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Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

No matter how experienced a traveler you are, one of the biggest issues when planning to study abroad is funding. Plane tickets, housing, food, travel expenses, and visas can all add up to a considerable amount of money. I’d like to take this moment to say that there are a lot of different sources of funding, both from your university and from external sources. Always talk to your professors, especially ones in the foreign language department, because they often know about scholarships for your specific study abroad destination.

If you get a scholarship, that’s great! People are handing you money, what’s not to love? But in the excitement of being able to pay for your time abroad, don’t forget the people that made your experiences possible. With scholarships and grants come the responsibility to meet the organizations’ or sponsors’ requests as well as to show your gratitude for all of their support.

I was fortunate enough to receive a substantial scholarship from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society. Upon returning, I wrote them a report summarizing my experiences as well as thanking them for their generosity. This sort of essay really means a lot to the people who receive it; it shows that you are truly grateful for their support, and that their money wasn’t taken for granted.

Here is a link to my report on the Delta Phi Alpha website:

In short: funding is out there if you take the time to look for it, and if you do receive any, make sure to show your gratitude!

Graz Stadtpark

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

I am a strong believer in only eating all-natural foods. Artificial coloring, preservatives, even so-called “natural” flavors are big no-nos with serious health effects. I’m didn’t just jump on a health-food bandwagon; there is real science that shows our bodies aren’t designed to handle all those chemical additives. Organic food is what humans evolved to eat; all those extra unpronounceable ingredients really do cause cancer and neurological disorders and all other sorts of problems, and yet here in America we gobble them down without a second thought. Organic and all-natural options are hard to find and usually come with a hefty price tag.

Fresh Milk Machine in Ljubljana
The ultimate example of organic food in Europe: the milk dispenser in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a high-tech machine that provides extremely cheap, fresh, local milk. Liter-sized bottles to dispense the milk into are also available for about a euro.

In Europe, organic and all-natural food is readily available and cheap. Even the Walgreens-style drugstore had entire shelves full of all-natural shampoo, soap, and conditioner; at home, I have to visit Natural Grocers or order it online. Not everything is all-natural, but the percentage of food that I could eat was so much higher than in the US.

In addition, and also in direct correlation, to this, weight extremes are a much smaller problem in Europe than in America. Some people were very overweight, and some people were far too skinny, yet I never saw either of the extremes that are fairly common in America. Grocery stores don’t provide electric scooters, and I never saw a girl with such stick-thin legs than I worried she wouldn’t actually be able to walk on them.

The difference isn’t only in what Europeans tend to eat: they also are far more active as a part of their daily routines. In the US, everyone owns a car and drives everywhere; exercise is something we do in the evening or on the weekends in order to “stay fit.” In Europe, people walk to the grocery store and then carry their heavy bags home, and take a bus or train and then walk a few blocks to work. Of course people still lift weights and run in the park and bike on the weekends, but their daily lives are already less sedentary than ours are. This level of constant, non-strenuous activity keeps them extremely fit for their whole lives; I regularly saw tiny 90-year-old ladies slowly but competently make their way through the supermarket and then get on the tram to go home.

After my observations in Europe, I wouldn’t say that either America or Europe is healthier than the other; we simply have focused our negative health habits in different areas. Europeans smoke a ton but are also more active and eat healthier food; Americans are more wary of cigarettes but drive everywhere and eat bright blue cake. Is one better than the other? Maybe not, but by combining both sets of health ideologies, it’s possible to have the best of both health worlds. All we have to do is commit to being truly healthy.

Graz Stadtpark

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

One of the most difficult things for me to adjust to about living in Austria wasn’t the language or the public transportation or the frustratingly limited opening hours of supermarkets. No, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the omnipresence of people smoking.

I have always been extremely sensitive to strong smells; even the perfume in most shampoos and hand lotions is too strong and chemically for me to withstand. But cigarette smoke has always been one of the hardest things for me to deal with; I can’t breathe with it nearby, and it gives me an instant, piercing headache.

I had read before that Europe has a higher concentration of heavy smokers than America does, but I didn’t really understand what that would be like until I was in Austria. Cigarettes and smoke were everywhere: every bus and tram stop had a perpetually full ashtray, outdoor seating at restaurants smelled more of smoke than of food, and the entryway to every store was an impossible gauntlet of unbreathable air.

There wasn’t much I could do about any of it, except look for restaurants with non-smoking rooms and practice my shallow breathing skills. That, and silently judge all the people around me who didn’t seem to care that cigarettes are, you know, lethal. At least in America, we have a lot of laws and taxes and educational programs in place to prevent such rampant smoking. At least we care about our health, right?

But then I stopped myself. Yes, cigarettes are terrible and kill people. Yes, from my experience, fewer Americans smoke than Europeans. But Americans aren’t really any more health conscious than our neighbors across the pond; we just focus our health problems in different fields. What are Europeans doing right that we should emulate? See part 2 of my blog post :)


Where Did You Go, Austria?

Where Did You Go, Austria?

Recently there’s been a lot of noise about the decline of the US as a world superpower. We aren’t really #1 in anything anymore, except for the average cost of healthcare. And while I may not be a political science major, and I tend to look on the bright side of life instead of obsessing about such large-scale issues, I would like to say: yeah, our membership in the Big Important Countries Club might be coming to an end.

For those people who think that such a dramatic decline would be impossible: may I direct your attention to a tiny country in Europe called Austria.

Size Comparison

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame or flare of countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK. When I told people about my study abroad plans, many people only had a vague idea where Austria. Some even thought I was going to Australia.

Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people. Back in the US, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people! The map above shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.

dissolution_of_austria-hungaryAnd yet, Austria had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago. I like numbers a lot, so let me lay some important ones out here: Austria’s Habsburg Monarchy ruled largely uninterrupted from 1521-1918. In the 1800s, the Austrian Empire had the third largest population out of any empire in the world, after Russia and France, and the second largest geographic empire after Russia.

So what happened? How did one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world shrink to a background country the size of Pennsylvania?

What happened was World War I. Even though we mostly study Germany’s involvement and how it led to World War II, it was the assassination of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that instigated the war. (For my favorite comedic 2-minute refresher on the causes of WWI, watch this video: Frightful First World War Causes of WW1) As a result, the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And in the century since then, Austria has largely faded from the geographic and political scene. It’s often only mentioned in passing—usually in the context of the aforementioned assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Maria Theresa’s reformations in the 1700s, or The Sound of Music. That’s a far cry from being one of the most powerful and important countries in all of Europe.

Yes, WWI caused an unprecedented amount of political upheaval in a very short amount of time. No, I’m not saying that the US will be dissolved into 50 independent states in a similarly short amount of time. But Austria really did lose that Big Important Countries Club membership card; in less than a decade, what’s to say that the US won’t as well?


But What About My Visa?

But What About My Visa?

When I was looking into the different German-speaking countries that offered semester study abroad programs through OU, one of the aspects about Austria that appealed to me was that it was a more unusual choice. However, something I never considered was that visiting such a small country might have some drawbacks on the administration side of study abroad. In order to live in Austria for five months, I needed to apply for a visa–no problem, right? Fill out some forms, hand over some cash, and I’d be good to go.

Except that for a visa to Austria, those forms include a fingerprint scan, and therefore the application must be conducted in person at an Austrian embassy or consulate. And since Austria is so small, there are only three such locations in the United States: in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. A visit to one of these cities on such short notice would have been way too expensive and impossible to fit into my school schedule, and a bit of research showed me that I couldn’t apply for a visa once I was in Vienna or Graz, so I started to panic.

Luckily, my Education Abroad counselor informed me of one other option: students from the US and Canada can enter Austria without a visa, and then within their first 90 days in the country, visit an Austrian embassy in either Slovenia or Germany to apply in person for a visa. So in order to stay for a full semester in Graz, I had to take a weekend trip outside of the country to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia!

Dragon Bridge, LjubljanaThis ended up being a really fun adventure, since Graz’s branch of the Erasmus Student Network (an organization that arranges fun activities and local student “buddies” for study abroad students all over Europe) put together a trip for everyone who needed to go through this rather convoluted application process. We piled into a tour bus to drive to Ljubljana, where we handed in our paperwork and did the fingerprint scan, and then continued on to Trieste, a coastal town in Italy. Altogether, it only took us three hours of driving, yet by lunchtime we had already spent time in three separate countries!

Although there were some unexpected complications in choosing Austria for my semester abroad, I am so glad that I found a program to suit my unique sense of adventure! Obstacles like applying for a visa actually turned into wonderful opportunities with plenty of support both from the OU Education Abroad counselors and local groups like ESN. Don’t let administrative details dissuade you from finding a study abroad program that fits your interests!


Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Most people have heard the stereotype that Americans dress far more immodestly in the summer than many other cultures around the world. But it wasn’t until I studied abroad in both Japan and Austria that it really hit me how differently our country dresses when the weather turns hot.

For both of my study abroad programs, I packed clothes that were dressier or more fashionable than my typical American college student attire of jeans and a unisex t-shirt. I knew that I wouldn’t always blend in with the locals (especially in Japan, where my red-blone hair was a beacon in any crowd), but I wanted to try as much as I could.

I was successful to some degree, but… Kyoto in July is SO. HOT. And it is humid, every single day. And that was where the real difference came into play, because no matter how much dressier my wardrobe was, I couldn’t compete with the locals who somehow managed to wear nice, more fashionable clothes than me, and also not collapse in the constant, oppressive heat.

Even this felt like so much clothing!I would put on a nice shirt and matching shorts and head out into the day, and immediately feel my face turn bright red (yay for pale Irish skin) and sweat start dripping. As I mentioned in a different post, pretty much everyone carries a sweat towel to wipe their faces off, and I jumped on that bandwagon right away, along with carrying an umbrella for sun protection.

And then I’d get to campus, and notice all the female students and professors walking past looking perfectly put together in a silk blouse, cardigan, skirt, tights, and sun-protective gloves, with no visible signs of distress at all those layers. Men wore suits and button-up shirts and looked similarly unaffected by the heat and humidity, while I just stared in amazement and slowly melted into a little puddle.

winter-attireIn Austria, I ran into a similar problem. When I first arrived in Vienna in February, I was quite proud of my “camouflage” attire: at least half the people on the subway wore jeans, boots, and a grey or black wool coat, just like me. I gave myself a mental high-five at my success, and throughout the semester enjoyed the fact that people would mistake me for a local fairly regularly. Even traveling to other countries in Europe, I continued to blend in (at least, until I very obviously couldn’t speak Hungarian) because everyone was wearing wool sweaters and hats and scarves.

And then the weather in Graz started to change, becoming lovely and warm and a bit more humid than I was expecting, and I started shifting to a more spring- and summer-oriented How are you alive?wardrobe. And yet the locals just… kept wearing all those winter layers! It was MAY and 70°F, yet girls were waiting for the tram in knee-length coats and oversized scarves! Which of course left me with an uncomfortable choice: do I reveal myself as an American by wearing actual shorts and tank tops, or do I try to keep wearing jeans and sweaters like everyone around me but once again melt into a little puddle?

The similarity between my experiences in Japan and Austria is pretty surprising, and makes me wonder: how are people in other countries able to continue wearing so many more layers when the weather gets hot? Do they just have more practice, or is it something more?


Amy Eats Weird Food!

Amy Eats Weird Food!

Why, yes. Yes I do eat weird food. It makes life interesting; my motto has long been “I’ll try at least one bite of anything.” (Unless it is still moving. In which case, no. Not going there yet.)

As I have mentioned before, I am an adventurous person both in my travel experiences and in my everyday life. One really easy way to be more adventurous at home is to eat new foods–and I’m not talking about just having a strawberry smoothie instead of a banana one. No, it’s time to be weird!

I am lucky in that living in Colorado, I have easy access to a wide variety of unusual foods: my family grills bison burgers as often as beef, and it’s easy to find elk, venison, and quail at the supermarket. I’ve even had prickly-pear juice and rattlesnake (although just at a restaurant, not at our family friends’ house, where they catch the snakes on their property and then keep them in a cage until dinnertime!).

But traveling or living abroad provides a wonderful variety of weird foods, many of which you can’t find in the US! Here are the five weirdest foods I’ve eaten abroad (in no particular order):

fish-in-a-leafFish in a Leaf: quite simply, I ate fish and plantains out of a banana leaf while visiting the Embera tribe in Panama. This traditional food was cooked over a fire and then served; while not as shocking as some of my other food adventures, the phrase “fish in a leaf!” has become a joking catch-all phrase in my family for unusual or unique food.

squid-on-a-stickSquid on a Stick: thankfully labeled with a small “ready to eat” sign, since I didn’t know how to tell if it was raw or not. I did eat raw fish while in Japan, but in general I prefer my seafood to be cooked. It was a surprisingly great street-food snack!

I had another experience where a raw fish was served at a breakfast buffet, but I thought it was already cooked. This lead to a rather mortifying exchange with the hotel employee trying to explain, at my basic Japanese level, that it needed to be cooked on a small table-top stove and therefore should not be on the same plate as my scrambled eggs. Lesson learned.

Another side note: the picture at the very top of this article is me eating dried squid, which is sold in convenience stores in snack-sized packages just like Doritos in the US. It was… an experience.

Photo credit to paulinealacreme.comHaggis: made, as I had to confirm before I ate it, of sheep organs, onion, and oatmeal, and traditionally encased in the sheep’s stomach. A lovely description, I know, but it tasted surprisingly… normal. Like any other meat pastry. But with so many more interesting reactions than other pastries 😀

ginger-rice“Ginger” Rice: which seemed tasty and neutral, especially compared to my first experience with sashimi (hint: raw fish tastes better if you dip it in the provided sauce instead of just… eating it). Then I looked at my rice bowl a bit more closely, and discovered that the rice was full of tiny fish that still had their eyes. And it is extremely rude in Japan to not eat everything you have been served, so… Yeah, finishing that was a bit tough.

black-puddingBlack Pudding: which you can’t actually make in the US, since it is illegal to buy or sell blood here! Yes, black pudding is made with blood. So is blood sausage, both of which I ate on my recent trip to England and Ireland, and both of which are actually delicious. As was the lamb liver that my black pudding came with. Who knew? 😀

Eating weird food is an easy way to be adventurous in my everyday life, plus I’m always finding new things I never would have guessed I enjoy. And even if it doesn’t turn out to be my favorite dish, I always enjoy seeing my friends’ reactions to my culinary forays!

Thoughts Against the “Cultural Appropriation” Craze

I have a question about political correctness, specifically the current hypersensitivity to cultural appropriation. This issue has been bothering me for a long time, so I would appreciate honest feedback and opinions.Amy in Dirndl

In 2013 I studied abroad in Germany. Partway through my program, I told my host family I was interested in buying a dirndl, a traditional Bavarian dress. They were somewhat surprised but happy to take me to several shops and help me try them on; all the women in the stores were excited to help me, and they loved that I was looking for an authentic dirndl as opposed to a cheap costume.

I absolutely love the history and culture present in clothing like this, as well as the idea that even today you can just go into a shop and buy something with so much tradition. America doesn’t have anything like that. I rarely have a chance to wear my dirndl, but I’m still glad that I bought it because it’s so much fun to have.

So far so good, right? No problems yet?

(If there are, I’m sorry. It’s going to get worse.)

Then in 2016 I studied abroad in Japan. One of the program activities was to attend the Gion Matsuri, a huge festival in Kyoto. As a gift, we each received a yukata (a summer kimono) to wear to the festival and then to take home. This was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the entire program. I could hardly breathe because of how tight the obi was, and I had to take uncomfortably small steps, but I loved every minute of it. I felt beautiful, and again, there was so much culture and history in the clothing. It was amazing.

The only reactions I received were positive ones. People gave me compliments, loved the way I tried to imitate a traditional hairstyle (even with pretty short hair), and smiled at how excited I was. Locals kept asking to take pictures of me because foreigners so rarely take part in these festivals, much less properly wear a yukata.


And now let me ask you: was this me being an insensitive racist? Was I appropriating Japanese culture? I clearly don’t have a single drop of Japanese blood in my veins. I wasn’t born or raised in Japan. And yet I put on a yukata. I went to a festival in it. I posted pictures of myself wearing it on my Facebook page.


Well, let me tell you.

There is a very important difference between racism or cultural appropriation, and participative celebration of a culture. It’s all about intent: are you trying to make fun of something foreign to you, or are you excited about it and looking to take part in it?

This idea has been completely obscured recently. Everywhere I look, people are getting offended, pointing fingers, screaming about the insensitivity of the horrible white people stomping other cultures into the dirt. (It’s usually white people. If you’re going to get mad about something I say in this post, please don’t nitpick that detail. That’s not the point.)

And sometimes that’s true. Sometimes people are racist, insensitive, wrong. But—this is the important part—not always. Am I supposed to stay only within the confines of my own ethnic culture, and never explore or celebrate other ones? Me wearing a dirndl is fine, because I am ethnically German. But is the fact that my family only comes from Ireland and Germany supposed to limit me from ever taking part in other cultures?

Here’s another example. Anyone who has met me knows that I braid my hair almost every day, and I have for years. Braids are perfect for everything. You could wear them, say, while performing at a medieval fair. Or to be a classy student representative at the UN, or while hiking on Mt. Vesuvius, or even while touring Kyoto in sweltering summer humidity.

Gratuitous Selfie Braid Collage

But today, I found out that *gasp* I’m apparently a terrible, terrible person for braiding my hair like that. Because in terms of technique, there’s no difference between a Dutch braid and a cornrow. And I’m not black. Ergo I am not allowed to wear cornrows, ergo I’m not allowed to braid my hair this way, and doing so is an insult to black cultures all over the world. RIGHT???

Amy getting braidsExcept, why can’t I? When I was little and we went on vacations, one of my favorite things was to get my hair braided into—hold on now—cornrows. I remember sitting on this beach, when I was six years old, while this nice local lady braided my hair as tight as she could. I remember needing to hold my head really still during it, which was hard because it hurt to have my hair pulled so tight. But for a few weeks after that I had a fabulous set of braids, usually with a headband made of beads. I loved them. Nobody ever said that I was being culturally insensitive. So what if my skin isn’t the same color as the lady who did it? Why should that matter? She knew how to do an awesome hairstyle that I liked. My mom didn’t know how, so it was something I could only have when we went on vacation. End of story.

And yet a simple Google search of “cultural appropriation” will pull up an insane number of articles saying that any white person wearing cornrows, or other traditionally non-white hairstyles or clothing, is systematically oppressing ethnic minorities, shaming their cultures, capitalizing on their traditions, etc, etc. I’m not exaggerating here; this is what a 30-second search pulls up:


To summarize those “horrible, oppressive crimes”: a woman wore a dress, another woman said she’s changing her musical style yet again, and a teenager wore braids. An artist’s show was cancelled because her work looked “too indigenous.” A man sold a really expensive jacket. Realize also that those articles were all written in the past 10 days; that’s how much finger-pointing is going on right now.

How far does the mentality of “sorry, this is a club for our ethnicity only” stretch? I guess I’m not allowed to study Japanese either. Or Russian, or French, or Arabic, or Swahili, because I’m just an Irish-German-American girl. Maybe my claim on the German language is too thin as well—after all, I was raised American. How dare I presume to take ANY of those languages for my own use. Maybe that dirndl was going too far, too.

I sincerely hope everyone agrees that this is ridiculous.

We live in an increasingly international, interconnected world. An unavoidable and welcome side effect of that is that cultures will start to mix, whether through fashion, food, or language. The only way to NOT experience this would be to build a wall around each country in the world and prevent all contact with the outside, and to also ensure that everyone inside each wall acts only in a way that is deemed purely, acceptably “traditional.”

One country’s doing that right now. It’s called North Korea, and nobody is suggesting that we use them as a model for our own regulation of culture.

If our ultimate goal is to create a world full of mutual respect for and appreciation of all cultures, why the current backlash against people who incorporate pieces of other cultures into their own lives? Against actually living a part of those cultures because they admire them? Do we really want to turn culture into something in a glass case for everyone to admire but no one to touch? That just doesn’t make sense.

The mixing of cultures is something that we should celebrate, not get up in arms about. If I want to wear a yukata, then as long as I’m not using it to mock Japan, that should be fine. Same with braiding my hair or speaking German or adopting whatever aspects of foreign cultures I admire and want to emulate in a respectful, conscious way. That’s what it means to live in a global society.

And if I’m wrong, if everything I’ve said here is horribly offensive and behind the times and I actually need to stay within the confines of my own culture all the time from now on, I guess I’ve got two clothing options:


That’s right. Athleisure/flannel/baseball cap, or the American flag head-to-toe. Shown here, fittingly, while I was literally on a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, although bald eagles posing majestically in the background would be an appropriate accessory as well.

What a fantastic fashion statement that will be.

Graz, Austria

I’m Sorry, That’s Not German… Is It?!

I'm Sorry, That's Not German... Is It?!

Before I came to Austria, I heard warnings from several people that the dialect would be strong, that I would struggle to understand anything. Most American universities teach a variation of High German from Berlin, which is quite different from Austrian German. But I actually had more exposure to Bavarian German: I lived near Munich with a host family for a month in high school, and when I worked as a translator for two young German boys, they spoke Bavarian German, which is quite close to Austrian German.

The problem is that it’s not quite the same as Bavarian: it’s like someone took that accent, intensified it, talked with a couple of marbles in their mouth, and then decided to cut out half the words. But don’t worry about it, it’s still technically German, ready set go!

My first day in Graz, I felt really proud of myself. I met my assigned buddy from my new university, and he took me on a tour of the city. I told him right away that I would prefer to speak in German instead of English, and he was happy to oblige. We walked all over the city, toured the campus, talked about our majors, and I had no problems aside from the occasional vocabulary question. He had a bit of an accent, sure, but it was hardly different from what I’d heard in Munich. I just had to convince my brain to flip on all my German switches for the next five months and I’d be golden.

Then we ran into one of my buddy’s friends. And I swear they started speaking another language. Except it wasn’t another language: THAT was Austrian. After their conversation ended my buddy told me that guess what, he’d been speaking super proper High German this whole time, except that’s not how people talk to each other unless they’re in an academic or formal setting. No, I would usually be hearing the unintelligible jibber-jabber he’d just used with his friend.

Oh. Well then.

Thanks to my pre-semester German course, where our teacher incorporated some slang and expressions every day, I’ve managed to adjust well enough to the dialect.  But sometimes I still feel hopelessly lost, usually when another student uses common slang with a heavy accent.

For example, in class we went over this tiny dialogue:

“Ich bin heute müde / I’m tired today.”

“Ja, ich ohnehin auch / Yeah, me too.”

Except that nobody actually says that last part like that.  They shorten the “ohnehin” into just “eh,” but then the collective Austrian public decided that the rest of the sentence was still too long so they say just “i e a.” Pronounced “ee ay ah” with complete sincerity, like three vowels is an acceptable substitute for a complete sentence.

Other times I understand the general meaning just fine but have to figure out from context what words are strictly Austrian. It took me a long time to realize that here, “net” is actually “nicht / not,” as opposed to “nett / nice.”

Overall the dialect has been a lot of fun; I smile whenever I hear words like “a bissell” instead of “ein bisschen” and “zwo” instead of “zwei.” I buy “Zwetschen, Marillen, and Paradeiser” in the supermarket instead of “Pflaume (plums), Aprikose (apricots), and Tomaten (tomatoes)”. I’m not sure how far I’ll get, but my goal when I return to the US is to be able to speak like a proper improper Austrian, marbles in my mouth and all. I think that would be really something to be proud of, although my professors might say otherwise!