When you go abroad

Starting living on my own was a huge step. I didn’t just leave my parents’ house and move to another place, not another city, but another continent. I made a big step out of my comfort zone while I had never traveled alone or lived somewhere on my own. When I said goodbye to my family at the airport, I passed the gate and entered another universe I had never been to, where I had no family, friends, or one I knew. It was a complete start from scratch. 

Although it was scary by itself, with the pandemic, it was even more difficult. When I arrived in Italy, I had to stay in quarantine for two weeks. All my classes were held online for months, there was a curfew in the evenings, and Covid had deadly hit the city. That’s why I didn’t get to know people for months. Not that I didn’t want to, but I simply didn’t get the chance. 

My life was full of new things, but the tricky part was not this transformation from living off my parents to being on my own, doing house chores, cooking, and cleaning. They were the easiest part; taking care of myself and coping with loneliness and anxiety were the most challenging. And that is precisely what my parents told me when we were saying goodbye; they were not worried if I couldn’t make it on my own but somewhat worried about whom I would come across and hang out with. ‘You should learn how to care for yourself when it comes to toxic people and relationships. It does matter whom you spend time with’. That’s what my dad said, and it was true. 

Being a foreigner has brought some constant challenges in my life. It is inevitable not to feel lonely, excluded, and not belong. I started making friends when I was a kid, and after my bachelor’s in Iran, I can say that I had a community of like-minded friends around whom I felt beyond safe and happy. When I left home, all of my relationships suddenly turned into online calls or chats. It was such a significant change. At first, I hated the situation so much and was trying to build similar relationships here in Europe, but then I realized that this is such a high expectation that I am putting on my shoulders. I spent years and years back home to get on that deep level in my relationships, so how can I achieve the same thing in a short time here?

It’s not that I had never felt lonely before moving to Europe; it’s just that the intensity of that feeling when I came abroad was beyond imagination.

I sensed the true loneliness in moments when I really couldn’t help myself, taking any action to avoid those negative feelings. I didn’t have anyone to meet and talk with, and there were times when I desperately needed to hug someone. All I had was a few small talks with my flatmates or the salesman at the local grocery shop. Mainly, I was alone in a ghosted Italian town in my single room in a new country.  

Things remained the same for about eight months until vaccination started and restrictions were reduced. In April 2021, the situation in Italy improved, and I could finally sense how it felt to be an international student. I met a few of my classmates. However, (I never realized why), for some reason, they were really into speaking their mother language even when I was in their company. I tried to make conversations or communicate, but it was hard. Ultimately, I felt more emotionally drained and lonely, feeling entirely excluded. And then I just stopped trying to get closer to them. 

I was lucky to meet a few international students from different majors and backgrounds and started building friendships. The common thing about international students is that they are all far from home. So they are all looking for friends as you do. This is very different with local students. They are the ones who have already had their friends from childhood, so you may not find them available on the weekends, as their schedule might be already full with their family or friends. And this is understandable; if I were back home, it would be the same for me.

I learned that wherever I go, I need to accept that I’m the new one, so I should try to make friends and not blame myself if it doesn’t happen. (It did happen almost all the time, but sometimes it took such a long time). I learned to be open and behave in a way that people feel easy approaching me. When they don’t, I need to make the first step. And I need to be patient to get to know them. At the same time, I started communicating more with my friends and family back home because I understood how important they are, and I can never replace them with anyone else. Sometimes, even an hour of a video call and sitting behind my desk talking to them makes me happier than going to several parties and meeting new people.

Another thing that happens to me occasionally is homesickness. Even if you have the best people around and everything is fine, you still miss your friends and family back home (unless you don’t have any). Homesickness hit in happiness and sadness. You can never know. Sometimes even when I am thrilled, I miss my family being there with me and sharing that moment. Before coming to Europe, I was so scared of leaving home, and I used to fool myself by thinking that Europe was not that far, so maybe my parents could come to visit me once a year, and I return home once too, so it would be twice a year. But sometimes, life is not idealistic for various reasons; money, time, visas,..etc. 

There have been many moments when all my family members or friends were together, and I was the only one absent. I have missed many of their birthdays, my sister’s wedding ceremony, and my nephew’s first day of school. It is also tough to be far when it comes to hard times. My aunt got diagnosed with cancer, and I was not there. My sister is going through a divorce and really feels lonely, and I’m not there. My best friend broke up with her boyfriend after two years of relationship, and I’m not there to support her. Even when I do my best, trying to be available online, there is always some part of my heart dieing to be there and hug them.

Although uncertainty is a part of our lives, there are more such conditions to bear as a person far from home. I got my tickets for returning to Italy two months ago, but I couldn’t find any accommodation until two weeks before my departure. I was preparing myself to be officially homeless for a while and stay in my friends’ room until I was finally offered a room in the University dorm. If you’re a traveler, this might not be that bothering for you. It made it hard for me because I had to settle somewhere to study and finish my exams. Apart from housing comes another uncertainty, what would happen to me when I go to Germany? Can I make friends? What would I do after my graduation? And so on. It’s almost never-ending. My therapist helped me a lot in coping with this anxiety. Much as I learned to think more about the present moment, prioritize my worries, and triage, this is still my biggest challenge.

Having said all these, I am not aiming to discourage anyone from moving far away. I am only sharing the reality of it. And the parts that nobody told me about before. I have indeed been alone several times in different airports, watching other people hugging and kissing their loved ones at arrivals while I struggled to carry my suitcase. But that has made me realize how grateful I am for what I have, for the moments when I wait at arrivals for a friend or family member coming to me from miles and miles away. It’s true that I have been ignored by my classmates and had no friends for the whole semester. But it just made me so flattered when I made other friends who told me that no matter where I go, they would come to visit me.

And yet, I do continue my path while embracing the uncertainty, not knowing what the future holds, and I am happy.

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