This post is the first of a 6-week series I’m doing this summer since I’ve have had a lot of experience with living away from home, especially now with living abroad. The timeline of these posts will lead up to the end of next month, which will mark 2 years since I have been in my home country, the United States of America. Being away for such a long time wasn’t something I set out to accomplish when I last left in September 2015 or was it something I was sure I could even handle.
However, through different types of circumstances, I haven’t been able to go home these past two years. In these posts, I hope my experiences will paint a real picture of what you might feel, experience and realize about living outside of your home country once you do it. Your personal experience might be different in many ways but I hope to share the lessons, tips and cultural understanding that I have gained in these past two years.
**Side note: I split this story into two parts as I realized I was recounting 32 hours of a journey and not 24. So consider those extra 8 hours of action and tips a bonus!**
Are you ready? The clock starts now.
The first 24 hours outside of your home country by yourself will be some of the roughest hours of your life. Depending on where you go, the most likely things we all might experience during that first day are sleep-deprivation, confusion, doing things in a different way and being forced to make lots of quick decisions on our own.
I’m going to share my experience by recounting my first day after I landed in Spain to start my semester abroad. I felt like I experienced all of the things I mentioned above so it seems like the perfect place to begin this journey.
The year was 2010 and I was a 21-year old junior in college out of state in Florida. I had a longer than normal Christmas break in my hometown back in Ohio as I wasn’t going back to my university that semester. In late January, I flew from Dayton to Madrid, Spain with an 8-hour layover near NYC squished in between those two flights.
This little detail is part of what makes my experience a bit more unique. With my brand-new passport and freshly pressed student visa inside, I had searched different airlines to see if they had had any layovers in a city I hadn’t yet visited.
After doing some Internet research, I finally decided on a flight from Continental Airlines (which later merged with United) that left Dayton in the morning and had an 8-hour layover in their major hub, Newark, NJ. After a short search on Google Maps, I saw that NYC was only about 10 miles away. I had only wanted to go there for at least a decade so obviously that was the perfect flight choice for me! I booked it about a little over a month in advance and began packing my one -and only- suitcase.
Why only one? More on that decision later.
Looking back on this part of my journey, I did love the fun stopover in one of the most amazing cities in the world (can you tell I’m biased?) but if I had needed to stick to a tighter budget -which later on in the semester I did-I would’ve skipped it.
As much fun as long layovers and stopover tours can be, if you have even the slightest doubt that you might miss your connecting – and main- flight, choose a flight with a more practical layover time and don’t leave the airport. Especially if you have to arrive somewhere that particular day for an important conference or for an orientation. As tempting as a little jaunt into a new city is, in that case, it wouldn’t be worth it.
Thanks to doing research ahead of time, I planned a quick little taste of NYC trip for that cold late-January morning.
After I landed at the airport, I took the AirTrain into the city, arrived at Penn Station, walked around Midtown Manhattan with my briefcase-looking carry-on luggage and explored the area around me. I had only feasibly planned to spend 5 hours in Manhattan so I didn’t visit any museums, galleries or famous sights that required you to wait in line. Maybe you wouldn’t have enjoyed a such a fast visit like this but I did.
I managed to do a handful of new things that day, all within the span of a few hours.
I hadn’t ever ridden a train before, let alone visited a train station nor had I been to a major metropolitan city by myself. I took my time with things.
I knew that the mere fact and realization that I was in New York City and could walk its streets with real New Yorkers and many other people from all over the world would be enough for me. A bigger and longer trip could wait. And I’m glad I did wait cause my subsequent visits to NYC have been unforgettable. But that first visit was just for me.
And I think that is something you have to keep at the forefront of your mind when you travel internationally for the first time by yourself. Don’t focus on what other people might think of your trip or where exactly you go. If that city is where you want to go, for whatever reason, and you have the means to go, do it.
The only major advantage I had in NYC, though I had never visited before, was that everything was in my native language, English. Things got tricky later on once I landed in Madrid but I’ll explain why shortly.
I managed to buy my train ticket back to the Newark International Airport around 5:30 or 6 p.m. that afternoon and made it to the train’s gate during rush hour. I had never before been in such a busy hub nor had I seen so many people rushing around like mice scurrying around for scraps of food. Everyone was trying to catch a train before it was too late.
Once I arrived back to the airport, I made a couple last phone calls to friends and family back home before I called my phone provider, Verizon at the time, to suspend my line. This was when things got real and I sobered up. My excursion to the city was fun but I had to get ready for what was next.
The longest flight of my life at the time was leaving in about an hour and a half and I was about to completely disconnect from my world. Since I didn’t have a smartphone then, I didn’t know when the next time I would be able to use the Internet and contact anyone was.
And that’s sort of when my nerves tried to take over and a little bit of fear of the unknown begun to sink in.
Had I studied the Metro de Madrid‘s map enough? Could I really understand spoken Spanish that wasn’t from Latin America? Will anyone help me if I get lost? Will everyone look at me strangely and speak to me in English all the time?
These thoughts plagued my mind while I waited at the gate to board my flight.
Actually, scratch that. While I waited in the wrong area near my gate and didn’t realize that the flight to Madrid was almost boarding until I heard the gate attendant say last call on the overhead speaker.
I had not done that spontaneous (ahem, planned) visit to NYC and made it back to the airport on time to only miss my flight due to a silly mistake like that! So, I grabbed my bag and coat, while fishing my passport out of my small backpack and hurried over to the correct gate. Once my boarding pass was scanned, I started to walk down the gate pathway and with each step I took, my heart raced.
It was about to begin.
I was really about to get on a enormous plane that would fly me across the ocean to a country where I knew no one.
At this point, I accepted that I was now completely on my own. My ticket was scanned, I had called my family to say, “see you on the other side, ” and I suspended my cell phone service once I had gotten comfortable in my assigned middle seat. *Groan.*
It’s not like I had never flown before or done any traveling on my own. I had. I had done a lot up until that point in time but I had never gone as far away from home as I was about to go at that moment.
That’s what made me the most nervous and fearful although in a way, it was slightly comforting to know that I was heading to a modern and well-developed country. I think these feelings are normal and we all experience them.
I was so excited to go to Spain and study there that, in the midst of my exuberance, I forgot to wrap my head around the issue of distance until two weeks before. I had gone through the same thought process when I moved away from home to go study in Florida. This seems to be a habit of mine, haha.
The flight took off around 9 p.m. EST (3 a.m. in Spain) and there I was. I was on my way but trying to get a glimpse of beautiful NYC below (another reason why I chose that layover). I don’t really remember seeing much, to be honest.
Just that I was quite uncomfortably seated between another girl who was also going to study abroad and an older man who kept sending the dinner back or asking the stewardesses for things. And he later took his shoes off before going to sleep. Lovely.
Soon after we were served dinner, my first in-flight meal in many moons, and I watched a little bit of a show or movie on the screen in front of me, I became more relaxed. The people to my right and left still irritated me a little bit but not as much as before. I was focusing on the fact that soon I would be in the country I’d dreamed of seeing since my journey with the Spanish language had begun a few years before.
Eventually, I got to sleep, albeit late, and I managed to sleep for maybe a few hours. And then the daily routine disruptions began. The stewardesses turned on some of the overhead lights and begun serving breakfast.
I went to check my watch. It’s 2:30 a.m. What are they doing? It’s not breakfast time! I wiped the excessive amount of dust from my heavy, sleep-laden eyes to get a better look.
I then look at the in-flight monitor that’s facing me (which I swore I had turned off) and the local time said 8:30 a.m.
And that’s when it dawned on me that it was in fact breakfast time in some parts of Europe. You know, that continent I was currently flying over at the time? So I put my folding tray down accepted the breakfast tray the lady handed me and considered it a late-night snack, haha.
Sleep deprivation would kick in once we landed but I was experiencing a myriad of emotions at that time as we were fast approaching our destination: Madrid, the capital city.
The city wasn’t my first real peek of Spain, but rather the mountains in the northwestern part of the country were (and the area I would call home a few years later). I had seen mountains before but they were always ones located in my own country. Something about seeing mountains overhead in a plane, halfway across the world, was very moving to me. And it was my first image of the country I had waited so long to finally experience. Tears welled up in my eyes and I let them gather there for a moment and blur my vision.
That was a particularly moving moment.
Meanwhile, I focused back on breakfast and try as I might catch a little bit more sleep, it was to no avail. I decided to pull out my guide book and study the metro map one last time.
To be continued…