A month ago, I left home to travel abroad by myself for the first time. In the days leading up to my departure, I was more terrified than excited and hopeful. I was certain I’d never make any friends, my three years of language classes would disappear into the ether, and I’d never go anywhere because I’d get lost every time I went outside. I desperately googled and found pages telling me to wear a money belt (no) or a fanny pack (what?) and always, always comfortable shoes (are you kidding me?). What I wanted was a future self to float down from the distant land at the end of the summer and tell me exactly what I wanted to know. I didn’t get that. But it would’ve been great.
So here are the things I’d say, if I could, to myself of a month ago:
Make a plan. And then don’t stick to it. Decide what you most want to do and when you’re going to do it so that if you wake up all alone you can resist the temptation to stay in your bed until evening — but if new friends you make along the way have other ideas, try them. A shopping district you’ve never heard of before with an interesting stranger will almost certainly be more exciting than an important monument all by yourself.
Even if in your normal life you’d rather drink hot lava than strike up a conversation with a stranger, remind yourself that this isn’t your normal life and no one’s going to order you a hot lava on the rocks if you just say hello. Maybe at your university or high school or job, an awkward first encounter will ruin your chances at a future friendship, but not so here. If your conversation doesn’t go well, it’s very likely that you’ll never talk again and you can count on the memory fading with time. If it does go well, it could change the course of your life.
Accept any and all invitations for lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks, a walk in the park, or even a trip to the convenience store. Unless you suspect someone might hurt you in some way, try to get to know them. If you have a less-than-fun time, make it into a poem/blog post/monologue/Facebook status/performance art piece and move on. You could make your lifelong friends anywhere, on any day — and you probably will do it when you’re least expecting to.
You’re probably going to have to eat a meal by yourself every now and then and, if you’re like me, this may be something you’ve been avoiding your whole life. Don’t hide in your hotel or hostel and eat snacks you brought from home. Take a deep breath, stand tall, and go to a restaurant (one that your country doesn’t have, please!). (Even if you need to hide under the covers, clutch your stuffed animals, and chant “I have friends” for an hour when you get home.)
If you get lost — and you will — breathe, stretch away the tension that’s inevitably accumulated in your neck and back, and ask someone for help. Whether they point vaguely or walk you all the way there, it’s a start — and you’ll have met someone new. Don’t be offended if, every now and then, someone is too busy to help you. Maybe their mother is in the hospital or they’re late to their entrance exams. Thank them and move onto someone else.
Try your best to speak the language. If you’ve studied it, fantastic. Show off what you know, and write down every compliment you get so you can read and re-read and re-read them every time you feel clueless and lost. If you haven’t, learn some basic phrases! You may never get another chance to practice a new language every day, all the time, while you’re learning it. Buy a book, get an app. Don’t speak your native language, even if it’s spoken to you. Save that for phone conversations with your poor, monolingual friends at home.
If you’re in a country where it’s obvious that you’re a foreigner, try to think of the stares you get just for walking down the street or buying a pair of socks as compliments. That old woman who stopped walking her dog to watch you cross the street? She’s trying to memorize the shade of your hair so she can tell her hairdresser. That little boy looking up at you on the subway? He’s never seen eyes like yours before. That high schooler who isn’t even pretending to read as she sits next to you in the coffee stop? She’s wondering what sort of bra she can buy to get cleavage like you have. No, really.
Don’t try to blend in. Nothing’s going to make you look more like a tourist than loose-fitting jeans or khakis and solid-color t-shirts. Wear what you want to wear, whether that’s whatever you wear back home or the pink romper covered in lace and bows you bought on your travels. Pay attention to things like the lengths and necklines of the clothes of the people around you and try not to offend anyone, but for God’s sake, look like you. If you look like a tourist, you’re more likely to be robbed, denied service, ignored, and talked down to. If you look like an interesting person — which you are — then good for you.
Don’t be too angry with yourself if you just want to rest. One fantastic, crazy, beautiful, memorable day is better than two days you have to force yourself through. Let your body dictate what you need, because it knows you better than you think it does. And if you do take some time to rest, don’t you dare spend that time hating yourself for it.
People are going to tell you you’re brave. If you’re a crazy person, like me, you may convince yourself that what they’re really saying is that you’ve made a terrible decision, and that you should be nervous and afraid. Don’t be a crazy person; just take the compliment. Chances are they’re not thinking about you at all, and that what’s going on in their mind is something like this: “I could never have done that when I was her age. What am I doing with my life? Am I boring? Have I wasted my 20s? I wonder if my friends think I’m boring.” Smile. And say thank you.