I was confident that I would be able to finish up my biography in this third installment, however, I don’t think it would be a good idea to skimp on anything at this point. This “third chapter” will possibly prove to be one of my longest posts, but also one of the most important in laying the foundation of what has brought me to where I am now in my life. I know I couldn’t possibly articulate the immense personal change or incredible experiences I had during my time abroad, but I’m willing to give it my best shot! I’ll try to add some structure to this to make it an easier read and we will see how that goes. The next post really should be my last biographical discussion, summarizing the events since my semester abroad, but for now, I must bring forth the third installment of my biography:
Chapter 3: To International Experience, and Beyond!
So, when I left off, I had just decided to spend my semester abroad in Jönköping, Sweden and I mentioned the few months that followed were pretty much a blur. This is true, as I hardly recall much of anything, but I know there was a lot that got done. For starters, I had never left the country (and only the State once), so I needed my passport. I applied and had it expedited and it arrived about three weeks later. Then I had to expedite my Swedish visa, which took about a month to get and I believe I had it in hand only a couple weeks before I was set to leave.
So there I was, necessary travel documents in hand, about as ready as I was going to be to leave the continent and my world as I knew it behind for a semester. I had no idea what awaited me on the other side of the planet, but I promised myself to keep an open mind about it and just try to make the most of my experiences. Bear in mind, I had lived my whole life up until that point at home with my family. To even suggest that I truly had any idea what I was doing would be ludicrous, nevertheless, I sucked it up and moved forward.
Departure – No Turning Back
I believe it was January 12, 2003 I left little Fresno behind and headed to the San Francisco airport (SFO) where I would have about three hours to contemplate the decision I had made. I remember very clearly sitting by the gate, looking out the window at the airplane I would spend the next 11 hours in, questioning whether I should have just turned in that Honors Program application. A few deep breaths later and I accepted my fate and started trying to pump myself up for the adventure that awaited.
It was a long trip. By the time I made it to the Stockholm airport I had been awake nearly 24 hours and I still had a five-hour layover before my flight to Jönköping was scheduled to leave. My travel agent suggested this long layover to account for the time it would take going through customs, which she claimed would absorb at least three hours. As I approached the customs section of the airport I was given a strange look from one of the airport personnel and what happened next still has me a tad perplexed.
The customs employee looked at me, and in clear English said “You don’t want to go through here…” I froze for a second, evaluated the situation, looked back at my massive entourage of luggage, and decided he was mistaken. I retorted “Are you sure? I am an interna….” I was cut off with his booming voice proclaiming “YOU DON’T WANT TO GO THROUGH HERE…GO AROUND!” A little startled, I hesitated, wondering if this was some sort of test, and quickly bustled off, but not without yelling back over my shoulder to the man, “If you say so!” I still have no idea why I was asked to go around customs in Sweden, and I often wondered if I would be tracked down one day for not having done so, but at the time all I could do was move on and try to figure out what to do with 150lbs of luggage during a five hour layover!? Not much, as you might imagine.
The next five hours I basically sat, guarding my luggage out of (a likely irrational) fear that were I to do so much as walk five feet from anything to buy a granola bar I would be robbed, arrested, or both. So, I sat, starving and hardly able to keep my eyes open, and somehow survived the layover. I finally arrived in Jönköping at midnight Swedish time and at that point had been awake for about 30 hours. When I stepped off the plane I choked on my first breathe of the Swedish air, as I had never felt a cold (-20° C) like this before. After composing myself, I trudged on through the snow-covered runway toward the airport.
When I finally got in the airport, it became apparent that I had three fellow international students on the flight with me – one French girl and two Spanish guys from the Canary Islands. We easily identified eachother, as we were the last four people in the lobby of the airport, each of us with arrival instructions in hand. We came together, struggled with introductions, but smiled and laughed freely knowing we were no longer alone in our journey. This, to me, was already an excellent indication of the excitement that was to come.
After about a half hour wait, a car picked us up and brought us to what would be our new homes for the next semester. The place was called Råslatt (pronounced Ross-let) and could be compared to a housing project set about twenty minutes from the center of town against lush, green (at the time, snow covered) rolling hills. Pretty much all of the international students lived in this area, and it was definitely a new experience for me. I went from living at home with my family, to living in a 12-story apartment building with hundreds of international students from 40 different countries. To call it exciting would be the understatement of the year!
I was shown to my room and I think my new flatmates were a tad startled when I moseyed on in at nearly 1am. At first glance I thought I was in a flat with two other international students, but quickly learned that Sweden isn’t quite all blonde hair and blue eyes as I had once believed. One of my flatmates was named Foppa, and he was half Chinese and half Vietnamese. His family immigrated to Sweden about 20 years prior when he was two. My other flatmate, who would later become a good friend, was named Amanch and he had also lived in Sweden for about 20 years, but his family arrived after fleeing from Iraq when he was four. I had no idea Sweden had such a large immigrant population, but then again, I really knew nothing about Sweden to begin with, so this shouldn’t have come as such a big surprise.
As the semester got under way, us international students began to grow more and more comfortable with the town. We slowly mastered the local public transportation and learned all the weekend hot spots where students would gather to socialize with one another. The school held up to it’s reputation as an academically challenging institution, then again, I spent far more time coming out of my shell and making friends from around the world than I did time in the books. It didn’t take me long to come to grips with everything and decide that this was a semester for personal change. Afterall, I didn’t travel half-way around the world only to return home the same person I was when I left, that was for sure.
When I stepped off the plane in Sweden, I admittedly knew little about myself – much less about world geography, politics, or languages. I was, as I would learn, a fairly typical American. There was a joke I heard early on in the semester:
Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
I got a good chuckle when I first heard this, then after thinking about it, it made me a little uneasy. Not because I found it insulting, no, I was uneasy because I found it so harshly true! None of the Americans studying in Sweden that semester spoke more than one language. To put this in perspective, by the end of the semester I was no longer surprised when I met people who spoke four languages fluently. Add to that the reputation us Americans had with our lack of geographic knowledge. Want an example of this? Here you go: one day some Polish guys decided to give me a pop quiz and asked me if I knew the capitol of Poland. My correct answer of Warsaw won me befuddled looks and praise that lasted all semester – apparently this was impressive to them, coming from an American. A little sad? It was to me.
I decided from then on I didn’t want to live the stereotype. I didn’t want to be just another “ill-informed American.” I challenged myself to not hang out solely with other Americans and to really make an effort to get to know these people around me who all had so much to teach me!
My Personal Change
Once I made that decision for myself I was finally able to let loose and really enjoy my experiences with the other students. I was having the time of my life, creating memories and building friendships, but there were two memorable instances during the semester that left a lasting impression with me and really helped to open my mind and eyes more than I probably ever expected.
The first event came at the end of a rather slow evening, as I was invited up to a flat with a group of African, Polish, and Swedish students. Once there, we had a very lively discussion on world politics; specifically about oil. After a nearly three hour discussion, loaded with high emotions and elevated voices, we all got up, shook hands and called it a night. I remember walking outside afterward, looking up to the sky, closing my eyes and thinking to myself “That…was intense…” And it was, very much so, but in an amazingly refreshing way. I came away from this evening with a very new perspective on certain world issues, that previously I wouldn’t have given much thought to. I knew I learned a little something, and it wasn’t anything I would have ever gotten out of a classroom back home.
The second notable event during my stay was the day the US made it to Baghdad in Iraq and the statue of Saddam Hussein was yanked down. As I said before, one of my good friends during the semester was my Iraqi flatmate, Amanch, and I was in his room with him and one of his Iranian friends the day the statue came down. I remember feeling beside myself, not really knowing how to react, but recall quite clearly seeing my flatmate and his friend jumping up and down in celebration when the statue finally met it’s fate. This wasn’t something I would have ever experienced back home, and again, I was grateful I got to witness it.
I’ll never forget either of these moments, and when I really think hard, I feel as though the semester was loaded with similar instances that produced memories I’ll take with me forever. As one can imagine, the semester was quickly coming to a close before I knew it, and I still felt as though I had so much to learn and experience. It was about then I caught wind of an exciting summer marketing course Fresno State was working on with the École Supérieure Du Commerce Extérieur in Paris, France. When I heard they were looking for a guinea pig group to see how it would work out, I immediately jumped at the opportunity! I knew come the end of the semester I wouldn’t be ready to come home, and after all, who wouldn’t want to take summer school in Paris?
Just like that, the semester was over and my new friends began packing their things and moving back to their home countries and on with their lives. Meanwhile, I had other fish to fry, as I found myself essentially alone in Jönköping, left to twiddle my thumbs in eager anticipation of what awaited me in Paris! Oh, by the way, my semester at JIBS ended in May, and summer school was scheduled for the month of July…whatever was I to do for a whole month in Europe? Need you ask? Backpack, Of course!
Travel? You Betcha!
I had few opportunities during the semester to travel, but was grateful that my parents assisted me financially (via student loans) and helped me venture out of Sweden to visit Oslo and Bergen, Norway; Helsinki, Finland; Eindhoven, Holland; and Copenhagen, Denmark during my studies. Now that the bookwork was done, it was time to reward myself. I’ll try to break down my backpacking voyage, but first must say Ryanair.com + Hostels = Cheap, fun travel through Europe! With that said, here is basically what I did during the month of June, 2003:
I kicked off my trip by flying from Stockholm to Lubeck, Germany, enjoyed a four hour layover and saw a bit of the town before connecting on a flight to Milan, Italy. Spent four days in Milan to attend a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu seminar with Royce and Robin Gracie. Took the train from here to Rome and spent two days there. Took the train again up to Florence with a quick stop in Pisa, this took another two days. Next took an overnight train to Barcelona and immediately connected to Madrid. Spent two nights in Madrid, just in time to see the chaos that erupted after Real Madrid won the Spanish soccer championship. Finished in Madrid and returned to Barcelona for another two days before catching a flight to London. Spent two days in London and returned to Stockholm and enjoyed the bus on my way back to Jönköping…*whew*…how much adventure can you cram into a month? I thought I did pretty well, and I’ve got thousands of pictures to prove it!
So, just like that, I had seen a pretty big chunk of the major western European cities and felt like I had officially “gotten my money’s worth” for my time spent abroad. It was fast approaching time to get on to summer school, so to keep expenses low, I opted to take a 25-hour bus ride to Paris rather than fly with all my luggage. This was every bit as exciting as it sounds, but I made it to Paris and was soon back in the swing of things with a new, less diverse group of students.
Summer in Paris
The summer marketing course was composed of nine American students from Fresno State. It was nice having a chance to catch up with some of the students on their travels (few had just completed exchanges themselves), but I missed the intercultural mingling I experienced in Sweden. It was exciting, don’t get me wrong, we certainly busted our butts working hard and playing hard. But in the end, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to throw a few more nationalities in the mix.
My month in Paris quickly came to an end and I found myself on the 25-hour return bus to Sweden (my flight left from Stockholm). I had two days to say goodbye to Jönköping and the last of my friends who awaited the next semester at JIBS. I enjoyed a two-day layover in Amsterdam where I had a “one-month reunion” with one of my classmates I met during the semester. She showed me around, and just like that I was back in the airport waiting for my flight to come home.
Return Home and Wrap-Up
It had been eight months since I sat in SFO, staring at the plane that sat there taunting me, reminding me that I was leaving everything and everyone in my life behind while playing on my insecurities. This time, I was sitting in the Amsterdam airport, head held high, reminiscing on everything I had accomplished. I knew I had taken a chance. I knew I dared to do something different with my education, but never imagined it would bring me where I sat then, feeling how I felt. I had no regrets, and it was there that the wheels began turning once again and I knew someday I would return to Europe…hopefully to get my MBA. I fantasized about this idea, and I know now it was this vision that provoked me to get where I am now in my life.
If you managed to read through all of that, I commend you and certainly hope it wasn’t too painful. It was actually quite easy to write, as my excitement on the subject is still very much alive. I trust that I’ll finish up my final installment with my next post, which will summarize my life from my return until now. Until then…that is all.