I realised that I couldn’t get in just as the taxi pulled away and left me stranded. My initial thoughts of ‘Wow! This is my new home!” quickly turned into a panicky stream of “How the hell am I supposed to get into my new home?”
I was so travel weary by this stage that I just wanted to get out of the drizzle, change my sweaty clothes and dump these two suitcases that contained my life for the next year. But I couldn’t figure out how to get in. I had knocked on the grand front door, walked around the old building, peeped over the fence and couldn’t see anyone. I was locked out of my new student accommodation.
This wasn’t the plan.
That feeling of wonder waned as I slumped over my bags and just sat on the front step, pondering what to do next. I had no phone, no one to call really, and didn’t know anyone in this new city. The autumn sun was setting. And I just sat.
Twenty odd minutes can feel like an eternity when you are waiting for something to happen.
Finally a guy came out to get rid of his rubbish and I just launched into this innocent 19 year old banter about how I was an exchange student from Australia and this was my new home and could he help? He carried my bags up the rabbit warren of Langdale Hall and there I was, Room 15. My room with a sink, single mattress and single cupboard. It was 5pm on a Sunday by this stage and I was hungry. I didn’t have a kitchen key so I couldn’t even make a cup of tea and I hadn’t packed a towel so I couldn’t have a shower. I had no idea where the local shops were, but everything was closed by now anyway. I had nothing but clothes and photos. My new neighbor knocked on my door to introduce himself and after seeing my pitiful setup came back with a sleeping bag, a Discman and speakers. Yes, this was the age when CD’s reigned.
The next day I cried so much that it looked like my eyelids were sunburnt.
Except this was England and I think it’s technically impossible to get burnt here. I got lost trying to find a place to buy a phone card to call my mum. It was 2004. There weren’t Internet cafes, iPhones or Skype. The phone card wouldn’t work. So I cried in this little Pakistani shop, though pretended it was the incense hurting my eyes. I went back to my Hall, tried the phone card again on a different phone, punching in every single digit and it still didn’t work. Back in my room, curled up on the sleeping bag that doubled as a makeshift pillow, I sobbed until there was another knock at my door. The caretaker listened to my stories of having nothing and getting lost and came back with a spare quilt, pillow and a hand-drawn map of where the supermarket was. My phone card worked this time. But no one was at home. I cried.
I turned up at my first day of university red-eyed and jet-lagged, not knowing where to go or what to do. Even though I was in the second half of my second year course in Australia, I was put in a lot of first year classes, with eager SLP’s to be and when the lecturers outlined what we would be learning my heart sank a little as I already knew this stuff.
It seemed that everyone had already bonded during the Orientation week that I missed and had formed their cliques that I was not part of.
One mature-aged student asked my name and then later when she introduced me to people she called me ‘Rachel’ instead of ‘Rebecca’ and I let it slide because someone was actually talking to me. As the SLP’s to be marched from class to class that day, cementing their friendships, I was taking a mixture of classes to make up for units that I needed for my degree back home, so never had a familiar face to smile at or sit with. Maybe I had watched one too many American movie and assumed that life would be different, especially as an exchange student. My halls of residence seemed bare. People weren’t congregating, partying or meeting up. It seemed that I chose the one place that DIDN’T have the culture that I was looking for. Trudging home in the Manchester rain, I decided to try my phone card one more time, even though it would have been 2am Australian time. Mum answered. And I cried.
SIDE NOTE: I was still known as Rachel when I left a year later. While I didn’t really make any friends at university, I was a social butterfly in my halls of residence and knew nearly everyone. I also make a point of correcting people who still think my name is Rachel.
The thrill of moving overseas to study is part of the major disappointments that I felt at the beginning. I got so focused on ‘moving to another country’ and the adventures that I was going to have, that I forgot about all the little things, like needing a pillow and knowing where to go to buy food. So, if you are just about to make a move, or thinking about studying overseas, just know that the first 24 hours… no, the first month even, can be full of extreme highs and lows.
If you have done an exchange year, I’d love to know what your first month was like. Were you idealistic like me? Did you have to massively adjust your expectations? Comment below and follow my blog for more interesting reads such as “Confessions of an SLP Who Didn’t Like Working in Schools” and “A Place Where Phonological Processes Don’t Exist”.