Studying abroad was the greatest experience of my life.
Last summer, I hopped on a plane and flew to Europe, where I lived with a host family for a month and studied at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Toledo, Spain.
I was nervous about leaving my beloved American comfort zone, but I was also extraordinarily excited to discover the people and memories that were waiting for me on the other side of the world.
When I arrived, it was a bit overwhelming. The language was different. The food seemed unusual. The social norms were foreign.
Being a rather open-minded and adventurous person, I dove headfirst into all of it.
I spoke Spanish for hours every day in class and with my host family. I immersed myself in the new traditions and cultural idiosyncrasies that were all around me. I sampled, then devoured any and all food. (Stomach is rumbling; my host mom was something like a magical goddess of culinary mastery.)
Instead of cowering in the face of this new environment, I knew what I needed to do: embrace it all and live it up.
And that’s precisely what I did. Looking back, I have a more vivid memory of that month of my life than any other. It seems like I did so much.
I remember the insanity of watching Spain win the Eurocup with several thousand Spaniards. I remember exploring castles from Medieval times in Segovia, ancient caves in Candeleda, and the great art museum, El Prado, in Madrid. I remember skinny-dipping in the Atlantic, as well as being startled in the early morning by the antics of an exceptionally rambunctious French Rugby team at a hostel in Barcelona.
These are just a few snippets from the highlight reel. There are truly too many memories to recount.
Going to Spain opened my eyes. It opened the proverbial floodgates of my wanderlust. It made me realize that traveling the world isn’t something I’d like to do; it’s something I must do. It’s as necessary as oxygen.
Traveling abroad had such a profound impact on me that I feel absolutely compelled to write this post — it’s been a long time coming. Think of this post as a sincere plea. Literally, I am begging you:
LEAVE YOUR HOME COUNTRY. TRAVEL ELSEWHERE FOR AN EXTENDED PERIOD OF TIME.
And don’t just stay in luxurious hotels. Walk the streets. Get dirty. Meet the locals. See the natural landscape. Do some unexpected shit. Surprise yourself. Try as much of the cuisine as possible. Breathe it all in. Don’t get caught up in the little annoyances of the day-to-day. Cherish everything.
I urge you. Just do it.
7 Empowering, Cannot-Miss Realizations
If you’re still not convinced, I thought I would share a few of the realizations that I think really sink in when you travel abroad. These are the types of things that we think we understand, but which we don’t truly feel in our depths until we have the type of remarkable experiences that one can find in foreign places.
Realization #1: The memories we cherish most in life do not come from the familiarity of a routine.
Do you know what happens when our lives are reduced to a routine? When every day is more or less the same as the previous one?
Time whooshes by like a ghost.
If I look at any lone month of my life where I’ve been in school and/or working a job, I can maybe pull out a few memories at best. Most of the days just merge together into a fuzzy outline of the month that bears a haunting resemblance to the movie Groundhog Day.
Contrast that with my time in Spain. Memory after memory come to mind in fond recollection, forming a beautiful mosaic of lovely nostalgia. No one can erase those memories from my mind.
If we’re not careful, days run together, months run together, years run together, and then we die. Life can escape us so quickly. It might seem like you have plenty of time to do things, but don’t be so sure.
Tomorrow is never promised to us, so doing the things that are worth doing shouldn’t be forever placed on the back-burner. Travel abroad because you’ll make the memories that will last where others fade.
Realization #2: Stepping beyond our comfort zone is how we become strong, confident, independent, capable, and rich in spirit.
It isn’t easy being dropped into a foreign culture. Don’t confuse yourself — it can be challenging.
Navigating airports, public transportation, dining, and other everyday systems that we take for granted tests your patience and resourcefulness.
But you know what? You do it. You make it work.
I had a bag containing $700 worth of goods stolen from me on a beach in Barcelona. It contained my iPod (aka my soul), my return bus ticket, my phone, my wallet, the book I was reading, some clothes, and a couple other things. I was forced to ride the subway back to our hostel in only swim trunks and take a different bus than my friends the next day for an 8-hour ride back to Toledo with no book or iPod.
Did that suck? You bet. Did I handle it? Sure did. Do I laugh about it now? Yep.
When you’re forced to make it through difficult times like that one, your self-concept begins to shift. You’re not a helpless, fearful, spoiled, reliant little homebody suckling on the teet of American consumerism anymore — you’re a powerful, seasoned manager of your own affairs, aka a badass.
You realize you had untapped reserves of awesomeness all along that were left unseen because your life was pretty freaking easy.
Having these experiences again and again in a foreign country transforms us in amazing ways, and I want that for you. I want that for you with all of my blood and bones. Hopefully you won’t have to lose $700 in the process, but if you do, remember that it doesn’t mean apocalypse.
Realization #3: The world is filled with opportunities just waiting for you to sieze them.
You know what irks the bejesus out of me? People who say they’re bored. “I’m sooooooo bored. Wah, wah, wah me.” Put a sock in it.
Life is only boring when we choose to make it so. Do you know how many things there are to learn and create and discover and explore and do all the time?
Do you know how many people would do most anything for the opportunity to freely be able to do those things?
Buck the f&#% up. The only thing stopping you from living an exciting life is yourself.
Traveling to Spain didn’t just happen without effort. I had to go through the rigmarole of paperwork, scholarship applications, document goose-chases, and all sorts of other mumbo jumbo to make the trip happen.
At the time, doing all of that stuff seemed lame and like a waste of time. As it turns out, it was the most worthwhile time I ever spent.
My Spain experience showed me that jumping through a few hoops to do something awesome is always worth it. There are countless opportunities out there, and snatching most of them will involve setbacks, monotony, and unforeseen crapola.
Make them happen anyway. They’re all around you. Make something happen. You have to do it.
Realization #4: There are countless lifestyles and cultural traditions out there, and no single one is necessarily better than any other.
This one is damn important in a world that tends to be so oppressive and discriminatory.
Visiting a foreign culture shows us that people live in ways that are very different from what we’re used to, and they get by just fine.
It shows us that there is an immense amount of diversity in the world, and that diversity is what makes the world such a gorgeous and interesting place.
It also teaches us that our humanity binds us all together. We all share the same passion, hope, and fear beneath the exterior differences.
Embracing these things and learning to love diversity is something that so many people in the world desperately need to do today. It’s essential to creating a more peaceful planet to pass on to our children.
So visit a foreign country, and learn about a foreign people. Open your arms and your mind to everyone. Please.
Realization #5: It is through doing and taking action that we gain our greatest satisfaction.
We live in a culture of lethargy.
Sedentary people are everywhere, frittering away their time on the sofa and in front of the TV.
I’ve been there. I’ve gone through periods of time where I’ve been lazy during every free minute. But you know what? It’s not fulfilling to live in that way.
There’s much more to be gained in life than the most comfortable easy chair, the biggest HDTV, and the maximum amount of free time to use them.
Traveling to a foreign country opens your eyes to the power of taking action, of getting out in the world and really living it.
Raw, visceral experience is infinitely better than living your life on cushions looking at screens. You’ll realize this if you heed my advice and visit far-off lands.
Realization #6: Meeting a wide and diverse variety of people teaches us more about life and ourselves than almost anything.
I met a lot of people in Spain — people from all over the world.
And it was so refreshing, enlightening, and humbling in myriad ways.
It’s so damn easy to fall into the trap of making a close group of friends and spending time with only those people for most of your life.
But we miss out on so much when we do that. We miss out on galaxies of potential kinship that can burn, burn, burn in our hearts like an inferno and inspire us to unthinkable heights.
I am blessed to have friends of many nationalities, backgrounds, lifestyles, and belief systems. They teach me so much about myself and bring me tremendous joy.
And I refuse to stop there. I’d like to have friends from every country. I’d like to be friends with the entire world. I actually try to think of myself as everyone’s friend — they just don’t all know it yet. That way, every stranger becomes a friend waiting to happen.
Realization #7: There are kind people all over the world. Kindness, compassion, and respect are endlessly powerful.
Perhaps the most uplifting part of going to Spain was seeing just how many kind and generous people were living on the other side of the world.
I was blown away by how willing people were to help out a goofy, confused foreigner. I also knew from the get-go that I wasn’t going to bridge any cultural gaps by being a cold, stuck-up prick.
Instead, I smiled and nodded and conversed animatedly and did everything I could to exude friendliness and warmth. When I did that, people reciprocated it. People sensed my genuine respect for them.
Sincerity and kindness are universal languages. It’s incredible what walls we can dismantle in seconds with a compassionate attitude.
Seriously, Go Do It
I can try to capture in words the experience of traveling to a foreign country.
I can tell you it was a marvelous, rock-and-rolling adventure. I can liken it to a freeing voyage beneath stars I hadn’t fully appreciated.
I can tell you how I’m applying to teach English abroad in South Korea in a few months because I feel that strongly about the power of living in a foreign country.
I can jabber all day, but I won’t be able to communicate the experience. You have to find out for yourself.
And you know, you can. You (yes, you) really can do this and a whole mess of other things you don’t believe you can do.
So take the leap of faith. Leave the known behind and dive into the unknown.
No one can guess what you might find, and you won’t know either, until you go.
You want it, don’t you? Well make it happen.
And tell me the story. I love a good story.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
― Augustine of Hippo
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