Study Abroad

See the world from 14K feet through skydiving

Study abroad students swear by skydiving.

When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy in 2012, one of the big trips, among heading to the Amalfi Coast in Italy and Oktoberfest in Munich, was to venture to Interlaken, Switzerland, to jump out of a plane and get a bird’s-eye view of the Swiss Alps.

There were many students I knew who chose to take the mid-air plunge and the first thing they said upon their landing was, “I need to do that again.”

“Those who are interested in trying new things and pushing new boundaries are ideal candidates for sky diving,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Those who are interested in trying new things and pushing new boundaries are ideal candidates for sky diving,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to defy a human’s natural fears and hop out of a plane at 120 miles per hour.

Today, I wonder if I made the right decision. Well, I still have the chance to plummet through the air, as do you, right at home thanks to Skydive Jersey, a Pittstown skydiving facility catered to beginner sky divers.

The establishment just celebrated the beginning of its fifth season, as it sends off 3,500 first-time skydivers per year from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in October.

All Skydive Jersey instructors are trained under the standards set by the United States Parachute Association. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

All Skydive Jersey instructors are trained under the standards set by the United States Parachute Association. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Many people who run sky diving establishments do it for experienced divers, but we do it for the first-timers,” said Chuck Owen, owner of the facility who has been on more than 10,000 skydives.

The safest and easiest way for beginners to skydive is tandem diving, where a “student” diver is paired with an instructor for the entirety of the jump. This only requires less than an hour of training for students and allows them to simply enjoy the experience since they can rely on the instructors, who, at Skydive Jersey, have all been on more than 500 jumps and are trained by the standards set by the United States Parachute Association.

With this in mind, can a beginner sky diver simply enjoy the experience? Is skydiving, an extreme sport, really safe?

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that no one gets in the plane and is completely fearless. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that no one gets in the plane and is completely fearless. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

According to the United States Parachute Association, out of 3.2 million American jumps last year, there were 24 accidents, which means that you have a 0.00075 percent chance of being in a skydiving accident. To equal your risk of dying in a car accident in a single year, you would need to skydive 17 times.

Owen said that on top of that, experienced jumpers going it alone are much more likely to be in an accident over beginner skydivers since they may want to push the limits of their skills.

“No matter how intimidated a person is when they first arrive, no one has ever landed and not had a smile on their face and been ecstatic,” Owen said. “It’s a very transformative experience that you just conquered this major feat. The expression on their face is priceless.”

“No matter how intimidated a person is when they first arrive, no one has ever landed and not had a smile on their face and been ecstatic,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“No matter how intimidated a person is when they first arrive, no one has ever landed and not had a smile on their face and been ecstatic,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

When students express fear after arriving at Skydive Jersey, Owen said his team calmly talks them through it and explains that skydiving isn’t what they think. Contrary to what most non-skydivers believe, there is no roller coaster stomach drop. Instead, free fall, said Owen, feels like a gentle float.

“No one gets in the airplane and is completely fearless,” Owen said. “Once you’re out in free fall, you realize it wasn’t so bad.” Then, he said, there’s usually “a ‘wow’ and then speechlessness.”

Diving students at Skydive Jersey range in age from 18 to 95, but generally, they are between 18 and 45 year old. Students must be at least 18-years-olds and height-weight proportionate; men must be less than 230 pounds and women must be less than 215 pounds.

At Skydive Jersey, the exit altitude is 14,000 feet. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

At Skydive Jersey, the exit altitude is 14,000 feet. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Those who are interested in trying new things and pushing new boundaries are ideal candidates for sky diving,” Owen said.

After training, students take a 20-minute plane ride over the Delaware River Valley as it climbs to 14,000 feet. Once at exit altitude, students are attached to their instructor’s harness and the door will be opened. Then, the 50 seconds of freefall at 120 miles per hour begins before the parachute is deployed and student-and-instructor drift down to the ground at 20 miles per hour for 10 minutes into a gentle landing.

It’s the idyllic landscape that skydivers get to enjoy from their view in the sky that also makes Skydive Jersey an ideal spot for thrill-seekers to get their fix. Skydivers will spot the Delaware River, Spruce Run Lake, Round Valley Lake as well as the Manhattan and Philadelphia skylines.

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that skydiving is a very transformative experience. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that skydiving is a very transformative experience. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Hunterdon County is incredibly beautiful,” Owen said. “I was blown away at how untouched it is the first time I took off.”

Plus, Skydive Jersey is situated at Alexandria Field, a peaceful and historic airport tucked away in the countryside that has been in the same family since the 1940’s.

Groups should plan to spend a full day at Skydive Jersey for weekend dives and a half a day for weekday dives, which can also be affected by the size of the party, weather delays and unexpected plane maintenance.

After the experience is over, Owen said there is usually a “’wow,’ and then speechlessness.” (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

After the experience is over, Owen said there is usually a “’wow,’ and then speechlessness.” (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Weather delays are very common for sky dives — about one in three dives will be rescheduled, which Skydive Jersey gives priority to versus new bookings.

Owen said, “Some people smile, some laugh, some scream, but everyone comes back to Earth glad that they took the plunge.”

 

SKYDIVE JERSEY

Where: 70 Airport Rd. in Pittstown

Contact: reservations@skydivejersey.com or 866-669-3020

Website: skydivejersey.com

Cost: $195 per person for one to three people and $185 per person for 4+ people

Qualifications: 18 or older and men must be less than 230 pounds and women must be less than 215 pounds

Season: First weekend in April to last weekend in October

Hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Hostels aren’t just for kids anymore

Written for MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com on 2/24/15

George Finn, who is in his 50s and general manager of Hostelling International USA, is not a hosteller by nature.

However, the manager of the American arm of the nonprofit organization that hosts a network of hostels became one rather quickly once he spotted an unlikely exchange taking place between two people during his stay at a hostel in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Finn had been taking a stroll on a Tel Aviv beach and, upon leaving the area, discovered that a bomb had been fired from the Gaza Strip right around the time that he had been on the beach. As pandemonium ensued and people evacuated the immediate area, Finn hurried back to his hostel.

“In the dining area, a Palestinian and an Israeli were breaking bread together,” he said. “They were discussing, very calmly, that they do have differences and they had to recognize that.”

Finn saw, through that exchange and many other hostelling stays since, that hostels, through their no-frills dormitory-style accommodations focused on culture and experience rather than luxury and comfort, could help travelers connect with one another much deeper than a typical hotel would allow, regardless of their age or background.

In a hostel, including this Generator Hostel, four to 20 travelers sleep in rooms of bunk beds and share a communal bathroom with other floor mates in major European and American cities for $15 to $40 a night. (Courtesy of Generator Hostels)

In a hostel, including this Generator Hostel, four to 20 travelers sleep in rooms of bunk beds and share a communal bathroom with other floor mates in major European and American cities for $15 to $40 a night. (Courtesy of Generator Hostels)

When thinking of a hostel, many Americans are brought back to the 2005 horror flick “Hostel,” in which three backpackers are kidnapped and tortured after staying in a Slovakian hostel.

“A hostel isn’t about the movie. You’re not thinking, ‘Ew, I don’t want to get murdered,’ or stepping over junkies or seeing a bunch of people sleeping on one bed. That’s not what a hostel is,” Finn said.

In a hostel, four to 20 travelers sleep in rooms of bunk beds and share a communal bathroom with other floor mates in major European and American cities for $15 to $40 a night. Many hostels also have private rooms with private bathrooms. Bed prices sometimes include breakfast, and guests are also welcome to use a self-service and fully equipped kitchen.

Besides the free Wi-Fi and breakfast, the chief difference between a hostel and a hotel is that hostels are social by nature, while people tend to retreat back to their hotel rooms at the end of the day, a “complete change from the often lonely experience that you can have in a full-service hotel where the only people who talk to you are staff,” said Carl Michel, executive chairman of Generator Hostels, a European hostel chain.

Hostels may have originally catered to young backpackers because of their price and friendly fixtures, but “there’s a reason that these days, they’re no longer referred to as ‘youth hostels,’ ” said Marc Desmarais, president of Apple Hostels Philadelphia.

Twenty percent of Apple’s visitors are over 30.

Hostels often feature modern amenities and designs, including this Generator Hostel. (Courtesy of Generator Hostels)

Hostels often feature modern amenities and designs, including this Generator Hostel. (Courtesy of Generator Hostels)

“Hostels aren’t just for the young anymore,” Desmarais said. “No matter your age, if you enjoy meeting people from around the world with different interests, religions and political views, you’re going to love hostelling.”

Sissel Garnes, a Denville native, stayed at several European hostels in the mid-90s because of their price and said that, at that time, 90 percent of her fellow hostellers were in their 20s. However, she had no issue connecting with others.

“Even then, everyone was interested in everybody else and was open to learning about other cultures and lifestyles,” she said.

The average hosteller is between 18 and 26, but more and more hostels are seeing older guests, especially at Generator hostels.

“Ten years ago, Generator was a party hostel and the demographic was younger. Today, we are the leading design hostel in Europe and offer great service, great atmosphere, great events and, of course, a great night’s sleep,” Michel said. “As a result, the age band has broadened — 10 years ago, 95 percent of our guests were under 30. Now, it’s more like 80 to 85 percent.”

Even more of the visitors at St. Christopher’s Inns, a European hostel chain, are over 30. Robert Savage, public relations manager, said that 35 to 40 percent of visitors over the past 12 months were over 30, “myself and several other board member included.”

“We even host a gentleman in his 90s who journeys over to Paris from Australia every year, and very much likes the private en-suite dorm rooms at the 550-bed St. Christopher’s Gare du Nord hostel,” Savage said.

Hostels commonly offer private rooms, including St. Christopher’s Inns, for a slightly higher price than dormitory-style rooms. (Courtesy of St. Christopher’s Inns)

Hostels commonly offer private rooms, including St. Christopher’s Inns, for a slightly higher price than dormitory-style rooms. (Courtesy of St. Christopher’s Inns)

Savage said that the recession brought in business travelers, who, after the recovery, chose to remain with St. Christopher’s Inns because of the price and modernity. Loyal customers, backpackers by nature, “are the intrepid bunch who took no note of the recession and traveled in greater numbers than ever.”

Finn said, “When older people come and stay here with us, we know that they are diehard and seasoned hostellers. They are in the breakfast room with millennials, making better world citizens out of themselves, exchanging ideas and gaining a better understanding of the world and its people.”

Desmarais said that there is no better way to get to know an area than by staying at a hostel because of their use of common areas and various activities such as city tours and game nights for guests. Activities offered at other hostels include comedy nights, pub crawls, open mics and Salsa, often involving the surrounding community to connect travelers to the city.

St Christopher’s Gare du Nord in Paris provides free breakfast to its guests, a prevalent hostel feature. (Courtesy of St. Christopher’s Inns)

St Christopher’s Gare du Nord in Paris provides free breakfast to its guests, a prevalent hostel feature. (Courtesy of St. Christopher’s Inns)

However, prospective hostellers need to keep in mind that hostels are not out to cater to the feel-good, Finn said. “If you are looking for fluffy towels and room service and eco-green soap, then stay at a four- or five-star hotel because we don’t have that kind of service here,” he said. “You serve yourself. The kitchen is kept clean, but you bring your own food and cook your own meals and, hopefully, you cook a little extra for someone else to try it.”

According to Finn, the kinds of people who would thrive in a hostel environment are those who are open to learning about other cultures, as well as creative types such as artists, writers and chefs who work in professions that “transcend all boundaries.”

However, it’s also important to recognize that even though some hostels, because of their updated fixtures and interesting design, may look like hotels, they are not the same because a hosteller trades his privacy for a chance to try life simply and communally.

“When the day is over,” Finn said, “you need to be the type of person who has an understanding that if you didn’t like a person, it was because they were rude, not because they had a different skin color or an accent.”

If you are interested in booking a hostel, visit hihostels.com to find international hostels that meet assured standards.

New Jerseyans debunk study abroad myths

“We just can’t afford it,” Darlene says, citing her daughter, Erin’s, fervent interest in studying abroad.

This feels like the end of the argument, much to Erin’s disappointment. Darlene knew that her daughter would have fun, make friends and visit remarkable places, as all parents want for their children. However, the sensible factors prevailed — if it wasn’t the finances, it was the danger in being abroad, the absence of lasting benefits or the lack of academic vigor, that led to her decision.

Clearly, there are some misconceptions brewing, because none of these things are true. With semester-abroad application deadlines coming up at the end of December and into early 2015, this is worrisome.

As one of the .7 percent of New Jersey students to study abroad in 2012, I found that the ideas parents nurse concerning study abroad tend to be distorted, not to their own oversight but instead to the widely accepted notions on the international programs.

For families struggling to meet rising tuition deadlines each year, the idea of spending thousands of dollars for their child to meander across Europe for a few weeks seems unfathomable.

However, most colleges allow students to transfer their financial aid packages, scholarships and merit awards to an approved study-abroad program, including Rutgers University, possibly making living costs comparable to if the student stayed at their home college for the semester, especially if housing costs are included in the international program or the program is hosted in a less-developed country.

Through my program at Monmouth University to Florence, Italy, I paid $300 in fees on top of my normal tuition to study abroad. Robyn Asaro, assistant director of Study Abroad at Monmouth, said that she recommends that students looking to travel frequently on the weekends should bring an additional $4,000 to $6,000 for a semester program. But that’s only for students who want to spend their semester that way — it’s not a necessity.

Photography Jenna Intersimone

Students also can take advantage of their college’s specific scholarships, such as these offered for Rutgers University students, as well as these national study abroad scholarships that can be utilized by all students.

The thought of a child traveling internationally unsupervised can lead to severe parental anxiety. But Americans are 20 times more likely to die from a violent crime in the United States than are citizens of other developed countries in their nations, according to a 2013 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Throughout Asaro’s 14-year career in study abroad, she said that the extent of dangerous outcomes has been “a very minor injuries.” To prepare students for their time abroad, Monmouth coordinates four mandated safety meetings and works closely with affiliated international institutes to coordinate any issues.

Kyle O’Grady of Edison, who studied abroad in Florence as a Marketing and Finance major in 2013, said that she never felt unsafe abroad.

“Our group looked out for each other and it was a built-in support system,” she said. “Our study-abroad coordinator also kept in touch with us, and we also had an outlet at our Florence university to stay in contact.”

Kyle

In my experience, students who keep safe during their international studies utilize common sense, such as sticking to well-lit streets, traveling with at least one other person and keeping a low profile — no extreme safety precautions required.

It’s no surprise that 46 percent of all New Jersey post-graduates under 25 were unemployed or underemployed in 2012, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Parents may be surprised to know that time abroad may help their child not become a statistic.

Global Human Resources News conducted a study in which 73 percent of human resources executives cited study abroad as an important factor when evaluating job candidates for junior positions.

O’Grady said that she often finds herself talking about her study abroad experience on interviews, which, in one case, provided a connection with her interviewer that later landed her an offer. The venture also has also helped her develop an idea of her future career.

“Whereas before I felt a little lost, it definitely gave me direction on what I want to build my life around,” she said. “I want to work with a travel company or find a job in a new city.”

Plus, according to a 2012 Rutgers University report, 95 percent of study-abroad students found a job within one year of graduation, compared to 49 percent of the general population of graduates.

Megan Holt of Bridgewater, who studied abroad in Aix en Provence, France, as an International Business major in 2012, thinks that her study-abroad experience was the key to her current job with a French luxury brand that she landed within two months of graduation.

“Being able to tell my interviewer about my experience living with a French family helped assure them that I was accustomed to the culture,” she said. “Because I was applying to work for a French company, they valued my language skills and the fact that I was able to adapt and form relationships despite cultural barriers.”

Megan

Parents often worry that they could end up contributing to an expensive semester devoted to partying. However, being immersed in a new culture is the best way to learn a language and pursue other academic endeavors, plus most international schools offer exclusive classes.

Holt said, “I lived in a small French village where very few people spoke English. My French teacher herself spoke only a few words of English and taught entirely in French. I was essentially forced to learn the language.”

During my semester abroad, I took three hours of an Italian language course four days a week — not a possibility at my home school for reasons of time, availability or pure interest. I also met many art or fashion students receiving an unmatched experience, as Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and has been named one of the 50 fashion capitals of the world.

Undoubtedly, studying internationally is a large undertaking. But hopefully, with the dissolution of these myths, more than 1 percent of American students will be able to enjoy what could be the most rewarding experience of their lives.

Be Your Inner Crazy Grandmother Dentist

When I asked my 75-year-old grandmother if she wanted to visit me in Florence, Italy for the weekend, I didn’t really think she was going to say yes.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want her to visit – hell, the more the merrier when you’re running around Europe armed with only a reusable water bottle and a Wal-Mart backpack – but realistically, why would someone choose to fly 5,000 miles and spend around $1,000 for one weekend, especially at an age when most are packing their bags for the nursing homes?

But she did say yes, and even better, she flew to Bergen, Norway first to spend some time with the fam before hopping on the next flight to Florence where we visited the Perugia Chocolate Festival and bought obscene amounts of Baci, hung out at the Boboli Gardens and basked in the sun, and spent our (few) evenings at local trattorias, drinking fine wines on the house with the friendly owners.

Perugia

I can’t say I’m really surprised at the fact that my grandmother wore me out, a freshly energized 21-year-old, when after being divorced from her husband and house-wifery around 40, she headed back to school to become a nurse, moved to Florida, and still works as a nurse today as she takes her time off to hop around Europe and skiing in the West.

I won’t lie – I don’t see or speak to the lady very often and when birthday cards come around, they’re regularly empty. Even though I have family members who are spiteful of her absence, I have to hand it to her – she’s living the dream at 75. Missing out on it at 25 was never a reason to mope.

When people are young, they make a lot of excuses not to travel. When I was in school, students I knew made studying abroad to be this huge endeavor, when really all it took was a summer of extra shifts at the diner, some responsible saving and papers to fill out. Even though it’s these kids who have the real opportunity sitting right under their suitcases, I’m beginning to see it’s the more seasoned citizens who take advantage of their time by spending it all where it counts.

My friendly neighborhood dentist is also in his 70’s, yet he spent the last weekend before Good Friday in New Orleans, dressed to impress and rummaging the streets for Mardi Gras. It’s actually pretty difficult to get an appointment with him because he’s always away in the Galapagos Islands, Venice, or Thailand, armed with his camera so that he can print out his professional-quality photographs and hang them all over his office ceiling (for patients staring up at it from the dentist’s chair). I actually feel pretty guilty when he asks me “What’s up?” and I have nothing to say yet he responds that he spent last week in Aspen or visiting his son in Hawaii where he works as a scuba instructor. Oh, and he also runs a Christmas tree farm…. in his spare time.

It may be because they feel they’ve deserved this time after a lifetime of raising their bratty kids, it may be because they finally have the cash, or it may be because they’re realizing they spent too much time sitting at a desk under florescent lighting and it’s time to make up for those years. Whatever the reason, if my 75-year-old grandmother can hop on an international flight for some stellar pizza, so can you. Learn from your elders and take the time to do what you want now instead of making up a new excuse for every decade of your life. Be your inner crazy grandmother dentist.

Perugia 2

Things You Didn’t Know About Me

Normally, I am a huge advocate of not getting too personal on your blog. No one cares about the crap food you ate on the plane, the fact that the dude next to you kept touching your knee on the flight, or why you now regret traveling with your mom. However, 500+ followers and 137 posts later, I feel that it is time for you to hear a little bit more about the person who is always on the Life Aboard the Traveling Circus.

1. The first foreign country I visited was Norway, which I considered the Sears of the mall of Europe. When I was 17, my poor father toted my sister and I off to Norway to meet our family members in Bergen and get some culture in our blood. At first, we didn’t see it as such – it was effing cold in the pit of July, there was way too much hiking to be done, and we were sleeping in someone’s converted library. However, somewhere between the constant daylight and centuries-old city, the whole thing became kind of cool and Norway became our underdog of Europe instead of the store in the mall people never really want to go to unless they need a dishwasher. This trip spurred my need to see more; to get out of what was ordinary.

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Voss, Norway

2. My second trip to Europe was a three-week backpacking tour of Europe… armed with one other 17-year-old. I literally have no idea why my parents let me do this – probably because they don’t like me that much. Most people end up visiting our neighbors across the pond via school trip with chaperons and respected adults – I went with my high school friend armed with a backpack from my grandmother and some clothes I knew I wouldn’t miss. This can be considered jumping in with both feet – I had never even gone camping before. Nevertheless, it was my first real taste of venturing outside my comfort zone and into London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia.

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Loch Lomond, Scotland

3. I almost didn’t study abroad because I liked a boy. And then I signed up one day because I was feeling particularly adventurous. From my first year of college, I always thought about studying abroad, but it seemed like a far-off pipe dream with all the paperwork and planning that had to go into it – not easy considering my constantly changing majors and minors and over-analyzing nature (If this is you, go anyway. It’s gonna be OK). When I was getting ready to finally do it – sign up to go to London, England for the semester – something happened where I thought that the boy I liked throughout college was finally going to give me a chance (he didn’t). I hesitated and decided to give it another year to see what happened. The next year, I took a chance and moved in with my friend, which turned out awesome, and I figured why not give this one a go too? and that day, I put my name on the Florence, Italy list. I chose Florence based on a materialistic pro/con list my roommate and I made… that day.

4. I’ve never really lived anywhere for more than a short amount of time. Until I was in fifth grade, I had never been in the same school system for more than two years, and even after this, we continued to move around for various ridiculous reasons. Even if we weren’t getting ready for yet another move, I was rarely home; instead, I was constantly staying over friends’ houses and trying to create a home for myself and get on the ins with their families so I would always be welcome. I always spent a lot of time in cars… which is probably why I feel uncomfortable being in the same place for a long period of time now.

5. I crave the dirtiness of travel. I hate to admit it, and you probably wouldn’t guess it from following this blog, but I’m the most straitlaced and organized person you’ll ever meet. I am frequently picked on for my incessant list-making and perfectionism – I battle deep anxiety if everything isn’t in its place. However, this is why I am pulled towards travel – it is the precise opposite. I like not knowing, even if just for a bit, if I will be showering that day, what time I’m gonna crash into bed, where I will crash into bed, and even if my shoes will make it to see tomorrow.

What would people never guess about you?

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The Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Keeping the World in Your Kitchen

I’ve never been a foodie. I can’t tell you the difference between cooking with vegetable oil or olive oil, I rarely use measuring cups, and I’m still not sure how much pasta to throw in the pot for two people. However, I can tell you that nobody appreciates a gourmet meal quite like a kid who grew up on TV dinners.

When I was little and I would go to the grocery store with my mother, it seemed normal to just point out what microwave meals I wanted for the week. When I would eat them at the end of a long day, I would always feel empty, a little gross, and always hungry, hungry for something with a taste; with flavor.

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Turkish lunch from Istanbul 

Getting invited to other people’s homes for dinner was always a real treat, which was why I made it a point to get in the good graces of fat Italian mothers who made it all from scratch. In my head, they spent the day poring over cookbooks, stewing pots of homemade pastas and beating down tomatoes with their bare hands. At the end of the day they would emerge from their lairs, beautiful again, eager to present finely laid out meals to their happy families and their kid’s weird friend who may or may not have lived in a car.

However, living on your own finally gives you the opportunity to live life the way you imagined it from your pink bedroom. Besides learning how to pay bills, scream at conniving gas companies, and fix leaky roofs, I finally learned how to boil water and thus began my gourmet chefdom and eventual progression into the closest to adulthood that I will ever wander.

When I went to Italy for a few months when I was 21, my newfound obsession with cooking and creating was brought to a new level when I realized I wasn’t the only one. Unlike in America, when every Internet recipe screams “easy” and “quick,” Italian recipes whispered for dutiful chefs, qualitative cooking, rich spices, and savory, dark flavors.

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Blueberry steak from Acqua al due, Florence

Although it was an adjustment to learn how to walk slower and talk faster, catching onto the beauty of food was not difficult. Finally, not only could I enjoy these creamy and pungent foods on a daily basis, but I could also create them, following vague instructions in Italian I learned from Giancarlo in my Pairing Food with Wine class and mixing flavors and spices in pots in my tiny kitchen and hoping the oven would work that day. I could spend hours hunched over dishes, but more often than not, the time would fly by and before I knew it, it would unfortunately be the time to sweep up the flour and figure out what I was going to pack for lunch tomorrow.

Thankfully, it didn’t end there – in every country I went to, I would never balk at meats, tails, or goop staring back at me – instead, I would smile, dig in, and ask for seconds. Running around the world, I have yet to run into a dish I found truly disgusting, and instead, I jump at the chance to try whale at the local fish market in Bergen, eat bratwurst and roasted nuts at Oktoberfest, and dig away at fish heads in Brac.

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Seafood pasta dish from Split, Croatia

Back in America, I talk to people all day long who ate food for dinner that had already been cooked in a bag and they’re just grateful to have some time back in their lives; for themselves. But for me, cooking is for myself, whether I’m trying to recreate a Spanish paella, master the perfect bruschetta, or throw a bunch of stuff together that tastes strangely Creole.

Even if the world is keeping me at home, it will not keep the world out of my kitchen. By the time I finish cooking dinner and drinking wine it may be too late to do the laundry, clean my room, or watch some television, but I have yet to go to sleep hungry.

Become The Lazy Tourist

Back in the day, you would never catch me dead staring blankly at a television screen, sitting at my kitchen table eating a meal, or quietly listening to music. Being away on a trip to a faraway land made this even more out of the question – time is of the essence; so why sleep, relax, or eat when you could be exploring?

Even during my too-short semester in Florence, Italy, when I went away for the weekends, I packed every moment full of museums, activities, attractions, and bars. I rationalized this insanity by arguing to myself that during the week I was spending my time enjoying every bite of gelato and every walk down Via Roma. Although I’m glad, in some ways, that I used my time wisely every weekend when visiting other countries and cities throughout Europe, by the end of the semester, my weekly plane trips to these faraway lands left me feeling pretty burnt out.

During one of the last few weeks I spent as a semester-abroad student, my best friend from back in the States came to visit me and we went to Budapest, Hungary with her mother and aunt. For the first time all semester, I didn’t bust my ass trying to find the best prices for every tour and every meal. I didn’t have my guidebook held up over my face, trying to read the map and making sure we had hit every museum on the block. And I didn’t worry.

Instead, I spent a weekend wandering open-air markets, eating at probably-overpriced restaurants, and laying in an awesome bed in – gasp – a chain hotel. I took long showers and read books when I felt like it and I ate a ton of these weird Hungarian pastries. I was a tourist. A lazy tourist, one of the biggest travel blasphemies known to travelers everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure real Budapest is great, just like all the other international cities were great (for the most part). I’m sure Castle Hill and the Great Synogogue are mind-blowing and very much worth venturing outside instead of just driving by in some lame red tour bus. But I will most likely never know what the inside of the House of Terror looks like or what real Hungarian food tastes like, because I was too busy shoveling strawberry yogurt in my mouth for $15 a pop at the Four Seasons. And that is perfectly okay.

I ate breakfast at the hotel dessert bar and I took idiotic pictures posing next to stern guards and funny statues. I had enough food to go into a coma and I went to bed early. I wandered around a beautiful, historic city with my best friend and I didn’t appreciate one bit of it. Just because you’re a traveler doesn’t mean you can’t be a tourist once in a while.

6

Il Dolce Far Niente

I remember my final days in Florence. I remember how as the weeks added up, how I missed more and more having responsibilities, jobs, basically just being accountable for more than just getting on a plane on time. I missed being important to someone, to something.

Well now, here I am. It’s 4:45 on a Tuesday and I have been up since 7:30 am, and after this too-short hour I have off, I will work until 9:00 pm (then I’ll probably go to the bar, which is besides the point).

I miss the days when if I felt like it, I could linger in a cafe for an hour. I miss when I could walk into a museum, just because. I miss when I could meet a stranger and just chat with them for a little, not trying to occupy my mind with what else I had to do that day. At the time, I missed serving a purpose. Now here I am, trying to fit in when the hell I can possibly eat breakfast (which usually ends up being a piece of fruit I eat while I’m sitting at the traffic light on Ocean Ave).

What the hell was I thinking? Yes, having things to do is great. I’m not saying I want to be unemployed, or the worst sin of them all, bored. But with more longing than I have ever felt for any person, I miss being able to be. I miss thinking about the taste of the food that I am eating and thinking about the conversation I am having. I miss the sweetness of doing nothing. Il dolce far niente. 

In America, we hustle, hustle, hustle. We work three jobs and we try to get the kids to soccer, lacrosse, and track and we get to the gym at 6:30 am and we eat lunch at the drive-thru and we take long hours because we really need the money but what is it for, really? What are we working for, honestly? When is the payoff going to come?

You let me know when you find out. In the meantime, I’ll be looking up one-way flights back to Italy.

Nothing.

Time Commitments

When one (unfortunately) arrives home once again and is greeted by armful by armful of happy friend, one is bound to come across many people who will say, “Yes, I did that too, during my summer session abroad!”

Wait… your summer session? Now, I totally understand if you have time commitments for the semester, financial problems (although from what I have heard, most people spend almost the same amount during their summer session as they would during a semester abroad, but that’s another odd issue entirely), or familial issues, but honestly, it seems to me that a summer session just means this – you got jipped.

If you’re not aware, a summer session tends to run about three to four weeks, sometimes going for as long as six, while study abroad sessions usually range from thirteen to sixteen weeks. Sounds like a big difference? That’s because it is. A summer session is a vacation. A long vacation, but a vacation at that. A semester abroad is an attempt at life.

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I remember when four weeks passed during my time in Florence (I happened to be at Oktoberfest at the time, if I remember correctly) and I looked around and said to myself, What if I had to leave right now? What if at this moment, I was packing my bags and being shipped back off to the Jerz?

At four weeks, one is barely adapted to life in another country, another world. One is still a stranger (and probably is still one at the three-and-a-half month mark, too). Many people subconsciously see this as a good thing- they don’t really want to totally assimilate. They don’t want their own habits to have to change, they don’t want to step too far outside their comfort zone, they just want to see a little bit just in time for them to get homesick and get back on the plane to be greeted by a tearful Mom.

When my own friends left for their summer sessions, a few weeks before I left for my semester in Florence, I was a little jealous. I was scared to go away for so long. Petrified, actually. It was like taking a too-big bite of cake when I should have only had a spoonful and now it was falling embarrassingly out of my mouth and everyone was staring. Even when I first got there, in between the moments of extreme excitement, I thought to myself, What have I gotten myself into? What planet do I live on? 

But just like anything else, we all get used to our new surroundings and we learn to adapt. We create our new selves and new homes, and when it’s time to leave, we will reach for our armfuls of our new friends too.

Off the Beaten Path

Okay so before I say this, let me get something straight here: I loved studying abroad. I loved walking by the Duomo to class every day (as if you didn’t know that already) I loved traveling every weekend, I loved having one pair of shoes to wear, I loved the music, the food, the people. But let me also say this: Studying abroad is dissimilar to my real life in more ways than the obvious (as that I was in Italy). The main one being that I had nothing to do and no one to answer to.

At first, this is wonderful, breathtaking, grounding. For the first time in my life, I sat. I drank my coffee. I didn’t answer e-mails and return phone calls or update my to-do list. I just drank from my little cup and watched the people walk by and listened to street music.

Must Be Nice.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well yeah, it is. But now imagine this feeling for three and a half months. Eventually, it all gets to the point where you miss responsibilities, working, doing something that contributes to society and progress instead of pissing away your money. Luckily, this feeling rolls around at the three-and-half-month mark.

So as you can probably guess, I’m happy and eager to get back to school and my tutoring job and my job for the Annual Fund and my school newspaper and my honors newsletter and the rest of the seemingly endless amount of things I have to do. I’m ready to actually be a part of the world again and not just freeload off of… myself.

However, not everyone feels this way. I feel like there are a lot of returning students out there who saw their time in Florence as what a life could be, when really, this isn’t very realistic. This is a fantasy. In the real world, you don’t go to the bar on days that end in “y” and you don’t just hope someone will let you onto the train for nothing and you don’t carry a backpack on you with everything to your name. Can you? Yes. Will you? Probably not.

The Life

Don’t force Florence, or any other fabulous destination, be your escape. Don’t let it be the way that you got away from the real world for a while and was then forced to come back to mundane, average life. Instead of it being a stopping point, a pretty side street with trees and flowers that you had to leave on your way back to the highway, make it a part of your final destination. Make Florence the way that you changed your real life as you knew it. Let it make you more relaxed, more open to new ideas and new people, let it inspire your love of travel and of art. Don’t look back on your time abroad and say Man, I wish I was still there, but instead let it say, Thank god this made me the way I am today.