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HOW I LEARNED TO TRAVEL “THE LONG WAY”

If you find yourself lazily walking through the streets of a town searching for a “fresh” place to visit, learned by heart all the jokes of your friends and upcoming Oscars don’t interest you in the least – the time has come to travel.

Now, traveling can be different. We all dreaded the trip to “The South” when we were little, but there comes a point when a week of tanning at the beach and monotonous evening shows is not enough. Of course you can pull out a visit to the capital or any other wonderful place of Portugal, and it’s great if you do, but for many it is time to seek further. And more importantly, longer.

Visiting Barcelona or Paris or London or any other “hot” destination for a week is great. It is a week of constant stress over catching the right bus or metro, buying a tour guide book (which in most bookshops of the center will be a total rip-off), then losing the right bus or metro, looking for directions, finding the desired place of attraction – Notre-Dame de Paris, Centre Georges-Pompidou or Park Güell – and then nervously waiting in line of other tourists. In the evenings of such trips, people tend to stress over dinner plans and in chaotic pursuits of affordable yet “typical” meal they end up leaving one, two, three restaurants and finally arrive to McDonald’s Paris, Barcelona or London – because you can’t get that one wrong. Later, drinks and discos and an early rise in the morning – because of course a week is too little and we need to see everything.

As much fun as it is to run around the downtowns, take pictures in front of every second-rate fountain and go out with hundreds of other tourists, there is another way to travel. And this other way is truly getting to know the country, which means traveling far – so that moms and dads don’t send you chocolates, pies and cakes every month, and for a longer period of time- so you actually feel the difference.

My first experience of the latter happened in secondary school. I participated in a program called FLEX and got selected to go to the USA for one year. That implied me being hosted by American family and studying in a normal High School. So, I left to Ohio when I was 17 and came back as an 18-year-old (also slightly overweight). If you are reading this article the chances are you already study in the University and High School exchange with all its Converse shoes, homecoming, Halloween candy and prom shouldn’t become your goal (unless you have a younger brother or sister, in which case you can start googling the information about such exchanges and their costs). But nothing is lost (because after all traveling as a minor implies curfews, no driving and no-no-no drinking! Even at dinner, especially in the U.S.)

If you study in the University you can submit an application to go abroad on Erasmus program for a semester or two (more radical cases are Erasmus Mundus, where the studies turn into a roller coaster of traveling mixed up with being homesick, confused where you go next and trying not to mix up the names of your professors and friends). When I was on my second year of University studies I applied for Erasmus exchange and filed as destination the city of Kaunas, Lithuania (some of you will think my average grade was too low to go to a cool place like Berlin, but you’re wrong- I was an excellent student in Saint-Etienne University and I just really felt like going to Kaunas). Why?

First of all, I felt like going “exotic”. Discovering the Eastern European country at the Baltic Sea which language I really don’t speak and can’t even imagine how it sounds was exciting for me. Second of all, the language of education was English and it really was English as promised (some of you may have gotten disappointed in the past by that evident lie called “suitable for English speakers” on the University’s home page). Third of all, I really did not know much about the history of Lithuania and I needed to see how the country dealt with post-Soviet occupation traces. Also, the Erasmus scholarship was very nice and the living cost in Lithuania was much lower than in France or Portugal.

It would be a lie to say that everything went perfect. Firstly, I got disappointed by the city- it seemed small and completely shallow. I didn’t like the dormitory. I was confused about the buses and trolleybuses and sometimes people were not nice to help me. But you should remember that all problems can get solved. I got to learn from very cool professors, I chose my own subjects, because the city was small all Erasmus students got a mentor and a bunch of attention in general.  Because I had a scholarship and chose to stay in dormitory I got to travel around Lithuania, go to Riga, Prague, Warsaw and Saint-Petersburg. And I made very close friends with the locals. And I understood the charm of Kaunas (as I am writing this right now I am full of nostalgia). And most importantly, I learned how to be away in a foreign country, how not to screw up my studies, how to be more tolerant towards others and how to enjoy traveling “the long way”.

If all of this sounded like something you may be interested in, don’t hesitate and decide to go abroad. The timing is perfect because I hear that Erasmus applications for the next year are already open and you’ll probably need some time to decide where to go, what classes to choose and how to talk it over with parents, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends. Don’t be afraid, invest in traveling.