How to Keep My Sane during This Exchange and Have Fun
January 9, 2013 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm on exchange in France and although I HAVE had a few fun nights, I'm generally having quite a hard time. It's my first week, so I'm aware that things will change. But what can I do to ease my way? I'm anxious, stressed, a little depressed, uncomfortable, feeling pretty low and insecure, etc. Please help me!


I'm a 20 year old girl going on my DREAM 5 month exchange to a business school in Lille, France. It's been my dream for a very long time and it was supposed to be this massively wonderful experience, encouraging growth and all kinds of learning, making new friends, and just generally a kick ass experience.

Everyone I've talked to who did an exchange in this school has loved it. They say it was the best and most beautiful experience of their lives, and they all cried their eyes out when they had to leave.

It's been a little more than a week here. Though I've had one AMAZING weekend, I've also had a few lows and just am having lots of anxiety and stress. It's not exactly culture shock--I LOVE the people here in France, I'm improving my french tremendously already and enjoy exploring the city. But the students in my school/my own issues are having a big impact on me.

I hope to articulate myself well, and I pray you have some suggestions for me.

I'm currently doing my orientation week, where I'm meeting my new exchange student peers. I came a week earlier before orientation started, so I am familiar with the city and took a trip to visit friends in Paris. I know orientation with exchange students will be different than everyday school life, but I am still nervous.

-I've never been on my own before. I've always lived with my parents and grandparents who are relatively overprotective and conservative people. Living here on my own has been really very different for me--the freedom and the choice to quite literally be able to do whatever I want, and be practically answerable to no one, facing my own consequences has been sort of interesting. I think it's adding to my anxiety, because usually I'd come home after a stressful day and be able to tell my parents all about it. My parents know me and love me, so they'd give me advice and support me, and I'd be able to deal better with these things going on. But I don't have this. I'm on my own, for the most part. Though I've met a few people that I think I'll really get along with, I'm paranoid that they won't like me, I'm stressed when it seems they don't want to talk, I over-share due to my anxiety and need for friendship, and am occasionally an embarrassing wreck. I do notice people laugh at my jokes and seem interested to hear what I have to say, but I think I go overboard. Often.

- I have a tendency to talk very fast, and quite a lot when I'm nervous. I also over-share when my anxiety is at a peak because I guess I want to quickly form some kind of bond. Honestly, it is such a fail. I seriously think I need professional help for that because it is SUCH an alienating bad habit and I don't know how to stop doing so. ESPECIALLY here in Lille or my school, it's very bad, because the students here speak such moderate amounts of English and most students don't speak french (I'm talking solely exchangees, because i'm still in orientation) so...well, they are totally lost and probably irritated with me. I feel that I am in a rush to speak to them and I don't know how to CHILL and wait for them to get to like me. It's become such a habit that I'm constantly anxious now. It's absolutely frustrating because I think I'm a lot of fun once you get to know me, and especially one-on-one. I'm extroverted by nature, but I'm just having a hard time.

- I recently did something very stupid. I came home piss wasted, crying my eyes out over something ridiculous that I can't remember. There are about a dozen or so people living in my apartment building, and they all heard it. Apparently they went out together the next day and talked about the "crazy drunk girl" that was annoying and obnoxious. I do drink, but I haven't ever drank this much before and the stress and everything made me very emotional. Since then, I took a break from drinking and tried to get back on track with the people in my building. I dealt with it more or less well, and it seems the people have forgiven me--they seem to be cool about it now, as we all walked home together yesterday night basically arm in arm, getting to know each other more. I realize that this will happen, that people will get to KNOW me, and then they'll probably like me. But I wish I could chill out and wait for that to happen. I'm so paranoid that people won't like me, and it's not really that I'm not confident in the fact that I'm a cool person, but it's these habitual surface insecurities that are REALLY sucking the life out of me and this experience as of now.

-There are people I just do not like here. How do I deal with them? I don't want to be involved in any drama, but there are people in the exchange that really irk me. Unfortunately, these people are always around! One of them, a boy, is always visiting people in my building, and the other, a girl, is always sitting next to me and trying to start up conversation even though she is generally just extremely rude, fake, and selfish. It makes me awkward and feel guilty when they try to talk to me, because I just can't stand either of them! For example, were all out for dinner as a group and we were allowed a choice of beer or white wine. We were with these cool American boys who were totally checking her out because she is pretty and she wore a tight, black, very revealing dress. I actually admired that she didn't care that people may judge her, that she wanted to dress the way she felt. But then, when the waitress took our order for drinks, the girl was like "....Wine. I want wine. Do I LOOK like I drink beer? Um, no I don't want beer. I only drink wine, vino! Um, is there someone I can talk to, like a manager or something???" .... the waitress did not speak English and I was left to translate as I'm one of the few who knows a moderate amount of French. And it was so embarrassing and the boys were howling in laughter. When someone asked if the girl and I were friends before we came on exchange, we said no, we only met here. And some guy said "Oh, I wonder why you weren't friends before?" sarcastically. I didn't say anything, but I was still kind of embarrassed at her rude and demanding behavior. And then when I said something slightly weird, she said, "do you see why we werent friends before?!?!?" all haughtily. I was like...erm, that's rude.

And anyways, that's just an example. The guy is extremely pompous and rude and I don't feel good around him.

I don't want to be feeling this way about ANYONE here. But the truth is it makes me feel uncomfortable to be around them. That's it. I don't like them.

How do you avoid people without being rude when they're going to be physically around you for the next 5 months? This is a small school and we will be doing a lot of things together as a group.

- Once I've made friends, I'm pretty good at keeping them. But it's the making them that's the hard part. I know it sounds crazy, but as of right now, I'd like basic, practical advice. Please and thank you

I'm just generally feeling so stressed and overwhelmed. I hate feeling like my hearts in my mouth for no reason. I wish I'd brought my guitar because playing guitar is so fun to release/reduce stress. I didn't bring it because I wanted to bring too many clothes. I was thinking of buying a ukelele here.

I'm so extremely sorry for the convoluted way this question is posed. I'm so anxious and have been feeling that way for the last few days. It's really very annoying because I can't logically speak my way out of it. Is this normal? Also, I AM HAVING FUN! I had a few cool nights and one amazing, very cool weekend in Paris. But I don't want it to be SUCH HIGHS and SUCH LOWS.

Thank you so much for reading!
posted by rhythm_queen to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's only been a week! You haven't even started classes yet. You have to give it more time. Use orientation events as a chance to meet as many people as possible so you have people to say "hi" to once classes begin. Ask a lot of questions and be a good listener. You'll figure out who you want to spend more time with. Friends will come, just give it time. And stick to your resolution not to drink too much.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:52 PM on January 9, 2013

Wow, it sounds like you are dealing with a lot all at once! You have this big experience that you've been building up in your head for a long time, you're on your own for the first time, and you're in what sounds like a pretty enclosed social circle. It's definitely a lot going on and it makes sense that, especially to begin with, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.

When I studied in Aix-en-Provence, I had sort of a similar experience. I'd come home from class or an annoying exchange or even after something great and want to talk to someone about it. Phone calls are obviously not going to be an everyday thing, so I started writing everything down. I had a journal, but I really wanted feedback and interaction, so I'd write weekly emails to my friends and family updating them on what I was doing, asking questions, etc. It helps a lot. I also spent a lot of time chatting online with my friends at home.

I'm sure over the course of the next week or so, the social relations will sort themselves out and you'll figure out who your friends in the program are going to be. In the meantime, just be polite to everyone. If there's someone you especially don't enjoy, be civil, but brief. If you don't encourage interaction, it will taper off when they find someone else to talk to.

One last thing I want to say is don't feel any pressure to make it the BEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE EVAR! You're there for the experience, so go along with the ride. I think if you can relax a bit (maybe walks around town? Or drawing? Talking to friends at home?) it will all balance out.

Good luck, and memail me if you want to talk more about study abroad stories! I'd be happy to chat with you. :)
posted by chatongriffes at 2:54 PM on January 9, 2013

Having been on one of these intercultural exchange deals: yeah, interpersonal DRAMAZ get weirdly intensified when you've got a bunch of young people sequestered together for a short-term intense experience in strange surroundings (see: the premise of like every reality show ever). There will be gossip and backbiting and snark. There may be fixed enmities, opposing camps, injudicious couplings, hapless scapegoats, tragic love triangles, the whole deal.

It's up to you how much you want to get involved in all that, but regardless, you'll likely feel better if you can keep some kind of an eye on the bigger picture. This is just five months of your life. Maybe you'll make some good friends, and if so, fantastic. But the more you can maintain ties to your actual, real-life relationships and identity at home (even if that just means keeping a daily journal and imagining yourself reading it to your best friends/parents after you get back), the less apt you'll be to be spun around by every trivial bit of social success or non-success you experience here. A good mantra: when I've been back home for six months, will this really matter?
posted by Bardolph at 3:07 PM on January 9, 2013

I'm a little older than you and haven't done a formal exchange like yours, but I've been abroad alone quite a bit (and actually am currently abroad on my own again). Honestly it is only your first week. Even if you like the country and the program a lot, you almost certainly still have weird adjustment pains to go through. I'm also a little anxiety prone, and even though this is my second time in the same country and I'm very comfortable here, I still spent a solid week feeling weird and dislocated. That's just normal, and there's no real way to push through it any faster.
Looking through this and your other questions, you feel a little overwhelming to me (no offense meant! I'm a little more on the introverted side and I feel a little anxious just reading your question). You really need to just calm down. People will like you, and although cutting back on the drinking is a good idea (especially during a time when you're feeling a lot of anxiety and weirdness) I seriously doubt anyone was that offended by your slight drunken freakout. Most likely a lot of the other students are feeling anxious and homesick, if they're all around your age--don't make it a habit of being the overemotional drunk at all the parties, of course, but it's not that big of a deal.
Call your parents if you need to! If you know you're overwhelming people with your oversharing, it may be best to get it out with your family, who I'm sure miss you anyway and would like to hear from you. Skype is cheap, even to a landline.
Please keep in mind that other people are freaking out too, seriously. No one's got their shit together one hundred percent, even well-traveled and worldly people. You just need to chill and be kind and polite to people. Don't be rude to the people you don't like yet, they may just be having adjustment issues as well. But even if they're unpleasant people generally it's too early to make those judgement calls.
Overall though you'll make friends, trust me. YOU WILL MAKE FRIENDS. You're pretty much guaranteed to on a program like that. So just relax and enjoy your time abroad! It'll go by a lot faster than you want it to :)
posted by Papagayo at 3:10 PM on January 9, 2013

Welcome to the world! It is big and exciting, and sometimes you will make an ass of yourself, and sometimes other people will be obnoxious. Considering that your first time away from your parents is also in a foreign country with added expectations that it's meant to be 100% AMAZING, I think you're doing great. I find it helpful to remember that:

1. We all make idiots of ourselves occasionally.
2. We all have to interact with unpleasant people.
3. Human interaction is (to a large extent) a learned skill which improves with practice.

When I make an idiot of myself, I try accept that it will feel crushingly awful for a couple of days, then start to recede into the background. And I think about how to avoid doing that thing again.

I think that (3) is an important thing to keep in mind. No, you are not (yet) a perfect and charming social butterfly. But you're learning! It's a long process. And just as you have to fall over a lot if you want to be a good skier (skater, gymnast, whatever), you just have to go out there and interact with people and see what works and what doesn't. Which, I note, you're already doing.

Remember that your remit includes "encouraging growth", and remember that you can't grow without stepping out of your comfort zone. As chatongriffe says: "You're there for the experience, so go along with the ride." -- and expect it to be bumpy in places.
posted by pont at 3:15 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Relax. Take things one day at a time. Let go of your need to control how you are seen and how other people behave. You're going to be okay.
posted by empath at 3:27 PM on January 9, 2013

It's not exactly culture shock--I LOVE the people here in France
.... I've always lived with my parents and grandparents who are relatively overprotective and conservative people. Living here on my own has been really very different for me-
... ESPECIALLY here in Lille or my school, it's very bad, because the students here speak such moderate amounts of English

This is culture shock. Even though the first one isn't country specific, it's a sudden massive change in your environment, and the second one is about dealing with people who are from other cultures and don't speak your language. So both of these problems will not exactly just go away, but they will fade. Were you given any materials on dealing with culture shock by your university?
posted by jacalata at 3:35 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

It will be okay! It's just the first week! I know it all seems overwhelming and momentous because everyone comes back with these elaborate tales of their glamorous life abroad, but really, that's because time heals all things. At the end of my first week in Italy I came down with some sort of horrendous flu and had to be fed soup and Tamiflu for two days by my host mother. I didn't speak Italian, I spoke Latin, and instead of having all those "firsts" like drinking cappuccino and trying out every gelato place in Viterbo, I was stuck inside.

It was totally fine. Our friend groups formed and shifted, the same way they do anywhere. I made terrific friends. No one else would ever remember that I was gone for those couple of days-- they just didn't end up mattering.

Also, I AM HAVING FUN! I had a few cool nights and one amazing, very cool weekend in Paris. But I don't want it to be SUCH HIGHS and SUCH LOWS.

This sounds just about right for who you are and where you are-- you're trying to tackle a lot of issues, like moving away, living in Paris, and a lack of a support system. The highs will keep coming! You're twenty years old and fun and in France! You will make friends. The jerks will find their crowd. You will find yours. Bonne chance!
posted by jetlagaddict at 3:41 PM on January 9, 2013

For what it's worth: I and quite a few of my good friends were miserable on our semesters abroad, no matter how "dream-like" they seemed at the start. That is a valid experience to have. We all still learned a lot about what we do and don't want out of life. I also knew people who had amazing experiences. Good for them. That is also valid. They also learned a lot. There is no requirement that this semester be the Time Of Your Life (TM).

Allow yourself to adjust to the culture shock. Even if you don't think about the language and history of the country you're in, moving someplace new is still culture shock. For me, even moving from Ohio to Boston was culture shock. Let yourself call it culture shock and let yourself do what you need to do to adjust, even if that means ignoring people for a week or two and finding your own comfortable routine.

It might also be worth it to get away from the other exchange students ASAP. Many treat these semesters as an excellent opportunity slack off, get drunk all the time, and have lots of sex. There is no harm in ignoring them all and making friends with French students. You are not required to hangout with the other English speakers. Most of the people I know who were miserable on their exchanges were partly miserable because they were housed with/only able to hang out with the other Americans or English speakers. If that will make you miserable, do the IRL equivalent of flagging them and moving on. You can do it!

Good luck. I hope you get a lot out of this experience, for better or for worse, and remember that it's all just temporary. The time will end up going fast and you'll be glad you did this, no matter how you feel right now. Bonne chance!
posted by olinerd at 3:42 PM on January 9, 2013

Relax. I was on a similar situation last year (very long awaited semester abroad for a place and internship-like thing that I had been thinking about for years). Realize that while it is going to be awesome, it probably won't be awesome in the exact way you think it will be and changes and surprises are going to be okay. Some of my best memories on trips come from stuff I originally didn't want to do or when things went wrong. The more pressure you put on it to be perfect the more stressful it would be.

I realize other people have said this, but calm down. You have months here and you haven't even really had a chance to meet non exchange students, so even if you really can't stand anyone in the group, there will be friends to make at the business school. If you give it time, you'll have a better feeling for who you get along with in the group. Right now, everyone is desperate to make friends so there will be a lot of stuff in big groups. Once people start to get to know each other, it will be smaller groups and you will be able to make closer bonds.

One trick for conversations is making sure everyone in the group has said something before you talk again. If there is a quiet person, ask them a question or draw them in. That gives me a quantitative feeling of how much I'm talking v. other people.

You basically just have to deal with the people you don't like. Be polite (it sounds like you have been) and if they are rude, people will notice.

Everyone does stupid stuff when drunk at least once. Drink less and learn to have an idea of what your limit is, but honestly, going out dancing and drinking together is probably going to be one of the main activities and it's an easy way for college students to bond even if they don't have anything else in common. So just laugh it off if anyone brings it up again.

Buying a ukelele (if you think you will actually play it and it's not crazy) sounds like a good idea. It could also be a fun thing to play around other people in your apartment and make friends.
posted by raeka at 3:43 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

All of these are so good.

Thank you, so much. I feel so much better already.

That point about it being culture shock is probably true. It's the culture of a mish mash of students in a brand new place trying to make friends, adjusting to a new language, feeling insecure, facing jetlag!! and, getting drunk and partying all the time.

But what Olinerd said is also true--I'M NOT here for getting laid or slacking off. I want to do well academically and speak french to French people, make friends, learn about myself and keep all my values. I know I'll make mistakes, but I still am Me the whole time I'm here. I will still make decisions based on my values and beliefs and will continue to have integrity. I know plenty of other students who have done what you mention and though I don't think that makes them bad people, it's not what I'm here for.

I'll be attending all my classes, participating as best as I can in all discussions, make French friends, study and work hard, and travel as much as I can. I budget my money, time, and probably should do so with my feelings too.

Thanks again, btw. I like to hear everyone's responses. Keep em coming?? <3
posted by rhythm_queen at 3:53 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Expat here, who's been friends with international students in various countries.

1) Write for yourself, for sure. Be brutally honest in this writing. It's for you to get things out of your head. You don't need to even think you'll look back at it later. Some entries will be "Today sucked." But, more & more, you'll have "The most interesting thing happened today!" And while you shouldn't try to wean yourself off it, eventually, fewer will be like 3-page rants about your program-mates, and more will be positive or at least critically-thinking about the experience.
2) Meet people outside your program. You speak some French. Do you play a team sport? Join a pickup/club team with locals. Do you read for fun? Join an expat book club, perhaps through a group. Strike up conversations with friendly-seeming locals. Ask about their favorite cafes. Suss out the top contenders for "best croissant" in town. Find out how long they or their family have been there. Listen more than talk. Make a list of places they say you absolutely must visit in Lille, then make a point of seeing them, either with new friends or solo.
3) Take yourself exploring in the city, frequently, on a schedule if you need it. Whether it's to go running or a daily walk around the neighborhood or a weekly hour-long stroll through parks and the city to photograph leaves or graffiti, have a way of getting outside, being by yourself for a bit, and just seeing what your surroundings have to offer you. If you check out the same path over & over, you'll keep seeing new details. If you go outside your normal on-the-way-to-class routes, you'll find hidden gems. And while you're exploring, figure out your nearest grocery store, bakery, etc. Become at least a familiar face with the people who work there. You don't need to tell your life story, and in fact you shouldn't. But you want to feel like these are your local places.
4) Don't drink too much. Have a few drinks now & then with friends, sure, and be social, but keep it in check. If you're feeling really uncomfortable socially, don't rely on alcohol to make you more comfortable.
5) Travel a bit out of the city. Not so much that people think you're never around. But enough to say you've seen more of France than Lille. See Brussels and Paris, because I'm pretty sure you will never live closer to them than you do now. You will see so much.

You'll be fine.

Memail me if you want more on any of this.
posted by knile at 3:59 PM on January 9, 2013

If you speak a fair amount of French, you may find that there's a decent couchsurfing group in the area. French people can be hard to make friendships with, but usually couchsurfers are interested, wanting to meet foreigners and often are more understanding with language learners. That will also give you something to do away from the exchange students.

Also, anything good that happens to you WRITE IT DOWN. I had a list of these things and it was the greatest thing to look back at, at the end of study abroad. (Things on my list included": that time that goat fell down (so funny), when my host mother said that I picked out and bought good mangoes, when I spoke a whole paragraph in French in class for the first time)

Living abroad is tons of highs and lows, just accept it. That being said, remember the highs a little better than the lows.
posted by raccoon409 at 4:05 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've done a few short-term exchanges and a lot of travelling abroad so I can give you some advice.

First, keep a journal! I traveled alone and sometimes, I wouldn't find anyone to hang out with so I would just write everything down. It helps. You will feel less lonely and you will have an awesome book of memories when you get home.

Second, it's your first week. The first week is always the mingling week. Meet as many people as you can. Go around and say hello to other people during group activities. Everyone else is trying to meet people too so most people will welcome your friendliness. This is also a good chance to distance yourself from the people you don't like. You don't have to hang out with them if you don't like them.

Third, start finding your exchange family! During my exchanges and when I'm away at university, I have friends that live nearby and we'll get together most nights for dinner. We talk about things that happened during our day and basically have a dinner that we would otherwise have with our family at home. If you live in residence, participate in some residence activities to meet some friends to have dinner with. If not, this might be a bit more difficult, but you could easily ask your friends out to lunch and so on.

I hope this helps. Being away from home is hard at first but it will get so much fun. The added bonus of being in a cool, foreign place will make it so much better. It will get better. The first couple of weeks is always a bit stressful and weird but once things fall in place, you will enjoy it so much more.
posted by cyml at 5:37 PM on January 9, 2013

Also, remember to re-read some of the great answers that you got in a previous question, back when you were preparing for the trip. Now is the time to put all that into practice. It should help you feel more confident.
posted by Vaike at 6:24 PM on January 9, 2013

I went on exchange when I was 17, and was so exhausted I did nothing but go to school, sleep, eat dinner and go back to sleep for a month. Give it time.

I met someone who organised University level exchanges a few years ago, and they told me that they tell all the students that it'll be an amazing experience. They don't tell them that it'll be one of the hardest things they do. It was both for me, and part of the reason it was so amazing was that it was so hard, but I survived.
posted by kjs4 at 7:35 PM on January 9, 2013

Here's one thing to remember: psychologically, when recalling the memory of an event that spans any length of time, people tend to judge it based on the end and not the beginning. So everyone who goes on and on about how much they loved their exchange is biased about how they felt at the end (fluent, comfortable, good friends, sad to leave) not the beginning (scared, lonely, language barrier). When I look back at college I don't think so much about how lonely I was the first half of my first semester before I made some good friends.

The other thing that helps me in difficult situations is to remember that it's the situation and it will get better. I just moved and it was really stressful and the first two weeks I hated my new place, living in the city, etc. However, I was prepared and I *knew* I was going to hate it which made it a lot easier to get through.
posted by radioamy at 7:37 PM on January 9, 2013

So I had a pretty similar experience studying in France. It was an awesome experience overall but I was really homesick/lonely/stressed during much of it. I think the pressure to have this totally joyful semester abroad intensified my self-doubt when my experience was more difficult than I expected. I felt like I was doing something wrong for struggling -- like everyone else knew something I didn't. But look, honestly, living abroad in another culture is hard. It takes an adjustment. I guess I wish I had known that people often struggle, that I wasn't going crazy.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:38 AM on January 10, 2013

One of them, a boy, is always visiting people in my building, and the other, a girl, is always sitting next to me and trying to start up conversation even though she is generally just extremely rude, fake, and selfish. It makes me awkward and feel guilty when they try to talk to me, because I just can't stand either of them!

Here's a big chance for some personal growth. You know how these people kind of annoy you? Think about how you'd like them to treat you. You'd like them to be friendly but polite, right? Maybe not intruding too much on your personal space, but at the same time open to hearing about your thoughts, while not being "closed off" from you? Well, that should be a guide to how you should treat others and this should serve as a guide to how to interact with people without, "over-shar[ing] when my anxiety is at a peak because I guess I want to quickly form some kind of bond." I know MeFi always suggests therapy and you say you need "professional help" for this, but I think you might be able to manage this pretty well just by looking outside yourself and thinking, "if I would prefer to be treated more politely by these rude and selfish people, other people would also probably prefer the same thing when it comes to the way I treat them!" This is a good chance to learn some social skills.
posted by deanc at 6:46 AM on January 10, 2013

It sounds to me like you've got some pretty major issues with social anxiety that are being triggered by being in a totally new situation. This link gives some great tips for dealing with social anxiety Going for walks to ease it helps me a lot, and you're in a great place to do so. I suggest that you use walking everyday as a distraction, a way to see the great country you're in, and a time to practice some of the techniques discussed here in order to help yourself. I have social anxiety myself, and it can be very painful, but it can be brought under control. Good luck, sweetie, everything is going to be ok. It's already ok, you just have to let it be.
posted by Jandoe at 9:40 AM on January 10, 2013

I recently did something very stupid. I came home piss wasted, crying my eyes out over something ridiculous that I can't remember. There are about a dozen or so people living in my apartment building, and they all heard it. Apparently they went out together the next day and talked about the "crazy drunk girl" that was annoying and obnoxious.

You're getting a lot of good advice above, so I'm just going to tell you a story. A friend of mine (I swear this is a friend and not me) once went on an exchange program in England. The first night he was there, he got way too drunk, blacked out, and then came out of the blackout standing over his new roommate's bed, urinating on him while he slept (although he quickly woke up). It was, as you can imagine, much talked about. But my friend still ended up being friends with most of the people in his program including, unbelievably, the guy that he had peed on. So don't worry about this one incident too much.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:56 AM on January 10, 2013

It may reduce the pressure and make you feel better to adopt the long view. When I was at university I broke up with my long-term boyfriend just before three months in Greece. I basically cried from Athens through two groups of islands and back while on a ship. While I was friendly with everyone, I didn't really make friends; I did all the daytime trips and activities but I rarely went out at night with the other people. I spent no small amount of time sitting on the top of the ship and writing atrocious poetry.

20 years later, what I remember is not the crying and misery, but Greece: the colours, the food, the amazing historical sites, the shops, the light. The moral of the story is that you can have a dreadful time and still have an amazing, enriching experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:15 PM on January 10, 2013

Late to the party as usual, but I did exchange summers three years in college, and you're totally normal. It IS really stressful to change environments like that and to be thrown in with a random group of people you're expected to be friends with. Social groups in the exchange will emerge within the next week and things will begin to settle down a little after that - the first week is just everyone feeling each other out and it's always crazy and exhausting. I know I made bad decisions (particularly about drinking) in the first week or so of my exchanges. I think you have the right idea about "still being me" and you should stick with that. Do what interests you, don't worry about the group too much.

Also know that this "best time ever" myth is totally pernicious. You'll be bored plenty and feel trapped or overwhelmed by where you are - this is also completely normal. Everyone else in the exchange is sitting in their room just like you wondering why they're not having the time of their life every second of every day. Yeah, you're in FRANCE! but that doesn't change the daily realities of brushing your teeth or sometimes getting bored or wanting to read a book.

All this so say that I really understand where you're coming from with the social pressure of the exchange group and of the expectations of time abroad. It's rough, but it's great character building :) and odds are you will be having fun by the end, or at the very least will feel more comfortable. Everything you're feeling is totally normal, it's not some anxiety problem.
posted by annie o at 10:43 PM on January 13, 2013

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