It has been one week since I boarded my plane from Riga, Latvia to return to my home among the hills of West Virginia. Before my departure, I felt a different type of sensation that I have never experienced before in my international travels. Most return journeys involve me vigorously shoving my clothes and copious amounts of chocolate that I will disperse as souvenirs into my bag. After packing, I would run to the airport clicking my heels and skipping like a scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This time around, I packed my bag and sat in disbelief at the airport, depressingly waiting for my departure. Why was I so sad? Was I not excited to return home? Should I feel guilty for not wanting to come home?
I struggled with answering these questions throughout the entirety of my flight home. I had been in Latvia in an entirely different capacity this time around, interning instead of studying. In this new life, living alone and working a 9-5 job overseas presented numerous challenges. At times I felt lonely, coming home to an empty house. Sometimes I felt frustrated and exhausted from a long day at work. Despite these feelings, as time passed I grew accustomed to my new lifestyle. I made new friends from work, I did more solo travel around the city and its surrounding areas, and I became comfortable with my work. I think deep down I am a creature of comfort and habit. While at times complacency can be detrimental to your growth, for me, it also opened doors to eventual normalcy in a new environment. I have grown to cherish my ability to find a “new normal” in diverse settings.
Mostly, I miss my friends in Latvia. As my internship at the U.S. Embassy completed, their internships all continued into the fall. We developed a routine of sorts, walking to the cafeteria for lunch and to the bus stop at the end of our work days. We met for dinner outside of the office at least once a week to discuss life other than the daily perils of office work. Additionally, I miss the language. I enjoyed sharpening my Russian skills in a suitable environment, consistently able to find someone in the market, restaurant, or store to converse with in Russian. The people of Latvia are some of the most accommodating and accepting people I have come to encounter on this planet. Conversations with the local Latvians left me with more knowledgeable about what it meant to be in their shoes. Through my conversations, they passed on to me their culture, language, and history. I adored the unplanned conversations that lingered in my mind for days following.
Here, I sit in a café in the U.S. recalling these memories, and I must admit I fell somewhat victim to the ills of reverse culture shock. Specifically, I struggled mostly with interactions back home with random people. In Latvia, I did not know the Latvian language, which is spoken predominantly around the city along with Russian. When people in Riga would be speaking Latvian, I would tune them out. Once I arrived back to the U.S. I felt slightly overwhelmed with the amount of chatter in English and found myself often intruding into conversations simply because I could understand what they were saying. Further, I was accustomed to my new daily operations. My wake up, walk to work, etc.; all of it became such a joyful experience. I have had to relearn my old routines and get back into studying and doing school work as opposed to my internship at the Embassy. I became so intertwined into my little cycle and circle in Latvia, which is innately hard to change. Therefore, I sometimes find myself fantasizing or recollecting memories and not paying attention to what is happening before my eyes in reality. I know that this will fade, and I will again find my rhythm, but until then I will continue to indulge in the pictures and memories from my experience. There is nothing wrong with a day dreamer.
Now that I am going into my senior year at West Virginia University, new challenges await me. This year will test my knowledge and emotions, as I prepare for my departure into the Air Force through my commission from the AFROTC program. I will carry with me both my professional and social insights that I gained from my summer in Latvia to the future in the military. The military calls for sporadic moving and flexibility, all of which I have done this past summer. As a West Virginian, many of my peers and friends look at the prospect of traveling, studying, or working abroad as a foreign concept that has no value or significance in their lives. I am here to challenge that way of thinking. Traveling abroad through multiple experiences from language study to internships, has taught me to value my upbringing and as well respect the cultures with which I was not familiar. Stepping out of a comfort zone (out of the mountains of West Virginia in my case) gave me the skills needed to potentially become the best officer in the military I know I can be. I learned flexibility, adaptation, and independence that I know that I would not have gained if I had not taken the leap and stepped on that plane to Eastern Europe. I am forever grateful for the memories and experiences that I know many others may never have. I recognize my return to Latvia is a matter of “when,” rather than “if.”