I’ve come across a few articles lately that are along the lines of “how travel/living abroad” changed my life. I particularly enjoyed this one by Crystal, which focused on the money saving tips she picked up by living overseas for four years. However, there are a lot of different ways you grow and change by traveling, and I decided it’s time that I reflected on how my travels have affected my own life.
I was having an email discussion with some friends about what kind of travels we’ve tried or would be willing to try, and solo travel was one of those options. Many people said they would never do it, but it occurs to me that not only have I been to probably 40 or so states completely on my own, I’ve now also checked out a few foreign countries as a solo traveler. In France, some of the people I met couldn’t believe that I was brave enough to travel on my own – but it just didn’t seem like a big deal to me. Funny how my perspective has totally changed!
In a few weeks, I’ll be going on a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. I did a summer study abroad there between my sophomore and junior years of high school, and I’m really ashamed of how I didn’t take advantage of the experience. While I had been to Europe a few times before that, it was always with my parents to visit my family in Warsaw, where my dad grew up. I accepted the prospect of flying alone in stride, knowing that there would be someone at the other end holding a placard with my name and taking care of me until I was back home. I wasn’t really worried about taking care of myself, which I was already used to doing in college; what I couldn’t handle was being on my own.
I didn’t make friends as easily there as I did at home, and I found myself very lonely. As a result, I covered up my insecurities by bonding with my one friend, Heather, about how Denmark was “backwards” compared to the US. I didn’t appreciate the culture one bit; instead, I constantly compared it to life back home, construing anything unfamiliar as “bad” and anything Americanized as “good.” For example:
-An honor system on the train for ticketing? Bad – don’t these people know that if you don’t make people pay, they’re not going to? What a waste of lost revenue!
-McDonalds on the corner by the train station? Good – what a great source of drunk food at 2am before heading home on a Saturday night.
Ugh! I really regret how I squandered that opportunity, and am really looking forward to going back and seeing the incredible culture I’ve since read about and missed.
After college, I immediately took a job in consulting, which had me traveling to work at my client site four days a week, every week. My first long term assignment was in Boston, which was an easy commute and an easy city to get to know (being so similar to New York). Being in Boston this past weekend for pleasure made me nostalgic for that time – and with the lens of “how I’ve grown from travel,” I couldn’t believe my change in attitude. When my friend with whom I was staying had a volunteer commitment on Sunday afternoon, I headed off to a pub in Harvard Square to read, play on my computer, and people watch. I giggled to myself as I thought of the night a few years ago where I went to dinner by myself. I was so unused to the idea of eating alone that I asked my manager for advice on a good place to go, where I could sit at the bar so as to dine alone in an inconspicuous manner, and I could chat with the bartender throughout my meal. After all that courage, the bartender ended up being too busy to talk to me, and I spent the meal feeling horribly uncomfortable and self-importantly thinking everyone was staring at me and wondering what kind of a misfit I was that I had to dine alone. Today, I actually welcomed the opportunity to go grab a bite on my own – it’s harder to people watch when you’re with someone and have to keep making conversation and eye contact!
On the negative side, I’m probably not as fun of a group traveler as I once was. When I went to the Dominican last summer for my brother’s wedding, my family’s inexperienced packing skills and maladroitness at navigating the airport drove me nuts; this weekend in Boston, I was itching to go off and do my own thing instead of what the group wanted to do, but probably would have hurt people’s feelings by doing so. I don’t have the same awe I once did at the massive flying machines that somehow stay aloft and can shuttle us from place to place in such a time efficient manner, and I don’t get easily impressed by an expensive restaurant unless the food is really exceptional. All of this makes me worry more and more that I’m turning into a snob… but I think that worldliness doesn’t have to translate into snobbery if covered with a down to earth manner and genuine appreciation for the unique opportunities I’ve had. I think travel has turned me into a much more confident and self-reliant person, and I’m grateful for that transformation. Now, I just have to hope I can find someone else who can catch up 🙂
What has travel taught you about yourself?