Starting My Study Abroad: It’s OK to Hate It at First

“I wish I could see your face when you first see London!” 

That’s what my mom said to me before I left home to fly to London, a place I had never been, a strange city I would have to navigate alone. I’d never even left the continent before,  much less travelled thousands of miles away by myself. I couldn’t help but ask questions such as ‘How would I even get from the airport to my dorm while carrying 100 pounds of luggage?’ 

When I finally got into the heart of London, looking out the window of my Uber, I wasn’t overcome with joy or excitement or the feeling of a dream coming  true. I was complacent, underwhelmed, numb. What was wrong with me?

I had  dreamed of London for years;  dreamed of all the shows I would see, the authors that had wandered through these same streets, the culture and aesthetic that seemed to match me so well. But now, all of those dreams  seemed flat. 

I got to my dorm. I changed clothes, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I didn’t feel any better; somehow, I felt worse. Everything seemed horrible: my bleak room, the daunting task of unpacking, the unfamiliar, and the sunny sky mocking me. In my sadness, I didn’t even want to eat, to take the time and effort to go out and get food. I dug myself into a hole that seemed impossible to escape . I didn’t like London — there was no one there for me, and there was no way to leave. What was I going to do? Go back home mid-semester, putting me a semester behind and wasting all my money? I genuinely began to think that I had made the biggest mistake of my life, like London was my Daisy and I was Gatsby reaching for some dream that didn’t really exist.

Me now being the perfect tableau of a Londoner

I wasted two days wallowing in my room, and I hadn’t gone out to explore London in any way. I felt like I had no friends to help me. The people I knew were already comfortable going across the city by themselves, and I felt left behind, like an outsider. Many of my friends also came with someone; they weren’t alone like me. I couldn’t ask anyone to hang out because they were either busy, or I was just too proud to let anyone know that I was struggling. I didn’t know how to be happy again.

First solo tube trip to Queen Mary’s Rose Garden

And then I made a friend. When I finally left my room out of necessity, I ran into one of my hallmates. She was nice and also looking to make some friends in London because, unlike me, she didn’t even know anyone who had travelled abroad from her school, a common case with study abroad students. We quickly exchanged numbers. Under any other circumstances, I would have been too socially anxious to text or make plans with someone I had just met, but we both needed a friend. She invited me to dinner the next day. I forced myself to go. I immediately felt better, but what made the biggest difference was just talking to her about how sad and out of place I felt. Surprisingly, she felt the same way. Why is it that we all gloss over the moment when things feel horrible during our study abroad and skip to the stories about how great it was? Being emotionally vulnerable with her was the defining moment of this trip for me, the one from which I grew the most.

Original photograph by Christina Irmen

After this first moment of happiness in London, I realized I needed to do things. I had the confidence to do that...now that I knew everyone felt the same way. They also wanted more friends or were simply just excited to explore the city. You can really just text anyone that you barely know just to say, “Want to go to a fun ice cream place I found?” and they will likely answer yes. We are all so excited to be here that those dumb social inescurites or “rules” that stop us from hanging out with acquaintances stop applying . Every acquaintance becomes a travel buddy. Once I knew I had friends or the ability to just meet people, I became confident enough to go to places on my own, walking across London or taking the tube by myself. I have grown as a friend and overcome so much of my anxiety to become a much more confident woman. Since those first depressing days, , I’ve gone to Buckingham Palace, taken day trips to Bath and Canterbury, discovered markets, found hidden vintage stores, seen so many paintings in museums, gone to shows (I even met Claire Foy the other night!), and made sure to take every moment to discover something new and deepen my friendships here.

Discovering mushroom markets when I wandered the city alone

It’s ok to be sad or to feel out of place. But only when we’re honest about it can we begin to overcome it. You are only alone when you make yourself alone.