“Abroad is supposed to the time to recalibrate and pursue the hobbies you never have time for at Duke.”

“Abroad is supposed to be a semester where you engage with people with whom you don’t usually cross paths at school so you come back with new circles of connections.”

“Abroad is supposed to be carefree and stress-free before you return to the whirlwind of Duke life.”

Everyone has individualized ideas of what constitutes the “perfect” abroad experience. I overheard phrases like these several times a day beginning my sophomore spring until the day I boarded the plane to fly across the ocean. Studying abroad is a cherished custom at Duke; as a result, many students mentally craft a utopian life for themselves complete with sweeping and idealistic brushstrokes. Adults and friends alike fail to hold back in telling you what they think your life away will, and should be, and the ways to do it right.

“It will be the most incredible four months of your life.” “Whichever place you choose, it certainly will be exciting.” “You can finally rid yourself from many of the frequent stressors that characterize daily life at Duke.” I have heard it all, time and time again.

I, too, created this haven in my head that would fulfill everything I wanted out of a short slice of life in a new place. By junior year, many students crave this breather. If Duke’s hustle and bustle is the sole cause of feeling stifled, then hypothetically people could expect every facet of our lives to fall into place as soon as we have time and space away. Instead of sitting stationary in Perkins for hours on end, in Rome I can focus on absorbing the ancient art and crumbling architecture that line each street. I sit through long, leisurely dinners filled with stimulating conversation. I can whisk off each weekend to someplace new. I know that this experience has the capacity to offer me what I wanted, and what I want now. I feel extremely grateful to have this opportunity.

However, it might be an overstatement to assert that life abroad will be rid of stressors and immediately we will recalibrate upon leaving Duke’s bubble. In typical Duke fashion, these grandiose expectations put too much pressure on selecting a perfect place and then promptly having a flawless daily life there—and of course showcasing those colorful experiences whenever one has a chance to validate them.

But validate to whom: others or ourselves?

Even away from school, we face lingering questions of whether we made the right choices. Colorful photos of friends in other cities present the best façade of everything. Weekend opportunities for travel create a pressure to go everywhere, see all you can see and check all the boxes. My friends and I grew slightly wistful as we admired the subtle charm of Florence, walking at night among scattered statues with music enveloping us in a vast piazza. As we hiked along the coastline of Cinque Terre commenting on our love of hiking, we pondered whether we would have had greater opportunity to be outdoors in Australia where the ocean constitutes students’ backyard. Moments later, we reminded ourselves that we have loved each day in Rome for different reasons. Furthermore, being here enables us to sample a variety of incredible places. I reminded myself that an exquisite appetizer does not guarantee an enduring, fulfilling meal. But that ever-present Duke desire to maximize experiences and feel like our time is well spent still lingers. I want to actively shed this mindset here.

More than this, expecting a stress-free life will only surprise and disappoint. Life in a foreign country with a language barrier presents different complications than those we confront at school. European countries are known for their enduring beauty but not for efficiency. Nothing ever works the way it is meant to. Buses don’t arrive on time. Trains break down. Bureaucratic institutions don’t care if I am late, miles from home with someplace to be in the middle of the night. The Internet always fails to connect when I’m lost and hoping that Google Maps will be my saving grace. Coordinating flights and navigating airports in languages I don’t understand is not only challenging but also exhausting.

In America, simple daily tasks that I took for granted—yet never particularly valued—allowed me to engage in higher pursuits because they are easy. At Duke, it might be possible to get everywhere I need to go, complete everything I need to do and find those I care about in one place, without a moment wasted. But these basic faculties are not guaranteed here. Life is slower. More basic stressors consume my mental energy; while looming exams do not keep me up at night, getting lost three times a day can conjure a constantly nagging frustration. My first weekend trip involved highly misrepresented hotel accommodations and several trains that never arrived, leading to an impromptu sojourn in Pisa where my friends and I were stuck late into the night. The trip was great, but I want to learn how to erode the too-quick-to-emerge frustration that boils when avoidable issues arise. I try to evaluate whether my experiences are a net positive; when I simplify it in this manner, they pass with flying colors.

Idealistic expectations with no margin of error wire us all tightly. I am beginning to expect at least ten things to go wrong each day. I am working to widen my barometer of flexibility rather than anticipate seamless transitions. Here, much of my mental energy will be dedicated to patching up holes. But comparing regular trials of daily life to someone else’s gold standard undervalues the breathtaking moments that greet me each day. By adjusting expectations of my new status quo, that dispensable energy can be used to focus on pursuits that really matter.

Absorbing the foundations and the street artists. Finding the smallest café to which I return each day. Running under the bridges of the Tiber River at dusk and feeling fully present. It helps me remember why I came here.

These are the moments, quiet yet lingering, that I appreciate more with every passing day.

Carly Stern is a Trinity junior, studying abroad in Rome. Her column, perpetual overanalysis, usually runs on alternate Thursdays.