It didn’t hit me until that cab ride to the airport. I could still see the girl I was just seven weeks prior, falling asleep in the back of the car, exhausted from her overnight flight. Feeling overwhelmed by the city streets and places I didn’t recognize. When I arrived at my accommodation those weeks ago, I remembered the cab driver asking me if I knew where I was. I wanted to say, no. Not any idea at all.
Familiar sites painted that drive back to Heathrow. Streets names, pavements I’d walked on nearly every day. It was the small things I remembered. The Boots pharmacy on High Street. The Pret near Westminster. The small souvenir and luggage storage shop near Victoria Coach Station.
I finally began to understand the city I was living in just as I was about to leave it. Google Maps soon became unnecessary to navigate the underground, and I began accumulating favorite go-to spots. The thrill of visiting the city’s tourist destinations began to wear off, but my growing love for London never did.
But if I’m honest, when I took that first step into the airport, both stuffed suitcases in hand and an overloaded backpack strapped behind me, I took my first long, deep breath. And I said, very truthfully out loud— I’m going home.
I’m not sure what prompted me to say it. I did miss my family, friends, and life back home.
London, however, always succeeded in pulling me right back in.
I waited in a long line at a Caffè Nero. I thought about how it was the last time I could refer to it as a ‘queue.’ Read the word toilets above every restroom sign. Complained about Britain’s lack of paper towels. Hand dryers get old very quickly.
A part of me could see my mother at the airport, ready to welcome me home. But a part of me longed to get right back on the Elizabeth line, too. I could remember the windy roads between my apartment and my college campus. But I also remembered how little rocks replaced sand at the beach in Brighton. How the streets of Edinburgh Old Town feel like a portal back in time. How Paris is most beautiful in the daylight. How London only feels as foreign as you want it to be. How that city can begin to feel like home. If you let it.
As college students, everyone tells us to study abroad. University tour guides. Counselors. Professors, friends, colleagues. It’ll change you, they say. You’ll come home seeing the world through a new set of eyes. You’ll become more independent. How else could you truly immerse yourself in a new culture?
I could see the faces of everyone who told me to come to London this summer— and everyone who told me not to— reflected at me in the bathroom mirror just as my plane began boarding. The thing is, all those reasons are genuine. Studying abroad will change you. You will come home and see the world from a new lens. You will become more independent, and I’m not sure how else you’d be able to immerse yourself in another culture better than this way.
But I learned this summer that the real gem of studying abroad isn’t really about any of those things. It’s this: You learn to appreciate life.
This may be my takeaway. Perhaps no one agrees. But I knew my time in London was limited, and I did not waste a moment.
And while I sat on that 8-hour plane ride back to Carolina, I thought that life wasn’t any different than my time in London. Limited.
Maybe I’ll come back to London someday. Even move there. Or maybe I’ll never see the city I fell in love with again. The truth is, I don’t know.
I know this: I only have one year left as an undergraduate student. Studying abroad taught me how to be intentional. How to say yes but also when to say no.
My mom awaited me in the exact spot I had pictured her. She hugged me tight, reminding me this was the most extended period we had gone without seeing each other. We drove to lunch a few exits down from the airport.
It wasn’t the Elizabeth line. Or Bond Street. Or the river Thames. But for now, at that moment, it was the place I belonged.
From my country roads to your future city streets: please, go abroad.
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Hi! I'm a third-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying journalism and creative writing. I consider myself a storyteller. My favorite book is "Jane Eyre," and my favorite song is "Getaway Car" by Taylor Swift!