Catherine Shackelford is a student at University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Initial Fears of Studying Abroad
It’s strange, isn’t it? Entering a new horizon filled with unfamiliar places and strangers and foreign languages. We are excited to finally arrive to what we’ve been dreaming about for months, but there’s still a lingering fear that whispers doubts to our joy. In the midst of such chaos, on the first day of my program in Thessaloniki, Greece I found myself metaphorically biting my fingernails and questioning if I could make it in a town with an alphabet I don’t even recognize. Some of the new strangers (ahem, ISA students) and I decided to explore this city we would soon call home. I remember walking barefoot across the boardwalk, gazing at the Aegean Sea and realizing just how lucky I was to spend my summer here.
It has only been a week or two since I’ve arrived in Thessaloniki, so I’m sure there are more things that I will learn as time sails onward. However, I want to share a few insights I’ve encountered in Thessaloniki that have enhanced my study abroad adventure as well as life itself.
First and foremost, flexibility is always key. Transportation in Greece would be a ton easier if someone on our ISA program understood Greek. This poses for an interesting situation when we travel on buses and can’t read which stop we need to get off of, wondering if we even took the right bus. We don’t have phones that are useful until they can connect to Wi-Fi, and so more often than not we wind up lost, walking aimlessly in circles until we give in to split a taxi or find someone who can speak English. It probably takes us about twice the time traveling to where we want to go than it does actually enjoying our destination.
This could feel like a waste of time to some, but after reflecting on the occasions when we’ve gotten lost, I’ve concluded that I don’t need to focus on my destination as much as the journey of getting there. From this perspective, I’ve been able to accept the city for what it is rather than shoving my own Western culture to those around me. The times I’ve gotten lost have guided a deeper exploration into the innards of the city that no map could have accomplished. It has ripened my experience with new attempts to learn a language I had no interest in before. Most importantly, it has produced the opportunity to get to know the people I’m spending every day with, as we tilt our heads back and laugh while forming new memories together.
I’ve discovered this humbling fact: I am not as knowledgeable as I thought I was. Living in another country has led me to realize my lack of understanding and appreciating other cultures in general. I cannot speak another language, even though most foreign countries are bilingual. I was unaware of the Syrian Refugee Crisis here. I didn’t realize the building tension behind Greece’s current debt situation; I was too busy paying attention to Hillary vs. Trump in the upcoming election. We pay with credit cards in America. They pay with exact change here. America tends to desire speed and precision. Greece sits back reclining, sipping a cup of coffee for two to three hours. Too often, we are so used to our own way of living that we neglect to notice the unique differences in other cultures.
It is truly a freeing experience to break away from cultural barriers by looking at the world through multiple perspectives. My eyes have been opened to a new way of life, a different way. I’m not saying Greece is perfect. But I am beginning to realize that no country is. And as I embrace this new culture, I am humbled to say that I do not know everything, but I am excited to learn. There are more adventures to discover, fresh memories to make, and more bugatska to eat, but among all of it I am appreciative of the challenge to love people who are vastly different from myself. It is an experience of a lifetime, and I am enjoying the ride.
The world awaits…discover it.
What a wonderful experience. ! Thanks for sharing your insights! Lots to think about! I wish America lifestyle could slow down some like !