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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: Homesickness

Maybe it’s Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s the fact that most Americans in Europe are semester kids, getting ready to go home in a few weeks. Maybe it’s the soon-to-be legendary pepper spray travesty, videos of which literally brought me to tears.

But for the first time since I’ve been in Belgium, I kind of sort of wish I was back in the States.

Advisors have warned me and the other Americans about the emotional stages we will inevitably go through as study abroad students. It starts with pure excitement — everything is new and beautiful and wonderful. The honeymoon phase continues for a while, but then we go through a period of frustration. We realize our new country isn’t perfect and that these language barriers are, indeed, challenging. We miss our friends. We miss our families. We miss the ease and comfort of knowing ourselves.

Then we move on. We begin to feel more local, settled down. Life is pretty good. We can handle this.

Then we realize we are almost at the end. We get nostalgic for both our old homes and our new one, but ultimately, knowing we have to leave makes us ready to leave.

My American friends are ready to leave.

They have three weeks left, and they can’t stop talking about their families, holiday plans and what their first meal back in the States will be.

I saw my roommate go through all of these distinct phases. She was utterly enchanted the first two weeks. Then she was disappointed — the magic was already slipping. Then she was angry — no one understands her, she can’t figure out something as simple as mailing a package, and it rains so damn much. Then she settled in. Brussels became home, but only for a few weeks. Now she longs for New Jersey. She’s ready to return to her boyfriend’s arms, to her sorority sisters and to her mom’s cooking.

For the most part, I haven’t felt any of this. I’ve been happy. My honeymoon period moved into one of ease and comfort. I’ve missed people at home, sure, but I haven’t missed home.

But I’ve been missing things. Significant things. Significant things that I regret missing, that I feel guilty for missing.

Two months ago, I missed a death, which shook my best friends from my high school for days and has changed a loved one forever. I couldn’t be there for her. I couldn’t be at the funeral. I couldn’t, and I still can’t, be there for her while she attempts to manage. E-mails do so little in such important situations.

That was the first time I felt the guilt and homesickness. Last week’s pepper spraying was the second.

Like most, I was utterly shocked and appalled. I re-watched the video several times, completely affixed to the fuzzy purple hat of one of my best friends, kneeling before the system and paying for it.

The video is brutal. Period. Knowing the faces being attacked makes it much more painful. The pain is heightened by the fact that I’m across the globe, unable to do anything except send out e-mails.

If I were in Davis, I know I’d be a stressed, emotional wreck. I would be caught up in the tidal wave on the Quad, with my friends and colleagues here at The Aggie, obsessing over quotes, phone interviews and objective adjectives. Thinking about this, about how my normal life would be right now, makes me feel bizarrely guilty. That’s how my life should be.

While I was parading through Amsterdam’s Red Light district, my friends at home were suffering and I should have been suffering as well.

There’s a lot of opportunity cost with studying abroad. My sister deliberately chose not to go abroad because she felt she couldn’t handle missing things. It’s understandable. A lot can happen in a year. A lot has already happened in my few short months away thus far. It’s part of the inevitable sadness that comes with life as an expatriate, but it’s also part of the necessary growing process.

You aren’t always going to be around for the things you want. You can’t always be around for the people you want. Your relationships, your current life and your mental health will have to continue on anyway.

JANELLE BITKER has seen UC Davis headlines plastered across laptop screens of her classmates — American, Belgian and German alike. The world is really watching, and firsthand accounts would be enjoyed at jlbitker@ucdavis.edu.


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