Traveling abroad reveals life, struggles outside Vassar bubble

I still don’t know what was going through my head on that warm summer night when I bought the tickets. Searching through airfare rates late at night, a common habit of mine, I wished desperately to explore the world, imagining my life as a traveler. Suddenly, I stumbled upon tickets to Copenhagen—for $300. I thought of my need to pay for tuition, for books, for other necessities that I’d have to take of once I returned to school. But after a giddy phone call with a friend also looking for an adventure, I made the impulsive decision to buy the tickets anyway.

I did not realize how enormous of an impact this 10-day journey would have on me until my return to the United States. Before departing, I anticipated I’d learn more about Danish life, like the country’s culture and art. I expected this experiential type of learning to be refreshing, a nice change from the classroom setting of Vassar. However, I didn’t anticipate how much I would learn about my life at home and myself as an individual.

Oftentimes, I have heard others talking about the self-discovery aspect of travel, and how it’s impossible not to learn a bit more about yourself when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings.

Yet, I did not expect myself to change at all. I did not expect to see my life at Vassar in a whole new light. Unprepared for my coming realizations, I researched all I could about Copenhagen and how to live in the city as fully and cheaply as possible.

Those who knew of my extreme frugality questioned my motives for traveling to Copenhagen, one of the most expensive locations in Europe. I had never been to Europe before and was unfamiliar not only with the language and currency, but also with Danish customs. The worries and misgivings of my family and friends echoed in my head: What if, during an inebriated night out, I spend the money allocated for my next tuition payment on drinks at a dingy bar? How will I be able to eat with such a limited budget? What if something goes wrong, and I leave Copenhagen with a drained bank account and drained spirits?

Added to this was my worry about traveling abroad as a young woman with no “adult” supervision. I had not traveled out of the country since before my teens, and I barely remembered how it worked.

As I counted down the days to our journey, my apprehensions amplified. My friend and I came up with a budget, limiting ourselves to $20 between the two of us per day, which we anticipated would be more than enough. However, as midterms hit us in full force, we had to forgo our planning to deal with more immediate problems. So, on the day we planned to depart, we left New York with 1,000 Danish krone, the equivalent of $200, our backpacks and no plan whatsoever.

Neither my friend nor I realized how little $200 is worth in Denmark, where a single, small meal in a mom-and-pop store can cost upwards of $10. On our first day, with our empty stomachs and no food to sustain us, we quickly saw how careful we would have to be. I’ve never appreciated the Deece as much as I did in Copenhagen, weighing whether I should spend my last $3 on dinner or save it for breakfast the next day. Rather than remembering my complaining about the expense and inutility of the Vassar meal plan, I looked back on fond memories of mozzarella sticks at Late Night as my belly, grumbled in the middle of the night, far away.

Despite our limited finances, my friend and I resolved not to let this amazing opportunity go to waste, and, of course, we found free and close-to-free activities.

We walked around the city, becoming familiar with our neighborhood and others. We made international friends and shared our common and different experiences and ideas. We discovered the joys of $1 boxed wine and sitting in parks, people-watching. At the end of our trip, we were so in love with the city that we trekked two-anda-half hours through the rambling Copenhagen streets and outside towns to the airport, just to enjoy our last moments and to avoid the $4 bus fee.

Although, like many other Vassar students, money will be a concern for me for the foreseeable future, I did not know what it was like to worry about daily food and transportation while isolated and thousands of miles and national borders away from home. It is easy to forget the dependency Vassar imposes on students. Consumed by work, extracurriculars and the campus itself, one can forget how surviving in the outside world feels.

Going abroad, independent of any sort of institution, re-establishes the necessities of the real world. Vassar strives to prepare students for the real world, but it does so in an environment which could not be more different from real life. Perpetuating beliefs of the necessity of academic progress before self-reflection, of academic success before personal discovery, Vassar does not allow students the time to discover their true wants and desires, particularly if these desires lie outside of an academic setting. During my days of travel, I felt as if I had been living abroad for years, contrasting my new way of living to the day-to-day yet rapid succession of habits and appointments at Vassar.

Sitting in a remote airport in Iceland on hour 11 of my 17-hour layover, returning from Copenhagen and one of the best experiences of my life, I now understand the necessity for young people to travel, to explore worlds outside of their neighborhoods and college campuses. I recognize how privileged I am to have had this experience. But I also appreciate the hard work, the three jobs I had over the summer, that went into paying for my college tuition, as well as funding this journey.

With an abundance of homework and a sleep-deprived brain, a body wishing for affordable food and a little over 24 hours until class, I’m returning to the United States not only with new knowledge about Europe and independence, but also about myself and what I hope my life will become.

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