Even though you’ll get briefed on any possible thing that could go wrong while abroad during orientation, I need you to stop all of those thoughts and remember one thing: wherever you’re studying is this same planet, just with different people – and they are people. Just like you and me and your mom and that guy that ripped you off in your hometown city a few years ago.
There are good and bad people all over the world in all cultures. Isn’t that why you want to go abroad — to meet these new people and see different cultures? Of course safety is still something to think about. Here are a few tips on how to make the transition and feel safe in your new study abroad city.
Inexperience: Sure you may have been drinking before, but chances are you weren’t in a bar or restaurant (or any public) setting. And what we mean by this is that just because you drank in a frat basement, does NOT mean that the Beyoncé rendition you did atop the terribly constructed beer pong table is just as fine and dandy in the bar down the street from the Eiffel tower.
Check out this chart of international drinking ages from 2014. See anything odd? The US is the minority in the world on this one – with one of the highest drinking ages documented and enforced in. the. world. Inexperienced drinkers with a fad of binge drinking simply leads to a cultural misunderstanding wherein many college-age study abroad students believe fun is blacking out and basically everything we see in American Pie (am I dating myself with that reference? Insert latest college frat movie here).
The first week that you are abroad and out at night, take a look at the scene around you. How many non-Americans are sprawled on sidewalks throwing up into cardboard boxes? How many are passing out in bar bathrooms? How many are leaving their cards/cellphones/jackets/etc at the club? How many are climbing historic structures just to get a damn selfie? Yes, of course, these people to exist in every culture, but American students make this a common occurrence – common meaning every night of the week. If I had a Euro for every time I had to step over vomit or empty bottles on my way to work in Florence, I wouldn’t have to go to my job in the first place.
There is a reason it is illegal to drink and drive. Because it isn’t safe. The same thing should be the case for blacking out and being in public. Of course, you can be drunk. Of course, you can have fun! But when a guy is lying passed out halfway under a car on a side street, regardless of if he is in New York City or in Florence, Italy, there is the possibility that he could get his things stolen. This is not about foreign areas being “dangerous” for Americans. It is about Americans being dangerous to themselves. After living abroad in a city known for the American student population and dealing directly with student issues, I can honestly tell you that 90 percent of the safety “problems” that come up are because the student was completely out-of-their-skull-drunk.
Solution? Just be better. No one is forcing you to have that shot with the beer – even if it comes with it. No one is saying that you HAVE to do anything. You are your own person. This is a self-growth period in your life. Use it wisely.
You can still go out, get ridiculously drunk (if you do so desire and can handle your outside appearance – just please be able to perform tasks like a real person), and still get back in by 2am or at least leave the club by then. There are multiple persuasions and excuses that can keep you out past this hour: friends don’t want to go home, clubs stay open until six, the good music isn’t on till 4am, your friend is throwing up in the bathroom. All great – but not good enough for you to stay somewhere you don’t want to be. If you want to go home, you go home. Nothing good happens after 2AM and if you’re looking for trouble, it is probably there.
If you are worried about going home at night alone because almost every manual ever written says to “not walk alone at night,” stop listening to everything everyone else may be telling you and do some critical thinking for a minute. Maybe your group of friends meets people you don’t necessarily like or they want to stay out but you have to get up early for class in the morning – do not let them decide your fate. You can go home alone, just be smart about it. Walk the most public streets of the city even if it takes you longer to get back. Be aware of your surroundings and most likely you will be fine. You’ve walked around your campus at night, right? This isn’t any different. Take down the taxi numbers or Uber, etc. Make a plan on how to get home. Know the address of where you’re staying. Write it on your arm if you have to.
Now, of course, Senegal is a little different than a university campus in Missouri. So yes, there are variations to this rule. Traditional study abroad locations like Rome and Prague are going to be fairly easy to traverse at any hour but there will be other places that the locals don’t even go out at night. As stated, in these areas it’s best to play copycat and follow the locals and how they function in their society. Do as they do!
One of the things I have learned in Florence is that what you wear matters. How you look matters. Italians take their appearance very seriously and if you dress sub-par, you will be noticed for it – and sometimes that attention comes from the wrong sources.
If you’re worried about pickpockets or unwanted attention you know that uniform that you wear? What Italians wear. You are now in the center of the fashion world of Florence, Italy and have stores, locals, and the media to help you see what is popular and what styles you like here. Instead of bringing your entire wardrobe with you, leave room for some outfits that you buy here.
Take from these trends you notice and go with them! Don’t try to be someone you aren’t – but allow the fashion of Italy to morph your own fashion sense into some type of hybrid international thing of awesomeness. Shoes are key. Try to grab a pair of new sneakers or boots – they’ll last longer and probably be more comfortable than anything you bring from home.
Because of the jump in tourism over the past few decades, there are people that are going to take advantage of it, and there are tons that do. From nightlife promoters to pub crawls, weekend travel companies, to money exchanges, scams are out there. Your study abroad programs will warn you about these and for good reason – but not all things that look like scams are actual scams. How will you find out?
Do your research. You are an independent young man or woman that has decided to kick ass and study abroad. If you made it this far, I have faith you can research if something is legit or not. If someone is offering a weekend trip for students, instead of taking all the information given to you as fact, research your own. For example, though it may be easier to just throw money at a company, maybe your experience on the French Riviera would be better if you went with a few friends and stayed with a couchsurfer.
This could bring the cost down and allow you to wander, meet new people (locals) instead of being herded around by a flag and listening to this new place through a headset. Truthfully how much would you be experiencing? Many argue they travel with a group and a guide because it is “safer” but truthfully, it simply means you are being sheltered (and maybe paying way more than necessary)
Gypsies and Street Sellers
Perhaps you have heard of gypsies (their real title is Romani) before or listened to stories from your friends that have been abroad about the street vendors and beggars – but what they don’t explain to you is that these people are people too, even if their motives are a little sinister.
The easiest way you can deal with gypsies and sellers on the street is be overly aware of their actions as you interact with them (as well as everyone around you). The targets are tourists – not locals. So if you dress to fit in, and don’t get entrapped by street performers (the crowds on the streets are huge opportunities for pickpockets). But if you are on a tour or look particularly touristy – keep your hand on your bag, etc. People that pickpocket are in every country. They just come in different forms.
The most important thing is that you don’t have to be scared, nor do you have to be a terrible person. If someone is attempting to sell you something, be polite, use manners and simply tell them no. You may have to do this multiple times and walk away. But, eventually, they will understand. Same with begging. Be overly aware of your surroundings, don’t be disrespectful, and continue on with your day. Remember – all people are people just like you. Maybe they are only so terrible because the overall population treats them that way.
Dating/Friendships Abroad – Give People a Chance
We all heard the phrase never talk to strangers – but you are going to meet a hell of a lot of strangers when you’re abroad because it is a new place! This law cannot apply and honestly, most people are just as friendly as you are. Instead of paying for ridiculous and costly Internet for GPSing directions, why not ask locals instead.
I have seen local Italians attempting to help Americans on the street only to be screamed at (not exaggerating) to get away. This. Isn’t. Necessary. Instead of completely refusing to speak to people, simply give them the benefit of the doubt first. We are all adults – we should understand if there is a creepy feeling in a conversation or coming from a group of people. If that’s the case, leave. Common sense!
Go with your gut (ps – remember that whole alcohol chat we just had? Your gut is going to want different things if you’re hammered so don’t let your intoxication get the best of you) and make friends – talk to the people sitting next to you on the bus, give that person that had enough confidence to come up and talk to you a minute of your time and see if you can make a new best friend. For Christ Sakes, ladies especially – you’ll never meet that dreamy European (etc) if you won’t even look at anyone in the face!
Learn the Language and Culture
The last and one of the most important differences in why the US harps on security is because of our lack of languages. According to research, to study in the US most schools require the international student to have a 70-100% comprehension on their TOEFL or Test of English as a Foreign Language before they will even look at their applications. For study abroad students in the US, it is extremely simple to study abroad in Italy for an entire year or more – without ever having had taken an Italian language course, or taking one during their time abroad.
Fine, we all know English is generally used worldwide and many people can speak it, but when an individual lives in another country without even an attempt to learn the language that surrounds them every day, problems arise with security that may not have been dangerous otherwise.
Anything from knowing the public transportation schedule changes to getting lost and reading signs are a basic necessity for anyone wanting to remain secure. But if you are not even attempting to bridge the language gap (even having a translation dictionary is better than most!) your study abroad program or locals are going to have to help get you out of tough situations you created because of misunderstanding. If you understood what was happening, it would’ve been a simple fix by yourself.
If something happens – what do you do?
In any situation you need to ask yourself: WWIDBH What would I do back home? Let’s say you had your bag stolen – if it was stolen at home, what would you do?
You would go to the police station. You need to do the same thing here. All information that is necessary is located online. You’ve memorized 911 since before you can remember. Take a few minutes to remember the emergency numbers here. If you have your credit card compromised at home? What do you do? You call your bank. You do the same thing here. Of course, with most study abroad programs in Italy, there will be people to help you out, but trust yourself first. Take responsibility for your safety and learn what actions to take in difficult situations. Prepare yourself, give it a bit of thought, and you’ll feel so much better about your entire experience.