Everyone has always told me studying abroad forces you to get to know yourself, to get comfortable being alone. I knew this was going to be true in some capacity, but truly, I thought I knew myself pretty well. I’ve always thought and told people I love to be alone- I love going out to eat alone, going to shows, driving around, watching TV.
I never could’ve predicted how lonely I sometimes feel here, 4,000 miles and seven time zones away from everything I’ve ever known.
This isn’t the same as moving a few hours away for college where all my childhood friends were a short drive away, when I could call my mom after a hard day and she’d be just ending her day as well.
I never could’ve predicted just how on my own I would feel. I’ve had to force myself now more than ever to reach out to others, to try new things, to make conversation with strangers, and to realize I don’t need to put my full self into something that isn’t for me.
My mom has always talked about the importance of finding a community to have as a support system, and I don’t think I ever fully understood what she meant until now.
The community she’s described have always been things like church, choir, or other things with regular meetings where you get to know the people around you simply due to the fact that you’re seeing them regularly. Although I’ve had to put my own spin on what my ‘community’ is, being able to find it in all of the places I’ve been has been one of the most eye opening, life changing, and important things I’ve experienced abroad.
Due to many weekends of travel and the way DIS constructs its semester schedule with travel week and study tours, my communities are constantly changing.
One extremely important community I’ve grown to care deeply for is my core class. We are a big group of mostly women and a few non-binary people learning about things people like us go through daily. None of us are sex workers, but the class is so much more than that. We discuss gender, minority struggles, sexual assault, all things that at least one of us can relate to, and issues that all of us can feel deep empathy for. We see each other weekly and have now travelled to two cities other than Copenhagen together, and I know for a fact that any one of them would be there for me in any problem I have if I asked. Not only that, I genuinely would feel comfortable asking any one of them for help. It’s so wonderful to have a group of people that are like you, care about the same things you do, and share similar experiences you’ve had, and I feel it creates a bond like no other.
On Tuesdays, my community is generally found in my lunch trips to Next Door Cafe with the classmate I share my Tuesday classes with. We catch up on our weeks, discuss plans for upcoming travel, share our favorite restaurants, talk about home, share different struggles we’ve gone through, and offer each other a subjective shoulder to lean on. I never see him outside of my Tuesdays, but I know we are always looking out for each other from afar.
These are both some pretty understandable communities. As I mentioned before, the easiest connections to form are ones that are with people you’re forced to see on a regular basis.
Sometimes, it takes a little bit more effort to find the comforting environment everyone at least occasionally yearns for, but learning how to do this has been essential for my time abroad. It’s taught me that doing something like this again, maybe for even longer than a semester, isn’t as impossible as it sometimes feels.
One thing I don’t think I’d ever done before coming to Europe is sitting down at a table with people at it and just talking to them. It’s pretty necessary in places like Next Door Cafe, where the space is limited and the close-quartered environment is a huge part of the vibe. Striking up conversation with a stranger there has created some of my favorite memories abroad! I’ve shared my love for coffee with these people, learned about different essential places to go in Copenhagen, and learned that people are equally interested in hearing about my life as I am hearing about theirs. Although I’m not sharing my deep dark secrets and emotional strifes with these people, I’d still like to think my form of ‘community’ can just be lighthearted conversation with someone who has no prior knowledge of me- and therefore has no preconceived judgements. It’s all just new discussions with people who think my old stories are just as exciting as I felt they were the first time I told them.
One of my favorite yet short-lived communities I’ve created during my time in Europe was during my time at Hostel of the Sun in Naples, Italy. This hostel was unlike any hostel I’ve ever been to, and one that truly accomplished everything a hostel claims it accomplishes. Filled with solo travelers or small groups, like most hostels, it served a free breakfast every morning and had a comfy common room with couches, a TV, games, and a piano. All of the rooms surrounded this common room, so everyone staying there was often hanging out in this area and getting to know each other. While I only learned about half the names of the people I met here, I was asked to get a meal, drinks, or do some other daytime activity with pretty much every single one of them. Complete strangers formed friendships within an hour and were out experiencing the Amalfi Coast together the next, it was amazing to see! I will never forget my conversations with the professor from Dublin over breakfast, or my game of UNO with the man from Switzerland, the student from the Netherlands, and the hostel employee from Argentina who, after just one game, asked me and my friend to get dinner with them that evening. I never had to worry about being ‘alone’ if I went to a common area on my own- someone would always be there to strike up conversation with.
These stories seem so basic and unimportant telling them back, and I just don’t know how to accurately convey how important they’ve all been to me. I don’t think anyone ever really understand the importance of these bonds with people who aren’t their ‘main people’ or close friends until they’re forced away from the communities they’ve had their whole lives.
There was a period during this semester where I couldn’t see the communities I’d created, which in turn created an intense feeling of loneliness. I knew I had my friends I could go spend time with, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling of being alone.
Realizing I’m capable of not feeling alone in a crowded room, but rather amongst others in a crowded room, is something I hope I never lose track of.