As I lie on my bed, finally in my room, at home at last in the US, I’ve come to realize several truths about studying abroad: (Buckle down. This is going to be a really long post. Like, research paper-length.)
- I thought that studying abroad would make me fluent. Now, I understand that mastery of a foreign language wasn’t something that I could pick up during eight months of immersion. There are so many nuances to a language—accents, enunciation, slang—that, while not impossible to pick up, make it more difficult to learn. Plus, languages are constantly evolving. I mean, there were adults who’ve lived in France for years who were in the same classes as me. But my French has certainly improved, and the truth of the matter is, I can understand/speak/read another language fairly well—and that, to me, is an accomplishment. If you kidnapped me and abandoned me in the middle of a francophone country, at the very least, I’d be able to survive. (Please don’t get any ideas. I just got home, and I prefer to be un-kidnapped, thank you very much.)
- I also thought that coming to France would give me some grand insight on what I want to do with my life and my French major + English-writing minor. But I still don’t know, and that’s okay. The notion of knowing what you want to do for the rest for your life when you’re only 21 is ridiculous, as ludicrous as the idea that, when you enter college at 18, you’re supposed to know exactly what kind of path you want to follow. (Sheesh. Half the time I don’t even know what I’m going to eat for lunch, and you expect me to know what kind of job I want to work until I die?) The important thing is that I got the chance to explore my opportunities.
- I’ve realized that life moved on without me, whether I like it or not. I was sort of living a brand new life over in France, but my friends and family carried right on with their regular lives, and it’s just bizarre to think that my absence didn’t really affect anything, if that makes any sense at all. I’ve started to feel like a stranger in my own skin, trying to fit into an old yet unfamiliar environment. Everything’s simultaneously same but different, and that produces the strangest mix of feelings—sometimes I feel like a time traveler, an anachronism who doesn’t belong in this life. I’ve never really had a favorite quote, because I’m book-obsessed and can’t pick just one, but this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald really resonates with me now: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”
So, you might be asking, is it worth it to go abroad?
I’m not going to lie: homesickness hurts. It digs a hole into your soul and tears a scar into your heart. You’ll feel like you’ve lost a year of your life, an entire school year that you’ll never be able to recover. You’ll miss Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays. The smallest, seemingly insignificant things might make you want to break down into tears: you’ll grin at an inside joke and turn around to tell your roommate, only to realize that she’s across the ocean, in another time zone, in another country. Your friends will have forged new memories without you.
But here’s the thing: you were there. You might’ve been physically somewhere else, but you can still exist in the form of memories and wishes—so when you’re desperately, hopelessly homesick, for all you know, thousands of miles away, your friends might be missing you at the exact same moment. And once you go back home, you’ll start to collect, cherish, and store little details that you never noticed before. Somewhere in your heart, after a year-long absence has helped you dust off the dirt of quotidian life, you’re going to store little treasures like the shape of a friend’s smile, the lilt of a friend’s voice, the way they push their glasses up the bridge of their nose. Isn’t there a quote or something like “Absence makes the heart grow fonder?” Well, it’s true; everyone grows more beautiful while you’re away from home.
And while you’re abroad, you’ll be able to carry the memory of friendships forged through solidarity. You’ll meet people from all over the world, people you would’ve never imagined crossing paths with—I’ve met students anywhere from 18 to married to mothers to working, from all over the world: Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Sweden, Columbia, Madagascar, Uzbekistan, the Czech Republic, Iran, Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Slovakia, Poland, China, Vietnam, Paraguay, England, Canada, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, and yes, even America. (And by happenstance, I’ve met people from India, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Australia.)
When I first set foot in Nice, totally disoriented after lack of sleep and jetlag, I was so confused from hearing French all the time. I barely knew how anything worked. Aside from setting up a bank account and getting a student card, I basically had to figure out everything by myself. It took me nearly two months to realize there was a laundry room in my dorm, which was unfortunate, considering I’d hauled my laundry up and down hills, off and onto buses. I had to discover the quickest ways to get to class, the most direct path to the grocery store, the bus stops closest to the train station, bank, and library. Inevitably, I got lost (several times), and while I was frustrated back then, now I can look back on those moments with amusement.
Eventually, though, I learned where to find delicious sandwiches for lunch and when to avoid the lunch rush. How to stand on a bus without losing my balance every time we rounded a curve. How climbing down an entire mountain, despite the gorgeous view, leaves your feet and calves completely sore. How L.L. Bean backpacks might instantly mark you as American, but at least they’re handy for storing groceries and carving out a personal space bubble on the bus. How some people will look at you strangely for speaking in English with your friends. Though now, the bizarre thing is that I’m unaccustomed to being surrounded by English.
But the memories aren’t all going to be great ones. As usual, during school, you’re going to suffer from the stress of exams—especially when they’re all in a different language. (And when you have to handwrite at least 1500 words.) You’re going to complain about boring professors who seem to be only capable of droning on and making you want to sleep, or awful, ignorant professors who call a harmless part of your personality a “complex.” For the first time, probably because I’ve never really gone out and about in a city by myself before, I got targeted by disgusting men/boys who deserve to be eaten—two called me a “bitch,” one hit on me even though I clearly wasn’t interested, and a group threw a rock at my temple. And it turns out that, even if you’re no longer in the US, people will still want to know where you really came from. (Me: “I was born in America.” Annoying person: “But where did you come from before?” Me: *Seriously? What do you want me to say? Two X chromosomes? My mother’s uterus?*)
Weirdly enough, when I left, I only felt a bit sad. I didn’t start crying until the plane landed in Richmond, though I have no idea if that was affected by the fact that I’d been awake for 16 hours, or if there was no one sitting next to me.
All experiences have their ups and downs. We can’t all be “on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.” (Kudos to you if you get the reference, and if you’re still reading this.) As excited as I was to finally go home, when it was time for me to leave, a part of me didn’t want to pack my suitcases or step into the airport. I already miss the sunny beauty of the endlessly blue Mediterranean Coast, though I can’t say as much for the education system. (Thankfully, I didn’t have to pay for it.) But in the end, I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. (But for all the books in the world? Maybe. Okay, who am I kidding? Probably.)
Have I changed as a person? Definitely. I’ve always been terrible at describing myself, but I have noticed one difference—I’m not quite as shy as I used to be when I have to interact with strangers. While I guess it’s a positive change, it’s just…weird. Apparently, using horribly American-accented French in order to survive alone for eight months tends to do that. Who knew studying abroad could make you more confident?
I think that the beginning of this poem I’ve been working on is really the best way to sum up my experience in Nice:
I left my heart for a year to chase down all my dreams
I didn’t quite unlock the door, but I still found a key
Within the feathered, anchored hopes that strummed my heartstrings
There in the city sprawled between the mountains and the sea
(Disclaimer: These are my thoughts on my experience. Everyone’s different, which means that they’re going to have their own unique semester or year abroad, so don’t take everything I said to heart. People affect your study abroad experience, but your year abroad ultimately affects you. It’s your choice to make, and don’t let people persuade you into or dissuade you from going.)