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5 Things No One Warns You About Studying Abroad

study abroad surprisesThe summer after my freshman year in college, I spent a semester studying abroad in France. I thought it would be a great opportunity to increase my fluency in the language, round out my French minor, make new friends, and rack up additional credits so I could graduate a semester early. I did all those things. But as prepared as I thought I was, there were more than a few surprises in store on my study abroad adventure.

1. Carbs + dairy - exercise = 10 lb. weight gain in 8 weeks
When I discovered that Nutella (a delectable chocolate spread) on bread, hot chocolate, and a side of the creamiest yogurt imaginable counted as "breakfast" in Houlgate, France, I was beside myself with glee. So I proceeded to fill my belly every morning with this fattening fare. I'm still wondering how the French consume all of this without putting on the pounds.

2. Creeps are universal.
There were several occasions in Paris when a group of guys would heckle a group of us girls on the street or on the metro. After being at a loss as to how to get rid of them, we asked our professors to teach us some "leave-me-alone" type phrases that would make the guys go away. We learned to defend ourselves with strong, confident language that got the point across. Fait accompli!

3. Women really do go topless in other countries.

I don't consider myself a prude, but as an American, I'm just not accustomed to seeing topless women in public places. Seeing them at the beach was not a tremendous surprise, but at a public pool in Paris? I had an entire conversation with a lovely woman there - I just had to remind myself to keep my eyes up and wipe the childish smirk off my face.

4. Your "innocent" habits can be easily misinterpreted.
How many of you put one hand on your lap while you're eating? My host family in Albertville clued me in to this faux pas I didn't even know I was committing. In France, if your hands are not on the table, people wonder what you're doing with them. This came as quite a shock to a girl who was penalized for putting her elbows on the table at summer camp.

5. You will never completely lose your cultural identity ... and that's OK.

One of my misguided study abroad goals was to "become French" by the end of my stay. After years of study, I knew the language well. My host family even boasted that I spoke French "presque sans accent" - my American accent was barely discernable. So I was chagrined to find that regardless of my fluency, my "otherness" could still be spotted a mile away. As much as I appreciate French culture, my culture of origin sticks to me. No matter where I go and what language I speak, I will always be me. But then, that's not an altogether bad thing.