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.”
Being an American abroad has really opened my eyes to things I’d never realized before about my country and its relation to others.
In my younger years, I didn’t know much about other countries. I pretty much regarded the USA as the center of the world.. But as I got older and learned about other countries and cultures, I realized there’s so much more to the world than just my country. After I did a little bit of traveling and saw other countries, I had a sort of epiphany: the US is just another country, it just happens to be the one I’m from. I believed this for a few years, but once I moved to Austria, it became pretty clear to me that the US was “something,” and this was one of my biggest sources of culture shock.
In my first few days in Austria, I realized pretty quickly that the US was everywhere. Even though I couldn’t understand much German at the time, I would hear “America” or “USA” or “Obama” on the radio, TV, or daily conversation all the time. Out in public I would see people wearing American flags on shirts and bags. Stores were selling hats, socks, sweatshirts, and phone cases that said “LA”, “California Republic”, or “NYC” on them. (Fun fact: at one store I bought a 3€ shirt that had an American flag on it and said “City of California – Golden State of Los Angeles” on it) Almost every song I heard on the radio was from the United States. In everyday speech between Austrians, especially kids and teens, English words and slang were thrown into the middle of an otherwise all German sentence.
Don’t get me wrong on this here: I love my country. However, this presence of my country all around me made me ask a question:
“Why does everyone care about America so much?”
In my first few months in Austria I asked this question more than once to my host mom, my host dad, my Austrian friends, other exchange students…anyone I thought could give me a decent answer. Of course the answers varied: Because everything comes from America (music, movies) and because America is a strong leader in economics, politics, technology. A “highly influential country.” I’m not sure if there is an answer set in stone, but the presence of my home country in everyday life, despite it being 5,000 miles away, is an observation that I’ve made.
When people ask where I’m from and I say America, there are mixed results when it comes to reactions. I sometimes get the response, “I’ve never been to America before but I’ve always wanted to go there.” Some people jump at the opportunity to talk to an American.
But I sometimes also get “Oh, America!” in an indecipherable tone. (Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? Who knows)
And then there’s the questions.
Most commonly I’m asked, “How do you feel about the election?”
Other common questions include,
“Can you drive?”
“What is the drinking age in America/have you drank before?”
“What is prom/is prom real?”
“What do you think about Trump?”
“Do you eat a lot of fast food?”
“Can you vote in America?”
“Where is Wisconsin?”
“Do you own a lot of guns?”
And, my personal favorite: “I have a friend from America, do you know him?”
I answer these questions to the best of my ability. Although some might seem a little ridiculous, they’re a good insight to cultural differences and to stereotypes that other countries have of the United States.
At the beginning of November the US held the Presidential Election. Due to the 6 hour time difference, watching the election results roll in required me to stay up all night with the help of Pringles and 3 SparBudget energy drinks. I unfortunately had to go to school directly afterwards. Of course I had plenty of classmates and teachers talking to me about the result. Most people in Austria have been kept pretty updated on the US elections and the candidates via news channels (another example of the US present everyday life on the other side of the world).
During the time of the US presidential election, Austria faced a very similar situation. A presidential election between a far left and far right candidate; the vote of the country split 50/50. Many political conversations I had with Austrians drew a lot of parallels between the two elections. For this reason, a drastic change was predicted for the Austrian polls after Trump was elected. No one was sure which way the votes would swing, but knew many people’s votes would be influenced in one way or another by the outcome of the US election.
The left candidate ended up winning the election, but the presidential role in Austria really isn’t as big of a deal, as they aren’t making all of the decisions. After Van der Bellen won, I rarely heard anyone talk about it.
So, there you have it, folks. As a conclusion, it’s definitely a learning experience to be an American living in a different country. It’s been fun, it’s been frustrating, it’s been educational, it’s taught me about my own country and my host country.
Christmas is coming up soon, I’ll write again soon about my Christmas time here in Austria!
2 weeks ago I celebrated my 100th day in Austria. I spontaneously decided to put together a montage of some of the videos I’ve taken so far during my exchange. The video includes footage from language camp, Hallstatt, Croatia, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Styria, Linz, and of course daily life in Vienna. Words can be great in explaining my experiences and feelings during this exchange, but videos give a glimpse into the stunning, beautiful things I see every day here. So, linked down below is a visual of my first 100 days in Austria! Enjoy!
On October 26, over 70 exchange students (everyone on exchange to Austria and Croatia) loaded a double-decker bus in Linz, Austria bound for Prague, then Dresden and Berlin. We had a beautiful 4-day adventure, exploring three new cities.
A quick overview of each city:
– We took a guided tour of the most important points of the city including Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, and the town square.
– Prague reminded me of Vienna, but a bit calmer and close together, and a lot more colorful. However I never felt the same connection to Prague as I do to Vienna, but I might just be biased.
– I really visited Prague at the perfect time. The fall colors were at their peak, and it was really the most beautiful thing to see red, orange, and yellow nature all around.
– I saw a wiener dog wearing a pink sweater. This isn’t necessarily an impression of Prague but I feel like it needed to be mentioned because it made me really happy.
– Although I was only in Prague, Czech Republic for a day, I instantly fell in love.
– We took a walking guided tour in German of Dresden and hit all the main points, such as the Semperoper, Frauenkirche, and Zwinger Palace gardens.
– I really loved Dresden. It’s a big city, but not too big, and it wasn’t super crowded and not too touristy. It was really easy to navigate as well, and has lots of fascinating history and beautiful architecture.
– I was in Berlin during my short term Germany exchange at the end of June this year, so really recently. At the time, I felt no connection to Berlin, and I might even stretch to say that I was a bit disappointed. I was, however, excited to come back again this time and get a different impression. My second time around was so much better. I could hardly believe that the city I was seeing was the same one I saw 4 months ago.
– We took a long bus tour of the city and learned lots about it. We took short breaks at some important sites – The remaining parts of the wall, the Brandenburg Gate, and Checkpoint Charlie.
– In only one day, I ate Currywurst 3 times. Currywurst is one of my favorite foods of all time, and it’s very uncommon to find it anywhere besides Germany. It’s basically a really good Bratwurst topped with a curry ketchup sauce and yellow curry seasoning. It’s a must-try thing…explaining the taste can’t do it justice, you have to taste it to believe it.
– I was so amazed with the art within Berlin. There was beautiful street art everywhere, and the remaining pieces of the Berlin wall bear breathtaking, meaningful murals.
– I hope I can visit Berlin again sometime. It is a huge city, and there’s still so much for me to explore.
– Although it took more than one visit to reach this conclusion, I can really say that this time, I fell in love with Berlin.
The Prague-Dresden-Berlin trip was a beautiful opportunity to see more of the world, bond with friends (and make some new ones), and learn about the complex histories that each city holds. I got so much closer with a lot of the other exchange students during this trip, because we spent a total of 20+ hours in the bus while driving to each city. The other exchange students in Austria have become like my family.. I’m not sure if I’ve ever gotten so close with a group of people so fast before. Overall, I am so thankful for this opportunity and for Rotary who put this together for us!
With the US Presidential election coming up, I am planning on doing a blog soon about what it’s like to be an American here in Austria.
Additionally, last night, I did a Live Q&A via Facebook about my life and exchange in Austria. You can view this video at https://www.facebook.com/aneader/videos/vb.100001618803788/1245404872190128/?type=3&theater.
On my first day of school, I was presented with the option of going to Croatia on a 5 day trip with my class. Although the trip was REALLY rough on my bank account, the right decision was pretty obvious to me. Not only have I always wanted to go to Croatia, but I also thought it would be super beneficial to use the trip as an opportunity to get closer to my classmates. I have all my classes with the same group of 19 people, so it was in my best interest to get to know/bond with them as soon as possible. So on September 25 I went to bed at 1 AM after packing, only to wake up at 4:45 (or, less than 4 hours later) to get to the coach bus on time. We loaded the bus, I said goodbye to my host mama, and then, once in the bus, promptly fell asleep until our first rest stop. The bus ride consisted of driving through most of Austria and Slovenia to get to Croatia. It still amazes me that in Europe, you can just casually drive to another country just as easily as we can drive to another state in the US. I spent a few rest stops in (and many hours looking out the window at) Slovenia, which is a super beautiful country. The only thing notable about the trip there is that at one point I gave a girl in my class permission to speak German to me so I could practice, and somehow this turned into all of the students and teachers also speaking German with me, which gave my entire time in Croatia an unexpected twist.
About 8 hours later we finally arrived in Croatia, where we had to take an hour long ferry to the island we stayed on called Mali Losinj. Somewhere around 10 hours after our departure, we finally arrived in Mali Losinj and got situated in our hotels. I immediately fell in love with Croatia. The weather was perfect, the air was salty and fresh, seagulls flew overhead, palm trees and tropical seaside bars could be seen in every direction, and right outside our resort was the vast, blue Mediterranean Sea. It was like a dream. Right after arriving we went swimming – I think it was my first time ever swimming in the sea. Later that day I discovered a window in my hotel room that I could crawl out of and sit on the roof with a stunning view of the sea. I sat on the roof, drank Almdudler, and counted my blessings as I watched the sun set. That night, me and 2 of my roommates sat on the floor in the loft of our room surrounded by Croatian snacks and drinks, and just talked. This little “party” was significant to me because it was just normal girl talk that I was able to understand and even participate in – even though it was all in German. At night, most of my classmates went to the beach and we all listened to music and looked at the stars and listened to the waves. The rest of the trip in Croatia was just as beautiful as the first day. We went snorkeling twice a day, and in between snorkeling we had lessons about sea life and studied organisms under microscopes. Snorkeling was something I’d never done before. Putting on flippers and goggles and diving into the clear, deep sea was undoubtedly one of the coolest things I’ve done in my entire life. Seeing under the sea is like seeing a whole new world. (Don’t mind the whole double-Disney pun I just made there.) Sometimes while snorkeling I would find a school of fish and swim alongside them. One highlight was when, on a boat excursion one of the days, someone spotted 6 dolphin fins nearby our boat. The boat stopped and we watched the dolphins for awhile. Of course I’ve seen them in aquariums before, but there’s something undeniably breathtaking about seeing an animal in its natural habitat.
After 5 days, we said our final goodbyes to Mali Losinj made the 10 hour journey back to Austria. Here are some of my overall impressions of Croatia:
-The Croatian version of nutella is so good. In fact, I snuck a few one-time-use capsules back to Austria with me.
-Croatia is super cheap, and I really love Croatian chocolate and chocolate milk
-As I wrote in my journal, “I don’t think I’ll ever really be the same person again after swimming with the fish and seeing the world underneath the sea.”
-I made lots of new friends and finally started speaking a little bit of German. This was one of the best, most beneficial parts of the trip in my opinion.
-I think I fell in love with the sea. It felt so nice, so pure. Jumping in never felt too cold, always just refreshing. The salt from swimming twice a day for almost a week did wonders for my hair and skin, and also my well being. I felt so stress-free and happy. Snorkeling was a great way to escape the world for a bit and enter a completely different one. Underwater, all sounds from the outside world are cut off and all you can hear is your own breathing as you look around at the fish and seaweed and sea urchins and rocks.
-I want to go back. I think I have a set definition now of “paradise.”
On September 5, I started my first day of school in Austria at BG/BRG Korneuburg. The night before, my host mom and I spent at least an hour picking out the perfect first day outfit for me. I was so simultaneously nervous and excited. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Even in the US, I’d never been the “new kid at school” before. It’s so intimidating to walk into a new school where you don’t know anyone, attend classes in a language you don’t know well enough, and find your own way through the varying school system in a different country. But as scared as I was, I was also so excited to meet new people and make new friends. So I walked into my school on a rainy day, found classroom 7C, and started the next chapter of my exchange.
Within 2 minutes of getting into my classroom, a few girls from my class came up to me and asked me if I was an exchange student and talked to me for a bit, then one of them pointed to everyone in my class and named them off for me. Of course I didn’t absorb any of the names, but it was a super kind gesture. It was such a relief to have some friends right off the bat. At 7:40, class started and our class teacher came into the room. He immediately caught my eye and asked me how my exchange is going, and told me he’s there for me if I ever need something. He then said something about me in German to the class, but I didn’t understand so I just awkwardly smiled while everyone in the class looked at me. We mostly just went over class and school rules on the first day, and I tried my hardest to understand what my class teacher was talking about. Due to my mediocre German skills, I was only able to make out the general topic (For example, I would know he was talking about cell phone rules but I didn’t understand what exactly the rules were). During our 15 minute break between classes, a few girls from my class showed me around the school. My next class was Latin, which is a bit of a useless class for me to take because the rest of the class is on their third year of it and I don’t know any at all, so I spent the class period investigating the English textbook which had a glossary in the back full of useful English words and terms such as “wheelchair tricks.” After this I had English, which was a class that I could finally participate in. We got into groups and looked at pictures that represented stereotypes of a country, and then analyzed why we had these stereotypes. For example, the picture for France was a man with a mustache wearing a striped shirt and a beret while holding a poodle and a baguette. Once we got to the America picture, my English teacher apologized to me 4 times and briefly showed the class a picture of an overweight man on a motor wheelchair, eating McDonalds and firing a gun. She was not expecting to have an American in class that day. (Of course it wasn’t a problem, it was hilarious for me.) School got out at 11:30 every day for the first week, so I went home satisfied with my first day of Austrian school. I’m currently in my third week of school. Here are some big and little things I’ve noticed that are different than high school in America:
- Even though I attend a public school, religion is still a big part of school. Every classroom has a cross hanging on the wall. At one point in my first day of school, my homeroom teacher went down the class list and asked each student his or her religion. Religion is also a class that most students take, but from my understanding, it only educates on Roman Catholicism which is what the majority of Austrians identify as. On my second day of school, there was a “welcome back ceremony.” The majority of the students in the school came and sat on mats in the gym. We then were given lyric sheets and sang 3 songs about God, listened to a teacher give a metaphorical speech about hands, then everyone crossed themselves and said a prayer and we went back to our classrooms. It’s so strange for me to see religion so heavily in a public school, because in the US even as much as mentioning religion can be taboo so it’s pretty much an avoided topic in schools.
- We aren’t allowed to wear our shoes in school. We have to wear “Hausschuhe” which are basically just non-street shoes that you only wear inside. Most students wear slippers or Birkenstocks. I wear some cute little slippers that my host mom found me. I’m not really sure why we have to wear house shoes and I really am not digging how fast they can kill an outfit, but it’s an interesting change I guess.
- In American high school, each teacher has his or her own classroom and the students move to a different classroom every hour. In Austria, teachers are the ones that move, so I stay with the same group of people in the same classroom all day. (Aside from Gym, and the sciences, which are in labs) It’s a lot more convenient to have a few teachers moving around every break instead of hundreds of students, but that means that the classrooms have a lack of personalization. The walls of my classroom are basically empty except for the cross on the wall and a plaque of Austria’s crest over the door. This also means that the teachers are not as easily accessible, so it’s better to just ask someone in your class in the convenient Whatsapp group message that everyone in the class is in.
- In the US, I have only 8 or 9 classes, including a study hall. Here in Austria, I have almost double that. Most days I only have 5 classes, which means some classes I only have once a week. On a normal school day I get out at half past noon, but on Tuesdays I get out at 5:30 in the evening. My classes are: English, Latin, German, Art, Gym, Physics, Chemistry, Geography, Biology, Geometry, Maths, Psychology and Philosophy(PUP, pronounced “poop”), Geography, and History.
- There’s a lot of respect towards the teachers here. Whenever a teacher walks into the room, the whole class immediately stands up until the teacher gives us permission to sit down again. Teachers are always addressed by students as elders, never as equals or friends.
- AUTOMATIC BLINDS! Teachers can simply press a button on a remote, and the blinds on the windows will open, close, raise, or lower themselves. I’m sure this also exists in America, but I’ve never seen it before. I’ve only seen it the good ‘ole manual way. I thought America was supposed to be ahead in technology?
- Most teachers here don’t have one specific class they teach. I think the theory is, since they’re moving around so much and don’t even have a classroom to themselves, why not just teach an extra class too? My gym teacher is also my history teacher, and my German and PUP classes are also taught by the same teacher.
- 14 out of my 15 classes are taught by women. Just an observation. Also, a lot of my teachers are really young. Like, fresh-outta-college young. Like, are-you-a-student-or-a-teacher young.
- No yellow school buses here! I have to walk to the bus stop, which is a 5 minute walk from my house, and then take a 20 minute bus ride to school. It was pretty luxurious to have the bus come straight to my house in the US, but then again city buses are a lot cooler than school buses so I think it’s worth the sacrifice.
Overall I’m really liking school! I am slowly but surely making friends, and using my time productively by studying German during the classes I don’t understand. Being surrounded by German for 5 hours straight every day is improving my German so rapidly. Everything else is going great here in Austria. My host family continues to be amazing, and my recent mastering of public transportation is opening up a new world of opportunities for me. Last weekend I went hiking in the alps on a Rotary organized trip with the rest of the exchange students in Austria, and I’m heading on a week long trip to Croatia with my class this Sunday. Everything is going beautifully, and I’ll check in soon!
P.S. Jakob Fenz is the coolest Austrian I have met here and I wasn’t even bribed to say this