Entering university, I always looked forward to the chance of embarking on a semester abroad. Relentlessly romanticised in novels and films, I had fallen in love with the idea of travelling and living independently, a rarity in tiny Singapore.
So when the opportunity arose, I grabbed my chance, and before I knew it, I was on a one-way ticket to Paris. Cliche as may be, a study abroad experience is a life-changing one if you entrust yourself to let go of your preconceived notions and live in the moment.
Here are five things I learnt from my semester abroad.
It’s okay to feel lonely
Loneliness is inevitable and is a state of mind I learnt to embrace during my time abroad. Having travelled alone from my home university, armed with an initially meagre French proficiency, settling into life in Paris was far from a walk in the park.
Arriving in the thick of winter to gloomy Paris without the comfort of falling back on a group of friends in the same situation did take a toll on me the first month.
But as the days became longer and the first glimpses of spring materialized, I had cultivated habits to help me combat days when in a slump. A hot shower is chicken soup for the soul in winter, as with filling my apartment with candles, transforming my living space into a cosy abode.
One of the best ways I learnt to enjoy my own company was to practice mindfulness. Through the application Headspace, I would dedicate 10 minutes of each day to reflect and keep in touch with my emotions, which helped tremendously in conquering days with ease.
You will get lost or have a bad experience
What is exploring a foreign country without getting lost once? Don’t be afraid of making mistakes when we travel, they happen, and we learn from them.
As I soon learned, Google Maps is not foolproof, and you’ll sometimes find yourself in the middle of an excruciating conversation with hordes of locals trying to obtain directions.
With six months abroad, not every day is a bed of roses. Battling plumbing issues, being threatened by a locksmith demanding an outrageous sum of money for his help at midnight, there were many days spent questioning my decisions and doubting my ability to handle these unexpected situations thrown my way.
But, I now know a handy skill or two in plumbing and how to navigate myself safely out of a stressful situation; knowing who to call in a foreign country is essential! I guess everything happens for a reason?
Budgeting and Finance 101
In a race against the French bureaucracy, opening a bank account took no less than two months. The frustration of going back and forth allowed me to learn certain hacks around the system.
For starters, your student card is your passport to an interest-free account with no closing fee. With some digging, you’ll even chance upon banks that offer you a sizeable sum if you start an account with them.
Naturally, you’ll come to realise grocery shopping for one is inherently more difficult than for a family, because while buying in bulk saves cost – it also radically decreases the novelty of meals you can cook each week.
Keeping a lookout for which supermarket chain carries the cheapest produce, or even search farmer’s markets on Sundays where most locals buy their foods can save a considerable amount by the end of your stint.
Having an excel sheet to tabulate weekly expenditures was a useful habit to cultivate and allowed me to plan my travels without the worry of being short on cash.
Taking risks is worth It
Ditch your rehearsed list of activities and “TripAdvisor’s” list of where to go in your city. I found fulfillment in not knowing where I was going to explore or whether I would even be in town for the weekend.
At first, the degree of spontaneity and freedom might seem overwhelming. But, you will learn to love the carefree nature of your days; a much-needed respite from the busy humdrum of life in Singapore.
So say yes to that spontaneous flight to Malta, say yes to an impromptu trip to Giverny, or better yet book a Flixbus that leaves in 2 hours and go!
Taking full advantage of your new environment, seizing the opportunity and being open to new experiences will exponentially ease your integration into the community. It is often these plans made on a whim that leave you lasting memories to carry through life.
You will grow as a person
In a flash, your six months abroad will go by. The day before leaving Paris, I perched myself at a secluded bench at Trocadero Square to reflect on my journey. I reminisced at pictures of travels with to Spain and Portugal and made a note of how grateful I was to have made lifelong friendships.
My thoughts flitted back to the day I first step foot into Paris. Peculiarly, I felt as if I did not recognize that anxious persona. Who was I? Six months later, here I was more confident and fearless than ever. My experience had become the ultimate weapon.
Looking back, it was fruitless to have worried endlessly about not being able to take away lessons from my exchange.
You will come to value the impermanence in things, how feelings and time are fleeting, to love what you don’t understand, in terms of language, culture, mannerisms, and most of all to treasure loved ones.
Distance truly makes the heart grow fonder and being abroad honed my communication and interpersonal skills, both with making friends and maintaining connections with friends and family back home.
No, it’s not going to be easy, but it’s a rewarding journey worth so much more than its challenges, enough to do it ten times over.