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How To: Study Abroad, a Reflection

I had packed up my two massive suitcases, carry-on bag, and “personal item”, come to the realization that said bags were 10lbs overweight each, unnecessarily arrived at Nice International Airport 3+ hours early, somehow got away with checking these massively overweight bags without having to pay $400 in fees, sprinted to my connecting flight and miraculously made said flight, spent the seven and a half hours it takes to get from Zürich Airport to JFK crying silently in my seat (I was watching a sad movie ok…), and finally was greeted by my family outside of customs as the blisteringly cold New England wind whistled outside the airport. I was home.

As my time in the sunny, carefree South of France has drawn to a close, I am left only with my thoughts and an attractive case of post-nasal drip I picked up whilst traveling. This gives me ample time to reflect on my time away, and I’ve come up with some points I think are important to keep in mind throughout life, but more specifically, when embarking on the eye-opening adventure that is study abroad. Read on, you crazy kids.

Be open

Try new things and meet new people! Push yourself to be adventurous and open-minded. You’ve got to have at least a little bit of that in you if you were willing to study abroad in the first place. It might seem obvious, but throughout your time away, you will encounter people and cultures very different from your own – embrace them!

 Hiking the Swiss Alps with my sister
 
 My roommate, Christina, and me with our friend
fromI reland who works on the yachts in town.
Antibes is a major hub for yachts and yacht-hands.


Make a genuine effort with everyone who crosses your path. You never know what someone’s story is, and something I’ve learned throughout life is that everyone has something to offer. True, some people offer more than others – maybe Buddha Guy’s biggest contribution is his impersonation of Steve Urkel – but still! People enter your life for a reason, and it’s your job to figure out what that reason is.
 Hiking near Grasse with some buys I had just met from a
neighboring Masters university. They were so friendly
and welcoming! You just have to put yourself out there.

Make an effort to try new things – this can be applied to food, or activities, or whatever your heart desires. Some French kid offers you a piece of escargot? Take a bite! If it doesn’t tickle your fancy, very discreetly spit it into your napkin and you can both pretend the other didn’t just watch the entire thing transpire in front of their face.
 Thanksgiving potluck dinner spent with a ton of international
exchange students and French students.

Someone offers you a ride on his or her motorcycle? Go for it! Wear a helmet and conveniently forget to mention it to your parents when you Skype later that evening. Life is for living – do so without reservations and regrets. If you try something new and it turns out you don’t like it, at least now you know, and you can cross “motocross” off your list of potential career options.
 Parasailing around Juan-les-Pins and Cannes! We are all
terrified of heights but it was so much fun.

Try French

Or Spanish, or Dutch, or German, or Afrikaans – whatever, I don’t know you or where you’re studying. Just make an effort to speak the tongue native to your new home.

Some people come to their new country already proficient in the language, and some come not knowing a word of it. Both are fine, as long as you make an effort to learn and to practice.

 Trying escargot in the CEA office. Actually so delicious.
 
 Some new friends we made in London. My
friends were nervous to talk to them, but
the guys were so friendly and invited
us to watch the Notting Hill Parade
together on their balcony!


People say the French are snobby and will insult you for making a mistake, but I did not encounter this even once in any of the French cities I visited - or in any country, period. Just be friendly! Talk to people. It is far more likely that they will be impressed, and maybe even a little entertained to see that you’re at least trying, and in turn they will be much nicer and more willing to help.

Put yourself out there and give it a shot. Worst-case scenario, something like what happened to my friend will happen to you, and you’ll unknowingly consume a dish of Blood Sausage, not understanding what the ingredients mean. Happens to the best of us.

DO THINGS. Be spontaneous, yet strategic

Take full advantage of your time abroad. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: you don’t have as much time here as you think you do.

Once you get settled into your new routine, time passes much more quickly, and suddenly you’re packing your bags and turning off your freezer and thawing that weird meat you bought the first week of the semester. (Just because you don’t recognize the name of it does not mean it’s a delicacy).

So use your resources! Kristin (if you’re in the French Riviera CEA Program), is an invaluable resource. She is an endless source of information on Antibes and the surrounding areas, but also on France in general and many other places in Europe as well.

She has travel books to borrow and maps to keep and tons of great recommendations for places to eat and sights to see. She won’t make you feel weird for asking – in fact, she welcomes the questions and stories. She’s like a cool mom that way.

She has a million different excursions planned for you, too. Some days you may not feel like climbing on a bus and spending hours walking around medieval towns throughout France, but chances are you will end up having an amazing time and will be so happy that you went. Kristin always thinks these things through and plans them flawlessly.

 On our way to St. Tropez!
 
 My friend Kirby and me on Île Sainte Marguerite.
 Another day, another boat.

Anyway, my point is to take advantage of what’s given to you.

Antibes, and the French Riviera in general, is known for the beautiful weather and gorgeous colors and light. Are you into art? Get up early one morning and paint the sunrise, or even just post a picture to Instagram and add some witty hash tags to that bad boy.

Do you like soccer? Simultaneously improve your penalty shots and your understanding of rapid, French commands by joining the SKEMA soccer team! A few of my guy friends did this and had a great time.

Maybe you like food as more than a friend, and want to broaden your horizons a little bit – check out the local specialty cheese shop in Antibes and get yourself a big ol’ wheel of Brie.

(Seriously though, if you do buy the Brie, try making baked Brie with jam. I had never tried it before coming here, but when I did it significantly changed my life for the better…and my waistline for the bigger.)

Whatever your “thing” may be, take advantage of the opportunities you’re given and proverbially squeeze the life out of every minute you’re there.

Moving on to my next point: Traveling

Traveling is one of the more popular reasons people have for studying abroad. The rest of the continent is at your fingertips, and tickets for flights and train rides are significantly cheaper than they would be in the US.

However, the Euro is still very strong – stronger than the USD – and just because you’re in Europe and everything is magical doesn’t mean fares don’t increase as your desired departure date approaches rapidly.

What I mean by this is: Your time abroad will be incredible and you will be engulfed by a sense of wonder and awe for the world. It sounds silly but it’s true and anyone who has studied abroad can attest to that. This feeling is good and this feeling is important.

This feeling is what will inspire you to agree to a trip to Budapest with that kid in your Business Communications class, when you never even realized that Budapest is a place you were interested in seeing. Maybe you’ll opt for a ticket for a bed on the night train rather than a seat on a flight, even though the night train can, at times, be reminiscent of 3rd class on the Titanic. Whatever, do it for the story, right?

 I wasn't exaggerating when I described the night train as
comparable to 3rd class on the Titanic. It was definitely an experience,
although ours was taking us to Paris, not Budapest.

This sense of spontaneity is good and healthy. Never lose sight of this. It’s good to be open to new things and places and ideas and people. Let them into your life.

However, what isn’t so good is when you like the idea of spontaneity but are afraid to commit to the trip and to this kid, because what if something better comes along and you miss out on it because you've already committed to Budapest?

So, you keep on putting off buying the tickets and continue to stall "just in case", and then, before you know it, the ticket fares for the sketchy night train have sky-rocketed and are now more expensive than the flight, (which has since sold out), and now you have to choose between cutting your losses and buying the expensive ticket, or missing out on a trip that could end up being awesome and unforgettable.

 The train ticket may have been expensive, but the trip
was incredible. Paris is gorgeous and drenched in culture and
everyone should try to go at least once.

Don't allow this to happen to you. The point is to hold on to your sense of spontaneity, but to act on it strategically. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees, and your babysitting funds can only cover so many of these lapses in judgment.
 Looking out from one of the vantage points at Parc Güell, in Barcelona.
 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t be so afraid to commit. If something or someone makes you happy – or might potentially make you happy – then great! Go for it. Stop worrying about if there are other options out there that might potentially make you happier.

That’s silly and immature and hyper-analytical and ain’t nobody got time for that. If you live your life that way, then you’ll never actually live it. Just as every person has something to offer, so does every experience, even if things don’t turn out just as you might have once thought.

 I let this happen to me more times than I'd care
to mention, but each trip ended up being incredible,
as evidenced by this picture of my friends and
me soaking up the culture in Barcelona.

Keep in touch with friends and family back home…

…But only to a certain extent.

It’s good to keep updated on the happenings over there, but don’t let it distract you from what’s happening in front of you.

You are abroad. You’ve taken your life, and have moved it halfway around the world. They aren’t here. Focus on what’s here, because the time you have abroad is not nearly as long as it seems.

If you happen to be fortunate enough to have friends who are studying abroad the same semester as you, arrange to meet up with them! I had some of my best trips with friends from school. It's exciting to experience new places together, and you get the comfort of a familiar face at the same time.

 With my friend from Northeastern, Julia, at Stonehenge in the UK.
 
 The remembrance poppies at the Tower of London were so beautiful.

Treat every moment like you’ll never have another like it, because chances are, you won’t.

Homesickness

On the other side of the coin, if you’re homesick, talking to people who are familiar and comforting to you can be invaluable. It is easy to feel unlike yourself and unsure of your surroundings. Loneliness and homesickness are totally normal, and are experienced by more people than let on.

You’ve literally walked away from everything you know for almost half a year, honestly it would be odd if you didn’t feel a little disjointed. Know that this is ok – as long as you don’t allow it to consume you.

Talk to a friend or family member. Find a recipe for chocolate chip cookies and bake them how you do at home (you don’t ALWAYS need to be embracing local culture). So indulge yourself for a little while. But then, take a step back. Check yourself – are you throwing yourself a pity party? (No one likes a pity party, there’s never any fun music.)

 Homesickness is nothing some cheese fries and
a screening of Bridget Jones' Diary
can't cure, as my friend Kirby and I discovered.

How bad is this situation, really? You’re in a beautiful country with opportunities for learning and growing and seeing and tasting almost literally being thrown at you. The world is your oyster, so stop being a recluse – you are not Lady Havisham and what you’re doing is not glamorous or mysterious, you have Pringles crumbs collecting in the creases of your bedspread.

If you start to feel down, think about why you came abroad in the first place. Remind yourself of that reason, and try to be “in your purpose” at all times. Let it be the force that drives you. Don’t lose sight of it.

Are you trying to become more independent? You will most likely feel lonely at times, especially in the beginning. As you grow more accustomed to being alone with yourself, you will feel less lonely. It’s like meeting a new person; you’re not going to become best friends with them immediately. It’s part of the process. If something makes you uncomfortable, sometimes that’s a good thing. Progress can only come from change, and true change is difficult to achieve.

So go on a run! Pick yourself up. This is actually a great way to see your new surroundings, plus exercise gives you endorphins, and endorphins make you happy, and happy people don’t shoot their husbands – as Elle Woods would have us believe, anyway.

 An awesome cove that my friend Gaby and I found during one of our runs.

Seriously though, exercise can do a homesick body good. Try exploring your new neighborhood! Check out that cute café on the corner, try a baked good that is local to the area. Go play bocce with those old men that always congregate in the park. Do something – anything! – to become more familiar with your new home and to make it your own. Your time here is fleeting, and you will be none too pleased with yourself if your most striking memories from abroad are of Episode 514 of Breaking Bad, and not of the way the light streams into the Sagrada Familia so beautifully through those stained glass windows that it makes you tear up.

We can’t always change the circumstances surrounding us, but we can sure change our attitude about them. Make this experience what you want it to be. Make it amazing, and unforgettable, and unrepeatable. If you do it right, you won’t be the same person on the flight leaving as you were on the flight coming.

 The whole CEA program at our holiday party.
 
 Our last night in Antibes!

Charlotte Walker is the Fall 2014 CEA MOJO in French Riviera. She is currently a Junior at Northeastern University.

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