Studying abroad has been — beyond a shadow of a doubt — the most incredible experience of my life. Living in London was my greatest adventure, and I fell so hard, so fast for that city.
The old cliche is that studying abroad teaches you more than staying home ever could, and although the oft-repeated claim that “it’ll change your life!!!” tempted me to roll my eyes before I went to England, now that I’m back it’s the only thing sufficient enough that I can say.
But, without further ado, here are the 25 things living in London has taught me:
- Sometimes, a foreign country can feel more like home than the place you came from. Feeling homesick even after you’ve returned “home” is something that no one prepared you for, and there’s no possible way to describe its suckiness. The closest I can come to it is feeling so completely out of place — like you know you’re supposed to be there, but your heart’s somewhere else. It’s been weeks since I’ve returned to California, but my heart still yearns for England.
- Travel is the greatest gift you could ever give yourself. And a blessing that many never get to experience. Take full advantage of it while you can.
- Even when surrounded by people of different cultures, languages, and creeds, laughter is universal.
- Humor, however, is culture-specific. Jokes that wouldn’t be funny in the United States are absolutely riotous in the United Kingdom. When in doubt, just laugh!
- How to manage money. Budgeting for travel and calculating exchange rates may have made my head hurt, but in hindsight it taught me valuable skills that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life — especially when I eventually make my way back to Europe!
- Missed trains happen. And it’s frustrating as hell. After a particularly stressful debacle in the Viennese train station, my friends and I learned this lesson all too well. But we got through it and I realized that frustrating shit happens — you’ll miss your flight, your bus will be late, you’ll want nothing more than to drop your luggage and burst into angry tears in the middle of Heathrow’s train terminal (don’t ask) — but you make it through.
- European flights close their gates way earlier than American flights. Seriously. Get there early. American flights tend to start boarding half and hour before departure time, whereas European flights close their gates half an hour before departure time. Don’t be like me and have to run through the Shannon Airport with an incredibly nice security agent at 7 in the morning — it’s not as exciting as it sounds.
- How to grocery shop and stay moderately healthy. (Although it probably helped that healthy food in England is much less expensive than healthy food in the States — no surprise there).
- Americans don’t have the best reputation abroad. People tend to think that we’re rude, entitled, arrogant, uncomfortably loud. And as much as these stereotypes suck, they exist.
- You’re always an ambassador for your country, even when you don’t mean to be. Every foreigner you come across is going to associate you with America — especially if they’ve never met an American before — so don’t perpetuate those stereotypes.
- Time flies. So fast. I can’t stress this point enough — your semester, your year, your time abroad is going to completely fly by.
- Getting lost is the goal. Don’t be afraid to wander. Some of the most remarkable places I went were places I just stumbled upon.
- Jet lag is so real. (And will ruin your sleep).
- I’m actually incredibly independent. Although I always knew that I was someone who was headstrong and self-sufficient, I discovered a whole new side of myself in England. London Ally bloomed into someone capable and outgoing — and even just knowing that I could adapt and exist in an entirely different continent made me more confident than ever before.
- How to live out of two suitcases for four months. It was not easy, let me tell you.
- There’s no such thing as too many sweaters, especially when you go to the UK, Ireland, or Scandinavia. And it’s pretty easy to get bored of the clothes you have when you’ve brought so little.
- You’ll get annoyed when your passport pages aren’t perfectly filled. This is a weird one — I’ll admit! — but hear me out: every time you go through immigration, the officers peruse your passport and give you a stamp, and for me these stamps are more like medals of honor, proof of where I’ve been and where that little official booklet has gone with me. But to my utter frustration, every time I went through border control the immigration officers would each pick an entirely random page to stamp. Again, a bizarre pet peeve, but one I’ve discovered nonetheless.
- Hostels are clean, fun, and have a totally unfair rep. You’ll hear a lot of horror stories about hostels — the showers are cold, the rooms smell, your roommates might just have a knack for stealing — but in reality, every hostel I’ve been to so far has been an awesome experience. Not only were they all completely stink-free and adorably decorated, but hostels provide an amazing social experience that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a cheap hotel. I ended up meeting some really awesome fellow world-travelers from all over the globe. We ended up coincidentally finding ourselves in Vienna during Austria’s Carnival, and my friends and I spent the whole night partying it up in the bar with our roommate from Australia who turned out to be the absolute sweetest thing. Another night, my friends and I went out and bought cheap wine, candy, and Chinese food and brought it back up to our 6-person room, and we had a fun feast with our new roommates. And even if you aren’t the most outgoing traveler out there, hostels still can be a cost-effective and easy alternative. I stayed one night in a 16-person dorm in Dublin, Ireland, and most of my fifteen roommates spoke rapid-fire French, so the bonding was definitely minimal, and that was totally okay, too. (Just remember to at least say hi when you first walk in — don’t be weird).
- Say yes. To everything. Good things happen to those who are open to try new experiences, and you never know what incredible thing will come your way if you’re up for it. Learn to push the limits of your comfort zone, and you’ll be amazed. (But of course, stay safe).
- No matter how long you’ve lived abroad, you’ll always say “dollars” by default. And the English ladies in Primark will cast dirty glances your way, even though you know full well that that adorable maxi-skirt actually costs five pounds, thank you very much.
- Crossing streets becomes an exhilarating adventure. You don’t know how to live life on the edge until you’ve attempted crossing a street in London. It’s a dog eat dog world out there, every man for himself.
- The world is big — much bigger than you think. Do yourself a favor and try to see as much of it as possible.
- You’ll become an expert at hunting down deals. Priceline? Skyscanner? StudentUniverse? Which budget airlines let you have two carry-ons, which ones only allow one? Praying to the airport gods that the EasyJet employee doesn’t ask to weigh your slightly stuffed carry-on bag at check-in? All of these become second nature to you once you spend enough time jet-setting across Europe.
- You’ll become a travel-holic before you know it. It eats up your money, gives you an unimaginable rush, and you’ll always be craving more — but unlike drugs, travel is actually good for you. Just say no — except to airline tickets.
- America isn’t the greatest country in the world, in more ways than one. Growing up an American tends to be incredibly insular and at times it can feel like the US is all there is — such is the side effect of living in a country that spans a continent. But you can love the country you came from and still acknowledge its flaws, and that’s perfectly okay.
Living and learning abroad is unparalleled; it broadens your horizons, humbles you, teaches you how to lead the best life possible. Travel is more than just a luxury, it’s a necessity, and I have been so incredibly blessed to be able to do so.
It’s impossible to sum up everything that my spring overseas taught me about life and living, and how to be a person full of compassion, and understanding, but I tried my best.
If you’ve been abroad, comment some of the most important lessons you learned below!