Friday, January 13, 2012

A January Story, Part I

I don't handle Januaries terrifically well. The transition from weeks of exclusive home and family time to full-time school, with all its attendant stresses, fills me with anxiety and dread more often than not. I start wondering why I ever thought an academic career was a good idea. Even though I've weathered January transitions many times before, I feel convinced that this time, it will prove to have been a terrible mistake.

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Last night as I struggled to fall asleep, I remembered a particularly awful January transition in the past. It was January 2, 2004. I was 20, and I had just arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a five-month study abroad program.

Through most of the long British Airways flight, I was fairly calm, even cautiously excited. Studying in Scotland was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and I was finally going! Even the terrible inner-ear pressure during the descent into Edinburgh didn't ruin my pleasure at seeing the gray, snow-covered hills and realizing I was probably the first of my family to lay eyes on this land in many generations.

By the time I'd gathered my luggage and joined the rest of my study abroad cohort, however, I started to feel self-conscious and worried. I realized something: they all knew each other. Well, not everyone. (As I was later to discover, there was one other solo traveler, a fellow reticent Sarah, who would be responsible for some of my happiest adventures in Scotland.) But the vast majority of kids had traveled in contingents from their home universities, so they had friends with them. They chatted buoyantly on the coach that took us from the airport to the hotel where our orientation would be held. Meanwhile, I was the only Hollins woman, the only theology nerd as far as I knew, and the only one hailing from a tiny Southern college with fewer than 1,000 students.

Suddenly, it really began to hit me that I was at least 3,500 miles from home. I didn't know a soul on this island.* And I was going to be stuck here for almost half a year.

 I started crying. It seemed to be the only way I could grapple with the crushing isolation and uncertainty I felt. Silently, and as inconspicuously as I knew how, I cried through the better part of the next 24 hours: I cried while the group of New England coeds sitting near me in the hotel lobby talked about Edinburgh pubs and how awesome it was that we could legally drink here. I cried while the study abroad staff gave us all the basic settling-in details, such as how to matriculate, where to get photo IDs taken (what suddenly sounded like insurmountable tasks), and how we must never call Scottish people "Brits." (Did people really not know this?!) I cried when I noticed that my hotel roommate looked vaguely like my best friend, from a certain angle. I even teared up when a friendly Scottish man spilled part of his cereal onto my tray at breakfast the next morning and fell all over himself apologizing.

I probably couldn't have put into words why I felt so overwhelmingly emotional. It's not as if I had never traveled independently before, or even that it was the first time I had traveled overseas. But I had never been both overseas and totally alone. Unlike my father, who at my age had circled the globe a couple of times and survived war zones, I'd never gone for more than a couple of months without seeing my family. I felt terribly out of my element, I was far too shy to engage in more than a few phrases with anyone around me, and there was an entire ocean between me and everything I loved.

Do you know how exhausting it is to cry like a leaky faucet for hours upon hours -- all the while laboring to conceal your disgrace from everyone around you? It's demoralizing in a big way. And, I suspect, probably nowhere near as successful as I hoped. By that time, though, I was too sad to care.

I found respite that night when we were finally dismissed to our hotel rooms; at least now I had a pillow to soak up my seemingly endless supply. And I had a little silence in which to think. I realized there was no way I could stay in Scotland. It was simply too much, too hard. Apparently I wasn't cut out for a trip of this magnitude by myself. While it would be embarrassing to admit defeat and re-enroll at Hollins for the semester, I could think of nothing that sounded more appealing. At the earliest non-awkward opportunity, I would talk to the study abroad staff and explain that I needed to book a flight home as soon as possible.

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No, the story doesn't end here. And yes, it ends on a MUCH more hopeful note, as you probably already know! But you'll have to wait for Part II to read the rest. :-)

*Had I known that my future husband would be landing at Heathrow less than a week later, to spend the next three months 300 miles away from me at Oxford, would it have comforted me at all? I wasn't to know that for another few years. :-)


  1. Ugh. You are so brave. I was going to do a semester in Italy, but I chickened out big time... Even in Germany for that week we were there I cried several times and wanted to go home...

  2. Becki, I don't think there's any shame in preferring to stick close to home... I'm still surprised how well I ultimately handled my various travels, and deep down, I am very much a homebody. :)

  3. :) I'm impressed by you, and in many ways I wish I had been brave too. I'm glad you told this story (I just read part 2). In church today the sermon was all about how God uses adversity in our lives to make us stronger spiritually. This is so true of this story and many others I'm sure!