Four weeks in the new life of an international student
By Chiara, University “Federico II”, Italy
Back home, I have a quiet life.
That is not to say that nothing ever happens to me; enough has happened in the past four or five years that I may fill a dozen books and write at least a comedy about it. I’ve had my fair share of drama, a good amount of problems and more than a pinch of bad luck. I never have the feeling that my life is dull, or plain, or empty.
When I say it’s ‘quiet’ I mean that it always falls back into its own rhythm. World War Three might happen tomorrow and I’m quite sure that at the end of it I’d still be with the same good friends, in the same pub, playing the same old board game and wearing my favourite jumper. I like to have my certainties, my habits. I like to be in control.
As a result, when something big does happen (a concert, a trip, a holiday, a party – anything that falls out of my usual day-to-day life) I spend a lot more time over-thinking it rather than enjoying it. Sometimes I find it hard to remember entire events. I recall this buzzing feeling, this bubble of happiness and excitement and trepidation, images flashing in front of me as if time had jumped forward all of a sudden, and then it’s over. I come home, take a shower, go to sleep; whatever it was, it’s now a fleeting memory, a conversational topic, something I wish I had lived it more.
On other occasions, especially when there is something coming that scares me a great deal, I don’t think about it at all. In some sort of convoluted defence mechanism, my brain tells me that something will go wrong, that the big thing will not happen and it won’t be my fault. I will get ill, or there will be some bureaucratic issue, or the nuclear war will start, and I will be able to chicken out with a plausible excuse.
My name is Chiara, and I realised I was really leaving for Manchester the morning of my flight.
I had been packing for weeks, buying waterproof boots, warmer clothes – since I come from southern Italy, I was really not prepared for the typical English weather; I had told everyone I was going away; I had spent months planning my exams and my classes so that they could fit my degree (Modern European Languages, Literatures and Cultures; I study English and French). Organisation-wise, I was ready. But that tiny little voice kept telling me that I was not really going anywhere.
And then I woke up at four in the morning, got dressed, took my bags, got to the airport. Only after saying goodbye to my family one last time I felt the weight of all I had done for the past eight months, from the moment I had applied for an Erasmus scholarship. I was actually leaving. There was nothing stopping me.
At that point, the familiar feeling of panic and excitement and confusion kicked in. I went past security checks, boarded the plane, flew over the English Channel. Everything felt slightly unreal, like those dreams that seem just so realistic until you realise that elephants do not walk on ceilings upside down in real life.
It was all a blurry rush of emotions and luggage collection and taxi rides until I arrived to the apartment I had rented and got in my new room. I had arrived. My signature on the contract said that was my home for the next five months, but that didn’t feel like home, not even a bit.
Maybe it was the general conditions of the flat; maybe it was the obvious difference from the apartment where I have lived for twenty years with my family; the result was that I couldn’t feel more out of place. But that feeling I had always despised so much, that trance-like state of excitement (mixed with the fact I was very busy cleaning every single inch of the house) kept me going for two days. And then it stopped.
The feeling stopped, not because everything ceased being new and weird and scary and exciting, but because I knew things would keep being new and weird and scary and exciting for the months to come. I was as far out of the comfort zone as I had ever been. I couldn’t take a step back, because that would have meant going back more than a thousand miles, and that would have felt like failure. So I had to keep going.
Four weeks in, I almost have a routine again. I know where to go shopping, I know which bus to take, which biscuits are the best. My classes started two weeks ago, and to be honest that helped me a lot. As long as the comparison was between my real home and my new flat, between my attempt of a decent meal and my mother’s cooking, my Friday night spent cleaning the bathroom and my night out with my friends, Manchester didn’t stand a chance. It’s not the city’s fault at all (on the contrary, I have loved every detail of Manchester I’ve seen until now, from the smallest bee to the biggest dinosaur skeleton); it’s just that being away has another taste when you know you’re not ‘just’ a tourist. When you know you’ll only be in a place for a week or so you try to make the most of it, and you don’t really care about the dirty carpet or the lack of pictures on the walls or dining every night with fast food, because you know you will eat properly once you’re home anyway. But here is home now.
Reading this, it may seem as if I were regretting coming here; I really am not. One of the reasons why I came to this country was to see if I could make it on my own, and apparently I can. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I wouldn’t have given it up for the world.
After four weeks, I can say that I’m happy. I learned how to make myself at home here, too. I am talking to my parents, my sister and my family a lot more than I do at home. I am spending as much time as I can in the library, making the most of all the resources that this place gives me. I don’t want to leave; on the contrary, I am starting to realise how little time I’m going to stay here. Two and a half months, then home for Christmas, then three weeks of exams, then home again. I’m in no rush to go back yet.
I wanted my first blog entry to be about how scared and uncomfortable I was (and sometimes still am) because I started feeling much less alone when I talked to my housemate about all this and I realised she was afraid of the same things I was. I want whoever reads this blog to know that yes, it’s not easy at all, but you will never be on your own in this. And especially in this city, there have been a lot of people helping me from the start. To the guys with the “AskMe” t-shirts spread around the Campus and the city, to the three people who helped me look for my hat when I lost it at the supermarket, to the random girl who immediately asked me if I needed anything when she saw me looking at a map with a confused expression on my face: if you are by any chance reading this, thank you. But what helped me the most was meeting all the other foreign students, all those people as scared as I was, all speaking different languages, having different back-stories and cultures and experiences. The thought that I would have never met any of them staying in my city is one of the things that inspired me the most to go on in this adventure.
Sadness and homesickness will come and go at unpredictable, random times. It may be a general feeling of uneasiness, some weird sort of irritation at the fact that the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road, a sting of sadness seeing a parent saying goodbye to their son or daughter, or smelling something similar to your grandmother’s apple pie. You will laugh about that small detail which is so different from your country, then cry about it the very same day. The worst for me was to turn around and think I had seen my boyfriend in the crowd. It was a fleeting moment – same hair, same height, but that was it, really – erased by the knowledge that it couldn’t be him. And still I kept looking, hoping I’d see him again.
I have met people wanting to study abroad for many different reasons, from many different countries, for different periods of time. For some, as for me, it was the first time away from home; for some it was the fourth. Some were accustomed to be on their own from the start; some had never done the laundry. Some take it as a holiday, some a little too seriously. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever your goal is, being an international student forces you to come out of the comfort zone. You will learn more about yourself in this (more or less short) amount of time than you could do staying in your home town, with the same good friends, in the same pub, playing the same old board game and wearing your favourite jumper.
For as much as I have never been less in control of anything in my life (nor the language, nor the city, nor the people I live with, nor the assessment methods, nothing), I have never been prouder of myself. Even the smallest of challenges – like killing a giant spider myself instead of calling my dad – made me realise I am much stronger than I thought I was. Even if I am still sad, and homesick, and scared, I am not going back. As my sister’s favourite song says (which is ‘Unlost’ by The Maine), “I’ll take the leap if it’s worth the fall”.
And nothing makes you realise how worth it all is than looking up to the Whitworth Building, taking the view in with all the pride of being a student here and feeling, if not at home, at least in the right place.