Things I Wish People Would Stop Saying About The Year Abroad: Part Two

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was with the overwhelmingly positive response to the first part of this mini-series: it seems a lot of people are tired of being told the same things about their time abroad. With that in mind, I’ve made a nest on my sofa with the Dil Dhadakne Do  soundtrack and a bag of chocolate truffles from Galeria Kaufhof in order to write the next part.

Disclaimer: while I have exaggerated the statements for comic effect, I have personally heard some variation of all of these. This is a highly anecdotal article and, of course, the experience abroad will be different for every person. You may find you have heard or been affected by few or none of these, which is great, but that definitely doesn’t negate their existence! These are usually meant well, and I don’t mean to attack anyone who has said any of these to me, as it generally comes from a place of concern. This post is kind of written for myself in a way, and if it helps one other person, then writing it was worth it.

  1.  All your friends will totally keep in touch. You won’t even notice you’re abroad, really! Skype is such a wonderful invention, isn’t it? If you don’t maintain a totally perfect relationship, you’re a total failure.

This is a tricky one because it’s no one’s fault, and everyone’s experience is incredibly different. I’m sure many people were worried none of their friends would keep in touch and were pleasantly surprised. However, the majority of the people I’ve spoken to admit that contact is sporadic, at best.

I feel that the structure of an Oxford academic year, in which you spend an intense eight weeks with your college friends and then don’t see the majority of them or even keep in contact for the six weeks that follow, is partly to blame. Everything is just so intense that the prevailing mindset is very much “out of sight, out of mind” – during term, contact with “home friends” is minimal at best, due to the ridiculous workload, but this is reversed during the vacations. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone – I have always kept in touch with my friends in Oxford as much as possible throughout the holidays, but the majority of people I know identify with this kind of mindset. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this – after all, it’s good to have a variety of friends in different places – until you go abroad. During term, you feel like you should be there with your friends in college, sharing in their essay crises and spontaneous plans, except that to them, you’re now also “out of sight, out of mind”. Optimistic promises of Skype are forgotten as the fifth week blues hit, and it’s hard to get terrifically worked up about the sub fusc referendum or whatever crisis has hit the Union now when you’re miles and miles away, but this seems to be all Oxford cares about at times. Likewise, your friends aren’t there to understand just how your day works or what you’re even doing abroad, and when they’re struggling through Collections it’s hard for them to care about how your job teaching English is different from teaching English in a school.

It’s the little things that bind people together and keep situational friendships alive: their tutor’s hilarious comments in their revision class, your encounter with the eccentric busker in the metro. It takes effort on both sides to maintain constant contact when your circumstances are so different. Many Oxford friends seem to class you as a “vacation friend” when you go abroad and intend to catch up with you in the holidays, but when you’ve just moved country and are alone and searching for contact, this can feel hurtful and cold. You’re by yourself in your lonely little room, messaging people in the hope that someone, anyone, will talk to you, but no one has the time. The novelty of a friend abroad wears off after a while, and soon your friends no longer want to hear about the Spanish weather or your battle with obstinate school secretaries, and you’re the one making all the effort to stay in touch. To them, your problems with public transport can seem slight in the face of a sixty-book-strong reading list and the prospect of impending Finals, while to you, Oxford problems seem less and less important now that you’ve seen that there’s more to life than whether you get a 65 or a 68 in your essay. Both sides are valid, but hardly make for a harmonious friendship during term-time.

Again, many people manage the home-abroad dynamic without significant problems, but for those who feel isolated after struggling and failing to maintain contact with their stressed-out Finalist friends, life abroad can be lonely and scary, as well as upsetting when endless pictures of cosy revision sessions and summer balls fill up the newsfeed. It’s for these people that I wanted to address this. My only piece of advice here is don’t go abroad with false hopes or unrealistically high expectations. It’s usually safer and easier to assume that your friendships will change when you move abroad, and that this may well involve a significant drop in contact. Don’t rely on your friends at home to be your sole source of support: finding other people in the same situation in your new town or city, no matter where they come from, can actually be more helpful. They’ll actually be able to help when your NIE application gets rejected for the fifth time, and will sympathise when you’re convinced that your Spanish just isn’t improving one bit – and you’ll meet new people or form amazing friendships you’d never have experienced otherwise, without worrying that you’re accidentally humblebragging or rubbing it in that you’re abroad. Being in a new country bonds people in totally unexpected ways, and I wouldn’t give up some of the friends I’ve made this year for anything. Give your Finalist friends some space, and when you both have time to reconnect, it’ll be that much sweeter to properly catch up.

  1. You’ve got to travel all the time this year – you’re never going to have such an amazing opportunity to do this ever again. If you don’t take advantage of being able to travel, you’re totally boring and don’t deserve a year abroad!

This year, my Facebook feed has been full of photos from Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Spain, Morocco and more as everyone who’s abroad jets off seemingly every weekend to a new and exciting place. I feel like one of the few people who didn’t leave Madrid very frequently, and there was no shortage of people making me feel incredibly guilty about this fact.

Yes, I’m abroad. Yes, I have a lot more free time than I do in Oxford. Yes, I love to travel – I’m abroad, aren’t I? But unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that. I also have food allergies which mean I can’t just grab a sandwich in a station – I either have to spend ages preparing all my food in advance to take with me, or I have to painstakingly search for the restaurants in the area that claim to offer food that I can eat. It’s time-consuming and irritating, and means that the prospect of a weekend trip away alone is actually quite daunting, and sometimes more hassle than it’s worth. I’m also the type of person who needs down time every week to organise things at home, whether that’s tidying my room or doing a food shop – I find it difficult to just abandon everything and pick up where I left off a few days later. Neither do I have unlimited money: I’m actively trying to save for grad school, and trips here and there can really add up. Besides, Madrid is an incredibly exciting city in itself, and I didn’t understand the point of coming there only to travel out of it every weekend.

Everyone has their own reasons for not wanting to travel, and if you have any form of anxiety then it’s even worse: in my case, for example, my mental health can cause me to sleep badly, and the prospect of waking up too late to catch my bus to Barcelona would be yet more pressure at an already stressful time. Please don’t think I lead a dull, predictable life because of everything I’ve just mentioned – on the contrary, I adored exploring the city during my eight months there, and would find any excuse to be out and about, trying new things and meeting new people. But it’s easy to feel boring and square when your adrenaline-charged friends are insisting that you really must  go to Seville and that a trip to Morocco is sooo easy  to organise on your own.

The prospect of travelling solo is another factor in many people’s decision not to go. In the last year or so, a slew or articles about travelling alone, particularly as a woman, have sprung up, and are generally intended to empower and support female globetrotters who strike out on their own. However, this does mean that, even within such positive spaces as Girl Gone International, those who really don’t want to go it alone are seen as unadventurous wimps. I’ll be honest: planning longer trips away doesn’t appeal to me if I’m on my own. The only time I properly travelled – to Granada – was when my boyfriend came to visit, and suddenly the bus-booking, Air BNB-finding, restaurant-choosing ordeal became a brilliant adventure, and I had a wonderful time. Otherwise, I found it very difficult to find travel companions, and the stress of planning everything on my own just wasn’t worth it.

I really don’t regret it. Some people can be constantly on the move, and while I certainly travel a great deal, I’m just not one of them. This year was supposed to be a year of relaxation, exploration and challenge, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it this much if I had forced myself to do what I thought I was *supposed to* be doing: namely, jumping on a sleeper bus every Friday to a different place. I may have fewer Facebook photos for it, but I feel rested and balanced mentally and physically, and that’s what is important to me.

To people who still feel the need to nag me about it, I say: I don’t travel constantly in the UK, so why should I do so here? The year abroad isn’t some supernatural vacuum in which my spending habits and physical exertion have no effect on the rest of my life, despite popular opinion, and while I would enjoy being totally carpe diem  this year and living without care, everything I choose to do DOES have consequences, and it’s important to take that into account. Spain isn’t going anywhere, and I’m already looking forward to visiting the cities I never got to see when I finish my degree and can spend more time and money on enjoying my trip.

Okay, I’m going to say something important now. Going abroad does not wave a magic wand and make you a different person. Nor does it make any of my existing mental or physical health problems disappear. I can’t stress this enough. I am introverted and the thought of making myself go out to bars and clubs several times a week at home is horrifying – why would it be any different here? I’m in a different country, not a different universe. I’d love to build up a totally cool persona where I live at underground dance nights, dye my hair pink and smoke black cigarettes, but unfortunately, whether I’m in Madrid or Munich, I’m still the same old me, who enjoys living in my room and spending at least one day a week with no human contact. Realising and accepting that the essence of my personality wasn’t going to change was a key step in no longer feeling boring and inadequate, and actually being able to enjoy my year abroad on my own terms. No longer feeling like I had to prove myself to match a set of arbitrary expectations, my confidence grew, and I was able to try a whole host of things that excited and terrified me, like going to my first ever concert alone and trying out rock climbing, instead of feeling miserable at home because I wasn’t backpacking through Turkey like my friends.

  1. You’ve got to say yes to everything this year and grab every opportunity to have the best time! This year will be the best year of your entire life, so make the most of it!

I’ve addressed a lot of this in the previous point, but it’s not just applicable to travel. We’re surrounded by social media and feel pressured to present a very selective view of our lives to compete with everyone else who appears to be having an amazing time. At my lowest points, I had to quit social media completely, because I felt awful seeing photos of my coursemates on the beach while I was struggling to leave the house – no wonder, then, that I refused to believe my friends who said “It’s not just you who’s finding it hard – everyone’s having problems settling in!”. I tend to talk quite openly and honestly about both the highs and lows of my daily life, meaning that many people I know are now convinced I had a dreadful time in Madrid, simply because my balanced account of my stay there appeared so much worse beside everyone else’s endless streams of perfect photos of the Alps/the desert/Iceland/[insert stunning destination here].

It’s hard to believe that everyone else is struggling just as much as you are when all you see are sun-kissed selfies and wild road trips, I know. I didn’t believe it until my boyfriend mentioned that a coursemate of mine had also arrived in Madrid. Her jaunty, ironic blog post signalled that she was probably having a great time peppered with the occasional hilarious cultural mishap, and so I – feeling incredibly sorry for myself – decided against contacting her. She was far too cool for me anyway, and would probably think me incredibly sad for having no friends. So I left it. Perhaps we would bump into each other in Callao and I would feign surprise.

And then I thought about it. If I were in her situation, I’d probably appreciate someone I knew getting in touch. So I sent a cautiously-worded message, vaguely suggesting we meet, but only when her schedule permitted it, of course.

The reply I got can be best summarised as “YES PLEASE I HAVE NO FRIENDS I’M SO LONELY.” Seven months later, my decision to reach out after all was probably one of the best things I did this year. And since then, I have always taken everything on social media with a pinch of salt.

Of course, it’s not just social media. The pressure on everyone abroad to project a constant image of total success is really high, especially when friends at home are either living through you vicariously, or are unable to accept that people not currently sitting Finals/living in a beautiful sunny paradise can have problems too. My mental health issues vanished when I moved to Spain and I was elated. Little did I know that moving to a country with fantastic weather isn’t actually a miracle cure, and so the effect was all the more hideous when my usual problems returned with a vengeance a few weeks later. It’s essential to remember that simply moving away doesn’t change you or your circumstances: if you’re unable to survive on very little sleep at home, attempting that in Paris is unlikely going to succeed. If you suffer from severe depression at home, simply living in Switzerland is not going to magically cure that. Your new lifestyle may well improve it, but just being in a different location is unlikely to solve all your problems.

If you’re going abroad, don’t put heaps of pressure on yourself. Remember you are still the same person, just presented with a whole array of new opportunities and challenges to deal with on your own terms. Remember to look after yourself: if you know you burn out after a whole weekend of socialising in Oxford, don’t forget to schedule in alone time in your new city. Remember all the things that keep you going and cheer you up at home, and work them into your new life. Challenge yourself, but don’t push yourself past the point of exhaustion. Try new things – things that scare you – but don’t force yourself to do things you know you will hate, or that will make you feel awful.

Yes, this year can be the best year of your life. But don’t constantly berate yourself for not feeling that way, every day, all the time. Just like any place, there will be days where you love it and never want to leave, and there will also be days where you hate it and wish you had never arrived. Real life always contains ups and downs, and it’s impossible to have only good days all the time. After all, if it were perfect all the time, then you’d never want to come home to finish your degree! No one ever loved anything by forcing it, so forget about all the expectations and pressure, and go out there, find your feet and build your new life on your own terms, the way you want to. Even if that means spending every weekend in bed watching TV Total – do what makes you happy. Remember, you are already being incredibly brave and exciting just by making the decision to live abroad in the first place, which is something many people never do, and you should always feel proud of yourself for that. I hope you have a great time.

3 thoughts on “Things I Wish People Would Stop Saying About The Year Abroad: Part Two

  1. sjosephthompson says:

    Totally agree with all this, once again!
    And even though I have managed to travel at times (only to places within 3 hours of Vienna, in general), I spend the vast bulk of my time simply exploring Vienna, or otherwise in places in town I know and like – engaged mostly with the mundane and daily aspects of life.
    And I’d be lying if I said there weren’t frequent down days alongside the many good ones – days when you are more isolated in some way, days when you’re tired or not quite on form and the language comes with greater difficulty, or simply days when everything has gone awry.
    It’s easy, I guess, to feel alienated in this with social media (after all, no-one really posts their difficulties online – only that public profile they feel obliged to project to others). You hit the nail on the head, I think: letting the year happen in its organic way, without pressure from others, is by far the best method 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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