Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

What They Don’t Tell You About Study Abroad (Or What They Do But You Refuse to Listen)

Study abroad is hard.

The day before yesterday, life took a turn for the worse.  It was so unexpected, I didn’t realize it was homesickness for a couple of hours.  I  thought everyone started talking faster in Spanish to spite me, the food tasted like cardboard because my host mom was having an off day, and I couldn’t stop thinking about important people in my life because, well, they’re important.  It wasn’t until the only thing that could coax me out of my room was the promising sound of the Big Bang Theory theme that I realized I was desperate for anything that hinted at home.

The feeling stayed with me for about 24 hours, and then it quite suddenly disappeared in the middle of a class.  It was a really weird feeling to have a complete attitude change in the span of a minute.  During the dark hours, though, I managed to talk to important people, eat Pringles and Oreos, the only American junk food I could easily find, spend a couple of hours googling Texas pictures, sleep, and mope.  I thought of some of the most mundane memories and considered starting a countdown to my flight back.


Once I miraculously got over it, I became a positive, functioning person again.  I did cave and eat a little McDonald’s today, but it was a craving, not a sickness.

–Side note, Pollo McCrispy’s here are legit fried chicken, not just chicken strips.  Also, the McDonald’s is so fancy, it deserves its own post.–

Tour 003 web
Little America. This is right next to the university.

I don’t know if the homesickness will hit again, or as hard, but life’s tough even without it.  Here’s a list of the things that don’t fit the adventurous-exciting-beautiful-life changing image I had in my head:

  • The language.  I think I thought I would magically start speaking Spanish after a two or three-day adjustment period.  This did not happen.  In the two and a half weeks I have been here, my speaking skills have improved at an unbelievable place, but listening is ridiculously difficult.  I’ve achieved the familiar person/fellow exchange student one-on-one level and am working on the 3-hour-long class lecture level.  The most advanced level I’ve encountered so far is multiple peers talking at once in a distracting environment.  I think that’s the boss battle.
  • The classes.  The classes are standard university classes, but they’re in ANOTHER LANGUAGE.  It’s like being pretty good at algebra and then being thrown into calculus.  You know math, but someone threw in a bunch of weird words and symbols when you weren’t looking.  I have to look up half the vocabulary of readings and the thought of having to communicate with another human being terrifies me.  One time the professor said “grupo” and I almost bolted out of the room.  I survived the experience.  Barely.
  • The American cravings.  I’ve talked about craving food, but that’s really the smallest part.  I miss having a familiar bookstore where I can hide for 3 hours reading the types of books that aren’t quite interesting enough to buy.  I miss having a familiar place to run.  I miss staying in a hotel room with my mom.  I miss driving in a truck with my dad.  I miss hearing country music in stores.  I miss Waffle House.  I miss the first winds of fall.  I miss specific professors from UNT.  I miss not being stared at everywhere I go.
  • Making friends.  I simultaneously wish strangers would talk to me and that I never have to spontaneously speak in Spanish with another human being.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m such a fierce intimidating person or if it’s part of Latin American culture, but no one randomly talks to me.  Once I gather the courage, I’ll have to make the effort.  It’s hard though, because I was lucky enough to bond with the other exchange students (who are great) and it’s just easier to hang out with them and speak English.
  • Homesickness, por supuesto.  It’s actually quite interesting because I got to go to Santa Teresa, a beach area in the north-western part of the country with a group of estudiantes intercambios last weekend.  It was fun, and I got to see some beautiful places and have a couple of adventures, but I actually got homesick for Heredia and my host family.  I guess two displacements in two weeks is more than I can handle right now.

Santa Teresa 145 web

I'll make a whole post of pretty scenery pictures at some point.
I’ll make a whole post of pretty scenery pictures at some point.

14 thoughts on “What They Don’t Tell You About Study Abroad (Or What They Do But You Refuse to Listen)

  1. I stumbled upon this post randomly and I wanted to take time to thank you for it! I’m about to go to California to study and while it wont be as hard as going to a non-English speaking country I am still a little apprehensive. Your pictures are beautiful by the way. I hope you’re enjoying your experience, even if there is culture adjustment involved!

  2. Hey Renee!!

    I love your post and it reminded me so much of the things I felt and experienced while I was abroad last semester (I was in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua!) Send me a ranting and raving message if you want or need to, and maybe I’ll be able to relate with some of it from my experiences and be able to encourage you. I am so excited for you! Go to Pops if you like ice cream, we have them everywhere I went and that was my comfort food! 😛

  3. Just found this via google – currently sitting in my dorm room in France and feeling pretty miserable. Have to say, it’s so nice to hear that this is a normal thing! Thought there may be something wrong with me.
    Hope you have a brilliant rest of your time abroad 🙂

    1. Yeah, it’s tougher than people let on. I’ve been in CR for two months and it has definitely gotten a lot better. I’m finally loving life here, but it took a lot longer than I thought it would to adjust.
      I’m glad my post helped, and have fun in France!

  4. Hi! I’m a current American exchange student in Italy right now, and I’m going through the painful holiday period. Looking for well-written study abroad blogs is actually quite the task, but I love yours. Even though obviously our experiences are much different, I can totally connect and relate to your experience(s)! Which makes any homesick American feel better. I’m from Oregon and I’ll be in Italy until the middle of June. I came to this country with only the perspective of The Lizzie McGuire Movie and Julia Robert’s in Eat Pray Love, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’ve been swimming with sharks these past 4 months and I go through these phases of desperation and longing for home, and especially feelings of loneliness and isolation. I don’t know where I was going with this besides thanking you for your blog! There are many people out there reading 🙂



    School is a crazy social challenge for me. I make light conversation and try to participate in chit chat (I also move around to other classes to help with English, or do math at a lower level for example) but I still haven’t found people I’m “close” to. Any advice with that?

    1. Aah, being away from home over the holidays must be tough. I’m applying to grad school in Germany, so I’ll probably be in the same boat next year. I’m glad my blog helps–sometimes it’s good to know there’s other people out there that know exactly how you feel. The good news is, I can tell you it’s completely worth it, and even the downs remind you that you’re human.
      Yeah, I had a lot of problems really connecting with people. I found that even the people that wanted to hang out with me didn’t see me as me, just as the interesting foreigner. It took me a long time to realize that it’s more valuable to have one or two strong meaningful friendships than a wide variety of foreign friends. If you meet someone you really want to be friends with, and they seem to like you too, make an effort to hang out and meet up. Quality is definitely better than quantity in this case. Language partners tend to be a good place to start since you generally have more in common and can both look dumb in the other’s language 😀
      Good luck and I hope the rest of your time goes well!

  5. Hello! My name is Payton, I am a junior in high school from Fairbanks, Alaska, and i am SO happy I found this blog! I recently got accepted to study abroad for a year in Costa Rica and have been really nervous, though excited at the same time. This blog is really awesome and funny, there are so many things i’m glad you mentioned, for example, the toilet paper! Haha, thank you again, I am going to be leaving in four months, and the wait is driving me crazy! This is a great place for me to read and daydream about the country I’m about to live in! AH! 🙂

    1. That’s so exciting!! And I’m glad my blog is useful 🙂 Aaaah you’re going to love it so much in Costa Rica. Good luck, and pura vida!

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