KP Schwan is a full time wanderluster, part time travel blogger. Florida-born, Sydney-based. She’s a freelance content writer & social media specialist. She’s traveled to 30 countries, studied in 3 and lived in 2 – all before turning 22. Her favorites include Ireland, Croatia, Australia and Costa Rica. In between trips, KP likes to practice yoga, write, run on the beach and plan the next big adventure. Today, she’s here to discuss a very important dilemma – does size really matter? (Get your mind out of the gutter.)
The age-old question – Does size really matter? Well, when it comes to studying or living abroad, I think it does. One of the biggest factors in choosing a city is the size, and it may be one of the few chances in your life that “going big” isn’t necessarily the best option. Sure, the big bright lights of Paris, London and New York can be enticing with hundreds of like-minded young people searching for the same thing. Florence, Valencia and Geneva may even feel like you’re really “getting away from it all”, but it’s just as big of a hub for study abroad students who can group together and stay stuck in their cultural ways.
To me, the smaller cities, the lesser-known cities, the cities that don’t even have descriptions on Lonely Planet, are the ones that attract me. Why you may ask?
1) Learning the Language
When I first studied abroad, I chose Santa Ana, Costa Rica, a tiny little town outside of San Jose. There was one pub in town. You could run up the mountain to get to school every day. My host family was so amazingly kind and patient. And most importantly, I could practice my Spanish everywhere I went. Even the students in my program, all 12 of us, would practice together.
In a bigger city with a bigger program, I think it would be hard to keep trying to practice the language, because you wouldn’t need to. Locals in a big city all know how to speak English – you don’t HAVE to speak their language just to get by. I enjoyed being challenged by the language barrier every day. By the end of the program, I was having full, in detail conversations with my host family.
2) Getting To Know The Locals
The second time I studied abroad was in Leysin, Switzerland. I wanted a European Adventure, but I didn’t want to share the experience with 80 other students from my university. I loved having a smaller group of friends in Costa Rica, so I chose one of the smallest programs my university offered in Europe. Again, I chose a tiny town nestled up in the snow-capped Swiss Alps. And, there were THREE bars, this time. Getting crazy, I know.
It was a sleepy town in the summer months waiting for the ski season to hit. You had to take a 30-minute cable car up the mountain just to get to the town. There were stunning, breathtaking views from our dorm windows overlooking the Alps. You could hike for days and days in every direction. It was a quarter of a mile hike up a few hundred stairs to get to the train station (or the pub). But the people are really what made it worth it.
Our first night in town, the locals arranged a welcome party at our favourite bar with their resident “DJ”, DJ Pancake. Everyone came out to welcome us, and it was hands down one of my favourite nights of the whole summer. Throughout the rest of the time there, we got to know the locals, the bartenders, the cooks, the dry cleaners, the local teachers, everyone. We learned about their lives and what they do, and why they’re in Leysin. We partied with them every weekend, and truly became good friends. I still talk to some of the locals I met that summer. I’m not aware of many people who study abroad in big cities who build those kinds of relationships. It makes for a truly unique experience.
3) Making a Unique Connection
While I live in one of the most well known, iconic cities in the world (Sydney), I still find myself yearning for that small-town, locals-only feel. I live out of the city, go out to the lesser-known beaches and find restaurants and bars that only a local could. These experiences of living and studying in a small town form a unique connection that not many other people will ever experience. A smaller town offers authenticity, familiarity, uniqueness and in a good way, difficulty. It allows you to form a connection to the city like no one else has before. It allows you to be different amongst the masses.
I’m not trying to knock down any of the big European cities. By all means, if you’re a city slicker and get a rush from the big bright lights, then go for it! Do what’s best for you! But if you’re toying between big or small, and the only downside to the small seems to be that not many people have done it before, then go for the small. I was terrified both times I opted for the smaller town. What if I don’t like it there? What if no one is there? What if there’s nothing to do? These are good fears to have, and it forces you to get creative, meet new people, and learn about the culture. This is why I’ve now decided to live and teach in a smaller town in Thailand as opposed to Bangkok or Chiang Mai. I know it will be challenging, but I remember how great it feels to live somewhere totally unique and totally mine.
So does size really matter? What do you think?