The same way you always have.
Obviously, I’m all for trying new things and giving up bad habits, but I’m advocating specifically for doing the things you enjoy most in the context of another culture in order to observe the similarities and, more importantly, the differences. Differences create internal conflict, internal conflict creates a change of mentality, and that can often bring self-improvement.
Before I left for my semester in France, I was told that many students who study abroad often learn a new way of doing things that they continue to practice upon their return home. Of course, that can apply to simple things such as how you prepare food or clean your living space, but I believe that it can also apply to hobbies.
One hobby that I really enjoy but haven’t been able to do as much as I would like in the past 12 months is rock climbing. I spent the entire semester before I left for Grenoble running around trying to prepare for my absence from my home university, as well as keep up with my classes. I told myself that I would try to get back into climbing in France. When I arrived at my home stay, it wasn’t long before I learned about a climbing gym 10 minutes away by foot, so I went. The neighborhood that the gym was in intrigued me: a dense shopping district with a grid layout (unlike most of the country). I stumbled my way through a few sentences of French to buy a day pass for the gym. I took immediate interest in how the gym was set up. It was a lot more expansive than any gym I had seen in the US, and I was a little surprised by how many people were there on this random Wednesday afternoon. I could visibly see the truth in what I had been told, that climbing is more popular in France than in the US.
Through such an experience, I broadened my scope of understanding as it pertained to my hobby of rock climbing. Even if I had been an expert rock climber (not even close), there still probably would have been things I would never have seen about the sport unless I had observed the practice of it in France. I think an interesting observation to make is that one cannot truly become the master of a craft without traveling outside of one’s own culture. Maybe you’re heralded as one of the best in the world in whatever it is you do, be it playing football, sculpting, or something as simple as relating to other people, but I guarantee you can learn something new about it by observing how it is practiced in the context of another culture.
Something else that I enjoy frequently back home is hiking. I find it relaxing, great exercise, and often, a great chance for conversation with my friends. Going to Grenoble, France for a semester, a city that is known for the mountain ranges that surround it, I knew that I would be doing a fair bit of hiking. This is one activity that is essentially the same no matter where one goes. No two hikes in the world are the exact same concerning difficulty and scenery, but I’ll always get a good cardio workout, find peace in nature, and enjoy the company of those around me when I hike. I spent one afternoon hiking in the Alps just south of Grenoble. The group I was with called this hike La Cheminée, named after a stone structure at the top of the mountain meant to look like a chimney. It was a brutal hike, involving a descent into a valley before being able to start our ascent as well as innumerable grueling switchbacks. However, I took it at my own pace along with one of my friends I had made, her sister, and her mom. I conversed with my French friend in her native language in a much more comprehensible fashion than I would have thought possible when I first arrived. I owe this to my language professors at the University of Grenoble. I shared a little about why I had decided to come to France in the first place. Upon arriving at the top, I said, “Mes jambes brulent!” to light-heartedly comment on the difficulty of the hike. The scenery from this point was absolutely stunning. I could have stayed there and stared at the mountains that stretched further than I could see for hours upon hours.
You see, it’s important to do the things you enjoy in between the times that you are experiencing new things.
I went on a hike, got everything I was expecting out of it, and was pleasantly surprised by the things I wasn’t expecting. Not only will I be able to fondly look back on the hikes I went on in France once I get back to hiking in the US, but I will also remember the pleasantness of my study abroad experience in its entirety because I made sure to do things I knew I would enjoy. I don’t think this is just something that applies to me; it would work for anyone who is willing. I observed my friend also do something that she had always done.
Someone from my study abroad program who I became friends with while in Grenoble is very much an introvert. Though she enjoys being social, she can only do so to a certain extent before needing to “recharge.” If she has been without time to herself for one, two, or more weeks, she is constantly fatigued and sometimes irritable (as tends to be the case with introverts). So, in order to resolve this struggle between her need to have alone time and desire to enjoy the company of her friends, she picked back up on a hobby she has enjoyed ever since she was in elementary school: reading. Specifically, she found French comic books to read because illustrated stories are a huge part of French culture. This way, she could get the alone time she so desired while practicing her French reading comprehension and engrossing herself in another world. As a result, she became generally more energetic in group settings and excitedly shared about what she was reading with her friends.
I would like to hope that I have clearly outlined what I think are three benefits of doing activities with which one is already familiar during a semester or year abroad: a change of perspective (like my rock climbing), creation of fond memories you’ll be able to reflect on when you return to your home routine (similar to my ascent of the Cheminée), and a way to get through struggles that may come up (just like how my friend turned to her love of reading). As I already mentioned, I am in no way saying that one should not try new things. The way I’m thinking about it is that if you’re already planning to study abroad, you don’t have a problem with trying new things. I implore you, don’t forget to return to what’s familiar every so often. You will thank yourself later.
This post was contributed by Christopher Copeland, who is studying abroad with AIFS in Grenoble, France.