Final year American Studies student Grace Curtis reminisces on her year abroad in L.A from a locked-down Brighton

Words By Grace Curtis

I knew it was coming months before it happened. My phone pings. A text? No. The Facebook notification every fourth year American Studies student dreads more than any other. “You have a new memory to look back on”.

As I look down at the photo on my phone I am reminded that exactly a year ago today, I was at Disneyland with my nearest and dearest. Not a care in the world, huddled in close proximity with thousands of strangers waiting for 45-minutes to enjoy the seconds-long thrill that is Space Mountain. Not a mask, glove or bottle of hand sanitiser in sight. How different life today seems now, when a trip to Aldi is the highlight of my week and you have to think twice about the risks involved in sitting on a park bench with a friend. 

Having FOMO for any time prior to 2020 is not a revolutionary concept. However, I think everyone can agree that this type of nostalgia ‘hits different’ for ex-year abroad students. Not only does social media provide a constant reminder of what once was, we were also, in many ways, robbed of what might have been. We were blindsided when the idea that our year abroad could be cancelled was first seriously considered. Many of us were naïve, assuming that the virus won’t touch the country we are in, or that lockdown will only last a few weeks at most. 

I happened to be at home visiting my family when my University – Occidental College in Los Angeles – announced that they were closing. I was then trapped at home, with only a weekend backpack to my name. It’s laughable now, but I actually used the phrase “when this all blows over in May” as a justification for my plans to fly back to get my belongings in the Spring. My possessions were, of course, later shipped. 

In this sense, many year abroad students went through what can only be described as a breakup. Sudden, dramatic and lacking in closure, without much notice we were suddenly ripped away from somewhere we had finally settled and where we had six more months left of hopes, dreams and plans without the chance to say goodbye. 

The contrast between the life I am living now – locked down in Brighton and studying from my bedroom – with the one I lived last year is something you can only laugh (or cry) at. When studying abroad most people take every chance they can to travel, meet new people or try new things. Sometimes I felt like a character in ‘Yes Man’ (my second-favourite Jim Carey movie) where his character decides to say yes to every decision in his life. For me, year abroad felt this way because I was constantly aware that I was experiencing something that was finite and temporary. The whole time, I knew the year was going to be over before I knew it. Therefore, I felt a deep-rooted desire to seize every opportunity offered to me.  

In many ways, lockdown is almost the exact opposite. Especially this third time round, it feels much more like an infinite experience. With no end date in sight it’s hard to find the motivation to do anything as, really, you might as well just do it tomorrow? Instead of the pleasant feelings of nostalgia for the present that I felt on year abroad, lockdown number three has been more defined by nostalgic yearnings for the past and, ever more unlikely day dreams of a Covid-free future. Longings and desires to be somewhere else other than my bedroom grew with the trepidations we have all grown accustomed to this past year… 

However, every dark cloud has a silver lining. If nothing else, the constant reminders of where I was and what I was doing exactly one year ago today remind me to be grateful for every opportunity I have been given. I honestly can’t imagine I will ever take a trip to the pub – in a group of seven where we order only alcoholic beverages and stay out past ten – for granted again. 

There are also little joys to be found in lockdown life in Brighton. The three-hour discussions and debates over which takeaway to get, the happy coincidence when the sun comes out in perfect alliance with your daily walk and the satisfactory, if rare, occasion when you can leave a break-out room conversation feeling relatively unscathed. These moments of happiness may not be as picture-perfect as my memories from California, but they still matter. 

At the end of the day, I feel tremendously grateful that I even got to go on my year abroad at all. The 20/21 cohort were not so lucky, and now even the next year is in question. Despite coming home early, I was able to go out there and experience American college life and those memories will never go away. 

Ultimately, I have a love and hate relationship with the social media memory notifications on my phone. Sometimes they provide an upsetting reminder of the life I used to live. However, more often they make me smile as I remember how lucky I was to get to live that life at all.

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