It’s time to dispel the myth that living abroad is somehow the pinnacle of the perfect college experience or gap year. It won’t be pleasant all the time. You’ll most likely be a little broke. Maybe even a little broken. And you will be immensely challenged. But it can be a rewarding experience in which you learn heaps about another place and yourself.
From drug addicts to stalkers – Paris picnics and love affairs – my experiences living abroad have been vastly diverse and complicated. And I’ve learned a lot.
Living Abroad in Bordeaux, 2008
The first night in my new home, my foreign exchange sister perched on the edge of my bed, wiping away her smudged eyeliner. “Alors, tu fumes?”
“Non,” I said. I don’t smoke.
She lit her cigarette and examined my face. Drugs? She asked.
“Non,” I repeated, suddenly acutely aware of my wiry glasses and baggy high school t-shirt.
She shrugged – my first true experience with The French Shrug – and continued to blow smoke in my face.
From that day onward, everything I owned reeked of smoke. My coat, my silvery scarf I now keep stashed in the bottom of my trunk, my salt-stained Wisconsin boots – even my freshly shampooed hair carried the bitter aftertaste of smoke.
School didn’t help. My first impression upon seeing the high school was that I had just entered a massive jail cell. Evidently, I would be attending a school designed for students who had no desire to further their education. I basically spent the semester being taught to smile while interacting with customers.
I also didn’t speak French very well back then. The father of the family would get so infuriated with my accent he would shake his head in dismay, call me “a stupid, fat, ugly American,” and storm out of the room – sometimes in the middle of dinner.
I began spending as much time away from the house as possible. And in truth, I barely remember parts of it anymore. I think I’ve blocked much of it out. I do remember train tracks; the smoke; a young man who stalked me every day, hiding behind buildings until I screamed at him; and sitting in the backseat of a car spinning so quickly, I was sure I’d die, as heroin addled the driver’s brains. I remember blocking out the world with music and books, and inadvertently retreating into myself in an effort to retreat from this new life.
But I was “living abroad” and wanted it to be perfect, so I didn’t say anything.
My foreign exchange sister’s friends didn’t believe I spoke French. The more I ignored them, the more they’d use my tights to burn out their cigarettes. Sometimes I wish I could return as my confident 22-year-old self and tell them to fuck off. But I can’t, and I didn’t, but I did speak up when I learned that the family had the nerve to complain to the program about me my anti-social behavior. Their claims were absurd, hurtful, and finally, the last push I needed to leave.
The point isn’t that this happened in Bordeaux, or France, or when I was sixteen, or that I lived with a drug addict. None of the details matter. The point is that I felt isolated, and, most importantly, as if I had somehow failed. As if the disastrous experience somehow fell upon my shoulders.
Because I lived abroad and living abroad should be perfect.
I’ve honestly moved on from this. It happened, I was okay, I lived, and now I love France again.
But it’s important for people to be okay, and feel okay about themselves, if their “living abroad” experiences don’t turn out quite the way they expected. After all, nothing ever does.
Living Abroad in London 2011:
This was the summer I learned how not to budget. Meaning, you should at least create a budget.
I also fell in love with London.
I spent my mornings running through Kensington Gardens. Sometime before class started, Peter Pan and I would stand in the soft summer morning rain, and I’d be alone in this vast mecca of cosmopolitan and life, and it was lovely.
I spent afternoons strolling along the Thames or wandering through museums. Evenings were for the Globe and dimly lit pubs, and I snuggled in the British Library on rainy Sundays, writing stories and working on essays.
My life, to me, in this brief time, felt complete, and I knew I’d be back.
However, living in London fostered this unhealthy need to see and do everything at once – all the time. I felt overwhelmed by this misplaced fear that I somehow wouldn’t see enough if I didn’t leave London every weekend. And so I booked tickets upon tickets upon tickets, running until I fell sick, exploring until I exhausted my mind. I honestly can’t recall a more idyllic time in my life, but I do believe that this trip inspired my appreciation for “slow travel,” and truly discovering a place before sprinting off to the next.
Living Abroad in Paris 2013
People oftentimes describe “a dream” as some lofty, fulfilling fantasy, where wishes fall from the sky and materialize before your eyes. Living in Paris was an actual dream – not the perfect, fantasy kind. It was the type of dream you don’t understand when you first awake. You muddle through distorted images and emotions and piece together a complete story, but the longer you’re awake, the more it slips away.
And, quite simply, living in Paris can be unimaginably difficult.
One winter night, my friends took the train from middle-of-nowhere-Beaumont to shop and admire the Parisian Christmas lights with me. We all saw each other, stopped, and said, “Oh my god, I need a hug.” Paris can overwhelm you, and the throngs of people fawning over how lucky you are can foster destructive guilt over feeling anything but euphoric.
However, living in France a second time helped me heal from the previous experience. It still wasn’t what I expected – it was both better and worse.
Romantic nights with anonymous Frenchmen – unromantic nights in tiny apartments, falling into confusion – mornings spent running along the Seine – getting hurt and attacked on the street – picnicking for hours on end – Monday poetry readings – midnight kisses and rowboat birthdays – it was all Paris.
And throughout the course of the year, I changed. And maybe one day I’ll tell the whole story. For now, all that really matters is that it was complicated, difficult, sensational, horrible, beautiful, rewarding, and at the very end, full of love.
Living abroad is never what you expect. And that’s okay.
I’ve recently contemplated moving abroad again, and realized it will be the fourth time in my life I will move to Europe – and my fifth time moving far away from home. For a better sense of exactly what I’ve learned, I’ve parsed it down for you in list format (just feeding the list obsession).
1. You don’t know what you don’t know
It’s my dad’s favorite saying for a reason. We will simply never have all the facts before we try, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s okay all the same.
2. If she asks you about drugs the first night, best just to call it quits right then
Really though. Unless that’s your sort of thing, in which case, party on.
3. If you’re uncomfortable, change the situation
Sometimes, it’s okay to hate your new home, or your job, or your living situation, or the people. It’s normal and healthy, and part of the process. Only when you despise something so much that it becomes destructive should you move on – and at that point, you need to care enough about yourself to say, “I’m done.”
4. Make a list of activities to enjoy doing by yourself
This may not work for everyone, but honestly, this tactic helped me survive living abroad on numerous occasions. Even if you’re in love with your host family, or job abroad, or new city, living in a completely foreign environment is wrought with complications, and, oftentimes, loneliness. Fortunately, you have yourself. See what you want to see, sample the local food as you hike through the tiny Korean village, or explore the sunlit Spanish streets.
After a full day of listening to French teachers, speaking in French, reading in French, even daydreaming in French, I wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep. Or speak English. Make an effort to immerse yourself in the culture, but allow your mind gentle reprieves as well.
6. You probably won’t meet the love of your life in Paris. Especially not when you’re sixteen, awkward, and living in an entirely different city.
Let’s just say I was a very romantic, imaginative sixteen-year-old. On that note, be careful with who you trust, know the local police numbers if you end up with a stalker, and don’t forget to heed the essential rules of romance abroad.
7. Traveling is overrated
Relax. Breathe. Get to know the culture. Know your new home, discover favorite coffee shops, pubs, and tapas restaurants. Unseen places haunt the travel-obsessed. We always have “just one more place to visit.” Know that your list will never end, and you could sicken yourself if you try to do and see everything at once.
8. You may never fully understand or fit in your adopted home.
No matter how confident you are, or how connected you feel to a new culture, you’ll probably screw up at least once. I’ve yet to meet an expat without their share of awkward cultural mishaps. Accept it and learn to laugh at your mistakes.
And honestly, you can read every “what to expect while living abroad” article in the world, and you will never fully prepare yourself. It’s about risk and exploration. Enjoy it – or don’t. But know that many people have experienced similar situations, and regardless of what you encounter, you will undoubtedly learn more than you ever expected.