What Happens When You Fall In Love Studying Abroad

04/26/2017 11:00 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2017

April 23rd, 2017, thoughts post-Sant Jordi Day festivities

My upcoming study abroad semester in Spain was greeted with an excessive inflow of advice. Suddenly, everyone from the greeter at my gym to my grandmother’s neighbor was an expert in the dangers of overseas. And on one topic in particular. Love.

“Be careful- you’ll meet some dark and brooding European man and be swept off your feet. Next thing we know, you’ll be gone forever.” Despite the frequency of these warnings, the well-meaning had failed to alert me to the repercussions of falling in love while abroad, with the life I led abroad. Specifically, with the person I am here, lighter and happier than ever before. They did not sufficiently foresee what would happen when I began to celebrate the person I am, instead of seeking someone or something to make me feel whole.

This person I have always been, but handling the discomfort of moving thousands of miles from my comfort zone forced me to wholeheartedly embrace her. Over the past four months, I have spent time with this person, been stranded and publicly wept in Stuttgart, Germany as this person, traipsed on foot over 740.6 miles since January 3rd with her. Formerly very critical of myself, the realization gripped me that I treat virtual strangers with more forgiveness and love than my own person. Strangers who slam into me on the crowded street, relationships that didn’t work out, transgressions big and small, I let bygones be bygones.

But had I ever afforded that grace to myself? Previously, no. I lived in a constant replay of my mistakes, unable to let go of regret. Maybe developing the capacity to forgive myself was mere necessity; the sheer number of guffaws I committed exponentially increased upon stepping foot into Europe. But to dwell on my faux pas would be to miss the point entirely; the change in environment was more than a geographic relocation. It was transformative.

This city has humbled me. Laughed at my American accent, chided my lacking proficiency with Google Maps.

But it has also built me. After being torn down to the bare roots of existence, as new, unfamiliar situations do, I had a fresh start to build on. Meeting hundreds of new people, their knowledge of me being only who I was in that exact, present moment, was the beginning of deep, authentic friendships. Freed from the noise of our pasts, we were lighter and more daring. We passed hours exploring the corners of this personal Narnia.

My physical body abroad is fueled by fresh produce that I select each morning from our neighborhood market, my mind caffeinated by the kind woman at Sopa who begins brewing my cafe americano before I am fully through the door. My soul is empowered by the support system that has been crafted around me. Full-embodied friendships with people who want nothing for me but good, as though my life were their own. And in a way it is. I have found some bits of my soul in Barcelona, pieces of me that I never knew were missing. In forming relationships with people who selflessly, generously share with me all of themselves, I have been gifted parts of myself.

In my weakest moments, usually provoked by too much red wine or lack of sleep, my mind runs rampant with fear for the future. I stress over the coming days when I will no longer be in Barcelona, surrounded by friends, our responsibilities nearly nonexistent. Of course I can love myself here, for I am her best version, augmented by the hours of free time filled with self-care and relaxation. It is easy to celebrate who I am when I eat well, walk 10 miles each day, can stretch daily, journal my thoughts, go to the VIP sections of clubs. But what happens when I return to the United States and all I have left is my pumpkin, tattered dress, and one glass slipper. When our fairytale is over, how do we remind ourselves that we are worthy of a happy ending?

Of course we can hold tightly to the memories made here, the friendships, the lessons learned. But that can only sustain us for so long. In my moments of anxiety about the future, a wave of reassurance comes over me as I quiet my mind, a skill I worked to develop over the course of the semester. Thoughts cause stress only if you let them for the lifespan of anxiety is extended when you relive your regrets in your mind. Only by considering the thought fully, letting it move through the mind without a revisit, can we be liberated from pain. In practicing this, an aptitude for jubilance has developed in me, shifting my natural emotional equilibrium to one of joy. Grateful awareness for my life in Barcelona has shown me the wonders of the every day, that each moment I am awake can be cause for celebration if I commit to it.

Yes, it has been easy to celebrate the every day moments of Barcelona when they are full of lavish brunches and sunny morning hikes to the beach, evening sunsets made smoother with wine, but I have come to love the in-between moments as well. Life cannot be all peak moments- there has to be the 45 minute, headphones-in, walk to school and the 20 minutes spent waiting in line to buy a Granny Smith apple from el Supermercat. And in these moments of calamity and inactivity, formerly made painful by revisiting regrets or projecting worries, I am joyful. Liberated from the prison of my own mind, blissful peace is my resting state, for even when I am by myself, I enjoy the company.

In learning to cherish my moments alone, I am no longer lonely. Nor do I fill myself with the affections of other people; I am fulfilled all on my own. Formerly, when I failed to have others’ attention, be it the boy I was eyeing or the undivided focus of my friends, I resorted to destructive methods to fill myself, binge-eating or posting on social media to get an instant kickback of gratification. But I am proud of myself now, of who I am here, of the life I have crafted. Previously, I could not tell you one time I had honestly, verbally expressed that I even liked myself, for that is not our culture, not the norm for my peers at this age. We have been taught to fixate on what we would change instead of celebrating who we are. Even preparing to post this I felt the echoes of this shame, nervous as to how such a bold declaration of self-love would be viewed. Even now I wrestle my discomfort with affirming who I am, eagerly longing for the day I am not afraid of others’ opinion, when self-love is not something I work for, but instead naturally feel and easily proclaim. The words of love from my selfless friends and family are the model for how I vow to view myself here on out. What began as a whisper is now a mantra that propels me to keep struggling forward, onward. Filled with joy I have generated, confident in my resolve to keep trying, I beat on forward to the unknowns ahead.

Someone once told me that life is better once you have found the love of your life. But I know now that life is so much better once you have found the love in your life. When you can actively appreciate and identify those people who have shared themselves fully with you and want nothing but the best for you. And this list of people, your life’s loves, should include yourself too. I leave Spain in love, not only with my life, but also the person who leads it. She is flawed, often mistaken, loud, so American it hurts, but I forgive her. In loving Spain, being vulnerable and uncomfortable in this realm, I have been met with boundless generosity and forgiveness from strangers. I cannot help but treat myself in the same way; for if a stranger who owes me nothing sees something good in me, surely it exists. This city I have loved and I have felt its love returned ten times over. It has given me its stories and its people, and it has given me myself, seen from fresh eyes.

So yes, despite the warnings, I did fall in love when I was studying abroad. And this love has consumed me and changed me and will perhaps bring me back to Europe chasing it. But I am in no hurry. For I have met one of the loves of my life and she is me and we are together always, in Europe or elsewhere. Self-love is difficult to learn and even harder to maintain; I used to chase other people because I was so empty, void of any love for myself. But filled with jubilance now, I chase nothing for I have everything I never knew I needed. I met the love of my life studying abroad- swept off my feet, exactly how I was told it would happen, except that this love is within me, and comes home at the end of the semester. Wholeheartedly, I am in love with the life I lead and the person I am leading it.

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