It finally hit me. I was leaving.
I think it finally sunk in when the girl from Estonia, who was in Finland, as a veterinarian handed me the 50 euros to buy my bike from me. I knew I was leaving in 2 days, but it didn’t feel real until that moment. My bike was my complete source of transportation since I arrived in Finland. For the first 3 weeks before I bought Ton Ton the Sassy (yes, that was his name) I walked everywhere. It took me about an hour to walk to class and an hour to walk back and even longer to get to other places. I didn’t really mind at first, in fact, I enjoyed it. I could take my time and enjoy the beautiful scenery around me. And after the first 20 minutes I was hardly even cold in the 16 degree weather. But that was before I had a bike.
I bought him at the second hand bike shop across from the campus library from a man who kept guessing my nationality as he took me back to see all the bikes he had in storage. He thought for sure I was German. From the moment I tested him out, I knew that Ton Ton was going to be my bike.
It seems silly when I say it. But if people here in the states can call their cars their babies, I can call my bike mine. Why wouldn’t you cherish something so dearly that brought you back home in 20-30 minutes instead of an hour? Yes, you still had to push it up the hill, but that was your own leg strength’s fault, not the bike’s.I remember the first time I rode a bike on the ice and snow. It really freaked me out. First of all, I hadn’t ridden a bike for several years. And I had never ridden a bike in these conditions. I was riding a friend’s bike and so scared that I was going to fall off and die (really, the snow would break my fall..). I screamed at the top of my lungs the first hill I went down and I think my new friend thought I must be crazy.
I guess leaving Finland meant leaving a lot more than Finland. It meant leaving my friends. It meant leaving my bike. It meant leaving the new experience that I had longed for for the past year. It meant going back home to my ordinary life. It seemed so wrong. No matter how bad I had wanted to go home just a month before, I wanted to stay that badly at the end.
The goodbyes that were said were the most awkward goodbyes I’ve ever been given. They were goodbyes of question. Would I ever see these people again? We said we would see each other again, at least, some people had that attitude. But even that attitude seemed forced. It kind of made me upset at the time. The people from Europe would see the other people in Europe. They have no excuse really. Their plane tickets aren’t thousands of dollars.
We had all been thrown into this situation together. All exchange students, in a foreign country, didn’t speak Finnish, didn’t know each other at first, and somehow we all became friends. Despite all of our differences in language, culture, and personality, we all had this one thing in common. Everyone was so willing to talk and become friends and open up to each other. It was kind of like this unspoken bond that we all had. We were in this situation together. It was unifying. It was comforting.So when we hugged and said those last words to each other, it was one of the most surreal things that has ever happened to me. Even though we only knew each other for 4 1/2 months, we had become kind of like a family. And it’s hard to say goodbye to your family.
People always say it’s cliche, but those 4 1/2 months in Finland changed my life. It was the best decision I ever made. Although I haven’t sorted out every reason that it was, or every way I have changed, or the exact moment in time that I became a different person, I can see the experience as a whole and see that it was the best time of my life. It opened my eyes to new experiences, it made me more adventurous, it taught me to live in the moment, it pushed me out of my comfort zone, it made me learn how to communicate more effectively, and it gave me insight into new languages and cultures. It made me into a teacher, something I thought I’d never be. It made me into a better leader. It made me into a better friend. It made me into a better listener
Being in Finland made me more aware of who I was and why I was that way. It made me reevaluate the way I live and think and view the world. It made me more open to conversations with people I wouldn’t normally have conversations with. Honestly, I could go on and on about how this experienced has changed my life, but the there is one thing inside me that is yearning to get out. I want others to have an experience like I had.
When I was thinking about studying abroad for a semester, students at my university were shocked. “A WHOLE semester??” It’s funny to me now because most students I met in Europe found it normal to go on an exchange for a semester. They didn’t have short term programs for a months or a week like we do here. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe it’s because of the expensiveness and distance between the U.S. and most countries. Even I thought I was crazy at the time.
There were so many times before I actually left for Finland that I thought the trip was impossible. There were so many times when I almost gave up. There were so many times when I thought I wouldn’t have the money, when I thought I wouldn’t make it to New York to get the visa, when I thought my visa wouldn’t be approved, when I thought flights were too expensive, and when I thought I couldn’t bear being away from Caleb for that long. There were so many moments of despair that I can hardly count them all. But I made it to Finland. I got there with the support of so many people. But really, Caleb was the one who encouraged me and the main person who got me on that plane. He pushed me even when I said I wasn’t going anymore. I told him I changed my mind, but he told me I was going.
I want to be that person for someone else. I want to push someone to make the decision that is scary and awesome and life changing. You’ll never have another great opportunity like this. College is one of the best times to travel. Don’t let the small things weigh you down and don’t let the big things do it either. It’ll be hard. You’ll have moments where it seems impossible. But one of the things I am most passionate about since I returned from my trip is that it’s possible. If it was possible for me, then it’s possible for others. It’s possible for you. But if you don’t take that first step, you’ll be letting go of an opportunity that would have changed your life forever.
You don’t have to go to Finland. You don’t have to go to Europe. In fact, I encourage you to go some place that you know almost nothing about. Go someplace that you would have never thought of going. Be surprised. Be culturally shocked. I hope you take that step. I would love to be that first step for someone. I would love to talk to other students about my experience. I guess this makes me your open book if you want. Ask away. But be ready for an adventure.