Before coming to study in Lyon, France, I didn’t exactly have a realistic vision of how my abroad experience would turn out. I found that reality sometimes varies greatly from expectations, especially in regard to the accessibility of peanut butter.

My first misguided assumption was that I would touch down in Lyon full of excitement, without jet lag and able to adapt effortlessly to the je ne sais quoi of life in France. I imagined myself spending my days sipping wine and riding a bicycle while wearing a beret.
The reality was a little less picturesque than anticipated – I ended up waiting in lines and experiencing an immense fear of missing out while scrolling through friends’ pictures of homecoming and Halloween.

Studying abroad is a luxury and not something to complain about, even when acclimating to the culture proves more difficult than expected. I’ve been able to gallivant around Europe for four months, ride bikes down cobblestone streets and forget what midterms are like. Coming to France has been everything studying abroad is cracked up to be and more. But I’ve found it has its downsides.

I’ve been really homesick at times – for Georgetown, for America, for my parents, my friends and my dog. It feels unappreciative to be envious of friends on campus as I click through pictures of group Halloween costumes taken in Village B living rooms, or to miss Diet Coke and Leo’s brunch. But I do. It’s an odd phenomenon, to leave everyone and everything you know for a few months. Sometimes the general unfamiliarity of culture, language and location combined with the pressure to appreciate every minute is overwhelming.

But that’s sort of the point, right? Studying abroad is supposed to be a life-changing, horizon-expanding experience, and that doesn’t happen just by seeing paintings and eating baguettes. It’s the mistakes I’ve made and the stuff I’ve figured out on my own, from navigating French academic bureaucracy to rescheduling flights cancelled due to air traffic controller strikes to crying while reading a letter from a faraway friend. Those are what make this experience worthwhile.

I also went in with the assumption that I would be watching sunsets from outdoor cafes with new French friends and impressing fellow students and professors with my fluent French. Basically, I thought that my academic French had completely prepared me for fluently conversing in the country.

What actually happened was me failing to create a grammatically correct sentence for the first week, regressing to the vocabulary of a 4-year-old and gesturing – there was a lot of gesturing.

The whole point of going abroad to a non-English speaking country is to improve your language skills to the point of fluency because there’s absolutely no way you can’t become fluent when you’re living and breathing another language, right?

Although my French has improved dramatically, it wasn’t all as easy as I thought. Taking classes in a different language with native speakers is a lesson in humility – it gets frustrating when you have ideas to express but lack the words to do so. I’ve ended up having my share of classic language mix-ups – false cognates like preservatifs (which means female condom in English) can lead to some awkward dinner conversations with the host mom – but everyone I’ve encountered has been nothing but patient and gracious with my mispronunciations and the many times I’ve resorted to simply pointing.

I came to France expecting to be hopping on trains and planes to picturesque destinations, exploring museums and seeing sites and posting artsy Instagrams with friends from Georgetown. I actually ended up spending hours upon hours sitting squished in the middle seat (always the middle seat!), learning how to use an iPhone compass and experiencing awkwardly tearful but joyful reunions with friends in hostel lobbies

Travelling has played a huge part in my experience abroad. I’ve been to four countries and eight cities, eaten currywurst and drunk sangria, climbed the Eiffel Tower, sung at Oktoberfest and instagrammed in front of the Berlin wall. It’s been adventurous and exhilarating and has forced me to push my boundaries and step outside of my comfort zone. But glamorous? Not quite.

I was a bit of a skeptic about the idea of staying in hostels, but I’ve grown to love them: the bunk beds with their little curtains, the camaraderie found in shared bathrooms and bar crawls, even the requisite 30-something guy who snores and wears pajamas all day.
I’m not exactly a low-maintenance traveler but I’ve gotten better. Now I can manage a weekend away with just a backpack, because, in the words of Anthony Bourdain, I am “a traveler, not a tourist.” Sometimes I wear the same sweater for three days, which can be problematic for Facebook photos but is otherwise surprisingly and completely bearable. I desperately hope, as do the US Airways baggage handlers, that this is a skill I bring home.
Obviously, not everything worked out exactly as I’d planned, but I’m really grateful for that. My experience has been a lot less perfect and a lot more fun than anything I could have imagined.

After everything that’s happened, I can safely say: go abroad. Take pictures, write postcards, travel by yourself, make friends on trains, use real maps, keep a journal, screw up a lot and learn from it. And remember to bring your peanut butter.


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