A day in the life of a study abroad student

Studying abroad is full of thrilling new opportunities, but when classes start, it’s easy to get into a routine that’s not exactly “exciting.”

8 a.m.: Alarm on my phone goes off. Hit snooze and go back to sleep.

8:10 a.m.: Alarm goes off again. Hit snooze again and go back to sleep again.

8:20 a.m.: Alarm goes off again. Hit snooze and turn on light, then lay back down in bed.

8:25 a.m.: Finally awake enough to get ready for the day. Pick out an outfit from the same clothes I’ve been wearing for the past month.

8:40 a.m.: Go downstairs for breakfast, which is toast with butter or jelly and tea or coffee. It’s not extravagant, but hey, it’s free.

9:00 a.m. – noon: French class, taught by an awesome man who usually teaches linguistics at the university. We do grammar exercises, listening activities, written work and group discussions. It’s extremely difficult, and my brain feels like it’s melting afterward.

Noon – 1:30 p.m.: Free time. I can get lunch at the cafeteria (usually sandwiches), eat a quick lunch in my room (usually involving Nutella), work on homework, or take a nap.

1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.: European Integration and Politics class. We just started the second half of the course today, which is taught by a Parisian lawyer who speaks five languages.

Lille, France

After class, we’re free once again. On Mondays we usually have a program-sponsored event (tonight is a French and International Aperitif, which will have a sampling of wine, cheese and snacks), and typically once a week we have a group dinner with the professor from NC State. When there isn’t anything planned, I work on homework, go to the mall, walk around town, or go to a bar and watch soccer.

Now that I have this general schedule, which includes six hours of class, it’s easy to say “I’m tired,” and just hang out at the university. I have less than two weeks remaining in Lille, so I want to make the most of it. (If that means missing a homework assignment, oh well. In the long run, I think exploring Lille to the fullest will be more meaningful than preparing for a French debate about Internet pirating laws.)

I originally wrote this post for a local news website in Raleigh while I was studying abroad in Europe in July 2012.

Looking back over this post almost three years later, here are some takeaways:

  • Catch up on sleep whenever you can.
  • Eat the “free” food the program supplies (remember, you already paid for it) so you can save your money for excursions and fun nights out with new friends.
  • Go to class and do the work. Get the most out of our international education and impress the host professors.
  • At the same time, remember: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so don’t miss out on any unique experiences. Time management is key here. You don’t want to have to stay home to finish a paper while everyone else does something fun!

Looking back at London and Paris

Six years ago I was 17 and finishing up my senior year of high school. I had good grades, a boyfriend, and I was going to college in the fall. Things were going well, and they were about to get even better, because I was heading off to Europe on a school-organized trip. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but my upcoming voyage to London and Paris was going to change my life.

London, England

It was a 10-day trip: five in London and five in Paris with side trips to Windsor and Versailles. In preparation, I changed dollars into euros and pounds ahead of time. I read through my guidebooks, even though there was going to be a teacher chaperone and a tour guide. I also over-packed my big suitcase with many “just in case” items (rookie mistake).

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Six years ago today, we were in the middle of our trip, and I can’t help but remember how much fun I had. Getting lost in Harrods, passing around a bottle of wine while sitting next to the Seine, standing in awe of some of the world’s most fantastic churches, and soaking in the sights as they drifted by, beautifully lit, during a nighttime river cruise. I didn’t realize it then, but experiencing two of Europe’s cultural and historic capitals was sparking a fire in my heart. Each new experience – understanding a question in French, haggling at Portobello Market, hell, even watching a male street performer with purple spiked hair and nipple tassles at Covent Garden – was just kindling on the fire. In every new situation, I thought, “This would never happen at home,” and it was a good thing.

Windsor Castle, England

That’s not to say the trip was completely perfect. Even though we were in westernized cities I was still out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t say I was scandalized, but I was really surprised to see a huge magazine ad on the street in Paris featuring a woman’s bare breasts. And on our third day in London, I woke up miserable: cold, tired, and homesick already. I realized that I was really, really far from home. Eventually, I got over my funk and was able to enjoy the rest of my trip.

After coming home, that fire kept simmering under the surface. I became interested in world news. I bought books that were set outside of the United States and discovered travel narratives. I realized there were thousands of travel bloggers out there. In short, I had caught the travel bug.

Notre Dame, Paris, France

I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like today if I hadn’t gone to London and Paris during high school. Who knows if I would’ve studied abroad in college, or planned my own international trips, or even made it out of the US at all. As an adult, not a day goes by where I don’t think about going to Greece, or Guatemala, or Iceland, or Turkey, or so many other places, and I am so grateful I was able to go to London and Paris six years ago, where it all began.

London, England

The wolfpack of Versailles

The lavish palace of Versailles, with its exquisite gardens and stunning Hall of Mirrors, is the last place you would expect to encounter a rambunctious, cross-cultural screaming match on bikes.

Versailles, France

I was in France in 2012 for a study abroad program. On a side trip from Paris to Versailles, we took an enjoyable bike tour through the city and extensive palace grounds.

After a picnic lunch (purchased at the local market) and learning some history, we were ready to see the palace.

Versailles, France

For some reason (I can’t remember anymore; wine was part of the picnic, though), as we rode our bikes to the parking lot, we enthusiastically took up one of our university’s cheers – half of the group yells “wolf!” and the other half replies “pack!” We were making a spectacle of ourselves. You can take loud Americans out of America, but we’ll still be loud if we want to.

The next thing we knew, our bikes were surrounded by French kids, probably about 10 or 11 years old, running along with us, shouting “OOH!” “AAH!” in time. They had no idea what we were saying or why we were riding bikes and yelling in the gardens of Versailles, but it didn’t matter.

I like to think that twenty years from now, when those kids are grown up, they’ll remember that trip fondly, not because of some fancy Hall of Mirrors, but because of some happy and loud Americans.

Versailles, France


Versailles, France


When in Lille…eat dessert

I lived in Lille, France, for four weeks in the summer of 2012 and, like any place, it had its pros and cons. Although upon arrival Lille felt fresh and new, full of restaurants and bars, historical monuments and museums to explore, weeks of attending school there started to wear down on me. The weather especially left much to be desired, as it frequently was in the 60s and rainy during the summer. (When I arrived home in Raleigh it was sunny and a sweltering 102 degrees Fahrenheit outside – the kind of summers I’m used to!)

Lille, France

Remembering this, I basically expected the worst when I revisted in December 2012. I envisioned constant rain and freezing temperatures in this dreary city I’ve already explored. I was mostly right about the weather, but Lille revealed more of itself to me as a visitor than it had when I was just a student.

After catching up on sleep, checking in with family and grabbing a quick breakfast from the patisserie on the corner, my friends and I were ready to explore. Lille’s center is lined with shops and is very pedestrian friendly, so we spent an afternoon wandering through town.

Lille’s Christmas market had a cozy, small-town feel and sold everything from maple syrup to furry moccasins (and of course, the European Christmas market staple, hot mulled wine).

The next day we took Lille’s small but efficient metro to a neighboring suburb, Roubaix, and went to an art museum called La Piscine. It’s a unique and varied art collection placed in an old public swimming pool, even in the showers. A small segment of pool still remains in the center of the building, with sculptures and paintings surrounding it. La Piscine is certainly one of the coolest art museums I’ve been to.

Lille, France

Besides walking and shopping, we did a lot of eating in Lille. Because I wasn’t on a “student” budget in Lille this time, I felt that I could splurge a bit more on my meals (I ate in the cafeteria every day when I was a student because it was included in the price of the program). We stopped by Meert, a patisserie/chocolaterie near Grand Place one evening and splurged on chocolaty, sugary treats. The place had a line out the door and I felt so full afterward, but it was worth it.

On our last evening in Lille we had dinner at a small family-run restaurant called L’Etable tucked away in the old part of town. The regional dishes were delicious and you could tell they were cooked to order. My favorite part was dessert, of course: Speculoos mousse. Speculoos is a kind of shortbread/gingerbread cookie.

Lille, France

I had a very enjoyable visit in Lille the second time, even though the weather wasn’t perfect. It just goes to show that keeping an open mind, even when revisiting a city, might lead to something surprising.

I originally wrote this post for a local news website in Raleigh while I was traveling and blogging in Europe for 10 days in December 2012. 

Such great heights: Cities from above

I like to look down on cities. London, with its slowly turning Eye, the Thames churning below. Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s show off The City and the wharfs, tiny workers and ships scurrying about.

London, England

London, England

Paris, with the iconic tower piercing the sky, the white and gray buildings stretching out for miles below, their grandeur muddled by distance. Montmartre, too, offers sprawling views from the cathedral steps; it seems a world apart from the rest of the city.

Paris, France

Paris, France

Venice and Bruges. Canals branching off every which way. Both have belltowers jutting up proudly from the main squares. Peals from the large bells clash and jumble through my ears before drifting out over the waterlogged cities. Venice, in my mind, will always feature blazing orange terracotta roofs and liquid turquoise under a sun turned up full blast, while Bruges, its northern cousin, rests cozily under soft gray skies, falling mist kissing steel blue waters and cobblestone streets.

Venice, Italy

Bruges, Belgium

Being above a city, looking down but still grounded, connects me to it on a personal level. I will gladly pay the fee to climb ancient, narrow steps and feel the wind of an entirely new place in my hair while I breathe in the scents, pulse and character of the city lying below.

I hope you enjoyed these pictures! Here are a few more I love.

Gent, Belgium

Gent, Belgium

Oxford, England

Oxford, England

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy




Gun control, bars and bathroom convos

Oh, the conversations you will have in the unisex bathrooms of French bars!

I was revisiting the city I studied abroad in, Lille, and I had to hit up one of my group’s favorite bars, La Plage (“the beach”). It comes complete with sand on the floor, fiery shots at midnight, and fishbowls. Classy, I know, but good times were had and promptly forgotten there.

Lille, France

Buying the next round a La Plage

This particular night was right after a school shooting in the US, and I had briefly heard about it before heading out that night for dinner and shenanigans.

In the bathroom at the bar that night, while washing my hands and talking to my friend in English, I heard someone ask behind me, “Excuse me, are you American?”


“What do you feel of gun control?”


And thus began my conversation with a random French guy in a bar bathroom about guns. It was a minor miracle we could understand each other even just a smidgen, based on 1) language barrier, and 2) alcohol consumption. Anyway, I think we agreed and we spent a few minutes talking loudly over each other, nodding and saying “eeuuhhh” to hold our places in the conversation. So French.

P.S. Alcohol did wonders for improving the quality of my French r’s, I think.

New places, new books

I think some of the simple pleasures in life include walking around a book shop until there’s a crick in your neck from reading the spines, cracking open a brand new book and smelling the woody, dusty aroma of a good read. So when I travel, I make a point of heading to local book stores. Even chain book shops in other countries are something new to me, so I like visiting those too.

Book store in Oxford, England

Harry Potter books for sale in England. I love that the cover art differs in each country.

I’m not picky with book stores. I have visited and enjoyed a modern, minimalist store with a small but excellent selection of hand-picked books and a focus on poetry; a small cottage-turned-shop tucked away from the street, oozing Southern charm, with comfortable couches and tables with spindly legs struggling to support the weight of the owner’s favorite hardcover; a neighborhood staple that has been around for decades, where not much has changed because it’s already as close to perfect as you can get; an unassuming used book shop in a strip mall, with creaky, repurposed wood crates as shelves that seem to stretch back for miles. Pretty much anywhere I can buy, borrow or read books, I’m happy.

The books I buy in other countries don’t necessarily have to be about whatever place I happen to be in. Re-reading that book is enough to remind me of my trip. In France I took advantage of my expanding language skills and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in French. The book store I purchased the books from, Furet du Nord, was amazing – eight stories, located right on the Grand Place. I worked my way through the wizarding tale I knew so well while I studied abroad.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Recently I purchased Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore at The Book Passage in San Francisco. My husband actually picked it out (I think the glow-in-the-dark cover caught his eye) and it was a great read. I finished it the next day on the flight home. A sort of modern-day fantasy adventure set in San Francisco and New York City, it involves a secret society, the “magic” of technology and a dash of mystery.

Which book stores have you visited on your travels? Do you have any fond memories of the books you picked up along the way?