No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself
– Haruki Murakami, After the Quake
I wanted to study abroad after my junior year of college for all the same reasons that everyone else wants to: to see the world, eat foreign cuisine, learn a new language, make worldly friends, etc. But I also wanted to study abroad because I wanted to escape, which I also feel is pretty common, but less readily admitted and/or talked about.
By the middle of my sophomore year as a PR major and French minor, at 19 years old, I felt defeated, exhausted, and completely and utterly lost in every corner of my life. My classes weren’t stimulating or engaging to me in any way. I was in a sorority that I no longer felt connected to or wished to be involved in. My relationships were distant, tumultuous. I can’t remember how my diabetes management was, but I’d guess that at best it was distracted and low-priority. I chose to work full-time hours on top of full-time school to avoid free time that would allow space in my head to acknowledge what was going on, that I was struggling. My grades slipped and I had daily panic attacks, stuck on a paralyzing carousel of anxiety. Ultimately, I was a hollowed, nervous version of myself for another year and a half before I decided something had to change.
In January of my junior year, I was accepted to study abroad in Aix en Provence, France for the fall semester of my senior year. I was ecstatic. This foreign destination, the idea of elsewhere, was all I daydreamed about for months and months and months. Sitting alone in the tiny attic I rented in a house on Hell Block, I imagined how beautiful my life would be in the south of France. I would be calm and cultured, sipping Bordeaux and laughing in French with all my new European best friends. I would shop at the open-air markets every day and learn how to cook and my blood sugar would always stabilize at a dreamy 100. I wouldn’t be sad. I would miss my friends, but we would write each other often. And they would come visit me, and we would bounce around Europe, clinking beers and hopping on and off trains. I wouldn’t feel guilty. I wouldn’t run into anyone I didn’t want to see, because I didn’t know anyone, but I also wouldn’t feel lonely. I wouldn’t feel tired or stressed or sick or anxious or intimidated or shy or upset or fragile.
Sounds pretty unrealistic, right?
The funny thing is, a lot of that did actually happen. My time in Aix was a fairytale.
So much so that two months into being there, I decided to extend my study abroad adventure to the entire year instead of just the fall semester. By doing this, I agreed to graduate college late. I didn’t care. I recognized that I needed to build myself back up, so I took the time to do it. And like I said, I was astounded by how many of my daydreams became reality, or even better than reality. This was the view from my bedroom:
I had an amazing French teacher, and sweet classmates from all over the world, and 98% of days were spotless and sun-drenched. My friends were hilarious and kind. I did shop at the open-air markets, and they were magical. I took a two-month French cooking class and learned how to scale a fish and make ratatouille and muster the patience to cook a meal for 4 hours. Two of my best friends and my mom did visit me, and we did run around Europe having the best time. I went to 11 countries, and even hopped over to Africa for 5 dusty days in Morocco. Things were great.
But even through my glowing experience, some days were really rough. I was still inclined to anxiety. I still struggled with balance, and really struggled with the severity of my life-pace changing; I didn’t know what to do with all my free time. I still had to wake up every morning and feed my blood to a test strip. I fell extremely ill my second week there, and it was terrifying.
That we can’t step off of a plane into a wonderful place and have all of our worries and concerns and anxieties instantly lifted is a shame, but a truth. To travel in hopes of escaping all of our experiences is fruitless. They are a part of us, engrained.
That lesson is tough, but necessary. Stepping out of a familiar space and distancing oneself from everyone and everything forces us to take a more active role in our own lives, because even if there is someone/something else to blame, that does us little good in the end. What is much more important to focus on is how to let go, how to build a better present moment. How to accept things for what they are, even when they realllllllllllllllly suck, and how to try to feel okay.
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.
Traveling is awesome, and there are a million zillion great reasons to do it, and so many experiences to run toward. But no matter what, the best advice I would tell someone who is about to embark on a traveling adventure is this: Plan to be surprised.