One week into junior year and my Instagram feed is littered with study abroad pictures. It’s panoramas of cityscapes, pictures of gelato, crowds of Boston College students posing at this bar in that city, all appearing to have the time of their lives. There’s no question—BC students love to go abroad, and they love to talk about going abroad. #BCAbroad, amiright?
Before I left for my summer abroad program, one of my best friends from high school was talking to me about his semester abroad in Norway. When I asked him if he had a good time, he initially hesitated, then told me that it hadn’t been the experience he had thought it’d be. At the time I thought he was crazy, ungrateful even. How could someone who had spent five months traveling Europe be anything less than ecstatic when talking about the experience?
I disregarded his reaction, so sure that he’d done something wrong. After seeing pictures and reading reviews, I was preparing myself for the trip of a lifetime. I was infatuated with the idea of London, seeing the architecture of Christopher Wren, the traditions of the Royal family, hearing the coveted British accents. I couldn’t wait to live in a place so old and rich in culture, and I was convinced that my program would be too short and that I’d never want to leave.
After a few days, I thought I’d been right. I fell in love with London and was taking in as much of the city as I possibly could, constantly exploring between class, homework, and sleep.
After about a week, however, something changed: I started to feel static, like I was bored. I went to class and did my homework, but found myself not having the time or energy to go explore everyday after class. I felt like I was wasting time abroad as I sat in a coffee shop writing an essay, when I should have been seeing the crowned jewels at the Tower of London or going to afternoon tea at a fancy hotel. I started to feel so bad about this, so guilty, like I was wasting my time and money and that I had been so wrong about everything I thought this experience would be.
I realized that I was going about the experience in the wrong way, that I had romanticized it so much that I was disappointing myself for no reason at all. Going abroad had been a utopia in my mind, an escape from the realities of my life in Boston, a five-week vacation. But I was merely living life in a different city, much like how I adjusted from life in Minnesota to life in Boston. It was a bigger culture shock, sure, but still the same idea.
It’s hard because daily life doesn’t call for time allotted to tourist attractions, yet you want to see the city. You struggle to find a balance between being a tourist and being a local. When you finally allow yourself to immerse fully into the culture, you let yourself see the challenges and pitfalls of the life in this new city. You are no longer blindly in love with the “abroad experience,” and you finally realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. (I mean, a British accent will always sound better than an American one, but that’s just something I’ll have to learn to accept.)
The hardest part, though, is temporarily letting go of life back home. There’s that inevitable timestamp, that return ticket you have booked back to the States. For the entire second half of my trip, after the initial vacation phase wore off, I knew I would be going back to the States soon.
It’s not only the time thing: We’re so bound to our lives back home by social media and texting and Facetime that it becomes almost impossible to fully concentrate on the new lifestyle we’re trying to establish. Before Instagram and Facebook, people somewhat disappeared when they went abroad, cutting off communication with their lives back home for a few months. They truly fell into life somewhere else in ways we can’t when we are constantly attaching ourselves to the lives we would be living if we were back in the States. It’s a fine balance—you want to live your life how you normally do to avoid being a tourist while also temporarily letting go of your life back home.
I would recommend the experience to anyone a million times over. You’ve heard it before—“going abroad is life changing.” I saw Big Ben and rode the London Eye, walked the Southern Coastal Path and visited the Churchill War Rooms. I read for class in coffee shops and pulled all nighters for my essays, tried to avoid eating cheap pasta every night for dinner and probably watched too much Netflix. I didn’t see the Tower of London or Windsor Castle, and I spent more nights hanging out at my apartment than at pubs. But that’s life. There comes a point where the tourist gives way to the traveler, and you realize that while it’s important to see a different part of the world, you are also given this rare opportunity to actually live in it. It’s probably an impossible balance to find, but the closer I came to it, the more I got out of my experience.
Featured Image by Tim Ireland / AP Photo