An Icelandic Itinerary

In planning for traveling across Europe, I had put together a list of places I’d like to visit in my time here. Iceland was on that list, but given its geographic location and the overall cost to travel there, I figured it was probably not a place I’d get to visit this time around.

Fortunately, a little bit of spontaneity spurred the decision to spend my spring break there. I’m lucky I decided to go when I did. I was able to find a cheap flight to Reykjavik with WOW Airlines. With their recent shuttering, I’d have a lot more trouble finding a cheap flight.

I spent 7 days traveling all over the southern half of Iceland. I’m lucky I went with a Spanish and Finnish friend from my program, because they decided to rent a car when we got there. That made travel incredibly easy, and there’s no way I would’ve been able to see anything other than Reykjavik if I’d gone alone.

One of the best things about Iceland is all of the hidden gems. I’m normally not the type to travel without solidified plans. I used to love knowing what each day would hold ahead of time, but being in Europe has helped me realize that flexibility when traveling can make your experience much more enjoyable. My friends and I only booked hotels or hostels for three of the six nights we were there ahead of time, and had we booked all six in advance, there’s no way I would’ve been able to see some of the hidden gems there. Whether it’s Olafsvik near the Snaefellsness National Park on the West Coast, or Hof near Vatnajokull National Park, there are all sorts of wonderful towns to enjoy.

I would highly recommend a visit to Blue Lagoon. It’s somewhat expensive, but I found it was worth every penny. It was one of the most relaxing experience of my life. The crystal blue hue of the hot spring was breathtaking.

Geysir, Glacier Lagoon, Reynisfjara, and the Golden Circle are all within a day’s drive from Reykjavik, and are can’t miss spots if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the Icelandic landscape. Iceland exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I found it to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Weird Things I Found in Europe as a Sheltered American

As an American who has never left the United States, much less traveled anywhere by myself, up and leaving my little town in Kentucky was no easy task. Being in a foreign land where I don’t speak the language is about as easy as it sounds. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way because it has exposed me to new experiences and taught me to be more resilient, and I am only one month in!

Therefore, with all of my new experiences and cultures that I have been exposed to, I decided to write a little bit about weird (or better yet, different) things in Europe that I didn’t expect as a sheltered American

The floors of multi floor places start at “0.”

This sounds so trivial, but it was the first “weird” thing that I was exposed to because I lived on the 4th floor of my apartment…. Or, in American terms, I would live on the 5th. Basically, the first floor is considered the “ground floor” so I suppose it makes sense that the first floor is floor “0”, but as you go downstairs, the floors go “-1, -2,…” and I just found that completely strange! Yes? No?

People drive on the same side of the road.

Alright, so this was just me being an ignorant American. I just expected Americans only drove on the right side of the road (like we don’t use the metric system or military time). But, my assumption was wrong, we are not unique, and I was surprised for about .2 seconds. Only the UK and all British colonies drive on the left side!

Sometimes, companies leave the credit card number on the receipt.

Now, this should be weird to everyone. What happens if I left my receipt on the table on accident? What if it got in the hands of the wrong person? Luckily I caught it and was able to dispose of the receipt correctly, but here is my advice to keep an eye on your receipts because you never know!

You have to sign a piece of paper after credit card transaction.

I think this is due to the fact that America is more digitized than Europe (not in all cases though!) but anytime I bought anything, even a €2 bottle of water, I would have to sign a piece of paper instead of a monitor. Most of Europe is pretty economically friendly, so I saw this as a surprise because it is such a waste of paper.

People drink alcohol on the trains and in the streets.

Now, unlike New Orleans, Wisconsin, and Europe, most of the United States has open container laws in place, so it was strange to see people walking around the streets with an open bottle of beer. Although I am living in France, I have asked my friends from all kinds of countries (Finland, Germany, UK), and this is the case in so many European countries!

Europeans don’t have air conditioning in living quarters.

Honestly, I was told about this before I got to Europe and I thought it was a joke. How can such big cities that get so hot seriously not have air conditioning?! Do we live in the 1800’s?! Well, apparently so because it isn’t a joke. There. Is. Not. Air. Conditioning.

The showers are those handheld showers.

 Honestly, this was the biggest shock and annoyance to me. As I have learned, as in America you see mostly mounted shower heads and hardly any handheld showers, it’s the exact opposite in Europe. How am I supposed to scrub my shampoo and hold a shower head at the same time? I’m a month into my adventures in Europe and I still don’t know how.

The chargers charge faster.

This is just science. The voltage of the chargers here are 220 voltage, and in America, they are 110 voltage. So naturally, it would charge faster. Much less, something I did not expect. Don’t fact check me on that 😉

Europeans don’t refrigerate their eggs or milk.

When I went to the grocery store for the first time and saw a section of shelves with eggs and milk that WEREN’T in a refrigerator, I was stopped in my tracks. Granted, eggs are laid and aren’t refrigerated, so that wasn’t as strange to me, but cereal with warm milk just does not sound appealing. At all.

They don’t put ice in their water (or their drinks!)

In the month span that I have been in Europe, I have yet to see a block of ice. Restaurants just give you a glass bottle of lukewarm water. Even for mixed drinks at the bars, I haven’t had ice! Maybe I have just been to weird restaurants/bars. I’m now counting down the days until I get an ice cold glass of water.

Everything is closed on Sundays.

Europeans don’t joke about “keeping holy the Sabbath day.” Grocery stores, restaurants, and cafes are closed on Sundays (and if they aren’t, they close super early). On top of that, stores open later and close earlier during the week. So my “fast-paced America” mentality gets time to cool down on Sundays.

All in all, I have had a great time since moving to France. Although this list has portrayed weird things I have found it Europe, it’s what makes my trip here so unique. It makes me more resilient, open, and curious to learn more about European cultures and trends.  

Au revior!

Madrid Bull Fights

During my weekend in Madrid my friends thought it would be a very cool experience to immerse ourselves into the culture and attend a bull fight. Bull fighting is a big event in Spain and the matadors are highly regarded in the culture. For example, while flipping through a magazine I saw small articles about celebrities right next to massive articles about bull fighters. Upon arrival the locals were tailgating the event in the square while we were bracing ourselves. When we got into the arena the atmosphere was electric all of the people were very excited. Then the fight started. Watching it was not as bad as I thought because of the energy of the locals but as an animal lover it was a little unbearable at times. However it was a very cool and to experience something that many people don’t get to experience, especially because it will most likely be considered illegal in a few years. Overall, I learned through this experience to always keep an open mind when traveling and taking place in different activities that you are not used to. If you maintain an open mind you may not like certain things but you will never have a bad time. 

Poland

Thus far I have really enjoyed my study abroad experience. I have been fortunate enough to visit Krakow Poland, Vienna Austria and Amsterdam Netherlands. I have loved exploring and learning about each of these countries for very different reasons. Poland was one of the toughest experiences of my life but I would not have changed a thing.

During my time in Poland, I loved exploring Krakow, learning about its deep history and eating some of its traditional Jewish food. Although sad, the history surrounding Krakow’s immense Jewish background and the events that occurred during World War II was a very important piece of history to learn about. Learning about the dark events that took place to the large Jewish population that resided in Poland was an extremely hard pill to swallow. After walking around the beautiful city, visiting memorials, touring synagogues and finally visiting Auschwitz, this experience really changed my entire outlook on life. Once I learned about the gruesome details of the war and seeing what these innocent people endured, I looked at my life in a completely different light. Although it was a very tough trip, I realized how much I take for granted every single day and decided to live every day to the fullest. I would suggest for everyone to have this experience at least once in their lifetime. I am very grateful for the experience Poland gave me and the life lessons I learned in return.


Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands was like something I’ve never seen before. The whole time I was there it didn’t feel real. The city is flooded with canals, bikes, awesome museums, and delicious food. The city has over 100 kilometers of canals, 90 islands, and over 1500 bridges. These canals are lined with storybook houses. Some are tilting because they were built on stilts and the land is shifting, but they are all tall and slim with open windows and hooks at the tops of them so they could bring the furniture in through the window. These canals are also lined with bikes! Every where you go people are zooming past you in individual bikes or two person bikes. I had the opportunity to go to The National Amsterdam Museum, Van Gogh Museum and the Tulip Museum, Each were equally fascinating. The food was my favorite thing. They had every food you could imagine and they weren’t lacking on the sweets. The Stroopwaffels were life changing in the famous Pancake Factory blew me away. Amsterdam was different from all the other cities I’ve seen so far and that’s what made it so special. I will definitely be going back!

Venice Carnival

It is carnival season! Recently I took a weekend trip to Italy were I got to experience Venice Carnival. Venice carnival is the second largest carnival that takes place in the world. Thousands of tourist flock to the island city to experience the tradition that happens every year. I arrived for the kick off of the event and it succeeded its hype. Everyone wears mascaraed mask the whole time which is very cool to see the details of the mask. To put it into perspective their mask are like our derby hats. Then the carnival kicked off with a parade as most events do, but since Venice doesn’t have streets the parade flowed through the city canals. This years theme was blame the moon so all of the floats had that incorporated into them. I thought this parade was very interesting because while it was a parade it felt more like a performance. Most the parades I have seen just have giant beautiful floats but these floats had dancers and performers on them which was very cool. It was very cool to see this cultural event that has been taking place for centuries happen and I would recommend anyone studying abroad in the spring to check it out. 

Visiting Strasbourg

One of my favorite places that I visited during my time in Germany was Strassbourg, which lies just within the borders of France. Strasbourg is a very interesting city because it has been passed back and forth between France and Germany many times over its lengthy history. Because of this unique history, there is a strange and wonderful cultural blend between German and French cultures. Although they are a part of France, and French is the official language, it isn’t hard at all to find someone speaking German in Strasbourg, or as the Germans spell it, ‘Straßburg’. This was definitely an advantage for me, as my French skills were virtually non-existent. Strasbourg is pretty touristy, so it wasn’t hard to find menus in English, but it’s always possible to run into a language barrier.

While visiting Strasbourg, I would definitely recommend climbing the tower of the cathedral. While entering and viewing the inside of the cathedral is free, climbing the cathedral is not. Luckily, most places in Strasbourg offer a significant student discount. While the view from the top of the cathedral is not necessarily the most amazing in Europe, it does offer a nice view over the tops of the low buildings that make up most of Strasbourg.

I would also recommend stopping for a glass of wine or a hot cup of coffee in ‘Petite France’. This part of the city is very old and historical. From here you can also take a boat tour along the picturesque canals of the city.

Overall, Strasbourg is an amazing city and deserves a visit, especially if you’re studying in Western Germany or Northern France.

Celebrations

One big difference I noticed abroad was celebrating different holidays and traditions. My first month abroad, Costa Rica had its Independence Day on September 15th. My program had us celebrate by taking part in the Independence Day parade and making faroles, which are decorative lanterns children typically carry through the parade.  We got to walk in the parade and see all of the festivities that took place in the town center.

It was strange being abroad in the fall, because Costa Rica does not celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving. Some people dress up in the bars on Halloween, so I went with other Americans and we all had some sort of costume, even if it wasn’t well put together. Although it is not as important of a holiday to me now that I am older, it was still strange not seeing decorations up. It did not even feel like Thanksgiving when the day rolled around. I had class in the morning as usual, and in the afternoon I went out with my professor to find a fabric I was looking for to use in a project for his class. I called my family and they all talked about how much they missed me and what they were doing, which felt strange to watch from the outside. Later, my study abroad program set up a dinner for us at a restaurant where we ate typical Thanksgiving food. It was not a bad day, it just felt very confusing.

Learning the Language

One interesting aspect of traveling abroad is the language barrier and learning to speak a new language. I took Spanish all throughout high school, although our classes were not very advanced, and in my first 2 years of college. I was excited to spend four months in a Spanish speaking country. I did not think about my growth in the language much during my time abroad, but it is interesting to reflect and see how far I have come.

 

When I first arrived, I was nervous to meet my host family. My 26-year-old host brother spoke English, but his mother, aunt, cousin, and grandparents who all lived with us did not. I came to their house late at night, so we had a quick conversation before bed. I was able to communicate with them just fine and they kept telling me my Spanish was advanced, but I know it needed lots of work. I started the semester with a month-long class in Intermediate 2 Spanish. I could hear myself improve in grammar as well as my speaking skills throughout the month, and I continued to practice outside of the classroom. When I was with my friends we typically spoke in English, so I made sure to go some places alone. I continued to better my speaking skills in stores, with my host family, and in taxis. I even went to a Spanish conversation group to talk to local college students. Even though I’m not a fluent speaker, I now feel comfortable speaking Spanish.

Costa Rican Beaches

Some of the most popular places to visit in/near Costa Rica are the beaches. To travel, I always took the public bus. Here is a list of the beaches I visited and what I thought about them!

 

Playa Jacó

This is a very touristy beach just about 2 hours away from San José. It was a popular first weekend destination. This beach ahs a big town and lots of souvenir shops. The beach itself is a bit rocky and not one of my favorites, but it is close and good place to learn to surf. This town also has a very busy night life- which can be fun, but also dangerous. Most students studying in San José will visit at least once.

 

Playa Hermosa

This beach is about 15- 20 minutes away from Jacó, and a prettier beach. It still has all the restaurants and you can travel to Jacó for the evening if you would like to go out. The sand is black and very hot. The waves are more intense here, so it is typically recommended for more advanced surfers. You may even see a famous surfer or a surfing competition while you visit.

Manuel Antonio

Manuel is actually a national park about 3.5 hours away from San José. The entire park is incredibly beautiful and has a $15 entrance fee. After you walk through the forest, you get to see two light sand beaches with warm water. Just make sure to beware of the monkeys! They will steal any food you bring, and possibly other items. You will also likely see sloths and other animals as you walk through the park. I took a tour when I went with my program, but you can also walk through on your own

Cahuita

This is also a national park about 5.5 hours away from San José. This park is on the Caribbean side, so the water is very clear and he sand is white. It was rainy when I visited, but it was clear that this beach was very clean and peaceful. The town of Cahuita is small, but cute. There are plenty of places to stay for under $40 a night (cheap when sharing a room with friends) and lots of restaurants to try.

Playa Red Frog (Panama)

This was probably my favorite beach, located on a small island off Bocas Del Toro in Panama. The trip to Panama was about 7 hours and then another hour to the water taxi that took us to our air bnb in Bocas. The beaches in this area were all white sand beaches with blue and clear waters. They are quite touristy, which means they have restaurants, bars, and activities on all of them. I got to go snorkeling off one of the islands and the water was very clear with lots of organisms to see. The water taxi rides to/from the different beaches were unique experiences of their own. Activities here were less expensive because the cost of living is less expensive in Panama. It’s a long trip, but I would recommend going!

Sámara

This beach is about 4.5 hours from San José. It is located in the Guanacaste province and has light sand. The beach is big, the town is touristy, and there are many nice restaurants on the beach. When I was here, I went horseback riding and I rented an ATV with a friend. Many of the beach towns offer these options, and I liked being able to do touristy activities as well as just relaxing on the beach throughout my time abroad.

Tamarindo

For the last weekend, I went with a group of friends to this beach, also located in the Guanacaste province and about 5.5 hours away. It was incredibly hot and humid here, but also beautiful. This was one of the prettiest beaches I saw and had many shells. It was difficult to get in the water at some points because of the large rocks. This town is one of the most touristy, which means there are lots of people trying to sell you things. That can be annoying or a good thing if you want some coconut water on the beach. Our air bnb was very nice and we had a great time here.