There’s nothing more romantic than watching the glowing pink of a sunset crawl the mountains alongside Lake Geneva, or gliding down the snowy slope of Rusutsu or stumbling drunk down a footpath on a balmy summer’s night with some good mates in Miami. There’s that and plenty more to get excited about. Your time overseas will probably be one of the best years of your young life, at least that’s the way it’s shaping up for me. I’m abroad for a year and I already know it’s going to be absolutely fantastic. But it doesn’t always start that way; you aren’t glamorously, magically transposed from your life back home (for me, that’s from wonderfully sunny Sydney) to a foreign city (again, for me, little Lausanne in the west of Switzerland).
In fact, your first day of arrival is positively grim. You’ve been travelling for almost 24 hours (often more) and you have to somehow find your way from a random airport to a random city you’ve been assigned to live in for at least six months, maybe a year.
I found it particularly stressful after a mere 2-and-a-half hours sleep to find my accommodation, grocery shop, look for the little keys to unlock my suitcases, unpack my suitcases, remember with blinding clarity all the things I forgot to bring despite 62kg of luggage (all who know me can attest, I have many jackets), cook something for dinner with absolutely no crockery and mediocre cooking ability, craft a makeshift bed using several hoodies and finally, blessedly, fall asleep…
…Only to wake up at 4am the next morning without a clue where you are or how you got there. Until you remember. Not gonna lie, that was probably the loneliest moment of my life in recent memory. Realising with a cold dread, that I was 17,000km away from a life I had lived with relative ease for the past 21 years. I was excited and glad to arrive but also deeply terrified that I had so willingly embarked on something which was completely unknown to me.
It was worse, I think, for a girl who lived in my building. She cried a lot, Skyped her parents and friends constantly and for hours a day, and barely left her room. Despite completing a subject informing us of the various political, social, economic, and cultural facets of this wonderful country and attending many, many information sessions, we arrived and felt adrift, abandoned, and without purpose. We had yet to start classes and couldn’t preoccupy ourselves with the life admin of transport subscriptions, residence permits, bank accounts or phone plans because Switzerland’s efficiency is only rivalled by its complexity and believe it or not, all of the above hinged on a single piece of paper signed by the university, which we had yet to receive.
One night a new friend and I had dinner together, and she told me she had been considering visiting family who lived in Europe in an attempt to bring some kind of stability to the total upheaval we had experienced in moving here. When she asked me if I thought it was a good idea, I told her I didn’t. I recalled advice from an old friend who once told me what she did if she felt homesick. If she missed her dog, she went ice skating. If she missed her boyfriend, she went to the winter markets. She confided that she spoke to her parents often, but never when she was sad.
I don’t think I really understood what she meant by that until now. If I had to name it, I’d call it phantom life syndrome, when you find yourself with the urge to call friends who are, at that moment, fast asleep. Or scrolling through photos of a party you were invited to but unable to attend. Or missing your bed, or your mum, your cat, or your bathtub. It becomes so much harder to avoid reaching out back for the comfort of home when you’re sad, but it’s often for the best. If you don’t, you’re letting yourself get stuck between your home life and your exchange one; slowly tearing yourself in two. I don’t think that’s to say you have to let go completely of everything back home, or cut off contact, but you need to re-prioritise. Because this is your life, at least for now.
That’s not to say I’m not incredibly grateful and aware of the privilege that I am afforded to be able to partake in this experience. It’s a fantastic and life-changing thing, but in an age when there’s so much pressure to have an amazing time and be performative about it on social media, especially since it’s about making memories. And someday, I’ll have hundreds of photos of all the places I went and the monuments and people that I saw there, but sometimes it’s healthy to let yourself be sad or nostalgic about how truly transformative a year abroad can be, because, as wanky as it sounds, you really do appreciate it more.
By Cameron Hart
Header photo cred.