What I’ve Learned From Study Abroad

I’ve had my ups and downs with being abroad and being in Paris, in particular. But I have to say coming abroad for a semester was one of the best decisions of my life. I can perceive the changes that I’ve gone through.

One of the most obvious, visible changes has been that I am now completely comfortable being alone. I am absolutely able to go to a restaurant, a museum, or wander around a city, by myself. For example, I spent a day in London, on my own, walking from Bloomsbury to Kensington Park, observing the city, not being distracted by obligatory social cues or conversation. After realizing that yes, I’m able to be alone, I’ve been tempted to take day trips around France or back to London, although unfortunately, limited time didn’t allow it.

And just this past weekend, I spent all of Saturday, going from restaurant to pastry shop, eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, without worrying about anybody else – just me and my appetite. I used to be extremely self-conscious about being alone, but I’ve learned that nobody gives a fuck if I’m getting a table for one!! I’m there to enjoy the food and enjoy my own company. If people are judging, I don’t notice – I’ll keep taking photos of my food from every angle until the focus and lighting are perfect enough to make a viewer drool. The only down side about being alone is that after a while, I find myself becoming lonely, but not while drowning in insecurities about looking like I have no friends or looking like a loser. It’s my life and my enjoyment, and I’ve learned that as cynical as it sounds, nobody really cares that much about you, with exceptions of family and best friends.

And a more cliché realization I’ve come to is that no other time in my life will I be so free of work and responsibilities that I can travel from country to country, by train, by plane. I feel like I’ve seen and experienced so much more than I ever have before, even if it’s just been Western Europe. To make a comparison, it’s like a painter who could only see red, white, and blue, who now, after all of this exposure, can see every nuance of the same colors or new ones, from cerulean to burgundy, to every shade of white. Between the different countries, as close in proximity as they are to each, have sometimes very obvious differences, such as the isolation of Copenhagen to the warmth of Rome, but also very subtle differences that are harder to detect but are very much there, like the diversity of Vienna and the diversity of Paris. We haven’t really “studied” in the traditional sense of the term, at least I haven’t, but I’ve studied different cultures and colors and scents and people.

I didn’t realize how much of a culture shock being in Paris would be. I think everybody, myself included, has this very romanticized vision of Paris in their minds – not just the man with the mustache, baguette, camembert, and beret, biking around with a rose in his mouth – but also an idea of Paris as a paradise for writers and artists, the paradigm of culinary and cultural flourishing. In a sense it is, but living here makes the romantic all too real, almost to a fault. It’s almost like a trade-off – after all of my traveling, I would argue that aesthetically, Paris is the most beautiful city. But at a cost of a grimier, less than pleasant income disparity and gender barrier.

I was under the impression that Parisiens are all so liberal and open-minded and a little crazy. But if I may, you know the parents who are a little to strict with their kids that the kids become rebellious and angsty? Paris’s institutions are so strict, traditional, and bureaucratic, from the education to the home, that it manifests itself as a country that is constantly dissatisfied and rebellious- from their constant strikes to their blasé attitude. Paris is an angsty teenager with the colors of youth and pretention, but constantly wanting to lash out and be different. Ultimately, it does create a large blossoming of artists and poets and strange thinkers, but it’s a lot to get used to, especially as somebody who came with a completely different view of it.

But on that point, I think I’ve learned to adapt in every sense of the word. I’ve been living in a family of four (two of them are old enough to live away), sharing a bathroom between the five of us, having a set and formal dinner time, and having to constantly be aware that although I’ve been welcomed into the family warmly, I’ll never quite be one of them. I’ve also learned to adapt to ideas. It may seem obvious, but not everybody thinks like me, which in the end, makes for an interesting, diverse society, but it’s a matter of learning not to hate everybody who doesn’t agree with you or think and live the same way.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned to really appreciate what I have and already had back at home, or all the places of familiarity. Perhaps not high school or anything below, but the States have absolutely, the best university system in the world, especially my liberal arts education. Nowhere else can you choose what classes you want to take, without the restraints of specialization and tradition. We’re allowed to, if anything encouraged, to create relationships with our professors, with other students. In France, students don’t really leave home to go to college, but I can confidently say that I have grown so much since I got to college, living in the Northeast, in dorms, meeting new people and learning to live with them. College life in the States is unlike anywhere else, and now I understand why so many international students work so hard to get there.

America is not as bad as the world perceives it to be. Ok, we eat our hamburgers and hot dogs and the economy isn’t doing too hot and healthcare isn’t the best, but it’s really a place unlike any other. Nothing is perfect, but our ideas have good intentions. For example, after a statement or a declaration, the French are more likely to respond with “c’est pas possible!! (that’s not possible!!)” whereas in the US, the first thought is, “yes we can,” regardless of political party, regardless of financial status. The concept of the “American dream” is so desirable and well-known for a reason. For me personally, living in America, East Asia, is the most realistic, perhaps because of the language, but also things more convenient, at least compared to France or Europe. I used to be embarrassed to say I was American, but FUCK THAT – I MAY BE ASIAN BUT I’M FUCKING ASIAN AMERICAN.

And from a personal perspective, I’ve never been so sure of whom I love – I don’t have to go looking for people and friends. Making friends never hurts, but I already have so many people who care about and love me, that I have something to go back to and look forward to. I’ve come to the conclusion that regardless of how comfortable I am being alone, life is about the people you meet and have connections with. No matter how many places I travel to and have been to, what makes a city unattractive or what draws me to a place ultimately is about the people I’m with and the people I meet. I can only love Paris so much as a city without my closest friends and family. That’s me personally.

I love Paris. I really do. I’ve loved my train rides going away from it, and then coming back, getting off the train with just my backpack and stepping into the train station. I love the old cobblestones that weren’t touched by Haussman. I love the hypnotizing smell that waft outside of the bakeries. I love my strong, silent host dad. I love the colorful, artistic displays of macarons lining old and new pastry shops. I love how from all of the bridges, you can do a 360 panoramic view of some of the most beautiful sites in the world. I love the way my host sister always knocks on my door to ask about my day and tell me about hers and recommend bars and clubs. I love the little park in the middle of the Seine. I love the chic grunge. I love Montmartre, Le Marais, Bastille, Saint-Germain, Rue Mouffetard, Place d’Italie, Little Tokyo. I love the ethnic food. I love the subtle nuances in the fashion of the people, where they layer wool, sparkles, cotton, in different shades of black. I love the haute-class and visible wealth of certain parts of the Right Bank, and the trendier, younger Left Bank. I love the way people are completely content to sit at a café for hours, smoking a cigarette, but I also hate it. I love their intense passion for food and beauty. I love the way my host brother pours salt onto everything he eats and the way he hates mixing food. I love the way my host mom cares about me like her own. I love the bread. I love the cheese. I love the métro. I love the rainy days and the cold ones where the sun shines through, if only for a second.

What I’m trying to say is that I almost feel sorry for people who aren’t going abroad. Nobody will understand how I’ve grown unless they too have “studied” abroad. Yes, we will all graduate and get a taste for real life and learn to schedule coffees or lunches to see people without the convenience of a cafeteria or a common room down the hall. While people will grow in other ways, this is a completely different experience that I think everybody should be exposed to. So if you are considering it, GO. And if you go, travel. I think I really developed as an “adult” while in Paris, but the traveling was my favorite part.

I didn’t really understand the hype of the word “wanderlust” before I got here – “a lust to wander” – the desire to travel and explore. And explore I have. Now what adventure awaits me next…


5 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned From Study Abroad

  1. I adore this post Kristen. As you well know, I am a fellow foodie and have come to look forward to every one of your Instagrams, photo albums and blog posts. But this post by far has made me the most excited about planning my international adventure to who knows where this summer. I admire your confidence to wander the streets in solitude and to write about it and I hope I too get to have this experience. And if I somehow end up in Paris I know who to call for an appropriately delicious and exotic tour of Parisian food!

  2. So many great insights in this post, and I feel the same in so many ways (except I’ve never grown to like Paris, but that’s probably because I haven’t LIVED there 😛 ) My favourite line is probably “I’ll keep taking photos of my food from every angle until the focus and lighting is perfect enough to make a viewer drool.” Glad you enjoyed Europe 😉

  3. Thanks Kristen for writing down all that I felt last year in England. Everything you said was so true, too true.

    Always down to have a cup of cappuccino alone. More than welcome to join me at amco next semester though 🙂

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