The Unforgettable Capital Cities of Slovenia and Lithuania (Part 2)

The amazing Vilnius, Lithuania

Hello hello! Nice to have you on my blog=)

If you have read Part 1, or the introduction to this blog, you would know that I attended Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia and majored in German. Yes, I said “attended” because I have already graduated! I graduated summa cum laude with Advanced Honors as well as an overall GPA of 4.10 and a major GPA of 4.17.

Not only did I finish my major coursework here in Germany by doing online courses with my home university, but the summer semester has also ended in Erlangen. The semester seemed really short and there were many holidays. It started in April and ended mid-July.

My next trips are to Budapest and Prague before I finish packing to leave my 11-month stay in Germany and travel to Ukraine to do a homestay while attending an intensive Russian-language course. It is bittersweet to leave because by the second semester, I really had a routine here, started opening up more and had better classes. Plus, summer is a great time to be in Germany! But, I know that I will return someday and it’s time to bring all the wonderful and challenging experiences I’ve had here back home and touch base with my loving family and friends. I have been a bit Germanized so it will be an adjustment being back home in Georgia, USA. So enough about my finished studies and future plans let’s talk about the amazing Vilnius, Lithuania!

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Street art gives a city more character

But before I get into my trip there, I want to share a bit of information about the country Lithuania and its capital Vilnius:

Lithuania is one of the three Baltic States located east of Denmark and Sweden in northern Europe. The population is estimated to be just under 3 million. It shares borders with Latvia, Belarus and Poland.

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The official language, Lithuanian, is one of only two living languages (along with Latvian) in the Baltic-branch of the Indo-European family. Fun fact: Among Indo-European languages, Lithuanian is conservative in some grammatical and phonological aspects having retained archaic features otherwise only found in ancient languages like Sanskrit or Ancient Greek. It is therefore an important source for reconstructing the Proto-Indo-European language.

Lithuania is a member of the European Union (including the eurozone and Schengen Agreement.) Here is a short timeline of the country’s history:

  • The shores of the Baltic Sea were inhabited by various Baltic tribes for centuries.
  • The Kingdom of Lithuania was created in the 1200s. Kind Mindaugas unified the Lithuanian lands and declared the first unified Lithuanian state.
  • In the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe. Present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Poland and Russian were territories of the Grand Duchy.
  • There was a two-state union between Lithuania and Poland in 1569 (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), which lasted for more than two centuries until the Russian Empire annexed most of Lithuania’s territory in the late 1700s.
  • Around the end of WWI, Lithuania’s Act of Independence was signed, founding the Republic of Lithuania.
  • During WWII, Lithuania was occupied both by the Nazis and the Soviets. By the end of the war, the Germans had retreated and the Soviet Union reoccupied Lithuania.
  • In March of 1990, a year before the Soviet Union formally dissolved, Lithuania declared independence and became again the independent State of Lithuania after 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Vilnius is both the capital and largest city in Lithuania with more than 570,000 residents. The city is in the southeast of Lithuania. It is the seat of the main government institutions of Lithuania and is on a global-scale both economically and culturally important. Architecture in the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, and, in 2009, Vilnius was declared the European Capital of Culture.

The Old Town, with well over 1,000 buildings built over several centuries, is the historical center of the city. Vilnius is primarily classified as a Baroque city, but there are examples of Gothic, Renaissance and additional styles of architecture. Following are some of the highlights of the Old Town.

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Vilnius University
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The Gate of Dawn, one of five original city walls, which has a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary inside
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The Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have miracle-working powers
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Literature Street with over 200 tiles to commemorate authors who have lived in Vilnius or foreign authors with a connection to Vilnius and Lithuania
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17th century Baroque ~Church of St. Peter & Paul ~
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Inside are more than 2,000 stucco figures

Travelling to Vilnius, Lithuania: My friend and I had actually planned to do a trip with a travel group but the tickets were sold out after we tried to purchase ours. She searched for cheap flights and we ended up booking two trips: one to Vilnius and the other to Thessaloniki, Greece. In the end, we saved money on these trips and got to do and see a lot more. Before our trips, we met up and watched some travel videos about our destinations and we both researched sightseeing to have in mind while exploring the new cities. I would recommend spending at least 3 days in Vilnius and maybe even up to 5. I’m not saying you would be bored after 5, but you would have had plenty of time to see major sites without being so rushed. We were there for 2 days, which was still very nice but I really felt at home in Vilnius and, looking back, there were a few more things that I would have liked to have seen.

Day 1: We had a very early flight, which meant that as soon as we arrived, the exploration was to begin. From the airport, we took a bus in the city center. We didn’t get off at a specific point but decided we could walk from there to the areas we wanted to see. We had coffee and started to take in the new atmosphere. Two of my first impressions were: how well-dressed and fashionable the women were and that most workers spoke good English. Some of the older people, who had outdoor stands for example, also still spoke Russian.

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Excited to start exploring Vilnius!

Our first destination was an alternative district of the city with an interesting history: Užupis, which means place beyond the river.

It used to be one of the more run down districts during the Soviet era, but it is now home to bohemian artists and their many galleries and workshops. It was declared an independent republic on April Fool’s Day in 1997.

We were able to catch one of the “free” tours (meaning only tips for the guide and no set price) in Užupis and learned some little details we wouldn’t have known otherwise.  It has its own flag, currency, president, cabinet of ministers, constitution, an anthem, and an army (numbering approximately 11 men). It’s not recognized as a Republic by any government, so it’s hard to tell how serious it’s meant to be taken.

By the way, you can get your passport stamped there. Here’s an informative video from Deutsche Welle if you’re curious for more: Uzupis. Supposedly, prices are really rising in this area and housing is no longer as affordable as it once was for local artists. The district is definitely worth a visit though.

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“place beyond the river” (one of nine bridges)
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This mermaid is said to attract visitors from all around the world. Those who surrender to her charm stay forever.
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Just a man walking his cat xD

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See his backpack? it’s a statue dedicated to travelers
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Try connecting with the cosmos here ~

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symbol for artistic freedom

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After the “free” tour, we had lunch and decided to find some Kvas. Kvas is a traditional Slavic and Baltic drink made from rye bread. It is classified as non-alcoholic and I think it’s delicious! It’s similar to soda/fizzy drinks but has a unique taste.

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Happy about the Kvas

I suggest doing a tour with a local guide to learn some interesting facts and not miss out on some cool areas of the city. It didn’t feel too large though and we were able to navigate fine with Google maps.

We went to the main square, climbed the tower and enjoyed the beautiful view before we climbed the hill to the Three Crosses. Between the square and the hill is a castle (actually on another hill), but due to renovations we could not climb up there; however, the view from the hill of the Three Crosses was incredible. We didn’t feel cheated by not having seen the castle. If you need directions, don’t be afraid to ask locals –like I said many speak very good English and seemed friendly enough to answer a few questions.

It’s always nice travelling with someone who has similar interests so that you’re in agreement about what to do. It also makes for a nice atmosphere when you can exchange impressions of a new place with someone who you connect with. We really felt at home in Vilnius and loved the city. One thing that we didn’t expect was to get lucky with shopping. We went to a mall and several different stores and I found some great items that you wouldn’t find where we live in Germany. It’s a fashionable city with good selection!

The rest of our day was spent eating good food (both sweets and a nice dinner), exploring more of the city, finding a hotel room and checking out the city again at night. Here a few snapshots of our shenanigans.

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Lithuanian National Drama Theatre ~Feast of Muses~ Muses of Drama, Comedy & Tragedy

Day 2: Since we had seen so much on the first day, we took it a bit easier the next day. We started with an amazing breakfast. With more delights of East-European cuisine like buckwheat porridge and tea with raspberries.

Our next stop was the Vilnius Museum of Genocide/KGB prison. Many parts of the exhibit are written in Lithuanian and/or Russian, so a tour guide would be helpful; tours are available in English and Russian. At the museum, you can see authentic cells of a former KGB prison and former offices of KGB officials.

The museum was established in 1992 and is a symbol of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania–a time that was both hard and tragic for Lithuania and its people. Lithuania lost its independence and was brutally repressed, but in the museum you have the chance to discover that many Lithuanians were self-sacrificing and persistent in their fight for independence. There is also an exhibit about the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust in Vilnius.

After the museum, we did more shopping, exploring and spent some time at the river after grabbing snacks from a super market. That is something I recommend for tourists in a new city. It’s cheaper than always eating out and you have a better idea of what natives buy, cook and eat on a regular basis.

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Lithuanian cuisine: Cepelinai, a potato stuffed dumpling with ground meat, cottage cheese or mushrooms
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Lithuanian deserts

Well that’s pretty much it about our time in Vilnius. We caught the bus early the next morning to the airport. I loved the city and I think you will too. Since it’s not so well-known, I found it necessary to add some facts about the country and Vilnius itself =)

For more information about what to do and see in Vilnius, check out:

With love,

Stephanie

Getting Started with Studying Abroad

Dear readers,

I would like to discuss “studying abroad” for American college students.

Studying abroad is a rich experience to undergo during your college years. The first time abroad is life- changing. You see yourself and your native culture with different eyes. You get to experience everyday life of those who live thousands of miles away from your native country and listen to new languages. You also get to see, firsthand, the wonders of the world–whether it be something historical in a city or a gorgeous landscape.

But studying abroad isn’t cheap. It also isn’t easy. It requires thought, decision-making, and planning. Your approach and attitude truly change how you perceive your time abroad. You should pick the right country for the right reasons. Everyone is different, so you have to decide what the “right reasons” for you are.

Your internal reasons for studying in that place should outweigh the external reasons.

What do I mean exactly? Your reasons for traveling to Germany are: because you have a German girlfriend/boyfriend, you like the German language and you want to ski in the Alps. International relationships can be very interesting and fulfilling, but if that’s your only reason for traveling abroad, your time there may be very challenging and frustrating since you do not have a personal connection with the country itself.

But when you are also interested in the country because of its language & culture and you have travel goals, the trip will feel much closer to your heart. How much you enjoy it will depend on your attitude (and maybe the weather and people around you) but you’ll feel more of connection with the place when there’s something inside of you that brings you there.

 

However, I must admit: sometimes you just have to start somewhere. Everyone must be bad at something before they can be good at it. A new experience may give you the motivation to start an entirely new chapter in your life… And I want to share my story with you.

The first time I traveled to Germany seems like so long ago. And I’ve changed in so many ways since then. Although every day wasn’t perfect… I wasn’t so outgoing and definitely didn’t have an idea what learning and speaking a second language meant, I experienced being abroad for the first time and had some encouraging, fun experiences.

The first program I did was not connected to my university in any way and it was open for all people—not just college students. I pretty much found it by chance. It’s an easy story to tell so I will start from the beginning:

I knew that I wanted to learn how to speak German so I decided to start courses at Goethe Institute Atlanta. While browsing their website, I also read that they offered classes in many German cities for international learners of German language. I can’t remember exactly what was on my mind then but I decided that I wanted to take a course in Germany to speed up my German learning and see the country for the first time. I did have some unrealistic expectations though.. thinking that four weeks would be enough to have me speaking the language. There were certain days where I held some conversations but I still spoke a lot of English. I also didn’t study intensively or use everyday interactions to practice the language.

What I gained from that experience was that I left my native country for the first time. I had my first experiences navigating to new places, using public transportation, and buying food from different places. I also met many international people. I changed time zones. I didn’t have any air conditioning. I used a new currency. That was June- July 2015.

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There are a few other things I want to share about that time that maybe be insightful for you: First will be about the language school I attended. Second will be a specific experience I wrote about during the time. And before sharing my second time abroad, I will include a few more things that stand out to me about my first time in Germany.

The Language School

 

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The reasons I chose the location I did were as following: I wanted to be in a city near the place my grandmother was from. I wanted an apartment with WiFi. I wanted the apartment location to be close to the school so that I could go by foot. And this school even had a cafeteria, where I had breakfast and lunch. Apart from that, the prices were good. The city seemed cozy and inviting. And although it was small, it seemed like there would be enough activities to stay busy and have fun.

I remember everything seeming like it was going really fast—at the airport and at the train station. And I thought Germany was absolutely beautiful. I loved looking at the countryside while riding on the train. I didn’t feel far away from home but I definitely felt American. Europe had a different flair than USA. It felt more serious, more competitive, and more elegant. It wasn’t the first time I had feelings of being critical about my native country and native culture, but it became much more obvious for me. It seemed most Europeans were cosmopolitan and multilingual. Nobody made me feel bad for being American. In fact, even though I was shy, I had an open heart and was curious, so many people reached out to me and I had a great time.

I shared a bedroom so it would be cheaper. We had a private shower and toilet. In the basement of our place was a shared kitchen for the building. My roommate ended up being another American girl who had some experience traveling in Germany already and was going to stay in Austria for a year. We weren’t the best of friends but we got along well enough. She showed me where the supermarket and other things in town were. And she was part of a bigger group with whom I spent a lot of time.

Getting to Germany was a big step. But the language school was helpful with getting us students there and situated. There was a bus waiting for us at the train station to drop us off at the school. Once at the school, we received information about our accommodations and were able to drop our bags off. We also did an interview as part of the placement test. Since it was already late, the actual written test was the on the next day. So I ended up showing up to my class once it had already started. No big deal except no English was allowed!! That was understandable since we were a classroom full of international students learning German.

The reading and writing weren’t the hardest part of the course for me. Listening was pretty hard. So was speaking. Especially the pronunciation. I remember asking my Turkish friends from the school like “what should I do.. my head doesn’t want to understand German?” They said that I just need to learn more. I didn’t realize then how important it was to train listening and practice speaking– preparing for situations and correcting mistakes. We often had writing assignments for homework. In class, we did presentations of what we wrote. We still trained basic grammar. We played games. And we had a workbook that guided our learning. We did many types of activities to get us interacting with the language and to start talking about everyday stuff. I didn’t love going to class but it was okay overall. I also didn’t do much revising in my free time.

 

My First Experience at a Train Station in Europe

Here is a short account I wrote during that summer: So what does it feel like to be outside your home country for the first time? ~July 2015~
When my plane first landed on July 6th, I exited the Frankfurt airports only to come back into the airport to go upstairs to find the underground train station. At first, using the train ticket machine seemed impossible because it did not connect to Stuttgart Bahnhof. An Italian man named Luigi saw that I was having trouble and at first asked me if I was Italian. He suggested that I take the train to Frankfurt Main and so I took the train there with him. When I exited the train station, I walked up and down the same street until a guy working at a hotel saw that I needed help—he took me to Frankfurt Main train station. He spoke with someone who worked at the train station to get me to the right platform, but unfortunately it was not the right one for the ticket I bought. I didn’t know to print off the info either because the ticket doesn’t automatically have the platform number on it. I tried to ask a lady for help and look for the right platform, but I ended up missing the train and had to wait for a few hours until the next train came*. During that time span, I ordered a small strawberry milkshake and a mineral water and I paid a Euro to use the bathroom. There, I changed my top since I was feeling a little gross after being in the same outfit. Then I sat around some more before my train arrived. I was on the train (I reserved my seat) and the lady came by to check my ticket. It was a pretty nice ride to Stuttgart Bahnhof and I was exhausted so I may have drifted off during some of the train ride. At Stuttgart Bahnhof, I was having a difficult time finding Schwaebisch Hall-Hessental in the search results, but I finally found it. When I was waiting for the train, some people saying the train wasn’t coming today, so we were redirected to another train.

*By the way, there is always a large billboard with the train times and each station displays the trains too. But for some reason, I simply couldn’t find the platform that matched my train ticket. :/

 

Great Memories from My First Summer Abroad

You probably could tell that I wasn’t used to navigating in Germany or using trains, but the story goes on so let’s continue! Another good thing about this location was that the city was pretty easy to navigate and there was a pretty awesome program planned for that month by the language school. Each week there was a Stammtisch at a different restaurant. That was a good way to practice German, meet the other international students and enjoy an evening out. The school also had its own little bar that was open on Friday nights. Drinks were cheap and there was good music. Of course there was dancing too! The school really offered such a diverse and fun-filled summer program. There were dance classes. You could go out and draw the city. You also had the chance to participate in a local summer fest and bring food from your country. In addition, we toured a local brewery. They served us free beer and dinner. Well, I think the tour cost 3 Euros. We also took a bus to Neuschwanstein castle. We had the whole day there and also got to visit the town nearby. My summer there was more than just planned events though. I had a blast eating ice cream with my friends, watching movies at home, going to the movie theater, and many other little experiences.

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There was one disco in Schwäbisch-Hall that we went to several times. I had such a blast dancing and meeting people from all around the world. One time I even went to a bigger disco outside of the city and I really loved the atmosphere of German discos. I always went with friends so I felt safe and comfortable. Because it was summer, it was such a great time to have a beer in a Biergarten. It was my first time to have a legal drink! (since I was only 18) And it was such an exciting experience to order a beer and get a Pfand back when I returned the glass. There was also a fair and I had a great time seeing the beautifully decorated rides and having a feeling of being back in USA.

Two good things that I did back then were: 1) I enjoyed myself. Just by participating in activities, meeting new people and being immersed in German language, I learned a lot without stressing myself about learning. That is something I learned the hard way this go around during my exchange year here. Studying is a good thing. And if it is something you enjoy, there is no harm in it, but real life interactions and experiences are much more memorable than just taking notes. 2) I lived in the moment. I wasn’t trying to see all the major cities of Germany in one month. I didn’t have to record every moment on my phone. I took it day by day and focused on what was in front of me.

Once I returned to USA, I did experience some reverse culture shock. My friends were there to pick me up from the airport. And everyone was excited that I was back. Somehow I felt sad and even missed Germany. The stress about finding the right gate at the airport was over. I could easily use my mother tongue. But I missed Germany’s beauty, I viewed USA differently and I felt a bit bored being American in America. Alright. I will conclude this part by sharing what I remember about how I felt before I left: I honestly wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I didn’t have any big worries. It felt like a big experience, but overall, I was relatively relaxed and neutral about it. Following are a few photos of the trip. =)

 

Second Summer Abroad

I’m not going to include as many details about my second summer abroad (the following year). My intentions are to compare the types of programs, how I handled things, and complete my college story in relation to traveling and studying languages. In May 2016, I spent another month in Germany. With the same type of language school but in a different city. This time I was in Mannheim. And I had a goal to really learn German. I was still nervous about exploring the city of Mannheim on my own, but I meet a handful of good friends and we had some good times in the city. This time I also had friends from my German class and we spoke only German together. I got to visit Heidelberg and Darmstadt with a group from the language school. I also made it all the way to Aachen to visit a new friend I had made. And at the end of my trip, I spent about five days in Stuttgart, where I visited my great uncle and also did some sightseeing. Here is a little text I wrote in Mannheim about arriving to Germany for the second time:

Mein Flug nach Stuttgart war gut. Ich habe einen alten Mann kennengelernt. Er ist Amerikaner und liebt seine Familie sehr. Ich konnte nur ein bisschen schlafen. An der Passkontrolle habe ich Deutsch gesprochen. Heute Morgen bin ich zuerst zum Stuttgart Bahnhof gefahren. Dann bin ich mit dem Zug nach Mannheim gefahren. Ich musste mit der Strassen- Bahn zur Sprachschule (Goethe-Institut) fahren. Im Flughafen habe ich nach dem Weg gefragt. Es war einfach Goethe-Institut zu finden. Ich hatte ein kurzes Interview, aber ich hatte den Test schon online gemacht. Ich beginne in einem B2.1 Kurs. Ich werde versuchen, nur Deutsch zu sprechen. Mit anderen Studenten habe ich nur Deutsch gesprochen—auch mit den Angestellten Goethe-Instituts. Hoffentlich habe ich einen schönen Besuch hier und lerne viel Deutsch.

(My flight to Stuttgart was good. I met an older gentleman. He is American and really loves his family. I was only able to sleep a little bit. At the passport control, I spoke German. This morning I first travelled to Stuttgart train station. Then I travelled to Mannheim by train. I had to ride the trolley to the language school. It was easy to find the school. I had a short interview, but I had already done the test online. I will start in a B2.1 course. I am going to try to only speak German. With the other students, I have only spoken German–also with the employees of the language school. Hopefully, I will have a nice visit here and will learn a lot of German.)

 

Leaving Germany for Russia

So now it’s time to finish up this entry by including some information about my Russian trip and explaining a bit more how study abroad works at my home university in USA. Before we apply to any programs or scholarships at my university, we have to visit an informational session at the study abroad office. There you learn about the types of programs offered, scholarships, how to raise money and you have the chance to ask questions. Our study abroad office has a website and also an online platform you use to apply for the programs and also any scholarships from the study abroad office.

During the informational session I learned about AIFS (American Institute for Foreign Study.) With AIFS, I either wanted to visit a Spanish-speaking country or Russia. In Germany (2015),  I met some Russians which got me interested in Russian culture. I thought summer of 2016 was a good time to start learning Russian. Before I left, I skyped with a teacher for a few months and could read the alphabet and knew some basic words. But communication was very hard. Looking back, I don’t regret going when I did. However, I could have studied the language, culture and history more intensively before I left. I was still learning German and studying at university and in May of that year I was in Germany for a month so I probably wouldn’t have had enough time to do any more than what I did. And maybe, two trips abroad in one summer was too much. I had already been away from home for a long time and I didn’t have enough time to invest in preparing for the Russian program since I was in Germany. But anyway, let’s continue.

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My program to Russia was with AIFS, which is an external program from my university. I had to do additional paperwork to get my courses transferred and to receive my summer scholarship for the coursework I did. One form was called “intent to study off-campus” which was for the financial aid office. The other form was about the course work and I had to have each course personally signed off by a professor. For example, an art professor signed off for the Russian art course. A politics professor for the politics course and so on. Then I had to have my advisor do a final signature before I turned it in to the study abroad office. That is a different process than study abroad programs that are from my university–organized by professors. For such study abroad courses, you sign up the same way you do for normal classes and fill out your information on the online study abroad platform. And for the year exchange I am doing now, you register study abroad place credit holders and when you bring your transcript back after the exchange, then you can get the credits added.

And here is a quick snapshot of the Russian study abroad program:

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Even though I made it to several museums and different places in addition to what was included in our program, there was still so much I wanted to see and do! The program was awesome. The city was awesome. Five weeks just wasn’t enough. I would recommend a semester there to make full use of all the options and see more of the city and do nearby excursions.

Another suggestion I have if you do a similar program where a large group of students are all together is to make friends with two smaller groups. People with similar interests tend to group up fast so be very outgoing in the beginning! Don’t be afraid to do things alone either, but I truly suggest trying to have two different groups of people that you connect with and can do things with.

It would take several blog posts to cover a full-reflection (as well as a report) of what I did during my time in Russia. But I’m sure you are a bit curious how it was to be in mysterious, dangerous Russia, so I want to share my perception of Saint Petersburg and how it changed over the five weeks I spent there. My first impression was like wow, it is so beautiful. And I noticed immediately that the atmosphere (how the people behaved and the appearance of the country itself) seemed a lot more distant, serious and melancholic than Germany. For at the least the first two weeks, I was so impressed by the many things to see and felt like it was amazing to see the city both as a tourist and exchange student. Later on, I ended up feeling sad, too. Even doing everyday tasks required a lot of effort and I felt very un-Russian. I felt a bit alone and far away from home. And by my last week there, Saint Petersburg ended up warming up to me. I met new people casually in public. I ended up hanging with a friend who had broken away and done their own thing the previous weeks. My coursework was coming to an end and slowly I was making use of the Russian language.

When I returned back home to USA, I made the decision to apply for a year-long exchange in Germany. I ended up not getting accepted into the program, but I had already made the decision to spend a year in Germany. So when applications for the Erlangen exchange from my university rolled around the following spring, I had to apply! I have been living in Germany for 7 months already. And I am not ready for my time here to end.

That was my introduction to studying abroad for American students. Each day I experienced something special. I also encountered new things that helped me grow as a person. My first two summers abroad were just the beginning! I plan to share several posts about my current study abroad here in Erlangen, Germany.

 

Enjoy the spring,

Stephanie F.