Notes from the Glebe

The Local Value of Studying Abroad

Nov 29, 03:13 PM

by Margaret Foley

After weeks of planning and anticipation, the students of Augustana’s Spring 2009 Vienna Term held a reunion. We ate schnitzel and bratwurst at a local restaurant specializing in German food (as close to Austrian as we could get) and then partook in other favorite activities, including eating some delicious homemade apfelstrudel (apple strudel), and playing several rounds of a favorite Italian card game impersonating the old American West (cowboys and duels and all that jazz) named ‘Bang’ we frequently played at night and on Sundays. Although the turnout was fairly small, the nostalgia hung in the air, heavier than the scent of the sugary desert we loved so much.

And how is this local? It may seem a bit backward but hopefully not uncouth to examine a foreign experience in respect to local matters.

Our group of 36 students lived together in a hostel for three months in the 6th district of Vienna. We took classes offered by three Augustana professors. We went to parks, restaurants, museums, concerts and karaoke bars together. We traveled to foreign cities on the weekends, including Prague, Krakow and Amsterdam. We learned the value of getting lost, eating new foods and conversing with complete strangers. We saw the Hofburg Palace together, we saw the Vienna Philharmonic together, and we saw Auschwitz together.

And now we’re home. I still see many of these people regularly; during the intense period of time we lived and studied together, we formed a community of our own which has continued at our college. We have jokes and stories and memories and experiences that could not have been replicated anywhere else. Studying in Vienna allowed this unique group to exist, and this transplanted community has been invaluable to me since my return.

Along with this new community of peers and friends I am grateful to have, another major aspect of the experience has contributed to my education: I learned to recognize traits of my own culture with the template that Vienna taught me to recognize traits of its own.

During my time there, cultural observations, at first a novelty, eventually became an engrained part of my unconscious behavior. The term’s umbrella theme was “Dream versus Reality.” Viennese culture and history is nearly more steeped in dualism than schnitzel is dipped in breading. As time progressed and my cultural observations continued, I became accustomed to recognizing and internalizing the duality of facade and reality in every thing and every situation I encountered.

For example, when I attended concerts at the famous Musikverein or Wiener Konzerthaus, I couldn’t help but compare the social constructs which produced the Schönberg piece I heard one night compared to the Mozart I heard on another. Nor could I ignore the historical background that allowed the quick construction of elegant limestone facades over plaster buildings. Or why the Nazi eagles which perch on pillars of the old city gate still exist – and why they were put up in the first place. I found myself almost confounded with my inability to turn off this acquired sense. So much so that even though I was never as totally immersed in Viennese culture as its more permanent inhabitants inevitably must be, I brought this lens of cultural and historical dualism home with me. I now look more scrupulously for the reality behind my own culture’s architecture, art, music and scholastics. I cannot help but see the oil business behind every gas station, the garden deficit behind every grocery store, and the lack of funding behind every run-down public school.

And yes, there is a sense of guilt and hypocrisy when I attempt to reconcile the less environmentally and ecologically sound aspects of my study abroad experience with my reverence for all things local. But what I have gained from the experience is invaluable. I intend on using my newfound characteristically Viennese observational abilities for good, to improve the desperately disparate aspects of my own culture.

And while bringing these new observational abilities home has involved a bit of estrangement along with its wisdom, bringing home the friendships and community as well has introduced a sense of comfort and camaraderie to the transition, soothing this transplanted place memory and these valuable observations of dualism.

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