About two years ago today, one of my closest friends and I were on a red eye flight to England to spend our spring semester of sophomore year studying at Leeds Metropolitan University. There are innumerable memories I have from my time spent overseas but one of the most poignant still is flying over the British Isles as the sun was coming up. The anniversary of our travels (thank you TimeHop) always brings back bittersweet memories and nearly over-whelming nostalgia. This year, as I trudge through my second semester of grad school as a physical therapy student, I found myself thinking about how I might be different if Nazareth had never given me the opportunity to travel abroad.
1) I am wildly independent. As I’m sure my parents are more than willing to attest, I’ve had a pretty big independent streak from a young age; I was that child who would proudly proclaim “I can do it myself” every time I was offered help. Spending four months on another continent increased my sense of independence tenfold. Without the help of mom and dad or even the opportunity for them to come help, I was forced to figure things out on my own. How does the public transit system in the city of Leeds work? How am I going to budget for groceries and travel and laundry this week? How am I going to plan cooking to make sure I’m eating well? And then of course there’s the travel planning. I don’t really think there’s much that instills independence like a 19 year old booking planes, train, and hostels in countries where she doesn’t even speak the language. Almost overnight, Kaleigh and I were forced to become adults, responsible entirely for our own well being.
2) I’ve learned to sit still. Visiting 13 cities in 8 countries might not sound like sitting still but my favorite moments to reminisce about are the nights after a long day of being sight-seeing tourists when we would find a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant where the menu wasn’t even in English, order a bottle of wine, and chat the night away. We became so much closer as friends; we had an incredible opportunity to mingle with the locals at restaurants; we people watched for hours on hours and took everything we possibly could in. When we were in Barcelona, just about the only thing we did was eat! In the United States, we have this propensity towards practicality which, as someone born and raised by a working family in a country town, is in engrained in my character. Meals are done for the purpose of eating and that is it. So many times when I was in high school, my family didn’t even sit down to eat together. In Europe, meals are an opportunity to slow down from the hustle and bustle of the day to spend time with your family and friends. To this day, there is not much more I love doing with my friends than cooking a huge dinner and talking until the night has slowly slipped away from us.
3) I’ve learned that friendships don’t need to be indefinite to be meaningful. As someone who grew up in, as I’ve mentioned, a small town, my friends are people I’ve known since I was about 5; with most of my friendships, we don’t even remember how we met. To me, friendship was something permanent; it was always going to be there. The students that we lived with in the British dorms were some of the greatest friends I’ve ever had, the people that I was given the incredible privilege to spend the best four months of my life with. Unfortunately, with a five hour time delay and an ocean between us, it’s been hard to keep in touch. I’ve learned that it doesn’t make those friendships any less meaningful or real than when I get together with my neighbors that I grew up with. As we move through life, we find ourselves in different places surrounded by different people and just because those people may not be permanent fixtures in our lives doesn’t mean they don’t have a permanent impact.
4) I developed a sense of adventure. We only had classes on Monday and Tuesday (as if we weren’t living the dream enough already right?) so after our first “week” of classes, Kaleigh and I looked at each other at the dinner table and said “Hey, how about a couple of days in London?” Before the sun had risen the next morning (I am capable of getting out of bed for the important things), we were on a bus down to the city I had only ever dreamed of visiting. We had made no previous plans, knew nothing of how we were going to spend our time and it was one of the greatest trips I’ve ever taken. I am someone who needs to plan things down to nearly every minute of my day and any kind of straying from that schedule makes me agitated but traveling in Europe pushed my limits like nothing I’ve ever been able to do here in the states. Because of how cheap and easy it is to travel in Europe, Kaleigh and I would book flights first and plan things later. Hiccups in the plan were opportunities rather than frustrations and I learned to look at changes in the schedule as moments of adventure rather than frustrations.
5) I learned to be courageous and comfortable in unfamiliar situations. Kaleigh and I used to catch afternoon flights (I am really not a morning person) and as we were sitting on our plane into Dublin, the captain came on and said that because of a storm in the city we were rerouting to Belfast…what?!?! We touched down in a city we were not supposed to be in around midnight and may or may not have panicked slightly. Thankfully, the airline supplied a bus from Belfast to Dublin and in the early hours of the morning we found ourselves dumped into the middle of downtown Dublin in the pouring rain. We were finally able to find our hostel, dry off, and warm up. At the time I was a little freaked out but, in hind sight, the experience was a great learning experience. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my (nearly) 22 years, it’s that life has a way of never going according to plan. Bumps in the road, whether big or small, need to be handled with acceptance and a level-head. Furthermore, there’s nothing that says out of your comfort zone like street signs and maps in languages you can’t read. If I can handle navigating the back roads of Prague to find our hostel with a map in Czech, I can probably handle my first couple of days at a new job.
6) I have a new found appreciation for culture. As much as we could, we would try to avoid cliche tourist attractions and mingle with the locals. If a menu didn’t have English translations and our waiter barely understood us, you could bet that’s where we were eating dinner. Nothing says adventure like pointing to a dish in a language you don’t understand and being surprised by what ends up in front of you. What local hangouts did the people working at the hostel suggest? What shops and cafes did we stumble across as we walked around the city? In Germany, many of the restaurants are seated family style as in there are long tables lined with chairs rather than individual tables for 3 or 4 people. Rather than find areas where we could be alone, Kaleigh and I would try to sit next to German families, introduce ourselves, ask what they liked to do in the city. The food they suggested was always much better than anything we would have chosen for ourselves!
7) I have an incredible and insatiable wanderlust. When you can wake up on a Thursday morning, decide you want to go to Edinburgh for the day, and then be eating your next meal there, some things will just never be the same! I’ve seen so many different cultures, met so many interesting people, eaten so many delicious foods that I just can’t get enough. The United States itself is a huge place! I dream of enjoying a local blues band at a dive bar in Chicago, of walking the Santa Monica pier, of enjoying fried cheese curds at a baseball game in Milwaukee. The need to explore, to travel, to feel that sense of adventure again has become as much a part of who I am as my American pragmatism.
There are infinitely more ways I’ve been changed by my time studying abroad, ways that are too subtle to even notice myself. As cheesy as it may sound, I strongly encourage everyone to travel, whether it’s to the next closest city or the next continent; there’s no guessing what you might discover about yourself.
I have written a TON about my time in England mostly that are a little tongue-in-cheek (obviously) like “How to Be British Without Really Trying in Eight Simple Steps” and “9 Things About America You Only Truly Appreciate After Being Abroad”.