It’s the raw, terrifying thought which consumes you before you go abroad for an extended period. A knot tightens in your throat as you hug your family and friends good-bye. Sadness ravishes their facial expressions as they wave to you upon your entry through airport security. Your flight is long and uncomfortable. Either the air conditioning is on too high so you’re shivering, or the heat is making you sweat bullets. The third option is even worse: an interchanging, bipolar combination of both throughout the flight which forces you to remove layers and put them back on several times. Apprehension pinches at you from all angles as you exit the airport of your home for the next few weeks.
What scares you is not the thought of getting lost in this unknown urban jungle. You welcome the possibility of losing your way amongst the old and new buildings, parks, and strangers. Eventually, you will find your way, even if it is after hours of purposeless wandering in the pouring rain.
What scares you is the possibility of having to go through your adventure entirely alone. Having no one with whom to share the amazing experiences you will soon encounter can somehow make them feel less real.
Those of us who have been abroad for long periods of time, for example to study abroad or for an internship, understand the fear of not making any friends during your stay. Meeting people with whom you would not typically interact back home is one of the best perks about being abroad. Missing out on that particular experience would be completely unfair to your travels.
You start to wonder whether you’ll be a loner who will end up with a lengthy collection of sight pictures, but none of yourself. After all, always asking strangers to take pictures of you can be awkward, and there’s only so much you can include in a selfie.
Don’t get me wrong, traveling alone is no burden. You unveil new facets of yourself when forced to be alone with your thoughts. The experience can be quite invigorating, actually.
With no one to help you read that complex underground map, you will have to figure it out on your own. Thus, you will discover your awful sense of direction is not quite as awful as you originally thought.
With no one to guilt-trip you into seeing what you consider a pointless attraction, you can focus your energy on what you’d like to see. If you’re in London, for example, and REALLY want to visit the Imperial War Museum, you can. Nobody will complain about how boring they think that is, because you’ll be alone.
With no one to accompany you, the entire gastronomical scene is at your fingertips. No need to please your companion by eating at a place which does not appeal to your taste. You just don’t understand how someone could not be interested in that Italian-Filipino fusion you love so much.
Personally, I have enjoyed many sightseeing excursions by myself. The fear of missing what I want to see outweighs the fear of going alone. Balancing these two made me realize just how independent I have become. Alone time is instrumental in forming the person you will be, and it’s wonderful for a while.
But then the loneliness kicks in.
At bars and clubs, you’re always either awkwardly bobbing your head in an obscure corner by yourself or fending off the creepers. At restaurants, the hosts totally judge you when they ask, “Table for one?” with that quizzical look. At clothing stores, there’s no one to lie to you about whether you look fat in an outfit or not (there’s no winning with that one, but you still like to hear a reassuring white lie).
So, beat loneliness to the curb. That girl at the bar whose outfit is completely opposite from yours probably strikes you as someone with whom you have nothing in common. Turns out, you both grew up on Harry Potter and made plans to visit the film studios together. Your housemate, who is always eating questionable meals, might teach you a few phrases in his or her language which could come in handy when you visit that country. The overly opinionated classmate, who annoys you, turns out to be a golden study partner.
At first sight, you might think your friends back home are nothing like these strangers. Once you get to know them, however, it might not matter. After all, if you left your home, you were seeking new experiences. As much as you love your friends back home, it is a refreshing feeling to find out you have the ability of making friends elsewhere.
It might be the time limitations or the adrenaline of being in a foreign land, but these friendships tend to be built much faster than the ones back home. For instance, within minutes of making a new friend while studying abroad, she and I agreed to visit Paris together. Not only that, we became such close friends that people thought we were sisters. Never mind the fact that we both grew up in the same American city and studied in the same university, yet had never before crossed paths until we were in Italy.
These fast friendships are mysterious indeed. After a day of exploring a quaint British town, I found myself bonding with girls I met that same day. We then began planning our sightseeing itineraries, including trips outside of the United Kingdom. What’s more, we quickly began sharing secrets which are usually only revealed to your closest friends. At least that is the law by which I live back home.
It may sound crazy, but these improbable friendships can often seem destined. What are the odds that you and your new friends, all living in different parts of the world, decided to visit the same place at the same time?
It’s those little twists of fate that make fast friendships worth having. They might only last a day, the entirety of your trip, or even beyond your return home. What’s true about these friendships is that they teach you to look at life through new eyes. In this way, as in many others, they can be life-changing.