I’m not entirely sure where to start as I attempt to reflect on the last 5 months that I spent abroad. The experience opened my eyes, built me, and changed me. It was easier than I expected, but at the same time full of surprises. And while I did go into it with low expectations (i.e. crying every day), my time abroad surpassed every expectation I had.
I seriously did assume that I would cry every day, but crying only happened once due to homesickness. The night of my sister’s Senior Thesis Fashion Show. I would have done just about anything to be back for it. It’s moments like those…being able to see the culmination of her immense passion, dedication, and effort. That’s a one-time thing. That’s what’s hard to miss.
Other than that night, the 154 days I spent in Europe were pretty happy. On January 14th (two weeks in), I blogged, “People said I wouldn’t know what to do with my time and I’m beginning to know what they meant. I’m definitely not complaining about this awesome ‘break’, but it will take some adjusting.” Well let’s just say, I adjusted. I figured out what to do with my time.
Compared to our lifestyle in America: where students work multiple jobs while going to school; where parents work 40 hours a week and come home with just enough time to make dinner, put their kids to bed, and wake up again; my 5 months studying abroad could be considered lazy, but there’s more to it. Studying abroad in Ireland cultivated simplicity. An appreciative pace. Time to build relationships. The ability to understand. Accept. Adapt. And reflect.
I’ve been back in the states for a little over two weeks and I already have realized how crazy life is. I love the quality of life here, the drive to succeed, the competition…but it is a stark contrast to the life I was living. Personally, I’m only working 22 hours a week, so my life’s not too crazy yet…but I see the craziness. I see the mark-way above our heads-noting what’s good enough. I’m not saying that life moves at a slow-pace for every European…not at all, it’s crazy similar to the states. But specifically, as a study abroad student in Ireland, I had the rare opportunity to sit back for 5 months and live a simple and appreciative life. And that’s one thing I will always hold onto.
I grew closer to the people I met there (who I knew for a total of 5 months), than to people I have known my whole life. Because we had time. Time to genuinely spend with each other. Time to not care about anything other than each other. And while I realize that is specific to my particular circumstances, I still believe anyone can create that for themselves. The length of time you know someone truly makes no difference. I realize that statement is unacceptably similar to a cliché friendship quote, but I mean it. I know more about the people I met studying abroad than I really should. But that’s what’s awesome. After studying abroad, I feel ridiculously lucky that I’m able to consider 8 new and wonderful people some of my closest friends. And I miss them dearly. I miss being in an environment where everyone is eager to meet everyone else. It’s sort of like being a freshman in college, except you’ve already done that whole situation once before. So it’s easier and more fun (and you don’t have to participate in any awkwardly embarrassing ice-breakers.) And you learn how important it is to not base your perception of someone on your first impression. But also how little it matters if you don’t seem to get along with someone. Find people who make you so happy you pee your pants laughing every time you’re with them…almost.
When you have time, and when you’re lucky enough to be in a a different country, you’re appreciation goes through the roof. And so does your attentiveness. When you’re abroad, everything is novel…so you pay attention to it. But when you’re home, everything starts to become normal. And that’s when you start missing things. But I’m not sure you can ever pay attention too well…especially in a world where peoples’ smart phones distract them somewhere between 35 and 150 times a day. And while paying attention to the people around you is of primary importance, that also includes everything else. When I was traveling around Europe in April, I paid attention to everything. To the accents of people, to the colors of the metros, to the font on the tickets, to the advertisements, to the difference in food, to the difference in culture, and on and on. I noticed more about countries I was in for 3 days than I’ve noticed about the city I attend college in. Realizing that, I’m really happy I appreciated my time abroad as much as I did, but at the same time, now I’m striving to be just as (if not more) appreciative and attentive of the places I see every day. Because they’re my home.
Studying abroad also really highlighted for me how important it is to develop a true understanding. Whether that be a true understanding of where you are living, who your friends are, how certain decisions impact others, what you dislike, like, who you aspire to be…the idea applies to everything. I guess it comes down to the fact that you can never know enough. You can never ask enough questions. You can never explore enough. But when you finally reach that point of…I truly honestly understand who you are, what I need to do improve on, how I can fix the problem…you can get somewhere and solve something. And be happy. Studying abroad is a lot of direct and indirect learning about yourself. You develop a truer understanding of who you are and what makes you happy. For me, I learned how much I love to write. How much I hate pans that are “washed”, but are still greasy. How much I love working at a college. How much I hate beer and wine. And how much I need to improve on complimenting the people around me.
I also learned how much happier you can be if you accept things for what they are. This is a fine line. If I can improve something that I realize needs improving, I don’t accept it for what it is. But if I know that it is what it is, and it cannot be changed, accepting it and moving on happily is the only option. When we were traveling in April, we got off at the wrong train station. We were not informed of the necessary transfer and ended up having to buy an additional ticket. At this point there was absolutely nothing else we could do (other than walk to the next city) so we bought a second ticket. It was an expense we hadn’t planned for, but it was one of those things that we just had to accept, move on, and not let ruin our day. As little as that seems, it applied, and applies, to everything. I realized just how happy I can be if I accept things that are out of my control…after I do everything that is in my control to fix it or make it better. Another nearly cliché quote. Apologies.
And lastly, reflection. My blog has made me reflect on just about everything. I approach situations differently…with a more attentive self. I have developed my listening ears and my goldfish memory to assist in blogging. And it has given me the opportunity to reflect on the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the food I’ve tried, the transport I’ve taken, the moments I’ve loved, and who I am. Crazy how doing something you love can really get you thinking, observing, and reflecting.
And it’s crazy how much 5 months can change your life. Impact who you are. And influence who you become.
Laura Riley studied abroad at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland.