Category Archives: Writing Prompts

Acquiring Acquaintances Abroad: An Arduous Assignment

For me, as a devastatingly taciturn individual, it is difficult to develop friendships, regardless of where I am in the world.  I have this horrible tendency towards silence—the more people gathered in a room, the quieter I become.  It is not a conscious choice either.  I do not stand there and think, “Well, I’m just not going to talk.”  My lack of loquacity is really something that just happens to me.  My brain, it seems, decides on its own to take a short vacation.  Words escape me.  And while I stand there, not quite (but almost) literally lacking mental functioning, a person comes up to me and makes the attempt.  They try to engage me in conversation (read: small talk), and whatever small bits of thinking ability remained before have now disappeared entirely.  My mouth produces words instinctively while a red light in my brain flashes and blares incessantly; it is a warning—Get yourself out of this dangerous situation, immediately!

I know, of course, that my social anxiety isn’t something that many people reading this blog will endure themselves.  However, it is something very real for me, and indeed something that has played a very large role in my study abroad experiences.  In a lot of ways (and certainly the most obvious), it hinders me.  Friendships are gained by means of social interactions, and often they are begun by the dreaded small talk. Unfortunately, I go through this horrendous process of 1) not knowing what to say, and 2) not being able to say it anyway. For whatever reason, in social situations, I become a completely different person. The voice, thoughts, and opinions that come out of my mouth are never my own. They are filler words, phrases chosen not conscientiously, but accidentally, spur of the moment. This is true even in English, so you can imagine my ability to converse in Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, or Lithuanian.

Even I, though, have managed to find friendships while living abroad. In Costa Rica, I worked with a small NGO dedicated to protecting the rights of HIV/AIDS-infected persons. Much of my time was spent at La Casa de Paz, a shelter for drug addicted women, and oddly enough, these people—the employees and the women themselves—became my closest friends. It’s because of them that I learned to speak Spanish and really it’s because of them that I understood Costa Rica as something more than a popular tourist destination.

In India, my greatest friendships came in the form of my host family, an ironic twist of fate. You see, I’d had two host families in Costa Rica too, and though they certainly had their merits, I did not want to repeat the experience in future travels abroad. Being my socially awkward, naturally introverted self, host families are a less than ideal setup. After a full day of classes and conversations and public outings, the last thing my brain wants to do is return home for a few hours of “obligatory chitchat.” Is it great for language learning? Absolutely. Is it great for my sanity? Probably not.

When I learned that I was to have a host family in India, then, I was less than pleased. And it’s not that I worried my new family would be particularly mean or disagreeable either. Honestly, I was more worried that they would be too nice. Yes, I recognize how strange that sounds. How could I possibly have that concern? Well, like I mentioned above, after a full day of social interaction, I prefer to return home and be alone. Without those few hours of almost total isolation, I feel exhausted in such a way that I struggle to convey accurately in words. It’s not a physical exhaustion I feel, but rather a mental and emotional one. Few people understand this personality quirk of mine, and I expected that my Indian host family would fall into this category. After all, hosting a study abroad student is an exciting opportunity. It’s as much an opportunity for the hosts to learn about American culture as it is for the guests to learn about the hosts’ culture. I feared that I would be a disappointment for my host family.

I was fortunate, though, in that the woman and her daughter (my Indian family) never made me feel out of place. They offered their home to me entirely. They taught me how to eat like an Indian, demonstrating the proper scooping hand motion, something that took a good two weeks to perfect. They told me what they thought of the Indian government, the education system, and the media. For some reason, the three of us (and our personalities) worked well together. Over time, our relationship deepened—first from roommates to acquaintances, and then from acquaintances to friends, and finally from friends to a makeshift family.

China was an altogether different experience from Costa Rica and India. For one thing, I lived in a dorm room on the campus of Zhejiang University. My days consisted almost exclusively of two things: attending Chinese class and studying for Chinese class. It’s difficult to incorporate friendships in your life when you’re immersed in the Chinese style of education. As it turned out, my professors and classmates became my best friends. I should tell you that I didn’t recognize this at first. In the beginning, my mind distinctly demarcated the words classmate and friend. But it’s quite difficult for them not to overlap when class feels like your life. In fact, the forced Chinese conversation homework proved to be an excellent way to avoid small talk. I learned about my classmates’ lives in the most raw, simplest form because, well, I could only understand Chinese in its most raw and simplest form.

Now onto my friendships in Lithuania, where I am to “study” for the next three months. Note the quotation marks around the work study. They’re there to indicate the uniqueness of my study abroad program in Lithuania. It feels insufficient, the phrase study abroad, because I don’t really feel like a student here. Much of my time is spent as an intern at the American Embassy in Vilnius, or participating in activities and attending outreach events that are in some way affiliated with the U.S. Department of State. Evenings and weekends here are my schooldays.

So much of this blog entry has concentrated on my shyness and introversion. You’re likely wondering how I fare as an intern in the Public Affairs Section of the American mission to Lithuania (responsible for all embassy outreach activities, public events, social gatherings, media, etc.). Well, I can assure you, it has been adjustment. Small talk is no longer that unfortunate thing I must endure every now and again; it is my life. And truthfully, even months into my internship, I’m just as dreadful at it as I was in the beginning. Here’s the deal: I’m no suave, debonair diplomat, and I never will be.

Unlike many of those with whom I work, I don’t have the natural ability to talk about anything and everything, and successfully feign interest. You can talk to me about your yarn factory as much as you want, but I can only think of so many questions about it before you realize I really couldn’t care any less. You might think of this as a weakness in a world where “stage presence” is a must at all times, but I’ve not found that to be the case. In my short time here, I have already found my fair share of friends (both Lithuanian and American and almost every other nationality you can imagine), and  it’s really because of my poor acting ability that I’ve done so. Guess what? Hating social functions is actually a reliable ice breaker because, for the most part, nobody enjoys them. They are simply a necessary evil. Thus has been my experience here anyway.

Before ending this blog post, I do want to make it clear that making friends abroad is difficult, more so even than in the U.S. The language barrier is one difficulty, of course. But so is finding common interest. Sometimes it’s even a struggle to find someone with a similar sense of humor. In the end, though, the struggle is worth it. When people tell me, “You’re not like the Americans on TV” and I tell them, “Well, you’re not like the [enter nationality here] I see on TV either,” a bond forms. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Perhaps it’s something one must experience for themselves.

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Arriving in Spain

As I sit here at my desk, I can’t help but think about how nervous I was about coming here to study for five months. I’d never been overseas before now, and though I was excited, I was afraid that something would happen: I’d be robbed while abroad, I’d get lost, or I’d forget something important back in the United States. I enrolled in a short 1/2 credit class at my university to prepare myself for going abroad, and I tried my best to remember everything they’d told me regarding what to pack and what to leave behind.

I packed light, as my adviser had suggested. A few t-shirts, a couple sweaters, jeans, and a formal outfit, along with my jacket. My host family is really good about doing laundry, so there was no need to over pack. If you find you need an extra shirt or something, you can easily buy them once you get to your destination. Packing light also avoids going over the weight limit in airport security. Space bags are also a great useful to help fit everything in one suitcase (with my airport, I was only allowed 1 suitcase and 2 carry-on bags without paying an extra fee). Make sure you pack any sort of necessary adapters and cords for electronics. I’m a huge fan of my iPod and laptop, so I purchased two plug adapters (European wall plugs are different from the US) really cheap from Amazon. I would advise that you make sure your adapter functions with voltage up to 220 as well. If it only works up to 110 (like some US chargers do), you’ll need to buy a voltage converter.

When I first arrived in Spain, my initial thought was, “Oh my god, they speak really fast!” Honestly, after being here for two weeks, you get used to it. To them, it’s not fast at all; it’s just normal, casual speech. Most Spaniards can tell when they’re not talking to a native Spanish speaker. They are really friendly and willing to slow down, or repeat themselves so that you can understand them. My host family is really good about speaking slowly, and whenever they start to speed up, I just ask them to repeat. They know that I’m here to learn and are here to help me do that. Another one of my fears was that I wouldn’t know how to say something, and therefore would not be understood. Well, it happened. Being able to circumlocution(using words you know to get to words you don’t) becomes your best friend. There are times in conversation, however, where even that doesn’t work. I remember once I was trying to figure out how to get to “marshmallow” using circumlocution with my host mom for 20 minutes. Eventually, we gave up. Fun fact: There is no exact word for marshmallow in the Spanish language.

The Spanish schedule is very different from my US schedule. For example, at home, I ate breakfast around 9am, lunch around 1pm, then dinner at 6pm. Here, breakfast is served promptly at 9:30 am, lunch is at 2:30 pm with an afternoon nap right after, where literally everything will close until around 5 pm! Then, dinner is around 9-10 pm! It’s definitely taken some getting used to, but snacking is also okay here, so that does help a lot.

In almost everything as well, the Spanish are almost always fashionably late. My class here is scheduled for 9 am, however, every day it has started closer to 9:15 am, which works in my favor, as I’m not the fastest person in the mornings. A major difference for me as well is the schedule of classes. At my home university, my schedule varied based on the day, and I would go to several different rooms for different classes. In Zaragoza, Spain at the Centro de Español como Lengua Extranjera, classes start everyday at 9am Monday through Friday with grammar. Then you have a half an hour break at 11am if you need a snack or something. Then you go back to the same classroom until 1:30pm for a cultural class with the same professor. It’s nice being done with most of the day left to see the city, do homework, or just relax.

I wouldn’t say that I’m homesick yet, but I do miss the familiar faces of my friends and family back at home. My host mom also doesn’t have any pets, so I also miss seeing my two dogs everyday back home. Skype and Facebook are really good ways to keep in touch with everyone though, as well as a personal blog to let everyone know what I’m up to while abroad! I’m certainly enjoying my time here, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store!

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Study Abroad and My Future Career: How They Relate!

When I decided to attend a four-year study abroad college, I didn’t do so with any specific career path in mind. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio and had never traveled farther than Washington, DC (a three-day trip in the eighth grade). I felt like I didn’t know anything about the “real world.” I watched the news and saw footage from war-ravaged Afghanistan and Iraq; I read my history textbooks and learned about the Holocaust in Europe and the poverty in Africa; I spoke with my neighbors, immigrants from Australia and Estonia and Somalia. The “real world” felt as real to me as Hogwarts or Panem. I recognized this ignorance in myself, but I didn’t seem to have any way to rectify it.

My senior year of high school, I’d settled on studying Modern Languages in college. I would probably attend the Ohio State University, located about twenty minutes away from my house, and graduate early. If you had asked me (or even if you ask me now) why I wanted to study languages, I really couldn’t give you an adequate response. I suppose that it was my way of making fictional characters real. After all, until you’ve met them, Italians and Germans and Argentinians are fictional. Seeing is believing, as they say. Languages would serve as my bridge to this fantastic outside world, to the abroad.

In the end, I didn’t attend the Ohio State University. I chose LIU Global, and in so doing, chose to live a four-year nomadic existence. During my freshman year in Costa Rica, I dedicated myself to a HIV/AIDS NGO. Again, I wasn’t thinking about a prospective career. I saw my classmates taking up so many noble causes—women’s rights, calls for environmental change, indigenous land protection, etc.—and I wanted to have my own. I chose AIDS awareness more out a desperate plea for meaning than any real, logical reason. It was a wonderful experience, and I continue my advocacy for the disease to this day, but I learned then that neither medicine, nor social activism is my life’s calling.

By the time I’d reached India, I knew that I needed a solid career plan, or at the very least a direction. I sat down one evening and made two lists of potential careers: one list that reflected careers for which I would be qualified upon graduating and another that reflected careers I would like to have. Two paths stood out most to me—journalism and international politics. On the one hand, I wanted to write about what is going on in the world from a firsthand perspective. On the other, I wanted to be able to participate, in some way, in actually shaping what is going on in the world. I tested the former in India by working as an intern at a local newspaper.

In China, most of my time was occupied with Mandarin classes and homework. In my spare time, I read about international relations, specifically those between the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet Union. Intrigued by the idea of a possible career in international diplomacy, I applied on a whim for an internship with the U.S. State Department. And thus I came to live in Vilnius, Lithuania, as an intern in the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy.

I’m frequently asked the question, “Have you always known that you wanted to be a diplomat?” to which I reply, “I still don’t know if I want to be a diplomat.” Without realizing it, I’ve amassed a set of qualifications that seem ideal for a U.S. Foreign Service Officer—international travel, languages, NGO work, and experience working in foreign media. But skills on paper, I know, are not indicative of one’s aptitude for success.

Today, I’m supposed to talk about how study abroad has influenced my career ambitions. And I assure you, my study abroad experiences (including this internship in Lithuania) have absolutely influenced my career goals. Do I know, unequivocally that I want to become a U.S. Foreign Service Officer? No. First of all, I now know just how competitive the hiring process is. It’s a wonderful dream career, but certainly not one that I can obtain immediately with any degree of realism. Perhaps in a few years, with a few more life experiences, I’ll feel differently. But I undoubtedly want to work in the field of international affairs. Perhaps I’ll become a contributor at a think tank, or maybe a political analyst. I don’t yet feel comfortable proclaiming a definite career choice, but I am sure that my future profession, whatever it may be, will involve international relations work of some kind and hopefully some cultural work too. Time will tell. . .

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Culture Shock, Traveling’s Unforgiving Accompaniment

If you’ve ever studied (or traveled) abroad, then you know about culture shock. Everyone talks about it and most people, I’ve found, pretend as if it doesn’t affect them. “Oh,” they’ll tell me, “you know, I don’t find [let’s say South Africa] so different from America. I love it here.” Perhaps they are telling the truth, I don’t know, but I have my reservations. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-half years abroad, with a different home every ten months or so, and I’ve yet not to experience culture shock.

Before continuing, I do want to say that I don’t think culture shock is always immediately noticeable. For me, when I step off the plane, I don’t have this sudden moment in which I’m overcome by emotion. To be honest, the disembarkation is always a bit anticlimactic. “Really? I’ve traveled nineteen hours only to end up somewhere that looks exactly like home?” Let’s face it: airports are indistinguishable from one another.

Sometimes, the drive from the airport to my ultimate destination is more striking. Even that isn’t always the case. After all, I’m in a car on a road, usually a highway. We have all of this at home, so it’s not so exciting. Occasionally, I’ll see things that are unusual—a slum in India, a monkey in Costa Rica—but nothing that makes me feel out-of-place. For a short period of time, everything feels natural. For me, culture shock doesn’t make itself evident for quite some time.

In India, I distinctly remember the moment I fully realized I was in a different country. I was riding in a rickshaw, zipping through the streets of Bangalore, coughing because of the pollution. Tears cascaded down my face, not from sadness, but because about a dozen different spices were wafting in the air. Meanwhile, twenty or thirty children were running behind, some of them missing limbs, begging me and my friends for money. The sign at the airport didn’t do it for me; this was my welcome to India.

Nowhere else have I experienced culture shock in quite the same way, but it has nevertheless been a part of  one of my trips abroad. In Lithuania, though, I find that it is a shock of a different variety. See, while much of my time is spent in the culture, much of it is also spent around Americans. I can’t even begin to explain how startling it is to realize you feel uneasiness around your own people. Having spent the vast majority of the last four years overseas, I’d forgotten some things about American society. I’d forgotten about my culture. In another post, I mentioned that I had to re-learn how to use Western utensils properly. I also had to re-learn how to respond to basic greetings, like “How are you?” This question is not an invitation to say how you actually are. Acceptable responses are “fine” and “well.” Obviously, this isn’t always the case, but we Americans have programmed such responses into our heads. They are as natural for us as breathing.

The Gilman Scholarship Program gave me a diagram (pictured below), which essentially states the nine stages of culture shock. For the most part, I agree with it, but my culture shock doesn’t match the diagram precisely. Though I have my moments of depression and homesickness, they tend to be rare and occur in bursts throughout, not Stage 3, as the diagram suggests. Moreover, most often, when it is about time to return to the United States, I don’t feel ready for it. Butterflies host a fiesta in my stomach. It doesn’t make sense, I know. Why should I be nervous going home? I guess it’s because after a year away, home doesn’t feel like home anymore. Thoughts begin to creep into my head: “What if I’ve changed? What if my friends and family have changed?”Culture Shock GraphOn my first return trip, when I was coming back from Costa Rica, I would wake up in the middle of the night and experience this strange sensation of loneliness. I was in my bed in the home I’d always lived with my family all in their own beds, and yet I felt completely and totally alone. I felt like the stereotypical misunderstood teenager. The feeling would eventually pass and I’d drift off into sleep, but the process would repeat itself again and again. I think it took about three months for the episodes to cease entirely.

Neither of my return trips from China or India produced such results. I think it’s because I could mentally prepare myself. In other words, I already knew what to expect. It’s true what they say, what the study abroad orientation people warn you about—the experience changes you. And you return home, feeling like a completely different person, but nobody else seems to notice. You’ve underwent one or two or three transformational, life altering moments. You want to tell everyone about them. Then you get home and find yourself inarticulately conveying that incredible moment to a family member or friend, and you become frustrated with yourself for your inability to do so satisfactorily. These are moments that live with you, and only you, forever. No matter how many people you tell, no matter how many photographs you show them, they’ll never understand quite the way you felt at that moment in time. It’s this inability to effectively translate my experiences to others which produced my nightly episodes upon returning home.

Hopefully, this post doesn’t dissuade any potential study abroad-ers from actually going out and studying abroad; it’s certainly not meant to do that. But feelings of isolation do affect study abroad students. I don’t think we discuss them enough because they manifest themselves in the midst of feelings of confusion and excitement and busyness, but they are just as real, and affect us just as much. In fact, I almost think that the isolationist feelings are beneficial, that they serve as a reminder—this is our experience, one that (for better or worse) cannot be taken away from us.

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Making Friends in Jordan

Wast Al-balad; what a wondrous place.  I strolled through the narrow, overstuffed streets and alleyways, keeping an eye out for pickpockets, and soaking in the sights, smells, and sounds of my new home for the next four months.  It was my first week in Jordan.  Any confidence I once had in my ability to speak and understand Arabic had already been shattered by the Jordanian who stamped my passport in the airport.  Now I just resigned myself to the fact that I had no idea what was going on and attempted to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.  “Just be cool and act like you belong” I thought to myself, “just blend in; you got this.”  This calm assurance did not really help my nerves, but it seemed like right thing to do was convince myself that I had everything under control.

 I was in downtown Jordan.  I mean downtown downtown. The heart of the city in the country’s largest market which surrounds the nation’s central mosque, masjid Malik Hussein (King Hussein’s Mosque).  My task: to find someone to talk to…for two hours…in Arabic.  Needless to say, this was a little intimidating, partially because we focused our studies on Modern Standard Arabic, which is the formal Arabic largely used in written or presentation form only, and the Egyptian dialect, which is quite different from Jordanian, and partially because that was to become part of my daily homework for the semester.  Two hours a day of conversing in Arabic with whoever I could find.  Essentially, I was required to find friends.  This was my purpose in coming to Wast Al-balad, to find somebody that would not mind chatting with an American who spoke very broken Arabic.
“I need a watch” I thought, “I will start there.”  I found a makeshift table with a young man named Alaa’ sitting behind it.  As I browsed the selection, I made small talk with him.  He was genuinely impressed that I spoke ANY Arabic and soon invited me to sit with him behind the table so we could chat.  I ended up staying for several hours; he bought me a Pepsi and endeavored to teach me the Jordanian dialect.  He eagerly introduced me to all of his friends and associates as soon as they came near.  He promised that the next time I came, he would give me the watch of my choice and that is precisely what happened.   Every time I returned, I would have to practically fight him to let me buy HIM a soda or snack.  He always insisted that I was HIS guest and he would treat me as such.  This was the routine for our weekly visit.
This same type of experience repeated itself many times over.  I cannot count the number of times I tried to pay for a good or service and was rejected saying that it was a gift.  No amount of insisting would change their minds.  I cannot count the number of invitations I received to enter friend’s homes for a full-fledged meal or for a simple snack and a bit of conversation.  I was a guest in their country and they were going to be hospitable.  End of story.
The moral of the story: In my experience in Jordan, friendship is often more important than turning a profit.  They value friendship and they demonstrate that the relationship comes before anything else.  I admit that this quality does not always manifest itself in my life back home, and I hope that is one thing I can change.  Of course, some of the invitations are only offered to be polite and are not intended to be accepted, the vast majority of the invitations I have received have been very sincere.  Frankly speaking, Jordanians are great hosts.

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Traveling: Brutality vs. Opportunity

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.

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It’s All About Perspective

“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

This quote is a very interesting one, indeed.  Although some of it I can understand completely perfectly, other parts are not quite so correct in my eyes.  Traveling abroad definitely forces one to rely on strangers, but this is not always, or even usually, a bad thing.  Relying on the help or the directions of another person is a very humbling experience and it reminds us all that we are not alone, but part of a larger world-community.  I always find that it feels really good to receive directions or help from a stranger, but it really feels fantastic passing that helpful hand on to someone else.  That need for help is something that unites us all as humans; none of us could make it day in and day out without others, but sometimes we lose track of that need because we do not realize we are relying on others.  It is often easy to forget that you are relying on your parents, your friends or your family because it is so normal.

As for the second part, it can be true that nothing is yours if you let it be.  On some of my more hopelessly homesick days, it definitely felt as if nothing was mine, nothing was normal or familiar.  It was all too easy to become preoccupied with everything strange and unfamiliar.  I have learned best on those days, that it is so important to keep a sense of what IS yours and what you CAN control.  Yes, the air, sleep, dreams, etc. that Pavese mentions are yours, but also your memories of friends and family are.  Your experiences and opportunities while traveling are most surely yours and if you are so worried about what does not fall under your control you may miss the chance to really experience the smallest moments of your days or miss the opportunities you are offered.

Really what this quote comes down to is one’s perspective.  If you spend each day seizing the opportunities and living the moments given to you, you will find new things that will become yours.  The commute to class, friends, new food or whatever else you encounter will soon make the shift from being strange to being yours.  They will not replace the things that were yours before, but they are still a valuable part of being abroad.  You may have to put your faith in people you have never met, but as long as you do it the smart way you will definitely see that these experiences can often be very positive.  These experiences have brought me to a place where I can say that Germany feels much more like home than I ever imagined it would.

               

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Filed under Carly in Germany, Western Europe, Writing Prompts