During the orientation for my study abroad, we were shown a graph that depicted the emotional roller coaster that was awaiting us over the next five months in Edinburgh. It showed the initial dip that would take place after we moved into our flats a few days later, with gradual increases as we learned to make our way around our new city. It even made allowances for the inevitable homesickness from living alone abroad for the first time. Despite this, I was not prepared for the true depth of loneliness that I ended up experiencing while in Scotland.
The narrative surrounding study abroad—about traveling abroad in general—is that every day is meant to be a grand adventure. When your study-abroad experience is not full of the grand traipses across Europe and ceaseless adventures that dominate study-abroad stories, it is easy to feel as though you are failing. There were also the expected and unexpected levels of loneliness and sadness (4 p.m. sunsets take their toll) that held me in their grip for many of my first weeks abroad. I knew that in order to make it through my semester there, I needed to learn what it meant to just be with myself. While I was used to being alone, often even preferring it, I was living in Scotland after a semester of developing a loving and supportive community at my home university. The loneliness I felt in Scotland was heightened by my desire to be back with my loved ones. While I had always wanted to travel and live abroad, the beginning of my semester in Scotland felt like poorly timed isolation.
I learned that I really had to embody something that professors had expressed to me shortly before my departure: “I am my own best company.” Edinburgh became the stage on which the journey of being with myself was set. I had to come to terms with unrealistic expectations of myself, in addition to feeling homesick and lonely. When I first imagined my time in Scotland, I believed that I would have life-changing experiences at every turn. I expected to be the type of person who would fly off to another county at the drop of a hat—a personality trait that I had never exhibited before. I imagined myself different, as opposed to my same self in a new place. It was that expectation and my longing for what I had left behind that made loneliness in Edinburgh different than any I had experienced before.
I needed to find a place of rest outside of home, places to go when I knew I had been cooped up by myself for too long. On days when I knew I needed to be out but could not make myself travel very far into the city, I took advantage of Edinburgh’s abundance of green space and cafés. The Meadows, a large public park located behind my flat, became my outside place of comfort. I found a café on the edge of campus, one with good, cheap tea and massive cranberry scones, and allowed myself to be at peace there, sometimes writing, sometimes simply allowing myself to watch people as they walked into the bridal shop across the street or made their way into the university’s stone row houses for class. After finding a first edition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in a used bookstore, I read it in one sitting in that café.
I needed to allow both silence and sound. It was in sound that I found myself most affirmed while abroad. Beyoncé’s Lemonade was my constant companion whenever I went anywhere, whether I was on my way to the grocery store down the street or headed to Mary’s Milk Bar in the Grassmarket to get gelato. When it was not Lemonade, there were podcasts by Black women and other women of color, the soothing affirmation I needed when the continuous—and misguided—refrains of “Race doesn’t matter in Europe!” and celebrations of Britain’s violent colonial history simply became too much. It was easy for me to be afraid of silence—afraid of how sad I would truly feel if I allowed it to come to the surface. When I did allow myself silence in Edinburgh, however, I was best able to reflect on the growth I was undergoing. Silence was with me in my flat on nights when I could not fall asleep until 3 a.m. because I had had a difficult day. It sat next to me in the sunlight on the grass behind the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art after I turned in my last final paper of the semester. Silence filled the black taxi that I took to the airport in the final week of May, surrounded by my suitcases and saying goodbye to an experience that turned out to be more complex than I imagined.
My time in Scotland ended up being the most alone I’ve ever felt in ways that were both achingly painful and deeply, truly, spiritually productive. Edinburgh laid bare layers to my anxiety that I had never been exposed to. In the same breath, it made me the bravest version of myself I had ever been. Being with myself meant—and continues to mean—being in tune with what was possible for myself on any given day and offering, when needed, either the push forward or the permission for rest. I realized that the narrative around being abroad is the reality that sometimes your greatest adventure of the day is walking to the park behind your flat and sitting on the same bench you always sit on. What I had realized from my time in Scotland was that those days were not failures but rather different types of successes of living abroad.