I am now three weeks into my semester abroad in Austria, and I can confidently say life is finally –thankfully- settling into a routine. It sounds cliché, but the time really flies. It seems like only yesterday I lugged a hundred pounds of I-can’t-live-without-it luggage halfway across the world into a country I did not know, into surroundings I could not navigate with people I barely understand, but I am now here, I am settled, and I am ready to proclaim victory over my fears and concerns.
But it was not always so easy, so idyllic. To those of you reading this post in hopes of gaining understanding of what it entails to leave behind your home, your family, your friends, your pets, your towns, and your schools, I will not sugar coat. There was heartache. There were tears. There were profanities, and certainly, there were doubts.
I began my journey with an optional group excursion offered by my program, AIFS (the American Institute for Foreign Study), to London, England. I thought this would be an excellent place to begin my Austrian adventure since my ancestry is, aside from Austrian, English. However, this turned out to be one of the most exhausting weekends of my life. Jetlag was never overcome, and the miles I walked through London’s streets in a mere 36 hours put blisters on my feet I only this week fully recovered from. I did meet many of the people I would be studying with, but many of us were in the same position: We were tired, miserable, exhausted, nervous, stressed, and oh, did I mention tired? Truthfully, the weekend now seems a blur of sightseeing and deprivation, but I will save the details of this for another post, at another time…
Back to Austria.
After an unforgiving 3am wakeup call in London, my exhausted group boarded a plane headed for Munich, which eventually led to a bus taking us to our new home, Salzburg. Regretfully, the day was overcast with drizzling rain, the all too perfect-unperfect weather to match the mood. I had requested a home-stay, and only discovered on the bus I would not be placed in an Austrian home. I was devastated; months of planning, and all my packing, revolved around me living in someone else’s house. For whatever reason, AIFS withheld our housing information until our arrival, so only at the last minute was I made aware of my immediate future of unprepared-for dormitory living. My mood was as gloomy as the afternoon, and it showed no signs of getting better after a brief taxi ride from the city center to my new dorm.
The building -which shall remain nameless- was dark, rundown, and evidently unloved. Entering the lobby through an entrance overgrown with ivy? Weeds? Vines? All of the above? The wet odor of mold, mildew, and emptiness blasted my senses. If not for my exhaustion and my need to drag a hundred pounds of I-can’t-live-without-it luggage, I might have run screaming from the building at that very moment, but I held it together out of desperation and hope. Perhaps there was a mistake? A misunderstanding? Alas, I knocked on the office door and introduced myself to a pleasant woman, and sure enough, I was home.
Thankfully, there was an elevator, which whisked me efficiently to the top floor of the dorm. At the very end of the hall I found my room. Or most of it, in bits and pieces, anyway. The door was wide open, and I discovered a sparsely furnished, dusty space, with bare what-I-call bus-station bench twin size beds. My mini fridge was wide open, the shelves missing –but not totally so, it took me only a moment to find them freshly wiped down and perched upon and into my toilet. The bathroom light did not work, which was for the best, since the darkness kept me from spying the mold thriving in my shower until the next morning. I was grateful and thrilled to see I had a balcony, and with relief threw open the door to let in the fresh air. Unfortunately, this space was also neglected, as I was met with dirty lawn chairs, sun-bleached beer cans and overflowing, soaking wet ashtrays. My only respite was my view: the incredible sight of Festung HohenSalzburg, sitting mightily on its mountain. This famous and beautiful landmark was one of the attractions to lure me to this city, and now, it was my oasis, my reminder, my relief. Defeated and depleted, I sat on my bus-station bench bed and sobbed until I could sob no more.
The next day I was consumed by efforts to make better my stay. I spoke with the AIFS office, and thankfully they saw to it my accommodations were cleaned and repaired over the course of several days. My nights were lonely and uncomfortable. Without the internet, I was cut off from the outside world. My sleep suffered, a week into my stay I was lucky to be getting three hours a night, but always there and always steady was my oasis, my fortress high upon the hill. I learned others too had problems with their housing. They have no elevators, they require two minute showers, they are far from the city center, or they have tiny closet kitchens.
None boast a balcony. None have my views. None see my sunsets.
My Romantic nature was slowly building steam, gaining strength and revitalizing me. I hosted a group dinner for my new friends in my spacious kitchen and felt, for the first time in a week, happiness and contentment. Relationships formed buoyed me through my loneliness, and kept me afloat during long nights battling ancient Ethernet connections and moldy walls. I could not run and abandon my plans to study abroad, so I made the most of it.
It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Today, my dorm is still the hot spot for group dinners and social gatherings at sunset, although still boasting the same run-down and mildewed walls. A once unknown city is becoming all too familiar thanks to my oasis, my central beacon on the mountain. I learned my university is far closer to me than the home stay I once desperately desired. I am making friends in my dormitory, who, like me, find comradery in our unloved building.
Three weeks in, and the trials and tribulations of my first days are all but a memory. On weekends, I travel with friends to museums, castles, rivers, lakes, and towns. On weekdays, we attend classes. Coursework and homework distract me from the mold –which I hear will someday be removed- and life has become a comfortable routine of normalcy. I now have no regrets, except that I let myself be so overcome with grief those first few nights. Lesson learned: when in doubt, stand strong, and like Festung HohenSalzburg high on its mountain, you will never be conquered.