T-4 Days Till Departure: Tums and Travel Anxieties

I want to let you in on a little secret: I spent at least an hour picking out a tagline for this blog through activities that ranged from staring at my bookshelf and struggling to remember which of my favorite books contained profound, travel-related quotes to frantically Googling ‘inspirational travel quotes.’ Yes, I know, I’ve just become #basic without even trying.

Regardless of where it ultimately came from, my final choice could not be more accurate (+brownie points for finding a relevant quote by a favorite French author):

“WHAT GIVES VALUE TO TRAVEL IS FEAR.” – ALBERT CAMUS

And boyyy, am I scared. Terrified, mortified, petrified, stupefied by study abroad (A Beautiful Mind reference, anyone?). I am sure that every 20-something college student packing her bags for a semester abroad has felt the tight ball of anxiety in her stomach as she contemplated the appropriate number of shirts to bring. Unlike the majority of excited-yet-nervous soon to be study abroaders, I can actually quantify my anxiety through Tums tablets I’ve been popping like candy to quell the literal burning in my gut that arises whenever I am confronted with my suitcase (current Tums count: 7, numbers of times I cried today: 1). Which is perhaps why I’ve been avoiding my room and setting up temporary refuge downstairs.

And no, I’m not the procrastinating kind. I’ve actually had my clothes picked out and neatly folded since before Christmas. All I need to do now is throw in my makeup and lots and lots of medicine (more on my mild health anxiety later), and voilà. So what am I afraid of?

Some of the usual culprits you’ll find in every pre-departure post: the language barrier, culture shock, the difficulty of taking courses entirely in French, homesickness, etc, etc.

In short, uncertainty. You see, I’m somewhat of a control freak. I don’t like it when things just happen to me. I much prefer a controlled, lab-like environment where every variable is accounted for and at least three contingency plans exist for any foreseeable doomsday scenario. So, going to a foreign country for five months is the equivalent of sticking a middle finger at my reflection. I am voluntarily throwing myself into a situation that is literally an Atlantic ocean beyond my comfort zone. And the question that keeps going through my head is, why why why would I do that?

I’ve done all this before – going to a foreign country with a questionable proficiency in its language and no idea what to expect. When I was 12, my family up and moved to the U.S. from Russia, just like that. Once there, a language test informed me that I was apparently proficient in English, and off to school I went. To be fair, a semester of French university cannot possibly be as brutal as middle school; yet, I still remember, not so fondly, the crowd of students at every turn asking me to “say something in Russian” and “say pineapple again” (I STRUGGLED with that one for some reason). I don’t like attention, I always sit in the back corner of any room to watch and not be seen. So the idea of being the new, foreign kid is…stressful. I won’t lie though, my struggle of a cultural adjustment in America ultimately made for a fantastic Common App essay.

All this to say, I am very familiar with the initial discomforts of cultural adjustments, so you’d think I would be more comfortable with the idea the second time around. But somehow knowing what to expect makes the impending nature of it all more anxiety-inducing. Probably because I in fact know very little beyond ‘this will be challenging,’ ‘you will not understand what people are saying to you in the street despite having written a 10-page final paper in French last month,’ and ‘you will inevitably forget the names of basic household items when you need them most.’

In all honesty, I’m very much looking to Month 2 when I’ve settled into a routine, accustomed myself to the city, and finally, finally started to understand what people at the next table are saying without straining my entire being to listen. Despite my highly conservative (~not politically~) nature that once compelled me to eat the exact same lunch for a year, I do enjoy a change of scenery…I just prefer it after I’ve gotten used to it.

Sitting here now, in my New Jersey home, typing away in – dare I say it – impeccable English with a high school senior award for, you guessed it, English, balancing precariously on a shelf above my head, I can say with 100% certainty that despite the struggles and the culture shock and the language barrier, it is in fact possible to survive and thrive and enjoy yourself in the process. And when I am not panicking about the 50 lbs luggage weight limit and the utility of another pair of sneakers, I am confident that I will in fact enjoy the process.

For now, I will just focus on following the incessant advice from study abroad veterans on not overpacking and mentally conjure up my lifelong dream of living in France, if only for a little bit, whenever I feel the urge to reach for more Tums.

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