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Clayton McCleskey: Return of the Euro Expat

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in June.

BERLIN – Standing on a bridge overlooking the majestic River Seine during a recent trip to Paris, I had a flashback to my first visit to Europe nearly a decade ago.

Sporting Teva sandals, a fanny pack and jean shorts, I had embarked on a European conquest tour with my family.

Truth be told, much of what I saw went straight over my head. I remember a fancy crown in London, a lot of naked statues in Rome and I seem to recall that Switzerland had snow.

Even though the cultural highlights of that family vacation remain a bit fuzzy, I’ll never forget the sense of fascination I felt with Europe, not wanting to board the plane back to Dallas – I sulked all the way down the runway, asking myself if I would ever return.

As I wrap up a year studying in Berlin, I am once again reminded of how hard it is to say goodbye.

Having participated in multiple study abroad programs over the years, I have tried several ways to deal with going back home.

Some methods work better than others. Those of you who have studied abroad – or who have friends that went overseas – may recognize them.

Option one is flat-out denial, a refusal to mentally “come home.”

I vividly remember the tearful end to the exchange program I did in Sweden at the age of 13. After living with a Swedish family for several weeks, I was ready to trade in my cowboy boots for clogs. No, really, I bought clogs.

My denial was so bad that when my mom greeted me at the airport, I didn’t hug her. Instead I told her I wanted “my Swedish mom.” My American mother will never forgive me.

Learn from my mistake – avoid the flat-out denial approach.

Or you can play Extreme Makeover, Study Abroad Edition. In an effort to clearly show how cool and “abroad” you are, make sure everyone knows you went overseas. Begin by wearing clothing that screams, “Look at me, I’m so Euro!” And don’t forget obnoxious posters for the dorm room. Those are essential.

This approach also requires that you constantly remind your friends of how stupid and American they are. If only they could be like the folks in your study abroad country, where everything is so perfect. If you really want to go all out, speak a foreign language to your American friends. That’ll show ’em.

But as tempting as it may be, the Extreme Makeover approach usually results in your friends happily volunteering to send you back.

Experience has taught me that the best way to adjust to life at home is simply to recognize and celebrate that the U.S. is different than where you studied abroad. Not better, not worse, just different.

In 2007, I interviewed Dr. Lee Huebner – who had just taken over as the new director of the School of Media and Public Affairs – during a weeklong media seminar in Paris for GW students. Explaining how he maintains homes in Paris and Washington, Huebner told me “in life, you don’t lose cities, you just add them.”

He was right.

Studying at GW has made Washington feel like home to me, and an entire year in Berlin has made the German capital also feel like home. Of course, I still feel a special connection to my hometown, Dallas.

Yes, goodbyes are always hard to say, especially when leaving a place full of memories and friends. But Dr. Huebner’s words ring true – in today’s interconnected world, you just add more and more “homes.”

I could never have guessed during my first European adventure in 1999 that I would end up spending so much time here.

So, as I prepare to head back to the U.S. of A., instead of saying goodbye to Europe, it’s more of a “see ya later.” This time, I won’t feel so depressed as I board my flight to Dallas, and I’ll be sure to give my American mom a big Texas-sized hug.

In the meantime, I look forward to returning to Washington. Without denial. And without a Euro makeover.

Clayton McCleskey was an Expat columnist for the 2007-2008 school year. He studied abroad at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, on a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship.

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