“Simple exchanges can break down walls between us,” said President Obama during a speech in Turkey. “For when people come together and share common experiences, their common humanity is revealed.”
The President’s choice of words was a play on the literal tear down of the Berlin Wall, as much as it was a poignant description of two countries theoretically breaking down barriers and coming together. The common understanding? Positive intercultural relations benefit everybody.
In 1989, when the wall that divided Eastern Europe from Western fell, it was a fantastic historical moment. Europe had become one. Whole. But even though the physical barrier is gone, the line it created persists. The two sides of Europe still differ greatly, but for those who wish to study abroad, Eastern Europe proves a fascinating conglomeration of cultures rich in learning environments for language, social, historical, political or economic studies.
Eastern Europe is less touristy than it’s western counterpart, but not because there are less things to see. In fact, the countries are rife with castles and vivid landscapes to woo any curious mind. And less tourism means costs are cheaper - about half that of western Europe - and you’ll find less spoken English, which makes it the perfect immersion experience for a language-study program. To prepare you for an exciting journey studying abroad in Eastern Europe, here are a few things to know before you go.
1. So.... Which countries comprise Eastern Europe, exactly?
If you’re considering studying in Eastern Europe, it’s probably a good idea to understand the geography of the area and that the classification of Eastern Europe is sometimes up to interpretation. Is there just one dividing line between east and west, or do you consider the northeast, southeast and central sections to all be separate? For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on the entirety of all countries to the east of Germany and Austria, and north of Greece, including Russia and Czech Republic (though, Czech Republic is more technically central Europe than Eastern Europe).
You may feel like because Eastern Europe is a bit more far-flung than your typical study abroad program in France or Spain that you have less study abroad options. On the contrary! The Czech Republic is a popular study abroad destination, and top-notch study abroad organizations like AIFS, Panrimo, ISA, and CET all have programs there! For something even more off the beaten path, consider API Study Abroad, which offers both summer and semester programs in Poland, Croatia, and Hungary. If you want a tour of the whole region, a program like EESA's Eastern European travel semester might be a good fit for you.
2. Language immersion is a great opportunity
If you’re planning to focus your studies on a language program in Eastern Europe, you’ll find many non-traditional locations where complete immersion is a possibility. There’s no better way to learn than by putting yourself in a situation where you’re forced to study and practice the local tongue. While several of the larger cities and study abroad destinations are rife with tourists and English speakers, it’s far less common to find fluent speakers than it is in Western Europe.
3. Travel is cheap and easy.
Except for Russia, all of the countries in Eastern Europe are relatively small and close together, making travel between them quite easy. Trains and buses are the most prominent forms of public transportation, though the infrastructure isn’t always high quality and travel times can take much longer than expected. For a look at the cost of living, read this blog post from Nomadic Matt.
4. Not all countries are on the Euro rail system.
The most common way to travel Europe is by train, and most people take advantage of the multi- country ticket offered from Rail Europe. It’s a rail pass offered only to non-European residents to encourage tourism, and it allows the user to see a wide range of countries on one ticket. It’s a great deal worth taking advantage of, however, it does not include many countries in Eastern Europe, such as Estonia, Latvia, Serbia and Moldova, to name a few. You can see if your desired country is included here.
5. Many countries don’t use the Euro.
Keep in mind when traveling in Europe that money is not interchangeable across all borders, especially when one gets to the Eastern side. The Euro is only used in 17 European countries; the rest have their own monetary system, including Poland, Russia, Romania, Hungary and Ukraine.
6. Students get a discount at many museums and other attractions.
Cha-ching! As long as you show your international student ID, you'll be able to get great deals at many museums. You may opt to take this one step further by getting an ID card specifically for international students, like the ISIC. This is an incredible way to learn more about the local culture and history at a fraction of the cost. You can instead save your hard-earned monies for more exciting expenses, such as weekend trips or additional souvenirs!
7. The academic year is cohesive with ours.
Most universities operate on a semester schedule from September to June, making your transition within the school system easier. This means you have the opportunity to study abroad in Eastern Europe for a semester or whole year, without missing out on any classes back at home. If you never thought this might pose a problem, ask your friends who are studying in Australia!
8. Dress conventionally.
Wearing what Europeans consider “house clothes” (pajamas and exercise attire) on the street is frowned upon. This is not to say that the attire is more conservative than what we’re used to in the States (it’s not). In fact, typical daily dress is similar to what we wear, such as jeans and tops in the summer, and boots and coats in the winter.
However, ladies and gents, it’s unacceptable to look like you just woke up, or like you’re ready for the gym, when you’re simply going to the grocery store. Put a more polished look on before you set foot outside of your dorm or apartment door.
9. Winters can be harsh.
Temperatures often drop below freezing in the wintertime, with January lows of 12 degrees (F) in Russia, 21 in Ukraine and 26 in Romania, but the summers are often mild, with highs barely reaching 70. If you are planning an extended visit to this region, be sure to pack items that suit all types of weather (the secret is layers!).
10. Castles abound all over Central/Eastern Europe.
This is one of the many draws for tourism in the area. From the Bran Castle in Romania, known as the home of Count Dracula, to the largest castle in the world, Prague Castle in Czech Republic, there’s a fairytale landscape for any history buff or adventure traveler. Just be on the lookout for any haunted corridors!
As a student planning to study abroad, you’re choosing to partake in global awareness. Perhaps you want to go overseas for the travel benefits, or to learn a language, or to study history. You can do all of that, of course, but your presence in a foreign country also makes you an ambassador for your own. You’ll undoubtedly meet locals who are curious about where you’re from and why you chose to study in their country, and this exchange of friendly words and smiles can say so much more than what’s on the surface.
Eastern Europe is a playground for international students – so go play. Climb high into your education, swing low into the local culture, and ride the merry-go-round around the world. Just remember to have fun, learn lots, be friendly and soak up every inch of this unforgettable experience. As our an ambassador to our country, we wouldn’t want you to do anything less.