“Aren’t you scared to travel abroad by yourself?”
I get asked this question all the time *Cue condescending scoff.* When new acquaintances find out I’m leaving again for grad school, I try and find an appropriate way to explain how this isn’t my first rodeo.
But once upon a time, I did have a first rodeo, and it went a little something like this:
I decided to study abroad in Milan in the fall of 2013. I was twenty, and chose Milan not only for its fashion scene (LOL okay who are we kidding, my uniform consists of a cotton tee and jeans), but also because of its central location in Europe. I was down like a clown. Before studying abroad, I had nearly ziltch international experience, save for a family cruise and trip to Mexico when I was 7. I had done some domestic travel, but I was ready for new things!
I arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at university orientation, and as they handed me my keys to my new Italian apartment, I felt on top of the world. I dreamed of the inevitable Nona that would live next door to me, of the countless nights we’d share espresso and tell war stories (her, not me), and of the endless crocheting (me, not her). She’d try and marry me off to her hot Italian grandson and I’d giggle pretending I hadn’t already been scribbling his name in my notebook for weeks. “Oh, Nona! I can’t!”
What I found instead was an old apartment that had no working lock on the front door, a hideous all-pink bathroom, and no roommates. When the cabbie dropped me off, he bluntly stated in broken English, “Do not go to the outside when it is night, it is not safe.” My American innocence was radiating, and even the cabbie worried I wouldn’t live to see the next day. I moved out a couple days later when I caught the construction workers working in the building next door watching me in my apartment. Call me paranoid, but I did NOT feel like being kidnapped from my own home a la Taken. On my way to the university to get my new keys, two homeless people tried to scam me and take my money as I was entering the metro. It was not my day.
I left at the end of the semester feeling little enthusiasm for Milan, but I survived! And as I make plans to visit my 28th country later on this year, I can look back on
all most of my study abroad memories and laugh about ’em. Milan challenged me, and it strengthened me. And, most importantly, it further solidified my undying love for pizza.
Things I leaned in my first few days abroad:
- Regional differences are found in other countries too- Just as in the States, the Northerners do not have time for your chet. The Milanese do not care about you, they’re too busy running their banks and fashion shows. It’s the southerners who’ll give you directions if you’re lost. I read up on Italy as an entity when I should have been reading about Milan too. The regions are more different than you’d expect, despite it being a tiny country. Do your research!
- As much as you want things to be like home, you’re not home- You venture abroad to experience new things, not to experience things you could find in your hometown. Like this torture museum I once visited in Prague the day we needed a break from walking in the rain. You just wouldn’t be able to find that in the suburbs of Houston, folks. Embrace the unfamiliar!
- BUT accepting homesickness (or that yes, you have national pride) is important- It’s natural to be homesick, to have FOMO about what’s going on back home, and to say, “UGH, the States does supermarkets so much better than Milan.” Accepting your feelings and moving on will do you loads better than being in denial about it. I know you’re going to miss things from American culture, which is why I never judge caving for a whopper
in Italy, Thailand, or Parisany time you pass that irresistible Burger King smell.
- You don’t know it all, and media portrayals can be inaccurate- Just because the movies portray Italy one way, didn’t mean that I knew it all, or at all. You only truly know a place once you’ve been there. There was no nona to teach me the ways of pasta. Instead, I got an Italian couple who’d shout very loud and smoke A LOT. Italians can be very emotional. The movies did get that one right.
- Mistakes will happen- That’s life, and that’s amore!
I say all this to say… at some point, we’re all just noobs at things we’re scared to try. And sometimes things don’t work out the first or tenth time, but e v e n t u a l l y, we learn from our mistakes and we start to get a little better at maneuvering! And that’s a pretty rad feeling that makes it all worth it in the end. Tbh, I’m still nervous when I make transatlantic moves, but overcoming nerves is half the fun. So whatcha gon’ do? You gonna sit there, letting fear keep you from trying things? JUST DO IT. LeBron did. Look where LeBron is now.