Never as bad as it seems

Studying abroad taught me new ways to fight my anxiety

My first month abroad did wonders for my anxiety, but not in the ways that you would expect.

I decided to spend my third year at Sciences Po in Reims, France. I used to live in Lyon as a child, I spoke (decent) French, and I was familiar with the French culture. However, there are some key differences between moving to another country under the protection of your parents, and having to do absolutely everything by yourself.

French bureaucracy is notoriously slow and my experience was no different. Everything took longer than expected and the extent of the paperwork, online applications, and inefficiency was mindboggling. In addition, the French bureaucrats present every step of an administrative process with the seriousness and severity of a dictatorship.

“I need to do this, or I will be deported,” ran through my mind on a regular basis. Every time I received an email from a French government agency, my heart would skip a beat, and I would read and reread the vague French wording like it was an encrypted message. “If I could find the answer, the thought ran, I might be able to escape the horrific, anxiety-inducing cycle of bureaucracy.

But eventually, I started to realize that nothing was as serious or as final as it seemed. Despite the harsh and strict wording on the administrative websites, the people were — for the most part — understanding, patient, and flexible. And eventually, I found myself saying, “I’m sure it will be fine either way.”

As it turned out, optimism was the best cure for my anxiety. Instead of thinking of all the ways that my life could go wrong, I thought about all the benefits and the possibilities of it already going right. Studying abroad is a naturally stress-inducing experience, even for someone like me, who was going back somewhere I actually knew.

In all honesty, having to face the anxiety that came with completely uprooting my life and taking it somewhere else was really daunting. But the experience and confidence that my time abroad has given me is amazing. Even if it has not always been a complete success, at least I now know better for next time.

I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and my family still lives there, so coming to Toronto was in itself an experience studying abroad. However, it was a similar situation, where I was born in Canada, and I returned to Canada each summer — I knew the language, the customs, and the culture. Yet I had the same kinds of anxiety, the same now-or-never behaviour, that I have only managed to fight by continuing to push myself to keep doing these kinds of challenges. It’s not easy, and it very well might not be permanent, but each step provides me with the audacity to take the next. As someone who suffers from anxiety, pushing yourself to go abroad and furthering your world perspective is a great weapon for continuing to fight the good fight.

— Jillian Schuler

Sea change or ‘wee’ change?

Navigating life, traffic, and self in Edinburgh

Seconds after congratulating myself for ‘understanding’ Edinburgh, I wandered into the headlights of an oncoming taxi. “Bud, where did you come from?” I thought, as I scrambled onto the sidewalk and tried to block out the ensuing chorus of beeps, sneers, and obscenities.

I had glanced to the left before initiating my jaywalk: a simple yet deadly mistake in a country where cars come at you from the other side. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn — which is why I went abroad to begin with.

After nearly three years in the city, I fled Toronto for one simple reason: I was getting too comfortable. I had a great group of friends, decent grades, and a grasp of the landscape. But that was the problem — I was siding with the status quo too much, sleepwalking around campus, and defaulting into the same old routine. I needed something new.

I figured that the best way to reset and gain perspective was to travel. I knew it might be tough, stressful, or lonely, but I knew I’d get something from it. Or, at least, I hoped I would. Furthermore, I didn’t prance off to some exotic location; my trip saw me fly from Halifax to Edinburgh, Scotland. In other words, I travelled from one coastal university town to another — hopefully drunker — coastal university town.

But that was the idea. I wanted to experience new things, sure, but I didn’t want to plunge myself into an unrecognizable, far-flung universe. For me, shuffling off to, say, Warsaw or Moscow or Cape Town would have been very bold, but not very smart.

Edinburgh seemed like the perfect pick: the history runs deep, the scotch flows fast, and the school is second to none. Scotland and Canada have myriad links — my home province, Nova Scotia, translates to New Scotland in Latin. And I’d also be close to some great travel destinations.

So, after mulling it all over, I decided to buy the ticket and take the ride.

It’s been fantastic so far. The culture shock has been minimal. Of course, the slang is odd, the people are new, and the food is different, but that’s part of the fun. Grappling late at night with the notion of haggis and debating at what point you’re qualified to say ‘mate’ instead of ‘man’ is what makes exchange so entertaining. All the new stuff keeps you on your toes, analyzing and questioning and learning as much as possible.

It’s a great reminder of that sacred rule: never get too comfortable. When I did in Toronto, my ability to scrutinize, explore, and be creative atrophied. I became a ‘wee’ bit arrogant, and my drive to change — to grow — was muted.

The signs can be subtle, sneaky, and gradual, but they can also come right out of the blue — horn honking, headlights on, middle-finger up. Either way, it pays to be wary and to do what you can to maintain perspective and humility through it all.

— Ted Fraser

Freedom in France

Learn a new language for phone plans and food

“Did you know I went to Europe?” I shout to my last remaining friends as they get in the car and drive away from the ditch on the side of the road they have abandoned me in. “Did I mention that I studied abroad in France?” I say, as my family signs the papers removing me from their will.

Though I may have no love left in my life and no home to go back to, I have zero regrets about the month I spent in Tours, France, a little city a few hours south of Paris — which I also went to, in case you were wondering.

As a disclaimer, I fully wore rose-coloured glasses during the entire time I was abroad, wherein I studied French and ignored all my problems. I’m also very aware of the luck that is inherent in getting to fly across the world and muck about for a month. With that being said, perhaps this mediocre chronicle of my adventures can be my way of ‘paying it forward’ — the least I can do is to allow less fortunate folks to live vicariously through my glamorous Parisian escapades.

I arrived in France thinking that I could coast on my high school language skills, and I ended my first day sobbing in bed, clutching my French for Beginners dictionary. Who would have guessed that French people exclusively spoke French?

What brought me to the point of uncontrollable tears was my attempt to buy a phone plan. More than food, shelter, and clothing, this is the most important thing you can do in a new country, and also something that will completely destroy you if you can’t speak the language. Never have I been a larger advocate for a universal language than when I was trying to figure out how to say ‘data’ in French. Luckily for me, I had arrived with some other U of T students who were actually fluent and I placed my life in their hands. I was pressured into buying a slightly more expensive plan, but that’s just a part of the Experience™.

From that disastrous beginning, I realized that I probably needed to learn the language, which wasn’t too difficult seeing that I was in France and enrolled in French-language courses. What further motivated my desire to learn French was my need to be able to understand menus, so that I would not accidentally order raw meat.

And that was how I passed my month. I spent the days learning French, the nights tasting wines, and the weekends getting lost in Paris. I celebrated la Fête nationale by the Eiffel Tower and I biked the countryside visiting châteaux. I met people who have remained my friends to this day.

As I’m writing this in my room surrounded by dirty plates and textbooks, I realize that I probably peaked that summer. But it will all be worth it when, one day, I’m old and gray, sitting by the fireplace, and showing my 10 cats pictures of the most delicious pasta I’ve ever had.

— Josie Kao