Studying Abroad Taught Me a Lesson I Didn't Expect

by Lane Florsheim
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If studying abroad in Paris is a bit of a cliché, then that's for valid reason. When I think back on the semester when I woke up each morning in my chambre de bonne (former maid’s quarters turned small studio above my host family’s apartment), bought a pain au chocolat from the corner boulangerie, boarded the métro, and watched the Eiffel Tower speed by on my way to class, it’s difficult for the memories not to be tinted with an air of almost magical nostalgia. My semester studying abroad was transformative — though not exactly for the reasons I expected.

I was incredibly fortunate to have the chance to live and study in Paris for five months. As I began the semester, my goals were fairly standard: I wanted to improve my language skills, get to know the city, travel to other countries, and meet new people. All of those things happened (although my French admittedly still borders on “Franglais” much of the time), but I also gained something else I wasn’t even aware of until more than a year after returning stateside: the skill of being alone.

There were, foreseeably, times when I felt down or lonely: the Saturday when the friend I was supposed to go out with got sick and I had no back-up plans, the afternoon I got unexpectedly lost in Central Park, and days when pouring rain kept me inside. I experienced two turning points, however, that profoundly increased my appreciation of alone time.

Sure, I had a great group of friends on the program. My extended family and then-boyfriend all visited. Most of my evenings were spent with my host siblings, a pair of energetic 12-year-old twins who kept me entertained (and a bit on edge) with activities such as crooning the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” while jumping up and down as high as possible on the bed. (It is difficult to convey the adorability and weirdness of “My Humps” being sung by tiny people with French accents.)

When friends began to plan trips to different cities in France as their final travel destinations before the semester’s end, however, I wasn’t sure whether I actually wanted to join. Though the Paris vs. South of France decision was undeniably one of the most win-win choices I’ve made to date, I felt torn. Soon after arriving in Paris, I had created a giant list of everything I wanted to see and do during my time there, and there were a number of items I knew I wouldn’t be able to check off if I left during our second-to-last weekend. The days were flying by, packing loomed, and finals were coming up.

So I decided to stay in Paris. Until that point, I’d never spent more than a few waking hours in the city by myself, and I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be one of the best weekends of my life.

I planned my days carefully in order to maximize the number of list items I was able to see: Daniel Buren’s “Excentrique(s)” exhibition, which covered the floor of the Grand Palais in giant multi-colored glass circles raised high enough to walk under, the National Archives, the Museum of Hunting and Nature, and my personal favorite, the Museum Carnavalet.

Carnavalet is housed in two neighboring mansions and showcases the history of the city with replica upon replica of stunning Parisian rooms from the 17th to 20th centuries. The two houses have a gorgeous leafy courtyard at their center where I sat and read alone after visiting the museum.

That weekend, I also splurged on a pretty dress and stumbled upon the tiny, tree-lined Rue du Trésor, a street full of small shops and restaurants in my favorite neighborhood, the Marais. I sat in a restaurant alone that evening, eating pasta and reading more of my book before returning home. At night, I stayed in, trading Parisian clubs for watching favorite old movies.

Throughout the next year, whenever I thought of that weekend, I remembered it fondly. But living in a house with eight of my close friends during senior year did not make for a lot of alone time. It wasn’t until I moved to New York following graduation that I got to further muse on the value of being alone.

College graduates get a lot of advice: the basics we need for our first apartments, what to wear on our first days of work, and even how to not freak out when you can't find a job at all. Less discussed is the unfamiliar geography of friendship we have to get used to after graduation.

Throughout my senior year, I could walk to friends’ houses, the cafe where we all gathered, or the library in less than 10 minutes. After graduating, I found myself in a giant city where I knew a handful of people, maybe two, if you add acquaintances to the mix. It was daunting. But I quickly realized I could make the alone time I found myself experiencing into more of an adventure than a plight.

There were, foreseeably, times when I felt down or lonely: the Saturday when the friend I was supposed to go out with got sick and I had no back-up plans, the afternoon I got unexpectedly lost in Central Park, and days when pouring rain kept me inside. I experienced two turning points, however, that profoundly increased my appreciation of alone time.

First, one night, a date canceled on me. Still wanting to get out of the apartment, I decided to take myself out to dinner instead. Reading from my Kindle, people watching the tables around me, and enjoying s'mores in a jar for dessert all amounted to a true treat. (I ended up going out with the guy the next week, and the solo dinner was better!)

The other turning point came when I started Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Though I'm always reading something, rarely am I absorbed in a book to the point where I actually can't put it down. I found myself reading The Secret History on the subway, at a bar where I was waiting for a friend for all of three minutes, and late at night when I should have been asleep. I never felt lonely when I was reading it; I felt captivated. I realized I should start treating all books the same way, even if they didn't grab me quite the same way Tartt's did. When you're spending time by yourself, reading a book is infinitely more interesting and less depressing than refreshing your social media feeds. In hindsight, it's an obvious realization, but it's one that has made all the difference for me.

Some of my favorite memories in New York now include the mornings I spent three hours reading alone in bed, the times I returned to that colorful little Nolita gallery alone, and the dinner on Bowery I extravagantly treated myself to one Sunday night. Solo museum trips, an afternoon of decorating my room, and myriad Brooklyn wanderings also top the list.

In the age of Instagram filters and FOMO, much emphasis is placed on being out and about with friends as much as possible. But what I’ve found is that time spent alone is equally, and sometimes more, valuable. Enjoying solitude has helped me learn where I like to go and what I like to do best; it’s made me more appreciative of the time I spend with friends and family, and it’s taught me how to truly de-stress. There is a great deal of happiness in a day of only doing things you want to do. I call them Lane Days.

And as it turns out, I'm wonderful company.

Images: Lane Florsheim