We’ve passed the half-way point of the semester, and before the last rise of “we only have four weeks left? I can’t believe it’s gone so quickly!” the students are currently going through the valley of reality checks. The honeymoon phase has worn off, as they say, and they’ve realized that “study abroad” actually includes a lot of studying, which is a rude awakening for some of them. They’ve also realized that requesting to room with their best friend has as much potential to make them ex-best friends as it does to bring them closer together.
But the hardest part of this valley, for me, is hearing stories of homesickness from the students. It makes me think back to my semester in Europe in 2005. I consider myself a pretty independent person (as one of five children, that’s pretty much required), but while abroad, I had my share of homesickness, too, which in some ways surprised me. In particular, a 12-hour stretch getting from Italy to Scotland by myself really tried my endurance.
Before my academic semester began, I traveled in Italy, Greece, and Austria for a couple of weeks (see photo above). It was my first introduction to Europe, and I had a great time exploring some famous cities with two of my good friends, but after they left for the States I was to make my way alone to Scotland. I remember calling Derek (we’d been dating for about 10 months at that point) from a public phone booth a block away from the laundromat where my meager possessions were whirling away, crying through the last minutes available on my phone card, until our conversation was prematurely cut off and I truly was on my own.
After my laundry was done, I made my way to the airport to catch my flight to Scotland. Due to a “suspicious bag” at my layover in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris,* the entire corridor was blocked off and soldiers with guns were standing guard, refusing passage. I could see no alternate route, and did not know the language to ask, so I watched helplessly from 30 meters away as the other passengers heading to Aberdeen queued up, boarded, and departed without me. Once the bag was finally confiscated, I somehow figured out how to get on the next flight, but it was raining as I boarded (my first experience without a jet bridge) and I stumbled and fell on the slippery steps, soaking my clothes and trying to laugh it off, without much success.
I arrived in the Aberdeen airport with no local currency, but not finding a cash exchange or an ATM at the arrival hall, I stuffed all my leftover Euros into a change machine of some sort, which dispensed 17 pounds in coins. As I shoved the huge handful into my pocket, I went outside to the taxi stand and gave the driver my address, to which he replied something in his thick indecipherable brogue, making me believe I still was not in an English-speaking country.
Once we arrived, I paid the driver in change (he rolled his eyes and again said something I couldn’t understand) and found a desk to check into, hours late and not sure what to do about it. I then schlepped my luggage what felt like a few blocks to the building I’d occupy for the next several days of orientation, let myself into the room, and crumpled on the bed and cried. A continent away from anyone I loved (let alone knew!), I felt defeated and lonely.
Remembering these moments and sharing them with students helps to prove my point when I say it’s completely normal to feel homesick. In some ways, I think they have it harder than I did 8.5 years ago, because they can still be almost constantly connected to their loved ones back home, which keeps the “home” part of the sickness in their faces at all times. I encourage them to unplug and go out walking, finding new favorite places here in Leipzig that, in another 5 weeks or so, they can share with their friends and family back in Texas.
I also remind them that I soon came to love (and passably understand) the Scottish accent, and that Aberdeen still to this day owns pieces of my heart. I remind them that spending a semester abroad is one of the most wonderful things I’ve done, despite the hard moments, and my experiences and memories of that time are what made me so excited to spend this spring in Germany. I remind them that they’re learning, as I did, more self-reliance, more of who they are, and more about where they fit into the world. And I remind them that this valley won’t last forever, and before they know it, they’ll be packing their bags, wondering where the time went and wishing they had a little more to spend sitting in the park reading or walking the streets of the city center.
*I must admit, after another unsuccessful layover in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris later in my semester abroad, I have avoided CDG (and France in general) ever since.