Whether traveling, studying, or living abroad, you’re bound to experience some of the joys of being in another country, as well as some of the struggles.
My first week in Madrid, I went out for tapas with a few other students during a study abroad orientation event. For those of you that are unfamiliar with this Spanish culture staple, I’ll give you a brief history of the tapas tradition (taken from a Telegraph article).
There are legends that deal with the king of Spain being too sick to eat bigger portions or bartenders trying to keep dust and flies out of the drinks, but basically, tapas are small plates of food that are usually eaten with an alcoholic beverage, like wine. One of the most beloved Spanish tapas is jamón ibérico, a salty and thinly sliced piece of cured ham.
I’m not sure if it was the ham itself or my over eagerness to try something I had only read about in Spanish textbooks, but I choked on the jamón, causing a scene in the bar. In that brief choking moment, I realized two things: I need to chew more thoroughly, and I wanted to keep exploring Spain and its culture.
I’ve traveled, studied, and lived in Spain for about six months now, and while it can be difficult to adjust to a new country, it’s been the greatest adventure and challenge of my life so far. From my experience abroad, I’ve learned a few tips that enhance the experience, which I’d like to share since I’m a huge advocate for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone via new country exploration.
When you choose to visit another country, you will encounter differences in the culture, food, and possibly even the language, among other things. Having an open mind and respecting these differences is the major key to enjoying your experience abroad. Yeah, it’s still very strange for me to see cured pig legs hanging in store windows and at the Madrid airport, but those legs are a part of the Spanish culture (the jamón culture, which I know so well now).
Now on to some tips!
For short term lodging, stay in a hostel! I remember my parents telling me about how dirty and unsafe hostels are, but now, hostels are a safe environment to sleep and meet other world travelers in. Sometimes, the hostel even includes breakfast and/or offers rooms specifically for women. Hostels are also very cheap, and some you can even work in as an exchange for a room.
Before going anywhere, make sure you learn a few key phrases in the host country’s language. This will not only help you to find your way about and meet people, but it shows the natives that you took the time to learn some of the native language. They’ll appreciate your effort, no matter how bad your accent is.
Use the metro if your city has it! It’s a great and cheap way to quickly get somewhere. Also, go on free walking tours that are everywhere in the city (or find them on TripAdvisor) to become situated. If you’ve planned to visit certain touristy places, they will most likely be on the guided tour, killing two birds with one stone.
My choking on jamón story might have made you laugh (or in my mother’s case, cringe), but it was my attempt to acclimate to a culture I wasn’t accustomed to by sampling the local food. I keep an open mind every time I go someplace new, because while I might not understand the traditions and norms of the country, I am a visitor in the country, and have to respect the cultural differences. I’m also a college kid on a budget and have found that the tips I’ve mentioned in this article have saved me loads of time and money.
If you’re thinking about traveling, studying, or living abroad and are fearful of how different it will be from your own country, stop thinking like that right now. A very cheesy quote that I like and pertains to this traveling topic is: “in the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take”. I encourage everyone to visit a different country at some point in their lives, because it’s an enriching experience that may change your outlook on life.1
Also published on Medium.