A week before I was set to leave to begin my semester abroad in Edinburgh, I sat on my bed, determined not to think about it. At that point I was basically set—tickets booked, forms complete, my passport nestled inside its very own leather folder like steak inside a pie. The last few days of my winter break were filled with an eerie sense of calm. Maybe my body just didn’t believe it was time for school yet because the UK’s academic calendar makes this vacation two weeks shorter than it is in the US. Maybe the practicalities of essentially starting over in a brand new country just hadn’t sunk in. Maybe I was just repressing like hell.
A knock on the door. My dad. Dumping a handful of British coins in my lap, like I was expected to know what to do with them, like the strange shapes and unfamiliar colors were as familiar to me as the ridges of a quarter.
That was the moment I first started to panic.
Now, I’m a little older. I’m a little wiser. I’ve reached the halfway point of the semester, and have just completed a five day solo journey through the UK. I speak of money in pounds instead of dollars, and can now tell British coins apart without spending five minutes squinting at them.
What have I learned in my two months here? What do I have to add to the infinite annals of study abroad experience that fill more internet pages than the whole of the Domesday Book?
As you might expect, it’s been an adjustment. On this, my first trip out of the country since my first birthday, I’ve been thrown into a situation more alien than any I’ve encountered before. The initial friendlessness of freshman year, without home a train ride away. The change in vocabulary (fries are chips unless they’re McDonald’s, chips are crisps unless they’re tortilla, cookies are biscuits unless they’re chunky, and it took me weeks to figure out what neeps and tatties are.) The cafe etiquette, where the cashier delivers your food and clears the table but never interacts with you otherwise. It’s like what I imagine the Matrix to be like—the same, but not. Similar, but off.
What terrified me most about this semester, however—more than being far from home, more than the foreign customs—was the simple expectation of doing things. No longer could I justify Friday nights on Netflix as a form of self care; no longer could the excuse of tomorrow let me put off doing things today. Study abroad is, above all, about the experience. Weekdays are for museums, weekends are for travel, nights are for pubs and ceilidhs with maybe some studying squeezed into the cracks. I’ve had 20 years to relax; in order to make the most of my time here, I’ll have to fill five months with another 20 years of living.
Of course, just as the first term of college was a balancing act, so has study abroad become, albeit in different, more intense ways. There is the age-old triad of studying, socializing, and sleep: As my high school principal was fond of reminding us, we’ll only ever have time for two of them. Study abroad gives unique new twists to each leg of the triangle. As during the beginning of college, maintaining old friendships must be balanced with making new ones; the need for self-care is tempered by studying, ostensibly the reason why you are here in the first place. In those senses, not much has changed.
Not much has changed, except for everything. Because this is not just the next stop on the American track from high school to college and beyond; study abroad is something you choose. Deliberately, ecstatically, wonderfully choose. It is a chance to cross the world, see the sights, be the person the monotony of home will not allow. And more than anything, study abroad is short. Time flies faster than a jet across the Atlantic, and every moment wasted on anything other than doing everything becomes an intensely personal loss.
This pressure leads to anxiety, sure—but it also leads to an adventurousness I’ve never believed myself capable of. A dedicated homebody, the number of times I’ve ventured beyond Providence in the middle of term can be counted on one hand. I’ve lived in the United States my entire life, and I’ve met multiple British people who have seen more of it than I have. Home in Providence, I wouldn’t dream of traveling to a different city every weekend; and yet here I am, every Saturday, on the bus at the crack of dawn and off to new lands. At home, I hadn’t touched my camera in years; here, I’ve just developed five rolls of film taken in eight cities. The transience of my time here causes anxiety, yes, but it is also an impetus to adventure. The exoticness of visiting a new continent doesn’t hurt either.
I am a firm believer in the ethos of self-care—little is more important than maintaining your own well-being, because without this, there isn’t much you can give the rest of life. Study abroad, with its intensity, its brevity, its simple abundance of experience, has challenged my willingness to take care of myself. But it’s also changed the way I see that activity. At home, I saw self-care as my alone time—long showers, nights on Netflix, allowing myself the space to breathe. But here it’s become something else. It’s become challenging myself never to visit the same cafe twice, in which the accomplishment—in hot chocolate heaped with cream and ten different varieties of shortbread—is its own reward. It becomes appreciating myself for stretching my boundaries, even in minuscule ways. It becomes the acceptance of change, of growth, of self-discovery. More than anything, it becomes the recognition of the tension in this balance, a balance which at home had grown to seem so static.
So am I still panicking? Yes. But in some ways, that’s all part of the fun.