The Part Where Josie Realizes She Needs People

My illusions of living in Austria–one cannot refer to them as expectations–featured scenes of weekends spent carting off to little Eastern European villages snuggled amongst leafy trails with nothing but Ann The Trusty Trail Shoes, a solid Jules Verne read and a euro for a hearty cup of coffee.

I would power to the Hauptbahnhof train station, stroll up to the ticket booth and knowingly slide the myriads of 10 and 20 euro cent coins that would build up from the grocery budget. I would ask in a smooth and collective voice:

“Ticket to wherever this gets me, please.”

This to which the ticket booth lady–who would be an expressive example of Austrian female power, naturally–would look at me with pride at my boldness for traveling alone. She would compliment my savvy exploration budget, and perhaps teach her daughter to emulate this woman who asked for a ticket that cost €2,30.

Our entire conversation would take place in German, of course, as I fully expected to reach fluency with very little effort in the first couple of weeks. Maybe a month or so; I wanted to be realistic.

This €2,30 ticket would deposit me in the basin of the Austrian Alps; the trail head would naturally be situated directly across from the train station.

I would ease in my headphones, select the newest episode of the Rich Roll Podcast and be on my way up this mountain, dancing over the white-crested boulders, the chilling wind folding me in love and whispering through my hair while Rich Roll and I had an enlightening one-way conversation on the sustainability of the plant-based diet.

I would be constantly surprised at the state of my own fitness; but then I would think to myself, Oh, this makes sense. You walk everywhere all the time, Graz is rather spread out. Of course you are able to average steady 7:30 miles up this mountain. 

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Four months later and we find Josie, situated at a mediocre proficiency of German language knowledge, definitely not averaging 7:00-miles even on the roads, realizing that a €2,20 ticket will get her about 8km from Graz.

I’m not disappointed with the way that things turned out; I adore my beautiful lively, primarily-Bosnian flatmates, I am constantly overwhelmed at the amount of adventuring I’ve gotten to do over the weekends with decidedly the greatest humans of our generation. I’ve fallen in love with the primarily-road-based routes I’ve created for my sunrise running, now looking forward to flashing the peace sign at ensuing runners and remembering previous moments of running in that spot.

The German proficiency could be better, but it can’t all be peachy.

The most important difference between the current state of life in Austria and what I drew up in my mind entirely revolves around the importance of good people.

I completely forgot about them.

That’s what studying abroad has taught me.

I spontaneously decided to meander down to the southern part of Bosnia solo for a few days, badly in need of an influx of Vitamin D and a change of vibe. Because of the nature of planning for it–that being entirely null–I didn’t have any preconceptions of what I would do once I got to Bosnia.

I brought along with me Ann the Trusty Trail Shoes and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, figuring that I would live out my days quite happily running, reading and writing in the full force of the southern oriental-inspired sun.

If that would have been how the entire weekend played out, my friends, I tell you that I would not have experienced the waterfall of introspection and personal development that I did.

Mostar, Bosnia during the end of November is off-season; the hoards of sun-craving tourists flashing oversized cameras at the photogenic architecture was at it’s blessed minimum.

The hostel that I stayed at was this eclectically narrow four-story alcove 10 minutes on foot from the bus station, nestled in an alley and featuring breathtaking mountain scenes on all sides, called Hostel Balkanarama.

Being off-season, I was the only guest; the other members residing in the hostel being semi-full time residents who maintained the hostel.

I have never, ever, ever met such a wonderful, magical troupe of inclusive individuals. They immediately brought me into the sanctity of their fellowship, exuding vibes of love, sustainable living, fascinations with culture and with appreciating life.

They brought me along to a documentary film festival on feminist Bosnians working in non-traditional careers (empowering to say the absolute least), took me out for Turkish coffee with the filmmakers (the funniest people I have ever, ever met), gave lessons on the art of fermentation and sourdough baking, made ample amounts of Turkish coffee for me.

We shared omelettes together, late ravaged lunches of roasted potatoes, ice cream; we spent a few hours together preparing authentic Argentinian empanadas on the last night.

The owner of the hostel was this insane Bosnian rocker who exudes the most extravagantly good-vibes, and his band was playing a gig at a local Bosnian club. The hostel residents invited me to be groupies with them, and we went and jammed to the greatest rock, none of which I understood.

The dance party commenced once we got back to the hostel, screaming at the top of our lungs to Shakira and Salt n’ Peppa and the Spice Girls with our microphones of ice-cream spoons until the middle of the night.

I still got the time to hike and to move, the time to rejuvenate in the sun and read inspiring enlightenment texts, to write and to rejoice in solitary moments with just my thoughts and the mountains.

But the people. The influx, the waterfall, the cascade of beautiful good people.

Everything will always boil down to love.

I need these people. My soul craves this connection, this inclusion, this blanket. This fellowship.

I love traveling solo, I love getting to make snap decisions and having to rely upon my own instinct and have to face challenges unsupported when they arise. There’s a lot of growth that has come from this.

But traveling solo for me has suddenly featured a different kind of end-goal: it’s no longer to recuperate from being around people all the time, to get a significant amount of alone time for me to do whatever I want to do.

It’s become a chance to learn how to understand other people better. To become like a local, to experience the culture through the people that have created this culture.

One can travel and learn and love from one’s own home country. But to do it like this? To experience this amount of travel, learning, love? It has to come from being out of one’s own cultural understanding. It takes traveling to a different cultural world.

My learning is far from over, and thankfully I have another semester to solidify personal development. I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to stop this influx of perspective and understanding.

I’ve always had the goal of joining the Peace Corps and living around the world, teaching English and writing as much as possible. Before this year, that goal was never fully realistic to me because I had no idea if I would be “good at” living abroad on my own.

Now I realize that I’m addicted to it.

-Josie, Austria

Was sprachen Sie? Tandem Language Learning

When I would envision living in Austria, images of frantic hand-motion communication with only-German-speaking bus drivers on days when I might be late to Uni would ensue. Expectations of having to meander through the bureaucratic process of opening an Austrian bank account with German-only instructions. Perhaps–God forbid–an instance or two of having to search through my English-Deutsch pocket dictionary for the phrase, No, no Herr Doktor. Please don’t amputate my arm, it’s only a rash.

I thought I would only be able to make friends if I knew German; why would the Swedes and the French and the Bosnians speak English in Austria? It’s neither their mother tongue nor the tongue of Austria.

When I actually arrived in Graz and made my way around for the first couple of weeks, low and behold I came to realize that everyone here speaks near flawless English. The Swedes and Frenchies and Bosnians included.

Now it’s uncomfortable imagining myself adapting to the life I had expected to live in Austria; one of complete lingual helplessness for the first while until my brain magically kicked in a threw me a bone by learning German. I am so grateful to be able to make friends and communicate with them, to be able to talk with bus drivers, to open bank accounts and understand what’s happening.

It’s a bit of a problem, actually, that everyone speaks English. The German language learning that I expected has taken quite the back burner and requires a lot more motivation than is currently at my disposal.

Because of the relief and the amount of comfort that has come from me being able to communicate with those around me, I have developed quite the soft spot for individuals who have come to Graz without any knowledge of either English or German, rendered unable to communicate with anyone as I had expected myself to be.

There is this organization in Graz called Tandem Language Partners, where one is able to exchange knowledge and instruction of one’s mother tongue for the native tongue of another. Slovakians can lend assistance to the Slovakian language in exchange for instruction in Finnish. Germans can lend assistance to the German language in exchange for extra practice in Spanish.

It’s a beautiful flow of intrinsically motivated language learners; no assignments, no quizzes, no let’s-write-out-subjunctive-sentences-over-and-over.

In order to “give back” for all of the assistance and patience and aid I have received in German instruction from my Austrian friends, I decided to sign up for this program in hopes that I could benefit a non-English speaking individual to maintain a more satisfying international experience.

The organization is maintained online, very openly and very securely. Messages are relayed through the site, no personal contact information other than email expected. One can simple search for the language speaker that would suit their fancy and send a quick message, asking to meet up maybe once a week or so over a cappuccino or a schnitzel.

Volunteering my services as an English speaker helped restore feelings of self-efficacy and of giving back. I no longer felt so indebted to the society that is helping me better learn German, because I am also contributing what I can. It has given me a wonderful, marvelous opportunity to meet new individual and experience more culture than I can bear to imagine.

Participating in this organization has also given me the chance to spread it’s message to other language speakers interested in contributing their services of language knowledge. I can direct others to this outlet of sharing, as well as give advice to those with the need of practicing a language.

-Josie Rozell, Austria

You’re Not Just American: You’re America

When my international and Austrian buddies ask what I am studying, and I reply with a cheery, “English Literature and Linguistics in the American Studies Program!”, almost collectively I can expect a semi-blank expression.

“Aber, warum?” But why?

Fair. Fair question.

Why come all the way to Austria to study America?

Yes, I understand the confusion.

It’s not that though: it’s not studying America, it’s studying a non-American perspective on important and vital texts that helped shape countries and ideologies. How absolutely, unfathomably more interesting it is to study American literature from this non-American perspective.

To engage in similar debates that I’ve had in my previous classes at Emporia State University, only with profoundly different directions.

It’s getting out of this bubble of the influence of American politics and American ideals in literature and examining texts with a literal worldview.

It’s also excellent insight on how the rest of the world views America.

I will try not to blanket or generalize anyone here, my classmates represent the entire world as much as I represent America. It’s too small of a sample size. But collectively, many agree on similar stances of Americans, so I believe it to be quite representable.

Perhaps the most notable example of insight into American portrays is from my From Rags to Riches? Social Class in American Literature. My professor is this anomaly of information, perhaps the most passionate social class hero and well-informed feminist supporter I have met.

We put pressure on such topics as, “Why do Americans have a higher overall level of outspoken confidence over Europeans?” and, “why do Americans tend to have a lot of acquaintances and few ‘best’ friends, while Europeans operate on the reverse?”

My international classmates view American as a self-confident, extroverted ethnicity will no shortages of self-efficacy. I’ve been told, “you have the certain…passionate light in your eyes that makes you obviously American” multiple times.

I have been told that Americans have obvious and vocal dreams; that our society has raised us to be individualistic and ambitious over the more collectivist societies of Europe.

When you study abroad you become your country in the minds of others. Do you think that the industries should better prioritize the manufacturing of dog textiles? In the eyes of an international student, suddenly America believes all dogs should be clothed.

Are you in the habit of sneezing before you drink wine? Suddenly America sneezes before they ingest alcohol.

Do you like reading Action Adventure novels over Romance? Suddenly America is obsessed with the Bourne Ultimatum and because that Parisian chick in the back of the room likes reading Nora Roberts, the Romance genre is for the French.

Honestly, it gets a bit old to be generalized. To be blanketed together with the more audible values of America that you may or may not agree with.

I welcome this, though.

How else will I learn not to blanket others besides being put in the box myself?

-Josie, Austria

Ich heiße Josie. Und du?

I don’t know if one can possibly fathom how large the world is; a person can spend their entire life traveling amongst the countries and yet experience only fractions of what the world produces. It doesn’t matter how many people you meet, how many mountains you climb, how many cups of coffee you drink…there will be more people, more mountains, more coffee.

Sound daunting?

That’s what I thought, too. Especially when it came to narrowing down the number 196 to one country in which I would spend the 2016/2017 academic year.

I had essentially three desires: I wanted to go somewhere were I could learn a different language, somewhere that would take me out of my American comfort bubble, and somewhere nestled amongst mountains.

Oh, also, yeah, the university had to have classes that would fit my major. Yeah, because I study abroad in order to study abroad.

After much googling I settled upon the city of Graz in southeastern Austria. Austrians speak German (but if you ask Germans they would say that Austrians speak Austrian German, not German) and in this magical off-brand accent that fluctuates up and down like a song and differs depending on in what region of Austria one is. Graz itself is perfect because it is quite international, meaning that although the primary language is German one can always count on asking in English for late night assistance back home from a native. Furthermore Graz is the perfect launchpad. RyanAir flies out of two cities in Austria with flights ranging anywhere from a whopping €6,99 to €24,99. The train system from Austria is phenomenal, a ticket to Slovenia costs €9 and a bus ticket costing around the same to get to Budapest.

Studying abroad for an entire is, for me, embodied into one word: practice.

Upon graduation and perhaps a masters degree, I would like to join the Peace Corps and teach English with the Let Girls Learn campaign. In order for this dream to become more achievable I need to practice two distinct things: 1). I need to practice living abroad and adapting to societies and cultural norms and 2). In order to become a good language teacher I should first go through the experience of learning a language.

Studying abroad has given me opportunities to practice both of these things, and let me tell you something: it has been so much harder and so much more humbling that I could have imagined.

It’s hard to let go of one’s comforts. Perhaps this appears quite obvious, but it’s surprisingly harder than what you think right now. I’ve always considered myself to be an adaptable person, choosing to live as mindfully and as empathetic as possible. But living in a foreign country has completely stripped away “needs” I thought I had while simultaneously reinforcing what makes me Josie.

The language learning has also not gone as grandly as I first imagined. I took the German intensive course for 3 weeks before University classes began–which is something I completely recommend for anyone studying abroad in a different-language speaking country–but it came at a bad time. While going to German class 3 hours a day, I was also dancing around Graz opening Austrian bank accounts and registering with the city of Graz three separate times and meandering my way through bureaucracy. I was figuring out how to get to IKEA and how to grocery shop and how to pick my way through the cities.

I had no time to sit down and process what German I was learning. To reinforce it. And the interactions I had with other international students were almost all in English, the universal language it appears, because there was so much else going on we needed some sort of comfort. Also because non-native English speakers seem to jump at chances to practice English, just as I do when meeting native German speakers.

Now that University has leveled out and the bureaucracy nightmare has been handled, now that I have established myself as not-a-crazy-person to my pals here and I don’t have to worry about miscommunications as I would have if we had spoken only German, I have revamped my motivation to acclimate to the German language. To live and play in the language, thereby living and playing in the culture by extension.

The more motivated I am to experience the culture, the better I am at this “living in a foreign country alone” shenanigans that I apparently want to do for the rest of my life.

It’s all coming together now. Slowly. There are still quite humbling moments when I feel quite proud of myself for piecing together a nice sentence, only to be left blank faced with the reply that I get.

I have never had quite so much fun with life as I have had these past three months. And I know that this trend is going to continue. Beauty and enjoyment exists in juxtaposition; in order to experience peace and gratitude and comfort, it’s necessary to know what chaos, discontent and eruption feels like.

Life lived irregularly > the comfort zone.

-Josie, Austria

Schnapps and Dirndls: A Weekend in Austria

This past weekend hosted a monstrosity of unleashed Austrian culture upon the city of Graz, Austria.

From all corners of Styria, Leiderhosen-clad gents and Dirndl-sporting women grabbed their equally garbed kiddos and piled into the city centers to consume Rosé Sturm fermented wine and currywurst. The city played host to traveling woodworkers, country blacksmiths, home brewers, felt makers, orchestras, accordionist buskers, and traditional dancing troupes. Children were held high upon shoulders amongst the crowd in order to witness the whip-snapping Austrian performers, the smell of roasting chestnuts and the clinking of Austrian beer circumferencing the 70 degree fall air.

I kid you not, boules of doughnut the size of volleyballs. Complex weavings of chocolate nougat braided into puff pastry. Home brewed Schnapps ranging from a throat-ripping pine to a sweet eye-twitching sour cherry. In every little pocket of Graz could traditionally-clad performers be found; dancing the foot stomping Austrian style, plowing away on the accordion, vibrato-ing through the Styria anthems.

This went on for the entire weekend. One, massive, uniformed city-wide party that almost entirely fit every Austrian stereotype I had previously encountered. Leiderhosen and Dirndls? Check. Lots of alcohol in lots of forms? Check. Home baked bread and fresh crafted pastries on every street corner? Absolutely.

It was movingly beautiful and mesmerizing to witness such an outburst of tradition over a proud culture. Parents were going out of their way to culture their offspring in these kinds of traditions, making sure that the generation being reared would successfully continue Austrian culture. Such a display of intense national pride confirms to me that a culture without such traditions wouldn’t effectively work.

Essentially these celebrations are reinforcing the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that of love and belonging. To belong to a “bigger picture”. Isolation can destroy confidence and self-efficacy, and cultural isolation can lead to unchecked corruption and selfishness over the lack of formed loyalty to a shared unit.

The same can be seen in the States, too. Thanksgiving, Halloween, April Fool’s Day, Fourth of July, remembering September 11th, 2001…all of these create opportunities for American people to remember the bigger picture to which they belong. To visually experience that the same things they celebrate, mourn, plan and shop for, that they don’t do these things alone.

At a closer level, Emporia State University would be a much different place if sporting events, graduation celebrations, award ceremonies, international banquets, or even floor programs within the resident dorms didn’t exist. And what would you personally be like without your own traditions? Without your own habits, your own tactics for combating stress and long study days?

Parties and celebrations are grand. It’s hard to argue against the fun-aspect of such traditions. But in the relative scheme of a culture, in terms of evolution of survival, they can be seen as unnecessary. Frivolous. Waste of resources. Materialism at its finest.

But what if it’s not waste at all and what if it isn’t just fun? What if it is actually an investment in the long-term group efficacy of a nation? What if importing large amounts of tuition money into the upkeep of the ESU football stadium is not just another frustration leading to high tuition fees? Still more, what if having floor programs and the Union Activities Council isn’t just for kicks and giggles?

I’m realizing that very little in well-established culture contains no meaning. Likewise traditions and festivities are not singular in purpose. The Aufsterien Festival serves multi faceted as both a stress-relieving celebration and a remembrance of cultural Union.

-Josie, Austria