After you study abroad, it consumes your conversations and thoughts. Four months of struggles, adventures, explorations and discoveries become a central topic of conversation and you can't help but rave about all of your experiences. But the return of study abroad students is always accompanied by one question:
"How was study abroad?"
The average person might say: "Hey, that makes a lot of sense. Everyone just wants to know how your experience was" but the reality is that each person that asks this question expects one of two responses.
1. Either the person asking doesn't really care and is asking because they feel as though they have to. In this situation, students generally respond with a one to three word answer ranging from "good!" to "it was awesome!" expecting the conversation to continue with further questions only to realize that one single phrase will suffice. After which, students are incredible "shocked" and "hurt" as the conversation moves to the latest break up or the newest restaurant that opened down the street (Boo hoo).
2. Someone who genuinely wants a detailed account of your experience, to which you can't think of an appropriate way to summarize 4.5 months of adventures, growth and experiences. You give your single phrase and as the person stands there waiting to hear more all you can say is "I don't know how to explain it" and both parties are left disappointed.
Recently I've been struggling to come up with the right words to perfectly describe the entirety of my stay. How do you create the perfect response that captures your experiences accurately but remains concise enough for an everyday conversation? If you can't articulate your life abroad, you can't share your happiness with others (and who wants that?!). So I thought maybe writing a bit would help me sort it out. I haven't exactly mastered the concise part of the explanation, but I can give you a "short" blog post to give you a summary of my experience. If you're one of those people asking, "How was study abroad?" this post is for you.
I'm not going to lie to anyone and paint this perfect fairytale image of study abroad. The entire 4 months was a journey from the very beginning and it started out pretty difficult. The first night I spent at my home stay, I was in new territory and felt incredibly out of place. I felt as though I didn't have anyone to talk to because study abroad has this perfect reputation and you don't want anyone to think you don't like your experience. But the beauty of this is that I struggled through it and learned to work through my frustrations. Within just a few days I got ahold of my emotions and began throwing myself into the experience. I spent every day exploring all that Paris had to offer and immersing myself in the city. On the weekends, I let my wanderlust take over and traveled to different cities all over France and Europe. My passion for traveling only grew and the discovery of new cultures intrigued me. I feel so blessed that I had the opportunity to see these differences firsthand and understand that there is beauty in variety. Just because something is different doesn't diminish it's value what so ever. In fact, I think it enhances it. Now, I want to run around the world like a sponge and just watch and absorb everything around me.
I realized the things about me that aren't so wonderful. This one was really difficult to accept. I'm incredibly impatient and I have difficulty controlling that with people. My impatience can often lead to an impolite attitude and this is something I'm truly trying to work on. I've always believed it's important to constantly try to improve yourself. To be self-aware and realize the things about you that aren't so great, because no one is perfect. I hope that eventually I can combat these downsides and work to be a better person, but I'm thankful that studying abroad exposed me to at least some of my weaknesses.
I became comfortable being on my own and enjoying solitude. When we arrived in Paris, we made a goals list and one of my very first goals was to be comfortable exploring things on my own. I was the type of girl who always had to be around people and in social settings because I believed that shared memories were more valuable than personal memories. But each day in Paris, I began doing more on my own and understanding the beauty of individual experiences. I ended my study abroad semester with a solo trip to Bruges, Belgium and I spent the day lingering around the city and enjoying the silence of people watching and sight seeing.
Along with the appreciation of solitude, I gained the confidence to accomplish things and explore unknown territory on my own. When I was younger, I was that kid who always had their mom call and make appointments for them or ask for help instead of figuring it out on my own. In the past four months, I have been pushed to my limits in stressful situations and I have had to think creatively to get things done. I've learned how to adapt, to get around, to use maps (WITHOUT GOOGLE MAPS EVERYONE, like the physical ones you get with streets on them), to use public transportation, to save money, and to communicate all on my own and this newfound confidence has already been so helpful in everyday life. Living in Paris was my very first time living in a big city, and although it was intimidating, I managed just fine. I think this also goes along with understanding the importance of being aware of your surroundings. I think in America we get comfortable because even when we travel to new cities, we can expect the same protocol. One example of this is in Paris, it is well-known etiquette to stand on the right side of an escalator while others can walk up the escalator on the left. Being in new and strange environments has forced me to concentrate more on careful observations from the very beginning, that allow me to respect cultures and blend in (semi)seamlessly.
Immersing myself in French culture was pretty life-changing. At the beginning of the semester, our director told us a story about a girl who, when asked what she learned at the end of the semester, responded that "French people are just like Americans" and he was incredibly disappointed. The reality is that French people aren't like Americans, and I think that's where the negative stereotype comes from. Although French people may look like Americans, they have a completely different set of cultural values and way of life, and the beauty is understanding that that's okay! I was able to see first hand the differences in cultures and I will forever be grateful for that experience.
I think one of the most important lessons I've learned is the idea of flexibility and taking life as it comes. I remember the last film we watched in my cinema course was called Cleo 5-7 and told the story of a woman over the course of 2 hours waiting for her test results to see if she had cancer. The message of the film was that we can't control change. Instead of worrying about the changes and making yourself miserable, we need to learn to accept and move with the changes. We discussed how this is one of the most difficult lessons to learn in life, but such an important one. There were so many situations in my study abroad experience where I could either complain and worry about a change or go with the flow and realize that things will work themselves out over time. Whether it's a train getting cancelled or getting lost in a new city or not being able to communicate with someone, there's no use in getting upset. There was one moment that I never had the opportunity to blog, where my friend Meghan and I got trapped in a wing of Dublin airport (the incorrect wing yall) and had to run around through baggage claim and back through security 10 minutes before our gate closed. Although at the time we were moments away from tears and meghan was sprinting in heeled booties, I kept telling her we were going to look back at this and laugh, because that's the truth! We couldn't change what happened and we had to laugh at the ridiculousness of our frantic moment of fear. I think this lesson is one I will keep close to my heart forever.
I'm sure I could write on and on about my experience but my director recommended a very small summary, so I'm working on shortening this up. I was talking with my mom a few days ago explaining how I was only frustrated with one thing. It seemed to me before study abroad that everyone who participated in some sort of abroad program loved it because of the people they met and the experiences they had together. Although I loved the friends I made (and I think they would agree with this too), I think study abroad was important to me because of a personal experience. Initially this was a little harder to understand, but I think it's become a major part of who I am. My journey was a personal one, and going to Paris was one of the best decisions I have ever made that gave my heart away to one amazing city (sorry Michael you still have some too).
So... In a nutshell (or one relatively long post), study abroad has been a huge growing experience that I wouldn't change for the world. If you want to hear more stories of European adventures, I would be more than happy to talk your ear off for a few hours over coffee.
As for me, I'm afraid this is my last post to the blog (I know you're all so sad now). Thanks to everyone who kept up with the stories and dealt with my lack of writing skills and less-than-amusing poor humor. Hopefully you got a little bit a joy from my crazy adventure!
Until I see you all again soon,