Lessons from Abroad: Why You Need to Get Away

“I just love Times Square,” my 12-year-old host sister said, sitting wide-eyed at the dinner table. I hid my grimace by taking another bite of mustard sauce-soaked sardine. “I want to kiss every…ecran [screen]! It’s all so big and les magasins [the stores]…I love the M&M store!” Later in the meal, she continued singing the praises of New York: “You’re smiling all the time! Everyone in New York smiles all the time! They ask you, ‘You know where you’re going? Let me give you directions!’ They’re all happy!” She opened her arms wide, mimicking the embrace of the New Yorkers she’d met.

I told my bubbly host sister that in America, we see New York as the sternest of cities. When I spoke with economics professor Marilyn Power on my overnight visit to Sarah Lawrence, I told her I was afraid of the “East Coast mentality,” specifically New York’s purported coldness. In my Oregon hometown, I was used to smiling at people on the street.

The farther I get from home, the more relative these cultural perceptions seem. Sure, New York’s grey and scary in comparison to adorable, leafy Ashland; but try asking an old Parisian bartender for a Negroni (“Harrumph,” he’ll say), and you’ll learn the real meaning of fear. Consequently, when a Parisian preteen arrives in Manhattan, she sees freedom and kindness. The all-American “Have a nice day!” is only the beginning of her delicious welcome.

Of course life is different on vacation, and tourists get a glossy view of a city. But when they see it with fresh eyes, they notice the good things that natives take for granted (or, in the case of Times Square, begrudge). Similarly, now that I’m across oceans, I miss the man who reads the Bible out loud in Union Square on Sundays. I miss my ears popping on the L train. Distance burnishes both new cities and old homes.

That, I think, is why we travel. I left New York not knowing why exactly I was displacing myself. I had no work strategy, and no particularly magnetic classes to sign up for. If I stayed in New York, I imagined, I could become my socialite fantasy (champagne, men, job offers). In comparison, Paris was a questionable abyss. But my decision to go abroad wasn’t — and isn’t — about a specific city, really. Moving was about change, intentional discomfort, and discovery.

This year, Sarah Lawrence juniors are studying in Oxford, Berlin, Prague, and Auckland, to name a few. We found concrete reasons to apply to each program, lauding the academics, cultural focus, or language-learning benefits. But the overarching (and perhaps unsaid) reason was to get away. At 18, we left home for Sarah Lawrence and we realized how fucked up high school really was, how comforting and warm family Thanksgiving used to be. Now leaving Bronxville and America, we begin the process again.

With each new place, we amass the collection that becomes us; we construct the walls that will be our future home. At Sarah Lawrence, I learned to stop shotgunning beers and how to read Balzac. When I left for Paris, I packed my jeans from White Plains’ Nordstrom Rack and my ability to cross a street without permission from the flashing “Walk” sign. When I go home to Oregon for Christmas, I’ll be wearing ankle boots from a store in le Marais. I’ll bring the toned-down spirit of a weary Parisian coupled with the fast walk of a New Yorker.

Because I left, I get to be homesick, a weird sort of privilege. I think of my old city with the delight of a gluttonous tourist and can start to imagine why my host sister fell in love with the M&M store. I miss the Blue Room. I realize what I care about, what I will be sure to include in my future life.

I’ll admit to many crying jags in my French bunk bed, but I’m grateful they weren’t tears of boredom in my Sarah Lawrence twin. I can’t wait to spend senior year on our tiny campus, but I needed this year of renewed perspective. In Paris, I feel lucky to both revel in the new and re-value the old.

Ella Riley-Adams (Founder, Editor-in-chief) comes from a small town in Southern Oregon. She enjoys champagne, soccer and swimming in ponds. When not immersed in Sarah Lawrence affairs, Ella works for NYC marketing and tech blog The New York Egotist and The Faster Times. Follow her on twitter @ellarileyadams.

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