The Novelty of Travel: Let’s Be Scared
I know this new experience brought out and emphasized a new part of me; and this new part is still calling the shots.
By Jessica Smith, College of William and Mary
Everything about study abroad is exciting. Exciting and new. Before embarking on Semester at Sea, I had actually done a bit of traveling (Colombia, South Africa, and China), but I had never been to Europe – something, in this day and age, that’s rare. All of my friends from high school had been to London or Paris at some point (my high school even had its own French exchange), so I finally felt like I was joining The Club. What I don’t think I realized was exactly how new everything was going to be, despite all the expectations and assumptions I had for my European summer.
1. The beginning: It’s the first day. The whole thing is new… and well, awkward. Like most families about to ship their kids off on the MV Explorer, we all spent a few days in the Bahamas before The Big Day. Most of us were at this decent resort, drinking the first of many legal beverages, and very much retreating to what we knew best at that moment: our families. Or maybe it was just me, but I became secretly jealous of those who had traveled to this first port alone, already outside of their comfort zone and appearing to be already making friends. I was quick to shake my head whenever my mom suggested I meet some of my new classmates, finding it easier to order another drink than to put myself out there. Then, before I knew it, I was waving goodbye to the speck of a mother and the rest of the voyage’s families, immediately thrust into this entirely different atmosphere. Orientation quickly commenced and meeting after meeting, I came to understand and appreciate The Typical Semester at Sea Student (which, I can imagine, transcends to all other study abroad programs).
Students who take the risk of studying abroad are outgoing; they know what they want and how to get it. As we quickly started our classes, friendships were formed by the same, age-old question: Can I sit here? (mostly during our three, square meals) And while it was still normal for us to separate into groups (remember, there are ~500 of us…), I continually met people along the way.
I didn’t meet my closest friends, who lived literally across the two foot wide hall from me, until almost ten days into the voyage – right as we finished the first trip across the Atlantic. The novelty, horror, and excitement of those first few moments and days reminds me why new things somehow demand us to go through them.
2. Getting there, and to there, and back: Gaining an entirely new skill set wasn’t really something I had imagined for my summer. Yeah, I always saw myself as independent, especially after signing up for Semester at Sea with none of my friends from college. But as I made new best friends and traveling comrades, I found myself taking charge – becoming the “planner” of my group of friends. While not always glamorous (or ever; thankfully, most of my SAS friends had never been to Europe either), I found calling the shots assured that I got to see what I wanted and subsequently, made me even more of a doer than I already was. I became an expert at researching Wikitravel and a few guidebooks made available on the MV (and essentially the only resources we had, as we were sans unlimited Internet), creating and planning multiple-day schedules, and understanding each city for its unique personality – those walkable and those not-so-much. It had its challenges (making everyone happy is still a generally hard feat) and I did have help at times, but looking back at it now, I know this new experience brought out and emphasized a new part of me; and this new part is still calling the shots, even a year later. Deciding to intern and live on my own this summer (in New York City of all places) can be directly traced to my abroad experience, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And yes, even in the States, things are still very new and scary.
3. Life as we know it: When we study abroad, I think it’s a given that we’re going to experience an entirely different culture, even if English is also the language of choice. We prepare ourselves with the new currency in our fanny packs, ready to indulge in new tastes and practices. I thought this way too, but what still went straight over my head was the notion that I would be meeting so many new people and that they would have so much to teach me. And that despite our locations, we are all very similar. For every annoying cat call in Italy or stolen iPhone in Barcelona, there was always a caring individual, eager to give directions or #livelikealocal advice. In Rome, the tourist capital of The World, I found myself captivated by an old woman, who, without hesitation, told us her life story – from her childhood in Milan, her marriage to an American, and how to cook the perfect Italian pasta (just olive oil, tomatoes, and garlic!). I think a lot of us can get caught up in the sights that we miss out on the little things, the different things, the new things. The guided tour of the Coliseum was great, but I’ll never forget that conversation for the rest of my life.