3 Wild Life Lessons I Learned Traveling and Living in Paris, Berlin, and London On My Own At Age 19

Personal Development

Most teenagers on the cusp of twenty would be thrilled and excited at the idea of venturing out to other countries on their own, especially with very little adult supervision, but I was initially a reluctant traveler. Traveling and studying abroad was actually made “mandatory” to me by my undergraduate college’s requirements through various “immersive learning” trips in Berlin and Paris as well a requirement to choose to study a semester in one of my college’s sites abroad – and I chose to live a summer in London. Going to college for the first time itself is overwhelming enough – but living out some of your college experience in three different countries as a young woman? It was definitely a ride. Here are three life lessons I learned from these trips at a young age.

You will be forced to grow up very fast – and you will slowly realize you can take on anything.

Live footage of my first airplane ride to London | @selfcarewarrior

Once I arrived to my college’s site for students in London, I was one of the few students whose roommate did not show up, so I got a large flat all to myself – straight out of a movie. Admittedly, the first thing I did after I arrived to my “flat” in London was call my boyfriend back in New York, because I was still so terrified being in a country I’d never been in, initially on my own, and practically living alone aside from some fellow students living in rooms on a different floor. However, this separation anxiety did eventually pass. The next night, me and some of my fellow students went out for dinner, and I was suddenly drinking white wine and eating pasta with strangers who became the people I relied on during my summer abroad experience. I went from being a relatively sheltered teenager to a full-grown adult overnight. It was a “perfect” first night in London, and many similar nights would follow – we would go out to beautiful restaurants, ride the weekend bullet train to Paris, dance at clubs that only stayed open until 1 am (because the train station in London closed so early at midnight – quite the “culture shock” for a New Yorker like me), ride triple-decker buses while drunk, watch Shakespeare plays at the Globe, hop on the London Eye to see the whole city from a bird’s-eye view, stay up late talking and laughing in the “study room” after gathering our favorite German cider from the shops, and (quite exciting to my 19-going-on-20-year-old self at the time) even got to watch one of the Harry Potter movies when it first came out and attend the premiere when it occurred in London.

Many parts of the trip were a beautiful experience, but the process of studying abroad definitely thrust me straight into adulthood, challenged me to pick up some survival skills at a younger age and develop a sense of independence I otherwise not would have until later in life. When traveling or studying abroad, remember to take charge of your mindset. There will be moments of pure magic, self-transformation, as well as self-doubt. There will be good, kind people who are happy to help you – as well as toxic people you should steer clear of – the key is not isolating yourself and reaching out to those who are trustworthy, while remaining diligent about the red flags and being careful about the groups and support systems you surround yourself with. If you’re traveling alone, you will have to rely on the kindness of strangers to guide you, so be discerning about who you pick to be part of your inner circle.

The magnificent gardens at the Louvre | @selfcarewarrior

What makes travel memorable isn’t just the beautiful places – it’s the people, the serendipitous moments of magic, the time you spend getting to know yourself on a deeper level as well as the meaningful memories you create with friends. Immerse yourself in the rich history and culture of the places you travel to, but make sure you have your own adventures outside of the “tourist experience.”

The sights of Paris and our cozy hotel | @selfcarewarrior

The London “gang” created a “buddy system” for a group trip within a trip: a weekend in Paris. We would choose someone from our group we would room with in Paris who actually knew French (quite a resourceful plan when you consider it was created by a bunch of early twenty-somethings, thinking back on it) and “stick” with our buddy while traveling to France. I still remember the time me and the classmate I chose as my Paris “companion” were roaming the streets of Paris, getting hit on by handsome French men on our way to the Louvre (just another classic moment that seems straight out of a Sex and the City episode, Paris edition), and then serendipitously running into our fellow London classmates by accident on a random street, culminating in an excited group hug of reunion. This was not planned, and we had not contacted each other yet upon our arrival to our respective hotels. Even in Paris, we had found each other, without a map or meeting plan.

These are the types of perfect, magical moments that stand out in my mind, not necessarily the tourist destinations. If you’re traveling or studying abroad, set your expectations wisely and don’t be afraid to be spontaneous.

For example, one of my most favorite moments from my trip to Paris was immersing myself in the majestic gardens surrounding the Louvre museum on a sunny day and sitting down outside to appreciating its architecture and bask in all its beautiful glory  – it is still, to this day, one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen, from the outside. Seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time inside the Louvre was more underwhelming than I expected – it was smaller than I envisioned, and the heads of fellow tourists were always in the way of her smile. Viewing the Eiffel Tower was a gorgeous sight, but I was surprised at what a commercialized tourist destination it was, in contrast to the romanticized notions I had been fed about it when I was young. Similarly, when I was in Berlin, Germany, some of my most memorable and favorite moments consisted of roaming the streets with my friends in the middle of freezing cold winter, bundled up in coats, admiring the many castles we seemed to find on every street corner, and even going inside one of the castles to sit cross-legged on the floor and be fed cups of vodka-infused tea in an underground-like speakeasy setting (at least, I think that’s what it was? Still, to this day, I have no idea what that experience was or how we even got there, but I am grateful for it).

Sharing a delicious French breakfast with my travel buddy and a slow cup of coffee on the patio of our Paris hotel or going on a journey to find the perfect croissant late at night was just as exciting of an experience as seeing the Sienne River. Having British men with cute accents flirt with me was just as exciting for me as a 19-going-on-20 teenage girl as taking a trip to Oxford, or visiting the infamous 9 and 3/4 platform – or roaring with laughter with my fellow travelers outside the British museum (but nonetheless, all were fun!).

Sights from Berlin, Germany | @selfcarewarrior 

Abroad, you should definitely take advantage of all the tourist destinations and immerse yourself in the rich culture, art and history of your chosen destination, but don’t forget to make your own magical little adventures.  Whether you’re riding solo or with friends, safely plan how to be spontaneous and from time to time immerse yourself in the life of a person actually living in the country – do the things you want to do, not just the expected. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find most mesmerizing.

You will get homesick – and simultaneously, you’ll build a new home where you are and feel like a new person.

Tower Bridge in London | @selfcarewarrior

When looking back at my time studying abroad, I am amazed at what I became capable of and the transformation I went through from being a pretty sheltered college student whose experience of travel at the time consisted of occasionally going to my home country with her family to suddenly traveling U.K. and Europe with strangers I was just getting to know. I remember during one of my more emotional moments, I ran to the room of one of my fellow guy flatmates studying abroad and we both instinctively hugged each other because we both understood how jarring the experience was (and then I had to text my boyfriend back home confessing the hug, because it felt like emotional cheating – ah, the secret, bizarre mind and inner life of a teenager). Only now can I reflect on this experience years later by thinking, “How did I even experience and survive all that newness at that vulnerable age?”.

Watching a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theater in London | @selfcarewarrior

The initial homesickness was definitely overwhelming, but if you can get past the homesickness and strangeness of being on your own for the first time in a “strange” country, you can achieve anything. Eventually, over my summer living in the U.K., I started feeling like a local. I learned how to navigate the London Underground, find my favorite coffee shop, my go-to grocery store, my favorite Pizza Express and eyebrow threading place, and even venture out without anyone and get properly lost and find myself in the city. I got accustomed to the quiet rainy days walking around my flat, the train rides to Piccadilly Circus (and laughing with my friends about other inappropriate-sounding train name stops), the instructor-led trips to museums and plays (if you’re studying abroad, definitely choose classes that are immersive – I chose a Shakespeare and architecture class, both of which allowed us to explore the city during our “classes”).

@selfcarewarrior

I got “used” to living in London and breathing cleaner, fresher air (literally – London is so clean!) and eating “cleaner” food (due to their more stringent standards and protocols for food in contrast to America, even their McDonalds felt gourmet). I got used to dinners and wine nights with people I would never see again. At one point, I even got my own therapist in London just to emotionally process my experiences. Talk about starting a new life and going all in!

After studying abroad, I became more confident and resilient as an adult navigating the world on my own. To this day, I still remember my first airplane ride to London, my long journey to Heathrow Airport and how I relied on the kindness of strangers just to get to London and  was thrust into the maze of its insane airline system (in contrast, on my first airport trip to Berlin, I was surrounded by students, so looking back it’s a bit crazy that at a young age I was suddenly left to my own devices), the homesickness that followed as I arrived to my flat, and how I eventually morphed into a young woman who could handle it all.  Serendipitously, the same cab driver who picked me up from the airport also showed up when I was leaving – another movie-like moment that seemed to symbolize that while everything seemed the same, I left as a changed person than I came in.

@selfcarewarrior

You will learn so much in a short period of time, and you will still have so much left to learn. The experience is what you make of it, so take advantage of every opportunity to explore, enjoy yourself, and find yourself.

Paris, France  | @selfcarewarrior
Paris, France | @selfcarewarrior

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