I’ve been wanting to do one of these reflection blogs to assist future students abroad as well as for posterity.
Dear Future Sara,
This is for you, too.
I don’t know if I’d say I have a bad memory, I just have a lot of stuff I’m trying to remember at a given time. The sum of my plans, aspirations, and future caveats (what some might call “anxieties”) are like a tub of marbles and my brain is like a plastic shopping cart full of holes.
I think this may be the reason I took to writing. Also, why I relate to the protagonist of Memento.
Memorandum: Get a tattoo to remind yourself to get a tattoo. So meta.
Anyway, if all goes well, I’d like to study abroad again. Next time, in Germany. I hope that I can gain new experiences there and learn from this experience I’ve had in Italy. For example, throughout the course of my trip, I have realized that some of my packing choices were great. Brilliant, even. However, some were not the wisest. Of the former category, there were things I brought that have been incredibly valuable. In the latter category, there were things I brought that just took up space in my luggage as well as stuff I didn’t bring and missed. Additionally, there are things I brought that served me well (or well enough), but may or may not help another person. We’ll explore.
Obviously, you want to bring the necessities. Your passport. Some currency of the country in which you will be staying so you can get set up. Some credit cards (having called ahead to ensure they’d be usable in the country–bear in mind that, occasionally, in Europe, vendors will require you to use a PIN with credit transactions; a month or so before your trip, it’s a good idea to contact your credit card company to have them send you your PIN–also, it really helps to call each card company ahead of time and write down how much (currency value, transaction %) each card charges with each transaction; if you look early enough, you may be able to find a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees). Important paperwork. Whatever electronic devices you rely upon. Chargers for said devices. I went as far as to take down serial numbers in case said devices were stolen.
Apart from that, it’s really up to you. Before arriving in the country, you want to take into consideration what your lifestyle is before leaving as well as what it will be when you arrive.
Ultimately what you pack comes down to the question of what is more important to you: saving space (traveling light) or saving money. Also, if you know you’ll be staying in a place that’s furnished, you can get away with bringing less.
For me, personally:
- 3-Season Jacket. It’s a bit warm to wear it in the current weather, but it serves me in the mornings on the way to class, and I’m so glad I brought my quilted jacket. In the coldest months, I layered thick sweaters underneath, and that got me by for the harshest parts of winter here. Being a Wisconsinite, “winter” makes me think “frigid, bitter cold,” but that’s not always the case. Bologna redefined winter to mean “rainy and a bit chilly.” When I left, I took a leap of faith, looked up some averages, and set off for the airport on a cold day in January in a thick knit sweater and my jacket. I was cold on the bus and shivered walking into the airport, but once I stepped off the plane in Italy, I knew I had made the right decision. It’s really hard to change your perception of seasons if you’ve only known certain cycles for your whole life, but do your research about average temperatures for the cities you’ll be traveling in. I’m so glad I didn’t bring my thick, wool peacoat, and my luggage is happy, too. Plus, it pairs well with penguin jammies (as pictured).
- Sturdy, Small Umbrella. Yes, you can buy umbrellas fairly cheap, but I’m glad I brought my fold-up travel number. It didn’t take up a ton of room in my luggage, and I don’t even have to think about it. I just have it in my messenger bag every day, just in case.
- Boots. Maybe I should’ve brought more shoes. Something nice, but these have lasted me for the whole trip. They’re black, so they’re versatile and can be dressed up or down. They get a little wet in the heavy rain, so I’m glad I had another pair of shoes just in case (though, otherwise, my tennis shoes have been worthless; I walk 4-6 miles a day, which has virtually eliminated any desire to work out), but these boots have been a life saver. I brought my full polish kit, thinking I might end up purchasing a brown leather something as well, but in retrospect, I would’ve stuck to what I needed just to shine and care for these boots.
- Casual Shirts for Layering. I brought about half a dozen tee shirts and tank tops in different colors. I am a woman of simple fashion tastes.
- Dress Shirts. Just useful to have. Even though I’m pretty casual, I like to dress up a bit for exams and it’s good to look nice when meeting with prospective landlords and roommates.
- Phone Stuff. Always try to have at least one extra USB cord, so when you get whatever adapter you need for whatever country you’re in, you’re ready to go. Before the trip, I bought a LifeProof case for about $60, which I have felt really good about. It’s plastic, but pretty sturdy and has survived the shock of every fall I’ve put it through, but the reason I got it is that it’s waterproof. I’m constantly using my phone for directions, and it’s nice not having to worry about my phone if it’s raining. Finally, if you have a Mophie or similar portable phone-charging device, bring it. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend you get one and pack it in your carry-on.
- Medications. This goes for prescription and over-the-counter. If you can afford to stock up on your prescription meds, bring them. It is a nightmare trying to get them shipped. I called the pharmacy and the post office before leaving; they just won’t do it. You might be able to get a prescription from a doctor overseas, if you need to, but if it can be avoided, just stock up at home. I put the majority of my meds in my checked luggage, but I had enough in my carryon to get me by for about a week if my luggage happened to get lost. I may have gone a little overboard with stocking OTC meds, but I’m kind of glad I did. I forgot to stock my mini-pillcase one day when I was out at class and got hit by a wave of stomach cramps and had to pick up ibuprofen and acetaminophen (pictured as “paracetamolo EG”–the Italian distribution) from a nearby pharmacy. It’s crazy-expensive here. If you plan to stock up on drugs before traveling, make sure you know whether your meds are allowed in the country or not and any measures you’d need to take. It helps to have a written script from the doctor on hand. Also, it takes up more room, but definitely keep everything legit. Ideally, sealed, unopened bottles for over-the-counter stuff. Keep prescription medication in its proper container, of its proper quantities, with the pharmacy label. You don’t want the TSA to open up your luggage, see an orange-tinted bottle that reads “Amoxicillin, Qty: 24,” but the bottle is completely full of different pills of all shapes and sizes. They’ll think some shenanigans are afoot. Don’t make it weird.Pro Tip: Always pack a mini-survival kit in your carry-on. A change of clothes, your basic necessities, just in case your luggage gets lost. If you absolutely need it, if it legally can go in your carry-on, and if you can spring for the space, put it in your carry on.)
WOULD RETHINK NEXT TIME:
- Raincoat. Maybe I’d need it somewhere else. Maybe if I spilled something on my quilted jacket and had to have it cleaned, the extra coat would come in handy. However, it’s just been taking up space in my closet since I got here. Umbrella or Raincoat. Pick one. Scratch that. Just bring an umbrella. A good umbrella. Or buy one. Leave the raincoat to Leonard Cohen.
- So Many Pants. Four pairs of pajama pants–I easily could’ve gotten by with two. Four pairs of dress pants and jeans–yes, it’s nice to have some dress clothes and I live in blue jeans. My weight tends to fluctuate a bit, so I tried to have two of each size range, but again, I easily could’ve gotten away with two pairs of each.
- Sweaters. Like pants, sweaters and sweatshirts are necessary, but I brought two heavy-weight sweaters, four light-weight sweaters, and two zip-up hoodies. It’s definitely good to have different thicknesses of layers, especially when studying abroad throughout seasonal shifts, and I have this sort of Noah’s Ark Complex where I always want to bring two of each kind of anything (just in case I spill something (*coughcough* coffee) on–this is a major problem–or somehow destroy or lose one in a swirling vortex of worst-case scenarios), but I could’ve easily gotten away with half of the amount of sweaters and it would’ve saved a lot of room in my luggage.
- Flashlight. Maybe it was smart to bring it, but that’s what phone screens are for. Seriously, I brought it and forgot to put batteries in it right away. When the power did go out, I just used my phone.
- First Aid. I’m glad I brought a thermometer and bandaids, because those things I have used and don’t typically plan to buy on grocery trips, so I might not have had the foresight to buy them here. Other stuff, however, like antibacterial ointment can be brought at any pharmacy when you get here. That way, you don’t have to worry about it exploding in your luggage. (Pro Tip: Plastic baggies.) Also, don’t assume that just because you’re in a foreign country that you’ll turn over a new leaf and adopt all new hand sanitizer habits, Future Sara.
- Toiletries: I have sensitive skin, so I wish I had brought an unscented facewash that I was used to. Some things are more expensive in Italy. And really hard to find. That’s one of them. Also, I went ahead and brought shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothpaste, and toothbrushes, with me. It’s generally recommended that you don’t, and to be honest, I could’ve probably skipped it, but in my case, I was underweight with my luggage, but not so much that I could skip the checked bag entirely, so it didn’t make a huge difference. Also, it helped because buying it was one less thing I had to worry about here. I could’ve skipped the two big bottles of body lotion, three deodorants, and three tubes of sunblock that I brought, though. That was unnecessary.
- Personal Products. Okay, so as a joke–but also kind of a way to keep the TSA from going through my stuff, but also to be really prepared–I stuffed the empty space in my luggage and coated all of my effects with a thick layer of feminine hygiene products. This worked out for me because now, in a way similar to the shower stuff, I’ll have extra space when I go home. However, I will not be bringing so many to Germany. Incidentally, compared to the stuff that’s more expensive in Italy (makeup, OTC drugs, shower products), I was really surprised by how cheap lady-products are. They can cost a small fortune in the States (don’t even get me started on tampon tax; tampons are a luxury product in the same sense that an emergency appendectomy is cosmetic surgery), but I don’t like to make political statements.
- Jewelry. I didn’t go too much for dressing up, but I’m glad I brought some jewelry. That said, just too avoid clutter, I could’ve gone without my whole collection.
- Housewares. I probably could’ve left my four pillowcases, corkscrews, thermos, Brita bottle, two full-size bath towels, and two hand towels at home. Or could I? For this group, it was kind of difficult because we didn’t know whether our place would be furnished or not. Mine is, but if it hadn’t been, I easily could’ve needed all that stuff and then some. I’d definitely recommend checking into it beforehand. If there’s something you use a lot and it doesn’t take up a lot of room, it doesn’t hurt to bring it. If there’s something you might need, but you think it’ll take up a lot of room and you can probably buy it there, just buy it there. Towels? Not sure. I like to take the advice of Douglas Adams, but if I could do it all over again, I would’ve just brought one light-to-medium weight bath towel on the Ark. It’s not like I’m trying to start a new terrycloth civilization.
- Books. This is tough. I always think I’m going to have more time than I do and end up bringing more books than I end up reading, which just takes up a lot of room and adds weight. As much as I enjoy the idea of being a post-apocalyptic librarian, holding down the fort in the last surviving bunker of books at the end of the world, it may be worth it to get one of those newfangled eBook doodlebobbers. At least for traveling. Next time, I have to be better about reminding myself that anything I take with me, whether I read it or not, I have to take back.
SHOULD HAVE BROUGHT:
- Makeup. I just brought brow stuff and mascara. Again, obviously, you’ll want to assess your life style when you decide what to pack, but I had mistakenly assumed I could just buy makeup here. No. Makeup in Italy is stupid-expensive. Plus, I left all my brushes and tools at home. I could’ve easily gone minimalistic, not having to bring my whole kit, but just brought something.
- Out-on-the-Town Outfits. On one hand, I arrived at peak sale season (ahmahgah, they have great sales here!) and there are a ton of outdoor markets that sell cute dresses and tops for ridiculous-cheap. On the other hand, the dressiest I went in my packing was business casual (dress pants and one or two kinda-nice blousy tops). I should’ve brought at least a black dress with a staple pair of heels for the first week or so when everyone in the program was getting to know each other and going out for dinner together.
- Guitar. I missed playing guitar a lot while I was here and ended up getting a really cheap acoustic here–I named her Lenore (because she, like Poe’s Ravenesque vision, was wrought from a tribute to longing)–I think I’ll just pack a lot lighter next time and bring her with me to Germany.
- Sturdy Shoulderbag. So, I have a messenger bag (pictured) for my books, that serves as my personal bag when I travel, which I love. I also have an around-the-neck zipper pack (pictured) for my daily moneys and passport, but that’s about all it holds. I kind wish I had brought an in-between-size purse with a thick shoulder strap and zipper pockets. Just in case I was going on a bus adventure or hanging around in Public and wanted to bring a book. I think the key to actually reading books is bringing a good purse to cart them around in.