Sunday, May 25, 2014

I will miss...

There is no denying that I have loved (almost) every minute of this experience, start to finish. With only a few weeks to go (and classes already being over), I have started to truly reflect on my experience and can feel myself getting more and more sentimental about how little time there is left. Here is a list of things that have become norms in my life this semester. This was tricky to compile since there are so many things I have had the chance to truly appreciate...

I will miss....

getting lost/exploring in cities that I have no previous knowledge about (ex. Tallinn, Estonia)

campus parties 

sitting and appreciating moments when I realized my wildest dreams were coming true (ex. London, England underneath the London Eye and facing Big Ben)  

Thursdays at Koriander with white wine and mirror selfies 

International Dinners with my awesome floor mates

freaking out whenever I see a castle

this...(abundance of unique? people)

my choir girls

getting creative with our costumes before campus parties

riding the bus (so easy- always warm in winter, cool in summer)

audio guides. So many audio guides.

being a complete tourist and feeling 100% shameless about it

receiving care packages/actual mail

being a master of public transport

FOOD, especially trying region specific food.. ( ex. Fish and chips in London, pizza in Rome)

experiencing crappy weather and thinking, "Oh well. At least I am in (insert cool country)." (Oslo)

legal drinking, especially where wine juice boxes are available (so convenient!).

churches like this....

seeing proof of royalty

spending time with these amazing friends that I will have for life. 

being in absolute disbelief of being somewhere I have thought about going forever and feeling like "Someone pinch me.." (Colosseum in Rome)

visiting a totally awesome place without even planning to (Rotterdam, Netherlands)

not knowing the language (or alphabet) and still managing to communicate just fine (challenge accepted!) (St. Petersburg)

love lock bridges...never gets old <3 (Helsinki)

I could probably think of a million more, but I will stop there. I am unbelievably lucky to have so many things worth missing :)

My family is coming on friday and I will be traveling with them until the middle of June, so that is why there won't be any posts until then. I can't wait to share my last adventure with you! Until next time xoxo

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Open letter to someone considering a semester abroad

Hi you. I remember when I was in your place. I was so excited about the potential of studying abroad, but had so many questions and fears. 
This is going to be soooo expensive. 
Will this make me graduate later? 
It is going to be so hard being away from my family that long. 
What if no one speaks English? 
I'm going to be so lost. 
Now that I have been here for 5 months, I feel qualified to give you a tried and true answer to all of these questions: what you have to gain from this experience far outweighs what you will lose.
As for the money, take out loans, you will figure it out later (same as the rest of college). The really only extra expense you will have outside a typical semester (rent, food, tuition, transport) is the plane ticket to get there and any extra travels you decide to do. And, let me tell you, travel in Europe is SO cheap when you compare it to the US. The most I ever paid for a round trip plane ticket was about $150, and it felt like a huge splurge compared to my other ones. Once you are in Europe, you can get pretty much anywhere within it pretty easily. 
If you're really that concerned about academics, just remember, worst case scenario is an extra semester. Big deal. Once you graduate, you will be missing the student life anyway, so what's the rush? 
Yes, you'll miss your family/friends at home, but the people you meet will quickly feel like family. And, the invention of FaceTime is amazing and will get you through any rough patch of homesickness you have. 
Yes, you will get lost (many many times), but it's challenges like that which will force you to grow and learn more about yourself than you ever dreamed possible. 
Every so often, you will run into someone who doesn't know English, but you'd be amazed that it is still possible to figure out how to communicate and get what you need. I promise. People DO want to help and will more often than not surprise you with their kindness. 
There is no better way to realize how much you appreciate where you live than leaving. It is so much fun to sit there with people from all over the world and compare differences and similarities. Redefining "normal" is the best thing you can ever do. "Normal" does not truly exist. It is a combination of where you live and a very, very narrow point of view. 
6 months may seem like a long time, but, man does it fly. I can't believe people I have been with for the whole semester are already leaving, and that I will be doing the same in just over a month. Especially when you travel, you realize that coming back to your exchange university really does feel like home. 
Your rented bed feels like your own, your floor mates want to hear all about your trip, are so excited to see you, and the view out the window becomes so familiar. It is amazing how quick you feel like you belong there. 
The most amazing feeling is to lay in bed at the end of a day and just smile, feeling so proud and amazed that you are actually there. You thought about it forever, and now it is real. You did it, and it is the greatest decision you could ever have made. Not a single regret. 20 years old and visiting 12 countries in 6 months. It's crazy, right? Crazy is exactly what I was aiming for. 
I can't wait to look back on life and say "Yeah. I did that." I can't wait to inspire my kids to travel. I can't wait to print and frame pictures I have taken of some of the most beautiful places on Earth and look at them and think "I was there. I took this." It gives me chills to think of all of the amazing things my eyes have seen and all the times that I wish time could just stop so that I could just take in the exact moment I was in for just a little bit longer

I hope you do your research and conclude that all of those sacrifices are worth it. Because they are. It is 100% possible, no matter what your major is. Just do it. It is that simple.

Moments I knew I was exactly where I needed to be...

Just think...this could be you. What are you so afraid of?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Baltic Cruise

I just got back from a week trip cruising the highlights of the Baltic Sea. We stopped at Tallinn, Estonia first, then Saint Petersburg, Russia and ending in Helsinki, Finland before our last ship brought us back to Stockholm, Sweden. It was unlike any other trip I have been on so far in so many ways.

First of all, it was organized by a travel company called Scanbalt Tours, so despite some free time, we had everything planned for us. I have to admit, it was really nice just to be told where to go in these unfamiliar cities. It has been amazing to explore on my own on other trips, but it was much less stressful this way and due to the short amount of time we had in each place, I didn't feel like there was so much unseen.

Also, I had never traveled by ship before. We were told we were getting on a ferry, but uh-uh, that thing was no piddly ferry used only for transportation purposes. We were on a full blown cruise ship. Not only was it like a hotel (with tiny rooms, of course), but it had shops, bars, restaurants, clubs, saunas, playgrounds, everything you could need. It was a very comfortable way to travel I thought. You could hardly tell you were moving except for a little bit of a sway every now and then.

Brace yourself for a lot of pictures...for this particular trip, I feel like they give a better idea of how it was compared to writing more.

Day 1: Pretty much a travel day. Boat from Stockholm to Tallinn, doing karaoke, and group bonding

Day 2: Arrival in Tallinn, walking tour of Old Town, lunch at a Schnitzel place, free time, pub crawl. I fell in love with this medieval town, it kept reminding me of Duloc from Shrek!

Day 3: Morning free in Tallinn, a boat to Helsinki to get to our connecting boat to Saint Petersburg. Not going to lie, I was nervous for the passport control into Russia after our guide told us they are hard on "some nationalities". But, all they did was look at my documents very carefully, and hand them back after not saying a single word. What a relief. Another fun night was had on the ship, and we even saw some sort of a Russian talent show, which was...interesting. 

Day 4: Arrival in Saint Petersburg! After a repeat of the passport control scenario with the same outcome, we embarked on a bus/walking tour. The sky was a crazy shade of gray but we somehow dodged a downpour. We checked into our (awesome) hostel, and then headed out for some free time. We did a little shopping, found an amazing restaurant, and got ballet tickets to Cinderella for the following night, thanks to a translator we pulled off the street to help us communicate with the ticket seller. English is not as prominent there as in other big cities. It also doesn't help that they use a different alphabet, so it was tricky at times to know what you were getting.

The church where the Romanovs are buried...such a crazy story in history.

Day 5: Morning was free, so we went shopping, sent postcards, and had an awesome lunch (Russian pancakes rock my world). We all met in the afternoon at the incredible Hermitage museum, with its main building's old purpose of being the winter palace for the Russian monarchs. It was incredible, and had works from pretty much every famous artist you could imagine. Our guide told us that if you were to take time and appreciate every single item, it would take you 8 years to get through it, and I can definitely see why. After the museum, we saw the ballet. It was so beautiful, with an amazing set and costumes. It was so cool to see how music and dance can tell the story, no matter what languages the audience spoke.

Hermitage Museum

We love audio guides

The theater where our ballet was

Day 6: Day trip to Peterhof Palace and Gardens, which was Peter the Great's vacation home situated in Peterhof, Russia, about a 45 minute drive from Saint Petersburg. He tried to emulate the Versailles Palace, which I could see right away. The number of fountains was unbelievable, and everything was so nice and spread out. It is also right by the Gulf of Finland, so the views of the sea are amazing. 

On our way back, we stopped at a memorial for the Great Patriotic War, during which 1 million Russians died.

Then, we had a little bit of free time, during which we took advantage of the opportunity to relax. We got some last minute souvenirs, then settled in at Starbucks. We especially got a kick out of our names written in Russian on our glasses.

We then boarded the ship to Helsinki and relaxed for the night.

Day 7: We arrived in Helsinki to the most miserable weather. Ever. Freezing rain, dark skies, and winds so bad you couldn't even use your umbrella because it would turn inside out. After a short walking tour, we had a nice lunch, went and saw a couple of churches before boarding our final ship back to Stockholm. We were not too happy to be back to Scandinavian (expensive) prices. That night, everyone enjoyed our last times with some karaoke and hanging out together.

This church was built into a cave!

A map of our last ship...yes we slept under the cars :)

Day 8: We arrived in Stockholm to a milder version of the Helsinki weather. We pretty much hung out until our train arrived to come back to Karlstad. We were tired, cold, and happy to return to our own beds after such an awesome trip. 

As the days go by, I find it harder and harder to believe how fast the time has gone and it makes me so sad to think that I will need to leave these incredible friends so soon. On the bright side, my parents and little sister are coming to see me in 3 weeks already! I plan to make the most of my time here until then. I feel so lucky to have been able to do all that I have and could not be any happier with my decision to study abroad. I wish more people could know how it feels to explore the world, there really is nothing like it. Talk to you soon :)