Jaime is taking me to the airport in less than an hour: at long last, here are my reflections on my study abroad experience as a whole. Before I came to Chile, everyone had an opinion about what my time abroad would be like. Although the most common prediction was that I would have the time of my life and never want to leave, as July 12 approached I was pretty much terrified. As only a few people know, I truly had to convince myself to be excited. I knew that I had no choice but to go, and the fact that I thought about it in those terms shows how nervous I was. I also knew that I was a brat for thinking about it in those terms because I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel and live abroad. So I was conflicted, but overall not super into it despite the excitement I faked to most people. Instead of feeling lucky that my semester-long program was a full 5 months instead of the usual 3 or so, I dreaded leaving everyone and everything familiar for what felt like forever.
Oh, little newly-21-year-old Madeline. Little did she know. The funny thing is that my abroad experience has been prototypical in a broad sense. People talk about the study abroad curve: when you first arrive, it’s a peak because everything is new and exciting. Then a few weeks to a month in, stuff gets hard and you miss home. Then things gradually curve upward until you are enjoying life. Then time flies and you’re sad to leave again. Yep. That was/is me.
I have to admit that for a time, things were miserable. I wouldn’t want to go through that period again. Prior to my departure people expressed concern about the fact that I would be dealing with a breakup from a long-term relationship during my transition abroad, and they were right to worry. It was a double-whammy made all the worse by the fact that I was away from my entire support system. I couldn’t exactly send an email to someone that just said, “I’m sad and lonely” every time that was the case. There was nothing else to say and nothing anybody could have said to fix it via email or video chat. I needed company and a hug and people who understood me, and I had none of those things. That said, thanks to all who were there for me when I need them.
These rather depressing circumstances led to the first change in Madeline: a new confidence. I’m lucky to be able to say that the month-long period I just described was one of the hardest things I’ve dealt with in my young life, and I did it on my own. I was my own #1 support system. I knew time would heal me post-breakup, but things here were tough independent of that situation. As y’all read in my post “Un experimento en la independencia” from September 1, I went into troubleshooting mode. I didn’t sit on my butt and feel sorry for myself. Okay maybe a tiny bit, but overall I got up and started making changes to improve my life here.
I cannot explain how good it feels to have reached this point of being truly happy in Chile especially after what I went through. Sure, it would have been nice to have a fairy-tale abroad experience from the beginning, but I’m all the happier knowing that I got through the tough times. I now know that I can deal with most things that come my way. Especially since I did it on my own this time, I know everything will be so much easier once I’m back in the wonderful net of Nashville and Georgetown family that has formed around me over the last 21 years.
In a way, the second big change is the opposite of the first: through trial and error Spanish, I have learned to deal with looking like an idiot. Despite years of Spanish in high school and college, I would certainly not have called myself fluent on July 13 when I arrived in Santiago. Only those of you who have lived abroad will truly understand this, but trying to do daily tasks in a second language just makes you feel like a big dummy. The smallest tasks become high-stress, highly embarrassing hurdles that must be avoided or begrudgingly overcome. At the beginning I would have chosen to sit through a class lecture in Spanish rather than order at a coffee shop or go to the grocery store.
My Spanish isn’t perfect, but it’s a TON better – especially as a result of my time with Chileans over these last two months. I am thinking and dreaming in Spanish, and I am able to express myself way better than I could before. Still, those small tasks can be nerve-wracking. I’ve learned to just throw myself out there, even if I walk away feeling dumb. I don’t do it every time — on a bad day, avoid-mode is necessary. But I’ve definitely gotten better at throwing myself out there. My one remaining frustration as far as language is that my accent is just not all there; or rather, it is way-too-much there. The second I open my mouth, Chileans know that I’m not Chilean nor is Spanish my first language. I sometimes get frustrated by my accent, but Rodrigo has said that even in the last two months he has noticed a marked improvement in my ease of speaking and accent. The whole language-acquisition experience has made me understand on a deeper level that I don’t know much. I’m just a little baby 21-year-old who really hasn’t experienced anything yet.
Finally, the simplest change: food. I LOVE vegetables. I still dislike mushrooms and olives, and I don’t love beets, but throw any other veggie at me and I’ll eat it with pleasure. I’ll try any new dish provided it’s vegetarian. I like spicy food. Basically I am a much more fun dinner companion. I will also be coming home with some delish recipes courtesy of Tona.
For the last 5 months I have been on my own in a way that I never had been before. Sure, I went to Georgetown knowing essentially no one, but I fell into a relationship and good friendships so quickly that it didn’t count. In Santiago I have also found family and friends whom I truly love, but I started out as just Madeline. I could make the experience what I wanted it to be, and it turned out to be great. I am incredibly happy in the life I have created for myself here. In a way, I don’t want to leave it, but I am also incredibly excited to come home.
Thanks to those who have made it this far with me. I can’t wait to see you!