You’ve heard the cliche; leaving to study abroad is a life changing experience! And I agree up to a point. I don’t think that studying abroad has changed my life in any kind of earth-shattering way. Like I didn’t come back speaking only in Italian or becoming an international pop star…
I did have that moment of; ‘welp, I guess I am no longer in Italy’ moment. But I found that, once my body got over the week-long jet lag, slipping back into the old habits and routines I had established before leaving wasn’t overly difficult. Some new faces, new things, yes, but not overwhelming.
But even so, I do believe studying abroad impacted me in a more subtle way, so subtle I myself didn’t notice the changes until I got the chance to talk about it with friends who have known me for years. I would say that’s pretty significant. Here is what I have found.
Subtle Change No. 1: Quiet is Okay
Anyone who has ever spent some time with me knows that I live in a world of constant sound and noise. I myself contribute to the roar. During my time abroad, I found myself sitting in silence more and more often. I no longer felt the need to fill it. Sometimes my headphones would be in, but I wouldn’t be playing anything through them; they were there so I could block out the rest of world and just be still for a little bit.
Coming back, I realize the stereotype of “Americans being too loud” to be true, to a point. It isn’t in our tone of voice; rather in the way we feel uncomfortable with quiet. Quiet leaves a person vulnerable and susceptible to listen and be impacted by the world around them, and I think this is a scary concept to many people, myself included. This is why we are loud; we choose to fill the silence instead of think about the silence.
The Effect of Silence
I don’t think I’m as afraid of it anymore. Some of my favorite moments were quiet. Drinking a glass of wine on top of a mountain in Bolzano, and having the opportunity to be overwhelmed with how high we were, but instead noticing a leaf on the table instead, and feeling oddly connected to it. Quiet, just the wind, and my heartbeat.
Going to Plaza de Espana by myself one afternoon in Sevilla, choosing not to talk to anyone but instead to look and listen at the life around me, lively, diverse, the sounds of traditional flamenco music from the street performers — but still separate and quiet, just observing.
I can’t recreate these exact moments, but having learned the many sounds of silence, I think I can try to listen for it here, at home.
Subtle Change No. 2: Learned to Cook for Myself
Before going abroad, I avoided cooking at all costs. I was deathly afraid of the oven, and grocery shopping consisted of buying as many prepackaged and pre-made meals as humanly possible. If it was microwavable AND vegetarian, then you could bet it was in my basket.
In Italy I was forced to think outside of the microwave.
In fact, the microwave in the dorm was an old toaster-microwave thing that only sometimes did what you wanted to. Alas, I would need to learn how to use kitchen utensils, and shop appropriately.
The Effect of Food
I really got into the habit of making every meal, and I rarely ever went out. Coming back, I find that the food offered on campus and even the restaurants and fast-food places I used to frequent don’t seem quite so appetizing anymore. I want to cook instead. Which is a challenge, because I feel like I’m busier than ever, but I want to make the effort. I have been back in the states for about a month, and I have had campus food once and have not gone out for food, just groceries. I’d say I’m heading in a good direction.
Subtle Change No. 3: Becoming a little more Self-Disciplined
I’ve never been much of a planner. Which is a lie, but also not. Allow me to explain: when it comes to school, work and organizations I participate in, I try my best to put in my utmost attention and effort. It is absolutely exhausting, but I enjoy what I do for the most part. On the other foot (ha! see what I did?), when it comes to organizing my own personal time — time that is not dictated or set aside for someone else — I don’t have any more energy left to do anything particular with it, and I end up sleeping or netflixing.
Italy met me with a wealth of time. And as was my norm, I slipped into watching the entirety of How I Met Your Mother. Start to finish. Okay. Maybe I should do more.
I started waking up earlier to try to maximize my time awake, time I could be working on things I always said I would do but never got quite to doing. I spent more time preparing my breakfast and taking in the quiet atmosphere of the kitchen at 8/9am, where I would think about the things I wanted to do that day.
These things were varied, and never quite the same, but it was still structured in a way that I would actually get around to doing it. Such things included music writing/practice time, blogging time, homework/study time, cleaning my room (I kept a very tidy room!), trip planning time, and also time to just lie in bed and not do anything. I’ve never felt more alive and active, never more energized.
The Effect of Discipline
I’ve learned that discipline doesn’t mean being a stickler or limiting good things in your life. It’s about knowing what you want/need, setting goals, and getting those goals done. The way to do that is entirely up to you, and that is when discipline takes it’s true meaning. It’s having what it takes not to chicken out on yourself. To be unafraid of getting it wrong, but continuing on any way.
Now that I’m back, I find myself slipping back into my old habits, and I’m not happy with it. I want to get back into practicing the things I really want to do most and getting them done. I haven’t yet found the balance, but I’m working on it.
Subtle Change No. 4: Becoming less of a Consumerist
I never considered myself to be a huge shopper until I went abroad. I challenged myself to only one suitcase, one carry on, and my ukulele. In theory, that would be all I needed. My suitcase was half empty, for space for anything I might acquire while abroad.
The first month was hard. I felt like I didn’t have enough clothes, or shoes, or anything to make my room cozy. But I also didn’t have a lot of money, and if I wanted to travel, I couldn’t spend it on clothes or eating out.
So I didn’t. Walking past the beautiful displays got easier over time, as my priorities shifted from want to need to living simpler. When it started to get colder, I bought a thicker coat, a pair of gloves and a hat. I limited eating out to only when I was traveling (and even then, I opted packing a lunch). I even stopped buying coffee at every shop I saw on my way to school.
I didn’t feel compelled to go souvenir shopping, I did however, get some gifts for family and close friends. Packing to go home was easy; I hadn’t acquired much, and it all fit in the same suitcase I came with.
The Effect of Becoming Less Consumeristic
A combination of eating out less and not feeling the need to go out as much has brought me to being home for a month and only having bought coffee twice. Cooking for myself has been hard, but not impossible. And though there are some items I do need to go shopping for, I really don’t want to. I’m not averse to it, but the need to shop doesn’t blare like a siren anymore.
Subtle Change No. 5: Becoming More Fearless
I did a lot of traveling alone during my time abroad, and traveling alone is definitely an acquired taste. I quickly figured out this was a cheaper option than traveling in a group, and that the places I wanted to go to didn’t always line up with where others.
So I sat myself down and planned my trips for one, and there was nothing alarming during this process. But as my two-week trip through Spain got closer, the more nervous I got. So 5 days before the trip, I spontaneously decided to go to Venice, alone, as sort of a practice run.
I didn’t enjoy it. I thought it was over crowded, and particularly expensive (one glass of wine was 7 euro!) I couldn’t wait to get home. This experience made me not only more nervous about going to Spain, but now frustrated that I hadn’t tried a little harder to find a buddy.
Nonetheless, I set out. I decided to embrace being alone on the first day, and spent the day bouncing in between museums and churches. And then I got pick pocketed! More on that here. I freaked out of course, but then focused on getting help, going through the process of filing a police report. I learned a lot about taking care of myself when travelling alone in the span of my 2 days in Barcelona, and I carried those lessons with me as I continued through Spain.
The Effect of Fearlessness
Spain made me bolder. When I returned to Italy, I felt more comfortable in my skin, and this allowed me to overcome my own nerves and become friends with Italians, and I cut my hair the length I’ve always wanted. Coming home, fearlessness looks a little different, but I feel it. My style got edgier, expressing my inner grunge, and I speak my mind out loud more often then not. It’s a good thing, I think (I hope at least).
Subtle Change No. 6: Developed a Deeper Appreciation for my Cultural Identity
I am first generation Mexican-American, and I’m not shy about it anymore. People always make assumptions about “what” I am. “You Puerto Rican? African American? Dominican? Indian?” All my life, people have tried to box in me in a category I am not, and get surprised or don’t believe me when I say I’m Mexican, and it’s largely due because I don’t fit the stereotype. I don’t have straight black hair, thick eyebrows, or insane curves. I don’t speak fluent Spanglish out of context, and I didn’t marry young and get a kid. These are just physical traits. On top of this, I am vegetarian, I listen to music in English, I hang out with a lot of white people, and I speak English pretty normally.
Explaining my Mexican identity to Italians was the most difficult thing. Many of them thought I was Italian; I was practicing Italian as much as I could, so it wasn’t until about 10-15 minutes into conversation where I would begin to show signs that Italian is not my native tongue. A lot of people couldn’t understand how someone could be two nationalities at once, and since the Mexican stereotype in Italy is extremely different than the person I represent myself as, it became easier to say I was just American. Even the Mexican students from Mexico City and Monterrey didn’t recognize me as Mexican, and it lowkey hurt.
The Effect of Cultural Identification
Coming back, I am more hyper aware of my alienation with Mexican culture, moreso than before. I started working as a hostess at a Mexican restaurant to get some extra cash and try to connect myself more to the culture, but I’m finding that I have a lot of learning to do. I am really good at textbook Spanish, but horrible at understanding slang and humor (I think I adapted quicker to Italian humor and slang). It’s kind of upsetting, but I’m not giving in. This is part of who I am, and I am not done defining it.
Subtle Change No. 7: Redefining “Long Distance” Relationships
Being away from everyone for as long as I was, I learned a lot about my relationship upkeep habits. I kept good and steady conversation with some people, and lost touch with others. I strengthened some relationships with some people while I was gone, despite the time difference and the physical distance, and broke off completely from others.
It weighed really heavy. I think going in, I had very particular ideas of who my true friends were, and who I’d likely lose touch with, but when I found the opposite to be true, my brain and my heart imploded a little bit.
The term “long distance” acquired a new meaning. Long distance no longer meant the physical distance and time between two people, it became the excuse people use to stop trying to keep up a relationship. Long distance became the hurdle between me and the people I wanted to talk to. Long distance became painfully difficult conversations. Long distance became the reason it was okay to skip it, we’ll catch it later. At one point, later never comes.
On the other hand, long distance also became almost a nonexistent factor. I got really close with a few friends I was never that close to before. Long distance became the reason we got closer, and the cause for a lot of little moments of joy when I glanced at my phone to find another text or snap chat.
The Effect of Long Distance
I’ve learned that distance changes people, and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not, but in the end of it, it’s about care and perception. I want to take better care of my relationships with people, and make sure people know I care.
I’ve learned that, if there is someone in your life you care for, like really truly care for, you are going to do whatever is necessary to keep them in your life. That’s what I’m gonna do.
The Effect of Change
I think it’s valid to say that I’ve changed, but despite these changes, I don’t think them to be drastic enough to be “life changing”, more like “life altering”. These changes in perspective enrich my life, the same life I had before I left, but it doesn’t change many of my previous habits.
I think the true changes aren’t the ones that can be identified now, this early on, but those that will prove persistent over time, or will suddenly appear out of no where despite them having been there a while. Stay tuned! College graduation is just around the corner, and many changes are yet to come!