Before My Study Abroad
Several foreboding warnings were handed delicately within conversation to me before departing for my semester at the University of Glasgow, from both my family and friends. As a woman planning to travel in foreign countries besides Scotland during my time abroad, most people warned me with wariness to be aware of my surroundings while ramping throughout Scotland and continental Europe. Especially when I informed those close to me of my intention to take solo trips to new cities. For traveling, there is a general knowledge that as a tourist one should be aware of different dangers, such as pickpocketing or getting lost. I believe that there are additional hazards that specifically relate to traveling as a young woman. However, I accepted the many warnings I received to some degree.
After about a month of being at the University of Glasgow, I had not noticed any significant differences to being a citizen of Glasgow and Scotland as an identifying woman. My engineering classes did not hold as many female students as I was used to back at my home university. This did not impact my education in any notable ways. In the first month, however, the sun went down quite early around four in the evening, and I found myself having to walk home from the West End campus area to my dormitory about twenty minutes away in the dark. Having not been in the city for long, I tried to walk home with friends or talk on the phone with my family during the walk; even for my own comfort, it was helpful to do these things. While the campus area was moderately safe to walk around alone, I would have been more comfortable with someone else in the city center of Glasgow at night.
These initial feelings regarding my safety as a woman in a foreign European city arose with new vigor upon my departure for the odyssey-like three-week spring break journey I had planned for myself. Stop one of the voyage was in Prague with one of my best girl friends I had made in Glasgow. We were both giddy with excitement and a new sense of freedom the first day into the evening. After dinner our laughs rang throughout the Old Jewish Quarter. Quick observations of the city’s evening dynamic subdued these laughs as bachelor-aged men would glance our direction as we walked or even call out phrases directed at our gender. We learned that even passing eye contact could be interpreted as an invitation for a male denizen of the citizen to talk to us out of the blue, especially in Italy where males are renowned for being quite straightforward.
A couple days later in Budapest, a taxi driver stopped next to where we walked on a side street and demanded us to say where we were headed next. Note that not all cities we visited were we regarded as such – in Vienna, we were treated almost too kindly as tourists, and being women in other cities sometimes worked in our favor to get free treats!
The parts of my voyage in which this concept of gender while traveling abroad was tested were when I traveled alone in two different cities. The first solo trip I took while abroad was to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and I was wary about my reception in the city considering its reputation. With two days to spare, I spent my time walking the city’s maze of canals and investigating the many art museums the city had to offer. Eating alone was an initial societal challenge, but I welcomed the time to reflect.
I avoided the Red-Light District altogether, except for one instance, and despite my wariness, I found no issue walking through the city of Amsterdam. Staying in a hostel (my go-to lodging during this crazy three-week trip) alone was somewhat lonely, and I found the all-girls room to be preferable to a mixed dorm, especially while alone.
Later in Rome, I stayed in a mixed dorm with another friend, and it made me all the more grateful I stayed in a female dorm while traveling solo. The second solo trip I took abroad was to Barcelona, and I again had no major issues as a woman by herself in a foreign city. Regardless, I discovered myself taking extra safety precautions– protecting my purse, having a neutral face while walking on the streets, not wandering around at night alone.
While traveling, I certainly became more aware of my gender in the context of foreign cultures. As a female, depending on the city or country, my reception varied in both good and bad ways. Whether I received free food or unwelcome “hellos”, I was brutally aware of my gender everywhere I traveled, even sometimes in my host city of Glasgow. However, I think this strengthened my identity to a certain extent. Glasgow as a city flourished on flexible identities, with many of my friends not conforming to a strict feminine appearance. With this flexibility and the occurrences while traveling, I am more in sync with my female identity now, and I hope to be more aware of this when traveling elsewhere in the future.
Sophia Moak is a Mechanical Engineering major at Vanderbilt University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study program.