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Study Abroad

A Home Away from Home?

It's been months since my return from Vienna, and even now my year there seems surreal. I sit now, after being invited to write a letter about my experiences there, and don't exactly know where to begin. As I think back on the ten months I spent abroad, it's as though in one respect, they merely lasted a moment: they were over just as quickly as they began. But they are also memories, anecdotes, and friendships that I remember fondly now and will continue to for years to come.

Arriving in Vienna was, at first, a little overwhelming. After leaving my friends, my family, and everything that was safe and familiar to me, I was thrown into what seemed to be an alien, if not hostile environment. Living with a group of people I didn't know, hearing a strange dialect that sounded only slightly akin to the German I had studied for years, getting accustomed to the idea that I wasn't going home for a long, long time: these were the issues that not only I, but also many group participants dealt with. I had friends that had taken part on the exchange before, and they all said the same thing: Wait. The first three months are the hardest. Let yourself get adjusted. You can't stop thinking about going home now, but the time will come when you won't want to leave at all.

So I waited. I didn't know if I believed them, but I waited all the same. And as strange as it may sound, one, two, three months passed.and I began to assimilate. Things began to become familiar, faces became friendlier, the dialect began to be understandable, and I started to feel at home. My time in Vienna began to seem less like a vacation and more like a way of life, an actual experience instead of just a few weeks away from home.

And time continued to pass. By the end of the first semester, I was no longer just feeling comfortable in Vienna, I was beginning to feel integrated in the culture. It was nice to visit cafés and recognize the waiters, or to stop at the bakery after class and know that the saleswoman knew just who you were. And now, instead of just walking through the city, I explored it. It's really quite indescribable, the feeling you can have when you find something new about a place, something that, quite possibly, no one else knows about. There's this quiet, almost magical moment between you and the city, where you both share a knowledge that no one else possesses. I know there were many instances when I found myself walking alone, sometimes down a desolate street, sometimes in the middle of a busy pedestrian zone, and something special would catch my eye, something that no one else could see, or would see, because the moment was fleeting. And it was nice to think of how Vienna as a city could speak not only to me, but to so many others, and together we could share so many private moments that made such a big city seem so much smaller and personalized.

Just as so many had predicted, time passed, and towards the end of the year, it passed unbelievably quickly. And before I knew it, it was time to leave. It was hard enough to say my goodbyes to both American and European friends that I had met during the year, but in a way it seemed harder still to say farewell to Vienna, the site where I had done so much exploring, and learning, and growing up. After so much longing to return home, I suddenly didn't want to leave. It wasn't as though I had abandoned the US, my homeland. The fact was, I now had two homes, and was struggling to take leave of one that I had grown to love as dearly as the other. Even so, as sad as it was to leave, I still think today: how wonderful it is to have not just one, but two places where I feel welcome! Not many people get the opportunity to experience that sense of belonging in their lives.

You might be reading this letter in hopes of reaching a decision about participating in the AIEP, and if so, I urge you: Go. You won't be disappointed. Or you might have come back to the website as a past participant, hoping to reflect on your own experiences in Vienna, and if that's the case, I'm sure that you see a little bit of yourself in what I've written about my year abroad. No matter who you are, I hope that you can understand, if only slightly, how much this experience affected me and how grateful I am for having participated. Thank you to Professor Murray for making my transition from Chicagoan to Wienerin such a smooth and memorable one; I only hope that many, many others enjoy their time in Vienna as much as I did.

Anna Souchuk

October 2001