3 – So Long, Farewell, Aufwiedersehen, Goodbye

I’m afraid that the time has come. I mean I told myself there was no way I could be so emotional about this, but boy was I so wrong.

No amount of words can ever describe how I terrified I was at the prospect of a year abroad – I mean I literally thought of everything; “should I change my degree?”, “can I really do this?”, “how can I get out of this?” and so on. It was endless thinking, debating, and in desperation hoping and pleading that it would actually all turn out alright in the end. I guess, like many, I didn’t like the uncertainty of it all. It was the same kind of feeling as leaving for university for the first time, yet amplified somewhat by the fact that it involved being an extra thousand miles away, and it wasn’t entirely always possible to pop home on a whim for a roast dinner on a Sunday.

Image of an Austrian meal

However I’m jolly well pleased to say that it actually did work out in the end. Naturally there were highs and lows, but this was all to be both expected and more importantly accepted! There were days where I wandered around the city feeling like the happiest and luckiest person ever, but equally I’m not ashamed to say that there were days when I crawled out of bed for food and crawled back in again to binge watch TV series on Netflix  IN ENGLISH!! – because really there is a limit to how much German you can take in order to maintain one’s mental stability. Trust me!

Over the year I’ve seen places I never thought I never would, fulfilled dreams I thought I never could. A few personal highlights for me..

  • My first day in Graz being a lost tourist.
    After following some sketched out directions I remember making my way to the supermarket and then walking round town in awe at where I was going to spend the next year living, little did I know how important this city would become for me.
  • Staying in 5€ per night hostels.
    Travelling on a budget is rather..interesting. 20 people sharing two showers and one toilet with no lock. Roommates who snore, those who stay up all night and those who lecture you all evening in a language you do not speak, all made for some strange once in a lifetime overnight stays.
  • Getting sold cheese in a public toilet in Croatia.
    Just one example of the many ‘culturally widening’ experiences that I could mention.
  • Featuring in a group photo in Maribor.
    Long story short, a group of Austrians, also on a trip in Slovenia welcomed a friend and I into a group photo in a wine museum, due to the fact that we could speak German. Oh how I would love to see that photo, or more like just our ‘what is happening here’ faces.
  • Running the 5k Ladies Run through the city with my flatmate.
    Now I am no olympian, 5k was an achievement! One thing I didn’t expect to be doing on my year abroad.
  • Visiting and experiencing all things ‘Sound of Music’ in Salzburg & meeting a real Von Trapp Family member.
    This one is pretty self-explanatory. A surreal dream.
  • Taking a 10 hour overnight train from Milan to Graz.
    The only reason this features as a personal highlight is to remind myself never to put myself through such torture ever again. Unless you can sleep sitting up, being fully aware that each one of your fellow travelling strangers are uncomfortably into the zone of your personal space, then please pay extra for a bed.
  • Austrian life!
    Dirndls and Lederhosen, the food, everyone greeting everyone, dialects (sorry, linguistics geek.), picturesque train journeys. Perfection!

An image of Katie Gough with the Austrian landscape in the background

Looking back over some past blog posts is really making me realise how grateful I am for all of this and I could write forever in a day about all of my wonderful memories. In a way I don’t regret that I was so scared for this year, because it has meant that, in all seriousness, I have surprised myself probably more than I ever could have imagined. Just over a year ago I was sitting second year exams in university and it was all too much at times, and today I just finished my end of year exams all done in German and all with a strange lack of stressing involved. Something that some people probably won’t actually be able to believe. My last exam today was a speaking exam for a geography class and I found out straight away that I had passed it, and it was a little strange, because if someone had have told me this would happen this time last year, there is no way I would have thought it possible to achieve.

Returning to the UK soon, which of course means returning to my home university as well. That is the next challenge I think. After becoming so accustomed to Austria, and making so many changes for the better it makes me wary, yet I am hopeful that the challenges battled will bring renewed positivity to my final year.

Almost 11 months away and it’s gone in a flash.
Austria, I thank you dearly. Friends, you have become family now; this is not goodbye this is see you again soon. Graz, you will always hold a special place in my heart. You won’t be able to keep me away for long I promise!

2 – The Hills are (still) Alive: Stories of Salzburg

Nearing the last few weeks of my year abroad I wasn’t entirely sure how I could really top it all off, after all my trips around and abouts. Little did I know that Salzburg would be the gem, the icing on the cake, ‘die Sahnehäubchen’ and ‘Schatz’ that would be the last perfectly-fitting piece to the puzzle of my year abroad experience.

Salzburg itself, comprised of the old town, new town and the Salzach river running through the middle, is a small, yet beautifully traditional Austrian town; set at the foot of the alps, a bustling baroque town overlooked by imposing medieval fortress, Hohenfestung Salzburg. I passed through most of the new town and headed for the old town, where unsurprisingly all the tourists were! First things first I headed to the cathedral and surrounding area, also went past the house where Mozart was born, then headed along the river towards Mirabell Gardens, which is one of the most well-known filming locations for the movie, more specifically for the ‘Do Re Mi’ song, with the famous step sequence and the dancing round the fountain. Naturally this area was a hotspot for fellow fans like me, with people dressed up re-enacting dances and singing, I loved it! In fact (emotional fangirling moment), it made me feel quite overwhelmed to know that I was there for real and no longer was it just an elusive scene featured in a movie.

Austran Landscape image taken by Katie Gough

As soon as I got word of this so called ‘Sound of Music Experience’, I was sold. A day full of everything all things ‘Von Trapp’, how could I possibly have denied!? The event was run by the Austro-American Society of Upper Austria and Salzburg in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the film, and was a day packed of all things ‘Sound of Music’, as well as providing us with a unique insight into the real Von Trapp story.

The day began with a private screening of the film at the Mozart Kino, because a few people there were actually seeing the film for the first time! It was actually lovely to see if on the big screen for once, and to be in a cinema full of fellow enthusiasts was such a buzz!

After the film screening (the whole three hours) we headed for lunch at the Stieglkeller, which was a little walk up the hill, in the direction of the castle. Tables had all been reserved for the group and it gave us a chance to talk to other people who came on the trip.

It was then time to head further round the hill to Nonnberg Abbey. The outside of the abbey was used in the film, but (spoiler alert) the inside courtyard where the nuns sing in the film is all just film set done in Hollywood. Inside the abbey, one of the sisters told us about the abbey and the great influence of the real Von Trapp family, and also a speech was given by Dr Franz Wasner, who spoke about his uncle, who was the priest that put together and directed the real Von Trapp family singers. He was represented by Max Detweiler in the film.

We then all split off into groups for our walking tour round the town seeing all the main spots from the film, and our tour guide was simply great! The tour was not only full of interesting facts and stories, but at various points in the tour he would remind us of the songs that were sung at that specific place. The thing is he didn’t sing the songs at all, he just read the lyrics from cue cards as if it were a monologue with intermittent caesura for dramatic effect, which resulted in cry-laughing because it was pure genius.

In image of the Austrian landscape, taken by Katie Gough

The next part of the tour then continued after a short taxi ride down to the southern outskirts of the city to the Trapp Villa, i.e the house that the real Von Trapp family lived in, sang in and eventually fled. The house has been turned into a hotel now, but still values and exhibits its history, through photos, drawings and family keepsakes, which were quite touching. Take a look at the website http://www.villa-trapp.com/1/home/ for more information.

The final part of the day was then a reception at Schloss Leopoldskron, the palace which was used for the outside shots of the Von Trapp’s family villa in the film. Leopoldskron is not open to the public and even the hotel Leopoldskron is a building adjacent to the palace itself, which was why it was such a privilege to be there. They even opened up rooms upstairs in the palace such as the library, the dining halls, the terrace and various other elaborate rooms which inspired the Hollywood sets.

A panel discussion was also held, which discussed the success of the movie, the historical value and its impact on Salzburg today. Speakers included the a representative from the tourist board in Salzburg, Georg Steinitz, who worked as an assistant director for the filming in Salzburg, as well as Elisabeth Von Trapp, granddaughter of the real Captain Von Trapp. As well as speaking about her family Elisabeth also sang a few songs for us, both from the movie and those that she has wrote herself, since she also pursued a career in music. The evening was finished up with a buffet, of which schnitzel and apple strudel were a compulsory element, naturally.

Overall the evening and the whole day in fact was just a dream and it really opened my eyes to the real story and the struggle that the family endured. The film, yes might not depict all the details or tell the story exactly how it was, but that doesn’t really matter at all, because it has brought the attention from all over the world to the stage that is Salzburg.

1 – First Month of my Year Abroad in Austria

In all honesty, I cannot quite believe that it has been a whole month since I tentatively stepped down from the plane and my Austrian adventure began! (And boy has it been a roller-coaster ride!)

There have been times when I’ve questioned ‘whose silly idea was this year abroad business anyway!?’, but there have been times where I can truly say I have felt like the luckiest person in the world! Sorry for the cheesiness…but it’s absolutely true! This is probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done, travelling just over a thousand miles on my own, finding a flat here, getting to know other students, attempting to speak the local lingo and most challenging of all trying to integrate with a new culture!

There has been lots of admin, forms and such to sort out the past couple of weeks, including registering as a (..Bewohner..oh dear what’s the English word… this is becoming a rather frequent occurrence.. *google translates*) RESIDENT. This involved just a seemingly quick visit to the Meldesamt (where you have to go to apply to register in the city). It was a rather strange situation whereby I walked into an office full of Austrian women chatting away, then, after a brief pause of thinking I was most likely in the wrong place, one of them read my slightly confused face and led me into her office. She proceeded to jabber something in a very heavy Austrian German dialect, (one of those classic smile and nod situations that one often has to pull out of the bag), but after checking my passport and various documents it was all done and dusted in 10 minutes or so!

Image of Austrian landscape

One major thing for me the past two weeks has also been my intensive German course. I decided to do this course before starting university properly, in order to integrate myself a little better with the language before being in all German lectures (scary thought!). I did have to pay for this course, but it is three weeks long in total and I can honestly say that it has been worth every single penny! At first it was a bit stressful as we all had to take both a written and a speaking test in order to place us in the right level class. The class levels use the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) that go from A1 beginners, then A2,B1,B2 and to C1 which is near native fluency. After my tests I was placed in the first of two stages of the B2 level, which I was happy with as this is where I would have guessed I should be and as the course is intensive level, it runs from 9-12 Monday to Friday for three weeks (shock to my body clock indeed!). The first lesson was all a bit scary, for most of us didn’t know anyone else there! But after the ‘icebreaker’ introductions and such, it didn’t take long till we were pretty well acquainted!

The course has covered a variety of different topics and has included a lot of grammar tasks, presentations and discussions in class, which has been really great, because everyone has the chance to speak up and get involved! By nature I have always been a quiet person, so speaking up in front of people has always been a challenge, but something really clicked for me being in this class, whereby I really feel like we are all there to learn, so why bother caring so much about making mistakes or sounding silly?! Everyone in the class has been so nice and I have loved getting to know so many different people from different countries, and being able to learn about everyone’s different languages and cultures has been so interesting! I honestly think I have spoken more German in the past few weeks than I did the whole of last year! It’s just absolutely crazy, yet so exciting!

Our teacher from the German course also took us out on a hike up a mountain close to Graz one afternoon, which was really good! It was nice to get a chance to speak to fellow classmates in a more casual environment, and of course ‘auf Deutsch!’ It was a really super sunny day, and in all honesty if it was that hot and sunny at home I probably wouldn’t have considered moving from my garden and despite the fact that after the hike I had a rather horrific bout of heatstroke (you can take the Brit out of Britain…) I actually really enjoyed it! Drinks with a view from the top was a bonus!

View from the top of an Austrian Mountain

It’s quite nice just to sit and reflect about the past month; of course at times it has been emotional and overwhelming, but more often than not I just find myself stopping and really being truly grateful that I get to be here, meet so many great new people and experience a new culture! After this final week of my German course I have the final tests, and then shortly after my university courses start for real! Of course it’s nerve-racking, but really I’m quite looking forward to getting into it!

Thanks for reading and I really hope you are enjoying following me on my year abroad adventures!

7 Must-Dos on your year abroad

1. Make friends with other exchange students.
Despite the initial awkwardness, the other exchange students and I formed a close-nit group. They can be there for emotional support because they understand the pressures of adapting to somewhere new.

2. Make friends with the locals.
Obviously you should get to know people who actually live in the country you are visiting to a. understand the culture better and b. make contacts should you ever visit again! I made good friends with a girl in my German class and she invited me to her house for Thanksgiving, which is something I had never experienced before and therefore I was more than happy to accept the invitation. For anyone that doesn’t know, Thanksgiving is essentially a holiday where you get to eat loads of food – which was great! Which brings me to my next must-do:

3. Embrace native traditions.
This is your chance to see how the other half live. I recommend going to sports games: I have seen baseball and ice-hockey and I’ve heard that American football games and a basketball matches are really fun experiences. I also suggest trying some of the fast food that we don’t have in the UK, but don’t indulge too much; it can be very easy to eat badly in America.

Elspeth with her friends in Binghamton

4. Travel!
Make the most of your weekends or short breaks: get a group of people together and see the sights. So far I have visited Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC and New York City which has been brilliant! This would be so much harder to do if I wasn’t living in the US so even if you are worried about expenses, make the most of where you are! Because what are the odds you will be in such a perfect position again?

5. Attend campus events.
I think it is important to immerse yourself in life on campus. Firstly, go to on-campus events; there were loads of orientation events at Binghamton (and there was always free food and t-shirts!), there was even a fun-fair. I also attended a talk by Nev Schulman from Catfish: the TV Show which was very cool. Secondly, I would recommend joining a club or society. This is one thing I didn’t do last semester and I wish I had. It can be a good way to get exercise or make friends. My friend joined the field hockey team and made loads of American friends and had the chance to compete all over the state.

6. Enjoy all the compliments on your accent!
“Where are you from? Are you British? Oh my god I LOVE your accent. I wish I spoke like that!” Never gets old.

7. Skype home.
Remember to take a little time out of your busy schedule to keep in touch with your friends and family at home. I think it is really important not to lose touch with people who are important to you, and keep up to date with everyone’s gossip. On the other hand, try not to talk to people at home constantly and forget to live in the present. Make the most out of your year abroad, even if you are feeling homesick.

(It’s pretty cheesy, but) Seize the moment!

There have been a couple of times I’ve hesitated before grasping some of the great opportunities that have presented themselves during my first semester, but the answer should always be: YES! For example, I was desperate for the toilet after driving from Binghamton to New York City (approx. 3 hours) before travelling home for Christmas. I had the choice of going straight to the hotel to relieve myself or to take the half hour drive to Brooklyn to see the famously ostentatious Christmas lights at Dyker Heights, which incidentally was one of the things on my USA bucket list. I am so glad I said “yes” to going to see them! I found myself running around, squealing like a little kid because they were just so christmassy! (And so much more impressive than in the UK!).

Christmas lights on house in New York, USA

Honestly, it hadn’t felt at all like there was less than a week to go until Christmas day until I was walking around this brightly twinkling neighbourhood. The following day I had decided to tolerate the long subway journey into Manhattan, do some last minute shopping in Times Square and to see the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Centre. Stupidly, I forgot to take my umbrella and I wasn’t wearing a hooded coat so, surprise surprise, it absolutely chucked it down with rain! I got so soaked that when I popped into Starbucks to use the wi-fi I actually formed a puddle on the floor around me. It would have been easy enough to just give up at this point and go back to my hotel but instead I got in contact with a couple of my friends from the exchange programme who had mentioned they would be in the city too and together we braved the pouring rain to walk about 15 blocks to the Christmas tree; it was so, so worth it!

New York Christmas Tree

Miraculously, the rain even let up for a while when we reached the tree and the mist the weather had created around the top of the Rockefeller building gave the whole place a magical purple glow. Pardon the cliché but it may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity, I may never find myself in New York at Christmas again so I couldn’t be more pleased that I said “yes” to visiting the tree.

My advice to you for your year abroad is that even if you are feeling tired or lazy, or you really need the toilet, or even if you are worried about money, just take advantage of the amazing opportunity you have and get out there and see the sights because this could be the best chance you will ever have to do so!

Studying in the USA versus studying in the UK

Firstly, not only is attendance to class compulsory (with a certain number of allowed absences) but you are also graded on it, as well as punctuality. I also have a lot more contact hours than my friends taking humanities-based subjects at Lancaster which can make you feel very busy and leaves less time for your independent work. Secondly, I get a lot of homework, sometimes for the following day, such as online work for my German language class or making notes on a reading that the professor will collect in class and mark. Homework contributes to your overall grade too. This makes university in America feel a lot more like school than university in the UK where you have a lot of independence in your learning. I think this can be a blessing or a curse depending on your learning style. There are also frequent smaller assessments rather than just big coursework pieces or heavily weighted exams. Last semester I was graded on quizzes, midterms, finals, papers, performances, oral exams and in-class participation. The positive side of this is that you can always make up for a poor grade on a later assignment because each one is worth a smaller percentage.

An image of the campus

Despite the workload, I have personally found it easier to get good grades in America than the UK, least of all because the pass rate in the US is 60% compared to 40%. This means if you get a B in the US you get 80% which actually translates to an A back at home. Finally, by the time we go abroad we already know what our majors and minors are because we applied to uni for a specific course. The American students, however, take a wide assortment of classes and then “declare” their major later on. They also have to take “electives” in order to satisfy different requirements such as physical (e.g. Running) and aesthetic (e.g. African Art). This means there is the opportunity to study something new that interests you for some extra credits which you might not have been able to do at Lancaster.

Funny things American’s say:

Class vs Lecture/Seminar
Study vs Revise
Schedule vs Timetable
(They honestly had no idea what I meant when I used these last two!)

My first (and last) all-nighter

To begin with I struggled a little to adjust to the workload both of second year and the university system at Binghamton. One night I made the stupid mistake of leaving one of my coursework assignments until the evening before it was due in. After starting work on it at 6pm, at 1am I was only two paragraphs in and having a complete panic. I didn’t think I could do it a. well enough or b. in time for the morning. Luckily I turned to my friends for help because if I hadn’t I would probably still be sitting there trying and failing to finish it. So here is my advice if you find yourself in a similar situation, or even if you are just finding something difficult to cope with while you’re on your year abroad: turn to someone who understands what you are going through.

A pile of library books stacked high

The first person I spoke to was my friend Madi, who is also studying abroad in the USA this year. She tried to boost my confidence and also recommended I take myself away from the situation and calm down. So next I messaged my friends from the exchange programme at Binghamton who were also adjusting to a different education system. I was invited to their flat to take a time out, watch TV for an hour and clear my head about my essay. One of them also suggested I sit down and just write without redrafting anything or worrying whether what I wrote was halfway decent. This really helped me when I returned to my work which I didn’t finish until ridiculous o’clock allowing me less than two hours sleep before my first class. What I took from this is that it is really important to establish a support system whilst you’re abroad. Making friends with other students on the exchange programme at your foreign university can be really beneficial. Secondly, I learnt not to do as the locals do i.e. DON’T leave the work right until the last minute and DON’T pull all-nighters; despite my grade turning out fine in the end, the stress and anxiety were definitely not worth it. With the increased work load it is more important than ever to organise your time. I personally rely on making lists and writing in my student planner. I make sure it I always up to date with what work is due in when so I can’t miss anything but you have to figure out what works best for you.

Highlights of Semester one

For me personally, the highlights of my first semester were meeting so many interesting people from around the world, getting to see some wonderful places such as Niagara Falls, Algonquin Park and Montreal and finally just having the opportunity to experience such a different culture. Engaging with a completely new sporting culture was a highlight for me and I was able to learn about sports such as Ice Hockey which I previously knew very little about.

I spent a lot of time with other exchange students which helped me feel at home and adapt to Canadian life. I was lucky enough to have countless opportunities to get involved with lots of really cool events alongside other exchange students, whether it be a camping trip to Algonquin Park, a Jazz concert, an ice hockey game or a weekend trip to Montreal, the social group made everything even more enjoyable.

Image of Toronto City

I certainly loved my semester in Toronto and cannot wait to return after Christmas! All these great experiences overshadowed the initial struggle of adapting to a new culture and made it a really enjoyable experience. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to study abroad and I think it is a great thing for students to do. However it is great to be back to see my family for Christmas and I look forward to this break but I also very much look forward to flying back to Toronto for my second semester!