Study Abroad Blues

Even as someone who felt fully prepared for it, I was hit like a barrel of concrete falling directly into my gut.

No one talks about the ugly side of study abroad. And it’s a bit brutal, to tell you the truth.
This week has been a weird mixture of excitement and stress, making it a strange and difficult experience.

No one really went into depth about the tension that can happen when you’re trying to move into a new flat with new people in a new country, the pain of money being sucked out of your account for dishes and deposits and food and electricity. The brutal homesickness that happens when nothing seems to be working out and you’re going to go broke and you just want to be with your friends back at school again.

The worst part for me, at least, was that I definitely thought I had it all under control. I was prepared, I wasn’t going to get hit with culture shock or homesickness, I was so ready to get out of the States.
Sometimes it’s easier said than done. Because let me tell you, homesickness hits like a truck, especially when you’re not expecting it.

We started off our week in London with the infamous flat hunt. At our London Centre, we spend the first week looking for a place to live. It’s overwhelming. It’s awful. Thank god the worst is over. My flatmates and I eventually found a ridiculously good deal at a student living accommodation in East London. Definitely not the nicest place nor the shabbiest, so myself and my other artistically-inclined flat mates – with the help of Pinterest – are working to make it more like home.

We’ve had a wonderful time in London otherwise, though. The director of the London Centre took us all to our first football game, a Millwall match where I have never heard so many expletives shouted at a field in my life (and I have relatives with mouths like sailors and children who play American football…). At one point the crowd took up a chant of “you fat c***.” Including children. Different cultures are so interesting.

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Millwall game!

We got to see a performance at the Globe, which my Shakespeare nerd self was overly excited about. As a lover of all things theatre and especially Shakespeare, it was a mind-blowing opportunity. Crossing off things on the bucket list is a really cool experience, let me tell you.

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Panorama of Shakespeare’s Globe.

We also hit up a tank party at the Camden Town Brewery in Northern London the night before we all moved into our flats, which was a wonderful time, even though beer is generally not my drink of choice.

Having a (half) pint at Camden Brewing Company!

Having a (half) pint at Camden Town Brewery!

But after all the dust has started to settle and the clock strikes midnight, my aggressive wanderlust has started to waver.

It’s a strange feeling to want to explore but also to have the tearing at your heart of missing home. Snapchats and Facebook posts from friends from Ithaca made me question why I even wanted to leave in the first place. Tearing up in the communal internet lab was definitely the icing on the cake as I FaceTimed my entire family all at once. Home isn’t here yet, and even if I’m not sure exactly where it is, it’s a place very far away from where I am. And that’s hard to accept. It’s also a difficult wave to ride.
Though I can drink a lot of alcohol, which definitely helps.

Kidding.

(Maybe).

Right now, I’m just meditating and breathing and doing yoga and riding my waves and settling into a rhythm and exploring this experience I got myself into. With classes starting, dishes and food bought, almost all of us in the flat, phones and wi-fi working, I’m starting to be able to sit back a little and try and take deep breaths. It’s still very strange to see pictures of everyone back at Ithaca, and still a weird feeling to be somewhere so new and having to spend a lot of money, but I’m getting to a good place.

And I’m just very grateful I managed to shove Snuffles in my bag so when I need to cry, I have something from home to hold.

Thank God for stuffed animals.

Thank God for stuffed animals.

Och Weesht and Get Oan Wae It

I lost an earring to the streets of Edinburgh.

It escaped from my right ear and left a part of me on the cobblestone.

It was a trip that deserved a part of me left behind. Edinburgh was cold, windy and rainy but still undeniably beautiful, rich, full and thriving.

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We arrived exhausted on the first day, struggling to make it to a 9pm bedtime. After fish & chips, a salad, and our first drinks in Scotland (as my first legal drink was actually on the airplane over…) we promptly and deeply fell asleep. But the next day was packed with city exploration – a bus tour, an ever-expanding knowledge of the city’s layout (with the help of a few hard-copy maps), strolls along the Grassmarket and Royal Mile, snacks and tea in the Elephant House Cafe where the first Harry Potter book began (and our first official dabbling in the “caffè culture” of Edinburgh), as well as a very confusing – though visually stunning – postmodern show at the International Festival.

But the thing about cities is there’s always more to explore, and always the touristy needs. So of course we saw the Castle and explored Camera Obscura (a world of illusions, and quite potentially my favourite part of the trip), and the Edinburgh Dungeon. In the evening, we went out to a lovely pub called the Tron and discovered new favourite drinks – for one of my closest friends, a “glitterbomb” or Smirnoff Gold with Monster or a similar energy drink, and for myself, our own creation suggested by a knowledgable bartender – “the Golden Muse” or honey whiskey mixed with lemonade.

Group photo in front of the Edinburgh Castle.

Group photo in front of the Edinburgh Castle.

Kaleidoscope at Camera Obscura in Edinburgh.

Kaleidoscope at Camera Obscura in Edinburgh.

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Glitterbomb(ed) princesses.

Sorry, dad.

Our final day in Scotland consisted of a trek up Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano on the outskirts of downtown Edinburgh (which was not quite as leisurely a hike as our fearless group leader described nor my Converse-clad self was expecting), concluded by a picnic on the windy peak and a stop for fudge and a chat with a few rather attractive young Scotsmen who were working at said shop. In the evening we saw a hilarious production called “Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare” which was undeniably one of the funniest performances I have ever seen, and completely made up for the strange visual spectacle we had witnessed earlier in the week.

We climbed to the top of this!

We climbed to the top of this!

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View from the top of Arthur’s Seat.

Our "sh*t-faced" cast member of "Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare"

Our “sh*t-faced” cast member of “Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare”

I left a part of me in Edinburgh, physically and metaphorically speaking.

I hope the cobblestones take good care of my earring. I’ll be back, someday.

Edinburgh group in front of the Fringe Festival box office.

Edinburgh group in front of the Fringe Festival box office.

 

First Impressions

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I expected something. Maybe not the gut-wrenching panic of being in such an unfamiliar place, but some twinge of recognition from my body and mind that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

As the coach pulled away from Heathrow airport and I watched as we sped down the expressway towards the London Center, I started to wonder if I had made a grave mistake. Reminders of my mother’s words, “you always have buyer’s remorse, no matter the choice you make,” floated through my mind. A snapchat I had received from a friend emblazoned with the words – “you’ll love it. It’s just like an American city” haunted my memory.

I didn’t feel any different as we took the highway towards London’s Zone 1 and my new city. Nothing. I watched people driving on the opposite side of the road, and it didn’t faze me. I didn’t even feel jetlagged. My friends around me, groggy and blurry-eyed struggled to stay awake on our trip to the center while I tried to decide if this place was too close to home. I memorized a path my friends and I took to an ATM and the streets reminded me of the energy of my own city. Even the convenience store advertising “share a Coke with your mates” amused me but still seemed more like an anomaly than the reality of where I would be living. The tube was just like any other subway I had taken. And I was flipping out. Had I journeyed to Europe and was planning on spending my hard earned money on a place that felt exactly like home?

Hanging out in an Edinburgh restaurant on the first day.

Hanging out in an Edinburgh restaurant on the first day.

It wasn’t even the unfamiliar sandwiches and crisps and sodas that finally made me settle down about whether or not this was a different enough place. It was the brutally long 3-minute struggle of checking out my £3.99 meal deal from a store in the middle of King’s Cross station. It was the confusion of why I had to buy a bag for 2 pence and how to deal with a chip-and-pin card while the cashier unabashedly judged me, checking my signature against my debit card. It was as simple as that to make me realize that I wasn’t home anymore. And I wasn’t going to be for a while.

I’d been reminding myself all morning that this was why I chose London (besides financial reasons). This was my adjustment to the world. This was my ease into culture shock. I had practically panicked myself into a tizzy when something as simple as going to college happened, and lord knows I didn’t want to be so strung out on excitement and adrenaline in a city that was so unfamiliar it was hard to adjust to. I was trying to dive headfirst into a culture that was not mine and it wasn’t working because I was not only trying too hard but also expecting too much. I keep having to remind myself that this is my first time abroad and I think I’m still fairly numb to the entire concept of being somewhere else in the world. It’s just another place to me, strangely enough. But I think my comfort level with being in London means I know I’m ready to adventure.

The Pros of Numbness

As I approach my flight to the UK, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my desire to see the world, like I wrote in my last post, consistently conflicts with my anxiety issues. My study abroad adventures are just around the corner, and that means my excitement is through the roof. But this is kind of a bittersweet situation for me, because travelling comes with a lot of emotions, and emotions mean anxiety.

Now, you may be saying to yourself that yeah, emotions – but they’re good, right? Travelling is exciting! You’re young, you can handle staying in hostels and living on nothing and it’s an enjoyable emotion, right?

Exactly.

This is one of the hardest parts of anxiety that I have to explain to people. When I was younger – think pre-teen angsty phase – I would often tell people, or write about, how I was convinced that feeling nothing would be better than feeling what I felt.

People would always kind of smile at me, shake their head, “you don’t really mean that, honey.”

But here’s the thing – it’s been 7 or 8 years now, and I still stand by that statement.

Now, calm down, I don’t truly want to go and feel nothing all of a sudden. And I think it’s interesting that this is a big complaint people have with antidepressants – is that they mute all your emotions, not just the bad ones.

And I think that is miraculous.

Because here’s the thing – anxiety doesn’t just affect some parts of your life or your thoughts or your feelings. Anxiety claws into the deepest, darkest crevices and the easiest ones to reach. It’s not just that the bad emotions are magnified – all emotions are magnified. It’s like trying to breathe in a room slowly draining of oxygen. It takes hold of everything, and it’s undeniably overwhelming.

Here’s the easiest way I’ve found to describe any feeling I may have. As soon as you start to feel something – whether it be panic or fear or sadness or happiness or excitement, it starts to encapsulate all your thoughts, reminders popping up around every corner – be it something stupid you said or did, or the fact that there’s something awesome coming up that’s right there, you can almost touch it, but it’s not there yet. It’s like drowning in a pool of your own emotion, gasping for breath as thoughts bubble into every corner of your mind. It’s frustrating to try and concentrate on anything else when all of your energy is tied up with this one emotion, whipping through “what if”s and “but”s or “then”s.

It’s exhausting.

Meditation has definitely helped with this. I’ve started to recognize that sometimes, you have to let yourself drown – even as my internal lifeguard is screaming for me to jump in and yank myself out again. You have to learn to float, submerge into the pool of feelings. Because no matter what you do, it will be overwhelming. Your heart will race, your thoughts will clatter, your world will fade. Because it happens. That’s what anxiety does. And it won’t go away – but it will get worse, the harder you push.

So I’ve had to just let my thoughts run a little wild when I think about travelling. Let my panic seep into my bones. And just be at peace with that.

But does that mean these emotions are enjoyable? Almost all of the time, no. Emotion, for me, gets to the point where it’s pretty much too intense to function. There’s just too many of them. They press in everywhere, and when you feel the panic of unmanageable emotion in your throat, trying to convince yourself to let it happen is the epitome of non-instinctual.

And I’ve tried to push them away for a really, really long time. I eventually figure out how to pound them into manageable sizes for me to process, but believe me, that takes weeks, months, and years.

I’m not at a point yet where I could honestly say I’d rather feel everything than nothing. I think I’ll probably get there eventually, but when the intensity of your emotions overwhelms your will or ability to function, it doesn’t seem that bad. It’s definitely a learning process – because I’m ready to get to the point where I can actually feel things without fear of passing out or having a panic attack or not being able to concentrate. But we’re getting there, and for now, I’m learning to drown in my excitement for London.

On that 9-to-5 grind

It’s my last day here at the National Air and Space Museum. How did that even happen? This summer has been probably one of the best I’ve had so far. I’ve spent 10 weeks in a great city, finally had a job where I got to work in air conditioning and do stuff that might actually be helpful for my career, met a bunch of amazing people, read a lot of books, did some yoga, played a lot of League, and really started to get my emotions together.

Oh, and I’m going to London in a week.

What?

This is my very first international trip. This shocks a lot of people when I tell them that. In the age of jet aviation, it would seem as if it was really easy to do a hop skip and a jump over to South Africa or Asia or oh my god you haven’t even been to England??

Yeah. Growing up in a single income family in Chicagoland, that money doesn’t go very far. Not to say that I never had great trips growing up. I’ve seen most of the East Coast, skiied in Vermont, been to multiple National Parks, State Fairs and seen my fair amount of cities. But I didn’t even remember flying on a plane before I had to fly to my grandfather’s funeral in 2012.

Despite all this, I’ve known I wanted to travel for a very long time. I love telling people that I have kind of an “aggressive wanderlust.” I can’t sit still for very long, and probably as a result of that, I don’t really want to stay in the same city for the rest of my life either. It’s a kinesthetic-tactile trait that has always plagued me; watching videos of myself as a child is almost painful because I won’t. stop. moving. As I’ve grown, the phsyicality of my need for movement has exploded onto a larger scale, and into this idea of aggressive wanderlust. There’s so much world out there, and it really baffles me that there are some people who would be perfectly content working the 9 to 5 grind every day, living in the same place for their entire adult lives.

This is something very important that working in an office all summer has validated for me. And something all the adults will laugh at, and I’m going to probably read back on this and think I was such a naive 20-year-old, but for me to really be productive, I can’t be stuck in the monotonous routine of everyday. I can’t wake up at the same time every morning. It frustrates and angers me; it’s as if I’m stuck on a hamster wheel that keeps going but never goes anywhere.

But everyone does it, you say, you’ll have to wake up and face the real world eventually.

Okay, probably. But there’s just something about knowing you’ll have to do the same thing every single day. Of sitting behind a computer for 10 hours and longing, wishing to go home. So many people say they can’t really have an office job when they’re younger, so what happens? Where do our dreams disappear to?

To be honest, I don’t like the separation of home life and work life, and this is one thing I’ve not only learned about myself but learned to incorporate into my daily life. I love when work and home and passion and productivity and inspiration and task lists bleed together. It’s most likely because of my eternal dream to be a novelist, where “work” means sitting down wherever you are and cranking out some words. That excites me. Not knowing what will inspire you or will require a reaction is an adventure.

For me, travelling and working have to combine; maybe not “travelling” in the strict sense of the word, but adventuring. Travelling can mean a trip across the world or down the street to a new gelato place. I’m not sure how yet; I know what I’d love, but not what realistically will happen to me in the future.

For now, I’ve got a week to go before I take my first international flight, and I’m so ready.

5 Things I Have Learned About DC Thus Far

With only four weeks left of my internship to go (!!!), I thought I might share with everyone some knowledge I have gathered about how to survive in DC. Cities are very similar in many ways, but in others, they are extremely different, and this is a post that compiles some of the things one should know about how to blend in in DC.

 

1. Wear a lanyard

If you’re going to be a true DC-er, you need to wear a lanyard. Constantly. This is indeed one of the ways you can inject a little bit of personality and differentiate yourself from the pack of other professionals in the constant stream of the Metro during peak hours – colors and styles may differ (many proudly representing the company they work for, or the college they went to most frequently), but everyone in this city wears a lanyard. If you’re not working here, you’re a tourist.

 

2. Get business-y

On a similar note, DC is the most professional city I’ve ever been in. Chicago, for the most part, has a mix of all kinds of people – students, homeless people on the train, odd-looking hipsters, you name it. DC has people in suits. No lies. Every morning when you see people walking around, they’re either in suits or in sandals and socks. You get one guess as to what people are doing here.

 

3. Carry an umbrella

It doesn’t actually rain that often (as least as far as I’ve been here) despite the constant oppressive dampness that hangs in the air, but more than any other place I’ve been to, people carry umbrellas to shield themselves from the heat. Also a great thing to have in case the sky does open up. You know, preparedness.

 

4. Jaywalk like a boss

Like in most cities, jaywalking is pretty much a way of life. So is crossing the street with as little time as possible left on the walk signal (just so you know, you can’t cross Independence Ave in under 7 seconds unless you want people honking at you and threatening to run you over … definitely did not learn this from personal experience). And it’s no different in DC. There’s no point in waiting for the walk signal if there are no cars coming – we’re young professionals with places to go and people to see.

 

5. Measure things in Washington Monuments

Everything here is measured in comparison to the Washington monument. Get used to it.

 

There are also many more things that, in all honesty, I am just too lazy to write out here. But the summer is almost over, which is insane, and in exactly a month, I’ll be flying to the UK.

 

Here’s to adventures!

How To: Learning

Detail of a mural at the National Air and Space Museum.

I’ve always been a really passionate learner. I think this is somewhat due to my educational experience, since I was essentially allowed to study things I was interested in. I know it’s also partially because it’s something that comes easily to me – especially in a classically American educational system, I can easily excel because I know how to play the game. I memorize quickly, read fast and retain information.

I also love talking about all the random stuff I know. My brain is like a sponge of random facts, mostly because I love being right. This sounds really obnoxious (which it is), and it’s definitely a trait that I’ve been trying to improve upon. In the past (my younger, foolish self), I would argue things I had started even if I believed my opponent was right – and I always loved having an opinion about everything.

Luckily, (I believe) I have been growing out of this. I’ve had to force myself to listen, especially this past year.

The reason I’m writing about this now is because my internship has made me do this even more. I’ve never been a science-y person and I never would have seen myself working at a science-centered museum. I’ve always been self-proclaimed “right-brained.”

Hangin out at the installation of the X-43 Technology Demonstrator model.

And I’m here, at the National Air & Space Museum.

Why, you might ask. Why would you choose to work there if you have very little knowledge of the materials in the collection or background of all the information?

That’s exactly why. I always aim to challenge myself in my learning patterns and my knowledge. Did I know much more than the fact that stars were gaseous balls, the Wright brothers invented the first airplane and how to locate Orion’s belt when I first started here? Yeah, no.

Early morning planetarium photo shoots are the bomb.

So it’s very difficult for me to be right in a place where I know very little about the subject matter. Which means that I’ve had to change gears a little bit and put myself in the passenger seat. There are so many intelligent interns, researchers, curators and staff members here who know so much more than I do – there are interns studying gender roles in aviation, geology on Mars, galaxies that I’ve never even been aware of.

And that means I have a lot to learn from them and not a lot to contribute.

So it’s been a process of sitting back and absorbing all the knowledge I can – thank goodness for planetarium shows that dumb everything down for me and blow my mind more than a little bit. For conversations at lunch that show me that there are so many things I don’t know about. For casual bits of information that keep my intellectual ego in check.

6am at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

That’s one of the biggest things I love about this internship – being in a social media role, that means I get to learn a little bit about everything, which was the main reason I started in journalism in the first place. When I first walked into the Air and Space Museum, I didn’t know the difference between the Apollo and Gemini missions. I can now point out command modules from every Apollo mission. I can identify different types of aircraft and the stories behind them (Vin Fiz? SpaceShipOne? Spirit of St. Louis? I got you).

It’s a new way of absorbing information for me, and I can’t do anything but sit back, shut up and be grateful.

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Aircraft at Become a Pilot Day 2014.