Reflections on My Semester Abroad in France

After a month back from the Student Exchange Program, Troy Weider reflects on his incredible semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. He shares some of the things that he already misses about leaving Europe, the return culture shock he felt coming back to the U.S., and his message to students considering (or on the fence) to go abroad.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 9.17.41 PMScreen Shot 2017-01-24 at 9.20.24 PMScreen Shot 2017-01-24 at 9.19.26 PMWow… I can hardly believe that it has already been a month since I arrived back to Perrysburg, Ohio, after four months of exploring some of the most beautiful places in Europe. I catch myself daydreaming about being back in the Alps, being back in a Parisian café, or being back in Strasbourg, surrounded by fairy-tale architecture, Christmas markets and all the new friends I so quickly had to leave behind.

Studying abroad was a life-changing experience, and I would recommend it to any college student who has ever had even Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 9.18.20 PMthe faintest interest. Ever since I was a little kid, the outside world, with its diverse people’s and cultures has always fascinated me. In elementary school, I would pour over children’s atlases and history books, dreaming of what it would be like to be in another country, exploring a corner of the world that was previously unknown to me. I finally got to know what that experience felt like in these last few months. Living in a place that’s very different, yet at the same time comfortable and unintimidating.

Things are very different now that I’m back at home. I no longer plan weekend trips to London or Slovenia, I’ve got a lot more schoolwork that I have to do, and for whatever reason, no one is speaking French! On a more serious note, it is great to be back again to see everyone who I was missing during this last semester, and after not really being in Columbus for the last eight months, it feels nice to be back on Ohio State’s campus again. Near the top of my list of things that I missed while in France, was being able to watch football (well at least so called “American football”, and luckily I arrived back just in time to watch the college football bowl season and the NFL playoffs! While at the game I was most looking forward to, did not really go as planned, it was nice to be back watching football with friends and family.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 9.19.04 PMDespite all the bittersweet happiness of being back home, the first few weeks back showed me that reverse culture shock really does exist. I can remember just realizing how big everything really is here: from the portion sizes to the cars to the buildings. People speak much quieter in public in France than they do in the United States, and right when I started getting use to that back in Strasbourg, I left to come back. Something that I did not really miss though was that the air feels much cleaner in the United States without the constant smell of everyone smoking cigarettes. But one of the things that I was most excited about being back was being able to have large amounts of mediocre American coffee again! I’m a big coffee drinker, and while I love the French café culture, it’s hard to find cheap coffee that is anywhere near the same size as its American counterpart, instead it’s stronger and much smaller. There is a plethora of differences between France and the United States, but these differences are really what made my trip so exciting in the first place!

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Last Travels

I love being able to reflect on my experiences during the last few months, so I figured I’d also give you all a brief recap of what’s been going on since my last blog post.

After starting classes near the end of September, I came into October with a full schedule of trips planned. My first one, and one of the highlights of my whole experience, was a trip with four of my friends to Slovenia. This is one of the most beautiful, but sadly overlooked countries of Europe. Slovenia had everything: beautiful Alps and lakes in the northwest, beautiful castles and villages, a very quaint yet cosmopolitan capital city, some of the largest caves in the whole world, and a small but beautiful Adriatic coastline. Slovenia was an amazing trip, and luckily the next weekend I got to go on a long weekend trip with my friend Julie, who happens to go to BGSU and was on the Slovenia trip as well. Julie and I spent three full days seeing the best of London! We saw Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and tons of free museums along the way. London is an incredible city with all its history and diversity, and I was very lucky to cross that one off my bucket list. Then the following week, the University of Strasbourg had its Fall Break and I got to go on the trip of a lifetime, a 10-day trip through Europe with my dad. While my dad and I had always loved to travel together, he had never been to Europe before, and this was a great opportunity to show him around my “temporary home”. We met up in Paris for a few days before taking the TGV high-speed train to Strasbourg. Once there I gave him a 36-hour “best of Strasbourg” tour, with stops at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the European Parliament, Petite-France, the European Parliament, Orangerie Park, lots of sauerkraut and tarte flambées along the way. Then the next morning the two of us rented a little French car, a black Renault Twingo, and started a 6-day road trip through the heart of Europe. Starting first in Ribeauvillé, a small medieval town along the Alsatian Wine Route, we visited my French friend Hakim, who gave us a day-long tour of his hometown and the castles and villages that surrounded it. Hakim was one of my closest friends who I met in Strasbourg, and we luckily met during my first week in the city when I was lost trying to find the laundry room. I asked this random student in the main building where to do my laundry, and after showing me the way there, we ended up talking for an hour or so in both French and English, and then we started hanging out a few days later. Getting to see this region with a local made the experience much more unique, and since Hakim had several friends and family members working at the local wineries, we ended our day with a few tastings and cellar tours. From here, we spent the next day in the Swiss Alps, making a four-hour stop in my favorite Swiss city, Lucerne, before driving the high mountain Klausen Pass through the heart of the Alps. After several hours of the most breathtaking scenery, we made it to the micro-country of Liechtenstein, where we saw the main castle, got a “VIP tour” of the nation’s parliament, and ate at what seemed like Vaduz’s most happening restaurant. Then we left the Alps behind us and made it to Munich, where we spent the next day biking between parks and beer gardens past old reconstructed churches and palaces. Munich was amazing, but I was most excited about the final leg of our trip, the Czech Republic. I had made a lot of friends from this country during my time in Strasbourg, and Prague was always at the top of my bucket list of places to see. During our short two-day stay we drove to Plzen, where my friend Petra gave us a list of cool breweries and sites to visit in her hometown, then we visited the imposing Karlstejn castle en route to Prague in time to catch the sunset. Prague lived up to my expectations and was one of the most beautiful cities that I visited in Europe. Between the Prague Castle, the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and all the local pubs, restaurants, and hidden spots that I was told to visit by my Czech friends, Prague proved to be a memorable stop. The last day of our trip, we drove back through the Czech Republic and Germany, before I sadly had to say goodbye to my dad the next morning, but while his European vacation was over, my adventure continued.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 9.19.39 PMIn the last half of my stay I went on several day trips with my “host family”, was interviewed by French radio about the American presidential elections, continued spending time with my new friends, and went on several more weekend trips to Colmar, the Alsatian Wine Route, Heidelberg and Nancy. The biggest trip of this last leg was a spontaneous trip to Amsterdam with a French club at the university, where we biked along the canals, ate tons of local delicacies, and took in the nightlife. Also one of the biggest highlights of the last month in Strasbourg was getting to see the cities world famous Christmas market. Over the last few years this 500-year market with 300+ stalls selling everything from hot wine and local foods to ornaments, has been named Europe’s best Christmas market. The city was beautiful festooned with lights and decorations, and during December more than a million tourists packed the city center and added a different energy to Strasbourg. After an extremely busy last few weeks of exams, traveling, and saying goodbye to friends, I left Strasbourg for Paris on December 18th. After a whirlwind 24-hour stay in Paris, which I now feel I know better than almost any other city after 5 trips there, I boarded my plane to head back to Chicago to once again see all my friends and family back home.

I know that was a very brief recap of months worth of adventures in Strasbourg, but it definitely helps to illustrate all the fun that you can have exploring a new country and culture. Besides the enjoyment of just being over there, my semester abroad gave me a greater appreciation of different cultures, an amazing opportunity to improve my French, and the ability to exchange beliefs and ideas with new friends from all over the world. I’m very grateful for my time spent in Strasbourg, and I’m already looking at opportunities to return there again.
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Alsatian Adventures

A month has passed in Strasbourg, France, as Troy Weider has been lucky enough to explore the beautiful French region of Alsace, Germany, and Switzerland. Along the way he has met tons of new friends from all over the world and settled in to his life at the Ecole de Management Strasbourg.

Wow time really flies by! It feels like just yesterday that I boarded the plane in Chicago to start my adventure of a lifetime on the Student Exchange Program. I’m actually starting this post after being in Europe for exactly one month, and so far I have been lucky enough to take a few trips outside of the Strasbourg area.

After just a few days in the city, I got a group of friends together to go to Europa Park in Rust, Germany, which was only about 40 minutes away by bus. Europa Park is the 2nd largest theme park on the continent, and each area in the park is themed after a different European country. The park was beautiful and it contained some of Europe’s largest roller coasters, so my trip there was definitely a highlight. Amusement parks are not as common in Europe  as in the United States, and I was telling all my new friends in the group about parks that I go to back home: Cedar Point and Kings Island. My European friends were so surprised to hear about how many huge roller coasters that there are in Ohio, and Cedar Point was generally something I mentioned when describing my state in general. Even though I’m used to amusement parks, my day at Europa Park was one of the best of the trip. I got to spend time with a great group of people that I had just met three days ago, and thrill rides have a great way of bringing people from all backgrounds together. On top of that, Europa Park is really fun and we were lucky enough to go on a day when the weather was beautiful and there were hardly any lines for the attractions. The highlights of the day for me were definitely the two biggest rides at the park, Silver Star (reminiscent of Diamondback at Kings Island) and Blue Fire (a unique launched coaster that was Iceland themed), as well as the beautiful theming and landscaping of the park, which differentiated it from amusement parks back home. So overall, this was the first of many fun day trips.

The next weekend I was asked to go on a trip to Switzerland by two friends who had been on the Europa Park trip. There were nine of us in a van that we drove throughout the country, and we basically did the Grand Tour of Switzerland in three days. Along the way we visited the 5 largest Swiss cities (Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern, and Lausanne), the beautiful lakeside town of Lucerne, Switzerland’s iconic Chateau de Chillon, and the breath-taking Berner Oberland region. While I knew that Switzerland was going to be beautiful, the country really exceeded my expectations. Switzerland is packed with beautiful scenery, and it is very different from the other places that I’ve visited so far. All of the Swiss towns and cities that we saw were pretty similar, they were quaint and very clean, they were situated on a lake or river and generally both, they were surrounded by mountains, and they had pretty old town centers. As nice as these cities were, most of them were fine to see for just a couple hours because there were not all that many sights. My favorite part though about Switzerland was all the landscapes that we were surrounded by. We saw dozens of lakes, mountains, waterfalls, and villages, and everything really was overwhelmingly beautiful, but a couple of the places really stood out. My favorite town that we passed through was definitely Lucerne, and although we only really had 30 minutes in the city, it was enough to make me want to come back. Lucerne was the quintessential Swiss city, situated on a lake at the mouth of a river, surrounded by the Alps, and the city had the prettiest old town with a fancy old wooden bridge that spanned the river. The most beautiful scenery though, was in the Bernese Oberland, which is in the center of the country and surrounds the town of Interlaken. We stayed in the perfect Swiss village of Iseltwald, and our hostel gave us the most incredible view, and we even got to try the local fondue the next day. Everywhere we went in the Bernese Oberland was beautiful, so much so that in fact we decided to chose the word “époustouflant” (‘breathtaking’ in French) as our “word of the day”. In all we spent three days discovering Switzerland, and it was an awesome way to spend the weekend.

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Our Switzerland group at the Lake Lodge Hostel in Iseltwald

This last weekend I had the opportunity to go on two more short trips, and this time I went to Stuttgart and Freiburg in Germany. Like I said before, Strasbourg is right on the German border, and I only need 10 minutes on the tram and bus to get to Kehl, Germany. Most locals in Strasbourg go to Kehl to buy there groceries, so I’ve actually been to Germany four times this week between the shopping and the day trips.

Last Saturday I went with a group of friends to the big Oktoberfest celebration in Stuttgart. While it isn’t the original festival that is in Munich, it is the second biggest celebration of its kind in the world, and its much cheaper and closer than Munich. A word of advice, when traveling in Germany, you can buy a group pass for each region of the country which gives you 24 hours of unlimited train travel for a low price. For example, since I live right on the border of the German state of Baden-Wurttemburg (which Stuttgart is the capital of), our group bought a 5-person group ticket for 38 euros total, so we could take a bus across the border and then take unlimited train trips while paying only 7.50. Other ways to save money while traveling are by looking into budget airlines (Ryanair, Easyjet), taking bus services (Flixbus!, a German company that serves most of surrounding areas) or looking into discount passes for the train companies. I saw on the French website for SNCF (the national railroad company) that they were having a deal on their Carte Jeune, a discount card that saves around 30% per train, where they were only 25 euros instead of 30, and within two trips I already recovered the 25 that I spent. Surprisingly, though, this deal was not displayed on the English language site, which is a very French thing to do, so look out for better deals on the French language site.

Getting back to my trip, I can say that Oktoberfest was even more fun than I expected it to be, and it felt like a huge state fair on steroids. There were several massive festival tents filled with people who were all dressed up in local costumes to dance, sing, eat and drink together. Every tent had a band that played music for the festival, including a few traditional drinking songs that they repeated every 15-20 minutes. Besides this, there were roller coasters, bumper cars and huge rides everywhere, so I had a really fun day in Stuttgart. After returning back to Strasbourg that night, I came back to Germany the next day with a different group to visit Freiburg, the main city in the Black Forest. The famous Black Forest is a large area of mountains and dark, thick forests that line the German border with France, and the area is filled with interesting old towns. Freiburg is a historic university town, that is reputed to have the best weather in all of Germany. We spent the day exploring the towns famous cathedral, old town center, and hiking the hills that overlooked the city. As expected, I had an awesome day with everyone in Freiburg, and it was great to be able to explore another interesting city.

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The guys atop Schlossberg hill overlooking Freiburg and the Black Forest

The biggest highlight so far though, was all the amazing people that I’ve been able to meet at my host university. When I arrived in Strasbourg, I was the only student here from Fisher and I did not know anyone in the whole country. Luckily though, within my first few hours of being here I got to make new friends from all over the world. I have always loved studying about Europe and all its different cultures and peoples, but it was cool to finally have the opportunity to be exposed to this interesting part of the world. I have met French people, Danes, Czechs, Slovaks, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Germans, Colombians, Brazilians, and many other nationalities that I would have never had as much contact with in the United States. Everyone here has been so open to meeting new people, and it really feels like freshman year all over again, except that everything is in French and there’s better food. I love being able to meet people from all over the world and everyone who I’ve met here has had different life experiences from myself, but what has stood out, is how much we all have in common. That is why it is so important when you travel abroad to get out of your comfort zone. Everyone here is so eager to meet new people and all you have to do is introduce yourself and embrace the challenge of meeting new people.

These new, exciting experiences are what I live for, and I am so fortunate that my first few weeks in Europe have been this enjoyable. Whether its ordering lunch in a local restaurant, sipping coffee on the café terrace, buying a French phone plan, meeting people from other countries, or even mountain biking in the Vosges mountains with a guide that speaks only French, these are all memorable experiences that studying abroad has afforded me. I hope to update you all soon on my further adventures, and until then I’ll keep travelling and learning in this beautiful corner of the world. Thanks for reading.

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Representing Germany, France, and the United States in Isenfluh, SUI

Welcome to Strasbourg

After three weeks at Ecole de Management Strasbourg on the Student Exchange Program, Troy Weider talks about his journey to this new university and his first experiences in Strasbourg, France. A UNESCO World Heritage site, a home of the EU Parliament, a historically unique city, in the heart of Western Europe. 

Since a very young age, studying abroad in France has always been a dream of mine. I began taking French language courses over seven years ago, and was I fortunate enough to travel to this beautiful country twice previously. Upon beginning my studies at Ohio State two years ago, I knew I wanted to combine my interests and I therefore chose to double major in Finance and French. Fortunately, I had the opportunity through the Fisher College of Business to spend this semester studying at EM Strasbourg Business School on the Student Exchange Program. After only a few weeks here, I’m already getting assimilated to the French culture and loving every minute of my journey.

I started my European adventure on August 24th when I departed from Chicago O’Hare Airport for Reykjavik, Iceland. I did not need to be in Strasbourg until the 30th of the month, so I decided to use the time beforehand to explore two very different travel destinations, Reykjavik and Paris. Iceland was a country that had always fascinated me due to its Viking roots and rugged, beautiful landscapes, and since it was a natural stopover point to Europe, I spent three full days there. My time there was absolutely incredible, and I got to explore the country’s famous waterfalls, mountains, and geysers, while staying in its quaint capital city. Iceland  was the most unique place that I have ever visited before. The country is home to only 330,000 inhabitants, whose Viking ancestors settled here over a thousand years ago on an uninhabited and inhospitable volcanic island. These resourceful locals made the most of what little this barren land had to offer, and Icelanders are thus a result of their environment. The temperature never left the 50’s, but the weather actually felt great here because the Icelandic air is so clean and the sun was generally shining during their long summer days. I got to learn a ton of interesting things about Icelandic history and culture, because I bought the Reykjavik City Card (which you should buy if you ever visit) and it gave me free access to all the museums, pools, and public transportation. Iceland is a very old country, but for most of its history the country had been one of Europe’s poorest, but during the 20th century Iceland emerged to become one of the world’s most progressive and prosperous. After winning independence from Denmark during the Second World War, the country became strategic for the Allied powers due to its location and the United States built a massive base there. Money from the Marshall Plan and major technological advancement allowed the economy to emerge from that of subsistence, and they became a world leader in fishing, services, banking and tourism. In 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the world’s first female president after winning the Icelandic elections, and then even more recently Johanna Sigurdardottir became the first openly lesbian head of state in the world. So basically for such a tiny country, Iceland has a very interesting history and I would recommend it to all of you to put on your bucket lists.

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View of Tjörnin Pond and the City Hall in Central Reykjavik
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Icelandic Horses roaming through the countryside
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View from Reykjavik Harbor of Videy Island and Mt. Esja
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Gullfoss Waterfall: my favorite sight in Iceland

Then before reaching Strasbourg, I had a whirlwind 24-hour layover in Paris, where I took in as much Parisian culture, history, and food as possible. This was my third time in Paris, but it was the first time that I was there all by myself. I had an ideal day in the city, and I got to experience a city that is very different from my other destinations. Paris is one the world’s greatest cities, and is completely packed with famous monuments,  which means this city is insanely beautiful but also very hectic. Therefore I avoided the usual must-sees like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Sacre-Coeur, and instead focused on historic neighborhoods and great restaurants.  After several crazy days of traveling, I finally reached Strasbourg in the evening of August 29th, and that’s when my immersive experience truly began.

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The obligatory selfie with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
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Beautiful Sunset in a Beautiful City, Paris

Strasbourg is a city with a very unique history, which is due to its strategic location on the border with Germany. Over the last several centuries, countless wars have been fought between these two European powers, and the winner always won the region of Alsace and its capital of Strasbourg. As a result the city is a Franco-German cultural and architectural mix. In Alsace, many locals have German last names; beer and sauerkraut appear on most menus; and street signs also are written in the local Alsatian language, a variant of German. Actually, Strasbourg’s library from which I’m writing this blog post, was built by the Germans in the 1880’s in an area of Strasbourg that looks more like Berlin than Paris. Strasbourg’s central location between the European Union’s most powerful nations, helped secure it as the home of the EU Parliament, and some of Europe’s most important decisions are made in this city. This status as a regional powerhouse attracts a lot of visitors to the city, including the Dalai Lama, who is in town for the week.

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View onto the Ponts Couverts, Petite-France, and Strasbourg Cathedral
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Myself atop my favorite building in the world, Strasbourg Cathedral

Despite having a unique history all its own, Strasbourg today is firmly French, and the city feels a long way culturally from Columbus, Ohio. Strasbourg is filled with smoke filled cafés and restaurant, where locals enjoy their long lunches and vacations. Working hours here are quite different, and during the month of August many businesses shut down. Strikes are common here as well, and today for example the city’s tram workers went on strike, so a lot of the lines got closed down. Also some places close down on Sundays, Mondays, evenings, and during lunch breaks, so I had to adjust to this new pace. Another major difference was that it is pretty uncommon to find public restrooms and especially drinking fountains anywhere, so foreigners expecting this might be very surprised. A final obvious difference that I noticed was that most of the buildings here are not air-conditioned, so going to class in 86-degree weather was a rude awakening.

While these were all things that were very foreign to me, adaptability is a very important part of living abroad. To anyone else going to France, you just have to understand that things are different in another part of the world, and the French do numerous things that are different from the United States. You must remember though that you’re not the only one who is adjusting, and many other exchange students are dealing with the same things. Even if it seems foreign to you, try to adapt to the local way, rather than focusing on the difference. And contrary to popular belief, I’ve found the French to be really open and friendly, so the locals are usually willing to help if you’re having trouble understanding something. Another thing to be aware of though, is that a lot of French people do not speak as much English as they do in most other parts of Western Europe, and the locals have a lot of pride in the French language. Luckily, I’ve been studying French since junior high school, so I prefer just speaking to local people in the French language. Even if you don’t speak any French, I strongly recommend learning at least a few basic expressions before coming to the country. It’s considered pretty rude here to just come into a shop or restaurant and immediately start in English without at least a “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” (Hello Sir/Ma’am) or “parlez-vous anglais?” (Do you speak English). If they don’t speak any English, which is common especially outside Paris, try your best to speak slowly and use the expressions “je voudrais” (I would like…), “s’il vous plaît” (please), “merci” (thanks), and “bonne journée/au revoir” (Have a great day/Goodbye) when applicable. Being polite and respectful is very important in France, and understanding social norms here can really help you adapt to the local culture.

While I do miss my friends, family and home university, I am so happy to be able to study abroad in Strasbourg, France. This city is absolutely incredible, and sometimes it is hard to believe that I am actually living in another country. As I look out my dorm bedroom window every morning I have an incredible view of Strasbourg’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, which serves as a good reminder if I ever forget where I am. This cathedral was the tallest building in the world between 1647 and 1874, and it truly is the most awe-inspiring building that I have ever seen. The Cathedral has a unique color, a pain-staking amount of detail, and an iconic tower that can be seen from all across the region. The most historic part of the city, including the cathedral, is situated on a large island formed by the Ill River, and this is the area where I try to spend the most of my time. This is definitely the most beautiful part of the city, and although I live about a 12-15 minute walk from the center, the public transportation here is quite good and I can get anywhere by tram or bus. In about the same amount of time as it takes to get downtown, I could also cross the Rhine River and go to Germany, which is pretty crazy to comprehend. The advantages of this central location are enormous, and as a result many other international students are also drawn to study in this city. Luckily, since arriving in Strasbourg, I have made so many amazing friends and had the opportunity to travel all around the surrounding regions. I could talk endlessly about all these incredible experiences, so I will save them for my next blog. I am hoping to write another post very soon, and until then I’ll keep traveling and learning in this beautiful corner of the world. Thanks for reading.

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View from my friend’s apartment, which I’m very jealous of…
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View from my room, still a great view of Strasbourg Cathedral

About the Author: Troy Weider, Junior, Finance and French