I walked assuredly down the street a couple weeks ago in Paris, iPhone in hand and overstuffed backpack secured firmly to my shoulders. My passport and wallet hung tightly to the right side of my body in an ugly, copiously zippered black satchel I purchased before going abroad — something “sensible” to protect my 30 euros and various forms of identification from pickpockets.
My eyes darted between the Parisian window sills and the blue dot on my phone; I had no Wi-Fi, and the best I could do to get to my next destination was follow the dot religiously until I hit the Seine. I’d just left a friend’s place, and I had the day to explore before catching the metro to the airport to return to London, where I am studying for the semester. Without service and in a city I had known for only four days, I felt completely, perfectly alone.
This isolation took my mind to many places. I could get abducted (in London, huge advertisements for “Taken Three,” the movie, make this an omnipresent fear). I could be mugged. I could eat five croissants in one sitting. No one would know.
I turned a corner, and the blue dot on my phone faithfully followed suit, its arrow pointing just where I wanted to go.
A couple hours later, I had made it to the airport, where the Internet provided relief.
“At the airport — be home in a couple hours,” I sent my mom, who was asleep in Los Angeles. I checked my email and went on Facebook, then bought an overpriced spinach quiche and waited for the airport attendant to start loading the plane. A businessman smiled at me when he heard my American accent.
“That smells good,” he said with a hearty, vaguely East Coast-y voice.
I smiled and hoped we wouldn’t end up sitting next to each other on the flight. Two hours later, I was at Heathrow Airport. Safe and sound and still thousands of miles from home.
Isolation is undoubtedly at the heart of the study abroad experience. This isn’t as tragic as it sounds. I told my friends and family repeatedly that I would make not a single friend while spending six months in London and that they would have to fly over and bring me home, immediately, to California. I wept when I arrived at the airport on New Year’s Day to catch my one-way flight. (My mom memorialized the moment on Facebook by posting a photo of me, bright red with snot dribbling down my dad’s shoulder. 66 likes, 26 comments and 1 share).
Still, I love it here. I’ve (against all odds) made some friends and seen old friends in new countries. My days are full. Things are new.
Someone asked me recently why I haven’t made a travel blog. I scoffed at at first. Who cares about my experience while over here? Probably only my mom. But there are parts of this experience that I feel speak to more important parts of the human experience than, say, seeing Paris in the rain for the first time. Or drinking legally before turning 21.
Chief among these is how this isolation and newness reinforce and reinvent self-identity. I realized two weeks into my program here that I hadn’t thought about myself in days. Thrown headfirst into activity after activity, with room after room filled with new faces, I just acted. I talked to new people and acquired an embarrassing number of undialed phone numbers. I’m not sure how I appeared to the people I was meeting. Somehow, that wasn’t the question at hand.
I saw my best friend from Berkeley in Brussels after we’d both been in our respective countries — England and Spain — for about a month. We met at the Grand Place, a stunning old square in the heart of the city that literally smells like Belgian waffles, for a marvelous two hours before I caught a bus and she caught a flight. We ran to each other across the cobblestones, tears streaming, acting like we were straight out of a scene from one of those underappreciated Disney Channel movies that came out in the early 2000s. We bought fries. I felt instantly myself again.
I felt this way again in Paris, where I met my closest friends the following weekend. My time in London came alive as I told them story after story: that I eat all my home-cooked meals out of black mugs and once took three wrong buses before finding my way home at 3 a.m. and that my flat looks like an expansive airport bathroom. Together, our mistakes and misgivings were just little pieces of the people we already knew. I could eat porridge three times a day, they told me, and listen to rap music and cry occasionally while crossing the bridge to class. It all made perfect sense.
I’m not often made to think about my own identity. Daily, like everyone else, I extol the details of who I “am.” Name. Full name. Studying English literature. From Los Angeles. Unclear career goals. Eternally homesick. Bad jokes. But I don’t often think about where I gain this sense of self from. At home and now, at college, where I am nearly as settled as I am in my hometown, I can’t go anywhere without a gloss of familiarity. Whatever it is that I recognized within my good friends when we began our relationships, we now constantly echo back to each other. Same with my family, my original house of mirrors — where the permutations of myself are always rooted in mutual history and relentless love.
Without these mirrors, it’s unclear who exactly I am or how I’m supposed to share that self with the new people that now populate my days. It’s also unclear what my role is in creating that sense of self. In some ways, it’s possible that this alienated me is a more honest version. It’s like when you meet someone new with a good friend. Talk or act differently and that friend will notice and call you on it. Meet someone alone and it’s just you, and all bets are off. I haven’t started the habit of lying to people I meet abroad, but there’s something daunting about the fact that I even could. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve been really unsure about how the people I’m interacting with view me. And it’s the first time that I’ve had to really consider what I want them to view in the first place.
Studying abroad is a lot of things, and most of them are highly unoriginal. Yes, I’ve now made my way to Scotland and Ireland, and there’s a list of other places I’m hoping to hit. I drink too much and don’t study and occasionally post an Instagram to prove it is all happening. So have at least 50 of my friends and acquaintances who are spread out across the globe for the spring semester. But the real uniqueness has come in the moments when I am suddenly and deeply by myself.
I walked through Hyde Park recently on one of the first sunny days of the year, and this loneliness hit me, slowly at first and then with full force. I stared at the strangers rushing by, on Boris Bikes and in incredibly manicured suits, some in pairs and groups, some alone. By instinct, I sought eye contact, a glimmer of recognition or a shared glance with someone rushing by to dissuade the feeling. When no such glance came, I kept walking straight ahead, imagining what I might look like to the people moving by me. I could be anyone to them.
These waves hit me every so often, usually quickly folded and forgotten under the fabric of day-to-day life. But still, they seep in. Moments of mindfulness that are wholly and entirely mine.
Libby Rainey is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]