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Finally At Home, Abroad
Most people don't talk about how scary it is to go abroad by yourself for the first time--let alone the second.
I'm standing in an awkward, L-shaped hotel room on my first night in Florence, Italy, and I can already feel the walls closing in. There are three beds in a space only big enough for two, a shower with no separation from the bathroom floor, which means water spills everywhere, and although I've taken a year of Italian, I can't seem to communicate the words "extra towel" to the front desk. I flew in with half of my study abroad program's students on a group flight from New York, and we're holing up in this hotel until we're placed in our host families' houses tomorrow. As of now, Jess, a girl I met seven hours ago in JFK airport, is the only person I've connected with. Our bond goes as deep as the half hour we spent together pre-flight, chatting about surface things like snowboarding and where we go to college. I can't find much comfort in the fact that the most familiar face here--Jess--is my roommate for the night. And so, here I am, in a room, in a city, in a country, thousands of miles and across a gigantic ocean from anyone I've known for more than a day. I can feel my throat tightening.
You see, I tried this once before. I boarded a plane to Europe four years prior, at age 16, and ended up cutting what was supposed to be a three-week trip down to eight days. I'd never been as far as even the border of Mexico or Canada, and when I arrived in Salamanca, Spain, a small, university town two hours from Madrid, the water works began. Where was I? What were all these people doing asleep at 3PM? Shouldn't they be at soccer practice and painting class and out shopping? I felt like a child lost in Disneyland--only in this theme park the cops whistled at me instead of protected me, and the beggars got in my face more often than not.
Naturally, the idea of heading abroad a second time gave me pause. Every time I pictured myself in a tiny European town, a wave of nausea rolled through my stomach. But no matter how nervous I was, I was also dead-set on studying abroad; it symbolized independence, courage, and becoming a more interesting person for me. As a safety blanket, I opted for the bring-your-best-friend route, which secured my loose nerves for the time being. We spent the summer dreamily walking down the beach spouting off city after city we promised we wouldn't leave Europe without visiting. Only, a month before packing our suitcases, she pulled out--a decision that would keep her from falling behind a semester (albeit, a semester worth falling behind for). Papers already signed, my path was clear: I would go alone.
Picture it: Here I am in Florence, in a hotel with a name like "Hotel Hotel" (make it easy for the tourists I guess) near what I keep hearing is the sketchy train station. Alone. Okay, so I'm with about 80 other students, but I can barely name a single one except Jess and they all seem disturbingly easy-going. I take deep breaths. I can't bear the thought of letting my anxiety get the better of me--and this would be no $3,000 loss like the time in Salamanca; these would be much bigger bucks, a semester's worth. I talk to Jess about being my partner in crime from munching on muesli in the morning to sharing a bottle of wine on the steps of the museo in the evening. She's responsive and doesn't seem threatened by my clinginess; she's almost reassured, actually. I start to realize that most people in our group don't know anyone and are searching for friends just as I am.
Slowly, I get more comfortable. I stick to a strict rule: go out. As much as I want to curl up in my bed and think of my mom's high heels clicking against the tile floor in the evenings or my cat, Mariah, curling up on the plush carpet in a spot where the sun warms her through the window, I can't. I force myself to go out for a round of beers with a group of girls I met at the welcome dinner. Ironically, the threat of walking the streets at night alone is the thing that forces us girls to stick together, and inevitably grows our bond.
We become a solid four, including Jess, and take to the trains, planes, and buses each weekend to explore the breadth of Western Europe during our limited stay. Even though we've only known each other for two, three weeks, we map out all of our weekends unanimously, and I start to understand that everyone here is feeling pretty alone, no matter their plastic smile, and latching on to one another is the only way to beat that loneliness. Who knows if we'll still be friends in six months, a year, ten years? For now, we have each other to count on, and that's all we need. So off we go to Amsterdam, Ireland, Scotland, London, Paris, Austria, Switzerland, and Southern Italy.
Four months later, I have had only one relapse: calling my best friend in Los Angeles and crying to her over the phone. But I've figured out that it's completely normal to feel homesick in a city where scooters rival pedestrians, salads are rarely eaten as meals, and people don't pick up their dogs' excrement, ever. While I never saw the other girls cry, I know it happened. I know we all felt the distance, the lack of family, whatever it was for each of us.
I walk home from school on my last day of instruction to my host family's apartment. I feel the uneven sidewalk beneath my shoes, I watch a woman on an old bicycle in leather pants with a sheer scarf tied around her neck, and I hear the clamor of children across the street. I'm alone and all I can do is smile and think to myself, I did it. I did it! I want to shout at the sky and throw my fist in the air. But I don't. I realize that conquering this semester sans my best friend was the only way I could actually overthrow my inner fear. Not only did it force me to reach out and make new friends (and, yes, we still see each other four years later), it allowed me to grow without being stunted in her shadow. And prove to myself that even if I'm miles across an ocean in a foreign city amidst strangers, I can harbor my home right in my footsteps on any cobblestone sidewalk anywhere in the world.
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