Three Countries, Four Weeks

I’ve had a passion for traveling as long as I can remember. On family vacations growing up, I always pictured myself living in the places we visited when I was older. Whether navigating the crowded streets of New York City or spending my days poolside in Mexico, I never wanted to stop exploring. From the time I was a little kid, I’ve always believed that there is no better feeling than loading up the car for a road trip, or the excitement that comes when boarding a plane to a new destination.

This interest in traveling the world led me to realize that studying abroad during college was a priority for me. I figured I would do it sometime in my last couple quarters, but after a presentation from Study Abroad during one of my classes freshman year, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to go as soon as I possibly could. Most people wait until their third or fourth year to go abroad but I figured why not go now, before upper division classes, jobs, and other responsibilities would take up all my free time.

I signed up for a summer program — a four-week trip that would take me to Ireland, Spain, and France. Living in three countries in four weeks was a whirlwind of experiences — from exploring the rainy, pub-lined streets of Dublin, to attending a pilgrim’s mass in the spiritual city of Santiago de Compostela, to eating crepes in the medieval buildings of old-town Rennes. Transitioning to the varying languages and cultures was slightly overwhelming at times, but the unique opportunity to explore three countries in just one month ultimately widened my global perspective.

So here are anecdotes and pieces of my study abroad experience: week-by-week, country-by-country. And why anyone hoping to study abroad should consider a multi-country program.

Destination 1: Dublin, Ireland

The great thing about Dublin is that everything you hear about it is true: the people are ridiculously friendly, pubs are everywhere, and though the city is lively and bustling, there is still a sense of the rich history buried among the trendy restaurants and cobblestone streets.

But the even better part about traveling is making the places you’ve heard so much about become a reality. And that’s how Dublin felt for me — like constructing my story out of a city so full of its own.

My study abroad group consisted of 12 other people from various University of California schools and years. We got to know each other those first couple days through exploring Dublin, jet lagged and exhausted but ready for the month ahead. We weren’t exactly a typical group, either. The first night, while nursing a Guinness, two of the people in my group revealed that they signed up for the program as a couple, but had broken up a couple weeks after it was too late to get a refund. Another member of the group revealed that he was married…but only for a green card. And just when I thought that it couldn’t get any more strange, another girl spent half an hour talking about her girlfriends’ random fetishes.

Despite the ‘uniqueness’ of the group — to put it kindly — we all became close friends that first week. We went on a four-hour historical walking tour of the city, we took the train out of the city to explore beautiful seaside towns, watched traditional Irish dancing in both Temple Bar and in the show Riverdance, and hiked out to beautiful lakes in the Wicklow Mountains.

Wicklow Mountains

We also had class and assignments. Our instructor was originally from Belfast and told us stories of Irish history — not only from a traditional perspective but from a personal one, too. We read great Irish poets, like Heaney, and explored the tower that inspired the beginning of Joyce’s Ulysses. As much fun as it is to get the cultural experience of a city from wandering aimlessly and meeting locals in pubs, it’s also important to get a historical and literary perspective to get a deeper understanding of a place. And that’s what is so great about studying abroad — you get to be a student and a tourist; you get to learn about a place and then explore it yourself.

Destination 2: Santiago de Compostela, Spain

After a busy week and a half in Dublin, we boarded the plane to Santiago de Compostela, a two hour flight away. I had never heard of Santiago until signing up for my study abroad program, so I didn’t have many expectations about what it would be like. All I knew was that it was northern Spain, and was best known for a beautiful cathedral that marked the end of a religious pilgrimage, called the Camino de Santiago.

The first thing I noticed when arriving was that it was hot and dry — quite different from the rainy and cloudy weather we had encountered in Dublin the previous ten days. Once at the hotel, a converted monastery made almost completely of stone, we traded in our jeans and rain jackets for sundresses and went out into the heat to explore the city.

That first evening set the tone for what we would spend the rest of the week doing in Santiago, besides the couple of day trips we took to the Galician coast and beaches. We wandered around a colorful market with vibrant jewelry and $3 margaritas that were so sugary you could barely taste the tequila. Afterwards, we ate dinner outside where you could hear laughter, live music, and the bells ringing from the cathedral. Our time in Dublin had been extremely busy, with weekend trips to nearby cities, historical tours of cathedrals and castles, and long discussions of Irish poetry, so it was nice to have time just to sit and soak in the perfect summer night.

The rest of our time was spent similarly to that first night: we shopped, ate, and became increasingly determined to find the best sangria in the city. Those were some of the most simple days during my month abroad, but some of the best, too. Before leaving on the trip, I never expected to get as close to my classmates as I did; I figured we would be so busy with constant activities and schoolwork that we wouldn’t have much time to sit down and talk. Even our professor would join us during some of those lazy afternoons, sitting in the shaded patio near our hotel, and telling us stories about his own travels and experiences. I think I expected nonstop stimulation and excitement during my time abroad, but Santiago taught me that an important part of traveling is enjoying the simple things, too. A good meal with new friends, a long siesta after a day exploring the museums of the city, watching the sun set over the horizon of the massive cathedral — all these experiences taught me to step back and enjoy the moment.

Destination 3: Rennes, France

The final week and a half of my month abroad was spent in Rennes, a small French city an hour away from Paris by train. After an exhausting 13-hour bus ride from Spain, everyone in my group was extremely relieved to arrive. We were staying on a street jokingly named by the locals as “La rue de la soif,” translated as “The Street of Thirst” due to the many bars and clubs in the area. Though this gave the city a young, college feel, there was also evidence that Rennes had an interesting historical past. We were in the heart of what was previously medieval quarters and the original architecture from 15th-century buildings still stands today. The buildings looked like they came straight out of a story-book, and though the city was modern in most parts, it was amazing to see a glimpse into the past.

Like Santiago, Rennes was a smaller city and the sweltering heat was slightly intense when walking miles across town. It was so beautiful, though, that sweating through our clothing and the blisters on our feet were bearable, as we walked through gardens, parks, old churches, and through the historical, medieval buildings. One of the most enjoyable tours we had in Rennes — if not on the entire trip — was a culinary tour through the city, where we tasted bizarre sweets (whiskey chocolate, anyone?), buckwheat and dessert crepes, and samples of the delicious ciders that France is so well known for.

Mont Saint-Michel

We also took a variety of trips outside of the city — my favorite being to Mont Saint-Michel on the last full day of our program. It was a bittersweet day in a lot of ways, since we were amazed by the beauty of the island but also reminded that soon we would be boarding a plane back home. We had all grown so close in that short month and especially in Rennes, where we had picnics together in the park almost every day and dinners that lasted for hours. It was also hard to think of going back to life as usual back home, where every day isn’t spent seeking out new adventures or going to exciting places.

But despite the sadness of that last day, there was also a sense of gratitude for all I had seen in that short month. Though I sometimes wish my study abroad experience would have been longer, or that I could do it all over again, I am so thankful that I chose a multi-country program. In just one month I was able to see more countries than I had in my entire life, and though it was overwhelming at times, I wouldn’t change a thing. Every city I visited began to feel like home and though I don’t know when I’ll go back to them again, I do know this: I am so grateful.

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