I remember it like it was yesterday: 12:30 am, standing under the dull, yellow glow of the light from Hotel de Ville, my face buried into the collar of my friend’s jacket as he hugged me goodbye. Fifty or more study abroad cohorts milled around us, taking photos, sipping wine, and laughing about that one time when so-and-so did such-and-such. We were leaving for the airport in a mere four hours, but no one gave a second thought to sleep.
Two years later, I stood underneath a different glow, saying goodbye to different people, but feeling exactly the same way. Sunshine flooded the city square of Hyeres as I stood on the curb, swaying under the weight of my enormous backpack. I avoided eye contact with my friends to keep from crying and cracked halfhearted jokes to distract everyone from the fact that life as we knew it was coming to an abrupt end.
I didn’t even believe myself when the word “goodbye” came out of my mouth. How could I be leaving when just eight months before I was taking that first bus ride into my new town and wondering where in the world I was? Like it was yesterday, I was searching for an apartment, opening a bank account, and scraping by with my digressed French vocabulary. I mean, really, I had just unofficially certified myself as a semi-functional adult with a job, a lease, and actual speaking abilities—and now I had to leave?!
It did not compute that I was going back to the land where everything was easy. Where I didn’t have to think before speaking (well, kind of) or wonder if I had just used the right greeting (bonjour…err I mean bon journee..bonsoir? I don’t know man!), or worry about getting anything necessary to sustain human life on Saturday since everyone and everything ceases to exist on Sunday in France. Where I didn’t have to walk a quarter mile to do laundry or have to take public transportation. The land where I was 100% comfortable.
At this point, I was not only accustomed to cultural challenges, I had grown to enjoy them. Speaking French was now like walking on a tightrope only now I rarely fell off. I welcomed small talk in the grocery store when at the beginning I thought I’d be paralyzed by slow processing skills. They knew my signature order—and my name!—at my favorite café. And I finally knew how to effectively tell my students to shut up in French (huge breakthrough)!
Without even realizing it, I had built a life here—the whole shebang! By all means of the word, I was a local. I knew my town inside and out. I had my own apartment and was friends with my landlord. I had a regular running route and knew exactly which stuffy public bus line to take to get to the best beaches. I was actually territorial about the castle on the hill that I had discovered on one of my first days to the point where I would roll my eyes about the “tourists.” I knew exactly where to get the best cheese, wine, olives, dried tomatoes, cheese…ok this list could go on awhile. And, of course, I had a social group made up of some of the best people I’ve ever known from French, Spanish, British, Colombian, Italian, Germany—a lot of flags and a lot of personality.
Anyone who’s studied abroad knows how hard it is to say goodbye to these people and places. Anyone who’s taught abroad knows that after even more time, it’s harder. Study abroad invited you into the world of goose-bump traveling, humbling cultural exchange, and unparalleled peer bonding. Teach abroad landed you a permanent seat at the table.
By the time that eight or nine month mark rolls around, you’ve not only re-entered this world, but have become entrenched in it. Your language skills are sharp, your cultural competence is at an all-time high, and you are more confident in yourself than ever. Anything that you once thought to be impossible, you’ve conquered. You are that world citizen that you set out to be.
Realizing all this and the person you’ve become, there is no wonder that the end of teach abroad is one of the most emotional times of your life. My biggest piece of advice is to let these emotions wash right over you and don’t be afraid to get a little sappy. Indulge with all your favorite foods, take the long way to school on your last day, look out into the dreamy distance from the highest point in your city, and cry when you say goodbye to your friends and students. These the moments you’ll remember most, so fill them with color and saturate them with emotion.
Leaving your city will inevitably feel a bit like mourning. But there are a few things to remember when you feel like it’s just getting to be too much:
- You have endless amounts of photos, videos, and memories to look back on and smile about.
- You now have friends around the world—dozens more excuses travel!
- You left a permanent impression on your students and coworkers.
- You’re walking away with new confidence, competence, and charisma.
- And most importantly: you’ll be back.
Congratulations to all our teachers past and present for your hard work in the classroom and for getting through those tough good byes. You all deserve a huge round of applause—and some peanut butter because I know how much you missed it.
Bye for now!