Even when we feel vulnerable enough to fall off the tree, we thrive in the enigma of our wavering, unwavering foundation through travel.
“I’m gonna miss you so much. You’re going to have the time of your LIFE abroad. I know you’re going to change in the best possible way and come back even better than you started.”
These are the words I keep replaying in my head the past couple days. Such cliché phrases. These are the words that friends and family said to me before I traveled abroad. These are the words I imagine myself saying to my underclassmen friends that are about to travel abroad.
But these are not the words that I would like to say. And yet for some reason I know these are the words that will be texted or spoken.
I will not send them off saying, “This is going to be the easiest time in your life so far— having complete freedom, exploring whatever countries you want, finding new people, and sometimes choosing to go on a crazy trip instead of studying for a midterm.
I will not send them off saying, “This is going to be one of the most challenging times in your life so far. You will quickly realize your flaws when traveling abroad. How you plan, how you deal with the unknown, how you deal with pressure, how you communicate with strangers. How your weaknesses will shine so brightly at times it is hard to remember your strengths.”
I will not tell them any of this. Because they will realize it all themselves. Whether it’s at the very beginning of their journey hauling luggage along cobblestones while sweating buckets in 103 degree heat or on the last day at sunrise atop a famous stone tower, they will somehow change. Maybe not knowing until a year later. Maybe looking back at age seventy and telling abroad stories to their grandkids. “I was crazy then, kids. And I’m so glad I got to see more of the world. You should too.”
* * *
There was one specific day during my semester abroad in Florence that helped me wrap my head around how I had changed during my time in Italy. One of my good friends Tom invited me to find the “hidden dragon” we’d heard about, which was made from recycled bottle caps and supposedly sitting somewhere in a garden near Florence. We had no idea where it was exactly, and that was the thrill of this unexpected adventure. Just walking and talking and searching for the unknown.
After passing by Italian barbershops, little yellow apartments, street poetry plastered on walls, and roundabouts with monuments we’d never seen during our whole time in Florence, Tom and I finally made it to this little bridge. It was a linkage for walkers crossing a skinny river. Looking back, this bridge means almost as much as trying to find the bottle cap dragon.
The bridge had an arched “roof” made of greens and tiny flowers, but you could still see patches of clouds through the twigs and buds. A light covering with enough room to grow through the space. A bridge to the other side. Man-made time travel. An arc above that was not a circle, not complete in any way. How we will always be searching for that other side of the half-circle, that other side of ourselves we don’t even know exists. We just keep walking, keep walking.
Tom and I took pictures of each other on this bridge and of the river itself. I will never forget it; us in the middle of nowhere in Italy, on the outskirts or inskirts or some skirt of fluttering Florence and all its twirling colors.
Once we made it past the bridge to the park, we couldn’t even find the bottle cap dragon. I was so frustrated. After walking all this way for hours, it was nowhere to be found. So we just wandered around the park together, looking at all the families with their dogs, the mustard-colored fall leaves winking through the breeze, and the old man sitting on a green bench scanning a newspaper through his wire frames. The playground without children. The empty greenhouse glinting in small sunlight. Things in Florence were getting colder, barer, and older it seemed.
But I think that’s what abroad taught me: To find a seed in the cold, in being bare, in staying young while growing up. To find how bright those man’s spectacles were. How much glow a greenhouse can radiate. How crisp and orange a leaf can beam. How a dog runs in an open space, even when the grass is dying all around him.
And after all that time? We’re about to leave the park but glance up at the yellowing, rust-colored hills one more time. A huge, long dragon made of bottle caps stares back at us with crooked eyes and a lopsided, toothy grin.
“We’re idiots! It was in front of us the whole time,” I say to Tom.
It was in front of us the whole time.
How much more meaning can a single day bring? A dragon of recycled materials. A thing made from a single pair of hands made from hundreds of bottles from hundreds of people from hundreds of lips and smiles and laughs. All touching in a single sculpture. Us taking that entire semester to finally find a recycled being.
Shifting and turning and remolding ourselves inside and out, stretching and re-stretching the broken and intact parts. Recycling ourselves for four months. Uncovering the parts so deep that we never wanted to reveal but the parts that came out in the worst and best times. How we hated ourselves at times. How we loved ourselves at other times. The parts that needed to peel in the sunlight in order to start healing.
Traveling abroad is a complete contradiction.
A growing leaf biting the bitterness all around it. Choosing to keep stemming strong, keep reaching despite the alarm, the uncomfortable, and the breakage of a single snap heading its way. We paradox along; we puzzle until there are more pieces than the puzzle can fit. And even when we feel vulnerable enough to fall off the tree, we thrive in the enigma of our wavering, unwavering foundation through travel.
* * *
So no. I will not tell my friends how they will flip inside-out and outside-in, peeking at themselves in the glass of a greenhouse.
I will give them a cliché before they leave that won’t seem true but is in so many ways. Because they will find the dragon themselves, overlook an entire city, and cross a bridge one way or another. One that is waiting for them in the middle of nowhere.
One with a green roof that has been in front of them with open palms and open promises the entire time.