Pre-Trip (Post One)
“I heard you’re going on a trip!”
“Are you ready?!”
The questions from my coworkers at Wegmans had been non-stop all week, and up until this point, I had not given myself the opportunity and brain space to really think about the impending trip. It’s true, I have been preparing for the trip all semester long with the weekly class time for the International Media class at Point Park University. It was also true that I had not started packing, and I was set to be at the airport at 3:30 the next afternoon.
In true Melanie fashion, I needed to accomplish everything else on my to-do list before I could start to prepare for the visit to London, England, Paris, France and Northern France. This to-do list included doing my laundry, working a full work week at my part-time summer job, attending a meeting with my summer internship adviser, and also spending time with family and friends. Once this list was accomplished for the week, I launched into the packing process and waited eagerly to go to the airport the next afternoon. After double and triple checking my checked luggage and my carryon bag, I felt prepared for not only the media visits we would be going on throughout the trip, but also for the trip itself.
“What are you doing over there?!”
“Why are you going?”
When I was 11 I dreamed of doing a semester abroad in London, and also of visiting the beautiful Czech Republic city of Prague. I was drawn to the beautiful architecture of both cities and also to the historical significance. I have never traveled anywhere outside the continental United States, so when an opportunity came about for me to take the media tour of London, Paris, and Northern France, I jumped at the chance. I was interested as soon as I heard about the trip last fall in November. I was drawn to it because it could provide me with a unique opportunity to learn about the different media agencies in Europe and also to travel the world and see it in a different, more global perspective.
The media visits to locations such as The Guardian, Ketchum Paris, and Disneyland Paris will provide me with a unique one-on-one opportunity to interact with media professionals who will be able to provide me with insight that will help me in my future career. This is one clear advantage of going with a school trip because as a group we are able to go on visits and see places I might not be able to see if I was traveling on my own and attempting to visit these same places. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to visit these places and I cannot be more excited for it.
“What are you most excited for?”
“Do you speak French?!”
I do not speak French, although I have picked up several survival phrases to help me get through my time in Paris. I know how to say “I do not understand,” “I am a vegetarian,” “I’m sorry,” “hello” and “thank you.” While I realize this is not quite a large basis for conversation while in France, I am reassured by the fact that most if not all Europeans speak English but appreciate the gesture of visitors attempting the language out of respect. With this in mind, I feel that I know enough to be respectful and kind in their country, but I will still rely heavily on others for translations as well.
Out of everything I am excited for about this trip, I am most excited to get out and experience the world. There is so much more to life than my hometown or my college town or any place I’ve ever visited. There is more to life than living in the day-to-day. Life is about taking opportunities and making the most of them, which is exactly what I intend to do with this trip.
When in London (Post Two)
If you have ever stayed up for thirty hours, flown across the ocean into a foreign country, immediately left that country to fly to another one, went on a bus tour of the city, explored the Tower of London, skipped lunch altogether, went to your hotel to clean up, left to get coffee, then gone to dinner, then you know exactly how I feel at this moment in time.
To say the last 36 hours have been stressful would be an understatement. Luckily enough, to say the last 36 hours have been exciting would also be an understatement. If there is anything I have learned about traveling in a large group it is that nothing is quick, and everything is done as a team. This is not a bad thing, as it means you always have a bathroom buddy and someone near-by to ask questions to, but it also means feeling a sense of responsibility for every member of the group. When two people fall behind, the entire group falls behind. When the leader of the group picks up the pace, so does the entire group. These are not altogether negative qualities, but it does provide a stressful environment when traveling internationally.
The relief I felt passing through customs at London’s Heathrow Airport was comparable to the end of finals week when you breathe the biggest sigh of relief and start to get excited about life again. The stress was over, and now the exciting things could begin. Despite several travel mishaps, we all arrived in one piece and met up with our tour guide Vincent, who then led us on a bus tour of London. From there, we visited the Tower of London for an hour then checked in at the hotel for several hours to clean up and prepare for dinner. Dinner consisted of going to a local eatery called “Thistle,” which provided excellent service and even better food. From there, we walked back to our hotel where I sat down to begin the blogging process.
At this point, I am quite exhausted. The words on my screen are hazy as I write them, and my body is telling me to go to bed. It has been one of the longest days of my life, but also one of the best.
That being said, I have compiled a list of tips and hints for international travelers:
- Have an exit buddy at all times just in case you get separated from your group
- Coffee will be your friend to fight fatigue
- But water is even more of a friend to prevent dehydration
- Don’t skip meals
- Try to keep your sleep schedule in sync with local time in order to minimize jet lag
- Invest in a U-shaped neck pillow for optimal plane sleeping
- No one looks great after a seven hour plane ride followed by a 1.5 hour plane ride
The first day has been quite a ride and it is only just the beginning. For now though, I must rest and refuel.
London Media Visits (Post Three)
Aside from the obvious cultural opportunities this trip would provide me, one of my biggest motivators to going on the trip was to learn about the current media in England and how it related and differs from that in the states.
My degree is mass communication with a minor in public relations, so it comes as no surprise to me that I have so far enjoyed the lectures most relevant to my major the most. Within this field, I am most interested in integrated marketing communications, which is the application of advertising and public relations tactics. That being said, there were ways that each lecture related back to public relations and advertising in some form. I made sure to take note of this relationship at the introduction lecture, the BBC Sports lecture, the Guardian lecture, the social media roundtable lecture, and the Bloomberg lecture.
While I enjoyed every lecture for a variety of reasons, by far my favorite was the social media roundtable with guest speakers Rebecca, Anton of Battenhall, and Pamela of the CIPR organized by Professor Kathleen Donnelly. Because it is so relevant to my major and future career, I enjoyed this lecture in particular and participated in it the most. It was extremely inspiring to hear from current professionals in my future career. It is always a unique experience to hear from public relations and advertising professionals back home in Pittsburgh, but to hear from someone from a completely different geographical area in the same profession is a unique experience unto itself. I appreciated the insight they were able to offer in the form of case studies and industry trends. Their presentations launched discussions of the public relations and advertising industry here in the UK as well as back home in the states.
My initial reaction to each of the three speakers’ presentations was how impressed I was by their portfolio work and what they have accomplished in their time as public relations and social media professionals. After speaking with Anton and Rebecca, I learned that they are both under the age of twenty five with very respectable CV’s and resumes complete with relevant experience. Particularly, I was impressed by their ambition. I was inspired by what they have already accomplished at such a young age, and it also made me aware of some of my own goals and aspirations as far as the profession goes. I do not want to just be in the public relations and advertising profession, I want to change it and contribute to it in such a way that advances the profession.
One of the most beneficial aspects of the lecture was the ability to interact with the speakers and actually get to know them and discuss the industry with them. I had the opportunity to discuss a variety of topics with the three speakers, with the discussions ranging in topics to PR trends, what is next in social media, and their career advice to up-and-coming professionals such as myself. This was easily the best part of the media visit because it gave advertising and public relations students the opportunity to network and get real advice from professional who are on their way up in the industry.
The (London) Art of Stumbling (Post Four)
One of the things that had struck me most about London is the amount of people everywhere, at all times. This makes most things difficult at times. Rush hour for riding the tube means it takes longer to get the group from Point A to Point B, it takes longer to find somewhere to eat, and it is also easy to lose group members among the throngs of people. Despite the amount of people and the size of the city, we managed to keep having amazing circumstantial, coincidental experiences.
There are about thirty or so students on this trip, and in that group that are about four or five smaller groups that always break up to adventure out into London. There have been many times when – by pure dumb luck – we happen to find something or someone completely amazing. These circumstantial events usually occur because we are looking for something else, are waiting for someone, or because we got the courage to strike up a conversation. We have had many opportunities to experience the culture and local environment while here in London, and one of the best ways to do it has been to just let things happen.
There are three pivotal events that really impacted me regarding the “stumbling” that took place in London.
1) One night we decided to take an adventure out to Camden town with the cinema students who are also accompanying us on the trip. What was intended to be a good night exploring the city ended up being a little less than we had hoped for. The trip had not been that well planned out, and we didn’t exactly know where we were going. It was a weird situation being in a city we were unfamiliar with, and after stopping at a pub for a drink we decided it would be best to get back to our hotel and get together there. Oddly enough, I had a better time hanging out at the hotel and getting to know everyone than I would have had with a night out on the town. This event taught me to go with the flow, because more than likely things will work out and a good time will be had.
2) Another night, we were all craving Indian food. There is a large population of Indian people in England, and we knew good food could be found near-by. After a quick search, we located a place near our hotel. We went on our way, but the prices posted outside the restaurant told us it was way out of our price range. After “stumbling” around the area, and growing very very hungry, we finally took one last peak around the corner and found a restaurant called “Little India.” We ate the best Indian food I have ever had, and had amazing conversation about the differences between life, politics, and media from London and the states. This event taught me that good things are right around the corner, and they’re very likely to pleasantly surprise you.
3) Our last day in London was jam-packed with action. We visited 221 Baker Street, Oxford Street, Borrough Market, the National Gallery, ChinaTown and went out to dinner. My favorite event that day was an odd occurrence just outside of the National Gallery. A few friends and I were waiting just outside of the Gallery for a couple of others when we decided to take a rest on some grass. I was in the front of the group so I decided to sit next to a woman and her baby because honestly, the baby was adorable and the mother looked friendly. As soon as we sat down the four of s instantly started talking about her baby, where she was from, where we are from, and about our trip to London. This small ten minute chat with this woman made my day because 1) I love babies, 2) it gave us an opportunity to engage with some local people, and 3) she had the most lovely accent. She even entrusted us to help her put on her baby carrier so she could keep walking with her son, who is six months old and quite adorable. This experience proved to me that engaging with local people was one of my favorite parts of being in London, as it was my favorite part of the day even though it lasted all of ten minutes.
Overall, my experiences in London have left me with a good feeling that makes me feel not quite at home, but definitely comfortable in this city. Here’s to hoping for more stumbling around Paris.
When in Paris (Post Five)
If you ever have the opportunity to take the chunnel, a train that goes from London to Paris under the English Channel, at four in the morning to arrive and start your day fresh, don’t do it. Say no thank you, no merci, not again. It is quite exhausting. This was the way in which we traveled from London to Paris. The idea is to arrive and have a full day ahead of you for sightseeing and for getting to know the city. While the idea is excellent in theory, it also makes for some extremely exhausted travelers.
Upon arrival in Paris we immediately went to the Eiffel Tower, which was simply amazing. There are some things that pictures do not give justice to, and this was one. Next we stopped at Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in the city. Its grandeur was simply overwhelming, and I appreciated the international feeling that the church had around it from all the tourists. Next we went to the Latin Quarter, which is a more student friendly area right night to Notre Dame. Here we ate lunch and had our first interaction with Parisians. This was also the place where I first noticed that the language barrier was very real and it would prevent me from settling in quickly in this city, as I had in London. That night we attended a boat cruise of the city on the Bateau Mouche. The large tourist style boat took us all over the River Seine, showing us views of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay and many other gorgeous buildings in the area.
One thing that struck me about the first day in Paris was how international everything felt. When we rode the Metro I didn’t just hear French, I heard Italian and Spanish and German. Although I already knew that Paris is one of the largest cities and of course would have a diverse feel to it, I was surprised by how much I noticed it. This is where I tried to become mindful of my own use of the language. According to Vincent, our Parisian tour guide, most everyone in France speaks English. For me, this means I have to be more mindful of how I phrase things and what I choose to say when out in public.
It’s a difficult thing to go from London, where we could say what we wanted and people generally understood, to Paris, where I had to be a little more careful not to offend anyone. It was definitely not altogether a bad thing, because I think one of the major things this trip has taught me is awareness. Awareness of myself, my body, my words, my actions. I think we could all do with a little more awareness when traveling in a foreign country because it keeps you safer and allows you to navigate more easily.
So far, my reaction of Paris has simply been “Wow” for a variety of reasons. It is big, it is fast-paced, it’s a little seedy at times, but wow, it is completely gorgeous. The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc d’Triomphe, every building or structure we have seen simply blows my mind. It is a gorgeous city, there is no doubt, but I cannot help but feel a little overwhelmed with the language barrier. I hope I become more comfortable over our stay here, and learn something along the way.
Allons (Post Seven)
Our time in Paris has come to an end, and I can honestly say I enjoyed my time here. I was extremely skeptical at first because while the architecture is gorgeous and the history rich, I was overwhelmed in Paris a lot more than I was overwhelmed in London. While in Paris I became more aware of myself, my body, my voice, and my tone than I ever have before in my life. Whenever I was out and about either in the group or on my own, I found myself checking myself to make sure I was acting as I should, or saying the things I needed to say. Essentially, I didn’t want to look like a tourist bumbling around in a foreign land. Unfortunately, I was a tourist wandering around in a foreign land, so I am sure that that is how I appeared to the locals.
To me, the language barrier was the most difficult thing to overcome, and it was also what made me look less authentic than people from France. I can honestly say I knew about three French phrases before the trip began, and now I know around six or seven. While this may seem meager to some, it has been a learning process and I’m trying to pick up things conversationally for the remaining days here.
While these small phrases have helped me to initiate conversation, I also have enjoyed talking to the Parisians in English because most French people do know English well enough to have conversation. One of my favorite things again in Paris was talking to local people. For instance, we went to the river and had a picnic one night and ended up talking to some local engineering students, all of whom were from France. We discussed the differences between French and American language, culture, and even had the opportunity to teach them some Pittsburgh slang such as “slippy” and “down there.” To me, these experiences have been invaluable because there is no better way to learn about a peoples’ culture than to speak to them.
Some of my other favorite experiences here have been just wandering around our arrondissement (district), Montmartre. From this I have learned how to get lost and navigate myself, how to ask questions and figure out the reply, and how to be aware of my surroundings. Montmartre is the 18th district in Paris, and also the art district. Our hotel was located close to the Sacred Heart church, or Sacré Cœur, several art markets, the Moulin Rouge, and a variety of other attractions. One thing I learned distinctly from my time in this district and the various others we visited was that I enjoyed the outskirts of Paris more than being directly in the city. It is a slower way of life that feels more familiar to me than the constant hustle and bustle of Paris.
Overall, I think my perception of Paris changed throughout my time spent there. At first I was extremely overwhelmed and was missing the pace and tone of London, but as time progressed I became more comfortable there and truly ended up enjoying my time there. There were many stereotypes I saw that were untrue, such as the French hating Americans and people being mean to tourists. There were however, some true stereotypes that I found.
1) French people really do walk around with baguettes sticking out of their bags.
2) There are small dogs everywhere.
3) I am seeing a lot of striped shirts.
The Most Humbling Experience (Post Eight)
One thing that truly struck me about being in France was how humbled I felt by my experiences there. I often caught myself thinking, “This is so beautiful, I can’t believe this even exists.” This thought was always closely followed by, “I can’t believe I’m able to be here to see it.”
This thought was a reoccurring one that stayed with me as I traveled to the Musee Louvre and also the Musee D’Orsay. I have heard about the Louvre so many times in movies, books, from people who have traveled there, and from pop culture in general. I have always thought of the Louvre as one of those beautiful places that I would always hear about but never have the opportunity to travel to. In particular, I found myself in awe of the Mona Lisa. There I was, standing right in front of the most famous painting in the world, and all I could do was stare. Everyone in the world knows the Mona Lisa painting, and I could not get over the fact that I was there in the same room as this famous iconic piece.
It was a very humbling experience for me to be so close to such great art, and this feeling flooded through me and continued as I traveled to the Musee D’Orsay that same evening. My group immediately traveled to the fifth floor where the Impressionists exhibit was. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of contentment that rushed through me as I looked at all the Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley and many more. While I was in awe of the ornate art at the Louvre, I felt a deeper emotional connection to what I saw at the Musee D’Orsay. I have always loved impressionism the most of all the art movements I have studied, so to stand in front of these fantastic pieces moved me deeply. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe this is here. I can’t believe I’m here.” Our final stop at the Musee D’Orsay was at the van Gogh exhibit entitled “The Man Suicided by Society.” This exhibit was perhaps the most emotional of all to me because I am aware of van Gogh’s personal struggles he endured as well as the effort he put into his art each and every day. I was so pleased and honored to be among his famous paintings that it made me ache for the man who felt no love for his art while he was alive. This experience in itself was extremely humbling to me, and I know I will never forget it.
Another extremely jumbling experience for me was traveling to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery at Normandy. I have always felt a pang of patriotism when it comes to our armed forces, and seeing the thousands upon thousands of graves at the American Cemetery was extremely somber experience for me. My great grandfather was a pilot in World War Two, and luckily he lived up to the ripe old age of 89, but seeing all the graves at the cemetery truly put it into perspective that not everyone was able to come home to their families. To walk where these soldiers walked and to be among their final resting place was an extremely melancholy experience, but it also instilled in me a feeling of being grateful to the sacrifices others have made for the freedom of the future generations.
Overall, I feel so blessed and grateful to have had these experiences because I never really thought I would be able to.
Homeward Bound (Post Nine)
The last few days of the trip flew by extraordinarily fast, and even though I wanted time to slow down, I was thankful that I was headed home soon. I wanted my big bed, to cuddle my cats, to hang out with my family, to kiss my girlfriend and to be in the comfort of my own home. That being said, I knew it wouldn’t be easy leaving France. While I had been apprehensive about my time in Paris, I had grown to enjoy the diverse country and had fallen in love with the countryside.
More than anything, I was nervous to come home a changed person. My dad traveled to Bermuda two summers ago and then Scotland last summer and I distinctly remember him saying that traveling changes you. He couldn’t exactly pinpoint what it changes, but he said it would change me and I would have the time of my life. I definitely knew what I had experience was once in a lifetime and I would never forget, but I was worried it would change me in a way I was not prepared for.
I don’t know that I can necessarily say what has changed about me in the week that I’ve been home, but here’s what I find myself constantly telling people:
1) Airplanes are not that comfortable, but if you are exhausted enough, you will pass out on an eight hour flight.
2) There is nothing like a church service at Notre Dame Cathedral. The soft lull of the sermon matches the beautiful tones of the hymns and left me feeling peaceful. If you get the chance to attend a service here, go.
3) Nothing compares to fresh goat cheese. Try it in a sandwich, on a salad, try it plain, try it on anything because you will not regret it.
4) Street performers can either fall into the category of really very good or really quite bad.
5) If you have a question about the area you’re in, ask a local. If you’re lost, ask for directions. If you want to strike up a conversation, just do it because more than likely people will be just as happy to talk to you as your are to them.
6) Plan for mishaps. Plan for things that you don’t want to happen as well as things that you do want to happen. When you have a back-up plan, you allow yourself to be flexible. There’s a give and take to traveling, and it’s best to have a “Come what may” attitude.
7) Say yes. To another walk, to a random conversation, to another macaroon or another glass of wine. Try new things, taste the flavors, and do what you set out to do – experience things.
Essentially what it comes down to is being open-minded. This trip taught me a lot about myself and about what it means to be away from home. It also taught me about what it’s like to come home. I will miss my time abroad, but it feels good to be home on familiar territory. Thank you for following along with my journeys – and a special thanks to everyone who helped make this trip possible for me, specifically my dad, Jax, Christine, Grandma Laura, and mom.
Until next time,