So, you’re a smarty pants, that much is obvious. While I’m sure you are spending most of your time piling your brain into your books and notes, I hope you’re making time to have some fun as well. Personally, I wasn’t really into going to parties and clubs all the time. Sure, in the excitement of travel and being on a new continent, I went to a few with friends and fellow students, but mostly I liked to keep my focus on school and soaking in things particular to my new environment. While abroad, the most important thing you can do is enjoy the culture around you. Nothing much is going to change by watching the local news or Sesame St. in translation, as interesting as that can be. You have to get out there and see what the region has to offer. Although I’m a bit of a introvert, I’ve written out a few things that I liked to do when I was trying to soak it all in.
Museums — This one is kind of obvious. Museums are filled with distinctly regional art work, inventions, and historic gems. Usually they only cost 10 – 15 currency units, and they occasionally have better deals, if you’ll be around for a while.
When I was in Dresden I picked up a year long pass for 40 Euro that got me into every state museum, and there were a good number of them. It was more than worth it. On weekends when I didn’t have anything going on or on my way home from my day I would stop in for even just a few minutes, a lot of times I would spend some serious time in any one of them.
The Zoo — Everyone goes to the zoo; it doesn’t matter how old, young, tall, short, mean or nice you are, the zoo is somewhere you will enjoy. I’ve been to the Dresden and Berlin zoos a few times and really enjoyed my time in them (Side note—one of the rarest species you can observe in a zoo are homo sapiens!).
Opera / Concerts — My one regret is that I didn’t get to the opera in Dresden. The city has an amazing concert hall that had regular performances. I don’t know if I felt like I had to dress up better than I could with what i packed or if I just didn’t have anyone to go with, but I really wish I had just bucked up and gone. I did get to catch a few bands though, which I guess will have to suffice.
Festivals — In Dresden there is a yearly music/culture festival called BRN, Bundes Republic Neustadt. There was beer and music and art and a lot of people having a good time. Keep an eye out for big festivals and celebrations, ask the people you work/study with, search the internet. Even just keep an eye out for holiday events.
Christmas markets in Germany are the best—they are tons of fun (especially with Gluwein) and they have great gifts you can mail back home.
Parks — When the weather is nice, get outside! By the time Spring had warmed up the city, I was making it a habit to walk home instead of taking the tram. While it was a couple of miles, my work was typically done and I had the time to make it home at my own pace. Being an introvert, as I mentioned, I didn’t meet a lot of people (although it was clearly possible), but I had time to read and write, as well as to do some serious people watching. I’m not sure why, but roller blading is alive and well in Germany. Maybe living in Ohio has made it difficult to enjoy the hobby, but it’ll still have to be explained to me.
Anyway, taking the long way home and making some time on the weekends to walk around, I got to get a feel for the air in Dresden, how the sun felt, what the shift in season looked like, and I got to feel like I was really there, like I was actually in another country. It’s a simple thing, and it’s very unspecific, but going to a park, finding a bench, or just walking around is a great way to enjoy your international experience.
Go to the Mall — For me this was a lot like going to a park, or the zoo for that matter. I got to see the people who lived around me, what they ate, what kind of clothes they liked to wear, and what things were generally popular. I didn’t buy much. In fact, I rarely bought much more than a DVD on sale or the pens and paper I needed anyway. At one point I had to buy a winter coat. I guess I just found hanging out at the mall, something I’ve never done back home, to be interesting enough to do once or twice a month. Give it a shot, it might be weird enough to be interesting for you.
Spend time with local students/professors — Good opportunities to get to know the people you’re studying with would be during holidays/festivals, for sporting events, and school functions. That introvert in me had trouble with this sometimes, but when I made it out to that barbecue with work friends where I interned or for the World Cup series (that Germany ended up winning) I had a really good time and made memories that I’ll have for a long time to come. Because I spent time with my teaching mentor we are still good friends. Just last week she asked me to buy a pair of jeans for her (a kind that are much more expensive there) in exchange for my favorite candy. There’s no need to be lonely over there, make some friends.
Check out a library — Depending on your school situation you may already be doing this, but it’s a fun idea anyway. If you’ve ever been to Washington D.C. and didn’t make it to the Library of Congress, you’re really missing out. State and University libraries that have been around for a long time have huge collections to look through, and they often have some interesting things on display. I know you’re probably bogged down with all kinds of reading and research, but try finding a library that will remind you why you fell in love with books and learning in the first place.
Travel — It might seem obvious, but definitely make an effort to travel to surrounding areas when you’re abroad. While you’re studying in your particular city you will get to know it really well, and when you are older you’ll look back on it not just as a place you visited when you were in school but as somewhere that you lived.
Taking weekend trips or a few days of holiday (if you are in an internship or have some sort of extended break) will make your time away that much more memorable. From Germany, I was able to make it into Poland, the Czech Republic, and down to Munich for Octoberfest (I wasn’t especially keen on travel during my study abroad because I had backpacked across Europe after graduating high school. More on that later!), among other cities, villages, and historic sites. I’m working on a post right now to help with making the trips as easy and pain free as possible—stick around! If you are old enough, brave enough, and have enough money, look into renting a car. It will definitely put a dent in your wallet, and rules of the road in foreign countries can be difficult to follow, but it would make for a great road trip. My Dad visited me while I was studying (and while I was in the middle of applying to graduate school–not the best) and he rented us the car that got us to Prague. I had trouble with the manual transmission, but it was still a lot of fun and a little less hectic than flying or taking a train.
Study abroad is not just a chance to get intimate knowledge of the country and city in which you’re studying. It is also an opportunity to do some classic college age backpacking. You might not believe me, but it will benefit your studying as well. Get a few exciting adventures behind you and you will be ready to work as hard as you know you should. Stay tuned, and study hard!