Each week or so I will be bringing in a guest to ask them about their experiences with travel and what it has done for them. Why just take my word for it? Most travel sites and blogs focus on interviewing the “average Joe” that has left everything behind to travel the world. This “average Joe” typically has a travel site of their own and are still out there wandering the globe. Sure I will be tracking down those Joe’s but what about the “average average Joe?” The ones that travel for the sake of traveling. The ones that have no ulterior motives. They are the ones truly experiencing everything out of their trip as they are not tidied to a keyboard, a smartphone, or a deadline.
That’s who I am interested in hearing from.
The Average, Average Joe Series
Scott Robertson: Tapas & Diplomas
This weeks interview is with someone that originally sparked my interest in travel – my brother Scott. His love of exploring is something we share and something we have shared together through a few random and fun trips like partying in Iceland and going to London…for the weekend. He has set foot on every continent and just recently finished a year of school in Barcelona. Studying abroad is something I have always wanted to do but never followed through on. I recently sat down with him (over email) to catch up and find out just what it is like living and studying abroad.
From Yellowknife, NWT. I travel both for work and for fun. Usually I take one longer trip a year of several weeks, but try to fit in as many short adventures as my schedule allows or tack on a day or two to a work trip to see family or friends. I also have a small plane and use that to go on some adventures around the country or into the US, and if I can fly myself to a meeting for work even better. I’m away from home about 90 nights of the year.
Walk us through your decision process to study abroad? Something you have always wanted to do or just good timing?
For the past 10 years I have been trying to find a way to live somewhere else in the world for a period of time but I didn’t want to just go and sit on a beach somewhere – there had to be a purpose. It also had to be a place my partner would agree to. I had been thinking about doing a master’s degree and one night sitting on the couch I typed “Masters in Health Economics” into Google. The program in Barcelona seemed ideal – it was top-rated, compressed into one year, and an exciting city.
Once you decided that this was something you were going to peruse how did you approach your employer?
I had a conversation early on with my director to let her know I was applying for school. The requirement for education leave included a current performance evaluation. It had been a very productive year for me at work. I was involved in a number of high-profile projects and had worked very hard. I spent a lot of time before my evaluation going through every e-mail from my director and other senior staff in the department to highlight not only the regular work I did but the number of additional projects and tasks I took on, especially when it was something urgent and not in my direct area. I wanted it to be front-and-centre that I was a valuable employee, and pursuing additional studies would benefit my employer, and I would come back and apply my new skills.
TLITs: And are you planning on following through on that? ie back with your old employer?
SR: I’m back with my employer now and already have been able to advise on a couple of issues applying my new knowledge of statistics and econometrics. I have been asked to take a transfer assignment to a high-profile project that needs the skills of a health economist, so I’m pretty sure my employer is happy about my education.
A lot of people are intimidated about the barriers that come with studying abroad (language, finances, time) how did you break through them?
You just figure them out. It takes a bit of work and research but the process of applying for school, getting a student visa, and finding an apartment are far from novel – lots of people have done it before. The paperwork can be tedious and frustrating but it’s just something you have to do. Finances required some careful planning and budgeting. Fortunately I received an education allowance from work which allowed us to have a nicer apartment than we could have afforded otherwise. We spent some time with our banker to reorganize some of our finances such as short-term changes to loans and RRSP contributions to give us more cash for the year, and both took second jobs leading up to our departure to earn extra money.
TLITs: I admire your attitude – “lots of people have done it before,” I feel like that is lost on most people. Did you have moments of doubt? If so how did you deal with them?
SR: There were a few times before moving I was a bit concerned about money. I budgeted carefully and calculated how my bank account would look throughout the year. Having objective data to see that I wasn’t going to starve put my mind at ease. You can really get by on a small budget if you want. We could have shared an apartment with others, but since I’m not in my 20s any more there was no appeal of sharing a crummy apartment with 5 other students. If we were going to do this we wanted to really enjoy the experience and live in a nice part of the city close to the university, but if we had to we would have taken a smaller place further away.
How is your lispy Spanish? We’re you able to get by?
My Spanish is terrible! The courses were all in English so there was no requirement to have a second language. Barcelona is actually a bad place to pick up Spanish because Catalan is widely used. When I would see signs at the grocery store I was never sure what language it was in. It would have been useful for me to take a 1-week introductory course at the beginning of the year but my brain was occupied trying to review all of the calculus I needed for my program. English is widely spoken in the tourist areas of town and I picked up enough Spanish to get by, important things like how to order coffee and a sandwich. I am fairly capable in French which certainly helped especially understanding some words in Catalan.
What was the hardest thing about adjusting to life abroad?
The amount of time it took to handle administrative requirements – processing my permanent student visa, getting a bank account, having internet installed, all took a lot of time both because of the language barrier and not knowing how the processes worked. The layers of bureaucracy and what I would consider stifling inefficiencies were very time consuming and frustrating some days, but I just had to struggle through. After the first month when most of that was done life was pretty smooth.
TLITs: Could you have sorted any inefficiencies in advance or was it a matter of way of life in Spain?
SR: Asking other people in my faculty who had been through some of the paperwork already was helpful as I got some tips on how to make things go smoother. Connecting with more people in my faculty earlier on – or at least knowing the questions to ask them – would have helped. But other than that it’s just the way of life. Every country has its own special type of bureaucratic inefficiency.
How did school life in Spain compare to your university time in Canada?
This was a graduate program so I’m not sure how it would compare to Canada, but overall I felt like they wanted us to succeed in the program rather than first-year university when it seems classes were aiming to weed you out. It was a smaller program – 230 students in the entire economics faculty and 13 in my program area – so you got to know a lot of people and your professors and the administrators. They were all very helpful and friendly and supportive.
So was it all tapas and weekend getaways or did your program suck up all your free time, energy, and money?
The program was quite intense. My undergraduate degree is in nursing and I have been out of university for 15 years so I was at a bit of a disadvantage to the “kids” who had just finished their undergrad in economics or mathematics. We were able to do a fair bit of traveling and took a couple of weekend trips each semester and longer ones over the Christmas and Easter breaks. Compared to Canada there is so much variety in a compact geographic area. Most of our travel was on a smaller budget but not shoestring. We booked most trips at least several weeks in advance looking for cheap flights and hotel deals.
TLITs: Where did your trips take you?
SR: Weekend trips: Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Berlin, Morocco. Christmas road trip: Bilbao, San Sebasitan, Bordeaux, Toulouse (to see the Airbus factory!) and Andorra. Spring Break: Studying in coffee shops in Scotland and on the train through Austria and Germany. Overnight trips near Barcelona to Sitges and Cadaques.
Any parting words for someone in the fence about either going back to school or studying abroad?
What I was not prepared for was the strain school can place on a relationship. My partner was also working on his degree via correspondence but it was not nearly as consuming as my program. He was also finished 3 months earlier than I was so had a lot of free time when I was in the most intense part of writing my thesis. Successfully completing my degree was the priority and not being able to head out to the beach or for dinner with friends on a whim created a bit of distance between us. It forced him to get out and meet people on his own which was good for him, but if we were to undertake an adventure like this again we would invest more time in discussing and mitigating the impacts having such different schedules had on our lives.
It was however an excellent year, allowed us both to expand our experience in the world, and we are both very glad that we undertook this opportunity. It allowed us to see that living abroad is a very enriching experience and we will certainly keep our eyes open for the chance to do it again. The year went by very fast and coming back to work and life back home I realized so many things didn’t change drastically, the world didn’t end without me at my desk, and in many ways I was surprised how many projects were at the exact same place as when I left. So stop worrying about how the world will get along without you and just go.
Celebrating on a rooftop terrace with 50 of my classmates one Saturday night, a glass of sangria in hand with the lights of Barcelona before me. It was one of those times where you pause and realize your life is truly amazing.
Exam period first semester when I thought I would fail all of my courses and assignments and feared I would have to pack up and go home.
Plaza Catalunya on a warm night with the fountains lit up watching people come and go. It was the first place I connected with in Barcelona and was one of the last things I did before I left.
Worst tourist site?
Everyone raves about La Ramblas – a wide pedestrian street lined with tourist trap stores. It’s overrated, crowded, and full of people walking around blowing these terribly annoying buzzing whistles trying to sell them. The only exception on the road is the Mercado de la Boqueria which is worth a visit for the variety of foods to sample.
Favorite nationality to travel with?
I wouldn’t stereotype any nationality, it’s about attitude. I like traveling with people who can roll with the punches and look at challenges as opportunities. I hate complainers, so if that’s you stay away. Flight delayed by 4 hours? Great! The coffee shop in the airport makes a great cortado and there are comfy chairs by the window to watch the airplanes and read my book. Fell asleep on the train and missed your stop and now you are in Murzzuschlag at 3 AM? Twenty years later I’m still telling the story of how I had to play charades with the station master to figure out how to get on the right train. It’s only a problem if you make it a problem.
Best thing you put in your face hole while traveling?
To eat: pinchos (pintxo in Basqe, which means “spike”) are small tapas-like combinations served on big toothpicks. They range from olives with anchovies to tiny open-faced sandwiches on a small round of baguette and for the most part are under 2 Euro each. Save your sticks – it’s how your bill is calculated.
To drink: a cortado, which is a shot of espresso that is “cut” (which is what the word cortado means) with just a bit of hot milk, is the perfect antithesis to the grande-super-jumbo coffee drinks we are accustomed to in North America.
To eat: Craving Chinese food one day we went to an all-you-can-eat buffet near Plaza Catalunya. It was just terrible. I never did find an acceptable version of what I wanted in Barcelona: fried rice with sweet and sour pork.
To drink: Cava is a delicious and inexpensive sparkling wine but I obviously didn’t learn the first, second, or third time to stop after 2 glasses. Any more than that and it punishes you the night and the next morning.
Best quote from your trip?
“I only know two places in Canada: Toronto and Yellowknife.” The randomness of striking up a conversation in a pub in Heidelberg and finding out the guy’s roommate spent the last year living with a family in, of all places in the world, Yellowknife.
Favorite Country visited?
Every country offered a memorable experience. Ending up in Heidelberg Germany with one of my friends was a bit random and turned out to be one of the best nights out I’ve ever had. As soon as anyone found out we were Canadian they loved us and wanted to hang out, practice English, and buy us drinks.
Try as I might it is so difficult to find good pastry – especially croissants – outside of France. As soon as we crossed the border we stopped into a small bakery. The cherry tart I had will forever be imprinted in my memory.
We stayed mostly in mid-range hotels throughout our travels this year. In terms of value for dollars, Bilbao and San Sebatsian in northern Spain as well as Berlin were the best.
Best place to take a nap?
Ciutadella Park in Barcelona if you can nab a spot in the shade under a big tree.
Party hostel or clean and quiet?
I’m too old for a party hostel! I would rather go out and have a good time and come back to a quiet, clean place to sleep. If you are traveling alone and want to meet people it is much easier to accomplish that at a livelier hostel.
All pictures provided by Scott Robertson