Home is where the heart is: a year abroad in Florida cut short
Henry Jordan, Foreign Correspondent in Florida, gives a heartfelt insight into his curtailed year-abroad experience
I was recently lucky enough to spend 7 months doing a study-abroad program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. For those unaware, Tampa is about twenty miles from where Spring Breakers was set and also the home of Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue from Tiger King. However, it should be noted, I did not have run-ins with murderous teens, a tattooed James Franco or women who allegedly killed their husband. The point is, a strange place, but a strange place that I was taken from too soon.
Originally, my fondness for Tampa was not there, it took a long time for me to settle in. You sign up for a year abroad and expect it to be a wild and life-changing ride every day you are there, but the fact is, you are still you; you are just you, but in Florida. In actual fact, the first couple of months were similar to my first couple of months in Exeter when I missed home and all my friends. It was before I finally started to settle in and feel at home without even realising it. After a Christmas holiday spent travelling around America, I was really excited for a second term of meeting new people, hanging out with the friends I had already made and making even more memories.
Originally, my fondness for Tampa was not there, it took a long time for me to settle in
However, suddenly, “events” occurred. On March 11th, just before spring break, classes were cancelled for the next three weeks. That seemed fine, a bit of time off to relax and enjoy myself, only three weeks suddenly extended to the end of term. Classes had moved online so I was thankfully still getting some of my money’s worth, but I would be missing out on that crucial classroom experience I cherish so dearly. Originally, my plan was to stay put until the end of term. After all, I still had my friends, I was enjoying the sun and it would all be okay in the end anyway. What is the worry? Added to that was the fact that I had paid for a meal plan for the term and the University did not seem keen on refunding me while a skeleton service remained open and being the stubborn guy I am, I wanted to get my money’s worth (don’t worry, they have since refunded me).
In the end, I flew back to the UK on the 24th of March, far sooner than expected. The two-month long bachelor pad dream soured as my two study-abroad roommates and singular American roommate all left to return to their home planets. Again, the bachelor pad dream on paper, but reality can feel much lonelier than that. With the situation worsening and the UK lockdown imminent, I, too, was ready to pack my bags. “Last chopper out of Saigon” I kept joking, until the joke became a little too real. On that note, I cannot properly verbalise how surreal an experience it is to walk through an airport as deserted as the one I flew out of. To return home, I had to fly first from Tampa to Miami, so this isn’t just a small-town airport being empty, this is one of the busier airports in the US. Strolling hungover (emotionally and literally) past the deserted Margaritaville and ghost-town of a Surf Style, while listening to the incredibly poor choice of that one Sufjan Stevens album about his mum dying, everything felt a bit like the end of the world. I was alright though; the world was ending but I was going to make it out.
…the world was ending but I was going to make it out
Since coming back, everyone has asked me if I am sad to have left Florida prematurely, to which the answer is: yes, of course. The thing is though, it felt like the right time to leave. A couple of weeks before “events” transpired, one of my closest friends flew out from the UK to come visit me for ten days. We canoed with alligators, took a weekend trip to Miami and got drunk like we had not drunk for years. It was one of the most special periods of my life. As his stay was wrapping up, my friend jokingly said to me “Henry, don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened”. This joke grew legs beyond what either of us had expected and so when I was the last person fleeing my apartment, when I was saying goodbye to the girl I worry I might never see again, when I was in the car on the way back from Heathrow, it was that phrase that looped in my head. Obviously, it hurt to be taken from my year abroad when I still had two months left, but I have never let myself forget that I had seven months before that, seven magical and transcendent months I will take with me to my grave.
Part of the joys of taking a year out is that it means I still get one more year in Exeter. One more year to sing too loudly at Cheesy Tuesdays, to bankrupt myself at Beer Box and to have a seagull steal a pasty right from my hands again, the swine. It is a year I am already eagerly awaiting, but it will be a year where I will be without part of my heart. I left a bit of myself in Tampa and one day, I know I will go back there to retrieve it. If you are reading this and contemplating taking that terrifying leap into doing a year abroad (or even if you are about to head off into one), then let me assure you that it will be one of the best decisions you ever make. Loving a place is a lot like loving a person. It is not easy, it takes work, but put that work into making them better and you will find yourself enriched too. Trust me.