Studying abroad is extremely exciting! But it can also be extremely overwhelming at times. Any new life in a new city requires a lot of huge adjustments, but when you’re halfway across the world from home, it can be especially daunting to be on your own. Between schoolwork, meeting new people, traveling, and just keeping up with day-to-day life, here are some of the ways I’ve learned to help myself keep my head on straight while living abroad.
1. Savor time in your host city
One of the main attractions of studying somewhere like Europe is the ease of access to so many different cultures and travel opportunities. A quick look at your usual travel site will make it clear how much easier and less expensive flying, taking trains, using public transportation, and finding accommodation within Europe can be compared to travel in the United States. Many students find themselves traveling nearly every weekend, trying to knock as many different countries off their bucket list as they can in their three to four months studying abroad. While this can be extremely rewarding, it can also take away from your experience in your host city. A high school friend of mine who spent a semester in Florence managed to visit over 10 different countries in her semester abroad, and while she loved it, her biggest regret upon returning to the U.S. was not having spent more time making a home in Florence. A semester really does not feel like a long time at all once you’re in the swing of it, so it can be difficult to feel truly connected to the city where you’re living, its community, and its culture if you’re hopping on a plane away from it every chance you get. That’s perfectly fine for some people, but I know that it’s always been important for me to have some sense of home in order to feel grounded. One of the best ways I’ve helped myself adjust to life in Barcelona is taking plenty of time to actually experience Barcelona and the region of Catalonia before rushing off on a plane to anywhere else.
2. Take a breather outside of the city
This sounds a bit contrary to my last point, but bear with me! For many students, studying abroad may be your first experience living in a big city. This can depend on where you’re originally from and where you choose to study, but I know that for me and most of my friends here, it was definitely a change of pace to experience how metropolitan Barcelona is. For some, this can be a really overwhelming adjustment. I’ve never had much of a desire before to live in a large city, but I did immediately love having access to so many different experiences and being surrounded by so much diversity. Even so, urban life does also feel suffocating to me at times. I’ve always felt most at peace in the outdoors, so being constantly surrounded by concrete and crowds of people does wear me down after a while. Even in my fairly small college town, it’s always been essential for me to be able to escape to the riverside for an afternoon or spend a weekend backpacking in the Appalachians so I can take some time to reset and get my head back on straight. Fortunately, in Barcelona, it’s extremely easy to get out of the city center when you need a breath of some fresher air. The beaches right in the city can be fairly crowded and touristy, but it’s still nice just to be by the water. For some quieter time on the Mediterranean, you can easily hop on the commuter metro and hop off at any one of the many beautiful beaches up and down the coast. If you’re more of a mountain person, luck for you, Barcelona is right next to some of those as well. There are plenty of trails accessible by public transportation from the city if you find yourself seeking an afternoon hike. My personal favorite way to recharge has been hiking along the Costa Brava, just wandering toward any random, quiet beach or cove that calls my name.
3. Search for community
Although I was able to make good friends with my roommates and the other students in my program much faster than I expected, after a while it did become a little lonely for me being surrounded by people so different from my friends back home. I’ve spent the last three years at my home university very carefully building a community that I love, feel safe in, and feel deeply connected to. Part of me felt guilty for taking that for granted and running away to search for something new. Making an effort to keep in touch with my loved ones at home definitely helped subside that guilt, but I also had to remind myself that Barcelona is a massive city with so many people beyond the first few other Americans I met here. If I could find people that I connect with so deeply in a place like South Carolina, then certainly I could also find my kind of people in Barcelona. In such a large city, it can be really easy to find or build a community if you’re just willing to put yourself out there a bit. For me, that meant seeking out queer spaces, artistic and musical events, the skateboarding community, and just any environment that had some semblance of where I would spend my time at home and people that felt comfortable to me. Definitely try out new things and unfamiliar spaces as well, that’s one of the joys of going abroad, but if you know yourself and your passions well enough, that makes it a lot easier to meet like-minded people anywhere you go. Barcelona, like many large European cities, is full of all kinds of international people who are also seeking out friends and community, so there’s really no reason to feel too timid or out of place when trying to meet new people.
4. Find a routine
When you’re studying abroad, it can feel like you have a million things to do, new places to go, and only so many hours in the day. This can start to feel overwhelming and hard to balance, especially still going to school full-time. I’d say one of the most important things to manage stress living abroad is to try to structure your daily life as close to your home life as you can. If it’s usually important to you to go to the gym 5 times a week, eat breakfast every morning, read in the park once a week, call your mom in the evenings, or whatever it is that keeps you in a comfortable routine, don’t let living abroad interfere with that. Making sure that I keep up with as many of my normal habits as I can has been extremely helpful in settling into my life here. Keeping a good schedule and managing your time absolutely make living abroad a million times less hectic.
I’ll preface by saying that yes, it’s very important to indulge yourself as much as you can in the local culture when you spend time abroad. You’ll come across so many new things that you won’t have access to back home, so you should certainly take advantage of that while you can. However! It is also okay to go to that American chain every once in a while. No, you shouldn’t make it a habit to go to that touristy Starbucks every morning, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional Frappuccino every once in a while if that’s something that comforts you, something that reminds you of home. Easily my favorite way to calm down when I’m really stressed or overwhelmed has always been to get my favorite meal from McDonald’s, cuddle up in my bed, and watch the Kardashians. Admittedly, even by American standards this is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but if it makes me feel better, it makes me feel better. It can be extremely exciting to live somewhere that is so completely and fundamentally different than everything you’ve grown up with, but it also can be very isolating and it’s hard to keep yourself grounded without your usual comforts. There’s no shame in embracing whatever familiarity you can find, so you can bet that after a particularly long week of classes, you’ll find me in line at the McDonald’s outside of the Sagrada Familia, gearing up for my reality TV marathon.
Written by: Zoe , Fall 2023 Barcelona student, from University of South Carolina.