It has been a very long time since my last journal, which I apologize for. I think something that you don’t expect when you go on exchange is to get so caught up in life that you forget that you are there temporarily, and to almost forget that life happened before you left to go abroad. Life here became so normal that it felt strange to write about it like a travel blog, since it didn’t feel like I was on a vacation anymore. It just felt like my day to day existence. That’s not to say that life became mundane or unhappy in any way, actually quite the opposite. The more normal that life became, the happier I grew. Because it meant that I had started to form friendships so that I wasn’t so alone, and had grown comfortable with my city so that it wasn’t as novel and mysterious like when I had first arrived; it just became my home.
So now I am about five weeks away from my departure date, and it’s sad, because as I think any student who has studied abroad can attest to, it’s right when you’re about to leave when it seems like everything is finally completely falling into place. Now that I have made and solidified so many amazing friendships, and now that I can actually imagine staying here and never leaving, is when my time is coming to an end. Which I know will be very difficult.
I’m not going to get into everything that has happened in the last eight months or so, because that would take up pages and pages and pages. But I’ll go over a little bit of what has been going on lately. Of course, with coronavirus, a lot of exchanges have been sadly cut short. I’m lucky enough that it never got bad enough here that I felt that I was safer in the US than in Pula; in fact, coronavirus has been very sparse in my particular region. For over a month already, almost everything has been opened; the countless cafes, the mall, restaurants, markets, public buses, sports practices. It actually feels like normal here. The only differences are the hand sanitizers at the entrance to every store and the signs that ask people to keep some distance (which honestly people don’t really follow). But life feels more or less the same. It also helps that the weather has gotten beautiful here (with the occasional rainy day), so people are often on the many walking paths through the forests or by the coast, enjoying the beginning of summer.
Myself, I have been seeing friends whenever I can (their online school ends next week, so then we’ll be able to go out more often) and going to rowing practice five days a week, which is great because even if I’m having a lonely or unproductive day, rowing always makes sure I get outside and moving and around other people. I’ve loved going on picnics with my friends by the water, or biking through the lush green forest, or just going on hours of meandering walks along the coast. Tomorrow is especially exciting because it’s my 16th birthday (!!) and I’m going to spend it with my host family at a pizza place, and then with several of my friends on the beach.
If you were wondering, my Croatian has been coming along. I am definitely not fluent by any means, but I am able to communicate effectively. My host mom still forgets to talk to me in Croatian (she’s trying to improve her English), but my host dad speaks to me exclusively in Croatian and many of my friends speak just in Croatian with me as well. I do wish I was able to understand more than I do, but I am also proud of the amount that I have learned, especially considering how complicated of a language it is.
Because of coronavirus, the remainder of our trips were cancelled, like they were for most other students in other countries as well. Personally, I was meant to go skiing in Austria, on a spring trip to Dubrovnik (south of Croatia), to London, and Eurotour. While I was initially a little sad about missing out on all of these trips, it all worked out for me really well in the end and actually became something positive. Had I gone on all of the trips, I would have collectively been gone from Pula about 7 weeks or so. But since I had to stay here, I’ve had more opportunities to see my friends here and explore the city. If everything had gone as originally planned, I would have not visited so many amazing places in the very city I live in, and I don’t believe I would have gotten as close to my friends as I have. To me, spending time with people here is far more valuable than going on trips to places that I can always visit again in the future.
I think in general there is something to be learned from that. No matter what happens or goes wrong (because things will go wrong at some point), you have to try to make the best of it and go forwards with a positive outlook. I have learned and grown so much more from the difficult, disappointing, and embarrassing experiences than I ever have from everything going perfectly. At times on your exchange, you will mess up, say something wrong, take the wrong bus, maybe not take an opportunity you should have or not talk to somebody you could have. And as unfortunate as those situations are, and as terrible as they might make you feel, each time you will learn better how to cope, and what to do differently the next time, and you will come out the other side a better and more mature person.
In regards to my host family, I have a bit of a unique situation, since I never changed families the entire year. There is one other exchange student in Pula, and the original plan was for us to switch families sometime in January or February. But we were both so happy with our respective families that we decided not to. While I understand that it can be good to change families to get new experiences, I think staying with the same one has been really positive for me. I’ve been able to get to know and form deeper ties with my host family, and I have become very familiar with the area I live in, beaches and beautiful areas I can walk to, and the bus routes that I can take. Without having to worry about getting to know a new family and area every few months, I have been able to focus more on making friends and growing in other aspects.
At this point in my exchange, I can’t even fathom going back to life in Florida. I don’t remember the last time I was seriously homesick. Occasionally I’ll have a lonely day where I don’t see a friend or get anything done, and I’ll call my mom back in Florida to catch up, hear her voice, and fill some of the empty space. But that is a feeling I was familiar with before exchange, and isn’t unique to being abroad. For me, I don’t think I followed the ‘typical’ homesickness arch that you’re shown. Of course, it will vary for every person, but my homesickness during the year was based off of events that happened rather than the timeline itself. The most homesick I have been this whole year was within the first week that I was here, and during a rough patch sometime in the winter when I didn’t yet have solid friendships and the weather prevented any outdoor activities or many social outings. At those times, I sometimes felt like it would never get better, and that a part of me would always long for my established friends in Florida. But as time has progressed, I’ve realized that those bouts of homesickness were amplified by my internal monologue glorifying life back in Florida. I would compare my loneliness here to how much ‘fun’ I thought people must be having in the US. But then I would have to remind myself what life in Florida actually was like, rather than how I was painting it in my head.
In reality, when you are missing something and aren’t experiencing it anymore, you tend to make it seem much greater and more exciting than how it actually is. And while that thought didn’t necessarily lessen my homesickness, it allowed me to now have a greater appreciation for the time I am here, so that I can look back on it and genuinely have beautiful memories of my life here. I’m not sure if any of that made much sense, but long story short, try your hardest not to put your life in your home country on a pedestal. You have spent 15, 16, 17 years living there, and you are going to have a lifetime there when you return (if you choose to stay). But the year that you have in your host country is fleeting, and while you may come back in the future to visit, or possibly live, you will never be there at that same moment in time, surrounded by the same kind of network of your host family and friends. So, at risk of sounding like a broken record, just enjoy your time there and truly take as many chances for growth and exploration as you can.
Something else that I think is worth noting is that once you form bonds with people in your host country, it makes the world and the future seem a lot less daunting. Knowing that you have the ability to grow roots and thrive in a foreign location where you initially had nobody is very empowering. And it puts your relationships back in your home country into perspective. That’s not to say that you have to lose friends back home; I have so many wonderful friends in Florida that I know that I will have for life. But for me, it made me realize that I don’t have to feel such pressure to create an entire, perfect circle of friends in Florida that I will be with forever. There are so, so many people in the world that you will meet throughout your life, and you don’t have to limit yourself to meeting people from the same city or state that you originate from. It is important to gain new perspectives through global friendships, and through friends that have different interests and come from different walks of life. Being here has taught me that I don’t have to cling so tightly to where I come from, that I can let go of toxic cultures in my hometown, and that wherever I am, I don’t have to settle for being around people who don’t value me as a person, or who make me feel bad about myself.
This year has absolutely been the best of my life, I have learned more about myself and the world than I ever thought I would in one year. And I truly do not want to leave the life I have built here. But as sad as I am that my departure date will eventually come, I know that this is not the end of my journey, but the beginning. I hope that if you decide to go abroad, that your experience will be as enlightening and beautiful as mine has been here. All the misfortunes and low moments are all, one hundred percent, worth it.