It’s 10:30 am, and I’ve stumbled, bleary-eyed, off the bus into Galway City. The drive from the Shannon Airport to my new apartment’s only about an hour, but it feels more like five. I’ve been sitting on an airplane for almost half a day, and my perception of time and sense of place can’t be trusted in the slightest.
It’s 2:30 in the morning at home in California, which probably accounts for the way I can’t get my new apartment door unlocked, and the struggle of dragging my overfilled suitcase up a full flight of stairs. That, in the moment, is funny, too. I was worried I hadn’t packed enough warm clothing the night before I left, but here I can’t even lug it up to my new room.
It’s the little things that are hardest. I sit through an orientation on our apartment protocols: how to lock the doors, for one (It’s two days before I figure it out), and how to share the wifi with a hundred other students, and how to air out your rooms and avoid the growth of black mold—wait, what? I’ve never considered black mold in my life.
At home, I grew up with wildfires all summer and into fall; ash days rather than snow days, and hundred-degree weather in the shade. In late August, Ireland is constantly damp. The chill settles in my lungs, and turns into morning asthma flareups. I’m as far as I’ve ever been from what I know and love, and I start to ask myself why I’m here in the first place. I wanted this…but why?
Study Abroad Is Not The Same as a Vacation
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been excited about this for weeks, if not months. There was a point in May, saying goodbyes to my university friends, that my usual “have a great summer!” greeting turned into a jaunty “see you next January!” and I’d grin while they spluttered and questioned and after a minute I’d explain I was going abroad. It’s my first time out of the country, and I think I’m allowed a bit of bravado.
The thing about studying abroad—it isn’t a vacation. There’s a thrill in traveling somewhere new for a week or two, such as not needing to settle in, sightseeing to your heart out and knowing that in no time you’ll be boarding a plane home. You’re glad you went but enjoying the comfort of going back to your normal life.
It’s the existential equivalent of staring at a blank page in my notebook, knowing I need to draw or write something but being so overwhelmed by possibility that I can’t do anything.
But when you’re studying abroad, you’re constructing a new life for yourself. Some days, I haven’t a clue what that looks like. It’s the existential equivalent of staring at a blank page in my notebook, knowing I need to draw or write something but being so overwhelmed by possibility that I can’t do anything. But just as that kind of creative process isn’t defined (as much as I’d like it to be) by sitting down to make art and leaving with a masterpiece two hours later, making a place that feels like a home doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages and fragments.
Finding a New Sense of Place
I have a habit of building my home around the people I feel safest with, but five thousand miles away, something has to change . Staying up till 4 am to Skype with my friends when I know they’ll be online isn’t sustainable for long.
So first I try to explore the idea of being somewhere new: the fact that I can do whatever I please. I make a list of cafes in Galway, soon to be expanded as I find new places to sit and write on my days off. I hold onto the moments I’m alone in the kitchen and can try a new recipe. Cooking, I find, is meditative and I’ll take whatever meditation I can get when life is swirling around me like this. I save space for those lovely few hours when time zones align and I can call my partner from my laptop and forget the frustrations of the week, just for a few hours. In all of this, I’m finding my home.
Sometimes it’s About The Small Things
Even the smallest things are worth celebrating. I know, now, where to find the medication I need for my awful (and depressingly frequent) winter colds. The world isn’t as overwhelming when I’ve figured out the pharmacy is just down the street.
Having somewhere I feel safe, has made it easier to explore in the ways I want to, and fall in love with the place I’m spending the next four months of my life. I can look around me and start to enjoy the gorgeous skies at night; the way the sun shines on the River Corrib when I’m up early for classes. I can start to plan outings, and wander to museums and galleries and castles, without feeling like everything I know is collapsing around me.
I know there are people who take every opportunity to try something new, as soon as their plane touches ground. They toss some clothes in their wardrobe and head out into the city lights, living life to the fullest.
For others, it takes a while longer. We all live life at different paces, and I’ve come to accept that it’s fine, although it wasn’t what I had first hoped for myself. Six months ago, I thought landing on a new shore would make me feel like a new person. Today, I’m taking it slow. That’s okay too.
Sketch Ree Mead studies Interdisciplinary Narratives & Creative Process at the University of Redlands and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at NUI Galway in the Republic of Ireland in Fall 2017. They are an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.