We are constantly surrounded by messages telling us now is the time to drop everything, travel, adventure and explore the world.
Books and movies such as Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun (a personal favorite) show dazzling images of life abroad, full of beautiful villas, indulgent foods and fantastic love affairs. Pinterest displays endless photos of beautiful men and women splashing through the ocean, riding bikes in Paris and on mountain tops with their arms spread wide to the world, super imposed with quotes to inspire the viewer to “Live, travel, adventure, bless and don’t be sorry.” Even tote bags in trendy shops sport the famous Tolkien quote “Not all who wander are lost” or labels such as “Adventure Awaits.” Everywhere, we are inundated with media promoting the spectacular life that is waiting for us if we just take the leap; forget belongings and responsibilities, buy a ticket and go live.
I fully support the core idea behind these messages. As a person in my mid-20’s, I believe now is the time to travel unhindered, see strange and inspiring sites, meet new people and embark on daring journeys of self-discovery. Sticky notes full of Jack Kerouac quotes cover my walls and my “Places I am Going” Pinterest board is overflowing with fantastic images and travel quotes that make my spine tingle and give me excited butterflies; most importantly, I just quit my corporate job to intern in Spain! I am the largest proponent of the vision that your 20’s is a magical time to take risks in order to build the life you want to live and the person you want to be.
However, I also believe the grand images and ideas of escaping “real life” we are presented with need to be taken with a grain of salt. No matter where you go, life is just as “real”. There are two sides to every coin and dropping everything to live abroad is no exception. Although this may seem obvious to the rational brain, internalizing what this means and how it will play out when you move to a new country is an entirely different feat.
In a culture that idolizes the liberty of the escape, it’s vital to remain grounded, moderate expectations and remember when traveling the highs come with the lows, and that is part of the journey. Below are the five biggest realizations I have had while living abroad.
1. Moving abroad is not youth hosteling.
After taking several solo trips around Europe in my college years, I was something of a hosteling pro. I knew how to research and pick the best hostels, what to bring (never forget shower shoes!) and, most importantly, how to make friends when arriving in a new place. In all of my time solo traveling, I was never actually alone because the moment I stepped into a youth hostel, I was immediately surrounded by hordes of other young travelers excited to make new friends see the world and have a good time. From this experience, I was convinced moving abroad would be the same thing; I would immediately meet unique people, have wildly amazing experiences in my fantastic new city and the fun would never end! Sitting on my bed in my new apartment at 10pm my second Saturday night in Madrid with nothing to do and no one to call, I knew I was mistaken. Moving to a new city, especially a foreign city, as a young adult is not the same as youth hosteling or even attending university in a foreign city because you are not immediately granted a group of peers. This makes it extremely important to put “make friends” at the top of your list of priorities, because a new city is lackluster without friends to share all of your weird and wild experiences with. Some great ways to meet people are: join your city’s FaceBook groups (Girl Gone International is a great organization that has a FaceBook page for almost every big city!), go to the same workout classes every week, take a language class, volunteer. Remember, building relationships takes time, so put yourself out there, don’t loose hope and take this time as an opportunity to indulge in what you want to do and enjoy time with yourself.
2. Be in the now.
When I first moved to Madrid, I felt slightly disassociated and adrift because, after all, I am only here temporarily for 10 months. I refused to buy items for my room because I didn’t want to waste money on things I knew I would not be able to fly home with and internally distanced myself from new people I met, anticipating the friendship would soon end. However, this mindset left me feeling unsettled, neither here nor there, at home or away. After feeling like I was in endless limbo for over a month, I decided to drop the “this is temporary attitude” and try living in the moment. I stopped thinking about returning home. I bought fun clothes, very “de moda” (fashionable) in Spain and started decorating my room. The city started to feel more like my own, I grew closer to new friends and I felt more confident and capable. My advice is to let yourself be where you are without thinking of leaving. Buy cool knick-knacks at the market for your room, shop, make friends and make plans. Live your life as if you will be there forever. This is crucial to making a new city feel like home and allowing you to truly melt into your environment and experience a new place and culture.
3. Personal growth takes time.
Boarding the airplane to fly from L.A. to Madrid, I was filled with excitement to get to live in my new city, become fluent in Spanish, wear fashionable clothes, make new friends and be an entirely new me. I couldn’t wait to see who I would become. A month into my time in Madrid, I felt like the same old me, with the same clothes, the same terrible American accent hiding in my Spanish and far fewer friends. Where was the fabulous new me? Just as personal growth takes time when living in your home city, it takes time when living abroad. Being in a new environment does not mean an instantaneous new you. Don’t focus on trying act like and look like you imagined yourself acting and looking in your new city. Be yourself, enjoy your surroundings, indulge in living life exactly as you want to live it, and after some time has passed, you will look back and realize how far you have come.
4. Don’t accept anything less than the best.
Deciding to move abroad is a huge decision and it is liberating and terrifying all at the same time. Amid the chaos of leaving home, arriving to your new city, finding housing, learning the lay of the land and making new friends don’t lose sight of why you decided to take the leap in the first place. This is your chance to build the life abroad you have dreamed of, so be patient and only accept into your life what truly feels right. If an apartment doesn’t seem ideal, don’t sign the lease. If you’re not enjoying the company of a potential new friend, stop making plans. If you would rather go to the art gallery one night than go out to bars with friends, buy a ticket and save the wine for later. Don’t feel pressure to say yes to everything because you’re scared of what would happen if you say no. Only say yes to something when it feels like the best choice for you at that moment. I promise something wonderful will come your way and, over time, all of these intentional yes’s will transform into your dream life.
5. It will be the best decision you’ve ever made.
Over the past 2 months living abroad, I have been through my share of highs and lows. I have made countless new and amazing friends, gazed at the work of Renoir, Goya and Picasso, indulged in rich foods, hiked up to remote mountain tops and danced until sunrise. I have also cried in a crowded park, felt awkward and out of place at lunch with new friends, worried about being directionless in my life and sat at home on Friday night, homesick watching Gilmore Girls with a jar of Nutella. But what I love about all of these experiences is the sense of passion behind them. I’ve felt something intense, whether it’s sadness or joy, loneliness or collective effervescence. I have felt all of my tangible and emotive senses come back to life. The beauty of being engulfed in an entirely new world is you’re severed from all of your old auto responses to common sights and experiences. Everything from the smells on the street to the appearance of the people and the color of the sky are different, awakening all of your senses to allow you to comprehend your new environment. Through the good and the less good, the moments of ecstasy and the moments of despair, moving abroad has been one of the best decisions I have ever made because all of this feeling to live has made me fall in love with my life and myself in a way that never would have been possible, had I stayed safely at home.