I'm kicking off a new feature on As the Bird flies; Readers' stories. There are so many interesting people out there doing intriguing, unusual and exciting things and I think this blog would be a better place if you, my readers, got a chance to hear other people's experiences, stories and perspectives. So that's what this is going to be about. If you'd like to share your thoughts or story with my readers then please do get in touch. You can find out more information about the kind of guest posts As the Bird flies' readers like to read.
So first up is Melani's story. At just 22, she has already lived and studied in three different foreign cities after leaving her native Estonia at the tender age of 19. When I was this age I was still learning how not to shrink my clothes in the washing machine and I still slept with my childhood teddy bear in my bed (I wish I was joking). So when Melani emailed me telling me about herself, my first question was: How were you not petrified about moving abroad at such a young age? This was also my second and third question. I was even more intrigued when I then find out that the past three years really haven't been smooth sailing for Melani...
It turns out that a combination of Melani's natural determined demeanor and a steep learning curve of discoveries about herself are a big part of how Melani dealt with fear and we can learn a lot about how to deal with the everyday ups and downs of living abroad (or at home!) from her story. I also love the quotes she's chosen to compliment her post.
So here it is... Sit back, read and enjoy!
"I have lost and loved and won and cried myself to the person I am today." - Charlotte Eriksson
Living and Studying Abroad: A Teenage Dream... or Nightmare?
After finishing High School, at the age of 19, I left my home country Estonia to go and live my teenage dream – living in a foreign country. I headed to the French city of Strasbourg where I enrolled in university and began my studies.
Interestingly, at the same time, my mother took up an adventure of her own. She and our dog, Neo (from The Matrix!) moved to Switzerland. For a girl full of wanderlust with a sight set on faraway lands, it was exciting that my mum would also be living in a foreign country which I could visit. However, for a girl who had long been emotionally dependent on her closest family, it was going to be a huge change, especially emotionally. But essentially there was nothing to hold me back; I had nothing to stay for.
Despite all my excitement and enthusiasm, I sadly found life in Strasbourg very difficult. In fact, from the very beginning it felt like a struggle. People are often amazed and they ask me, 'But how come? Strasbourg is so beautiful!' But personally, I couldn't care less about city's beauty if you don't have a comfortable place to live or you feel like everything is a struggle, which was very true in Strasbourg.
In my first studio apartment, I felt the wind blowing all the time. And it wasn't a warm breeze, let me be clear! There was also a situation with mold, some maintenance work not properly done and an angry proprietor. As a result, I was ill more than I had been the past year, or two, or even more. In my second studio, where I had to share a kitchen with another girl, I was kept awake at night by the sound of people having sex. I had trouble with finding friends, and that wasn't like me. Most importantly, I didn't like what I was studying. In every way possible, I was so out of my comfort zone.
Eventually I realised that I had to leave. It wasn't an easy or a quick decision to make, but a long talk with a close friend helped me and I knew I had to do something before I became depressed or more seriously unwell.
So I left Strasbourg. I spent some time at home in Switzerland, then a month in Estonia, and soon after, I moved to another French city, Metz. New school, new studies, new city, new people. I was excited by the promise of a new start.
If at first you don't succeed, try (and try) again.
As it happened, Metz wasn't the amazing new start I'd hoped it would be. In general, I liked what I was studying, but I wasn't a huge fan of my school's program and I was still having trouble with finding friends. Unfortunately this, and my previous experience in Strasbourg took its toll on me and I realised that I was still suffering from something like a mild case of depression. I was - and am - aware that it could have been much worse, but I was still not as happy as I'd hoped to be when I was younger and had dreamed of living and studying abroad.
"Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim." - Tyler Knott Gregson
Perhaps it's worth explaining why I chose to study in France. While I was growing up in Estonia, I studied at the Tallinn French School and I actually started studying French when I was 8 years old. It seemed logical to move to France because I already knew the language and the culture... or at least, that's what I thought. The harsh truth is that learning about a country and its culture in a classroom in your home country (i.e. in your comfort zone), is different from visiting the country, and it is especially different from moving there yourself. There was a lot I had to learn the hard way and I quickly discovered that every country has its quirks and challenges. You either accept these, or you don't and you move on. It's okay to admit that a country or a city isn't right for you. That's why I was keen to take study in a new country by taking part in an Erasmus semester, which has brought me to Belgium.
Emotionally, my life has made a 180-degree turn. Recently, I've felt like I was falling back in love with my life, and it feels so liberating. There's so much to do, so many people to meet and so much to talk about. I finally feel like I'm living a proper university student life. However, I still have bad moments. I still feel like the challenges of Strasbourg and Metz have taken their toll and now I'm approaching the end of my Bachelor's degree I'm anxious about what the future holds for me. Although I feel better equipped to deal with the upcoming changes, because I'm in a happier, stronger place in my life - physically as well as emotionally - this has taught me that you really can't run away from yourself and your previous experiences completely. Wherever you go, there you still are.
The importance of being fearful of the right things
So, did I ever feel afraid of studying abroad, even when it didn't work out in Strasbourg? No, not really.
I have never really been scared of travelling or moving or starting over. What scares me more is the possibility that fear will stop me grabbing an opportunity. That doesn't mean I'm not afraid of anything. Like many people, I'm scared of mice, bugs, and other creepy crawlies. I also fear how much the human mind can change when it's not at its happiest or healthiest. That's why I always try to be my own best friend and to have a good relationship with myself. Maybe that's why I've not been afraid to live abroad on my own; Independence is extremely important substance in my life. I've also learned that you can beat fear by knowing your purpose and striving to fulfil it. If you're unsure of what you're hoping to achieve, there's more room for doubt and fear.
I think one reason I'm like this is because I've always felt the support of my mother, but I do also think fear is relative. For me, I don't think what I've done is "hardcore" at all. It's not like I've gone off solo backpacking in rainforests or living in an igloo for 3 months.
All that said, there was a thing I was afraid of in the beginning: losing people. I was afraid that when I left Estonia people would forget me. I have also had the same fears leaving Strasbourg and Metz, but at the same time, the more I move around the more I understand that people come and people go. Not all of your friends will be your forever-friends and that's fine.
"When you finally realize that nothing is permanent in this life, you will become more tolerant, more forgiving and less judgmental." - Mufti Ismail Menk
Looking back, I don't regret anything. Of course, there are things that I could have done better but there have also been situations that could have gone a lot worse. I wouldn't change anything, even if I could. I believe that this moment, this day where I am today, is a good day, and it is so thanks to the decisions I've made yesterday.
Thank you Melani for sharing your story! I wish you lots of success and happiness for the rest of your studies and travels.
Photos: All by Melani and published on her blog Vivere in Pace.
Frances M. Thompson
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