Everyone goes on exchange for different reasons – some go to party every night, some go to make memorable friendships, and some go because they like the country, the university or the courses they have the opportunity to take.
I spend a lot of time thinking why I chose to go to ESSEC Business School in France in the first place. Not long after I got my acceptance letter, I sat down to write a post on Facebook about how happy I was about getting this opportunity to study at this university and to eat croissants and drink wine all day.
The moment I pressed the publish button, I knew deep down that none of it was true. But I only fully realized it several weeks after.
I was doing this for myself
It was an opportunity for me to distance myself from my normal day-to-day life and to gain a different perspective. The truth is, I don’t remember the last time I didn’t have a job, or I wasn’t transitioning to another job…since the age of 16.
What’s more, I don’t remember the last time I actually lived my life without my planner, my calendar or my to-do list. I don’t remember the last time I actually spent more than 15 minutes on the phone with my loved ones or actually listened to them when they needed me the most.
And to top it off, for the first time in a decade, I took courses that I would actually love hearing more about, rather than just choosing the ones that would look best on my CV.
So, I quit my job, I settled some freelance projects, and I went to France with an open mind and with the intention of becoming a better person. And that is why I wanted to go on exchange: I wanted to work on myself, to be better at people and understanding myself better.
Something like eat, pray and love, with the exception that prayers had to be replaced with tons of university work and love was about finding a way to love myself.
Go on exchange is also about the differences between the person who landed in Paris in September and the person who I would like to see taking off to go back in December
It took me several days to come to terms with what I would like to say in this piece and rather than sharing where the best cafes are or how croissants taste different in France (which they do, don’t get me wrong) I decided to tell you my story.
Exchanges don’t have to be only about the differences between two cultures. It is also about the differences between the person who landed in Paris in September and the person who I would like to see taking off to go back in December. So, here is my story.
Sometimes you need to distance yourself to see clearly
The thing about trying to live a perfect life is that something somewhere is going to give in at some point. And that thing turned out to be my mental health. I don’t remember the last time I put myself first – there was always an extra project to do at work, there was always an extra chapter to read for university and always an extra extracurricular activity I could enroll in.
So, for me, landing in Paris and having absolutely nothing important to do was…horrifying.
I immediately felt the urge to fill in the void with some freelance projects or with a temporary job and it took a lot of mental power to stop this urge to always feel busy.
Finally distancing myself from my work, my university and my everyday habits allowed me to start thinking about me and how I have been neglecting myself both physically and mentally for years, and it was time I changed that.
I have 90 days to become a better version of myself
And that’s when it finally hit me – I knew why I embarked on this exchange. I wanted to distance myself and work both on dealing with emotional issues that were long due for review and to fixing my abhorrent diet and exercise habits.
I knew I didn’t like the person that I had become during the years I have neglected myself – and I had 90 days to become the best version of myself.
For the first time, I could hear my thoughts and I didn’t know what to do with them
And, of course, it involved a lot of sacrifices like every other major change in someone’s life. I was finally brave enough to admit that although I am an extremely social person, I just don’t like going to parties.
And I decided to finally listen to myself and not go to them and pretend I like them.
And, yes, I might have missed out on getting to know all the other exchange students or forming friendships early on, but for me it was important to listen to what I want to do.
And it turns out that getting drunk and going out every single night is not the only way to form friendships – listening to people and being there for them is a much better way to form strong and long-lasting friendships. And that was only the start.
I learned to appreciate the small things
The flipside of not attending any of the parties before the semester start is that you are inevitably utterly alone for 2 weeks.
And for a person who loves other people and feels energized only when interacting with other human beings, it was hard for me to be all alone by myself in my dorm for 2 weeks.
The silence almost killed me the first few days. For the first time, I could hear my thoughts and I didn’t know what to do with them.
But the more I lived with myself, the more I learned that if I keep ignoring my feelings and my thoughts, the more they are going to pile on. So, I decided to sit down and listen. I learned to enjoy the small pleasures in life.
Like starting my day by sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee while thinking about the happy moments from my childhood, and ending my day while cuddled up in bed thinking how happy and grateful I am for all the people who love me and are there for me in my life.
And with time, appreciating the small things became part of my day and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Taking it one day at a time
The notion of “slow living” was always something I laughed about. I was on the fast track to God knows where with all of my plans, schedules, to-do lists, spreadsheets and a bunch of other tools designed to skyrocket me to wherever I wanted to go.
Now, don’t get me wrong, being motivated and ambitious is not wrong, but when blown out of proportion, it can become dangerous. In my understanding, slow living is a life philosophy, a state of mind and being, a reflective approach, and methodical process to daily life.
It’s about being mindful and doing everything with a purpose, while simultaneously taking the time to enjoy the process. For the first time in forever, I took the time to enjoy my coffee and my breakfast without looking at the clock ready to run for work.
I didn’t plan my day – I just did the things that were bringing me happiness and I took the time to enjoy them. I also realized that all of those problems that seemed unsurmountable when I was in Copenhagen, now seem like no more than a little rock on my path to success.
Taking it one day at a time taught me to handle challenges as they present themselves and not to worry about them before they have even had the chance to appear.
Landing in Paris and having absolutely nothing important to do was…horrifying
It’s true that your exchange can be life changing. Some people make friends for life, build great networks and live their best lives in 4 months. I decided to make my exchange memorable by changing myself for the better.
It took me a while to see my exchange as an opportunity to grow and develop – but not in the traditional sense. Rather than treating it like a free vacation where I have no worries and all I have to do is party and have fun, I decided to look at it as a 4-month time window to reflect, grow as a person and become the Desi I would like to see taking off from France to go home in a few months.
I don’t intend my exchange to be just 4 months of my life, I intend it to be my new life in 4 months. The kind of life I would be happy to live. The kind of life I would be proud to take home as a souvenir from my exchange.