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lessons learned from abroad, pt. 2

I was recently invited to a conference for returned Oklahoman study abroaders called Lessons Learned From Abroad. I can’t go, but I am looking forward to seeing the livetweets - and of course, now I’m thinking about what I DID learn.

 

from Etsy

When I traveled around, more than one person told me to slow down because otherwise, I wouldn’t have anything left to see with my husband and kids.

Never slow down. Like the song says, there’s such a lot of world to see.

Even if you somehow miraculously manage to see everything in the whole entire world, there is always something beautiful and new and exciting to be discovered in your favorite places.

(You also shouldn’t plan your life around maybes and wants and somedays. Or other people, for that matter, but I digress.)

You’ll never see it all because the world is constantly changing and growing and expanding and contracting. Everything changes and yet stays the same.

You’ll never see it all, but if you start soon, you’ll see a lot.

lessons learned from abroad, pt. 1

I was recently invited to a conference for returned Oklahoman study abroaders called Lessons Learned From Abroad. I can’t go, but I am looking forward to seeing the livetweets - and of course, now I’m thinking about what I DID learn.

When people ask that, I usually flippantly say something like, “EVERYTHING!” or “How awesome everything is!” At the same time, though, I’d describe study abroad as the most transformative experience in my life - hence why I’m still talking about it.

So while I’m planning to continue my posts about my trip to the northeastern US, I want to take a break to think about some of the lessons I learned while in The Netherlands.

Here’s number one:

This pin has been making its way around Pinterest, and it really struck a chord with me.

At first, I thought it was because I am just so dang busy. I’m always rushing from meetings to class to my computer so I can answer emails to work.

But then I realized it’s more than that. I hate being busy because I learned in Utrecht what it’s like not to be busy. In Utrecht, I wasn’t a part of any organization. I wasn’t a leader. I didn’t have a job. If you read that to most any American, they’d tell you I was lazy and a bum and probably was miserable.

You know what? I was so blissfully happy. I spent six months reconnecting with what I like to do, with how I like to spend my time, with what makes me happy. I wasn’t a bum, I’d say, since I ended up traveling to 13 different countries.

Beyond that, because I wasn’t so busy, my downtime became more meaningful. When I get break in normal life, I do nothing. I sit in my bed, I don’t put on pants, and I flip back and forth between tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. When I got a break in Utrecht, I explored. I tried new recipes, stumbled into new stores, biked a new path, wandered through a new park.

I am not happier when I am busier. I don’t want to be busy, but that’s not a thing you can say in North America. If I’m not busy, I’m lazy, and if I’m lazy, I’ll never get a job.

Maybe there’s some truth to that. Maybe I need to stay busy to feel like I have a purpose. But should I or anyone be expected to be on-call on the weekends? Should we take on as much as possible? Should we wear our activities and our stresses like a badge of honor?

I don’t think so.

Don’t Be Afraid To Like It

image

Sing it with me: what happened to Miss Independent?

When you talk to people in their 40s or 50s about traveling, they say one of two things: ‘I always wished I could have done that’ or ‘I went through Europe on my own for a while during college!’

But when I tell people that I spent a month traveling by myself in the UK at age 19, or that I flew by myself to Canada, or that I toured Seattle on my own, they seem horrified. How could a young, single female do that? ON HER OWN? It’s vaguely insulting, but I understand their thought process.

Everything in the news is about women getting kidnapped alone, women getting swept up in riots, women getting raped, women getting mugged. And when you consider the most popular college study abroad tours, you’ll note that they are just that: tours. They’re students of the same nationality from the same college being led by a professor from their college - seeing the sights, not learning the culture. While my opinions on that are for another post, I think the rise of these tours speaks to a larger phenomenon: we’re afraid to travel alone.

Women especially are afraid to travel alone. I understand this impulse. I traveled with my study abroad buddy Sasha for most of my trips, and we had a great time. We complemented each other well: her navigational skills, my willingness to talk to strangers. I genuinely loved traveling with her and would do it again in a heartbeat, but in many ways, we were each others’ training wheels. Together, we learned the skills necessary to get by when traveling, and then, we split up.

Because our summer breaks started at different times, and because we had different interests, we chose to travel alone for extended periods of time: she to the South of France and the Costa Brava, me to the UK.

This was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Traveling alone gave me complete freedom. When I was tired, I slept. When my feet hurt, I sat down. When I needed a TGI Fridays fix, I got it (and judged myself silently). Of course, you have these freedoms if you’re traveling in small groups (though not in tours). But here’s what you don’t have:

I got to pursue my very specific interests. I can think of no one in my life who would be as interested in Beatles minutiae as I am. No one else would care about taking a tour of BBC Wales and then finding all the Doctor Who locations. Who else gives a care about the map store in London? John Wesley’s home church in Bristol? Cadbury World?

Sure, I might could find people who were interested in a combination of a few of those things. But everything? No way.

By traveling alone, I got to see exactly what I wanted to see. This was cool, but what was cooler were the skills I learned by relying only on myself.

I figured out how to trust my intuition, how to read a map, how to haul huge suitcases around a mall. I got better at figuring out exactly how long I could be on my feet without needing to chop them off the next day. I figured out exchange rates and conversions, and I knew when I was being ripped off. I dramatically improved my skills at making small talk without committing to a traveling relationship with people (what up, Kansan from the Nos Da in Cardiff!). I figured out who to talk to in public (hello, older couples at Ragtime in London) and how to pick someone to take your pictures when you can’t handle anymore selfies (young tourists).

But most importantly, I realized that I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I can entertain myself, and I can keep myself alive. Aren’t those the two skills what you’re supposed to get out of college? They’re certainly the two skills I have used the most.

Lost in OKC? I can handle it. Need to spend a day on my own waiting for a flight but the Internet’s out? Perfect. Walking alone in a sketchy part of town, waiting to see my friend finish her half marathon? No big deal. I can take care of myself, and I can ask for help when I need it.

These skills served me well as I embarked on my big trip to see Sasha in Canada. Though she and her family graciously hosted me, there were times that I necessarily had to be alone, and that suited me fine. I knew what to do when I had an asthma attack biking, and I was able to stay calm as homeless people screamed at me in Seattle.

Is it tough to travel on your own? Sure, sometimes. You have to be smart about it, and you have to have your wits about you. But it’s not so hard, and if you take precautions, it’s very safe. I never even had any scares, even in big cities after dark.

There are many, many stories that came out of my trip to Canada. I want to tell them to you, and I will, soon. But I would have never taken this trip without my independent travel experiences or if I were scared of being by myself in a strange city. I would have missed out on a beautiful reunion, a gorgeous part of the world, eclectic markets, mild weather, mountains, valleys, lakes and straits if I were waiting on someone to come with me. Kelowna, BC isn’t tops on many Texans’ travel lists, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful or that I shouldn’t go because I’d be alone. Being able to go where I want to go when I want to go, even if I don’t have a companion, is a beautiful gift.

And I want you to have it, too.

image

Selfie on the way up to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. Being alone doesn’t mean you aren’t in any pictures.

Still, despite all this, traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt…that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby — I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to — I just don’t care.


--Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

step one

I hate inspirational posters.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating because they are JUST THE WORST. Ain’t nothin’ inspiring about bad fonts and stock photos. I also associate them with my seventh-grade English teacher, who turned out to be a pedophile, so there’s that as well.

I’m a product of the public school system, so I’ve been exposed to literally hundreds of inspirational posters in a misguided attempt to keep me from dropping out or something. And I must say, they have all been awful, but one stuck with me: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

As I blogged earlier, I currently have no idea what I want to do with my life, other than travel. I know that I don’t want to be a journalist, but I’m still trying to figure out where I’m meant to be.

Here’s another thing I know: since I made the decision to pursue travel after graduation instead of a career per se, my life has become a million times less stressful and a million times more full of hope. The thought of senior year no longer makes me break out (all these zits are from other stressors).

Because I’m Type-A and an incredible fan of plans, deciding to travel doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about post-grad. Not by a long shot. Instead, here’s what I’ve been thinking:

1) I plan to apply for a Mitchell Scholarship. These scholarships enable seven or so Americans each year to finish a master’s degree at a university in Ireland or Northern Ireland. I’m writing my honors thesis on pop culture representations of the Northern Irish Troubles, so this is definitely an intriguing option! Of course, the odds are pretty slim.

2) I may apply for a Fulbright Scholarship. I am less convinced that this is the right program for me at this point in my life.

3) If I don’t receive a scholarship to go abroad, I think I’ll apply to be an au pair. I love kids and am good with them, so this would be a really interesting way to see the world while being gainfully employed, which is what I’m all about.

Of course, it’s hard to research when you don’t know all the options. What’s your favorite way to go abroad after completing your undergraduate work? Do you have any experience with the options I’m considering?

laughing in galway

I’ve spent the past semester-and-a-half staring at four words: live what you love. I found the canvas at Hobby Lobby for $30 and threw it up on the wall because I am really great at living what I love — when it’s easy.

For instance, I love hugging babies, so I work at a church. I do not like dealing with them when they are being crazy, so I do not work full-time at a church. I love brownies, so I eat brownies. I do not love shopping for jeans, so I do not eat brownies on the daily. I love writing, so I majored in journalism.

I do not love journalism, so I will not be a journalist.

It seems so easy when you lay it out like that. Don’t want to be a journalist? Don’t be a journalist. Don’t want to get fat? Don’t eat brownies. But in actuality, it’s the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with since the never-ending trauma of picking a college in a first place.

I have done all the right things. I’ve applied myself in school; I’ve worked for different publications through Student Media and worked with video and coding and radio. I have taken diverse classes and talked to interesting people and even networked (that dirty word!).

But that doesn’t change the fact that I am not passionate about truth-telling journalism the way my friend Amy is. I’m not passionate about contract work for non-profit PR firms the way my friend Sydney is. I’m not passionate about telling people’s stories the way my roommate Tegan is.

I’m passionate about travel.

But what do you do with that, hm? Travel is expensive, and my bank account is incredibly finite. Beyond that, how do you go from being Responsible Kate to dropping everything to travel? I am well aware that everyone but my parents expects me to have an incredible job, to have A journalism job, but I have come to terms with this fact:

At this point in my life, it’s not what I want.

I have thought long and hard about what I want, and the answer just keeps coming back to me: explore, explore, explore. I want to chart new paths; I want to get to know people the way I got to know people in Utrecht. I want to learn a city, to say “that’s the expensive grocery store! That’s the good bookstore!”

This is an incredibly scary prospect. The whole concept of graduating and being an adult and having to pay car insurance and phone bills and for groceries is actually terrifying. When you add in this total 180, it gets extremely overwhelming. Like, I-need-to-book-a-ticket-to-Canada-to-get-away-from-this overwhelming.

I have a mental list going right now of things I could possibly do. I plan to apply for as many scholarships as I am qualified for to study another year in Europe. I also plan to apply for many scholarships I am not qualified for. I’m looking into being an au pair. I will buy literally any book on Amazon about how to travel for free.

If I’m totally honest with myself, which I try very hard not to be, here’s where I see myself in two years: standing on a cobblestone street in Galway in the winter, laughing as the snow comes down.

(This is a very random dream — I’ve never been to Galway nor particularly obsessed over it — but I know it’s a dream because I look cute in it, which I never do in the snow.)

But, my friends, you don’t get to laugh in Galway just because you graduate. You laugh in Galway because sometimes, miracles just happen and your life works out.

Also, sometimes, you laugh in Norman, Oklahoma because sometimes, your life doesn’t work out and you need something to cut that beautiful Hallmark moment and remind yourself that really, you have no plans.

Maybe I should invest in a “reality check” painting.

Moving Forward

You decide, “Hey! Let’s go to Italy this weekend!” You don’t care where you go. You don’t care how you get there. You compare Eurolines to Ryanair to EasyJet, refreshing every page constantly.

"Are the prices lower?! What about now? Is 18 hours on a bus worth it? Is 40 euro worth it?"

You pour a glass of wine to help make your choice clear. “I’M GOING FOR THE 30 EURO FLIGHT FOR MILAN,” you yell.

Study abroaders, you know what I’m talking about. This is your Vegas, your game of craps. The rush you get from frantically trying to remember your credit card number before someone buys that last seat is beyond compare.

It’s what I miss most about exchange.

But, instead of posting yet another whiny blog post about how much I miss everything and how wonderful travel is, I got proactive.

image

That’s right, y’all.

I’m going to SASHA.

(When you write it like that, it sort of seems like I booked a ticket to some exotic nightclub in Victoria, which I suppose the Gronsdaddy Pad could be…questions to ask)

I redeemed my miles from my trip to Spain and my trip to Amsterdam and booked a trip to Canada. I am elated to be headed back to see my study abroad buddy, and I’m even more excited to travel again.

There’s something so exhilarating about going somewhere you’ve never been. I love the feeling you get when you think you’re about to be lost, you think you’re about to die or get taken or lose all your money, but you end up succeeding. I’m addicted to the new accents, landscapes, billboards, currencies — but most importantly, I’m addicted to new passport stamps.

And Canada, I’m gonna lay this out plain: if I don’t get a maple leaf passport stamp, I will be UP. SET.


I'm Kate. I really like frosted cherry PopTarts and the caps lock key.