Beyond the Bubble: Blood, Sweat and Diarrhea
"It’s so funny how everyone’s totally comfortable telling people they have food poisoning, and everyone pretty much knows what they’re talking about, but no one can ever just say they have diarrhea." This observation came around week two of the term, when roughly two-thirds of our group had fallen at the hands (fins? hooves?) of meat purchased from open-air markets. (Europe, you invented refrigeration. Use it.) However, as the term went on, I found it became a particularly apt metaphor for my experience abroad as a whole. Stick with me.
The only way my expectations for my term abroad could have been any higher was if someone had promised a pile of zero-calorie doughnuts and a literal unicorn waiting for me upon my arrival. The stories I heard about the Barcelona program were carefree and peppered with hilarity. Everyone I spoke to who had gone abroad described it as, at best, the peak of their Dartmouth experience and, at worst, poignant and rewarding. Even when I was applying to college in the first place, I made sure to nix any school that didn’t boast an extensive list of easily accessible study abroad programs.
In hindsight, the weight of my expectations was so intense that I shouldn't even have been allowed to take them on the plane. Immersion in a new language, a new culture and a new Dartmouth subculture of people I had never met was enough to process without the added expectation of perfection: sunsets over the ocean, instant best friends, a bitchin' new accent.
All this is not to say, though, that studying abroad was miserable or a waste of time. It wasn’t. After several weeks of sadness, I found myself at a café with three of the other girls on the program. (At this point, we liked each other well enough but had not yet settled into comfortable friendship.) I was having yet another day where nothing felt right, where I stuttered through conjugations so slowly that the rest of the class turned around and stared. I wanted nothing more than to go back to Hanover, or at least back to bed. I figured if the academic day was a loss, I could at least drown my sorrows in cheese before heading home, head hung à la Charlie Brown or George Michael Bluth.
The thing is, I’ve never been good at keeping my mouth shut. Something about that day—those girls, that café or the restorative power of simple carbohydrates—inspired me to open up and finally admit that I was having a hard time. It was embarrassing for me to tell these girls—cooler, smarter, more effortless than I—the truth. That is, until each one of them agreed with me. They, too, had difficulties adjusting, missed home, felt overwhelmed at times, lost, lonely, left behind. My sense of relief upon hearing this completely changed the tone of the rest of the program. I wasn’t alone anymore. I felt comfortable sharing my problems knowing that others would understand. I had a newfound support system to help solve said problems, or at least commiserate.
This is the lesson I hope to bring back to Dartmouth. Despite constant affirmations that “it’s okay to not be okay!” and “I’m here for you!” it is still difficult to take the first step and admit when serious problems arise. When we attend a school that was once described in a college guidebook as "Hogwarts + Disneyland," a bad day, or a bad month or a bad term can feel shameful, like you’re somehow doing it all wrong. The fact is you’re not doing it wrong. It’s impossible to do Dartmouth wrong. And it’s impossible to feel any better without sharing your feelings. Not everyone will understand immediately (especially if you are abroad and they are on campus and thus think it impossible to be anything less than ecstatic anywhere that the drinking age is 18), but your emotions are valid. More often than not, someone you know has felt the same way, no matter how alone in your suffering you may feel. (You’re not that special, drama queen.) Confide in a friend. Ask for help. Admit you have diarrhea.
And to the hordes of people who will be on the receiving end of these confessions after everyone on campus reads this article and takes my advice as law (which is what I assume will happen): the very first step for you is listening. There is no problem set or essay or game of pong more important than your friend. Take a break and let them vent, understand that they themselves just took a very difficult first step. The next step is understanding. Many people I spoke to stateside were quick to write me off as "just homesick," or to declare malaise nonexistent in Europe. Needless to say, this did not help. Try your very best to empathize, even if you are an economics major and this goes against everything you have been taught.
After confessing how I felt, I could breathe again. I could proceed with the term as best I could, and found that it was, in fact, a worthwhile endeavor and an experience I wouldn’t trade, even for the incomparable springtime in Hanover. Honesty is cathartic. Talking shit is a form of therapy. The details, even the ugly ones, are the most fascinating and essential components of any good story.
So thanks, Spain, for challenging me. Thanks, friends, for listening. Thanks, Dartmouth, for giving me something precious to come home to when it’s all said and done. And thank you to the girl who invented the diarrhea metaphor, for reminding me to live shamelessly, no matter where I may go.