The statue of Amy Winehouse in London’s Camden Market is located on a meandering walkway. My plans of having a private, spiritual moment to properly mourn the singer were hindered by closely passing tourists as I enacted the duties of a traffic cone. I was nearly elbowed by one of them, as I had most likely roadblocked their search for a tote bag with the Queen’s face on it. I continued to stand with flowers in my hands as I grieved for Amy. Her song “Valerie” played through my headphones — a personal homage to my mom, who shares the same name. I missed her. My feet hurt. The humid July air made me sweat profusely. It smelled like falafel. I cried there, incessantly, for 20 minutes.
I had begun to bear the weight of an ending: the end to my time in London. The city was my not-so-foreign home for a portion of the summer. My days of looking out at the English countryside by train, hoping the ride would continue for a couple of more songs, were nearly over. I wasn’t going to trip on the same cobblestone pathway in Golders Green every morning on my way to class and get frustrated because of it each time. I went to Abbey Road Studios and I didn’t even meet Paul McCartney! I did, however, become acquainted with London theater, art, architecture, culture, history, people, and (notably) pubs.
The UW English department’s program brought me to London, and a couple of short months later I left to spend fall quarter on a comparative literature program in Paris where I thoroughly enjoyed the rare occasion for a second time abroad. Another adventure meant another opportunity for me to become accustomed to a European city, all while speaking mediocre French.
The courses consisted of fashion, surrealist art, and expatriate writers of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The material was entirely embedded in the city itself. I got to know each neighborhood, including my own in which I visited the same boulangerie for a baguette on the sunniest and rainiest of mornings. I knew the way lights reflected on the Seine at night and that the best place to scarf down a sandwich was the Luxembourg Gardens (My public sandwich-scarfing was done in countless historical parks.) Cheese was always welcomed and never neglected. I’m not entirely sure what convinced the French boy I dated during those months to like me — maybe it was a combination of American charm and Parisian luck.
Many of my favorite moments are ones that no part of me could have ever imagined would actually happen. I was able to visit Scotland, the Netherlands, and Belgium by train. On a weekend in Berlin, my roommate and I stumbled upon not only an organized strike at a station we couldn’t pronounce, but with that, we got in the way of a mass of German policemen. We hurriedly relocated as a sea of helmeted authority marched toward us. Some of them smiled, probably aware of our foreignness and accidental taste for high-strung situations. The life of a 20-year-old tourist involves countless missteps, and that’s almost exclusively where the fun emerges.
Spending months abroad is an ongoing and, at times, messy endeavor. I remember my experiences as a series of short memories. Each one of them has built onto the last to create a tower of playing cards, lacking structure and heavily predicated on risk. The best that I could do was ease myself, glide, and hope that my hurried steps were always enough to make whatever underground train I needed to.
There are a lot of reasons as to why study abroad is worth it. I’ve read before that it’s because you get to see new things, meet new people, and envelop yourself in a culture far different from what you’ve previously known. Those are merely complementary. In each of the kind and defiant moments, the worthiness of it all came from the learning it presented me. I learned that meat pies give me acid reflux. I also learned that the experiences that truly benefit us happen when we have no choice but to willingly stand corrected and, in turn, accept that nothing could have prepared us for a certain moment any more than our own disposition. That is something I will continue to confirm throughout whatever cocktail of fate, mistakes, and demands that life garnishes for me. And I’m just hoping it tastes like a French 75.
I thought the idea that studying abroad would genuinely change you forever was a devised myth, one that I hesitantly believed. I feel very differently now that I’ve experienced life abroad.
Reach contributing writer Christina Ramler at email@example.com. Twitter: @christina.rival
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