I came home this past Saturday afternoon from my recent study abroad trip. I had so many experiences on this trip- some very good, and some very bad. All of this compiled together (and not having a cell phone data plan for a month which meant having a lot of time to think about things... haha!) lead me to want to write this blog post, to try to explain as the title said, my "mixed emotions" on studying abroad. I think that studying abroad is often portrayed as this magical fantasy experience, and while there were some wonderful times that I had, it was also one of the hardest experiences that I have ever been through (and for a variety of factors). BUT- before getting any wordier, I should probably start at the beginning...
I was studying abroad in France for the past four weeks, as apart of a summer language immersion program. I originally applied to this program over a year ago. I chose to do so for a few reasons. First and foremost, studying abroad is hugely popular at my school. At my college, it's the norm to study abroad, whether for a whole semester or for a short-term summer trip, which is what I chose to do. Thanks to a generous endowment program, my college is able to provide lots of amazing study abroad options, and costs are lower than at other universities. There are also scholarships available for each study abroad program to help with further reducing the costs, and I applied for one for my specific program and was so blessed to receive it! I even got to meet my sweet scholarship donor at a Donor's Luncheon at school this past April.
I am a communications major, but I am also a double-minor in both sociology and French. I knew that applying to French language immersion would allow me to finish my French minor in a unique and incredible setting that was so different from the classroom at my university. To be quite honest, the language department at my college isn't the strongest, and with each French class that I took after I transferred schools I started enjoying it less and less. I genuinely hoped that going abroad might re-instill my love for the language.
My junior year of college was absolutely the busiest year of not only my college career, but also my life in general. I was on-the-go about 110% of the time. Over the past two semesters I did enjoy blogging from time to time about what I was involved in at school, but I'll give you a quick recap: full class schedule (including some of the most difficult classes in my major each semester), being in a sorority and holding a position, holding an executive position in a club on campus, a radio internship, babysitting part-time, blogging, getting into three honor societies, keeping high enough grades to be on Dean's List both semesters, AND making time to have some incredible memories with my sweet friends! There are probably more things that I did as well that I'm forgetting. My point is that since I had such a busy school year, it never really sank it for me that I was going to be studying abroad. Sometimes people at school would ask me about it, and I would just brush off the upcoming trip as "Oh yes! That! I'll be thinking about that more after Finals Week..."
But the conclusion of Finals Week just meant the move back home to Maine for the summer (which is always stressful), and then a mere two days after getting home to Maine, I left for the internship of a lifetime in Kentucky with the Fraternity Communications Association. Now that experience really did change my life for the better, and was as close to perfect as it could be, but it was a complete whirlwind, and when I got home, I truly did need a couple of weeks to decompress from the end of school and everything that had happened there. Again, I never really thought about France.
Then I hopped back into my summer retail job, and my hours started to increase as the weather got warmer (and France got closer). Then before I knew it, it was my last day at work before France, and just a few days later my parents were dropping me off at the airport for a direct flight to Paris. WHAT.
To fill everyone in again, I was originally studying in Tours, France, at a language school there and living with a host family. I was supposed to be there for the full four weeks. But for a variety of reasons (which I went into more detail about in this post), a lot of things in Tours were not really going as they should have been, so halfway through my time in France my university arranged for me to switch to a different immersion program. My new program was located in Nice, in the very southern part of France. I was also living with a host family and going to language immersion classes.
On the surface, a lot about Nice was better. The social environment of my new language school was MUCH better, and my new host family was a better fit. Those were the main two reasons that I switched programs, as there were severe issues with both in Tours.
But even though there was so much to be thankful for here in Nice, I still definitely didn't have a "perfect" or "magical" experience. Sure, there were happy moments (most of which came during the afternoons that I spent getting out the city and exploring on day trips), but with each passing day, I kept realizing more and more how both little prepared I felt for the trip, and how much culture shock was affecting me. My physical health also started to become a problem at the end of the trip.
In regards to physical health, I didn't feel prepared to deal with flare-ups of not only my migraines, but also my allergies (which come out in the form of uncomfortable hives, and haven't affected me in at least a couple of years), and even a low fever near the end of my trip. It's hard enough to deal with my headaches (or other sicknesses) when I'm away and at school, but at least by this year I have built up a support system at college. When you're on the other side of the world in a country that doesn't speak your language, you have no one. I wasn't prepared for that. During my last couple days in Nice, I was literally so sick that I had lost my appetite and was too weak to do much of anything. It was terrible.
I also seemed to have gotten attacked by some sort of bug while I was in Nice. At first that I thought it was just bad mosquito bites (since my bedroom always seemed to have mosquitos in it), but after I continued to get more and more bites, with some bites even causing hives/allergic reactions, I had a feeling something wasn't right. I visited a local urgent care center the day after I came home, and was told that they are most likely either from bed bugs, fleas, or some other sort of French parasite type bug. They are very itchy and painful, and I literally have bug bites on most parts of my body right now. My parents also had to take away and bag all of my luggage as soon as I came home (as a precaution in case whatever bugs were biting me came home with my stuff), but because of that I haven't even been able to unpack at all.
Another thing that I really was not prepared for was the food. This one was huge. I will be the first to admit that I'm an extremely picky eater. Eating in my college's cafeteria has always been a challenge for me, and I do have to curb how much I eat out due to budget reasons. Coming to France, I just assumed that the food wouldn't be too different from the US, except maybe more Nutella crepes. Well, the latter part is true, but the first part couldn't be more different (I should also note though that there are a lot of traditional American foods that I don't eat, so I don't really get my original reasoning either.)
As a picky eater, it is so hard to become a part of a family (or two families in my case) and have to adapt to eating their foods. I was expecting coming into this to try some new things... and try I did... (again and again and again), but when day after day you're getting served meals that are made from foods and flavors that you would never usually touch, it gets hard. I also had a few situations with getting served different foods that reminded me of less comical versions of this great scene of mine from one of my favorite movies (although in regards to the movie clip below, I do LOVE lamb):
I also don't think that I went abroad fully prepared for the stress of living for a month in a country where you don't speak the language, and how demanding that actually is. It's one thing to be a tourist, but another to live there as a student. Yes, I was going to French classes on weekdays, but I quickly learned when I arrived here that even though I had been learning French since middle school, I am far from fluent. It is simply emotionally exhausting to just be thrown into life in another family, in a new city, in a new country, with a new language. A complete definition of the word "overwhelming."
I hated not being able to do much fashion blogging while in France. Coming to France really did put things in perspective for me about how much time I spend every day on social media and my blog. I didn't have a data plan on my phone while in France, and wifi at both of my host family's houses was a little sketchy, so I was definitely online a lot less then when I'm back in the US. And that gave me time to think a lot about blogging (more thoughts on that to come). But goodness- did I miss actually doing it! I did write some posts while I was here, but most weren't fashion related, which is my typical content. I was never really able to find anyone here to take my blog pictures for me (which is, you know, a big part of being a fashion blogger), and with the extreme heat and my 500000 bug bites, most days I just threw on the least amount of clothing that I could, ran my fingers through my hair, and called it good. So physical beauty-wise I wasn't even really feeling like myself, much less wanting blog photos even if I had found a photographer here in Nice. Not being able to do what I love really made me feel like a part of me was missing. Yet at the same time, I felt very narcissistic and selfish for feeling that way. Here I am, in one of the most beautiful places in Europe (and possibly the world), and one of the reasons that I'm bummed is because I don't feel well enough to get dressed up and have someone take pictures of me for my blog.... something about that just seemed wrong. Yet working on fashion posts from my blog is exactly what I do several times a week at home and at school! It's a part of my routine. And I missed it. So I had a lot of conflicting guilty feelings about my blog while abroad. Forgive me for being so blunt and brutally honest here, I am just trying to give you all a true glimpse into my head and how I was feeling.
A lot of friends and family back home kept commenting and saying things along the lines of "So Jealous!" or "You look like you're having the time of your life!" on the photos and updates that I posted while abroad, which I felt like I didn't know how to respond to. I think that many people understood that my first experience in Tours wasn't great for a variety of reasons, but they just assumed that when I came to Nice, it would be the 100% magical stereotypical study abroad experience that everyone has. (Maybe I even assumed that too.) Nice was definitely still a better experience that my first two weeks in Tours. But I guess the point of this very long and rambling blog post is just me trying to say that truly, nothing is perfect. And before you commit to doing something large, you need to make sure that you're strong enough to do it. I don't know if I was strong enough to study abroad. Did I survive it? Yes. But did I thrive while doing it? I hope so... but I guess I'm not sure.
The title of this blog post though was "mixed feelings," so it's important for me to also touch on some positive highlights from France as well. I need to say first that I met some of the most incredible people from around the world while in Nice. The language school that I attended there had university students from countries all over the world, and I literally made friends from all over Europe and beyond!! I am only sad that I was feeling so sick during my last couple of days in Nice that I was unable to say a proper goodbye to everyone. :-(
My favorite memories from Nice were from the days that I was feeling well and was able to go on some fun day trips out of the city with some of the new friends that I had made! I have already blogged about my day trip on the 4th of July to St. Tropez, and soon I'll share pictures from my day trips to Monaco and Northern Italy. A couple other fond memories that I have were going to see a movie in a local theatre (in French! And I understood most of it!), watching the evening news every night with my Nice host family, and striking up a conversation with a stranger in the train station in Monaco and talking with her in French for at least 10 minutes!
I also brought a new daily bible reading plan with me that I started when I arrived in France, and I am so glad that I did. To be honest, as ashamed as I am to admit, for awhile I had gotten out of the habit of reading the bible every day. But this experience could not have been a better time for me to get back into scripture. It has encouraged me so much on many days when I needed it! Re-reading the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis was especially comforting to me while here. I would definitely recommend that everyone does a bible reading plan- it has definitely been helping me and I can't wait to continue it now that I'm home!
I also can't wait to get back to my blog's more regular content now that I'm back. My summer post series, Southern Belle in the 'Bunk, will also return soon!
xoxo Miss ALK