By Katie Ford
Leaving your study abroad experience may be one of the most difficult things that you have to do whilst studying abroad, and many people don’t realize just how difficult it’s actually going to be until it happens. If you’ve been abroad for a semester or year, the challenge becomes infinitely greater, as you’ve “set up shop” in your new home for a fairly significant amount of time, and then you’re subsequently forced out of it and thrown right back into your old life, which by the way, isn’t going to be the same as when you left it in many ways. When I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence three years ago, it felt as though my heart was being ripped right out of my chest when my plane took off in Marseille, despite how happy I was to be going home to see my family. And unfortunately, it doesn’t get much easier if you do it more than once. Let me tell you a story about my three weeks spent back in Aix-en-Provence last summer (just over two years since I left the first time)…
It was Bastille Day 2013, and it was my last night in Aix-en-Provence. I had already accepted an offer at Cardiff University to complete my Master’s degree, so although I knew I’d be close in a couple of months, it really wasn’t close enough for my taste. I went to my friend Haley’s flat to meet up with her and our friend Michael for some drinks to start the night. I probably had a few too many at that point, but then things really only started going downhill. We proceeded to go and explore the festivities, drink some wine, and then, well, drink some more wine. Despite the fact that I hadn’t yet packed for my return flight (which was around 8 am), I thought that this was a fantastic idea. So after getting sufficiently intoxicated, I decided it was best to head home. But first, it was obvious that I needed to stop for my last and final crepe (so tragic). So I went to the crepe stand near la Rotonde which I knew and loved dearly, as I was a frequent customer, and ordered my usual. I explained to the man that it was my last night in Aix and that I was very sad to leave, and he gave me my crepe for free as a farewell gift, and wished me safe travels. I went to go sit at a bench nearby with my steaming hot crepe that was far too hot to immediately eat, and I started to cry. And because I was already a bit drunk, this was a pretty extravagant cry session, which only added to the hilarity of the situation, as I was sitting on a bench with a crepe in the middle of the night crying. Because it was Bastille Day, there were police vans set up in front of these particular benches, and one officer happened to be sitting in his van taking a break. When he saw me start to bawl for no apparent reason, he came over and gave me some of his water and started to ask me what was wrong. I explained to him how dearly I love this city, and how I didn’t want to leave. After he asked where I was from (and I said New York, which ALWAYS causes confusion), he said how jealous he was that I get to go back to New York City (close enough…), and how he thought that I needed to better appreciate my home. But anyway, after he calmed me down and my crepe cooled off enough for me to eat it, I got in a cab and headed back to my house to pack and sleep.
Now I realize this is a very long and potentially embarrassing story, but I think it brings up some really key points when it comes to studying abroad, and especially returning from a study abroad experience. Firstly, I think it’s important to note that I went out to celebrate that night. Remember to enjoy your study abroad experience, and appreciate where you are. Stop to think about the truly amazing place that you’re currently living, and savor it until the very last second you’re there! It’s so easy to get used to the place you’re living, and to forget how extraordinary it actually is! As Bill Bryson said, “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” Keep experiencing those things as if for the first time, you’ll appreciate those memories later.
The second key point is the one that that police officer brought up when he told me that he was jealous of me getting to go back to New York. When you’re from a place that’s so close to something as amazing as New York City, it’s hard to appreciate it like other people might. And this works for anyone, no matter where you’re from! Do you know how many foreign students would kill for the opportunity to study in the middle of no where Kansas, just to see America? Even if you’re leaving a place that you’ve fallen in love with, just remember the amazing place that you get to go back to, and go back to it with a new and refreshed heart and mind. Not only will this ease the re-entry process, but it will just generally allow you to see and experience new things in your home, even if you’ve lived there all your life.
The third point isn’t so much to do with the story, but with the “sequel”. Since I left Aix-en-Provence a little less than a year ago, I’ve moved to Europe, traveled to more than 15 different cities, and will travel to 6 more by the time the anniversary of this story comes up. Included in that count is two trips to Aix-en-Provence, one weekend and one 3-week research adventure. This only goes to show that you will find a way to come back if you really want to. I was happy to find that Aix-en-Provence was almost exactly the same as I’d left it three years ago after I finished my first study abroad experience, and I love it just as deeply. I see so many friends and peers who are figuring out ways to visit, work in, or study in the cities where they studied abroad, and it makes my heart so happy to see people following those dreams like I did. But most importantly, don’t worry that the city you’ve grown to love will get up and walk away, it won’t!
So for those of you who just returned from your study abroad experience, welcome back home, enjoy it and appreciate every single second of it. If any of you are having trouble adjusting, please feel free to reach out to me to talk and/or vent, or for advice. I think very few people have had a rougher time with re-entry and reverse culture shock than I did, so I have a unique insight into this matter, and would absolutely love to help you in any way that I can 🙂