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By jdippel529

Coming to Europe as an American, I knew that I was in danger of committing some cultural faux pas. What I didn’t realize was just how silly these faux pas would seem to me, and how often I would be embarrassing myself. One of the most important things I have learned while living here in Spain is that culture is a pretty remarkable force. Culture shapes the way we think so drastically that what seems completely ridiculous to me, makes all the sense in the world to someone else (and vice versa). Just so you can see what I mean, here is a quick list of the most “offensive” Spanish faux pas I have committed, to date:

  • Eating an un-peeled pear
  • Walking around my apartment without slippers
  • Taking a bite out of a piece of bread without breaking it first
  • Tipping the waiter at a restaurant
  • Taking a sip from my water bottle on the metro (crazy, right?!)

BUT, committing all of these heinous crimes has taught me to not be afraid to laugh at myself, and to just cut myself a break sometimes. I was brave enough to go abroad and embrace an entirely different culture, so I am definitely brave enough to keep on embarassing myself...right?

Segway stop at the Temple of Debod!

This week, one of my dearest friends came to visit me in Madrid and of course the pressure was on to show her the time of her life. I wanted desperately for her to fall in love with Madrid, just like I had. The days leading up to Rita’s arrival, I kept making mental notes of things to go see, and places to eat. I soon realized that I hadn't even visited half of the things on my list. I then got to thinking that maybe, as students studying abroad, too much pressure is placed on us to “blend in,” and try our best to achieve the “local experience.” But, how are we truly supposed to learn about a country, if we don’t experience the touristic sites it is famous for? Still, to this day, there are famous spots in Madrid that I have yet to visit—the so called “tourist traps.”

The Gasparini room in the Royal Palace of Madrid

At this point, I was feeling like I missed out on the tourist experience, simply because I felt it wasn't the “cultural” thing to do. So, what was there to do but book a Segway tour? On a glorious Thursday afternoon, Rita and I hopped on and mastered the Segway. We had a wonderful tour guide named Alex, who led us on our brave and courageous conquest of all things “tourist” in Madrid. We went to spots like the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple that was deconstructed and then gifted to Spain as a thank-you for Spanish aid after the construction of the Aswan High Dam posed a threat to precious historical monuments, and the spot where the body of Miguel de Cervantes was uncovered after 400 years. Even though by the end of it, the backs of my knees were locked up and my feet were aching, riding around Madrid on a Segway was one of the coolest things I have ever done. Of course, we got the occasional “Oh, you tourists,” glares, but we were having too much fun to care. It's sad to think I may have not had my Segway experience all because I was too afraid of seeming like a tourist in my host country.

Even after our tour, I found myself visiting places with Rita that I, too, had never been to. We toured the inside of the Royal Palace of Madrid, which was surprisingly comparable to the lavish style of Versailles. My favorite part of the palace was the Gasparini Room where King Carlos III dressed and greeted guests. In this room, porcelain vines and flowers clung to every wall—even the ceiling. Rita and I also made a stop at the supposed best place for “chocolate con churros” in Madrid. I had never been here, because I was told “other places were better,” but experiencing such a landmark for myself was definitely a worthwhile experience.

Maybe I got too carried away with myself, or maybe too much pressure was placed upon me to have an authentic Madrileño experience. Whichever the case, I should have tried harder to find a balance between local and tourist. Why did I really care if people thought of me as a tourist? What is so bad about visiting a foreign country and wanting to see and learn about its famous sites? This is a question that is rarely addressed in the study abroad community, but most definitely should be. I think it would spark an interesting, yet thought-provoking debate.

Rowing boats in Retiro Park, like a typical tourist.


By jdippel529

In honor of four wonderful months in Madrid, here are the four most important things I have learned during my time, here:

  1. Be Open

One of the most important things you can do while studying abroad is to embrace everything that comes your way. Being thrown into a different culture can seem like you just space-rocketed onto another planet. Here, in Spain, learning the language was mentally exhausting and getting used to the different etiquette was beyond frustrating. But, because I came to Madrid with an open heart and mind, the challenge was worth it and all the more rewarding. Be open to the culture you are coming into, and embrace it. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

  1. Stop Planning

Yes, it’s true, some things you have to plan for. But for me, some of my very best memories have been the result of spur-of-the-moment, on-a-whim decisions. The days that weren’t so jam-packed with places to go and things to see were the days where I enjoyed myself the most. Whether you are in your host country, or traveling around the world, make sure you leave a little room for spontaneity. You’ll find that magic can happen when least expected.

  1. No Money is Wasted on Travel

My mom said this to me during a phone conversation after I was feeling guilty for having to buy so many plane tickets for Spring Break, and she couldn’t have been more right. The experiences, insight, perspective, and memories you gain while traveling the world is something you just can’t put a price on. Thirty years from now, I will remember all of the places I ventured to and the lessons I took from them—not how much it cost.

  1. “Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Coming to Madrid and adjusting to a completely different language and culture has been one of the most difficult, yet rewarding challenges of my life. It was hard, to say the least. But, it taught me a lot about my inner strength, as a person, and showed me what I can overcome in the face of adversity. When everything you know in life is taken away from you, you have nothing left to do but discover who YOU are. When you are out of your comfort zone is when you meet your true self.

By jdippel529

In Spain, spring break takes place during the Holy Week (Semana Santa), and gives students about 13 days off from school. A couple of my friends and I decided it would be a good idea to make use of the wo weeks and turn it into a eurotrip. So, I am currently writing this blog in a cozy little apartment in downtown Athens where we arrived after a 3 day trip to Rome. Before I left for my trip, I wanted to make sure I made the most out of my travel experience. This is why I finally decided to book a food tour while in Rome. At first, I thought 100 euros was a bit too steep of a price, but once I realized all that it included I knew the tour was a unique opportunity that I just couldn’t miss out on. When in Rome…right?

The EatingItaly Rome Tour, which I highly recommend, passed through the up-and-coming area of Trastevere and included 8 wondrous stops: a long-time family-owned restaurant where we tried fried artichokes and Italian champagne, an ancient wine cellar dug up by the restaurant that lay above, a family-run bakery, two meat and cheese shops, a suppli (fried rice ball) shop, an award winning restaurant where we ate gnocchi, spinach and ricotta ravioli and risotto, and a gourmet and organic gelato place. I cannot stress it enough when I say that it is easy to get caught up in the tourist traps of Rome. This tour, however, stopped at local, family-run places that simply oozed authenticity. In this tour alone, I learned more about Rome than I had going around hte city for 2 whole days.

I never thought that taking a food tour would be so rewarding, but I promise you it was. I was able to make new and authentic discoveries into the Italian culture (culinary and historical), to meet new people from all over the world, to eat things I normally wouldn’t otherwise, and to do something completely on my own. Since I was in London when my friends booked the tour, their time slot was sold out by the time I got around to purchasing a ticket. On a whim, I decided to go on the earlier tour alone. I had never done something like this on my own before, and was naturally a bit apprehensive. Thankfully, it was the best thing I could have ever done. Being on my own forced me to talk and get to know the people in my group, all who were amazing. Our group consisted of a newly wed couple from rural Pennsylvania, 4 friends from Cyprus, Rick Steves (!!) and our lovely tour guide, of course. Yes, that’s right—a celebrity was on the tour with us and I didn’t even know it at the time! Rick Steves, the author and travel guru, happened to take the same tour for research on an upcoming project he was filming in Rome. Since I had no idea who he was at the time, I thought that he just had a cool job, nothing more. Because Rick left before our last stop (some amazing and authentic gelato), I was able to hear our guide talk about how she couldn’t believe a travel wiz like him was on her tour! At that point, I was just mad I missed out on the opportunity for a picture or autograph. Rick, if you’re reading this, an autographed travel guide would be awesome! Thanks for making my special tour that much more special.

Without my friends, I also learned the most important lesson of all: traveling with friends can be great, but the most important journey will always be the one with yourself. Being on my own allowed me to better perceive my experience and transform it into something memorable and lasting. In other words, it was easier to figure out what that time had meant to me, rather then deciding after putting together the opinions of the rest of my group.

So…what to take away from all of this? While traveling, always, always, always seek out an authentic cultural experience, and always make sure you are able to enjoy an experience in the moment, without the thoughts and opinions of others.

A view of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

One thing all of my travels have had in common is an overabundance of old (sometimes ancient, sometimes medieval) stairs. Trips throughout Italy, Greece, Portugal, France and, of course, Spain, have all left me waking up the next morning with my calves aching and my quadriceps burning. All of these countries have incredible and unforgettable sights that are only accessible through, yep, you guessed it…stairs. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Torre de Belém in Lisbon, or the hundreds of cathedrals and castles all over Spain (I’ve been to ones in Madrid, Barcelona, Segovia, Córdoba and Seville)—they’ve all got steep and tiny staircases.

Me, feeling victorious after a climb up a mountain in Santorini, Greece.

I laugh writing this because such a method of reaching a tourist destination is something I could never imagine being widespread in the U.S. We are a young country, with taller, and more modern buildings that almost always have elevator access. Imagine climbing your way up to the top of the Empire State building? Yea, didn’t think so! Blame it on our age, or blame it on our laziness—whichever the case, America doesn’t do stairs. But Europe, I can tell you, most certainly does.

My various and strenuous climbs all throughout Europe have ironically been some of the most memorable parts of my trips. When my friends and I sit and talk about the memories we’ve made, we almost always end up coming back to the time we were dripping with sweat as we finally reached the top of the Arc de Triomphe, the time we made friends with strangers through our common struggle up St. Peter’s Basilica, or the time I was so scared, that I couldn’t speak without stuttering the whole way down the steps of a Segovian castle. Because of these moments, we actually ended up appreciating the journey more than the actual view that we were climbing up to see. Here, I charter into dangerous waters by quoting the ever so insightful Miley Cyrus: “Ain't about how fast I get there, Ain't about what's waiting on the other side…It's the climb”

My friends and I at the top of a castle tower overlooking the city of Segovia, Spain.

All of those climbs have served as lessons for me, too. There were some pretty great moments when it was about the climb, and what was waiting on the other side. In fact, our journeys up just about a thousand steps are what made what was waiting for us at the top all the more worthwhile. To walk up the hill to the Acropolis and then stand in the presence of some of the most ancient and historical buildings in the world is a truly breathtaking experience—one worth every exerted breath on the hike up. I also learned how unhealthy Americans are, as a society. All of the cathedrals, castles and forts that I climbed, I climbed right alongside people who were three times my age, and maybe even more. Sometimes, they even seemed to be struggling less. For me, it was a true testament to the healthy lifestyle that most Europeans lead, and made me realized that I need to do more things like that once I get back home.

Until next time!

View of the entire premiere set up at the Tower of London
View of the entire premiere set up at the Tower of London

This past weekend, I traveled to London to visit two of my best friends. Being with my people, and not to mention in one of the best cities in the world was amazing, to say the least. We had a weekend filled with laughs, adventures, and memories that will last us a lifetime. One of the craziest things that happened to me while in London was something that began with a simple visit to the Tower of London. After a long day at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour for the making of the Harry Potter films (if you’re not jealous at this point, I may need to check your pulse), we decided to take an evening stroll along the Thames. After stopping at the London Bridge, we hung a quick left and ended up at the Tower of London. Since it was 17 pounds just to get in (around $25), we decided to just walk around and enjoy the beauty from the outside. What can I say? I’m a tourist on a budget! As we approached the tube station to get home, we passed a car with a Game of Thrones decal, and a bunch of tents. At the time, I thought this setup was nothing more than a raffle or publicity event for the show. So, we were on our way.

Red Carpet Area

About half an hour later, however, my friend received a text from someone she knew talking about the Game of Thrones premiere that night. At that point, the instinctual GoT fan living inside of me knew that we had to go back. Lo and behold, only an hour later, the red carpet for the new season premiere was in full swing. And let me tell you, HBO went all out for this one. There were bonfires set up everywhere, and a giant projector that was showing animations of dragons and interviews that were going on inside the tower. Let’s not forget all of this is taking place on the lawn of an ancient fortress. All of it was 100% Game of Thrones.

We spent about an hour at the premiere, catching glimpses of whomever showed up next (Lena Headey, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Alfie Allen, and even Charles Dance), watching the live interviews, and being shocked by how overwhelming the red carpet actually seems. After a while, we got cold, tired and hungry, and decided to grab something to eat. But, I can honestly say that showing up to the Game of Thrones season premiere was one of the coolest, most spur-of-the-moment things I have done. That’s what I really love about traveling—you never really know what you are going to come across on any given journey. Whether it was a talked-about premiere, a trip to Windsor while the Queen was actually in residence, or teatime with the most hilarious storeowner I have ever met, London was full of surprises that I’m sure I will carry with me for a lifetime.

By jdippel529

This past weekend, I went to Amsterdam along with a couple of the students from my program. Long story short, I loved it. The people, the food, the architecture, and the museums were all wonderful. I think its safe to say that the Dutch culture captured my heart. The most memorable part of the trip, however, was seeing the Anne Frank House.

I first learned of Anne’s story in middle school, when we were assigned to read The Diary of a Young Girl. From then on, the story of Anne Frank and her years hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust had become a part of history for me. I felt a connection to Anne because she was this young, teenage girl who was able to create this incredible empathy inside of me even long after she was gone. Never, until I came to her museum in Amsterdam, did it really occur to me that she had this effect on people of all genders, ages and places of the world.

Most of my time abroad has consisted of learning and adapting to differences in culture, but at the Anne Frank House I experienced something entirely different. People from all countries and walks of life had come to this very place in Amsterdam to pay tribute and learn more about Anne. Even the audio tour guides came in about 20 different languages. As you walk through the house, however, all of these differences suddenly fade. When you reach the room Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer, for example, the color of your skin, the language you are speaking, doesn’t matter. All that matters is the eerie presence of Anne and her work; work that ended up shedding a light upon the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. It is hard to ignore the greatness in that room. That feeling of a common journey most definitely contributes to the overall power and experience of the Anne Frank house.

There is this one point in time, when you are leaving the annex, in which you come to a display with Anne Frank’s first and original diary. That simple red and white-checkered diary of a 15-year-old girl is what brought a whole world of cultures together in one, little house. To me, that is an extremely rare and remarkable power we don’t see often enough.

By jdippel529

It’s no secret that while studying abroad, your course load is generally easier. The more relaxed academic setting during study abroad is great because it gives students more time to focus on experiencing the culture of their host country, or to travel to other places. The down side to this no-stress atmosphere is that when midterms or finals week rolls around, we don’t remember how to cope. Even though most of us are juniors in college, being abroad leads you to suddenly forgot how to handle a couple of exams and papers that are all due during the same week. So, here are 3 extremely useful tips that I am sure will help those trying to cope with studying for midterms or finals abroad:

Find a place to study. This may seem like an obvious tip, but remember that most students who are studying abroad don’t live on campus, where finding a quiet place to student is much easier. Before midterms week, I thought that studying at home would the answer. But, the weekend before midterms my host mom had all of her childhood friends over, and I’m sure you can imagine how loud that got. Moral of the story is, find a quiet place to study beforehand. Studying abroad isn’t like at GW where you can always study in your own place, or set up camp in Gelman. Look up any public libraries that may be around, or cool cafes that offer free Wi-Fi. Just make sure you have a place to focus before the last minute; I learned this the hard way.

Keep in contact with your professors. This is especially easy for students studying abroad through a GW program. Since the class sizes are so small, it is easy to develop a close relationship with any one of your professors. At GW, however, lectures tend to scare students away from asking too many questions or going to their professor for help. But, during midterms week, my classmates and I asked any and every question we could about what topics to focus on while studying. What we found was that all of our professors genuinely wanted us to do well, and gave us a tremendous amount of helpful tips. Study abroad allows students to develop a unique and close relationship with their professors that we should all take advantage of when midterms and finals roll around.

Plan accordingly. As I’ve said in my other blogs, it feels like there aren’t nearly enough weekends to travel while studying abroad. As a result, students may make the mistake of booking a trip the weekend before midterms, or even during them. This is why I strongly suggest having all of your syllabi spread out before you whenever you go to plan a trip. I almost planned a trip to London the weekend before midterms, but thankfully thought to check my school calendar beforehand!

By jdippel529

Every year, students choose to study abroad in Europe for the opportunity to travel around the continent. If I am being honest, this is one of the reasons why I chose to study in Madrid, as opposed to another Spanish-speaking country in Latin America. I had never been to Europe before and desperately wanted to see historic cities such as Athens and Rome, and “EuroTrip” must-sees like Paris and London.

But, as I embark on my first weekend trip, I can’t help but worry about how to manage my time between other cities and countries, and Madrid. After all, I chose to study in Madrid—a decision I intend to take full advantage of. That being said, once you actually sit down and look at your calendar, you begin to realize what little weekend time 4 short months leaves you. This creates a problem that I believe most study abroad students encounter: the “I know I am not going to be able to afford to go back to Europe for a long time now, so I want to travel as much as I can while I am here while also immersing myself into the culture of my host country,” problem.

Trust me, I am no expert on the matter. However, I do have some tips for coping with the pressure of balancing your adventures in your host country and your adventures abroad:

  1. Which cities do you want to visit the most? Which could you do without seeing? Don’t go on a trip simply because all of your friends are going, go because YOU want to. Your time in Europe is short and precious, so don’t waste half of it traveling to places you could really care less about.
  2. Class load is significantly less when you are studying abroad, so take advantage of the afternoons and evenings you have during the week to explore your city! This is a great way to explore your host country without having to a sacrifice a weekend of travel.
  3. Plan, Plan, Plan! My saving grace this trip has really been my trusty ‘ole iCalendar. With it, I have been able to map out what weekends I am willing to leave open for travel and what weekends I want to stay in Madrid. This comes in handy especially when GW has scheduled program events you must attend, or if you have a paper coming up!
  4. Figure out what YOU want. Listen, everybody has different priorities while studying abroad, and that is 100% ok! That is why you need to figure out what is most important to you: traveling throughout Europe or learning about your host culture. Do you want to work to find a balance? Or would you rather just pick one? It’s all up to you. If you can answer this question right off the bat, you’re in good shape!

Happy Travels!

By jdippel529

One custom I wish the U.S. would adopt from Spain is its relationship with alcohol. The most surprising thing about traveling to one of the party capitals of the world was being taught how to drink responsibly. In Madrid, I have been introduced to a drinking culture in which young adults view alcohol in an entirely different manner than back at home.

My first drink in this city was only hours after I touched down in Spain, and here’s the real kicker: it was with my program director and advisors. Our first dinner as a group included a couple glasses of red wine, or “vino tinto” as they call it here. I guess because I’m not yet 21, the idea of having a drink with my superiors was a bit odd. But then, I realized that even back in D.C., having a drink with your professors at 21 would be considered slightly inappropriate, all due to the dark cloud surrounding young adults and drinking in the United States.

Back home, young adults aren’t trusted with alcohol. They are viewed as binge-drinkers and partygoers who just can’t handle their liquor. At the age of 18, they are trusted to go to war for their country, but not to enjoy a glass of beer. I find this completely ridiculous. I honestly believe that the negative stigma surrounding alcohol in the U.S. is exactly what pressures most kids to indulge in it as much as they can, whenever they can. In Spain, as I have quickly learned, things are completely different.

Since Spanish nightlife lasts well into the morning (it’s not rare to stay out until the metro reopens at 6am), people in Spain don’t feel the need to rush and “get drunk.” Clubs and bars don’t go into full swing until after 1am, anyway. What’s even more important is that alcohol is almost always accompanied with food. Drinks and tapas are a staple for a night out in Madrid (and probably why more people are able to handle their liquor). Long story short: In Madrid, drinking is just an excuse to spend time with your friends and family, and enjoy good food and music. It’s a social and casual event, not some marathon or competition. I think that young adults in the U.S. would be wise to take a hint from this Spanish way of life.