Editor’s note: This is the last exchange between Simran and Rachael as they end their Study Abroad semesters. You can find their previous pen pal exchanges here, here and here. The Sacre Coeur Basilica image above is courtesy Simran. The Basilica di San Domenico image is courtesy Rachael. Photo montage courtesy Grace Chu.
But wait! There’s one last installment to follow, when they write each other about what it’s like to be back home. Coming soon.
Oh good luck with your papers and everything. I hope you enjoy the last few weeks! My program ends in the middle of May, so I’m not quite at that stage of thinking about the end yet.
I love this question about being alone, actually because it’s definitely been a significant and changing part of my time abroad. I’m so used to the college environment of having friends and peers constantly around. I was so nervous about going abroad because of the lack of this, of being on my own. Even with the small community my program provides, I am alone more often than I’m used to. With this, I’ve learned not only to live on my own more independently, but also to explore and enjoy the city on my own, shedding bits of self-consciousness.
Most often being alone has been empowering for me. These have been the moments I’ve challenged myself to do something new instead of waiting for others—buying fruit at the market in the morning, going into a tiny boutique, hunting around for this beautiful but hidden room in one of the libraries. One night, I ate dinner by myself in a restaurant then went to a movie, having admired people who do that for themselves. A Bowdoin grad once published this piece in our student newspaper I always found moving: After college she spent some time in a tiny Italian town where her social interactions were limited. There, she wrote, she was learning to be comfortable with her own heartbeat.
I’ve definitely become more comfortable with my own heartbeat. Though, too, with this large chunk of time away from close friends and family, peaceful solitude does lend way to loneliness. I’m seeing beautiful places and eating wonderful food and saying I’m having a great time, yet these superlatives too come with the filter of loneliness. As kind and enjoyable as new companions may be, the wish for familiarity still remains. My antidote to these feelings is most often writing. Writing puts my mind at peace, makes my observations feel productive. Perhaps writing is such a comfort to me because I hear my own mind most strongly at these points, freed from self-consciousness in the very act of putting it into words.
My question: How have you felt your relationship with being alone develop? Or, moreover, what parts of you do you think have changed in any way?
Hope your studying is going well!
Your question about solitude is a really interesting one that I’ve actually been thinking about. I would definitely say I’ve learned to appreciate being alone. And by that I mean, alone with my thoughts. With a coffee and a notebook, maybe some music. I’ve learned how to be alone and let myself process my surroundings, thoughts, and emotions.
I think the catalyst for this was, to be blunt, my lack of friends. Now that I’m not on a small campus I’m familiar with, surrounded by people I know, I was forced to slow down and become comfortable with myself. Of course, as time went on, I made friends and became especially close to two classmates. Simultaneously, however, I’ve definitely developed an appreciation for my solitude and it has become a regular part of my day. Once I get back to Boston and especially once the school year starts up, making sure I have enough alone time is a priority for me.
I also completely relate to what you said about the empowering aspect of being alone. It showed me how independent and self-sufficient I can be, especially in a new country with a totally different culture. For me, the most empowering aspect was linked to my progress with French. I could feel myself becoming more fluent and at ease with the language. Bit by bit, I could express myself more completely. There were fewer gaps in my sentences, and I stopped translating to and from French in my mind. Getting lost was no longer a fear for me, because I knew I could redirect myself easily. I became more present.
I also used a trick similar to yours: do one new thing every day. Some days, when I was especially homesick and scared in the beginning, this was simply, “drink hot chocolate at a new café” or “go for a twenty-minute walk to see the city.” But these little things were really crucial in my comfort with solitude and being alone.
I think this was my most significant change: solitude and empowerment. Conducting myself in French society. Finding the middle ground between solitude, my thoughts, and my heartbeat (that was so poetic) and loneliness. Figuring out how French would play a role in my life post-Paris, because as much as I would love to, who knows when I’ll be able to return long-term to Paris?
I know our next exchange will be our thoughts on returning, so I’m looking forward to finding out how you’ve been processing your thoughts post-Italy. As for me, I’m beginning to miss Paris before I’ve even left.
Your fellow traveler,