In what now feels like another lifetime, I once spent a semester living and studying in Europe. The ubiquitous semester abroad. It took place, in my case, in a tiny Austrian mountain town, and we lived and went to classes in a 14th century Carthusian monastery. As you can imagine, some of my best college memories and closest friendships were forged there. I also learned an immense deal about myself as I traveled almost every weekend to a different country, soaked up wisdom from the humanities professors there, and experience the universality of the Catholic Church as well as the profoundly individual love of God for me.
So, when my former Student Life Director of the study abroad program and his wife, Mark and Niki Kalpakgian, wrote a book about their time working and living in Austria, I couldn’t wait to read it. I got to know them and their boys well while I lived there, and loved having the connection to a young family amidst all the flux of travel and being in a foreign country. When Niki sent me a copy of the book so I could review it, I pretty much devoured it.
The stories in the book not only brought back countless memories from my time there (like sorting our trash into multiple bins each week and the idiosyncrasies of the little village grocery store), but I also learned many things about Gaming and Austria that I had never known in my short time there, especially the Advent and Christmas traditions which I didn’t experience in the spring semester.
Mark and Niki take the reader on their crazy adventure of leaving their comfortable, suburban life, and learning how to live and thrive in a very different culture. They include snippets of the local and national history, the personality of the Austrian people, illustrated with hilarious anecdotes, and highlight many of the differences between the United States and Austria (particularly a small, rural community like Gaming). I loved reading about their experience with the local public school, the village doctor. They describe the sense of community in the little town, how the neighbors look out for each other, the storekeepers guarantee all their products and replace them when something goes wrong, and how everyone participates in the holiday customs that have been around for centuries. And there are plenty of downright hilarious accounts of their cultural “education”: learning about the local spa and its very naked patrons, how they received a note after the first day of school, because they sent their snacks in plastic baggies, rather than the eco-friendly plastic boxes all the other kids had, and getting cited by the local police because the university students were riding bikes on the sidewalk.
Their stories definitely open your eyes to how differently other countries handle things, from school and child-rearing, to medical care and trash collection. Living abroad is a fantastic way to help you both appreciate your own homeland, as well as see what could be done better there. The only complaint I had about the book was the frequent jumping from one tense to another, sometimes within the same sentence. Most of the time, though, it didn’t detract from the stories themselves, which were told with humor and vivid detail.
If you have lived or dream of living abroad, this book will inspire you. You’ll also enjoy it if you just love travel, adventure, and learning about new cultures.
Their book is available on Amazon!