Beating homesickness - the 10 steps to happiness!
Lucy studies Spanish and History at the University of Southampton and spent her year abroad in Madrid, first working for 6 months as a Marketing Intern in an art museum and then 3 months as an Intern bookseller at Casa del Libro. She also spent time working on her year abroad blog, travelling throughout Spain, practicing photography and learning to play the clarinet. Here is her advice about beating homesickness while abroad, and the ten steps to happiness...
If you're on a year abroad, or even just working/living abroad for a while, you may be struggling with homesickness. The first thing to realise is that this is totally normal! People get it to different degrees but whether you're perpetually bawling your eyes out under your duvet or just experiencing a faint twinge every time you spot a family photo on facebook this post is for you. For me January was when homesickness really hit for the first time. Coming back from a lovely family Christmas, I was having issues with my flat in Madrid and was finding things incredibly stressful. If you too are feeling down in the dumps this January then I hope you take some of my advice on board and go on to enjoy the rest of your year away to the full!
1. It won't be forever
The first thing to realise is that you're abroad for a set amount of time. It may be a month, it may be a year, but it will eventually come to an end. Understanding this helps to put everything in perspective; you may feel absolutely terrible now, and be missing home like crazy, but know that when the day comes you will be heading right back to everything you left behind.
2. Decide to make the most of this time
Knowing you only have a set amount of time in your new country can help you to appreciate it more. Accept that you will eventually be heading home but think about the here and now. Would you rather be spending your year sitting in your room scrolling through facebook feeling terrible or out there taking advantage of all your new home has to offer? Something that helps me whenever I feel rubbish is looking at it from an outsider's perspective. Imagine you're the main character in a book. Think how you would feel as the person reading the book if all the main character did was moan to themselves and mope about. You'd want the character to accept that they were feeling crappy and DO something about it - this is generally the kick up the bum I need to take a step away from the duvet and back out into the world.
3. Set goals and plan your time
My third tip will help you do just that! Get hold of a guidebook to your city/country and circle all the cool things you want to see and do in your remaining time away. Think of all the places you could visit, the photos you could take and the food you could taste. You don't have to limit yourself to your year abroad country; hop on a coach, boat or plane and cross a border. Buy a calendar (this helped me so much) and make sure that you note down all the little things you're planning to keep you busy. It could be a language exchange in a local taverna, a trip to the beach, a night at the cinema or anything else that takes your fancy. Planning your time gives you things to look forward to; make sure you note down if any family and friends are coming out to visit you! It also helps to fill your time with things you'll enjoy, gives you a sense of achievement and helps you to pack as much as possible into your year abroad. Make sure to factor in time to complete any Year Abroad Projects or other work you've been set by your university - you really don't need a mad scramble in the last two weeks before the hand in date! For more info on how to do this check out: Taking Charge of Your Year Abroad .
4. Keep in touch with home
Just because you're on a year abroad doesn't mean you have to lose contact with your nearest and dearest. This isn't some sort of masochistic contest about who can survive longest without talking to their mum. Phone them up, Skype them, send them a letter or a parcel, there are so many ways of contacting your family and friends in this day and age. Think about how often you feel happy communicating with people back home and do whatever makes you feel good. There can be times, though, when too much contact with home is detrimental. If your parents are flying out to see you every weekend and you're staying in to Skype your boyfriend every night you could be missing out on a bit of YOU time. Time you could be using to explore your new home, meet new people and enjoy yourself. Plus it's always much more fun to have a conversation with someone if you've actually got something to talk about. Not much can happen that's phone-worthy in fewer than 12 hours... Make sure to bring mementos of your family and friends with you for your new room. A few photo frames jazz things up nicely.
5. Be proactive in your social life
This is perhaps the hardest thing to accept; living in another country where you don't know anyone, are not yet fluent in the language and are unfamiliar with the general way of life is a lot of effort. So much effort in fact that it's tempting, after your fifth meeting with a language partner where you talked about your love of basketball AGAIN, to just give up. I was unprepared for the amount of effort it would take to socialise and make friends. True I wasn't studying so I knew I'd have to seek out friends my own age but it took me a while to accrue even a couple of those. I know before we left uni we were told that friends would just pop up while in a coffee shop or in the queue for train tickets... this unfortunately is often not a reality. What is a friend anyway? You may have to tone down your expectations. Someone to grab a coffee with and chat with in French for 40 minutes is much better than nothing. Make sure to realise that YOU are the one that's looking for people to hang out with. All those Spanish dudes already have a little group of mates to call their own. This means that it's you who is going to have to make the first move. This goes for whether you're in Spain or the UK; if you want to get to know someone ASK THEM to join you for a drink, a trip to the beach, the cinema etc. If you wait around to be asked you're going to have a long wait... If you're looking for likeminded people to hang out with try meetup.com. This website really helped me as the meetings are fun, often free and a great way to meet new people. Whether you like water sports or museums there are sure to be groups meeting up near you.
6. Do what you did at home
Just because you're in Italy/Chile/Spain doesn't mean you can't keep swimming/playing badminton/going to the theatre. If you love something keep doing it! I love reading so got a job in a bookshop and bought ten tonnes of books. My friend Annie loves films so would invite us all to the cinema to see the latest blockbuster. Another friend, Catriona, plays percussion so joined an African drumming group. Doing the things that you love is an easy way to boost your mood.
7. Start something new
That's not to say that you shouldn't view the year abroad as a time to start something new. Think of all the things you've maybe wanted to try but just never got round to because you didn't have the time or were embarrassed. I found a teacher, took up the clarinet and after a couple of months was tooting away happily. Then, free from the expectations of friends and family, I bought some leggings and went running for the first time. Join a class, I found a photography one near me, it may seem scary at first but just go for it! I plucked up the courage to start clarinet after Christmas but wish I'd started earlier.
8. Treat yourself
This is for those times when you're feeling down in the dumps and need a little pick me up. Buy yourself something nice. It doesn't have to be a big something; I'm more than happy with a glossy magazine and a bar of chocolate. Take yourself to the theatre, go to the cinema, find a new poster for your wall or a new pair of shoes (there are often unusual shops in Europe that we don't have in the UK - take advantage while you can!)
This brings me to one of the biggest things I learnt while on my year abroad; it is NOT sad to eat a meal in a restaurant or go to the cinema alone. What is sad is sitting alone in your room thinking how nice it would have been to see that film or taste that gorgeous food. If you want to do something and you can't find anyone to do it with you - do it anyway!
9. Invite people to visit you
What can be really helpful when it comes to homesickness is inviting friends and family over to visit you. It gives you something to look forward to and encourages you to get out more; how will you show them around if you don't know your new city? If you're too far away for people to visit you, or your budget won't stretch that far, make sure to update them on what you're doing. One of the simplest ways of doing this is with a blog. Fill your time with exciting things and then fill your blog with photos and stories. This can do wonders to take your mind off any feelings of homesickness; it becomes a kind of project to focus on. Why not learn how to code or take a photography course to make your blog even better?
10. Don't compare!
We've all seen them; pictures on Facebook of classmates smiling in their boyfriend's arms in Cologne, snuggling with koalas in Australia and enjoying great nights out with a host of new pals. This, as we all know, is not an accurate reflection of someone's year abroad. Who's going to take a selfie of themselves crying because they got shouted at on a bus for not understanding?? NOBODY! What you're seeing are the edited highlights of other years abroad; life is not just an endless parade of sunny beaches and cocktails no matter which Caribbean island you're living on.
Take each day as it comes and celebrate each little personal victory with enthusiasm. Finally found your way to work without having to check Google maps? Get in! Went to your first yoga/pottery/tennis class and managed to keep up a 15 minute chat with a classmate in French/Spanish/Italian? Woohoo! Recognise that we are all different; we all reacted to moving away in different ways.
Refuse to accept this ridiculous pressure to have the "best year of your life" and concentrate on making your year as good as it can be. Nobody's year abroad will be the same as another person's. That's what makes this time so special; it's entirely down to you and your mindset as to how it will turn out. Decide to improve your situation, take advantage of the incredible country you're in with all its unique culture and history and step forward into February with a new sense of purpose!