This past spring, I was studying abroad. For four months, I called Cannes, France, home. It was the best decision I've made.
The decision wasn’t easy. I didn’t jump on the study abroad bandwagon as soon as it came around the bend. I had my disinclinations. The price tag was large. Four months was a long time to have an ocean between me and everything I knew. I would be entering a new culture, complete with new norms and customs.
All of those worrisome thoughts were necessary, for they made my decision important. My worries weighted my choice. Like international currency conversion rates, my stockpile of worries paid huge dividends once converted into unforgettable memories.
Because I conquered my fears of being a foreigner, I saw sunlight pour through the Notre Dame purple stained glass windows. I climbed the ruins of an old castle on a plateau overlooking miles of vineyards. I sneaked onto a walking tour of Berlin to learn about the ramifications today of its tumultuous past century.
I tasted true Italian pizza, adorned with so-fresh-it's-runny mozzarella, spicy salami and freshly picked basil. I took the Tube in London to explore the English version of Chinatown. I walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. I rode an overnight train, a commuter train, a bus, and a taxi to get to Normandy to pay my respects to the fallen D-Day soldiers.
I learned how Europeans deal with time, how they treat their food and how they express themselves. I made friendships that I am confident will stand the test of time. I acquired a new perspective on life, a new set of eyes with which to see the world. I was changed.
Learning about other places through books is a good first step, but nothing can replace the firsthand, visceral, body-shaking sense of transformation by way of being in another culture. Reading in a book that the French appreciate their food and the time surrounding it is nowhere near as informative as enjoying a three-course meal of handmade pesto pasta, duck and whole cream ice cream over two hours of wine and good conversation.
It wasn't noticeable while in the moment, but looking back on the experience abroad, I can clearly tell I am not the same person that left O’Hare’s International Terminal last February.
Through travel, you learn that just because people do things differently doesn’t mean they do things incorrectly. When you travel, you can see other viable ways of living and interacting. You will learn about yourself while seeing the world.
You will not come back the same; you will come back enriched.
Clayton Thomas, of Chesterton, is a senior at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.