This is the season for wet goodbyes and shy hello’s. Many of us are leaving home, some for the first time, to study abroad in world capitals and rural villages. No matter which end of the metropolitan spectrum you’re headed for, living in a new place can be exciting, nerve-wracking and frightening, all at once.
Last year, I moved to France for college. As I start my second year away from home, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned for those of you just starting your adventures abroad.
1. Read up on your destination like your life depends on it … because it kind of does.
Even a precursory scan of France’s Wikipedia page will tell you useful information, like the fact that it is nicknamed l’Héxagone (The Hexagon) because of its shape. Okay … while some factoids may be not be obviously useful, you will gain a general sense of cuisine, basic etiquette and geography. And who knows, you might find yourself at a dinner party with a cute French guy across the table, in which case informing him of his country’s resemblance to a six-sided polygon is totally going to reel him in.
For more experience-based information, check out the blogs of expatriates and locals. Embassy websites are known for being ugly and unhelpful, so blogs saved me so much confusion when applying for my student visa. Plus they have insider tips on everything from the best cafés to avoiding faux pas.
2. Make a study abroad bucket list.
Because if you don’t write it down, you probably won’t get to it. Always wanted to see Aurora Borealis or walk the streets of Pompeii? Write it down, and then on a quiet weekend book your tickets before you can talk yourself out of it. If you’re in Europe, try discount airlines Easyjet and the infamously sketchy Ryanair for dirt cheap fare. Carpooling and hitchhiking are also easier and more widely accepted than they are in the States. And you don’t have to wait for school holidays — take advantage of weekends to cross closer destinations off the list.
3. Now make a serious business list.
Your future self will thank you. It’s tempting to think of nothing but the lovely things you will do and the crazy friends you will meet. In reality, once you’ve arrived at your destination you’ll be too busy taking in the sights, meeting people and figuring out everyday things like where to buy groceries and how toilets work to deal with administrative matters. Take time beforehand to think of all the possible things you’ll need to take care of once you arrive, and make a guide for yourself. Once you’re at your new place, you can refer to this guide for help from your past self. It’ll be like holding your own hand, but in a pragmatic, not pathetic, way.
4. Chase great stories.
Barring danger to your health, you should go out if you feel like going out. And don’t let anyone persuade you to go clubbing when you’d rather inch through a museum. In the end, what you’re left with are stories and maybe a 2€ brass Eiffel Tower and stacks of used metro tickets, so make your time memorable.
5. Drop all expectations.
This may seemingly contradict the other items on this list, but forget everything you think you know about your destination (unless you’ve been there before) and go without preconceptions. Souvenir means “memory” in French. Travel writers always advise bringing an empty suitcase to fill up with souvenirs and there’s no reason not to do the same for figurative ones, unless you’re allergic to forced metaphors. You’ve traveled miles and miles, spent thousands of dollars, and probably shed buckets of homesick tears to soak up a foreign culture. Don’t let yourself be the one thing that stops you from doing so.
Like many of us, I had carried one image of Paris my entire life, and the charming but grimy streets that greeted me upon arrival didn’t quite match up. France has been a lovely disappointment, and the City of Lights has become more city than light. But I am grateful to see cities as cities rather than ideas. Wherever you go this year, it is a place where humans have chosen to live out their lives together, a place where human innovation and enterprise attempt to make life easier. In some cases, attempt is the key word.
The greatest privilege of studying abroad isn’t the novelty. Rather, it’s coming across a new place and rapidly familiarizing yourself it. It’s getting to know a place intimately in both good and bad ways. You may love your new country or you may hate it — but there’s no denying you will come to know it inside and out. The awful weather and early closing times will become inside jokes; when you have nothing but affectionate complaints, the bond is complete and your new home has Jacob-ed your Renesmee.