The Less Glamorous Side of Living Abroad

For the Winter Trimester of my senior year in High School, I lived with a host Family in Göttingen, Germany. Considering the fact that I had a difficult transition living away from home at boarding school, my parents were fairly hesitant to allow me to be alone in a completely new country and culture. Nonetheless, the application was sent, tickets were arranged and eventually, I found myself in Germany. The first few days were amazing – everything was new, my host family was incredibly welcoming, I started classes, got a gym membership and I was living a “normal” German teenage life. As I went about my day-to-day life in Germany, I began to notice the smaller things surrounding me that seemed so, for lack of a better word, “foreign” to me. 

After the “Honeymoon Phase” of being abroad was over, things seemed to simply just fall apart. At first, the initial wave of homesickness struck – I was in a new place, 6 hours ahead time-wise to my parents and friends. In addition to the fact that all of the schoolwork was in German, I had a hard time becoming comfortable at the school I was attending. Despite having some of my best friends within the building itself, there were a couple class periods where I would be alone with a group of 20 German teenagers who quickly learned that German was, in fact, not my first language. To my host family, I got used to brushing off the tears of me just being a little “Heimweh” (the German term for Homesickness) and I felt terrible for it because they were providing me with everything and more. And rather than showing them my gratitude, they saw tears. 

Those few days passed and I thought things were turning for the better: my friends and I began to explore the city a bit more, adopted a cafe as our own and noted which buses would get us home in time for the family dinners (VERY important in Germany). However, one Wednesday morning, it began to snow and the snowfall continued all day. 



Coming from New Hampshire and Connecticut, this snowfall seemed like a light “dusting.” However, the city of Göttingen was simply not equipped to handle this inch of snow. The highway was jammed, city bus lines shut down and I found myself stationary on a bus, alone, for 2 hours. At this point in time, I did not have a German SIM card, so I was relying on the very spotty coverage I received with my own phone’s service. With the little coverage I was able to get, I received messages in waves – some from my host-mom checking in about the bus, some from friends and, more confusingly, I had 15 messages from my Dad. 

“Please Call Me When You Can” 

“It’s Important” 

“Only When You Have Time to Really Talk.” 

The time finally came and I got off of that bus and walked my newfound favorite route back to the house sitting at the top of the hill. Without even taking my backpack off, I sat on my bed and hit my Dad’s name off of the recent Facetime log. 

He picked up and was sitting at his office desk, which was normal given the time of day it was: 2:00 pm his time. He opened his mouth and I immediately knew something was wrong because of the tears collecting in the corners of his eyes. My Grandmother had passed away.

My Grandmother, who I endearingly named DJ Betty B, was someone that encouraged my “wilder” behavior: she liked it when I took risks, told me to drink a pint of beer when I turned 18 in Germany and vigorously applauded me when I danced in public like a lunatic. She was one of my biggest supporters. She never let me forget how “brilliant” I am, how I had the “voice of an angel,” dropped consistent hints that I was her favorite out of her thirteen grandchildren and constantly told me how excited she was for me to experience life in another country. And with her encouragement, I ultimately went. 

However, had I known I would be absent for her funeral, I probably would have stayed. Ultimately, knowing DJ, she had this planned all along. She hated funerals. She would send her condolences to her friends’ families and pay her respects but refused to go and see those close to her in a casket. She did not want me to see her go like this – she wanted my last memory of her to be a hug followed by the delivery of her Grandmother’s bracelet before I left the country. 

Despite knowing all of this, the feelings of guilt followed me and I had a harder time enjoying and appreciating the smaller, amazing things around me. This created another, alternate form of guilt: everyone always talks about how amazing being abroad is, so why can’t I allow myself to be “amazed"? 

This two-toned guilt followed me to Austria where, I along with my classmates, received Ski Lessons in the Alps for an entire week. Writing these sentences now makes me feel even worse about the overall situation – I was absolutely miserable for the duration of this week. How was this even possible? I was living the luxurious dream of skiing in the Alps. Why wasn’t I allow myself to have the amazing time I was supposed to be having? I told myself that this was yet another form of culture shock, for just as I began to adjust to life in Göttingen, we traveled 8 hours south to Austria, where there were a new dialect and new housing. I told myself that when I got back to Göttingen, I would force myself to have a good time.

These good times eventually came. I experienced my first German nightclub for my birthday, wandered the streets at 3 AM with friends, got terribly lost deep in the Germanic woods after a snow-picnic, discovered that Hamburg is the most beautiful city in the world and explored the smaller villages outside of the city with my host family. They were amazing at creating new activities and a new destination every weekend. 

With all of the new, amazing things happening to me, there were definitely still moments of pain and hesitancy. I learned that this was going to have to be okay. I also had to figure out how I, personally, was going to help myself. Ultimately, I turned to journaling. With every free moment I had, I would sit down and reflect on the day I was having. The process of writing down everything I was able to experience in a day definitely helped me realize all of the amazing things I was doing each day. 

Now at Notre Dame, I am constantly asked “Do you want to go abroad?” And for me, there is no simple answer. Yes, it’s a cliche, but I truly learned so much about myself while abroad. I learned that life throws mega curve-balls at you, that I don’t do well with losing a significant figure in my life, that I am a terrible skier and much more. Ultimately, when I am asked this question, I get nervous. I want to say yes because I want to encourage others to learn about the world, themselves and meet amazing people (like my host family), but I am also tempted to say no because of the painful moments I can associate with being abroad.


My advice for those who are going to be abroad soon or already are abroad: it’s okay to not always have the picturesque “abroad Instagram model” moments like so many people paint their abroad experiences to be. Culture shock is a real thing, life happens and ultimately your experience is what you make it. 



Photos 1, 2 and 3 provided by author. 

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