A Thought about Culture

At the risk of sounding cliche, here’s one thought I have about culture. When you travel to a foreign country you are an ambassador of your home culture to your host culture. It is your responsibility to represent your country while remaining respectful of the host culture’s norms. As an example, if I happen to be the first American that someone meets, they may think all Americans are like me (in whatever way they choose to define that). Of course that’s not true, but that’s the impression that travellers have the power of giving. I really think it’s something people need to be way more aware of.

There is a reason for this thought. Today I attended an orientation as a required part of my teaching program. Most of it was in Spanish so there was an added level of difficulty to the day for most of us in the room. I happened to sit next to a group of individuals who were irate that they’re orientation was not conducted in their language. Alas, we are in Spain. Hearing Spanish shouldn’t be shocking. They were annoyed, whispering amongst themselves (loudly), and one even said she wanted to throw her water bottle at the kind woman informing us about our new jobs. “Are you kidding me?!” I thought to myself. There’s no need to throw a tantrum. If you have a question, politely raise your hand. Don’t pretend like this woman cannot understand you just because you cannot understand her. And in fact she could, and she was not happy. The interculturalist in me was furious.

The aforementioned female is going to be teaching elementary aged children for the next 10 months. She is going to be sharing her culture with these young people and teaching them about life in the US. If she starts throwing things at them when she’s upset, this class may think Americans are… (you can fill in the blank). I’m sure she will not actually throw things, but sometimes words are just as powerful as actions.

It makes me feel sad for her class. Unless she quickly understands that the way she presents herself to the people she meets has a ripple effect, these students may acquire a false impression of all Americans. This is exactly the opposite objective to the reason she was hired for her job in Spain. 

I’m not saying she was wrong to feel a certain way in that situation – it was stressful, I get it. My point is that you cannot travel internationally and expect things to be handed to you in the same way they are where you’re from. The way in which cultures differ is what makes this world such an amazing place to explore. Part of me wishes I had asked her “if you’re not into it, why are you here?”.

The Grocery Blues

It is not fun to go food shopping with me. I aimlessly wander up and down the aisles lacking the decision-making talents it takes to shop for a meal. Even when I make lists, I can’t stay organized enough to go aisle by aisle. I end up walking the length of the store many times causing the outing to take a very long time. I despise this activity almost as much as I dislike cooking the food I buy.

To me, shopping for food is by far the most intimidating and difficult part of living in a foreign country. You think you know the words for the things you want to buy. Produce of course is simple because sight alone is your guide. But then you get to the things you add to veggies. You look all over the shelves for something in particular (Is it even sold here? Hard to know…What am I even looking for?). Labels look completely different, company logos make the actual name of the product confusing, and questions like “which milk is skim?” are hard to answer. Add to that the pangs of hunger, the narrow isles, and the over-sized baskets blocking people trying to pass and it’s a recipe for anxiety.

You finally get to the register where (you don’t know it but) you are expected to bag your own items. So you begin and then someone rapidly says numbers to you. As fast as you can, you stop bagging your food, translate, find this amount of money, and then breathe because you’ve survived. But then the next customer’s food comes moving down the belt and just as you realize you’re being rushed out the door, your apples fall on the floor and roll into oblivion. (Okay this last part didn’t happen exactly like this, but I did drop 4 apples on the floor in the middle of an isle my first day here. I endured many strange glares as I chased them in 4 different directions and tried to hide my embarrassment.)

I know this same thing happens in stores at home in it’s own unique way. I know it’s a part of adjusting to a new culture, and these things will get easier. For me this was a simple exercise in remembering the things we take for granted in life. You don’t know how comforting it is to understand social norms or to read a simple label until you suddenly can’t.

Lost but not Lost

Hola desde Madrid!

Well, I’m here and I think I’m finally over jet lag. I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring the neighborhoods around my new home, and so far I’m loving this city! Little by little I’m getting over my shyness of speaking Spanish (thanks to my new friend Sonia!) and hopefully that will continue to improve as each day passes.

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My new home

If you’ve ever travelled with me then you know I have an abysmal sense of direction. Like really, it’s terrible. Yesterday I set out to find la Plaza Mayor, a main focal point of Madrid and quite close my apartment. It shouldn’t have been hard at all but I ended up more than a mile east of where I wanted to be. That means for at least 20 minutes I was walking in the completely opposite direction from what I thought.

The upside of being lost is that you find awesome things you weren’t intentionally trying to find. I ended up at the Botanical Gardens near Retiro Park, which I had on my list of places to visit anyway. It was so beautiful and very tranquil. It’s so nice to find such peaceful spots in the middle of a bustling city. I meandered for a while and watched some very cool birds hop around and chase each other. (I have a feeling I will be a birdwatcher later in life, but I’ll save that story for another day.) Here are some photos of things I’ve seen so far.

One of my favorite quotes is “not all those who wonder are lost.” Figuratively speaking, I consider myself far from lost. Unfortunately my spatial awareness proves otherwise in the literal sense.

“You must be SO excited!”

I hate the word goodbye. It always feels so final. And since I leave places (to go to new ones!) frequently, “goodbye” doesn’t work for me. I’m a much bigger fan of “see you later.” It feels less serious and, unless I’m referring to a total stranger, it’s true. I will most likely see this person at another time.

Preparing to leave the country for about a year is a daunting task. I’ve had to scatter my belongings in various locations (thank you if you’re currently storing something I own), make sure I’m covered by a US health insurance (still unclear on this point), and many other logistical things that have been on my to-do list for months. I’m finally through most of it and the only thing I have left to do aside from packing is to say “see you later” to my family and my boyfriend – I’m dreading it!

IMG_4102Before I get sappy, I wanted to say a massive thank you to the family and friends that celebrated my adventure with me last weekend. My parents had a joint bon voyage/birthday party for me and my sister on Saturday. It was a blast! It was incredible to hear so many people tell me how proud they are of me. It was really humbling to be honest. Like I’ve said before I don’t really think I’m being brave, but there are other people who really do.

Anyway, I said “see you later” to about 60 people in one day, and I’ve said it to many others since quitting my job last June. So it’s been a long process. With my departure rapidly approaching (tomorrow, ahhh!), everyone is expecting me to tell them how excited I am. But I’m having a hard time mentally moving past the airport hugs and tears and to grasp that I’ll be in Madrid in less than 48 hours.

It’s funny how hard it is to leave this time. I’ve lived abroad twice before and both times I practically jumped on the plane without a care in the world. This time is different for many reasons that I won’t go on about. But no one talks about this part of moving abroad. No one ever brings up the logistical (emotional) nightmare it is to move out of an apartment you share with your partner and watch his new roommate move it. No one casually chats about saying bye to their dog (who has no idea what I’m saying or that I’ll be back). And no one mentions the confusion caused by having so much stuff and no where to put it. My point is not for people to feel bad for me. On the contrary I’m trying to provide an honest perspective about why excited isn’t the adjective I choose when people ask me how I feel right now.

All that said, I am extremely happy that the time to go is finally here. I’m sure excitement will settle in once the plane lands across the pond.

Unexpected Inspiration

Two days ago, after reading my blog, a friend recommended I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. He warned me that I would need to set aside a few solid hours after I picked it up because it’s that good. I’m not an avid reader, and I often abandon books partway through for one reason or another. But this one is different. I read it in two sittings.

It’s a simple story about following your heart and listening to what it truly wants. Be ready for some spiritual and existential ideas thrown at you, but most of all, be ready to start asking yourself some real questions. Since writing my first post four days ago, two friends have told me that I’ve inspired them to do the thing they want most. To those friends, and to others yearning for something deep down, read The Alchemist. May it bring you peace in following your dream.

Easier Said than Done

Okay, I admit – leaping is far harder than it looks. Otherwise, I would’ve just gotten on a plane 4 years ago and brushed away all the “what ifs.”

My dream was on hold until later. Until I could afford it. Until I had X years of work experience on my resumé. Until my parents thought it was a good idea. Until…. My list of “until’s” was extensive, but excuses made it easier to accept that it wasn’t the right time. I tried making it happen in 2012 and because of a long wait list, it didn’t work out. Then I fell in love (with my partner and his dog), got a new job, moved to a new city. I thought the idea might go away eventually – staying was just easier. But every time someone asked me what I did for work, I would always find myself saying “…and I really want to teach abroad someday.”

“Why don’t you teach here?” they would ask. I studied education in college and learned how much of a curriculum is guided by standardized testing. Not my thing. “But you travel all the time!” they continued. As I mentioned before, work travel can be frustrating, and lacks the immersion experience I crave.

So why now? It’s not like the until’s just disappear. Simply put, it was now or never. My partner and I have been together for over two years, and the pressure of the next step was looming in the not-so-distant future. (Luckily, he is 110% supportive of this.) Grad school is also on my list of goals, so now seems like as good a time as ever to spend some time away before hitting the books for a few years. And those student loans will be there until they’re not, so that excuse really needed to be tossed out the window.

The point I’m getting at is that life will always present you with things that complicate other things. There will always be reasons to stay. I struggled with these reasons for a very long time. Honestly, the hardest part for me is remaining confident while some of the people in my life do not think this is a good idea. It’s difficult feeling like you’re letting someone down. What I realized is that not everyone sees the world in the same way I do (obviously, right?). When you make a choice in life, you won’t always have the support of everyone you’d like it from. And that’s okay. Sometimes you have to be a little selfish. Otherwise, what’s the point of having goals? For me, making peace with my desire to live abroad and maintaining conviction in choosing to finally do it has been really freeing.

I don’t consider myself brave or courageous. If anything, I’m silly for ignoring myself for this long. If there’s something you really want out of this life you have to make it happen. Sometimes it feels impossible, but I’m learning it’s a lot more simple than it has to be.

Taking the Leap

This is a story is about following your dreams.

It started five years when ago I decided I wanted to teach English abroad. It was November of my senior year in college; a very confusing time in life. I was clueless about my future, terrified of the real world, and hopelessly afflicted by the travel bug (which I caught from my incredible, life-changing semester in Perugia, Italy). I was excited to have “a plan” for after graduation. When I shared this news with my parents, they followed my smiling optimism with two words about what my life would look like one year from then. Student loans: the financial burden that all college graduates procrastinate to accept. The reality that life can’t be paid for by a check from the bursar’s office, and the acceptance that a 9-5 job is the only answer to the burning question of “what will I do when I graduate?”

So it was with great disappointment that I put the dream of teaching abroad on the back burner until later. I’ve spent the last 4 years working as a Study Abroad Advisor, sharing my love and knowledge of travel with others. I met a lot of amazing people, some of whom are now my closest friends.  Sometimes travel opportunities arose. I lived in Barcelona, spent extensive time in Ireland and then in London. I visited California, Colorado, Oregon, and many other places – all paid for by someone else. What more could I ask for?

A little known fact about work-travel is that it’s really not all it’s cracked up to be. Hours of driving through cornfields in Iowa and traffic on I-95. Solo meals in places you’ve never heard of. The once-in-a-while travel I did for this job wasn’t fulfilling my passion for international travel, or my desire to live abroad. And my #1 client was The Helicopter Parent who is famed for calling at 9:01 Monday morning, angry because you STILL haven’t returned their last 3 emails – all sent over the weekend. At the start of every semester, I promised myself it would be the last.

Alas, after 4 years of being miserable in a sales position, and realizing that it was really now or never, I quit my job in June. And I’ve never looked back. I spent an amazing summer teaching English to international high school students in western MA, and I leave for Madrid, Spain in 10 days to embark on a year of teaching at a primary school. I’m 26, and admittedly I feel a little old to be doing this now (just as all my friends are getting married, buying houses, and having kids). In the end, taking the leap to follow my dream is the most fulfilling decision I’ve made.

For me, travel is so much more than visiting a new place. It’s about diving into the culture, trying to learn the language, and seeing the local way of life. I’ll be documenting my year through some thoughts about life, language, culture and more. My hope is that my story will resonate in some others who are putting their dreams on hold until a later that might never come.