It was January of 2014 when I landed in Heathrow for my transfer flight to Dublin. Little did I know that the two years ahead of me would bring with it my steepest learning curve yet. After 120 cities travelled, hundreds of ticket stubs recycled, hundreds if not thousands of stories listened to, this is what life abroad has taught me:
1. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know.
Choosing a destination for my exchange semester was an easy one. I chose Dublin, Ireland because I knew English and living in a foreign city with a different culture was a little terrifying at twenty one.
About three months into the semester, I went on a week-long trip to Madrid; I found a kind host, packed my summer clothes, and jetted off to central Spain where I fell in love with the culture and the rolling of the Rs. Merriam-Webster dictionary in one hand, Google translate on my phone in the other (or maybe it was Serrano ham in the other), all I could think about by the end of the trip was how much my Spanish improved in a mere week and what it could have been in a few months.
Had I known that culture shock wasn’t something to fear and that learning a new language could be an adventure, I probably wouldn’t have stayed in my comfort zone and chosen Ireland above the sunny getaways that contrasts the Vancouver rain. We don’t know what we don’t know, but I learned that that’s what learning is for.
2. Plans are good, adaptability is better.
Chasing the Northern Lights was the plan for my 9-day tour in Norway, but the rain that I brought with me from Dublin made that impossible. It was winter, the days were short, and I was stuck in a small Arctic town wondering what to do after abolishing my plans to ride reindeer sleighs and photograph auroras.
I had already missed a flight a few days earlier and was told that the museum I wanted to visit was under renovation during my entire stay. I had two choices: to let go of the non- priorities and start exploring alternatives or passively wait for the rain to go away – I chose the former. Later, I met locals who ended up inviting me to the Nordic Ski Championships with VIP seats; and instead of waiting in the cold each night, I indulged myself in the polar nightlife and gorged on Scandinavian delicacies.
When things go wrong, it’s easy to hold onto plans and wish that circumstances are different, but rather than wasting my nights wishing for clear skies, I spent the week being spontaneous and doing activities that I’m still remembering two years later.
3. Relationship-building begins with listening.
I explored countless neighbourhoods and met inspiring individuals from every corner of the world. As a textbook extrovert, I much preferred talking over listening, but meeting the travel gurus over the last two years and feeling a part of their adventure made me realize that there’s so much to learn the moment I stop.
I watched a city come to life as I sat atop the Budapest citadel listening to a professor tell of its history; I imagined what sunsets looked like over rainy Athens listening to an artist describe its magical technicolour evenings. While self-discovery and reflection happen during my tranquil moments, I learn about the world, about its history, and about people and their interactions from listening to others.
4. Resilience requires a conscious effort.
After hiking six European mountain ranges, I finally arrived in Switzerland prepared to climb my tallest peak yet. On the way up to the summit of the Bernese Alps, I constantly questioned if I really needed to hike up to the top.
There would be clearings throughout the hike and I would stop to take photos before staring out into the Swiss valley and mountains and being awed by the beauty of the snow-covered cliffs. I did this about 15 times; they were already so beautiful. When I made it to the top though, I knew exactly why I needed to arrive there – through snow, mud, waterfalls, and three endless hours of climbing – every drop of sweat was for that view and the feeling of accomplishing what I set out to do.
Sitting at the top, I realized how satisfying the little milestones can be; I didn’t start the climb hoping to make it halfway, but it was easy to be caught up in the present. I learned that achieving the milestones requires resilience, but achieving the end goal also requires a conscious effort to be resilient.