Pretend that you’re sitting outside for a moment. You’re on a cold, metal park bench. It’s drizzling and hulking bodies pass by, dark raincoats distorting the human shape. Everything is grey and dark. It’s loud and you hear the constant thrum of city traffic. Nobody passing by makes eye contact and the only light comes from street lamps and smartphone screens. You’re surrounded by people and yet you feel completely alone.
One of the hardest things about coming to Ireland has been the culture shock. It’s not the expected unbalance that comes from moving to an unfamiliar country, but the sudden switch from rural Maine to a city of 120,000.
All of my American friends in Cork are from big cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. They’re used to a fast paced environment. Pavement and buildings instead of trees and grass are natural to them. I, on the other hand, feel like a fish out of water most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong: Cork is a vibrant city. It’s a warm and welcoming introduction to urban culture. Even so, the days when the clouds roll in and jacket hoods go up are hard. At least when it’s sunny outside there are usually street performers, live music or something else to distract you.
I’m proud of myself for getting as much out of my experience as possible and for taking the time to get to know the city, but sometimes I realize that I need to return to what’s familiar.
My advice to others planning to study abroad would be: don’t be afraid to return to the familiar occasionally. This weekend I went with a group of international students to Galway and took a ferry out to the Aran Islands. It’s the off-season for tourism there and only a few locals were hanging around. On the main part of the island they have one bar, one restaurant, two sweater markets and two bike shops. That’s it.
My friends and I biked across the island, past rows of old lichen-covered stone walls and the occasional curious sheep. We never encountered another person. We peddled until the road ended and then we walked until we came to the edge of the island where the ocean met the cliffs. It was glorious. The smell of the salt water stinging your nose, the occasional cry of a seagull cutting through the quiet air and the rhythmic rise and fall of the bay all felt familiar. The light slanting through the clouds hit the spray from the waves and displayed little rainbows across the cliffs.
I sat on the edge of those cliffs for a while as my friends tried to explore the surrounding area. To the others the stillness quickly became boring, but to me it was peaceful and beautiful. We only stayed on the island for three hours, but the serenity that I found there still hasn’t left me a week later. My trip put me back in nature and reminded me of home
Solitude doesn’t always equal loneliness just like being surrounded by people doesn’t always mean feeling included. I’ve grown to know myself so much better in the time that I’ve been studying abroad and I still have a few months left to go.
To anyone who feels restless for something new like I did before coming here: study abroad. It will provide you with so much more than just an academic and resume boost or another check mark on a list of what you think defines a successful academic career. You will learn so much more about who you are and what you want out of life.