I'll be the first to tell you that nothing compares to living abroad. But anyone who has experienced the challenges of making another country home knows that it's not always the fantasy vacation we imagine it to be.
I first lived abroad when I was studying in Madrid in 2009, and from day one I knew that it would be far from an easy transition. After three years of constant contemplating and dreaming about returning to Spain after I first fell head over heels for it as a teenager, I was finally back - with expectations that were perhaps too high.
Exhausted from a long flight, I peered out into the disappointingly brown landscape surrounding Madrid-Barajas airport - dry and sparse as summer was coming to a close - not the stunning Spanish countryside I had been reminiscing about for years.
I arrived at my hotel to find that there had been an error in the booking dates, seemingly a pessimistic omen from the universe. When I finally sorted it out, I trudged up to my room, already a bit homesick and eager to connect online with the people I loved, only for my electrical adapter to burn up, shorting out the circuit and leaving me without power.
I could have easily called the front desk for help, but, dejected and exhausted, my mind raced through all the millions of reasons I should have never plunged into a full school year in a foreign country...I didn't know anyone, the hotel didn't want my business, and I couldn't even use an appliance without burning out a fuse! With day one complete, I melodramatically cried myself to sleep in a dark hotel room.
Later that night, I reawoke, and upon setting foot onto Gran Vía, Madrid's main street that lay just outside the hotel's doors, I was instantly reminded of how beautiful and vibrant Madrid really is and how I was actually making my greatest dreams come true by moving there for ten months.
Despite an overwhelming first day, I slowly but surely began remembering all of the things that made me crazy about Spain in the first place. Even still, looking back on our study abroad group's initial month there, our program's orientation period was far more miserable than it felt at the time. Temperatures near 100°F/38°C with no air conditioning, revolting cafeteria food that had me eating only bread and lettuce by the end, dull classes, homesickness and broken hearts, rampant flus and colds spreading throughout the group...
Probably not the best way to be reintroduced to a country, but I think we were all too excited to feel as dismal as we could have. But, then again, we were a group of 20-year-olds with all of Europe at our fingertips, so our stubborn optimism was fitting.
We would spend too much time the rest of that year being overly timid with our Spanish, stressing about surprisingly challenging classes, pining over boys back home that didn't deserve us, finding comfort in McDonald's €1 ice cream cones, complaining about dreary weather, and generally being naive college students.
But we would also travel throughout numerous foreign countries, meet a charismatic cast of characters, form inseparable bonds, gain unprecedented confidence, become real Spanish speakers, and cement a love for (and occasional frustration with) Spain that we would carry with us all our lives.
That entire year was easily one of the best years of my life and arguably the year that most shaped me into the person I am today. I generally stay away from negativity when reflecting on my travels, as, honestly, with the experiences I've been fortunate enough to have, I have no reason to be negative. I could write (and have written) countless articles on how spectacular that time abroad was.
But looking back on that year, along with its ups definitely came some downs. It's important to remember that's entirely normal in an expat's life, and, really, it's something that makes life abroad all the more worthwhile.
I've had similar moments of desolation, panic, and "What on earth have I done?!?" after my subsequent moves to Sevilla and Sydney, but you have to remember that it's always only a matter of time before those moments pass. And, yes, living abroad can get tough, no matter how familiar with the country you become, but that's life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.