“Day by day nothing changes, and yet when we look back, everything is different.” – C.S. Lewis
It was brought to my attention from a friend back home that today commemorates the 6-month anniversary since I packed my life into 100 lbs, hugged my family and friend’s goodbye and embarked on a journey with no clear plan or time limit. My time abroad has been good and bad, it’s been busy and slow and the 6 months’ time I’ve spent abroad seems funnily minuscule to the change I feel within.
Firstly, I’d like to focus on the extremely positive things that I have gained in my 6 months here. I mentioned packing my life into 100 lbs, but in truth, what truly matters is not the clothes I wear on my back, but the people I have in my life. My being away from home has shown me more than anything how much I truly love my friends and family. It has also brought new, inspiring and likeminded individuals into my life that I will cherish forever no matter how long they may stay in my story. So, to each of my friends and family, old and new, thank you.
I have preached relentlessly about change and growth. About welcoming it when I am feeling positive and about fearing it when I am feeling negative. Nevertheless, temporal constraints have seemed to lose meaning. Rather than focus on months, I began to focus on challenges. First it was passing TEFL, then it was finding a place to call my own, then it was finding a job and a home, then it was getting a visa, then it was settling down. During all of those challenges, somehow time passed. With the passing of time, I’ve often found myself contemplating if I’ve truly gained anything out of this whole thing other than an underrated “vacation” and a serious blow to my finances and career. These thoughts often come when I am having a particularly low day. When the stranger’s faces on the ubahn and on the streets are out to get me, when the German language is a wall meant to keep me out and when going to the grocery store is too difficult to contemplate. Social anxiety has swelled up inside of me and the sting of missing home is, often times, relentless. Then, I have a good day and all those negative feelings vanish.
That’s the thing that they don’t tell you about travel. It’s a dirty dichotomy. The faces of the strangers in this city are at times my biggest enemies and at others, a place of belonging. Berlin is a place that I worked entirely hard to make my own and yet it is also a city that you either belong in or don’t, in some metaphysical and unexplainable way. On my bad days, I think I haven’t come far. In fact, maybe I’ve even moved backward. When I left Georgia I’d never felt so grounded and confident in myself and compared to now, I feel more lost than ever. Then I think back to the organized girl in Prague who unpacked her things on the first night and lit her favorite candle and tried not to stare too hard at the photos of her loved ones on the nightstand by her bed… and I realize she’s a stranger. I realize that I have changed.
While I may feel like I’m flailing at times, I also feel the walls of my carefully constructed beliefs and perspective have come crumbling down. Perspective, which is entirely based on human experience and social constructions, are suddenly ever-changing and morphing. And the freedom of mind that I feel is both liberating and philosophically confusing. With this liberation, I have learned a few lessons. These are not all of them, but some.
- With a little bit of work, I can do anything. I mean, look at what I’ve done. I can remember dreaming of this reality and thinking it was impossible. All it took was one decision and hard work. As the cliché Pinterest boards say, it’s not about having time, but making time. But more importantly, making decisions. Nothing is too far out. Nothing is too crazy. If you want it, go after it. You’re one decision away from changing everything. And once you make that decision, you will form a goal and with a little bit of elbow grease and determination, you will reach that goal.
- There is nothing is like home and you will feel the missing of it in two ways: the sting of missing it when you think of the smell of a muggy summers night in Georgia or the song of the cicadas high up in the trees. You will also feel the hollow ache of it when you think of the faces of those you left behind. I have encountered a lot of people who left their country for different reasons. With the recent tumultuous landscape in my home country, I have even encountered many who aren’t proud to be Americans. I’ve met people who run away from home because they feel they have nothing there, or who leave because they think there is something out there that is better. I’m not here to say they are right or wrong, but I will say this. Home is home. Your culture is your culture and there is nothing as remotely welcoming and peaceful as home. It’s not failure, wrong or impossible to return. Going back physically doesn’t mean you’re going backward in terms of your journey.
- For some of us, for our entire lives we focus on what’s different about us from the rest of the world. We unintentionally alienate ourselves from other humans. We romanticize other cultures. When I first came to Europe, the faces of the people I passed weren’t just humans, they were Europeans. They were nearly magical in my head. It wasn’t until I became comfortable here that I began to see the truth and the importance in one thing: finding how we are alike rather than how we are different. Yes, we may eat different foods, we may listen to different music, we may believe in different God’s, we may believe in different politics or speak different languages, but for all of these differences we are fundamentally the same. And it is for the common good that we must dedicate ourselves to seeing everyone we encounter as a human leading their own complex life full of trials, happiness, loss, and love.
- At risk of sounding like Will Smith, happiness is not in a place or a person. It is within yourself. As someone that has suffered with unhappiness for a long time, I can tell you that this is a lesson I often have to remind myself of. I often need to give myself talking to’s. I can chase happiness all over this world and I can run from unhappiness. It was unhappiness and a romanticizing of travel that led me to quit my job and move abroad. Yet, I still find myself struggling and I still find myself unhappy. What I need to remember and what I encourage you all to remember is that happiness is not a tangible thing that you chase after. It is something within you that you nurture, that you remind to exist, that you coax into being with positive self-talk and mindfulness.
- Learning is not linear. Even now, I preach these things to you, but I will, and do, forget them myself. The thing that is important about growth is that you must dedicate yourself to relentlessly reminding yourself of the lesson when it counts.
- There is nothing a good phone call home can’t fix.
I don’t know where I’m going, but I do know that going into whatever my future holds…it’s my loved ones that are most important, that I can change my course at any time and that hard work and determination can make anything possible.