially being by yourself, you’re more likely to chat up a local in a neighborhood art gallery than in the London Eye.

I recently went to Stockholm by myself and got to enjoy a goblet of strawberries, the best smoked salmon I’ve ever had, and an overpriced – but refreshing – cucumber soda. If I had been there with anyone else I’m not sure I would’ve paid them any attention anyway.

This leads me to my next point: talk to people! Be open to it! That was very hard for me to figure out how to do, not being the most social butterfly of the bunch. If someone doesn’t want to talk to you then that’s fine, but most often people in a hostel or in a relaxed social setting will be open to conversation. Talking to other travelers is easiest, as you both might feel like outsiders, but I really urge you to try and speak with a local if you really want to get a feel for the culture you’re visiting. It’s so fascinating to me how Europeans perceive America and the contrasts between growing up in these two similar, but also incredibly different atmospheres – and without fail the young Europeans I’ve talked to feel the same.

By now you’ve probably heard earful after earful of “be wary of pick pocketing don’t put down your purse don’t stray from main roads at night,” and unfortunately I’m going to give you yet another earful, but hopefully a meaningful one. Simply be aware. That’s all. Don’t do anything that would put you in a weird situation, especially now since you can’t just call your friend over. Lie if you have to, and I mean this especially for my girls out there – if someone asks if you’re traveling alone, never ever say yes! It gives you a good escape plan with a fake call if it’s necessary, and if they end up being cool and you become lifelong friends, then they should understand your precautions.

I hope this has been helpful. I know there’s a decent number of people that I’ve overheard talking about solo travel, so if you have a friend in need then link them this tidbit right here!

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