Beyond the Bubble: Hate It Until You Love It
Dear Diary: Wow, what a day! Today I went to the beach and frolicked in my cute new bikini and put my toes in the Mediterranean and made my awesome new friend take super adorable pictures of me the whole time! The sky was blue and the sand was warm and I was almost able to forget that I had spent the entire night prior sobbing uncontrollably, nauseous from the thought of going to class the next day and frantically texting my mother (because no one else would listen to me) using WiFi I had to pay for.
This was more or less the story of my first few weeks abroad. After several days gallivanting across Europe during my spring break, I arrived in Barcelona confident that I had mastered the art of European life and would only continue to live fabulously. I had spent my days in museums, staring pensively and nodding every once in a while so passers-by would think I was cultured. I had eaten adventurously, trying squid ink pasta and various charcuteries and pretending to appreciate good wine while knowing that anything that didn’t come out of a bag was out of my league. I had adjusted to the time difference, survived solo travel, managed not to lose my passport and avoided pickpocketing and murder — all good signs for my future.
But I hit a strange mental stumbling block the night before I left Italy to settle in Barcelona for the term. I sat on the top bunk in my hostel, scrolling through the beautiful pictures I had taken of iconic monuments, sweeping views and almost enough churches to save my mortal soul, when I realized the gravity of my next step. Arriving in Spain meant that this wasn’t a vacation anymore. I wouldn’t be returning to Dartmouth where I could share my stories — I would be living and learning halfway across the globe. It was as if I was on another planet, watching as my world continued to turn without me.
I didn’t sleep that night. The next day, I fought tears in a taxi and two train stations and finally broke down in the Rome airport when an airline ticket agent informed me I would have to pay 150 extra euros for something beyond my control. Something about this minor inconvenience brought my nerves to a head: I was confused, I was anxious and I was very, very alone. I cried as I paid with my Monopoly money (I keep telling myself that if it’s colorful, it’s not real), I cried all the way through security (where they tore my bag apart for no discernible reason other than to display my bra collection to an entire airport), and I cried on the flight over (during which the couple beside me ordered no fewer than four bourbons each, presumably to deal with my nonsense).
I was finally greeted by my host mother with a hug, a kiss on each hastily dried cheek and a stream of rapid Spanish. I nodded and smiled, unpacked my luggage and tried not to panic as sentences evaporated between my brain and my mouth. I went to my classes the next few days and left each time with a headache and an upset stomach. Every day I felt lost and overwhelmed, only to return home to an empty room.
Before leaving Dartmouth, I had been regaled with stories, wistful sighs and comprehensive lists detailing how my term abroad would be the best 10 weeks of my life. This contrasted so sharply with my experience that I felt guilty on top of feeling lonely and overwhelmed, and I began to wonder whether I was wrong to go abroad at all. When I retraced my steps, every choice seemed like a mistake: leaving my favorite place on earth, missing the spring, studying Spanish at all. I was so consumed by my sadness that I could not even see the appeal of Barcelona as a city. I had no desire to explore and I found myself infuriated by minor daily challenges such as crowded metro cars—I convinced myself that the city had nothing to offer me. I wanted nothing more than to return to Dartmouth, and even reached out to my dean, attempting to form an escape plan from the alleged best term of my life.
He promptly responded, informing me that withdrawal from an LSA usually means withdrawal from the term overall. He asked what made me want to leave so badly. I didn’t write back. I deleted the blitz.
Since going home was out of the question, I decided I had two options: I could stay in Barcelona and make my best effort to enjoy it, or I could stay in Barcelona and remain miserable. The choice was obvious.
The first, happy truth is that I am glad that I didn’t go back. The second, less savory truth is that being away from school is fucking hard. But it does get easier. Every day I understand a little more: I put together longer sentences, I utilize a new word, I realize I absorbed a phrase at face value without having to first translate it into English in my head. Classes don’t feel so long. I haven’t gone a day without laughing with my new friends, people I may never have met on campus otherwise. I have seen breathtaking sights and precious works of art.
The advice my mother gave me on my lowest night was to choose something to gain from my experience abroad—increased fluency, new friends, great art or an improved way of life—and to focus on that, rather than attempt to live up to the nebulous and unrealistic expectations of having the best term ever. This advice has helped me appreciate every day by choosing one small, achievable goal. Have a conversation with someone new. Visit a museum. Take a walk in a park. This approach is far less daunting.
I miss my favorite people and my favorite place. But I am here now. Every day I walk in the sun to a campus with orange trees and a koi pond, I push myself further than I thought possible and I share incredible memories with people I feel privileged to have met. My host mother gives me a kiss on each cheek every night before I go to sleep. I don’t know if this will turn out to be the best term of my Dartmouth experience, but I know it is certainly going to be a memorable one, and my four years as a whole would be incomplete without it. Much like life in Hanover, study abroad is tough, it is transformative and it is absolutely worth it.