Music proves a tonic for homesickness

“If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends” — a line from the film Almost Famous, which is a movie you should start watching right now if you haven’t seen it. It’s a quote I’ve always counted as one of my favorite unique arrangements of letters and syllables. A beautifully simple way of speaking a 10-volume opus entitled “Why I Love Music.”

In the first few days of my journey spending a semester abroad in Sheffield, England, I came to see a deeper meaning to it, specifically to the last three words. Seeing as I’m a brand-new student who’s only here for a semester, it’s unlikely I’ll make the kind of friends I have in the U.S. Without them, I’ve come to see that my only connections that come even remotely close to those across the Atlantic are with the friends in my headphones. Now I see that the 10-volume opus should really be titled “Why Music Matters to Me.”

Not to say I’m depressed or regretful — quite the contrary — but anyone who’s gone through culture shock will tell you the first few days are damn difficult. Aside from the obvious homesickness and adjusting to new ways of eating and (in the U.K.) crossing the street, there is the challenge of breaking into an established social scene. It feels like I’m back in freshman year, but instead of being surrounded by countless other freshmen who are experiencing the same bewilderment and are as eager to form new relationships as I am, I’m surrounded by upperclassmen, many of whom are about to graduate. They have their friends and their routines that they’ve cultivated the same way I have mine in Pittsburgh, and they go about these routines normally.

The only thing is that I didn’t yet have a routine — there’s hardly been any schoolwork yet, and there’s only so much time you can spend on Netflix before you begin to feel like a weird recluse. So to fill much of the afternoon free time I took walks around the city, exploring the nooks and crannies and seeing what happened when I took a left where I last took a right. I spent hours out there, and never once did I feel lonely or bored, because I had a pocketful of friends with me.

Kendrick Lamar told stories while we explored the shopping districts and peered into stores I had never heard of before, and Twiddle jammed for 20 minutes on a cheery tune even though it was drizzling and overcast on our walk to the Sheffield Cathedral. Pretty Lights kept us both grooving along the bars and clubs on West Street while I took note of which ones had strict dress codes so I could avoid them. It was a good thing I kept the volume low, because Eminem likely would’ve gotten us kicked out of KFC. Also, English people love KFC. Images of the Colonel outnumber the Golden Arches by a decent margin.

It’s not only during the day that music has been the only guy there to hang out with me. One of my first nights here, I was invited by my flatmates to go to the nightclubs. After pre-drinks in our kitchen we took a taxi to the club. Then, when we got there, the bouncer wouldn’t let me inside. Something about how I “couldn’t stand up bloody straight.” My flatmates kindly offered to head back with me, but I implored them to go enjoy their night.

Arriving back to an empty flat, I hooked my phone up to the speakers in the kitchen, which before had been blaring a stream of thumping house songs that my untrained ear could hardly distinguish between, and turned “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart up to full volume. Waltzing around, belting out the lyrics and strumming my invisible mandolin in perfect time, I felt like I was at the most perfect birthday party that anyone could ever have thrown me. I went back and hit the replay button three more times.

Okay, perhaps I was pretty drunk.

I’ve taken a lot away from my first week dropped in the middle of a strange sea, but a newfound appreciation for pieces of art I’d already deeply loved is certainly the most surprising. Songs that had meant little more than a lovely melody now mean home, and conjure memories of friends that I love and miss dearly.

There’s a long way to go, and I’ve seen enough PowerPoint slides and been handed enough advice to know these feelings of homesickness and isolation will pass. However, I also know that I’ll never forget how good these songs made me feel at a time when I really needed it. So far this whole “abroad” thing seems to be leaving a pretty great mark on me.