Hands down, I would recommend studying abroad. I don’t think there’s anyone who would tell you not to do it. But it isn’t always the most magical experience, even if it looks like it.
Mid April, I went to Rome for ten days. People will tell you that traveling alone is liberating. You’ll learn a lot about yourself. What they won’t tell you is that it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” pair of sweatpants. They’re not always comfortable and it takes practice wearing them.
The first few days went really well. I woke up at six in the morning on a Sunday so that I could get to the Vatican before the crowds. I was awed by the majesty of St. Peter’s Square. I felt a spiritual connection to the Catholic prayers, but at the same time felt wildly lost because I’m not Catholic, and even though I might speak Spanish, I do not speak Italian.
I waved to the Pope with the dumbest grin plastered across my face while standing on a wobbly chair to actually be able to see him.
I threw a coin into the Trevi fountain and almost giggled after the plop. I roamed through streets and bought five or six gelatos throughout the whole week. I went to the Pantheon and looked in vain for old traces of Roman gods and goddesses. I probably walked into four different churches on accident.
I saw, after much anticipation, the chilling painting of Judith beheading Holofernes by the female Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi. I sketched a statue and explored the crumbling Ghetto of Rome. More than once I regretfully climbed millions of steps just to get to the top of something out of pure curiosity, and even after that my aching feet kept pulling me back towards the River Tiber just to feel the cool air on my face.
It would have been an Instagram travel dream if I was better about taking pictures.
But then Wednesday hit, and even though I had so much more planned, I couldn’t get up. I felt strange; apathetic. Yes, my legs and feet were tired, but above that, I didn’t feel any motivation. I was in Rome, it was seventy degrees outside, but I didn’t want to do anything.
The next day I again woke up later in the morning, but I still wanted to try to take advantage Rome. I went to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and walked until I thought my legs would fall off. There was so much of old Rome to see, but in the moment I felt displaced. It was difficult to take pictures of myself, and I didn’t even feel excited to be doing it.
Strangely enough, I can remember it as one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done, and I can recount it about as animatedly as the next extrovert, but while I walked throughout the ruins, I felt hazy, unplugged. I felt absolutely nothing.
Friday, I again decided I would try to shake some life back into myself. I headed to Vatican City. I’d been to Palm Sunday mass, but I hadn’t really seen all of the Vatican or gone inside St. Peter’s Basilica. But when I arrived, they were beginning to close St. Peter’s Square, so I decided to try the Sistine Chapel instead.
I followed the signs, and eventually was confronted on the streets by a man wearing an embroidered “staff” polo about whether or not I had tickets.
“But you don’t need them for the Sistine Chapel, do you?” I asked, because the Vatican Museum was in the same direction, and I assumed that’s what he was talking about.
“Of course you have to pay,” he said, like I was stupid.
I was feeling too irritable to decide whether or not he was just trying to shake the extra euros loose from my tourist pockets, so I turned on my heel immediately and started walking back to the metro.
“Wait, wait!” he said. “This is one of the best museums in the world and you don’t want to pay for it?”
I blew him off, telling him I didn’t need him to to judge my decisions. Flustered, sick to my stomach, and eyes welling up, I returned to my Airbnb.
The next day I again couldn’t get myself to do anything. I’d even had plans to go to mass again on Easter Sunday, but it was too late to claim my free ticket. By the time Monday rolled around I was aching not only for Spain again, but for my home country.
I’m not saying I regret my trip to Rome, or that the wanderlust of traveling had finally lost it’s magic. Eventually when I got on my flight, I again felt nostalgic and sad that I was leaving Italy.
The truth is, when you travel, life is still life, and you aren’t going to be happy all the time. I did and saw a lot of amazing things in Rome, but being socially deprived for a week really drained me. I didn’t have the motivation to do anything because I was missing the energy that my friends and family back home had always filled me with.
Sometimes you need to know what that’s like while you’re in the middle of an amazing, magical adventure, because the true magic of traveling abroad is that it doesn’t separate you from yourself or shrink the range of your emotions. The experience builds onto you, and that means it’s necessary to feel many different things while you’re abroad.
Now that I’m back in Spain, I don’t know that I’m ready to leave yet. I still and always will love being in this country even though I miss my friends and family back home.
But I’m ready to try traveling alone again someday, and I’m ready to face the moments that aren’t filled with sparkling sunsets and pictures of laughing candids near the beach because the moments that you don’t see on social media are what create your study abroad experience, and I am so glad I was able to have mine.