Friday, May 11, 2012

The first time I went abroad...

Minutes before take-off on my first transatlantic flight
 I had been looking forward to this trip since I was in high school.  My entire college experience was set up so I could go on this trip.  I spent months planning it and years saving for it.  I applied to the program in the middle of trying to recover from a serious concussion that left me with the memory of a goldfish with three different medications for months.  I was extremely put out when I had to wait to were months before departure to send out for my visa.  I had books and language guides, researched itineraries, skype account, and a year's range of clothing covering my bed way before I needed to pack.

Packing for the 2008-2009 school year
The minute my last suitcase was zipped, a switch flipped.  I began doubting if I was making the right decision.  I tried to hide my tears from my mom has we drove to the airport. Surprisingly, the flight was fine (KungFu Panda will forever be one of my pick-me-up movies).  I navigated through the trains with my giant luggage in tow. I made it all the way to my dorm before I completely lost it.  I started sobbing uncontrollably.  For the next four months, if things were going smoothly and I wasn't in my room, I was perfectly happy.  But as soon as I got back to my room, or felt tired or stressed.  I would start to bawl.

During this time I began to travel and even took my first solo trips to Liverpool and Dublin and feel in love with the independence. I went on field trips, pub nights, joined the chemistry society, learned more about English folklore than most people in England.  I explored London, and Brighton.  I found a favorite cafe.  Everything a study abroad student is supposed to do.  Ironically, traveling away from the school made things easier and less emotional.  Every field trip, day trip, week away from school was I like to think that only a few select people knew how much I was struggling during the first few months but I'm sure more people were on to me.

Easier days of Spring 2009
 I went home for a little over a week following New Years and seriously considered not returning to England to finish the year.  But I couldn't stand the idea of quitting something that I had fought so hard to be able to do. It's a good thing I went back for a second round.  The New Year brought new light to my study abroad experience.  Things got a little bit easier.  I still had my complaints but I was no longer in hysterical tears every day.  I started seeing friends more often.  I tried to relax more when it came to my classes.  My journaling and gym time exploded. And while I was happy to head home in late June, it was no longer a desperate waiting game. The day-to-day from January to June was like a different world compared to the first four months.

To this day I can't pinpoint a cause(s) for my misery.  There were so many things going on in my life then that I will probably never know for sure but here are something that I know didn't help.
  • Withdrawl: I went off all of my concussion meds days before I left for England. I had been on medications for months to deal with the symptoms for my concussion.  Some of these meds had mood altering side effects.  I tried to wean myself off the drugs gradually, with plenty of time before I left.  I ended up with only a couple drug free days before I left. I'm sure that the change in body chemistry combined with the stress of moving across an ocean didn't help.
  •  Living Situation: I lived in a six-person flat for most of the year.  The housing office didn't hand out any surveys to try to match personality types.  We have a theory that they simply went through the flats and placed people in a roughly alphabetical fashion.  Needless to say the personalities didn't match up.  We were five girls and one boy in a two bathroom flat.  One girl and I didn't get along from day one.  One of the girls had the most horrible case of homesickness I'd ever seen and definitely contributed to mine more than once.  No surprise, the one guy and I probably got along best as the two international misfits (he's from Australia/Singapore).  I was also staying in freshers housing which meant that it was everyone else's first year of uni and I wasn't willing to repeat that experience.  Upperclassmen, ie my classmates, all in off-campus and several miles away. I definitely think that the lack of connection to my flatmates, and the physical distance between me and my classmates made creating a social circle much more difficult.
  •  Don't underestimate the Dreary: I arrived in England at the end of one of the coldest, rainiest summers in recent years.  It was very cold and the heat in the dorm was not going to be turned on until October 1st.   Once the days started getting shorter and the mist set in, I understood why the English drink so much beer.  It was dark before 3:30pm for months.  It doesn't sound so bad but the lack of light and dry warmth gets to you after a while.
  • Good old fashion homesickness and culture shock: The biggest culture shocks I remember where the grocery store and the difference in cheeseburgers.  However there were definitely times when I was quickly snapped back to the to the fact that I was in England and not at RPI.  I wasn't homesick for the US specifically but given my initial lack of social life, I'm sure that missing my friends from RPI added to my strife more than I was expecting.
 No matter what the reasons, I am more determined than ever to get out and see the world.  As my list keeps growing, I'm glad I already had some rough times so I have some tools to use if  I ever get hit with melancholy again.  Have you ever ended up sad or homesick while traveling? How did you deal with it?

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