Before I left for my semester abroad in Granada, Spain, I made a short list of uncompromising goals I wanted to achieve before returning home: become fluent in Spanish (more or less), eat paella (and lots of it) and create friendships with students and native Spanish residents. Since I arrived two weeks ago, I have made a relentless effort to achieve each of these goals by taking classes taught in Spanish, ordering paella whenever possible and making plans with other students almost every day.
Although this determination seemed productive and beneficial for me in the beginning, I quickly realized something new: the importance of solitude.
As someone who lives for building relationships with people and loves social events, it has always been a challenge for me to be comfortable alone. Like many others, I tend to get antsy or anxious when not around people and attempt to find company in various manners, such as listening to music or calling a friend. However, while being around people can be fulfilling and enjoyable for a bit of time, it can also be tiring and distracting.
This realization came to me while I was, ironically, on a group excursion to Nerja, a beautiful beach town on the southern coast of Spain. I was in the presence of about 30 other excited students, eager to relax in the sun and swim in the Mediterranean Sea together. As I stepped into the water, I was immediately overcome by this strange sense of peace. And instead of wanting to share the moment with my friends, I swam farther and farther out, until I couldn’t hear their voices and no one was around me. My attention was caught by the crystal-clear water, the way the different shades of blue from the sky and sea merged at the horizon and the silence that came when I floated on the surface, ears submerged.
By spending these few minutes alone, I was able to pause and process. In the midst of the present moment, surrounded by the tranquil sea, memories from the past week flooded my mind. Finally, I had time to truly reflect on those experiences and evaluate my various feelings and impressions.
Traveling to a new country is such an exciting time, but this excitement is almost always accompanied by apprehension, anxiety, discomfort and a little bit of fear. It’s so easy for travelers to cope with these feelings by simply ignoring them or by distracting themselves with work and constant company. But while these feelings may not be desirable, they are real, and an essential part of any experience abroad. Without designated time alone to stop, analyze and evaluate feelings and emotions, a student abroad will not have a fully significant and deep, life-changing experience.
Whenever abroad, it’s important to find alone time for reflection in ways that are convenient for each traveler. This could mean spending 30 minutes alone in a coffee shop, an hour sitting on a park bench or simply five minutes while walking to a destination. Regardless of how it looks, it’s essential to allow yourself to be aware: of your thoughts, your feelings and your place in the world, wherever that may be.