During my first month in India, my host family took me to a performing arts institution near my house and introduced me to the Indian classical dance Kathak (pronounced Kuh-tuck). At the time, I had no idea what it was, but now it has become a big part of my life here in India. I joined the class without having the faintest clue of what I was doing, and found myself struggling in the first few days as I’ve never been much of a dancer.
India has 8 forms of classical dance, all of which have been around for thousands of years. Kathak is one of them, characterized by graceful movements, precise footwork, and bells (called ghungroo) tied around the dancer’s ankles. One could call it the “Indian ballet.” As with many things in Indian culture and art forms, Kathak is very spiritual and directly correlated to the religion here, Hinduism. Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word “Katha” which means means “story.” Most Kathak dances tell stories of Hindu gods, religious mythology, and spirituality. Just like Christians have stories defining the origins and lives of primary biblical figures, Hindus have stories and backgrounds for their gods, many of which are depicted in various Kathak dances. For example, in my first Kathak performance at Rotary District 3060’s District Conference (see video below) I am depicting the Hindu god Ganesha, who is part human and part elephant. If you watch carefully you can see me holding sweets like he often does, giving blessings, showing his big belly, and depicting his tusks, trunk, and large ears. In other dances I have told stories taking the form of Krishna (a major Hindu god), his mother, the goddess Radha, and the god Shiva, sometimes switching characters mid-dance to effectively convey the story. Learning Kathak has taught me a lot about Hinduism in this way. It is said that thousands of years ago a group of storytellers called the Kathakars recited stories from sacred epics and mythology in temples of North India, eventually traveling from village to village displaying and spreading their interpretations through gestures, dance, footwork, and facial expressions. With time this evolved into Kathak.
One thing that this dance form is especially known for is its fast footwork, and the ‘bol’ that accompanies it. The bol, or words, spoken during Kathak correspond with the sounds the dancer’s feet make when hitting the ground, as well as the sounds of the Tabla (an Indian drum instrument which normally accompanies Kathak dance). Common bol words include “Ta Thai Thai Tat”, “Dha Dhin Dhin Dha” “Dig dha dig dig”, etc. When dancing Kathak, it’s important that footwork is accurate and that your feet make a slapping sound when hitting the floor. This is a learned skill, and at the beginning I felt like Happy Feet. But with time I’ve improved this skill a ton. Now my feet make a more distinct sound, and I can do fast footwork. In fact, recently I’ve acquired a minor dance injury in my right foot from both frequency of practice and, probably, stomping my foot too hard.
My Kathak teacher, who happens to be one of the sweetest, most supportive, and loveliest women I’ve ever met, saw my potential from the beginning and urged me to take the state government exams for certification. Each exam consists of both oral theory and practical (dancing) in front of a state examiner. In January I took both the 1st and 2nd year exams, and recently I took my 3rd year exam. This means that once I receive my final exam score, I will be 3 year certified in Kathak dance, after only learning for 9 months. This is one of my biggest accomplishments here, and I hope to somehow continue learning once I return to the States.
Since I have been learning up to 8 hours a week, (and 12+ in the last week in preparation for my exam) Kathak has been a big part of my exchange. It has become a passion of mine and I’ve really enjoyed learning not only the dance but also the history along with it. I would like to thank my teacher Ami ma’am for being my inspiration and biggest fan, and also Synergy for doing so much for me as an institution. Before this year, I never even considered myself a dancer. It’s crazy how much can change and evolve in less than one year.
It’s hard to describe dance without visuals, so I’ve attached a picture and some videos on this post. As always, if you have any questions on Kathak or anything else, feel free to reach out to me on whichever platform is the most comfortable for you. Thanks for reading!
Ganesh Vandana Performance
My Kathak Exam
A short video from my exam. Listen to the Tabla and harmonium in the background, and my teacher speaking the bol:
This is an old video but I included it to show the sound feet should make. Notice the footwork here:
When I first got the news I was going on exchange to India, the reaction I received from others was definitely different from the reaction I got when I found out I was going to Austria. Most people were aware that India is a lot different than the US, and the main concern from others was that I would be going there alone as a young woman. I shrugged off this recurring concern from friends and loved ones at first, but in my last weeks before leaving La Crosse I reached out to a few martial arts institutions in the area and took a short self-defense class, just in case. When I was still choosing which country I wanted to go to, some people also warned me that it might be hard to live in India as a feminist, and accept a country with such different views.
So the burning question is – is India really as unsafe as people made it seem, especially for women? And how are women seen in society here? I will try my best to address this question here.
This is probably the hardest blog post I’ve had to write, because I know many people (from India, America, and beyond) will be reading this and I don’t want to misinterpret or give false information on such a complex topic. As you read, please remember that India is a huge and diverse country, with vast differences depending on which part you are in. For example, the south of India is known for being a bit more ‘modern’ or liberal in its views toward women, compared to the North (I am situated in the middle, more towards the North). Also keep in mind that these are my personal experiences here, and might not be the same for everyone. Many factors go into each of the topics I’m going to discuss. Treatment of women can vary on a lot of things such as area, family, age, and even caste.
The city I live in, Surat, is generally pretty safe, at least in comparison to other big cities in India. There are different areas of the city, like ‘districts,’ and some are known to be safer than others. Unsurprisingly, the wealthier and well-educated areas are generally safer. In the first location I lived in, I was allowed to walk around alone, even in the evening and after dark while coming home from my evening dance classes. My second host, living in a different district, also has allowed me to do this without an issue. I never once felt scared, afraid, or threatened while walking alone here, but of course I’m still always aware of my surroundings and on guard. I also always dress conservatively and respectfully in public, no matter the weather. I don’t wear tank tops, low cut shirts, or shorts. I know the parts of the city I shouldn’t visit alone or at night, and my auto-Rickshaw transportation is normally done through a booked service (yes, there’s Uber for rickshaws) where my driver has the responsibility to take me to the right place. I do have a curfew, but it’s not too early and has never been a problem for me. I try not to be naive, because I know terrible things happen in India (and everywhere in the world, actually) but as long as I follow the precautions I mentioned, I feel quite secure here. I also know Rotary would not send me to a place which would be dangerous to me, and I try my best to use common sense to avoid potentially bad situations.
I love many aspects of India, but one thing I’ve noticed here is more uniform behavior or lifestyle among women. There is a strong and distinct societal expectation placed on women. Of course, we have this in the United States as well, but with less pressure as many don’t follow it. The US allows for more individualism in this sense. Here, it’s expected to perform well in school, and many women move on to higher education as well. At some point they are married off (most marriages are arranged marriages which, as any Indian will tell you, are much better than they sound) and begin their married lives. From what I’ve seen, this consists of bearing children, staying at home while the husband is at work, taking care of the house and kids, and spending the day rolling beautifully round rotis and making home cooked meals and chai for the family. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, and of course there are exceptions and many working and businesswoman here as well, but generally the gender roles are much more prevalent. There is also an unspoken societal exclusion if these norms aren’t followed, as well as disgrace and bad reputation brought onto the entire family. Divorce or not getting married at all are looked down upon and generally not accepted. As long as women follow the societal guidelines though, there is no problem. A typical Indian wife’s day may consist of waking up early to perform puja (Hindu prayer at a home temple), cutting vegetables and preparing lunch, taking a nap for a few hours after lunch, running necessary errands, gossiping with the neighbors, making dinner, and watching Bollywood movies before bed.
The fact that I’m even writing about this may be a little uncomfortable for some Indians, as this is somewhat of a ‘taboo’ and secretive topic here. However, for my western friends and family, this is a very interesting cultural difference which deserves to be mentioned here.
If you know me, you know I am a very open person, especially about topics others are not as comfortable with. My openness has allowed me to feel comfortable with myself, my body, and its natural processes. However, many Indians see menstruation as something shameful, and women are generally considered ‘unclean’ during this time of the month. This is something that varies a ton from family to family in India. Some girls don’t go to school during this time, some aren’t allowed to touch certain things or enter the kitchen. While I personally never experienced anything this extreme, a few general rules prevailed for me. First and foremost, I am not allowed to enter or even go near a temple during the first four days of my period. This includes home temples, which are small sanctuaries of worship inside most Hindu homes. Trash produced during this week is also to be placed in a separate, discreet bag and disposed of in a discreet way. The discretion and secrecy of this just adds to the shame of something which is really just natural and normal in my opinion. Speaking of my opinion, that leads me to my final point.
Feminism in India
For those of you who aren’t good with definitions, feminism is basically the idea that women and men are equals and should be treated as such. This idea and movement is gaining momentum worldwide, and many youth are adopting it, acting on it, educating others, and hoping one day that gender inequality is a thing of the past. However, that is precisely the reason why things are moving a bit slower here in India. Indian civilization has been thriving for thousands of years, and the differing treatment of women has always been part of the culture, as well as social hierarchy in general. Many people here, often of the older generations, believe that this is India’s tradition and it shouldn’t be altered to fit new ideals. I try my best to understand this, but I also think some traditions are better left in the past, and evolving with society can bring good. And this is where the true exchange experience of culture shock and ‘what is my role here?’ comes into play. I have had conversations with people who genuinely believe that men are superior to women, and I have had to decide in the moment whether I should put in my two cents, or leave it be. While I can’t bring myself to ever verbally agree, in this situation I would just nod and try my best to understand the points the other person is making. After all, there are over a billion people in this country and I did not come here to change how an entire subcontinent thinks.
As for the people who warned me it would be hard here as a feminist, I can definitely agree it hasn’t always been the easiest. However I have learned a lot and, once I accepted that I cannot change anything, it has become quite interesting to see the differences in how people think here. And don’t get me wrong – India is definitely changing..slowly but surely. Many of my local friends have been influenced by social media and feminist movements taking place in other countries, so the younger generation is much more liberal than their elders, and are fighting for change. It will be interesting to see how India evolves in future years.
I really hope I did this difficult topic justice! On a lighter note, I have a lot more time on my hands lately and am considering making some videos where I freely answer questions and talk about my life here. If you have any questions for me about this post, or anything in general, feel free to comment them below or email/message them to me and I will make sure to answer them in a future video or blog. Thanks for reading!
I apologize for my lack of blog posts lately! I’ve been very busy here, but I’m finally getting some time to myself since the school year ended and I completed my tours. We’re just entering summer now, so the climbing temperatures are probably also contributing to the slowing down of life here.
It’s already been 3 weeks since I returned to Surat from our 17 day trip through Northern India, and they were definitely some of the best weeks of my life. It was a dream to be able to spend two and a half weeks with the 18 other exchange students living in my Rotary district, and to see so much more of this beautiful, diverse country.
The trip began with a 27 hour train ride (and a 3 hour bus ride after that) to reach Dharamsala, a Northern city in the Himalayas which is the residence of many exiled Tibetans and the Dalai Lama himself. Amazingly, we were able to witness a small part of one of his teachings, and got to see him up close. (He and I made eye contact!) The next city we visited was Manali, where we rented snowsuits and played in the snow. We stopped in Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and spent a few days in Delhi to witness India’s capital city in all its glory. Our next stops were in the state of Rajasthan, which holds India’s deserts. We visited forts in its capital city Jaipur (‘The Pink City’) and rode camels through the sand dunes in the Thar desert in the city of Jaisalmer. We spent two nights at a camp resort in the desert, staying in large tents in the sand. Finally we visited Jodhpur, the Blue City, and took another long train ride to our respective cities in Gujarat.
Since it would be impossible to explain everything we did and how much fun we all had, I put together a short video compiling clips I took throughout the trip.
I can’t believe it’s already been almost a month! It didn’t take long to get settled into life here, and I’m loving every minute of it. I’m still learning new things every day, but I’ve also gotten accustomed to most of the cultural differences that were so foreign to me a month ago. There are so many things I want to write about, but for now I’ll focus on my first impressions of India and the culture shock I faced upon arrival.
After over 24 hours of total transport time, I arrived in India full of nerves and excitement. My wonderful host parents greeted me with a bouquet of flowers and incense, and a welcome poster. Surat, my host city, was another 5 hour car ride from Mumbai. As tired as I was during the car ride, it was hard to close my eyes to the new world around me. From my first step out of the airport, I could easily tell I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Palm trees bearing coconuts stood tall everywhere I looked, along with many other species of trees I’d never seen in real life before. The street itself had several designated lanes, but somehow double the amount were in use. The road was shared between cars, rickshaws, buses, bikes, motor scooters, pedestrians, and, in some cases, cows or an occasional camel. Motor scooters weaved between vehicles and lanes, and pedestrians walked dangerously close to vehicles. There were no seconds of silence; everyone was honking their horns. At first observation, it appeared as if there were no road rules at all, besides generally keeping left. After one month here, it still appears as if there are no road rules, but I’m used to the chaos and I am even comfortable crossing the road by myself (after weeks of only crossing while holding my host mom’s hand).
Food aside, the process of eating itself has proved to be a bit of a cultural difference. While silverware isn’t necessarily hard to come by here, it isn’t used by everyone. While I don’t want to compare my two exchanges, it became immediately evident that the controlled fork and knife etiquette I mastered while in Austria would be of no use here. As everyone here eats food with their right hand, I immediately switched to eating with my right hand despite having eaten with my left hand my entire life. This in itself was a challenge. Holding a spoon in my right hand feels much like writing with my right hand does: awkward and strange for the lefty I am. When a spoon or fork isn’t necessary (which is most of the time), meals are only eaten with the hands. I’ll talk more about foods and mealtime in India in a further post, but needless to say I’ve mostly mastered hand eating too.
I won’t go into depths on toilets here, but I feel like I can’t talk about culture shock without at least mentioning them. It’s true that toilet paper isn’t super common here, and I packed my luggage accordingly. However, I’ve quickly grown to love the alternatives here! Pressurized water sprayers on the backs of toilet seats and handheld water sprayers accompany almost every toilet here, and they’re surprisingly effective. I should also mention that I have managed to avoid public toilets since arriving and have not yet had to pop a squat.
Another culture shock I faced after some time has to do less with physical differences and more to do with the differences in how people here act. My whole life, I’ve been trained to say “thank you” whenever anyone does something for me, big or small, and that one can never say thank you too much. This actually isn’t true in India, as saying thank you (especially between family members) can create an unnecessary formality and distance between people. This seems to also be the case for “sorry” and “please.” These terms are still used sometimes, but aren’t necessary in every situation. Although I understand the cultural difference and am trying to adapt to it, I still cringe at myself every time I simply say “no” or “yes” instead of “no, thanks,” or “yes, please.” Hugs and physical affection here are also not common. Because of these reasons, I’ve been having trouble trying to express my gratitude!
I’ve been so busy between school, Rotary events, and different two traditional Indian dance classes that I haven’t had much time to sit and write, but today was the first day I’ve seen the sun since coming here since it’s currently monsoon season. Pretty much every day has been cloudy and in the upper 80ºs, with on and off showers. I took advantage of the sun by sitting on the roof of my house with some incense, chocolates, good music, and my laptop to write this blog!
This first month has been one of the best of my life! Every day is full of new experiences, rich culture, extremely friendly people, great food, and, as cliche as it sounds, self-discovery. I’m so excited to see where this year leads me!!
Thank you all for following me on my journey!
Don’t forget to follow my Instagram @ashlyns.exchangeyear for frequent pictures AND don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to chat!
I’m writing this blog from the Chicago airport during my 6 hour layover here. I want to write about what I’m feeling, but I’m not sure I can summarize it, or even put the feeling into words. Regardless of this being my second exchange, I’m still nervous and even a little scared. Stepping into the unknown, away from everything that’s familiar to you, is no easy task. It’s been half a year since I found out I’m going to India, but the reality only started to kick in about a week ago. I’ve gone through every emotion in the last week, and sometimes several at once. One minute I’m so inexplicably excited, and I feel my heart skip a beat every time I think of India and the culture, sights, and adventures I’m about to experience. The next minute I doubt myself, and feel nervous about the unknowns that lie ahead of me. There’s something extremely nerve-wracking about knowing next to nothing about the next year of your life.
I don’t want to fear it. The fear creeps up subconsciously. I know there’s no use in fearing the life ahead of me, because I can’t turn back now. Besides, I’m more excited than I am nervous. The prospect of living a new life, making new friends and meeting new people, learning a new language, and experiencing a completely different culture is exhilarating. I’ve spent a large portion of this long layover watching vlogs from past exchange students who went to India, and learning little bits of Hindi. With every picture or video I see of the country I’ll soon call home, I feel an excitement I can’t describe, and my fears and doubts melt away.
Up until my first flight I had mixed emotions that came in contradicting waves. Now that I’m on my way there, with 27 more hours of travel ahead of me, I’m ready to arrive at any time. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, and my phase of stressing is over. It’s time to embrace this opportunity and this life.
See you soon, Surat!
On March 11 I traveled 5 hours by train to get to Styria, Austria. In the town of Schladming, all of the exchange students in Austria attended a week long Rotary-organized ski camp in the Austrian alps. We stayed and ate our meals in a cozy lodge situated in the valley with a beautiful view of the alps, and skiied for 6+ hours a day for 6 days straight. The Special Olympics happened to be happening in the same place at the same time we were there, and we were invited to go to the opening welcome ceremony for the Olympians. It was such a privilege to get to meet and talk to the special Olympians from all over the world! Another highlight of the week was sledding down the alps. We spent an afternoon on 2 person sleds, laughing and frantically steering as we plowed our ways through the 7 kilometer long toboggan trail down the mountain. There’s no describing the feeling, but I think sledding through the Austrian alps has got to be one of the best things I’ve done in Austria to date.
The biggest highlight of the ski trip were the Alps themselves. Vienna is as flat as it gets for Austria, so therefore I’d seen the alps only a handful of times before ski week. To see the alps and to be on the alps every day for a week was so amazing and refreshing and absolutely stunning.
Because I can’t fully explain the beauty of the ski trip, I’ve put together a short video compiling the footage I took that week for a visualization. Enjoy!
Yes, I’m aware that it’s March, and that Christmas happened quite a long time ago. But, I found a lot of videos that I took throughout the Christmas season here in Austria, and I figured it’s better late than never to make and post a video! In the video you’ll follow me through many Christmas markets, see lots of huge Christmas trees, and get a taste of Vienna, Salzburg, and Linz during Christmastime. Enjoy!
This is isn’t as much of a life update as it is a compiled list of things that I’ve really learned in the past 6 months about Austria, the people, culture, and unwritten rules. For months before my great adventure began, I researched as much I could about Austria, as if I could really prepare myself. The things I learned about Austria’s culture and quirks really came from living here in daily life and observing things happening around me. Maybe this informative, slightly sarcastic blog could be useful to the exchange student who just found out they’re coming to Austria, or to the average person who is curious to learn some quirks about the lovely country I now call home.
- The Austrians are not Germans. The Germans are not Austrians.
If you’re looking to make friends and fit in with the Austrians, it would be a bad idea to compare the Austrians to Germans, or worse, refer to the Austrians as Germans. In fact, it’s safe to just completely keep the Germans out of your vocabulary unless they happen to be the butt of a joke. In defense of my Austrian friends and family, they sometimes tell me that deep deep deep deep down, they don’t hate the Germans THAT much.
- The Sound of Music doesn’t exist here.
I’d heard this before I went to Austria, but I thought it was one of those things where every Austrian had seen it, they just didn’t want to admit it. But no. They haven’t even seen the movie. I’ve gotten everything from “It’s called The Sound of Austria or something, right?” to “Oh, is that what all those tour buses in Salzburg are for?” to even “I’ve never heard of it.” from my Austrian family and friends. This means you can still prance around in the alps belting out “THE HILLS ARE ALIIIIIIIIVE”, just don’t expect your host family or Austrian friends to join you.
- Austria is not the place for political correctness.
Political correctness is not much of a thing here. At the beginning of your exchange, it might be a little uncomfortable to hear jokes about race, weight, cultural appropriation, religion, and country/racial stereotypes thrown around like it’s nothing, especially if you’re American and/or political correctness has always been important etiquette for you. However, the Austrians mean nothing bad by these jokes. It’s just a different culture and simply takes time to get used to and accept.
- There’s no 24/7 Walmart here.
As a wise woman once said, “Why does this entire country shut down at 6 PM?” -Alexa Watkin, 2016™
It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not that much of a stretch. 24 hour shops don’t exist here, save for a few train station tobacco shops that exist solely for drunk people. Most shops close down between 6 and 7 PM during the week, and aren’t open at all on Sundays. This can be frustrating if you go out of your way to get something from a grocery store or shop that, once you get there, isn’t even open. It definitely takes time to get used to, so make sure to take note of what time and day of the week it is before you decide to go on a shopping adventure. Also, malls here make a big deal of “Late night shopping” as some are open until 9:00 PM once a week. This is a rather normal time for me to be shopping if I was in America, but here in Austria it’s a thrilling adrenaline rush to be in the mall past 7.
- Greeting people is necessary.
Sorry, walking down the street in a small town with your face down and earbuds in just isn’t going to work here. Especially in small towns, it’s really important to greet people as you walk past them, saying “Grüß Gott” (God’s greetings/God bless you). You also say this when walking into stores and restaurants, or basically before any interaction with someone you don’t know. This is very important to Austrians, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit right away.
- Bread will become a very, very, very, very big part of your life. And diet.
I’m not going to pretend to know the reasons behind the Austrians’ bread obsession, but I do know that Austria is no place for you if you’re Gluten-free, or a bread hater. In my first month in Austria, I ate more bread than I’d eaten in my whole life combined. There’s white bread, there’s brown bread, there’s rye bread, there’s special holiday breads, and breads specific to towns and areas. There’s also Semmel, which is possibly the best bread to ever exist. Often lunch is the big meal of the day, and dinner will just be a selection of different breads. Bread is also common for breakfast. Bread is often a part of my Jouse, which is the German word for “mid-day snack break.” If eating bread for breakfast, snack, and dinner isn’t enough for you, never fear! There are bakeries around every corner, in grocery stores, and in train stations.
- Austrian German varies from High German.
When you go on exchange in Austria, you have to be able to accept that not everything you learned in your high school German class or on Duolingo will be useful to you. This requires a lot of listening to the Austrians speak, including the words they use and the way they say them. There are a lot of words Germans say that would get you some weird looks from the Austrians if you used them here. Replace your High German vocabulary with Austrian vocabulary as much as you can – there’s no use using words like Brötchen, Tüte, Sahne, or even Guten Tag. In fact, I had to look some of those words up because I’m only familiar with the Austrian versions of them (Semmel, Sackerl, Schlag, and Grüß Gott, respectively). Basically, follow the rule “When in Austria, do as the Austrians.”
There you have it, folks. I hope you’ve gained a few insights on Austria through the eyes of a sarcastic American exchange student!
Quick disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong on all of this, I absolutely love Austria! I just find it so interesting to experience the differences between Austria and what I’m used to. I’m fascinated with the language, the culture, the food, and the mannerisms. I’m also fascinated with how at first these things seemed so foreign to me, but now they’re second nature and normal as I’ve adjusted to what initially brought me culture shock. And that to me is one of the best, most beautiful things about exchange.
My exchange stopped feeling like a vacation once I got myself into a somewhat consistent schedule. Now it feels like real life, and sometimes I forget I’ve known anything else but this. From easily knowing which platform to go to and which train to take, to typing in the number code and unlocking the house with my key, it’s easy to feel at home here. I sometimes forget it hasn’t been like this my whole life. My exchange just recently reached its halfway point, and therefore I figured it would maybe be interesting to give some insight on a typical weekday in my exchange life.
At the beginning of the school year, my goal was to wake up at 6:00 every morning, like I did every school day in the US for the past 5+ years. However, I’ve discovered the “Snooze” button, which I’d never experienced since my mom was always the one who woke me up, never an alarm. Therefore I’ve been recently waking up closer to 6:40, then scrambling to get dressed, put on makeup, and eat breakfast by 7.
Sometimes my host mom or host dad drives me and my host brothers to school on their way to work, but normally I walk about a half kilometer (8 minutes) to the bus stop, where I then take a 25 minute bus ride to school (no convenient yellow school buses here, only general city buses).
(For the basics on my classes and school, feel free to refer back to my “School in Austria” blog post)
During school I participate in the classes I can, like Art, Psychology, English, Sport…etc. In the classes I simply can’t participate in such as 2nd year Latin, I focus on independently studying German.
On Tuesdays, I get out of school at 5:25. However, on every other day of the week I get out at 12:25. On these days, I get on a bus to the train station right after school, then take a train from the Korneuburg train station to Vienna which takes 30 minutes more or less, depending on where in Vienna I want to go.
Every day in Vienna I do something different. Usually I meet up with a friend, either an Austrian friend or another exchange student. Sometimes we’ll go shopping on Mariahilferstraße (Austria’s largest shopping street) or, on bad weather days, in SCS, Austria’s largest mall. Sometimes we’ll visit a museum, since there are dozens of museums in Vienna and most are free if you’re a student under 19. It’s also always nice to just go on a walk in a random part of Vienna and see what you find. I actually made a sort of “game” out of this that I really like to play, sometimes even alone. I’ll get on an underground train, get off at a stop I’ve never gotten off at, then take a tram for a bit, and I’ll find myself lost in Vienna, but the best kind of lost. It’s these obscure locations which have zero tourists. It’s these places where you find the little vintage shops and the cozy coffee shops. For food, I often get a Kebab or Dürüm, which is cheap but delicious Turkish food that you can basically find on every street no matter where you are in Vienna.
No matter what my adventure of the day is, I have to leave Vienna between 6 and 6:30 in order to make the last bus from the Korneuburg train station to home. The bus takes about 20 minutes, then I have to walk for 8 minutes up the hill to my house. I arrive home at 7:30. Once at home, I drink a chai tea with my host mom and talk with her about my day to the best of my ability in German. Sometimes I’ll have a light dinner of bread with my host family. Then we normally watch something on TV together whether it be a movie, TV show, or the news.
Every night unfailingly before I go to bed I write in my journal. I haven’t skipped a day yet, it’s become automatic. I’ve already filled 2 diaries, and I’m halfway through my third. It’s a relaxing way to wind down before bed and really take in and think about my day. The way I see it, this is the most beneficial, significant year of my life so far. Every day I’m experiencing new things and making new memories, and I don’t want to forget anything. A day I don’t write anything is a day that could easily slip from my memory. Even if I think back on the day and I can’t think of anything specific, I still write. Something extraordinary happens every day, whether you realize it or not. Maybe it’s not special at the time, but 10 years later the smells you described or the casual conversation you wrote about might mean the world to you. Keeping a daily journal has been nothing but beneficial for me, and I know it will keep giving back to me for years. I hope to be able to read the day-by-day account of my exchange year in 5, 10, 20+ years.
Every night I go to bed at a time that my mother would absolutely not approve of (sorry, Mom) simply because I don’t have anyone nagging me to go to bed at a normal time. I’m still working on self-discipline.
If you have any questions about my exchange, let me know by commenting below or messaging me on any social media… I’m thinking about doing a Q&A sometime soon!
Christmas in Austria started in November, with the opening of the Christmas markets. In the first weeks of November, dozens of Christmas markets (Christkindlmärkte/Weihnachtsmärkte) around Vienna (and all over Austria) opened. I had heard of the markets before, but I never expected them to be as big of a deal as they are. I expected one big market in every big city or something, but in reality there were seemingly markets around every corner. There was even a small market at the town square of Korneuburg (my small city of 12,000 people).
The Christmas markets are all open-air, completely outside. The rows of the Christmas markets are made up of individual small wooden roofed booths shaped like houses, decorated with lights and decorations. Each booth sells different goods, from sweets to soaps to Christmas ornaments and figurines. The largest Christmas market, the one at Vienna’s Rathaus (Town Hall) was accompanied by a large ice skating rink. One of the most popular things to do at Christmas markets is drink “Punsch” which is a hot alcoholic drink containing tea or spices, but there are many variations of Punsch with different recipes and ingredients.
December 1st was the beginning of Advent. Advent is also a thing in the US, but here it is more important. Everyone has at least one Advent calendar, with a door for every day of December containing chocolate or a small prize. I also bought myself and my host mom Advent tea, so we could each drink a tea together every morning of Advent. Also common here is the Advent wreath – a decorated pine wreath with 4 large candles in the middle. One candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas.
Here’s a rough timeline of my December in Austria:
On December 1st I woke up to a blanket of snow out my window. How perfect?
On the 3rd of December, my Rotary Counselor took me and my friend Ashley to Salzburg, Austria for a weekend. It was a 3 hour journey by train, and my first time in Salzburg. We stayed at the Sacher Hotel, a 5 star hotel where the Sacher Torte (Austria’s most traditional and famous cake) originated. During the weekend we toured Salzburg, went to a museum and aquarium, tasted the original Mozartkugeln, saw Mozart’s birth house, attended my first ever mass in Austria at the Salzburg Cathedral, and tried caviar for the first time. However, the highlight of the weekend was the Krampuslauf. In Austria, Children believe in St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas is believed to have an evil counterpart, a terrifying demon called Krampus who whips and disciplines the naughty children. In the days surrounding December 5th, which is Krampus Day, Krampus runs take place through the streets in Austria. Dozens of men dress up as terrifying Krampus monsters and run through the streets, whipping people and setting off smoke bombs and fire as they go. Although I got relentlessly whipped in the legs by at least one Krampus, witnessing the Krampuslauf in Salzburg was a great cultural experience.
December 6th was St. Nicholas Day. From “St. Nicholas” I received a sack full of peanuts, oranges, and chocolates.
Around this time I started feeling a little bit of homesickness. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious missing of home, but more like an empty feeling that I couldn’t quite explain. Since my brother never felt homesickness in either of his exchanges (or so he claimed), I simply didn’t expect to either. So the homesickness that I experienced in the first few weeks of December hit me harder than I would have liked. I missed Christmas traditions that I’ve done every year with my family for as long as I can remember. I missed being together with my family during the most family oriented season of the year. However, homesickness wasn’t a constant feeling, but simply a passing feeling of sadness that I felt every once in awhile in the first weeks of December, especially days in which I wasn’t busy or had too much free time. However, these passing feelings were easily cured with some cuddles with my host mom and talks with my host family, who understood and helped me through.
The middle of December consisted of going to a lot of Christmas markets and walking through the streets of Vienna which are beautifully adorned with lights, suspended chandeliers, and decorations. I also made lots of Christmas cookies with my host mom and host grandparents. I bought myself some wrapping paper, tape, and gifts, and set up a gift wrapping station in my room.
In mid-December I went on another trip to Salzburg, this time organized by Rotary, with all the exchange students in Austria. It was great to further explore the breathtaking city. This time I was a stereotypical tourist and visited some Sound of Music locations like the gardens that “Do Re Mi’ was filmed in.
I attended school until the day before Christmas Eve. By this time, everyone was impatient for winter break to begin. During class, we would sometimes break into a Christmas song in the middle of a lecture, much to the annoyance of the teacher. On the last day of school before break, we had a big Christmas breakfast buffet in class, and also performed a modern-day Nativity play called “Looking for Pokémon and Instead Finding Jesus.” I got the role of Baby Jesus.
We also had a Christmas mass in school. The students sat in the gymnasium and the school religion teacher/priest held a service. There were also some students who played violin, guitar, and drums while we all sang a few songs together, including Cohen’s Hallelujah. It was a powerful moment to sing one of my favorite songs of all time with my school, language barriers set aside for a moment, coming together as one to make music. After singing we took communion, then were dismissed from school for Christmas break.
I spent Christmas break at my host family’s flat in Eferding, a city near Linz and the 3rd oldest city in Austria. December 24th in the US is considered Christmas Eve, but in Austria it’s basically Christmas. On the 24th I woke up to a large, beautiful, real tree standing in the living room. Here, it is believed that the Christkind (Christ’s child) brings the tree. My host mom and I decorated the tree with lights, ornaments, sweets, Schokoschirmchen (little chocolate umbrellas), and candles. For Christmas lunch we had special bread that is specific to Eferding and only eaten during Christmas and Easter. We also had Bratwurst and Sauerkraut. Later we went to a short Christmas church service. When we arrived back home, we saw that the Christkind had come and delivered our presents. We turned off all the lights and lit the candles on the tree. We wished each other “Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas) and hugged each other, then gathered around the tree as my host brother read the Story of Christmas. We all sang Stille Nacht (Silent Night) in front of the illuminated tree. It was a completely surreal moment.
We then opened our presents. My host family really spoiled me, giving me lots of Austria related souvenirs, chocolate, fuzzy socks (they’ve caught onto my sock obsession), a Vienna snow-globe, and even my favorite cereal from America (Krave). I’m also getting the beautiful 120 year old piano in my room tuned, AND I’m getting a Dirndl (traditional Austrian dress). I’m so incredibly thankful for everything my host family did for me, I can not even begin to express my love and appreciation for them and everything they do for me. I felt no homesickness that day at all, because I realized this family and this place is home too.
We had a dinner feast consisting of wine, noodles, a potato, a soft flavorful meat, and a soft, hot apple topped with lingonberries. (Although those were very vague terms for what I ate, I promise it was really good).
On the 25th I went to a Christmas Day church service, then out to eat with my host family and grandparents. The rest of the day was pretty much like a normal day.
To finish this already long post about Christmas in Austria, I’m going to post an excerpt that I wrote on the 24th from the diary that I write in daily.
“I realized, I think for the first time ever, that Christmas isn’t about the presents or parties or physical things I used to associate it with. Some of my best memories today were made in the arms of the people I love dearly. The kisses from my host grandmas, the echoes of everyone singing together in the dimly lit, beautiful church. The warm smiles from my host brothers from across the kitchen table. The lone Wisconsin ornament [a Christmas present to my host family] hanging on the tree. The flickering of the candlesticks on the Christbaum [Christmas tree], glowing in our eyes. The togetherness, the love. I’m so thankful, I’m so happy, I’m so in awe of how lucky I am, how I really am living this life of a dream. Frohe Weihnachten.”