When I studied abroad I went to London. I had never been on an airplane before and never travelled outside of the country. I was turning 21 that semester and I was so excited to be trying something so different and so new for the first time. I came in with a positive attitude but things got tough and weird pretty quick.
We were basically sequestered with only students from our school. Our dorms were only American and our classes were with other NYU students, so they were only American even though the brochure said we would be studying at the University of London. Our dorms had been “newly renovated” but were basically scotch taped together by what was clearly cheap labor. We had no water, the dorm building eventually began sinking into itself and they invented this ridiculous curfew that we couldn’t have people over after 11:00PM even if they were other students. If we even posed a question about any of these things we were berated by NYU London’s rude and dismissive administration. It was not the romantic fantasy I had expected after all.
Here are some things I wish people would have told me about living in a foreign country for four months, even if it is another English speaking one.
Mind The Water
Do not drink tap water in a foreign country. The contents of water in every country is different, hell it ranges even in the states. This is common knowledge but it needs to be said. The water didn’t taste weird in London. It was clear. Then one day I looked in our electric kettle and there was this huge thick layer of hard, white crust. It appeared the mineralization of the water had separated from it and was gross. I later realized that consuming the water was the reason my hair was literally breaking off and I suddenly, for the first time in my life, had serious acne. It was terrible and I wasn’t the only one. Do not drink the water, you weren’t raised on it, so your body isn’t used to it.
Join A Club
I purposefully took a class at another school, I was the only one who did, so I could at least interact with other British students. This wasn’t enough. While culturally Europeans (it appeared) are more willing to talk to strangers and strike up a convo with you at bars, I still would have liked to hang with British students more. I highly recommend joining a club at the school you’re studying at or getting involved on campus so you can actually be involved.
It Gets Super Lonely
Not for one second did I imagine missing my family and friends as much as I did. I didn’t think four months was a lot or that it would really affect me so much but it did. I went abroad not knowing anyone and many of the NYU students went with their friends. I was navigating a foreign country all by myself and was trying hard to make connections with people very quickly although those things take time. I was deeply homesick by the end of it all and just felt completely disconnected. This is totally normal and you’ll get through it. Write letters home, Skype with your loved ones and write your feelings down because you will need an outlet.
Don’t Be An Annoying American
Sorry but, it’s true. On my 21st birthday I went to Paris. (#Humble Brag.) My friend and I had an amazing time. The food, the culture, the architectural beauty left us in awe. Paris was the first city that felt like it could someday be home. I had an amazing time. When my friend and I returned to London we were bombarded with negative comments about Paris. Other students said Parisians were mean, that they spent most of their time walking and that the trip was burdensome. Our experience was so different. People came up to us and asked us if we were lost and needed help, people were polite and friendly. This is the only difference I noticed between the way my friend and I behaved and the way others did, we respected Parisian culture.
Look, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan and you waltz into any old French restaurant complaining about how you don’t have any options that isn’t going to get you any options. If you order the ham and cheese salad you’re going to get that because other cultures aren’t like America where everything is “have it your way.” Deal with it. The only way you’re going to have a new experience is if you learn to accept that things are going to be different, what’s the point of going to a foreign country if you’re just going to try to make it into the place where you’ve come from? Demanding that service workers behave a certain way or that you get things exactly how you want them is going to make you look disrespectful and ignorant and people will treat you like you are just that. You are in someone else’s home so get your feet off the table.
It’s Not About Taking A Good Picture
Take lots of pictures, sure, but remember it’s not about that. My peers had a horrible time traveling because they were so focused on getting a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower or at the Berlin Wall that they would exert all their energy trying to get to monuments, to take a boring photo, so they can post it on Facebook and let everyone see what a “good” time they are having. Whenever they came back from a trip they just listed all of their grievances with other countries.
The point of traveling abroad is to have a new experience and if you’re seeing the world through a shallow camera lens you’re not going to experience anything. When I was traveling I’d divide the day into three parts. The mornings/early afternoons were for tourist attractions and museums and no rushing around was allowed. If we got caught up at one place because we loved it then it was fine we spent all day at The Eiffel but the didn’t get a chance to see the Catacombs. It was about enjoying ourselves not cramming it all in. Next dinner was at a new restaurant of that country’s cuisine. Then the evenings were all about night life. It was a great way to see tourist-y things and also actually experience the culture the way some of the citizens do.
Don’t Expect A Fantasy
Everyone who went abroad was changed in some profound way because they were tested. You will be tested whether that’s emotionally, academically or existentially. I would say I experienced all three including physically. It was exhausting and it was one of the best experiences of my entire life. With that said, it’s going to be hard. It just will. Everything is new and new things require an adjustment period. Even at its worst, even when you can’t take it anymore I guarantee that it will be worthwhile. However, if you’re expecting a romantic fantasy it’s not going to be that when you’re actually experiencing it, it will only feel that way after the fact. You’ll laugh and cry more than you ever have and that balance of the best and worst of times is what’s romantic. Your life isn’t a movie and going to Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa or South America won’t make it one but if you go in with those expectations you’ll needlessly be disappointed.
Be bold, outgoing, be active. Another symptom of the entitled students I went to school with was that they were so lazy. It’s like they expected food and nightlife to come to them. After just a few weeks, everyone at NYU would go to the exact same bar, The Rocket, every night because it was three blocks away. We were in a foreign city and whenever we wanted to go anywhere requiring public transportation or walking more than a few blocks they would whine and complain. Most people quickly settled into a routine and forgot they were there to explore a new place. Don’t ever stop exploring, let your curiosity be your guide and don’t let your need for safety and security limit your experiences. It’s nice to have a routine because it feels stable in a time when everything else is chaotic but you will miss out. You will miss out if you don’t push yourself to see and try new things. Push through.
Lastly, Apply To Scholarships
If you’re just now applying to study abroad be sure to check and see if your school has scholarships. I never, ever in a million years would have been able to go without scholarships because the conversion rate, the plane ticket, the living there without being able to work, it was all so much money but I received two scholarships from NYU and got $6,500 for my travels. I was lucky because there was a huge weather disaster while I was abroad and I had to buy another $800 ticket home. I’ll spare you the details of that debacle but having the extra money was more than necessary otherwise I still might be in London right now begging for pence in front of Nandos.
I had an incredible experience but only because my new friends and I were willing to push ourselves and not do what everybody else did. I certainly missed out on a few things but I would never regret the amazing opportunity I had to grow out of my shell and see the world through different eyes.
[Image Via. Shutter Stock / kiuikson]