As it’s come to the end of the semester (yes only 9 days remain) I have been reflecting on the many experiences I have had, things I’ve seen, and people I’ve met that have gotten me to this point. My conclusion after everything, to put it simply, is that studying abroad is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and that in many ways, it is because of Study Abroad, that I have learned how to live.

To begin, it is here in Europe that I have learned the art of being on my own.

I can now comfortably sit in a cafe, in a country I’ve never been before, and be at peace with my own thoughts. I can keep myself busy by writing or observing, or merely sipping an expresso. I care less about what people think of me and I focus more on how I am acting in being perceived certain ways. I feel less of a need to appear to be doing something, or act a certain way.

I care less about making sure everyone likes me, or pleasing everyone, and don’t waste my time with people who waste mine.

Whether that be with relationships, or with people who have decided not to be my friend for no reason. I’ve learned to let go and get closure. Emerson said,

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.
 It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. - Emerson

I have learned to appreciate art, and in doing so have learned the importance of self-reflection and symbolism.

Artists don’t just paint pictures for them to be pretty, there are hidden meanings in every masterpiece. When my Art History class traveled to Paris for 5 days I was less than excited to hear that we’d be sitting in front of a Titian painting for 3 hours to start the day. After 30 minutes, I began to understand why we’d need that much time. In every color, in every stroke, in every horizontal and vertical line that he used, there was a purpose. I learned about symbolism used in the painting, such as lighting, body form, details in colors. Soon, even though none of us knew the history of the painting, it began to tell a story, like a puzzle each of us could decode simply by picking out things that seemed strange to us. But it was exciting and interesting and eye-opening. Thus, when we looked at a Monet painting of Nympheas the final day, normally one which I would mark off as any other painting of nature, I saw things, I understood the emotion behind the painting, how the reflections of the lily pads were reflections of Monet’s own inner light, why the two flowers in the middle served a purpose, I felt like a new person. I guess also, I learned not to write off something because of my first impression of it.

I have less travel anxiety.

In America, when I would have to take a train, or a metro, or even hop in the car, I get quite anxious. I over-think everything, worry about whether or not I will make it on time, worry about the strangers that I will encounter on the way. I get overly stressed about packing, whether or not I will forget something, and when I’m in transit whether or not I will miss my stop. I worry about coming across harmful people or ending up in the wrong part of town. But here, I’ve learned to go with the flow more, and always have a backup plan. I’ve learned that communication goes a long way, and when you keep your wits about you you’re less likely to be taken advantage of. And when in doubt I go back to my grandpa’s wise words “Wherever you go, whatever you do, be a survivor. You can’t live your life in fear”.

I have learned to trust my instincts.

At 12am in Holyhead, UK, I waited in the port station before I was to board my ferry to Dublin. An adorable petite Portugese girl and her mom started talking to me about how cold it was and how happy they were that we could sleep inside before the ferry would arrive. As we sat on the chairs in the station, we shared stories about traveling, countries we’d been to, and places we were excited about seeing as the 2 hours before our boat departed passed. I told her that I was really starting to get the hang of traveling and had learned so much about myself already in doing so. I also said how it was going to be a fun experience for me that I was about to head to Dublin since there’s a pub there that sports my last name. As I continued sharing experiences with them, a woman sat down beside the two Portugese girls, and after a couple minutes, overhearing our conversation, but-in. She had purply red and silver streaked hair, piercing Irish blue eyes, and a fiery demeanor. At first I thought she was pleasant to talk to, but then she started to be a huge buzz kill. Complaining about the cold, she told us about how last time she took the boat it was really tacky and there was no heating. She told us how this was her only option because she cannot fly, and freaks out even when she hears an airplane. We, trusting her experience, we’re not too excited about that prospect, and our hopeful anticipation for the fun boat ride turned sour. When she found our that I was heading to Dublin, she scared the crap out of me. With her fiery irish eyes she looked straight at me and told me,

"Dublin’s not like it used to be. It’s a bunch of drug addicts and they’ll mug you. Especially if they see you’re not from Ireland, they’ll come right up to you and harass you. It’s not like it was twenty years ago."

She started going off on a tangent on the types of people that were there, and the stories she’s heard from friends. I exchanged glances with my Portugese friend and she could tell I was extremely frightened. I didn’t have the option of getting picked up by a friend like she did, I was to take the bus from the port station in Dublin to my friends’ house. And based on the woman’s stories and attitude, I didn’t know if I’d make it alive. Suddenly my perspective on the entire trip had turned around. I was now thinking “What have I gotten myself into? Should I just go back to London where I know it’s safe?”. My Portugese friend pulled me aside and told me she thought the woman was crazy and that there’s no way it could be that bad. She told me it seems like the woman has some problem, and that I shouldn’t worry. When I really thought about it, I realized how crazy it would be to get worked up over this. I’d prepare for the worst, and do everything in my power to get there safely. The crazy woman was wrong afterall. The boat was beautiful, a bit chilly, but beautiful with big couches, flat screen TVs, and friendly people. In Dublin I was greeted by a sweet girl from Trinity College who Google-mapped the way to my friend’s house for me. And Dublin itself? A downright blast.

I’ve learned to take others opinions with a grain of salt and focus on my own beliefs

I’ve always been interested in what other people think. I have a curiosity about humankind in general, why people think the way they do, what motivates others, what wisdom they have acquired throughout the spans of their lives, about life. I enjoy learning about people’s stories, and this curiosity is what drives me to talk to pretty much anyone at all. A sports journalist on the TGV to Paris, a fashion designer doing a fellowship here at our school, English rugby players at a London bus stop, taxi drivers galore.Sometimes the conversations are simple questions on good places in town to visit, other times we get into long conversations about romance, other times politics, other times food and health. Within all of these conversations I have certainly gained more of a perspective of what people think, but also in doing so have seen how easy it can be to trust others opinons before your own if they present a convincing argument. And I’ve seen how in the past and now, it has been easy for me to forget what it is that I actually believe.

I’ve learned that people take great interest in Americans, and how to go out of my comfort zone and talk about politics

As an American studying abroad, the second question I am often be asked is “Obama or Romney”. In the states, it is taboo to speak about politics, especially with someone whom you have just met. But what is obvious here, is that people are incredibly interested in what we think, why we think it, and eager to share their perspective with you. For me, this is incredibly frustrating and exhausting. Especially since my family is very conservative, and I have met a handful of people who stop me before I answer and say “If you say Romney I can’t talk to you”. While I am, in fact, more moderate in terms of certain policies, I tend to disagree with many of the opinions the majority of the European people I have met tell me. And I especially get frustrated when I speak with people who have never looked at the other side, read a newspaper, and know nothing about the topic except what “they’ve heard”.  In the beginning, I’d tell people who asked “I don’t really like either of them”, which to an extent, is true. But I was hesitant to give my real opinion, because I don’t feel like explaining something to a close-minded person. In fact, two nights ago my Norwegian friend and I were talking with a Swedish boy about just that. He was throwing out every possible American stereotype before I even had the chance to tell him my opinions on topics like healthcare, the poor, immigrants…the likes. It was so exhausting listening to him spit out the same things other Europeans constantly tell me about my country that for once I spoke back. After 3 hours, he learned more about the reasoning behind conservative thinking and I learned more about his perspectives. It was refreshing to have a civil conversation with another person about a topic that often gets people so heated they turn around. And while I really don’t like these conversations, I’m glad that I’ve learned how to be a little bit more “okay” with people who think so completely different than I do.

I’ve learned to appreciate America more.

While there are a lot of Europeans who scoff at America and disagree with the power we have and our sometimes inhumane ways of dealing with things, many people really love and appreciate our country, and admire it. One thing Americans do well, is get things done. If you are going to the doctor, or to the phone store, or  to the hair salon, and you’re waiting in line, you will not be ignored. The service is better in general– people almost smother you with assistance at clothes stores asking you what you’d like to try on, telling you which deals are available. People walking down the street get out of your way when they see you running to an appointment, and for that matter, understand why you are running. Americans have a latent, yet powerful drive unlike any other nationality I’ve come across. There are more opportunities; if you want to be successful, and you work hard at it, you will be. The bathrooms are free. And clean… and have toilet seats. You don’t have to pay 50 cents. It’s rare to see stray dogs, dogs in restaurants, smelly dogs sitting next to you on a train (YES I spent 7 of the 10 hours from Munich to Marseilles sitting next to a disgustingly dirty crazy big puppy on the train…..). The guys are more respectful. The people are more open. I’ve also realized I don’t know America as much as I should, and want to travel within my own country more. 

I’ve learned that when I go back to America, I won’t be the same person. I’ll officially be cultured

I have now seen too much, appreciated too much, learned too much, and changed too much to be the same person when I go back. I have a desire to travel, to learn more, to continue discovering this huge planet we live on. I want to teach and explore, I want to live in Europe one day, I want to bring my friends and family to France and translate for them. I’m so grateful for this journey, for this experience, for this new, open-minded, me.

Finally, I’ve learned that “It comes down to seizing what does not pass away in what passes away…” “Il s’agit de saisir ce qui ne passe pas dans ce qui passe” Van Gogh.

Life is short, people change, opportunities come and go, and the time it takes to soak it all in often comes too late. These people will go on with their lives, these friends will return home to different places in America, the French relationships I’ve made may never continue in the future, but going forth, I can grab on to all that won’t pass. I’ll be optimistic, I’ll be hopeful, I’ll live in the moment, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. If nothing else, I have the memories, and in some ways that’s all the comfort I need.

To be continued….





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