Sunday, April 6, 2014

Life Lessons Living Abroad (Part 2)

In 2012, I had my first opportunity to jump the border and spend four months of the autumn semester in Stirling, Scotland.  Now that I’m back in that same place, but during a different time of year, and a different time in my life, reflecting on my past experience has brought to light how much I have changed since that first trip.  Traveling is one of those terrifyingly exciting experiences that fully exposes your weaknesses and strengths in addition to your fears and desires.  This list is not only about the life lessons I have learned throughout my travels, but also hints and tips in regards to making your way through foreign territory.

1. Be bold. Don’t be afraid to do something aside from your normal routine, like studying abroad, taking a job or internship on the other side of the country, or committing to a month-long mission trip in a third world country. If you are hesitant about making the first move, do it anyway.  You will regret turning down those opportunities.  There is a reason you have that opportunity, so take it! “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” - FDR.

2. Be open to new relationships. There is no such thing as a “friend quota.” I once thought there was a time in your life where you stop meeting people and stop doing new things, allowing life to become mundane and stagnant.  In fact, it is the opposite.  The older you become, and the more you grow into the person you were made to be, the more likely you are to find friends who truly understand you.  These new relationships are often life-changing and worth the effort to make the first introduction.

3. Always try a country’s national dish.  Whether it is mussels, waffles, chocolate and beer in Belgium, haggis, Irn Bru and shortbread in Scotland or mate, completos and terremotos in Chile, do not let your taste buds down.  Food is one of my favorite parts about travel; you learn about the folklore behind the dish and have the chance to embrace the lifestyle of a native by eating something routine in their daily lives.

4. Hostels over hotels.  Do not let the film Hostel scare you away from saving money; hostels are one of the coolest ideas that seem to have been forgotten in the States.  They are very inexpensive and make traveling around Europe a lot more college-budget friendly.  Not only do most youth hostels offer kitchens, free wi-fi, free all-you-can-eat breakfast and late night bars serving food and drink, but you also get to meet other travelers exploring the world and learn a little bit about their own stories.  

5. Learn how to read a map.  I cannot stress this enough.  Without 3G and wi-fi, Google Maps is useless while backpacking through Europe.  Our generation has allowed the GPS to be our guiding voice but it is time to break free from that habit.  You will learn more about the place you are visiting and be more likely to remember how to navigate that area.

6. Go to local spots just as much as tourist spots.  The tourists spots are there for a reason and if you are willing to spend the money, they are usually worth it.  In order to truly experience a culture, though, ask locals what their favorite restaurant is or what they fancy doing on a weekend trip or night out on the town.  Place yourself in their shoes.

7. Be proud of your heritage.  Represent your country with positivity.  Embrace your accent, your hair color, your skin color, your favorite past time and your country’s traditions.  Allow your identity to be shaped by these qualities.

8. Life is short.  Make the most of it by saying “yes” as often as you can and stop hesitating when making decisions, whether small or big.  This is not an excuse for having a “YOLO” attitude, though. Be smart when you make the best out of every day!

9. Relax, be still.  Enjoy the simplicity found in quiet moments.  Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” - John Lubbock.

10. Face time over FaceTime.  It is no secret that today’s 20-somethings have a major attachment to technology.  Learn from your elders, they have something we seem to have forgotten: the power of face-to-face interaction.  While living in Scotland I earned how beneficial it is to fully give your attention to another person.  The mutual disregard of texting, tweeting and Facebook messaging while hanging out with another person truly enhances the conversation and relationship.  Let it go.  A text can always wait.

11. Be encouraged, not discouraged.  Traveling is not always magical.  A lot goes wrong and those inevitable disasters can seem to ruin a trip.  Instead of allowing those incidents to bring you down, let them build you up.  Without realizing it, every trial teaches us a lesson and is often just what we needed to learn.

12. Beauty can be found in the most unexpected places.  Old book shops, creepy paths running behind a castle, or late night train rides back from the city all offer beauty in different respects.  Search for the good in everything because once you peel back the layers, you never know what you may find.

13. There is a difference between independence and loneliness.  I had a lot of people tell me that studying abroad is one of the loneliest journeys.  If I didn’t have enough to fear already, I was terrified I’d realize just how alone I am in the world.  To travel independently, though, does not mean it will be lonely.  When our lives get so busy, we often forget to learn about ourselves through times of solitude. Traveling gives you the opportunity to learn how to be at peace with being alone when there is no opportunity for companionship.

14. You don’t have to sit at a desk to learn.  The experiences you make on a hiking trip, at a birthday party or when trying to figure out how to use a country’s currency are just as important, if not more important, as what you learn in the classroom.

15. Smiling is a universal language.  When language barriers get in the way of communication, smiling can always be understood: as a form of gratitude, a “hello,” or an acknowledgement.  It is a mutual understanding that often speaks more than words.

16. Don’t be afraid to fall in love.  It is easy to fall in love with a country while traveling: the landscape, the language, the food, the culture and the people all contribute to one’s fascination with a location.  Travel can open your eyes to that place you have been searching for to fill a void in your life.  Never feel bad for liking to live in a country apart from your own; if that feeling exists, there is a reason for it. 

17. Humility.  Recognize the United States is not the center of the universe and that there is a lot to learn from other cultures.  If you are open to other’s traditions or languages, your efforts will be respected and appreciated.  Recognize that you are the outsider, the tourist, and gain a new perspective by remaining in that position.

18. Your career does not define your life.  How many people do you know that have actually used their degree for a job which exactly matches its description?  Life will take you in many different directions, and as hard and confusing as it may feel, our desires and wishes are bound to change as we grow older.  Be willing to let God take you in unexpected directions.  Don’t let the title of your bachelor’s degree keep you from trying out a new discipline.  

19. Be thankful. Every day, show your gratitude for the blessings you have been given, no matter how big or small. “Keep your eyes open to your mercies. The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.” - Robert Louis Stevenson.

20. Let the life lessons you have learned bind themselves to your heart.  When you return to your respective home after a long life-changing journey, it is easy to fall back into the routine life you had before your trip.  Remind yourself daily of the lessons you learned by making a list or spending the day putting them to use.  

And just for fun, here is a pretty funny Huffington Post article about studying abroad that I found pretty accurate aside from #15 (there is actually a lot of studying), and #19 (because I argue it is not about luck but it is about motivation and bravery to make the effort to study abroad).


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