About six years ago now, I left my college, and then left my hometown to study abroad at a small school in Switzerland. And I mean small. I thought that I had read or been told that it was a school of about 500 people. “That’s pretty dang small,” I had thought. The two people I knew of who had studied or worked there both raved about how amazing of a place it was.
That, plus it’s physical address and the fact that it was small was all I knew of the school when I decided that I would study there the next semester.
It wasn’t until two days before I left for the semester abroad that people were asking me more about the school and I realized I really didn’t know anything. So I ended up googling it, and looking at it on google maps and seeing that it was right across the street from the Rhine River — awesome — and across some fields from the dense German forest — that would be fun — and then I saw, it’s in a tiny village, literally one street runs through the town. One street. Small freak out moment.
Then I was reading some more on the school website. And somewhere it mentioned it’s school body of “approximately 50 students.”
If you’re not great at math, let me do it for you — 50 is a lot less than 500. A LOT less. I had already suspended my enrollment in my regular university. I had already paid for the semester abroad and had already bought plane tickets. And seemingly didn’t have any other option but to go. But when I learned that there were only 50 people really did make me panic.
“What if there are no cool people in the 50? What if I won’t make any friends? What if I’m miserable?” I had asked a friend of mine rhetorically, panicking. I often agree to do things that I don’t know a lot about. I suppose it’s the adventurer in me and my keen sense that I will be able to adapt no matter what.
But when I learned how few students there were, and realized how extremely little I knew about the whole living-4-months-in-a-foreign-country thing, I did experience some anxiety.
When I arrived, I found there were actually only 25 students, and they were varied, and interesting, and difficult, and wonderful people to study and live and be with. Two buildings held our entire lives. We lived in that one-street village, Buesingen, and we were each other’s peers, and study partners, and roommates, and dinner guests, and movie-watchers, and walk-takers, and river-swimmers. We were all from elsewhere, but all we had there was one another.
It only took 3 days for me to feel like I was at home. Something I had never felt anywhere besides in my hometown where I had been born and raised. It took 3 days for me to decide that one semester wouldn’t be enough. And quickly I found a way to work for the school to support my dream for one semester to become a year.
But still, one year is not a lot. That was one of the unique features of the school in Buesingen — every semester held some new faces and lost some old ones. Even in a school body of 25 students, there was turnover.
I asked one of the students there at the very beginning how she handled that turnover. “You are so sweet and welcoming. How do you do this? Becoming friends with new people every semester?”
“Well,” she said matter of factly, “you have to make a decision every semester. Don’t let new people in, or choose to have your heart ripped out every semester. I choose the latter.”
I am so glad that I asked her that. Because while she, and the others who embraced me so well there taught me so much about how to connect, they also taught me so much about goodbyes. And see you laters. And see you soons. They taught me that it’s an art form and a discipline to open your heart even knowing that the hurt of separation will come shortly. And they taught me that it was worth it. They were practicing vulnerability before Brene Brown made it cool, and they were doing it without the label. But what’s true is that because they were welcoming and open, and because I was the same, we forged friendships that still have lasted over the span of continents and oceans and years.
I recently was able to return to Europe and see, not all, but many of my good friends from my time there. It was so good to be with them again after 5 years since our goodbyes. I know that we are still friends because we decided the hurt of goodbyes with close friends was a worthy price to pay for good friendship.
As I said goodbye to them this time, my throat hurt again. And as I moved away from Rocklin earlier this week, I said more goodbyes. And as I camped with people from home this weekend, I said more goodbyes to them as I am moving to another state within the week.
And yet somehow, the goodbyes are still worth it.
I used to think this was a curse that I kept feeling led to live a life of comings and goings. I felt jealous of those who never had to say goodbyes.
But, I have such a different perspective now. I agree with the ever-wise Winnie the Pooh.
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
I’m about to embark on another adventure that I know nothing about. I know that in the comings and goings, I will have to decide to keep closed, or to open myself and have my heart ripped out. I choose the latter. And I’m confident that it’s worth it.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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