the truth about study abroad

I’ve been in Spain for nearly six months now. I’ve seen a lot of great things, traveled to a ton of cool places, and met many new friends. I party my ass off, take long walks, and study hard when the moment requires. I’ve immersed myself in this society as much as I can and I’m wildly, perfectly happy here – or at least, that’s what you’d think if you read my blog or stalked my Facebook. But here’s the truth: what I tell you about my time abroad is only a small portion. I leave out the frustrating phone conversations with my horseback riding trainer, who was supposed to pick me up at 4:30 but didn’t and then called me twelve times while I was on the metro and couldn’t understand whether he wanted me to wait at the station or walk to the barn. I don’t mention the insatiable craving I feel for a goddamn Subway sandwich, followed by the even worse guilt over my inherent and unshakeable Americanness. I keep mum about the nagging feeling that I’m not truly taking advantage of my time here that I get when I stay in and watch movies on a Friday night. And then worse, the inadequacy I feel over the fact that I’ve been here so long and still haven’t made a truly close Spanish friend. I look at some of the other girls who’ve been here since September and they have Spanish boyfriends, for God’s sake, and even though I don’t really want a relationship, I feel somehow less-than.

When you see the life I put out on the Internet, you’re really only seeing the best ten percent of what I do here. You don’t see all the boring days where I don’t do much more than go to class and do homework after, or the petty squabble I have with a friend, or the nights I go out for a beer or two then turn in early. And you definitely don’t see the moments when I break down and just want to go home.

Which, in case you hadn’t guessed, is right now.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s dishonest of me. While I was getting everything together to come out here, all I heard about studying abroad was how awesome it was going to be. Every person I talked to (including the woman working the phones at Chase who made sure my debit card wouldn’t get flagged while I was abroad) gushed over my trip. Past study abroaders fed me story after story of endless fun. And at first, Sevilla was like that. I devoured this city.

But at a certain point, this stopped being a vacation for me. I thought I could outrun my social anxiety and introversion, but of course that’s impossible. I had this image of myself as Sevillana Katy, some sort of study abroad alter ego. And that Katy was fun and adventurous, organized and driven but always up for a spontaneous night out. She would strike up conversations with everyone and snap street photos without fear. But that person doesn’t really exist – at the end of the day, I still start to sweat when I ask someone if I can take their photo. I still long for quiet nights in with a terrible movie and too much Diet Coke. I still come off as stand-offish, or worse, boring, to new acquaintances thanks to my debilitating shyness in groups. None of that went away simply because I ran off to Spain.

It’s funny, this has been one of the hardest things to write and put out there. I want everyone back home to believe I’m having this unreal time. When people, even some of my closest friends, ask how I’m doing I invariably answer “incredible” or “amazing” or some other superlative. “I may never come home,” I say. I’ve been feeding the stereotype that it’s all good times, all the time. It feels wrong. So here you go, readers: study abroad is not always fun. It’s real life. Ups and downs happen, and I think on a more extreme scale than back home. So if you’re planning to go abroad anytime soon, try not to idealize it too much before you leave. Because sooner or later you’re going to have a terrible day – there’s no need to make it worse by feeling bad about feeling bad.

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11 thoughts on “the truth about study abroad

  1. imusgnung says:

    Bah! I wish I could come give you a hug and bring you a delicious footlong. I felt the exact same way and also couldn’t communicate it, even my friends in Cape Town always seemed not to get it but i’m sure they did. It was like nobody actually wanted to talk about it because we didn’t want to ruin the time we had left but you can totally commiserate with me via the web if ya want! I also craved subway like NOBODYYYSSSSSS business and spent a few fridays in my bed snacking and watching mulan. As I’m sure you know you will find something to help you get back to that high on life feeling but maybe try a hike at sunset with a bottle of wine and a close friend. Worked for me 🙂 Also no shame in wanting to come home!
    loveeeeesssssss give a pony a smooch for me

  2. Katy, I’m amazed that you wrote that… and I mean it in a totally positive way. One of the frustrations, perhaps the biggest, of working in a study abroad organization is to always support the unrealistic expectations that students bring to Spain about education, work, friendship and life in general. I couldn’t agree more with you: life sucks though, as you well know, that’s the beauty of it.
    We’re very lucky to have you here.

  3. Lauren says:

    I’m about to email you a novel in response.

  4. Janice says:

    You are who you are. Running from it, or just changing the environment doesn’t do much good. I applaud your insights, your willingness to share them, and I have to hide a little smile, too, that you are, after all, a little bit like me, a woman whom I KNOW and love deeply.
    The good, the bad, it’s all worth it! Cheers – Mom

  5. Elisabeth says:

    Nigel Nicholson, an English writer, once came about Winston Churchill reading the newspaper in the library of his London club. He cauteously approached him and asked ‘Mr Churchill, would you mind telling me what you consider man’s most important virtue.’
    – ‘Courage’ Churchill roared and continued his reading.

    And that you have.

    We saw your struggles, Katy and we admire you – anything you need we’re just a call away.

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  7. Jessica says:

    Great post! I just linked to it in one of mine about living/studying abroad. It’s really not a permanent party like some people think. There are some genuinely hard things, and the language barrier realllllly exaggerates stuff (especially the sevillano accent – it’s so hard to understand at first!)

  8. Lori says:

    Just navigated here from Jessica’s post ^^

    I feel ya girl. There are the days where it seems like I’m on top of the world and things are great! And I can hardly believe this is my life – real life! But on the flip side …. the things that aren’t on my blog, or in my facebook albums are the secret truths about living abroad. Living abroad is really just living (in another country). With the added insatiable homesickness that I never thought I would be consumed by. There are the ups and downs, the daily routines, the mundane things, having to drag your butt out of your piso to pick up the things at the store you couldn’t carry home on your first trip back from gorcery shopping; the illusion slowly fades.
    And girl, trust me, you are not the only one to feel this way.

  9. Katy says:

    I just wanted to throw out a quick thank you to all you guys for the support. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who has rough patches!

  10. I love this article. I’ve been in Spain for over a month now working as an au pair just outside of Barcelona. This second time living abroad isn’t quite as hard as the first time, but there are still definitely those moments in which I have to wonder am I cut out for this kind of life. I really appreciate your honesty; it’s so good to know I’m not the only one who has these days. I’ll be adding your blog to my links page on my own blog! Keep it up!

  11. alisabee says:

    Oh my God, this is exactly how I felt when I studied abroad in Paris. Paris is, in the American eye, the most beautiful and romantic city on planet Earth. Paris really is beautiful, but beautiful doesn’t mean shit when you have such a hard time making French friends and feeling like you’re not having the “real” study abroad experience that you should be.

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