Why I Stopped Traveling During My Study Abroad

When I was in high school, I did my fair share of traveling. I trekked through the Sierra Nevadas in Eastern California and up Kilauea in Hawaii during special class science trips. I went with my mom all around Italy on a group tour after I finished my first year of Italian.

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Feeding pigeons in front of St. Mark’s in Venice, June 2005

I got to perform with my youth orchestra in Austria and the Czech Republic during my junior year, and then schlepped around the UK and Ireland after I graduated.

I’m incredibly fortunate to even have had these opportunities, and it’s safe to say that I suffered no aversion to traveling. I wouldn’t say that I had necessarily been “bitten” by the bug; I enjoyed traveling and had made up my mind that I certainly wouldn’t spend my entire life in Baltimore, but I didn’t yet have a bucket list of countries I wanted to see, nor was I planning any future trips.

After high school I spent two years in Chicago at Northwestern University studying music education, until I suddenly decided that I cared too much about trying to be awesome at the flute. I switched my major to flute performance, and with that switch came the opportunity to study abroad. I threw my lot in at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I was accepted. As far as cities that I would have wanted to spend a year in, London wasn’t one of them- there was no language barrier, no massive and obvious cultural differences, and a city that wasn’t representative of its country as a whole. I went for the school.

London turned out to be my new true love. It was like New York but calmer, more refined, more green, and more clean. It was perfect for a girl who wanted the hustle and bustle of a large city without being forced into its chaos. I wound up meeting people from all over the world. And yet I still did no travel.

In 2012 I graduated from Northwestern and went back to London for my postgraduate degree. I would have another two years in one of the world’s great capitals! It was a perfect chance to get set… and I wasn’t at all inspired to use it as a springboard to anywhere in particular.

I’m still a little ashamed to admit that I spent my first two years in London (my study abroad year and the first year of my postgrad) going absolutely nowhere, much to the consternation of my American friends back home. “But it’s so cheap to travel around Europe once you’re there!” “Don’t you ever take any time off? You didn’t have any desire to go somewhere new?”

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Camden Lock Market, London, England, October 2013

Looking back though, there were a number of reasons why I just stayed put, and I wanted to write them down simply because I’ve gotten so many questions about it. So, why did I stop traveling during my study abroad? Here are my reasons:

1. The UK isn’t mainland Europe.

I know that we Americans generally tend to associate our English-speaking brethren across the pond with the rest of the European community, but the truth is that they’re just really not that European. The British are somewhere between America and mainland Europe, both in culture and in location.

What does this mean for the wanna-be traveler? It means that you’re most likely going to be taking a plane to wherever you’re going. Yes, the Eurostar exists, and yes it’s perfectly fine to pay £100 per ticket if you’re going to France, Belgium or Holland. Anywhere else? You’re flying.

2. The myth of the budget airlines.

I do know that cheap flights abound in Europe through companies including Ryan Air (the epitome of everything that is wrong with air travel in the modern age), EasyJet, Aer Lingus, etc; however, “cheap” does not necessarily mean so. Want to go to Portugal or Greece in July? Be prepared to pay upwards of £100 per ticket. Are you American? Better factor in that exchange rate, which comes out to roughly $180.

Porto, Portugal, July 2013. We really did wind up paying $180 for flights.

Porto, Portugal, July 2013. We really did wind up paying $180 for flights.

Want to go somewhere cheaper? Cool, Ryan Air has cheap tickets to Osijek, Croatia. Sounds cool, right? Not when you realize that Osijek is in Croatia’s war-torn east, a long bus ride away from Split, Dubrovnik, and Zagreb. Oh, and those cheap flights? They’re in January! Womp womp. Sometimes the budget airlines’ cheapest “budget” destinations are just not practical.

3. Money, money, money!

To be fair, a lot of people would probably jump at the chance to go to Portugal for $180. Most normal people probably also probably have some sort of steady income with which they replenish money spent on holidays. As a student in Britain I had no such easy option.

I was on what was called a Tier-4 visa, which is the UK’s student visa. Tier-4 visas limit their holders to 20 hours of extra work per week (outside of school). This is all fine and good, and 20 hours seems like a lot, but the reality is that part-time work opportunities for me were mostly confined to stewarding for the Academy. Unfortunately the Academy had so many like-minded students (who also wanted some pocket change) that hours for part-time work were limited, and other employers outside were hesitant to accept students with restricted hours.

In other words, what I spent I couldn’t easily earn back, leaving me to be selective about how I spent my money. It came down to going to the pub and making friends, or poking my nose around Oslo or Warsaw for a weekend. I chose the pub, and I still don’t regret that choice today.

4. London was an adventure on its own!

To put it simply, after about a month in London I was completely in love. For those of you who haven’t been, it’s an absolutely enormous city with a million and one things to do. You like vintage markets? Pick which part of the city you feel like going to. You like concerts in cool contemporary galleries? I’ve done a couple, so I can vouch for the fact that they exist. You like food markets? Pick your day of the week. World-famous architecture and landmarks? Champagne bars at the top of the skyline? Theater and music? Beer and pub quizzes? Lebanese, Turkish, Chinese, or Korean food? I could go on. London has it all.

Up until I went to London I had never lived in a place with such so much stuff to do that was easily and safely accessible via public transportation. Why explore Europe when there was something cool going on in my own city every single weekend? It didn’t make sense to leave when I just couldn’t get enough of where I was.

5. Living far away from home for the first time is tough.

I lived in Chicago before I went to London. For those of you who know anything about American geography, you’ll know that Chicago isn’t exactly close to my hometown near Baltimore. I couldn’t just drive home on the weekends when I was feeling a little lonely and stressed, so being on my own wasn’t necessarily a new thing to me.

What was a new thing was setting up my adult life on my own. I had to move all my stuff without any help. I had to open my own bank account, and I had such a hassle both times I did it. I had to make all the calls to set up and close off water and internet bills, and I had to choose my own phone plan. Add possible trips on top of that, replete with reservations for transportation and lodging? Forget it. Just the basics of living on my own in another country were enough for a while.

6. I worked damn hard.

In the States we tend to think about study abroad as a time when people take a break from their actual degrees and go crazy in Europe, traveling around, drinking a lot, and generally partying it up with the locals. My experience could not have been farther from that stereotype.

Things were busy enough that I often practiced in the hallway. I'm not even kidding.

Things were busy enough that I often practiced in the hallway. I’m not even kidding.

At the Royal Academy we were excepted to play in classes every week, attend all lectures, be at all rehearsals without excuses and be prepared for all performances and lessons. In my mind all that sort of goes without saying, but it’s worth mentioning that skipping your responsibilities and generally slacking off was really looked down upon by everyone. Many people (myself included) are just not used to performing and playing so much at such a high level before they enter the Academy, and they spend most of their first year getting adjusted to the pace of student life and playing a frantic game of catch-up. In other words, the demands of the course meant that I just didn’t have time to take a trip anywhere. I had a lot of work to do, and I wanted to do it well.

This isn’t to say that other study abroad programs aren’t like this! It was just the experience I had.

Obviously in the end I did wind up getting out of the country, big time, for a lot of different reasons (I’ll write about that in one of the next blog posts if anyone is interested). For this moment though, I just wanted to set the record straight on why I didn’t set my feet farther than England’s rocky shores for a few years. For anyone who is tired of being asked why they spent their time abroad in their host country… I feel your frustration. I hope this sheds some light on the issue.

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