Ever since I enrolled in college, I knew that I’d spend one semester abroad. When I visited colleges and universities as a high school student, I paid close attention during presentations about studying abroad instead of daydreaming about keggers and new friends like I did with financial aid and housing slideshows. Filling out FASFA forms just wasn’t as glamorous as spending a few months in Italy or South Africa to my 17-year-old self.
So when junior year rolled around, I knew it was time to take that trip to the International Education Office. I didn’t know where I was going to go, but I just knew that I wanted to see a different part of the world. It had always been my dream to get away and experience other cultures ever since I was a little girl growing up in a small town on a farm. I was fascinated and a little jealous when my roommate freshman year told me about her gap-year spent in Peru. But at the same time, I knew that eventually I would have my own stories to tell.
Eventually, I decided that studying at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England was the best bet for me. The University is conveniently located about 30 minutes outside of London, and since it’s an exchange program my tuition costs here are the same as at the College. And if I’m being completely honest, I also decided to study abroad in England because the people speak English. Although sometimes when I meet someone from the north part of England with their undeniably heavy accents, I wonder if we’re even speaking the same language.
Even though I always planned to study abroad, there were things I couldn’t prepare myself for. There are a million articles on sites like Elite Daily and Thought Catalog that have cheesy and cliché reasons why studying abroad will change your life. Those articles make it sound like such a magical experience. But what those articles don’t tell you is how difficult the transition to living in a foreign place can be – especially when things go wrong. And plenty of things went wrong for me.
When I landed in Heathrow Airport, I discovered that my carry-on bag that I was forced to check at the airport in Newark, N.J. wasn’t anywhere to be found. My carry-on had my laptop, my thickest sweater, my only hairbrush and all of my make-up and toiletries. The woman I talked to at Lost Baggage was more condescending than helpful. So I left Heathrow defeated and traveled to Hatfield.
Even though I lost my carry-on, I remained hopeful. Until I had to wait approximately four hours to get the key to my flat because it was being cleaned. After waiting for two hours, I requested to clean the place myself. But the reason that it took so long for my room to be clean is because people were moving out as others were moving in. In America, generally colleges have a long break for winter and the holidays. In England, at least at the University of Hertfordshire, there isn’t a winter break. Jet-lagged and frustrated, I started to detest my surroundings. I was mad at the University for making me pay my rent on the first of the month when I couldn’t even move in until the second week of January. I hated how small and boring the town of Hatfield is and wanted to go back to Charleston.
I started to fully sink into my pity party inside my flat when I saw my airport sized shower and barely twin-size bed that my boyfriend joked on Skype was smaller than the one he had in the military. I wondered why I had even left my life in Charleston at all. I wanted to go home. And then I felt even worse because I was acting like a brat. I’d been given this incredible opportunity, and I already wanted to pack up to go home. I already wanted to quit. I knew that wasn’t me, but what I didn’t know was that things were going to get even more stressful.
The next day, I spent around six hours in Heathrow Airport attempting to retrieve my lost luggage. My dad texted me on WhatsApp to let me know that my lost bag was in the airport, and that I needed to get there by 4 p.m. to retrieve it. I asked him why they couldn’t mail it to me and why I needed to be at the airport by a certain time. I didn’t really get a straight answer besides something along the lines of, ‘That’s what they told me.’
So I hitched a ride with two British students who were picking up internationals at the airport. We got there right at 4 p.m., and I ran to the lost baggage phone. I kept calling the line for United Airlines, but no one would answer. I assumed United was closed, but went inside the room behind the phone that takes you through security again to reclaim luggage. I asked the woman working behind the conveyor-belt contraption if United was still open. She told me that they were and that the airline was probably just busy. She suggested I try to keep calling. So I kept calling for about 20 minutes before Daniella, one of the British students who took me to the airport, wanted me to follow her to pick up other students. She said I could keep calling at the next terminal or come back later.
After hanging out in a terminal for a while, a woman who does something important at the University called Daniella so that she could talk to me. The woman on the phone was calm but there was an edge to her voice. “Ashley, you need to go back to the terminal and be firm. You need to get your luggage back,” she said, repeatedly. She spoke to me as if I were a small, fragile child who had broken the rules once again. “If you don’t get your luggage today, we can’t help you get back to the airport tomorrow.”
I didn’t argue with her. I got off the phone as soon as I could get her to stop repeating herself, and I took the train back to terminal 2. I tried calling again for a few minutes before I went upstairs to talk to someone directly from the airline. Of course my initial suspicions were correct, and there was no one sitting behind the desk for United Airlines. The airline was closed.
So I Facebook messaged Daniella to let her know what happened and where I was in order to be picked up. I slunk back down the stairs and got into the elevator. As the doors were closing, a couple rushed toward the doors. “We have to catch the lift,” the woman said with an obvious American accent. I hit the open door button to let them in.
“So you guys are Americans too,” I said.
“Dang it, I wanted to impress someone with our British slang,” she said, referring to how she called the elevator a lift. When we all started talking, I found out that the couple and I had the same problem. They had lost their luggage too and were about to board a flight to South Africa. United agreed to send someone at 7:30 p.m. to help them get their luggage. At that very moment, a light shined down on this wonderful couple because they were my saving grace.
While the three of us waited, this nice Jewish couple from Brooklyn told me about their views on how the media represents Israel and fed me bagels. The woman decided that she liked me so much that she would pretend to be my mom if United wouldn’t help me.
Luckily, she didn’t have to do that. The three of us reclaimed our baggage at 8 p.m. Of course, the security from United was late. Because that’s just the way things were working out for the three of us. My new Jewish Mom complained to the security woman about how her guitar had also been broken while we were claiming our bags.
But when I finally had the handle of my rolling carry-on bag in my hand, I felt like I could take on anything. I’d survived all of the stress and I hadn’t cracked. And I was reminded why I left Charleston for a semester. I didn’t travel across the Atlantic to live in some perfect fantasy. I came here to be challenged, to learn new things. I came here to learn how to handle all of the wrong turns on my own with no one to bail me out. I had to figure things out on my own, and I actually did that day. While waiting for my ride to show up, I sat down and unzipped my carry-on. I pulled out my hairbrush and ran it through my tangled knots. And it was the best moment I had since I stepped off the plane in London.