Indiana University Overseas Study

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing this is worth knowing can be taught”

Oscar Wilde


“Not all those who wander are lost”

J.R.R Tolkien


Really, this isn’t a platitude to be dismissed, dear readers. Serious language and cultural education should feel the equivalent to the days following the most intense physical workout of your life. At the moment of the workout itself, you feel the healthiest you’ve ever felt, all maladies of the body are drained in sweat, and with quivering muscles you consume health drink after health drink. Then the next morning rolls around.


Did I get into a bar fight yesterday morning and get stabbed? Who put all the pain there? What in god’s name have I done to myself?

Elevated your prowess, if anything, and what you have to show for it is a sort of muscle hangover, and it works the exact same way with learning.

This hangover however can choose to manifest itself in more ways than one. For example, I’m not exactly what one would call a city person, hence why I managed to almost wind up in the Czech Republic my first hours in the city. Riding one’s daily route (in my instance, the Strassenbahn) for the first time can be a difficult and undoubtedly hectic excursion, particularly for one who has a knack for finding things out the difficult way (Here, I am reminded of an excursion I took to an iHop when I was 16 and newly endowed with driving license. The drive was five minutes from my house, and yet even with Mapquest, I managed 3 hours of roundabout navigation).

Amidst this language hangover, slumped in my seat at 7:30 AM and still red-eyed from the previous night’s studying, what else should happen but the weekly ticket inspection, complete with a string of fast German phrases I had only just begun to learn? Well, me getting fined sixty Euros for schwarzfahren (riding without a ticket), namely. And the funny thing, dear reader, is that after I unwillingly gave up my three blue slips of currency to a disapproving Austrian having hardly understood the string of language launched in my direction, I realized that my perfectly valid ticket, which she had scrutinized with grimaces was, in fact, perfectly valid. Why the fine then? Namely, because being a dreadfully slow learner and one prone to make many mistakes, I had twice validated the thing and was unable to explain my mistake in adequate German.

That’s rather anticlimactic, so how about another frustrated learning-it-the-hard way tidbit? I had the pleasure of this lovely experience just last week, when my language sensors should have been rather thoroughly grounded, and when, despite my proneness for cavalier negligence, I should have been able to navigate the streets of Graz, which I have trekked for weeks. Yet nevertheless, after I was shown an evening of the frivolous and wonderful Graz Nachtleben (night-life) by a pair of lovely locals, I found myself, at 2 AM, dawning at the realization that the bus I had ascended to take me back home had taken me an half hour in the wrong direction. Yet I tend to play the cheery optimist more often than not, and I merrily navigated via iPhone map for twenty minutes before I was led to the entrance of one of the Steiermark’s famous stretch of forest.

Understand, dear reader, that daytime hiking is a fond hobby of mine, yet I had seen enough bad slashers to know that the college gentleman who takes an extended stroll in the deep, unlighted woods in the dead of night will end up in ribbons within the hour. So I bit the bullet, turned myself around, whistled Monty Python or something, and managed back home by the time the sun began to peak through.

However, these things happen, and if the study abroad experience is meant to teach one anything, it is how to navigate oneself with limited resources out of difficult situations. Unfortunately, once dumped into a virtually new world mostly phoneless, friendless, and almost entirely lacking in the communication department, these difficult experiences have a habit of cropping up more often.

I can draw another quite colourful and difficult moment from only a couple weeks ago. Your mother and father likely taught you the important lesson of courteousness when you were just a caterwauling child, and from that point onwards you likely learned that obeisance and manners were next to godliness. This is invaluable to remember should you not wish to show yourself as a pushy and aggressive American, however learning to reply to strangers with a curt nein is equally if not more important.

Why, you may ask? Because like New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, European metropolises are infested with persons trying to sell you things you most certainly DO NOT WANT. The difference between dealing with these American solicitors and the Europeans is that, as I learned from my walk home from class, one is flushed with much more tongue trapping embarrassment when pamphlets soliciting Austria’s most seedy and repugnant activities are being shoved in your face, or when frightening strangers with pincushioned arms and beady eyes attempt to wisecrack. Although your teachers will stress the importance of conversational practice with strangers, exceptions to this rule can be made for the highly illicit or highly unsavory strangers.

So then, what’s there to learn from the experience? Certainly not discourteousness, should my browsing reader be in danger of drawing the wrong idea from my unwanted rendezvous. Your less-educated friends might try to convince you that there’s an indistinguishable line that separates the personas of the English-speaking European and the Mother language-speaking European, yet this is most certainly poor advice. Anyone, including a casual tourist, who is seeking to break a 100 Euro bill, retrieve directions to a hotel/restaurant/toilet, or who would like to be able to pay for a meal without receiving the sneering glare of the waitress, would do well to learn their requests in the mother tongue. It’s not even expensive; one can be taught to say everything from ‘good morning’ to ‘do you speak __?’ in a $5 half hour Pimsleur course. Available at your local iTunes, which is likely one click away from this post.

But to the moral, my dears, one should take note that an iPod in a convenient (albeit safe) place will do wonders to halt pursuing creepers. And while I’m at it, a pair of sunglasses will help to mask the tourist within as nothing more than another aloof local. And yet, while I’m still at it, there’s certainly no harm in mastering the firm “no, thank you.”

Cheers to you and all your undying days!

View all posts by Brandon

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