It’s hard to put the last five months living abroad into words. I’m keen for my next adventure and I’m still processing my exchange experience and the profound effect it had on my life.
Moving or visiting a different country is necessarily introspective, it takes us out of our usual environments and tests us in uncertain waters. The comforts of home are replaced by the adventures of the unknown, and that is the recipe for learning.
“Travel is a teacher, one that wakes up your senses when you’re out of your comfort zone...it allows you to see the world with fresher eyes and realize that life doesn’t have to be a certain way. We could and can be better. ”
— Jedidiah Jenkins in The Great Discontent magazine
So, I bring you a concise but inconclusive list of some of the lessons I learned during my five months studying abroad in Colchester, England (an hour away from London).
1. Book the cheap flight.
I ended up in Milan because it was a 9 pound flight. I ended up in Split because it was a 15 pound flight. Those were some of my favourite places. I didn't even know Split existed and it certainly did not make it to my Europe bucket list when I left.
When I left on exchange I had no plans to travel, I thought I was too broke to go. But I stretched my dollars and made it work and ended up going on cheap but incredible vacations.
By forcing myself to find the good deals and by not having a Europe bucket list, I went to places I didn’t know as much about and that I had few expectations of. By just allowing myself to go where my money allowed, I wasn’t really making decisions about where I wanted to go.
I left it up to the gods of Skyscanner to direct me to the cheapest flight and from there, I took off. Sometimes, it helps to stop worrying about what to go and what to do and just book a flight. Just get ready for take off and go, regardless of what’s in store. Throw the plans to the wind and go where the wind blows, I have a feeling you'll be very pleasantly surprised.
2. Savour things.
On my first trip solo, I decided to do a day trip to Cambridge. I had everything planned triple checked and quadruple checked, I watched a movie filmed there, and I asked friends what to see. I was 11/10 ready. Then I got there and rushed through everything I had planned, leaving me with a few hours to do nothing but sit in cafes.
I ended up spending more money sitting in cafes then I did on anything else that day because I ran out of stuff to do. Rushing was, and often, is pointless.
Try to take it all in at once. Especially being Canadian, I noticed I was way less in tune with a sort of natural human rhythm that Europeans seem to have all figured out. They eat long lunches with friends, take coffee breaks that can last hours, and drink often.
Canadians certainly like to chill out but it’s a break from our jobs. A weekend at the lake or a day out shopping, not a couple hours in the middle of the day for a siesta. I have this tendency to rush through things and, as I mentioned, rushing isn’t always necessary.
As a student, my work is always tested with piling deadlines. I understand that it’s important to work hard but I think it’s even more important to work efficiently and efficiency, I believe, requires breaks. Although doing an assignment cannot be compared to the sweetness of savouring an almond croissant or a pint of Belgian beer, it is important to complete the work well which does not always require working rigorously for hours on end to stress over perfection.
3. The value of a dollar, a Kuna, a euro, and a pound.
Like I said, when I started exchange I did not budget for travel. I didn’t think I had the funds for it at all. And then I got to Europe and I realized how cheap it was. I realized that if I cut a few bucks off my weekly spending on dining out and drinks, I could afford another trip.
Exchange was the first time I had the financial independence to make these decisions by myself about living expenses. Also, I had access to an entirely new budget travel industry, and I fell in love with budget airlines. The sweet song that plays after a Ryanair landing just got me. Although I definitely struggled at times, I’m so thankful for what exchange taught me about spending, budgeting, and saving up for what matters most.
4. There's hope in the dark.
This lesson basically came from one book: Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. It’s a perfect and timely read arguing that in the darkest of times in history, the greatest things happen. Solnit creates a new story, honouring the successes of activists in political turmoil and heroes in disasters. Importantly, she establishes that hope is crucial and when there are bad things it's an opportunity for better things to come.
Exchange was a roller coaster for me. There were times when I felt absolutely on top of the world and times when I felt like I was ready to book a flight back to Canada. Every time something bad happened, it was always followed by something amazing.
I was forced to accept that bad things were going to happen, that I was going to be sad, and that I would be okay regardless.
In my life back home, I was content to coast. The opposite of being constantly good involves failure and sadness, but it’s what makes things exciting. And things, good or bad, never last.
5. It's not the place, it's the people.
Right now, I'm writing this from the Dubrovnik airport. I've been waiting here for Jill to arrive for 4 hours. With the money I spent on this flight, I could've booked three flights elsewhere. But I wouldn’t have seen Jill’s screaming face when I surprised her at the airport.
On my trip, I’ve already seen so many incredible places. In all of these places, I looked at them and soaked it all in, then took a picture for my friends and family back home.
The best moments are shared with people you love. This definitely includes my friends from exchange- you guys made Essex great. I'm sorry, it's cheesy, but the place really doesn't matter. Europe is littered with sites and significant places, you can have a great time anywhere. But the real human connections we make or build with one another are valuable beyond anything else.