The first time driving by a local post office back home after three and half months abroad, I had the startling realization that the last time I was in the building was almost a year ago, applying for my passport. I had just returned from my semester living and working in Dublin, Ireland, and I recalled the first real step I took in taking a semester to intern abroad. I was a different woman when I stepped into that post office a year ago, and I learned so many things along the way. Here are few of my favorites.
The rumors are true: American bread really is awful compared to other countries’. I've always been a bit of a picky eater, so I didn't expect to really miss any food from abroad, but Irish brown bread is absolutely wonderful, and even store-bought sandwich bread is better across the pond (in my not-so-humble opinion). Also in the food department, I’m a huge fan of peanut butter, and my inner child missed nothing more than good old-fashioned American peanut butter and jelly.
Countries like the UK and Ireland speak English just like we do, and many Europeans from non-English speaking countries know some English as well as their own language, but that doesn't mean there aren't differences in how we communicate. There are more common word differences that you may have picked up from watching Harry Potter, like "jumper" and "loo," but there are also words I didn't expect to hear, much less assimilate into my own speech. It's taken quite a while being home to go back to calling this country "the US" rather than "the States," as it is often referred to by Europeans. And, I think this one comes from spending so much time in Ireland in particular, now my southern "Hi, how are ya?" often changes to the simple "Hiya."
Related: Understanding Culture Shock
Another lesson in the same vein of language differences: "crap" is a cuss word in some places overseas. My last day on the job, I spilled tea on my pants (they call them trousers), and said "crap" under my breath, to the shock of my coworkers. It took an explanation on my part to save my last impression that in America, "crap" is a word you use when you stub your toe and you can't scream something else because your grandmother's in the room.
In addition to the strange, unexpected lessons, I picked up a few practical things. The first: flying, like riding a bike, really does get easier the more you do it. That is, until your flight is delayed by two and a half hours (true story), in which case, good luck! When that happens (and if you get a $20 flight from city to city in Europe, rest assured that it will), you can take consolation in the fact that there's a whole plane full of other disappointed people stuck in the same airport. Your best course of action: make friends and buy snacks. Barring any delays or cancellations, the process of checking in, getting through security, and boarding the plane is largely the same across most airports, so even for nervous or inexperienced flyers (I was both), it really is true that practice makes (as much as air travel can be) perfect.
One of the most frequent comments I got from friends and family before I left was, "I could never do that alone!" As a young woman who had never left the country before, logic would dictate that I shared their concerns, but I've always been an (almost stubbornly) independent person, so the idea of exploring a new continent alone didn't bother me. In fact, when my family came to visit, guiding them around—and subsequently getting lost—was much more stressful than doing the same alone. Each person's reaction to these situations runs the spectrum: from sheer panic to "this is just the scenic route." (I lean toward "scenic route.") Getting lost with my family in a city I'd lived in for almost two months (yes, I get lost took the scenic route frequently) taught me two things: that doing things alone, without the subconscious pressure from travel buddies, doesn't have to be as scary as it sounds; and that getting lost (within reason) is what makes travel into adventure. Some of the greatest memories from my time abroad come not from visiting areas already represented by millions of pictures on the internet, but from wandering side streets and places you won't find in a guidebook. And you often won't find these off-the-beaten-track places without the freedom to do things at your own pace and not caring about getting lost.
On the subject of self-reliance, I learned another valuable lesson: in stressful situations, I can be the calm one if need be. During the last week of my internship, a coworker and I had to travel outside the office to a part of the city we had never been to before. When we got off the train, neither of us were certain how to get to our final destination. Normally in a situation like this, where we were (maybe just a little) lost, at risk of being late, and meeting our boss, would have stressed me to no end. But I was surprised at how level-headed I stayed through the whole thing. Apparently, in stressful situations, if I have to be the balance, I can be.
Because I interned abroad in the fall, I spent almost seven months without stepping foot in a classroom, the longest stretch of time since I started preschool. But I've learned so much in the last three months, all thanks to the giant leap of faith I took when I applied for that passport last year.
Have you studied or interned abroad? Did anything surprise you during your travels? Tell us all about your adventures in the comments!