By Kearan Meagher of University of Calgary
They say you can't come home again.
It's always hard leaving home, especially when it's your first time. At my going away party I bawled like a baby as all my friends lined up one by one to come say goodbye to me. I was so excited to embark on a 6-month adventure but I had certain inhibitions about leaving my friends, and my life, behind. What if they forgot about me? What if I miss so much while I'm away that it's awkward when I come home? What if things change? These questions played over and over again in my mind on the long plane ride to London, along with fears about what my exchange would be like- would I like my flatmates? Would I meet people I got along with? When would the homesickness, which I had deemed unavoidable, set in?
These qualms were quickly put to rest when I arrived in Leeds. My flatmates were wonderful and have become some of my closest friends. My classes were enjoyable and not the difficult, foreign subjects I had imagined them to be. I joined the basketball team and made many friends that way. I was so busy having fun that I didn't think twice about my anxieties I had on the way over. Nor did the homesickness ever hit. When the semester ended and it came time to travel for 8 weeks, I was so enchanted by waking up in a new city almost every day that I didn't even have the time to think about home and worry about life going on without me.
Whilst abroad, there were several articles published about coming home again and the concept of reverse culture shock. While I read these with moderate interest, I didn't pay much attention to the warnings and advice within them. Surely a place I was so reluctant to leave would welcome me home with open arms and I it. When the time drew near for me to come back home, I experienced feelings of ambivalence. I was looking forward to the comforts of home but was not keen to leave behind the lifestyle of travelling and all of my incredible exchange friends.
Arriving home felt weird. Everything was exactly the same as I had left it, which made me feel like everything that had happened to me on exchange was just some dream, and that I never truly left. Friends and family looked the same, my room looked exactly the same, and everything was as it was. Except that I had just had this unbelievable experience. When I met up with friends they would politely ask about my trip, but how can I break down 6 months' worth of friendship, adventure, experience, and life really, into a story that will end before their eyes start to glaze over and they stop listening? It's impossible.
So I found myself reverting to saying 'it was amazing' as my friends filled me in on what they had been up to the last 6 months. This pattern repeated again and again, until I realized I would never truly be able to convey to anyone this life I'd been living. It made me feel like two different people- my abroad self and my home self. People I spent every day with while away are now scattered all over the world from Argentina to Australia, Greece to New Zealand, and even the United States, which suddenly felt a lot farther away than ever.
My hometown felt small and boring and sleepy- how could it compete with cities like Barcelona, Edinburgh, or Rome? It can't possibly match the history of Berlin, the romanticism of Paris, the excitement of London, or the beauty of Prague. It doesn't have the stunning Adriatic waters like Croatia or the breathtaking beaches like the Algarve Coast.
And then came all the responsibilities and duties I had so artfully dodged whilst away. There were phone plans to set up, accumulated insurance to pay, jobs to start, and cars to fix. Reality really is a terrible place. Meanwhile, my friends still abroad were posting sweet Instagrams which had me wishing not only that I was still travelling, but also that I could have just made it to one more city.
The moral of this story is that you are invariably going to be different when you come home. You've had unique experiences with people from all over the world, the impact of which you can't possibly convey to people who weren't there. And that's okay. People who weren't away with you won't fully understand it all, but they don't need to. It doesn't de-value your experiences, it just makes them all the more special. It's not fair to compare your hometown with the world class destinations you visited.
It may not be as exciting as all of the big, flashy cities in Europe but it is home. It is familiar, and it's safe, and most importantly, within it exists many vital things- your family, your friends, and your childhood. It's where you grew up and that in itself makes it a very special place. Your exchange friends are only a short FaceTime call away, and you can take comfort in the fact that in this wide, crazy world, you now have friends dispersed throughout.