This past Sunday, I ran my first half-marathon ever! Undertaking this race was about as random to me as it probably is to you and your understanding of the ‘typical study abroad experience’ because it probably doesn’t include running a 21-kilometer race I signed up for the race without giving it much thought, but knowing that I’d always wanted to run one and figuring why not start in Nice, France?!
The best part about the race (besides finishing it, of course) was being cheered on, both by strangers and, especially, friends, two of whom, Melissa and Annalise, came to support me. Even though I didn’t actually see them while I was running (we’re still confused about how we missed each other), knowing that they were somewhere in the crowd sustained me during the course and the thought of seeing them kept me motivated. Seeing their excitement after the race on my behalf truly meant so much to me, although I think the free Haribo sour gummies I brought them also contributed to their enthusiasm.
This entire international living experience has helped me to understand the importance of relying on others and, in turn, being reliable for others. As someone who prefers to do things independently, study abroad has changed me because I so often have had to ask others for help. Sometimes I ask myself whether I’m friends with my friends because we’re truly compatible, or because our human desire for companionship causes us to cling to whoever we can. My answer to this question is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are friends now. I’ve found that the most valuable way for me to make myself more comfortable with all of the unfamiliar situations I’ve encountered is to have a network of dependable friends. Without this, living in a foreign country can reflect only the negative parts of the foreign experience: loneliness, feeling like an outsider, and a lack of purpose.
What’s especially interesting is that so often the people I depend upon are complete strangers. Given that I live in a foreign environment, often times I encounter situations where I don’t know anyone and have to turn to a total stranger for assistance, or even just companionship. Like I said, being cheered on by strangers was equally motivating. And I could give countless examples from my time in Nice when I’ve been supported by strangers, like when asking someone to guard my laptop in a coffeeshop or having a waiter patiently practice French with me.
Sometimes situations such as these blur the line between ‘friend’ and ‘stranger,’ however. As in the case of this past Sunday, I made a friend while trying to ask a woman for directions to the bus that would transport runners from the city center to the race course. Turns out, we were both lost and looking for the same bus. Considering that I was about the only person who showed up in nike shorts and a plain t-shirt, rather than some brand-name, aerodynamic thermal gear (that everyone else seemed to be wearing), I think she noticed me, recognized that I was also a non-native, and took me under her wing. During the two-hour span of our wandering, eventual finding of the bus, and then pre-race preparations, I went from being unacquainted with this random woman to being surface-level friends with Fofie, from Cyprus. I learned about Fofie's family, where she comes from, what she does for a living, and on a day where I was going to do something outside of my comfort zone, it was nice to meet someone who I could relate to. Before the race, she rummaged through her Mary Poppins-esque bag, pulling out toilet paper, extra socks, gum, energy gels, and miniature Icy Hot packs, all of which she kindly offered to me.
Making friends in a time-condensed manner such as this is something I’ve become very accustomed to while studying abroad. From half marathons to hostels, from brief encounters on the bus to constantly moving roommates, one of the most rewarding parts of this experience is having the chance to meet people and hear their stories, even if it’s fleeting. A lot of these friendships aren’t necessarily long-lasting, but they impact me because they increase my perspective and, like how Fofie helped me run my first half-marathon, enhance my enjoyment of my environment.
Perhaps it’s natural for humans to develop networks in this way, or perhaps this reveals the degree of my extrovertedness, but since coming to France, I have realized that unfamiliar environments cause me to crave the company of others, rather than rely on myself. While most people learn to become more independent when they go abroad, I have learned the value of shared experience and how much I treasure meeting people.