“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”—Cesare Pavese
In my last blog post, I discussed the terror I felt at the beginning of each of my study abroad experiences. I said that I feared that which I did not know. Indeed, I think that is the only truly frightening thing about traveling—we do not know what to expect. Guide books and online blogs (much like this one) only provide so much comfort. Before the experience itself, there is no way to know whether you will like the food or the people or the unique quirks and oddities of whichever culture you are about to enter.
Before I came to Lithuania, for example, I knew almost nothing, repeat: nothing, about this country. Okay, so I had the good sense to look it up on a map, locate its presence (and it is a minute geographical one, let me tell you) in Eastern Europe. I had discovered that the language the locals speak is Lithuanian, and that it is the oldest, most well-preserved Indo-European language still in usage today. I read a bit about its history, that it was once a part of Poland, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The information I have stated here, though, is quite literally everything I knew about Lithuania when I arrived in mid-September.
To be entirely truthful, I think I came with a slight degree of arrogance. After all, I had already lived and studied abroad, as required by my school, in Latin America, India and in Asia. In all of those places, my physical appearance (blond hair and blue eyes) clearly indicated that I did not belong. I knew it, and so did every person with whom I came into contact. They knew it before I even opened my mouth. So Lithuania, I naturally assumed, would be an easier transition. I mean, I look more traditionally Lithuanian than many of the Lithuanians themselves.
What I have found, though, is that my resemblance here is actually to my detriment. The Lithuanians expect me to speak Lithuanian. They expect me to abide by their cultural norms, and because I appear to be one of them, they are less forgiving when I ignorantly fail to comply. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the act of smiling. I am an American, and smiling is therefore a natural reaction for me to almost anything. Accidental eye contact? Smile to prove you are not rude. Find yourself in an embarrassing situation? Smile to demonstrate that yes, you know it is embarrassing, and you would be laughing too if you were not the one in it. But Lithuanians, as is the custom in most of Eastern Europe, DO NOT SMILE. Now, do not misunderstand me. They are a wonderfully kind people. A smile, however, is not a demonstration of amiability here. In fact, I think it is rather interpreted as a sign of mental instability.
Unfortunately, I’ have still not managed to adapt appropriately to the whole ‘no smiling’ rule. It is something far too ingrained in me to rid myself of in just three months. However, it is not the only adjustment I have made. Eating, too, has become something strange for me. Now I am sure you are wondering: how can eating be weird? Pick up a knife, fork, or spoon and put the food in your mouth, right? Well, it sounds easy enough, but remember, for the last two years, I have lived in India and China. In India, I ate with my hands (you may insert your sigh of disgust here) and in China, I used chop sticks. Now, though, I must to return to “normality” and re-learn how to eat with Western utensils. Side note: it is more awkward than you think.
You can imagine me now, I am sure—blond haired, blue-eyed college student, shyly making attempts to speak (but, in reality, butchering) the beautifully historic Lithuanian language, smiling abashed while mishandling a simple knife and fork. It is a sight that would make even Charlie Chaplin cringe. Now imagine this person working at a U.S. embassy overseas! Yes, that is me, fumbling to appear “normal”, while surrounded by a group of Lithuanian businessmen and women (with their impressive resumes and titles and elegant mannerisms). If you fear the notion of studying abroad because you might look foolish, then look no further than me. I am a veritable testament to the fact that it can happen, but even if it does, you will survive.
Now, do I think that traveling is a brutality, as Mr. Pavese states in the quotation above? Perhaps a bit, but that is not quite the word I would use to describe it. Rather, for me, traveling is Alice in Wonderland meets The Wizard of Oz. I never quite know where I am or what I am supposed to be doing. I do not know if I am speaking correctly or eating properly. I always have this strange sensation of not knowing what to do with my hands, and I develop this irritatingly keen sense of self-awareness, in which I am overly attuned to my gait and posture. In other words, I often feel upside down in a world that is downside up. Meanwhile, along my dizzying journey, I meet my fair share of Scarecrows and Tin Men and Lions, who help make the Yellow Brick Road a bit more manageable.
So traveling is not a brutality for me; it is an opportunity. Every month, every day, every hour, every minute, and every second is an adventure. Sure, I spend most of my time in varying states of disarray; I think that is half the fun of the adventure, though! I never quite know what I should be doing, and there is therefore no right way of doing things. I mispronounce words; I struggle to cut my meat; I am the lone smiling person in a sea of stone-faced Eastern Europeans. Nothing makes sense, nothing is my own, and yet at the same time, everything is mine—it is my experience.