What I Learned by Traveling Abroad

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Photo by Hannes Wolf. From http://www.unsplash.com

“What you get by reaching your destination isn’t nearly as important as what you become by reaching that destination.”  – Zig Ziglar

I have been to 20 different countries and have made four trips abroad.  Each trip and each country has made an impact on me; each has taught me lessons I won’t soon forget.  I have learned so much, much more than I could write here (especially without boring you!)   Below is a list of just a of the few things that I have learned during my travels.

1. It is OK to be alone

Being alone can be scary.  Traveling can be scary.  Traveling alone can be scary.  It is OK to be alone though, not only when traveling,  but at home.  Prior to my solo trip to France I had never really been on my own for a long time.  I had been living alone for a little over a year but had never truly been completely on my own, until I hopped aboard a plane and landed in a France where everyone was a stranger.  I learned that it can be very centering and cathartic to be alone for an extended period.  I learned a lot about myself.  I learned that I am OK with being alone and that I can make myself happy.  I truly feel that you can’t really be happy being with someone else until you know that you can be happy alone.

2. I am stronger than I think

Getting on a plane and traveling thousands of miles away from your family, friends, job, and lifestyle is tough.  At home there is usually someone to turn to if you need help, but when traveling alone you only have yourself to rely on.  How do you get to the train station?  How do I find a doctor?  What do you do when you don’t speak the language?  It can be overwhelming and difficult. I am an introvert and I was forced to come out of my shell, talk to people, use all kinds of resources, and get things done all by myself.  Were there times when I wanted to break down and cry because I missed everyone?  Yes.  Were there times where I wanted to give up because it was hard?  Absolutely.  You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone.  By navigating truly foreign situations I found out that I am a lot stronger than I thought and capable of great things.

3. Most people everywhere are really friendly

As I stated earlier, I am an introvert.  I have never been outgoing, never enjoyed situations like parties or places where one is forced to interact with other people.  Studying abroad in a language immersion program made me have to speak to tons of people every day, whether in a classroom, in a cafeteria, on a field trip, etc.  I lodged in a home with a family so I had the experience of daily interaction in a familial situation.  Everyone that I dealt with, from teachers, other foreign students of many nationalities, my exchange family, and others were always very friendly and happy to help with anything.  People in pastry shops, museums, book stores, and other places were, for the most part, amicable and engaging.

4. I wanted to marry my (now) husband

I met my husband in the middle of December and a couple months later decided to study abroad during the summer.  I knew it was only a short period of time to be away from home but was concerned that a new relationship might not be able to withstand us being on opposite sides of the globe.  I was in love with my husband (then boyfriend) before I left and my absence from him only confirmed my feelings of wanting to be with him forever.

5. Even if you are walking everywhere, all those pastries, that chocolate, and rich food is going to catch up with you

I thought that by walking from morning until night all around the city would help me lose weight while I was gone.  I went up and down a street with four flights of stairs to get to my exchange family’s home multiple times a day.  I visited countless museums and walked to the beach daily.  None of that was enough to counteract the delicious pastries and chocolate that tempted me from shop windows or cafes and the rich food served by the school cafeteria chefs.  I gained almost 10 pounds by the time I got home… but every bite was worth it.

6. The world is a much bigger place than you can imagine

I come from a small town of about 200 people.  My high school graduating class had 25 kids.  I had dreamed of going abroad for years, read so much about Europe, and watched so many TV programs, but I still had major culture shock when I went to Europe for the first time at 18 and got to experience cities like London and Berlin.  There were more people on one city block than in my whole town.  Everything seemed so big, so old, so full of history, and so full of people.  It was mind-boggling to me that we could drive around Europe and visit so many different countries and cultures and still not even scratch the surface.

7. Americans live so differently from people elsewhere

I was amazed when I went to Mexico with the Girl Scouts as a teenager.  We did a service project in a very poor neighborhood in Mexico City.  Once place we went was to a preschool, where we handed out toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other basic toiletries to the children.  I was appalled at the condition of the preschool- everything looked like broken throwaways- never would you see a preschool in the United States looking like this.  It really hit home to me that for these kids this was normal.  Even though my family was not rich by American standards, I realized that there are so many people in this world who did not have so much, and it made me very appreciative of what I had and where I lived.

When I visited peoples’ homes in France and Germany, or saw photographs of my fellow students’ homes, it was clear that many Americans live so differently from a lot of the world.  The size of the house I grew up in and the size of the house I live in now are huge compared to so many that I saw.  Americans have so many more material possessions than a lot of people of other nationalities.  Does it add quality to our life?  Are we better off because we have so many more things?  Not necessarily.  When I last moved I enjoyed getting rid of a lot of unnecessary belongings.  It felt very good to simplify.  In the last few years I have been trying to gift or buy “experiences,” rather than things.  A trip, a concert, or a museum visit that I can share with friends or loved ones holds much more value to me than material gifts.

8. Expect the unexpected

No matter how much you plan or how organized you are, something unexpected happens.  What do you do?  Just roll with it.

 When I traveled to Mexico I was supposed to have a state-issued ID (I was too young to drive so I did not have a driver’s license) and a copy of my birth certificate.  My mom got a driver’s license-sized hard card copy of my birth certificate, thinking it would be more convenient and better to carry with me than a regular copy of my birth certificate.  Unfortunately, at the airport three hours away from home and my parents, the airline did not want to accept the card and said I had to stay while my Girl Scout leaders and friends got to board a plane for Mexico.  Are you kidding me?  I turned on the waterworks and the grumpy airline worker relented and I was able to board the plane.

One night during one trip to France, about three o’clock in the morning, actually, I was awakened by fire alarms blaring and knocking on my hotel room door.  I hurriedly made my way down to the street below and waited for firefighters to give the all-clear so we could head back inside. Luckily it was just a small cooking fire and not anything worse, especially because in my sleepy trip out of the hotel I had forgotten to grab my passport.

Another time in France, friends and I had taken a short trip to Marseilles.  While walking back to our hotel from the beach one of my friends who was a waiter in Paris saw one of his regular customers.  The customer invited us to visit his summer home and meet his wife the next afternoon.  We did and were treated to a delicious spread of wine, olives, grapes, cheese, pastry, lots of other fantastic food, and a great time.  Even though I didn’t understand all of the conversation, I felt very welcome and it was an afternoon I will never forget.

9. Some of the smallest things are the most memorable

One afternoon on my way to a museum I was walking down a cobblestone street and gazing in shop windows when a destitute man came up to me asking for cigarettes.  I told him that I had none and he began to tease me and ask for a kiss instead.  Even though the interaction only lasted a couple minutes I will always remember it.

Sunbathing on the beach one afternoon I was lonely and missing home.  I was listening to music that reminded me of my boyfriend with my headphones on and the volume high.  I had my eyes closed.  After some time had passed and I heard a lady who had been sunbathing near me say something to me: “Pardon, mademoiselle, mais la mer…”  I didn’t hear what she was trying to tell me but I saw she had gotten up and walked away.  I closed my eyes and a few minutes later had a very cold surprise.  I had lain on the beach long enough that the incoming tide had finally reached me.  That’s what my sunbathing neighbor had tried warning me about.

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