On My Own
By Emilie Swartvagher
While studying abroad, we're taught that our emotions go through a rollercoaster. There's a high point at the honeymoon, and then a "plunge" when faced with our first engagement with culture shock. One question across the board you'll hear will be some variant of "what were your expectations?" or "what were you nervous about before you got here?"
When I talk to students about my abroad experience in Montpellier, France, they tell me "You're so brave" or ask "Oh, gosh, weren't you scared though?" This tends to be right after I tell them I was the only one from my college to go. A flurry of concern circles the conversation afterwards; they're mostly sceptical that I could possibly enjoy being in another country without at least two of my closest friends there, and are certain they'd never be able to go abroad without theirs.
I spent five weeks in Montpellier, the only member of my cohort, attending weekend excursions with groups from other programs, and a few avid tourists, all with varying grasps on the French language.
When I left Montpellier, I took a projected eight (but ultimately ten) hour bus ride from the Montpellier bus station to its twin in Paris where I met my father's cousins for the first time. They opened their home to me, even though we only met a few months ago via Facebook.
Being on my own had its challenges, definitely. My host family was very kind and generous but there were some experiences I had abroad that made me wish I had someone to speak to about the rough patches. Having someone else in my cohort who knew French would have been useful, and going to restaurants might have been a little more lively with some company.
However, not having those comforts made me focus on studying French more intently; I wouldn't have met strangers or talked to friendly faces on the Tram otherwise. I also wouldn't have learned the whole life story of the waitress I met on my break between class and volunteering.
I still spoke a lot of English, but it was because "avant j'arrive a Montpellier, je ne parle pas française," It was often followed up by praise "oh, but you speak so well for your level," "You came to a country where you didn't understand the language?"
"You must be so brave."
I didn't feel very brave when I sat in Paris de Gaulle airport, unable to figure out how to get my connecting train to Montpellier, subsequently missing its departure, and having to find a new one.
I didn't feel very brave when I took the wrong Tram my first week in the city and couldn't find my way back to the bus to my host family's home.
I definitely didn't feel brave when I got catcalled walking to the bus alone in a language I didn't fully understand.
I learned a lot about myself from being on my own despite having a support group at my school, and made friends with other international students learning French at my level. I had my program directors and my host family to confide in (including Cooper their dog, who liked to sleep next to me, and some nights I let him, despite the heat and his thick fur).
Besides, mom was only a WiFi call away. I called about four times my first weekend and we talked for thirty minutes at a time. Eventually I rarely called, updating my Instagram in lieu of a check-in. By the time I had left France, gone to London, and then settled into Ireland, my parents were so used to me being abroad our calls consisted of a "Hello, you're okay? No injuries? Not dead?" and a "Talk soon, keep posting pictures!"
Reflecting on it now, I always had someone there, despite the illusion of being "on my own." In some respects, I suppose I was brave. I'd never ridden a ferry before, and in two weeks I'd ridden two of them.
In order to save money I used a coach bus service to get me from Reims where my cousins live, to Victoria Coach Station in London, where I visited a friend I met online and slept on her couch, and then one more bus that took me from London to Wexford and then to Dublin.
I had to put my faith in strangers, and in myself. I had to communicate, and learn and grow. Sure, I made mistakes, but if I obsessed over my accent, or spent time dwelling on that time in class my professor was quizzing us on animal names and I (semi) confidently asked if "le dindon" was a "boy chicken," or even when I was trying to explain to my waitress that I really liked the espresso she made and she thought I said didn't like it, then I wouldn't be laughing about it now in recollection.
Life is a learning process, I've always looked at it that way, and the challenging parts are the ones we remember as important to us, not the easy ones. In my personal experience, study abroad is not for the unadaptable, the unwilling to laugh at themselves, or the homing pigeon. You need to be prepared to be independant, and take risks. You need to say "yes" to the friends who invite you to come backpacking in Norway for five days and sleep in an Airbnb (or you know, rental car…) You also need to be self-motivated, you need to attend all your classes, and do all your readings.
It seems scary, maybe overwhelming, but I think the confidence to do all of that and more comes the moment you arrive.