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My dad died two weeks into my semester abroad.
Two and a half months before I was scheduled to embark on my Italian adventure, my kind, intelligent, loving father -- my hero -- went into surgery for Crohn's disease and came out with a new diagnosis: intestinal cancer.
I felt as if I’d ran full speed into a tall brick wall or taken a punch to the gut, half-dazed half-sick, 24 hours a day.
Though we’d already paid the deposit on my semester abroad, I offered to stay home and take the semester off. My dad wouldn’t hear of it. He told me to go and have fun, that he didn’t want me to sit around the hospital.
“Mom and I will come visit you in Italy at the end of the semester when I’m feeling better.”
So I went, painfully aware of the fact that I was being dropped off at the airport by my friend’s parents instead of my own.
Two weeks later, I was on a flight back to Boston to say my last goodbyes.
Losing my dad made me feel like I was perpetually falling into a giant black hole: lonely and devoid of all hope, empty. I had assumed my time abroad was done, but my mother, brother, and sister were adamant that I return. The common thread in each conversation: Dad would want you to go back. I knew they were right.
So I got on another transatlantic flight -- my third in six weeks -- and returned to my now-mangled semester abroad.
It was difficult to be away from my family, isolated in another country on another continent. I wanted nothing more than to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, waiting for the days to slip by so it might start hurting less. I attended classes with my head down, not taking in a word, and I’m pretty sure most of my professors gave me passing grades out of pity.
Around friends and classmates I’d fake normalcy: smiling, laughing, posing for pictures. On the inside, I was a mess. I went straight to class and raced back to my apartment as soon as it was over. The minute I was safely ensconced in my tiny temporary bedroom I’d break down and bawl. Physically I was in Italy but mentally, and emotionally, I was still at home in Massachusetts.
By the time Spring Break rolled around, I was still in my own world, barely cognizant of anyone, or anything. Most of my classmates were booking flights to the beaches in Spain or the Greek Islands. My group of six girlfriends, two of whom I knew from home, were considering something similar, but a grandmotherly travel agent adamantly insisted those trips were out of season. She convinced us to go on a train tour of Eastern Europe and booked everything we’d need: overnight trains and hostels to stay at in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Bruges and Brussels.
I wasn’t overly excited about the trip, but to be fair, I wasn’t excited about anything. I would’ve been just as happy to check out the beaches in Spain or the Greek Islands as long as I didn’t have to do more than fake smile, nod and throw down my credit card.
We arrived in Budapest and took a cab to our hostel, which turned out to be on the top floor of an apartment building. We lugged our suitcases up the stairs and got our first look at Carpe Noctem. It was chaotic and a little intimidating: there were bunk beds and smiling people everywhere talking, laughing, shouting; they all seemed like old friends.
That night we went on a pub crawl led by a young British guy named Ian who had started Carpe Noctem because he wanted to create a new kind of hostel experience.
“Our mission is to make sure you have the best time possible," he told us.
It seemed like it: the nightly pub crawls were attended by 99% of the guests and several of the employees were travelers who checked in at Carpe Noctem as guests and never left.
Everyone was friendly and the bars, where we ordered extraordinarily cheap pints of beer, were fun and inviting. It was so unlike anywhere I’d ever been before that it was easy to take a break from the sad work of being me. For the first time in a long time, I felt like me again.
The more I relaxed and focused only on appreciating this moment, this night, the easier it was to enjoy it. I was surrounded by new, friendly faces that I’d likely never see again, so instead of hiding my grief I embraced it.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that rather than the pity or awkward silence I’d expected, the people I told were compassionate and kind. For the first time since I’d flown back to Italy, I didn’t feel alone.
The next 7 days were a whirlwind of open markets and cobblestone squares. Each city offered a unique set of new experiences. We ate sausages went dancing in Vienna, climbed the bell tower and drank absinthe in Prague. We ate french fries from a paper cup with three dipping sauces in Bruges and strolled narrow streets where every restaurateur stood outside to convince passersby that their mussels were the most delicious in all of Brussels. Each city had its own set of museums and landmarks to see and explore.
During the long silent moments of reflection on the train I would think about my dad. Even though my heart remained broken, instead of simply mourning his absence I thought of how happy he’d be, how proud, to see me having adventures and meeting new people.
He had always put his kids’ happiness first, and I realized that the best way to honor that dedication was to start living my life again; to find happiness, seek out new experiences and live each day to the fullest.
It’s been six years since that trip, but the lessons I learned then are ones I’ll remember for a lifetime. These days, whenever I get confused or frustrated, I plan a trip somewhere I’ve never been before and gear up for an adventure.