I’m currently in the beginning stages of planning a trip to the Netherlands this fall. This will be the first time I’ve returned since my time studying abroad in the city of Utrecht twelve years ago. This will be the last of my study abroad locations to go back to. I’ve been to Dublin/Ireland twice since that summer in 2001. The first time was four months after the program and the second was four years later. My return trips to London were similar: four months and three years later. This one, comparatively, is a bit overdue.
On my first return trip to Ireland I donned the hat of tour guide for two girlfriends from Utrecht. I knew what shuttle to take from the airport, what hostel to stay at, how to get around easily, and what pubs were the best. I was too busy living up to my nickname ‘Let’s Go Lindsay’ to really pay attention to anything other than showing off my old stomping grounds. This was primarily to keep myself distracted and emotionally disconnected from the trip. I knew it couldn’t possibly live up to the summer and I was fearful that something might happen to tarnish that time.
Inevitably, I began to compare things. The group dynamic was different. These two girls weren’t the six people I hung out with four months ago. The time of year was different. Instead of being able to be outside in the summer sun, it was December with signs of Christmas everywhere and snow keeping us indoors. The overcast days mimicked my mental state.
But soon I realized that different was also good. With less of us, it was easier to stay together in hostels, or find a place to sit in restaurants and pubs, and there were less personalities to please. These girls wanted to do things that the summer group didn’t. The cold weather showed me another side to the cities and their inhabitants. And who doesn’t want to spend more time in a warm pub? I was also able fill in some missing gaps from the summer such as finally getting my picture taken kissing the Blarney Stone, which my summer photographer didn’t take in time – twice (ahem, Kevy). This trip added to my experience of Ireland, made it more dynamic. Whatever concerns I had before going turned out to be fruitless.
I am really excited to go back to the Netherlands, which is 180 degrees from how I felt when I left. I just wanted to go home and put all that had happened (9/11, culture shock, anxiety attacks, broken heart) behind me. I am returning with a purpose. There are plenty of other travel destinations on my list, but I think it is time I pay homage to a place that was the backdrop to a very formative time for me. Perhaps I’ll even gain some closure on a few things. I’m not quite sure what to expect, or even know yet what I hope will happen, but I’m ready to find out what does and expand my experience of the Netherlands.
The advice column in my local newspaper recently had a letter that sought advice on re-entry. The advice-seeker – Pining in Rome – is a student studying in Italy and loving it. She’s entering her last few weeks on the program and is worried about her return home.
Pining’s main concerns are: all her friends will have left for their own study abroad programs, there will be no one with whom to speak Italian, and the foods and pastimes she’s been enjoying do not exist at home. She has fallen into despair and is concerned she will not be able to enjoy her remaining weeks in Italy.
Here is the advice given: recognize how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and experience, “try not to over-romanticize the experience” and see it for the short-term fun it was, know you can return whenever you can afford it, and “how well you adjust depends entirely on your attitude.”
Being someone who has dealt with re-entry more than once, I find the advice given to be dismissive and unknowledgeable of the effects of a study abroad experience and the return home on a person. It doesn’t take into account the emotional and the personal connections and change that can take place. Pining in Rome is treated like a silly college girl who thinks she found true love on spring break. It also belittles the re-entry process, which can be a very complex negotiation of emotions, expectations, and reality.
The advice is very ‘big picture.’ I am not against getting some perspective, but this advice comes from too great a distance to have any chance of being helpful to someone engaged in all-or-nothing thinking. The one good bit of advice is the suggestion that one’s attitude will go far in affecting the return.
My response to Pining would go something like this:
Dear Pining: I’m thrilled you’re having an amazing experience on your study abroad program. As you enter your final weeks, concerns about returning home are to be expected. Your home institution should have provided you with information about re-entry and I hope you read it, if not, please do so now. Don’t let all-or-nothing thinking take over. You are in rare company that ALL of your friends are also interested in studying abroad and will be on their own programs. If this is indeed true, returning will be like going abroad again in that you don’t know a lot or any other people and you need to put yourself out there. Also, you don’t need Italians to speak Italian. If your school doesn’t offer Italian classes, branch out and see if there are any language groups in the town’s community. As for your concern about specific foods and pastimes, well, they are what make Italy, Italy. But if you do your research and call upon your newly honed skill of stretching your comfort zone, you might just find similar items and activities closer than you thought. Read up on re-entry issues (there are resources out there), make a game plan on how you can marry your experience with home, and stay positive.
My name is Lindsay and I am an overthinker. For instance right now, and probably for days after this is posted, I’ll wonder, despite my Internet research whether it is overthink, over-think or over think, or if it changes depending upon the context. I’ll also be thinking about how all of you will read it and if you’ll agree with my choice or not. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of questions. There are plenty more ponderings where that came from but I’ll spare you. But this is something I know, my family knows, and my friends know about me. I encounter a situation and I analyze to my heart’s content. And usually that’s what I am with my overthinking – content.
Of course this contentment doesn’t encompass my reactions to the results of my overanalyzations. And that’s the part that others get to hear about so they think of my overthinking as a negative. I have a hard time accepting that viewpoint. I think it is a good trait to have, looking at a situation from all angles. And I’ll concede that sometimes there is mild paralysis when I just keep going back and forth about something trying to figure out which way I’m going to ultimately go. I think of them as minor blips, nothing to worry about.
After reading the AP interview with actor/author Andrew McCarthy in which McCarthy states:
“You go, you leave everything you know that you’ve safely constructed to keep yourself from having any anxiety and you go to a beach and you lay there and all you have is your mind. How can you not think that’s gonna be a stressful experience? I always think travel is not about escape at all, it’s about confronting yourself,”
I began thinking, and while I thought about the good that can come of this confrontation of thyself, I also thought about the not so good. The reason I say not so good instead of bad is because I like to follow the old G.I. Joe saying that knowing is half the battle. When I learn something new about myself, regardless of whether or not I like it, just knowing it is the first step in either changing or embracing it.
The first not so good thought that popped into my head was my trip to Austin, Texas a year ago August. On this trip I realized how my overthinking can be magnified or misplaced due to the lack of daily life distractions and how my overanalyzing can act as an outlet for deeper issues. Unfortunately, my time in Austin was affected by this internal battle royale.
The trip happened thanks to the traveling trifecta: I had the time, I had the money, and I had a free place to stay. I had always heard that Austin is the Madison (Wisconsin) of the South. I had just moved home from Madison and thought I’d check out its southern counterpart to judge for myself. The free room and board was courtesy of a friend’s brother. I love to plan trips so before heading south I made a list of what I wanted to see, where I wanted to go, and what events I wanted to check out. Plus, Austin is the Capitol so there would be a Capitol building (!) to check out.
The first couple of days went along as anticipated. We checked a lot off my list, I sweated like I never had before, and I experienced pure joy at the Capitol building. Then came the days for me to go it alone while my friend’s brother had to work. The wandering around and checking things out by myself didn’t bother me. I could take as long or as short a time as I wanted anywhere I wanted. What got my brain moving in high gear was the prospect of using the bus system.
While in the Netherlands I preferred to avoid the bus mostly due to the language barrier and other stressors that accompany getting to know a new public transport system. Then in London I loved the using the bus. I liked it more than the Tube. Of course the ease of use with the Oyster card was much greater than with the strippenkaart. Also, in London words don’t have to be spoken and if they were, only an accent stood in your way.
Despite gathering all the information I needed about the using the bus in Austin (how much it cost, where to pick up the bus, and what number buses service my stops), I still had a stomach full of nerves that first day I needed to catch a ride. I kept trying to shut my overthinking brain off by remembering how I loved the bus in London, trying to replace my bad feelings (based on nothing) with good feelings.
I got on the bus, paid my money, and did something wrong. I only wanted a one-way ticket but through my confusion and the bus drivers I bought a day pass. As I made my way to my seat I said to myself, “See. There. Your fear happened. And it wasn’t that bad. What were you so worried about?” Sure, using the bus is a common concern amongst some travelers. But my overthinking wouldn’t let the situation pass without a thorough dissection. One of my worst case scenarios happened, which I chastised myself for worrying about, and which wasn’t bad at all (i.e. there was no Dennis Hopper waiting to blow up the bus if we dropped below 50 mph). But then I began thinking some more and began a downward spiral that affected the rest of my trip.
I first began thinking about how I was disappointed that I had issues with the bus like I had in the Netherlands, which conjured up my issues from my time there (culture-shock, 9/11). I then started examining whether or not I had progressed in handling mishaps or things that don’t go according to plan (regardless of whether or not that plan is realistic). All of this led me to my real issue – perfectionism. I now couldn’t deny this being the root of all things bus.
My perfectionism was something I thought I had (successfully) dealt with through the use of many prescribed methods easily available via the Internet, self-help books, life coaches, and friends. I had adopted/attempted re-framing techniques, told myself not to live by ‘shoulds,’ and to remember that it’s okay to ask for help because I couldn’t possibly know everything about everything. Apparently, all those efforts were made in vain as all it took was one bus ride to show me the woman behind the curtain. And from that point on, all I wanted to do was go home.
But like G.I. Joe said – knowing was half the battle. I tried to figure out what to do or think differently that might help me deal my perfectionism. I lapsed into a contented state of detached overthinking. A year later and I’m still thinking about it. Routine and daily life hide the rawest bits. But thanks to the self confrontation while traveling in Austin, my perfectionism won’t stop me from riding the bus again.
I used to only get sick once every February. Why that month, I have no idea. Then I started getting sick as the seasonas changed so once in October or November and once in March or April. Then 14.75 months ago my niece was born. And ever since she started going to “school,” I have been catching her sicknesses. I’ve caught something from her probably four times already this calendar year, including this past weekend when a visit took place. So, due to the fact that I cannot wait to put my head down on a pillow, pull many layers of blankets over me, and shut my eyes, this week’s post will be a short one. My apologizes – or you’re welcome – depending on the reader.
The Lecture: Getting sick while studying abroad can and probably will happen. Think about it. You are most likely trying to do and experience anything and everything. Eventually that can wear your body down, especially if you aren’t getting enough sleep or not wearing the right clothing. This is all common sense but while in a new environment where different and exciting things are happening and you want to – no, have to – be a part of it, common sense can be the first to vacate the premises. So try and keep your wits about you, drink plenty of (non-alcoholic) fluids, and remember that rest is actually important. Adrenaline can only take you so far and for so long before you crash.
A Cultural Snapshot: While in Japan I came across a new sight – people wearing surgical masks. I noticed them first on the train and then just out and about walking around. My first thought was that they were protecting themselves from other peoples’ germs. Then my Japanese friend, Indy, explained that they were the ones sick. They were wearing the masks to keep from infecting others.
What a great idea! I know I could do without shaking the hand of someone whom I just saw cough into the exact same hand. People just don’t think. Again, a lack of common sense and courtesy. I like the mask. It is more of a preventative measure than what I see around me here in the US, which is an (over)use of antibacterial hand gel. The gel is too far down the line of defense and is a more reactionary measure. The germs have most likely done their dirty work.
In a recent Associated Press article actor-turned-writer Andrew McCarthy (Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Weekend at Bernie’s, and, my personal favorite, Mannequin) discusses his new travel memoir and his views on travel. In the last few lines of the interview McCarthy states:
You go, you leave everything you know that you’ve safely constructed to keep yourself from having any anxiety and you go to a beach and you lay there and all you have is your mind. How can you not think that’s gonna be a stressful experience? I always think travel is not about escape at all, it’s about confronting yourself.
I totally agree. He doesn’t get the opportunity to expand upon this but I understand McCarthy’s “stressful experience” to be of the ‘all you’re left with is yourself and who wants to be alone with their own thoughts?’ variety. This definition has a bad connotation. Goodness knows I’ve had plenty of those moments while traveling. And of course through serious, forced self-examination in the end those confrontations can be positive experiences. But what about the confrontations that are positive from the get-go?
What about the times when you find yourself somewhere that frees your mind up to really examine and look at an issue or question that you might have been too busy or bogged down by everyday details to devote the time to reaching a resolution or solution? I decided to join two of my friends on a last minute road trip from Madison, Wisconsin to Empire, Michigan. The three of us left in the late afternoon and didn’t arrive until the wee hours of the morning to the family house of another friend.
The issue weighing on my mind was what to do next with my life. Did I want to go to grad school? Did I want to travel? Did I want to stay in Wisconsin, go home to New York, or go somewhere else? Did I want to work? I didn’t have high hopes of being any closer to a solution by the end of the trip. But, we were gone for less than 48 hours and the time spent walking along Lake Michigan, climbing up and then running down the huge sand dunes, and feeling carefree for the first time in a long time turned out to be just what I needed.
When I returned to Madison and my regularly scheduled programming of daily life, two things had changed. I had an answer, a doubtless, resolute answer, and a plan started. I was going to move home to New York, and work for a year while applying to grad school in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Being in a new setting allowed me to truly feel removed from the pressures and stresses of my life. The simplicity of my surroundings aided my self-examination. I was able on this trip to focus on the one topic without having many distractions to hide behind. It is this experience that I often refer back to, and try to replicate, when I’m in need of making some big decisions.
Also, what about the confrontations that can come in the form of finding out you are stronger or braver than you thought you were? That’s the realization I could no longer deny as I sat on the ground one evening in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. As I state in my about page, “This Lady,” this was the trip where I allowed myself to recognize how all of my travels – solo, in groups, with family – were me fighting through all my personal doubts, issues, and BS to do what I wanted to do, go where I wanted to go. I said it best on that page:
As I was taking in my surroundings […] I began to think about my travels over the years and how this was the first trip I had taken on my own. How had I, that shy, dependent, and scared girl, gotten to where I was? I was dumbfounded. Thinking back I saw no giant leaps, no major personality changes, just a gradual building of sense of self and confidence to do what I needed to do for me that had brought me to that point.
Siena was more of a struggle than my decision-making in Empire. I was forced to look at myself through a different lens, one that didn’t belong to me, but one that I would make mine over the course of an evening. I had nowhere to be but where I was. Taking the moment to really look around me and not just see, but observe where I was and with whom I had interacted is what prompted the introspection.
As McCarthy stated, I was away from my daily safety net and left with nothing but my own mind, but these self confrontations I had in Michigan and Italy were positive. And though travel has an element of escape, it just isn’t always from what you think.
I was studying abroad in Utrecht, Netherlands on September 11, 2001. My friend, Elinore, who is from New York City, and I went to the computer labs after classes had finished. We were in a laughing mood. The computer lab was in a group of older buildings that had been converted. The stations were set up in a number of different rooms, some the size of a class room, others a conference room. There weren’t two computers available next to each other so Elinore and I split up and went into different rooms.
The first thing I did was check my email. There was one from my dad. I opened it and it said that the Towers had been hit. What Towers? The image he attached loaded and I saw. But I still didn’t understand. I thought he was playing a joke. How was it possible that two planes hit a Tower each? That seemed like an odd, horrific accident.
Still confused I went to find Elinore to see if she knew anything. I was nervously laughing when I told her that my father said the Twin Towers were hit. She looked up at me and laughed, “What?” I recited the email to her. She was as incredulous as I was. Everything at that moment seemed like a typical day. Nothing seemed odd except the words coming out of my mouth. If something like this had happened why was the busy computer lab so quiet? Why weren’t they talking about it?
To follow was the day after day after day 24-hour news coverage. My parents had concerns about whether or not the program would be canceled, which it wasn’t. Most people seemed to be in a state of shock. I, already dealing with culture shock issues, didn’t want, and, more specifically, didn’t know how to process something like this. It was easy not to try being in a foreign country. Therefore I didn’t. And, honestly, eleven years later I still haven’t.
The Friday after the 11th, I was out shopping for shoes. I loved the fun colors sneakers came in that I couldn’t seem to find back home. At noon the bells in the Domtoren rang. When I finally realized they were playing The Star-Spangled Banner, I stepped outside the store. I noticed that no one in the street was moving. People had left the shops to enter the street to observe the moment. Everyone was standing still facing the Domtoren in silence. I had no idea that this event was planned. Apparently, it had been on the news, but I couldn’t take watching anymore.
Weeks passed and despite my avoidance I felt I should commemorate or have some memento of the WTC. At least that’s what everyone around me seemed to be doing. I knew I’d probably regret it later even if I didn’t really feel up to it at the time. People were buying posters left and right of the New York City skyline or of the Towers. That didn’t seem right for me. Why would I get something so big to commemorate and remember a day I fought so hard to not think too deeply about because I didn’t know what would happen if I did?
I did keep my eyes open for just the right item. Nothing I came across felt right. If I was going to do as others were doing I was going to try and make it personal in some way. That was as deep (or shallow) as I was going to go. I was in an art museum gift shop selecting postcards for my collection when I found it. I instantly knew that this postcard was my personal memorial to 9/11. I added the card to the group and made my purchase. Of course, fitting my modus operandi of avoidance, I rarely look at the card.
To this day I refuse to read any book about 9/11, fiction or non-fiction. I’ve only seen one film where that day plays a part in the story and I hadn’t known this beforehand. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. The release of tears and emotions I had after watching the movie, however, has probably been the only time I’ve approached a deeper contemplation and mourning. And to my surprise it felt good to have that release.
My train of thought has been that if I try and process that day, then I might comprehend what happened. If I comprehend it, then I might understand how and why people would take such an action. If I understand the how and the why, then I might condone a similar action. If I condone a similar action, then I’ve let my mind cross over to someplace truly dark. And if my mind crosses over, then it might never cross back.
Being in another country when such a tragedy took place in my homeland made it a lot easier to escape and hide. I now have a bit of safety in distance of time and of self. In writing this I can see the cracks in my old logic. Perhaps it is time I purged my mind of what it has kept locked in the closet and swept under the rug for the last eleven years.
One thing that I wasn’t prepared for or even thought about prior to studying abroad was the issue of personal space. Generally speaking, here in the United States personal space is one of those things that is an universally-known, unspoken rule. Around each of us is this invisible circle usually about three feet in radius. Everyone is mindful of their own circle and usually of others’ as well. The big no-no is when someone’s circle is violated or invaded. What I didn’t know before going abroad was that not everyone knows the rule or knows that there is such a thing as personal space.
Sure, personal space is invaded all the time. You can’t really function without someone at some point being closer than three feet from you. Public transit is a good example of a time and place when people are crossing over that threshold; in most cases it is tolerated. But the idea of strangers meeting for the first time, embracing each other, and exchanging air kisses seems crazy. Actions like those are reserved for family, close friends, and lovers, right? Well, not everywhere in the world.
My first experience with the ‘greeting kisses’ was actually here on US soil. The kisser was a friend visiting from Germany whom I hadn’t seen in about six months. I arrived at the house where he was staying and when he opened the door he bent down and kissed me on both cheeks. My lack of knowledge about how people from other parts of the world may greet one another caused me to totally misconstrue the situation. I had always crushed on him and I thought he might have had some feelings for me too. I mean who double kisses a girl they don’t like? Apparently, many.
It actually wasn’t until my second major moment of greeting kisses that I realized what really happened that first time (and it would have saved me a lot of time spent over-analyzing – ha). The next set of greeting kisses came while I was in the Netherlands. A Czech boy from my exchange student mentor group and I were hanging out at a coffee shop on a boat in one of Utrecht’s canals. He greeted me when I arrived and as he leaned in I flinched away. In my head I chastised myself as I had recently had a conversation with a French girlfriend about the whole greeting thing. I wanted to be more open to it, but clearly 20 years of conditioning couldn’t be wiped away so easily. Fortunately, the boy was very understanding, particularly as he had spent some time in the United States.
I am happy to say that by the time I was studying in London, I was much more aware and open to the greeting embrace and kisses. Becoming best friends with a Mexican and an Italian-Columbian expedited my progress. By the end of my twelve months, I even had little or no issues initiating the embraces. However, I still refrained with fellow Americans.
Upon returning home the issue of personal space was probably the first to go back to ‘normal.’ There are times when I do miss the more intimate connection made with the embrace rather than the usual detached and isolated way of presenting ourselves to potential new friends via a handshake or nod of the head. But regardless of your stance on personal space, remember and be prepared that others you encounter while studying abroad may not share your view, or – more likely – not even be aware there may be an issue.
An educator recently posed the question to a study abroad listserv I subscribe to about whether or not there have been recent studies conducted comparing the study abroad experience for students pre- and post-Internet. He was seeking to know if the Internet had fundamentally altered the study abroad experience due to increased ability to remain connected to home.
I find this to be a very interesting and important topic to be discussed, particularly as international educators continue to promote the study abroad experience as being vital for our students, and as technology continues to advance and reach parts of the world that did not have access before. Are the “vital” components being undermined by technological advancements? The research on this topic would have great implications on a number of areas including education, marketing, communications, and economics.
Before I dive in, here’s my technology background: I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I recall life before cell phones, Internet and digital cameras. I was computer-less my freshman year of college and thought nothing of it. My first cell phone was purchased in 2004, was pay-as-you-go, and was used primarily for texting, which was done without a full keyboard.
My initial thoughts to the question posed were that yes it has changed the experience and not for the good. At first glance I see the computer mediation as a hindrance. If a student keeps in contact with friends and family on a daily or hourly basis, what time are they allowing for the act of being present in their new environment, getting to know the people around them, and learning or unlearning parts of themselves? Not only is time being invested, but also the mind and emotions.
If a student only spent five minutes a day connecting with home, that may be a short amount of time, but there is a much larger deposit in the emotional bank. If he is having a bad day, that five minutes could perk him right up, but what happens when he cannot reach those at home in a moment of crisis? Unfortunately, he’s felt so supported by those at a distance that he has not taken the time to seek out a local support system. Where does he turn in these moments? Also, there may be times when his best friends can’t help him because they are physically not there and he needs someone in person to aide him.
Also, why are students keeping in touch? Are they concerned they will be missing out on their life at home, who’s dating who, and what’s happening on campus? Newsflash. While they’re worried they’re missing out at home, they’re also missing out where they are. People at the host institution who have direct contact with a student studying abroad (fellow study abroad students, native students, advisors, teachers) are friendly and welcoming. They can also perceive when someone is disinterested or preoccupied. I don’t know that I would take the time to get to know someone those first crucial days if I thought they came across that way. There are plenty of other people to befriend.
While in Ireland for the summer I wanted to keep in touch with my friends. I only had Internet access in a computer lab that had limited hours. I would send mass emails weekly letting everybody know what I was up to. I was trying to set a routine early on as at that time I would be away an entire 12 months over the course of both my study abroad programs. I didn’t want them to forget me or lose touch. Eventually people stopped replying (which was frustrating to me) and I became too busy. When things are going well or as expected there is less reason to connect with home. In my experience, only when sh*t hits the fan, issues come up, or something is unresolved does the desire to reach out to a known support system increase and contact is made more frequently.
If, on the other hand, students are keeping in touch as a requirement or request from their parents to contact them at a preset interval or as in one such case I read about where the student’s parents required her to use Skype in order to see that she was in her room each night – that’s a whole other issue. All I have to say on this topic is if you’re okay with your child going, then let your child go.
My second thought was that this might not be that simple because I believe the study abroad experience to be very personal, and, therefore, very subjective and contextual. If I had a friend or family member who had sacrificed a lot for me to go abroad or had never been abroad but was really invested in my experience, I would probably send them a photo daily and tell them I’d go over the photos with them when I returned. Students might be forwarding articles and information about a local event or local opinion on an issue to their friends back home thus feeling connected by sharing a new perspective, and, consequently, expanding the knowledge of the entire group.
As I’ve discussed before, my time in Utrecht, Netherlands was much different than Ireland. Yes, I made friends, traveled, and enjoyed most of my classes. I also encountered minor issues with course scheduling, funding, and equivalences. And some major ones: debilitating anxiety, culture shock, and 9/11. All of these required increased communication with home, either with my parents or my university. Dealing with the school issues made it hard to just get on with my time and achieve some normalcy which is all I wanted while navigating my culture shock and newly found anxiety. Then 9/11 happened and I didn’t know if the program would end or how much I was at risk being an American student abroad. Many people felt on edge and initially we really weren’t turning towards each other for help.
Here’s what I wonder – if Skype had been released and I had been a regular user, would I have reached out to my friends back home during that time when I felt lost, worried, and lacked a local support system, and, consequently, have stayed the whole year?
I can’t ever know for sure but I want to say yes. Not only being able to hear their voices (inexpensively), but to see their faces would have brought great comfort. I know they would have been cheering me on to stay, and talking me through my darker and most paralyzing moments. In that set of circumstances, turning to my established support group so instantaneously, so tangibly, so completely through the technology rather than trying to forge a local one from shaky ground would have been greatly appreciated and wanted. Even if the result wasn’t to have completed my year abroad, having that access at that time would have changed the experience for me and for the better.
Overall, I find this topic fascinating. More thoughts went through my mind on this than I could write, let alone organize for a post. I’ll be very interested to read more research as it’s published and hear firsthand accounts of students as they reflect on their use of the Internet as means of connecting with home and their experiences abroad.
It’s August. Summer study abroad programs are coming to an end. Students are packing up, returning home, and within a couple weeks will be headed back to their college campuses for the fall semester. But while thinking about going home, they’re also figuring out how to say goodbye.
I was very tired at the end of my summer program in Dublin, Ireland. It was without a doubt the busiest eight weeks of my life: attending class, doing coursework, going on program excursions, sightseeing around Dublin, and traveling every free weekend. That was just the physical side. Don’t forget the emotional roller coaster of meeting new people, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, and experiencing something new daily. A part of me was looking forward to the rest that would come with being home but I didn’t want to leave this amazing place and these awesome people I had befriended.
As the final week approached there was a sense of things winding down. My friends and I were all in agreement about how special the summer had been and what it had meant to us; we dared not speak a word of it ending. But you couldn’t ignore the sadness in the exchanges when you would run into someone else also doing their last minute shopping on Grafton Street to pick up gifts and purchase those items they’ve long had their eye on. And everywhere there’d be students with their cameras out snapping photos of their friends and sights around the city obsessively making sure they’d captured everything.
Then came my friends and my last trip together. We headed west to Galway, the Aran Islands, and the Cliffs of Moher. Sure, there had been arguing and attitudes on other trips but there was a different tone this time. Everyone was on edge. We couldn’t decide what we wanted to do collectively. Plans changed numerous times all within the first few hours of arriving in Galway. Splitting up proved to be our best solution – a precursor to what would happen in less than a week.
We came back together that first evening to celebrate the 21st birthday of the girl who became my best friend (and still is). Tension was still in the air but we rallied and ended up having a great time. With our bad moods exorcised, we sailed to the Aran Islands a much more cohesive group. We realized how far we had stretched our comfort zones by how much we found we trusted each other. Our gaiety, lightness, and silliness returned amplified.
On the last leg of our trip we chose to hike the couple of hours from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher along the coast rather than take the 20 minute bus ride. We just wanted more – more mishaps, more adventure, more laughter, more anything. And we got more. There was an incident with an electric fence shocking one of us as we crawled underneath. There was the discovery of someone’s fear of cows, which we had to walk amongst. And there was a moment of panic as we passed an ‘Extreme Danger’ sign as the land rose up higher, the path drew nearer to the edge, and the mud grew slipperier in the falling rain.
While waiting for the bus to take us from the Cliffs back to town, our conversations leaned towards the reflective and back to the beginning of the trip. We began to share our first impressions of each other unedited. This moved into sharing our favorite highlights from the summer. It was bittersweet to know we didn’t have much time to make more memories.
Back in Dublin, the last night arrived. The evening started with a party sponsored by the program. After drinks and dancing we said goodbye to the rest of our program. We headed to our favorite club and danced till the wee hours of the morning. Once back at the dorms we met in the boys’ kitchen for sustenance and some final rounds of our favorite card game of the summer – Hearts. We tried to stay up all night as everyone was leaving early in the morning. Unfortunately, we didn’t all quite make it.
Hugs and goodbyes took place in the kitchen. One girl passed out playing cards on which she’d taped her contact information – an homage to all our Hearts playing. She and I then talked in the hallway outside my dorm suite until I needed to get ready to meet my parents. They had come to Ireland a week prior to do some traveling of their own before we went as a family to Scotland and England.
I tried to close my eyes for a few minutes before leaving but the sound of suitcases being wheeled across the courtyard below my window as people left to meet their bus, train, or taxi kept me up. It was a somber moment when I did the same. I met up with two others who were also leaving at the same time. I walked them to their bus stop and then went to meet my parents on the nearby O’Connell Bridge.
All the goodbyes felt hasty. None reflected the gratitude, sadness, and elation I felt. I was glad my parents got to meet these people. In some way this made my summer real. Outsiders had witnessed our bond and were given a glimpse at how I felt about these people and this place.This helped the saying goodbye process – a little bit.
As I would be studying abroad the following school year, I wasn’t sure when or if I’d see any of these fantastic people again (we were all UW students). I wanted them to have something that would remind us all of the great summer we seven strangers shared together. With my mother’s help, I made everyone a collage of photos of our time in Ireland. For me, this was how I was able to say goodbye properly.
There is a small shop in a town near where I live called Celtic Treasures. Yes, it’s cliché. There’s the Guinness barware that can be found many places. And they have the claddagh rings, Celtic crosses, and crystal. But what always stood out were the foodstuffs and candy sections. The day I saw they carried the same roll of sandwich cookies my friends and I would get for our lunches I was transported back to Ireland, to being on the train, traveling to some new town, seeing the lush scenery, and feeling downright blissful. This store became my connection to that feeling, that culture.
Returning home and figuring out how to reconcile the two worlds you live in (it’s probably more like three: the world you left at home, the world you encountered away, and the world you thought you were returning to only to find it has been replaced by a world that is a mix of the old you knew and something unknown) to create an entirely new (4th) world can seem daunting, frustrating, joyous, and liberating. It is definitely worth the effort.
There are many ways to go about this. Below are just some of the ways I stay connected through things and language – the outer stuff. This is the easy part. (The real challenge is reconciling your new attitudes, opinions, and viewpoints – the inner stuff. But I’ll save that for another post.)
Things I learned to like while abroad that I continue to enjoy. Football is the first to come to mind, particularly with UEFA Euro 2012 going on right now. I love seeing players I watched down at my local pub while living in London. And getting to know the up-and-coming lads to continue my growing affinity for the sport. Gastronomically, I obtained a strong hankering for Indian cuisine. Also, lest I forget about mayo with fries – yum! To wash down any food, I learned to savor the taste of a well pulled pint of Guinness.
Items I don’t know how I ever did without. Duvets, people. They are a genius way to go for bedding. Why? Because they eliminate the need for multiple layers. Making your bed is a breeze when you have just one layer to pull up and straighten. Plus, with duvet covers (which are sheet-like) you can change up your look while one is in the dirty laundry pile. Initially, I had trouble finding exactly what I was looking for, but the increased prevalence of Ikea has made this issue rather moot. Also, scarves are the number one fashion accessory I took from being aboard. I have a rainbow of colors and am still trying to perfect the different ways to wear them.
The linguistic reminders. I curse in British-English and German. I say little phrases in my head in Dutch and Spanish. I overuse the words ‘indeed’ and ‘quite’ when I’m speaking. In response to asking a friend why she was looking at me oddly, she said, “You just said car park.” For the life of me I didn’t understand why this was “wrong” and my brain couldn’t come up with the American word (parking lot or parking garage).