You’re about to embark on what can really only be described as a life-changing, soul-searching, and incredibly personal year.
There are so many things I wish I could tell you now that
I’ve been here a while it’s time to go back to the USA. It’s funny. I don’t feel so different from you back when you were booking your flights. But something has changed – I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is so utterly different. I wish you knew all this before you got on your flight in September; of course that is nearly as impossible as going back in time. So I want to share with you the things that we’ve learned about living abroad and traveling over the course of this year. I hope you don’t ever forget them.
I want you to remember to pay it forward. You’ll never be able to pay it back to those who changed your life. But what you can certainly do is pay it forward and hopefully impact other lives as well.
Nine months is simultaneously a long time and a short time. Revel in the opportunity to spend this much time outside of your home country.
It’s ok to cry. It’s ok to feel incredibly lonely at times. Being an expatriate by definition means that you’re not at home but you don’t quite fit into your new country either. Just use these feelings to encourage yourself to explore a new culture.
You will meet lovely, welcoming friends. You will also meet those who are not as wonderful. Treasure the friendships you will make, and try not to worry so much about the others. Not everyone is like you.
Your American family and friends are only a phone call away. You will learn who your real friends are this year. Some of the relationships you maintain will be surprising to you. But if your friendships can survive the Atlantic separation, you’re doing pretty well. Keep up with your blog. It’s the easiest way to share what your new life is like.
You will start thinking like your French friends sometimes. Sometimes, you’ll even think in French. It will creep you out when you think, “j’en ai marre!” instead of, “I’m bored!” There will be a point when you start understanding everyday French conversations and when you pick up a newspaper or book and are able to understand it. One day, you might go see a French film and be surprisingly delighted at how much your comprehension has improved over the span of just a few months. At some point, your horrid American accent will slowly go away – it’ll never truly disappear but it will improve.
If work doesn’t go to your liking, make your job work for you. Use the time to learn about current events, the French language, and personally develop yourself in other ways.
Your experience working abroad will be distinctly different from those of your friends who study abroad. Neither of these types of experiences is “better” persay. They are just different. You will be incredibly immersed in your new city’s culture and all your friends will be French, not American.
You will eat more delicious things than you can imagine. You will also be surprised at how excited you get over stinky cheese, kirs/kir royales, and breakfast pastries. The produce you will find at the markets will make you actually want to learn to cook. You’ll start thinking that 1 hour is the minimum appropriate amount of time needed to eat lunch (it really is), and that food should always be savored and not rushed. You find it odd if you don’t finish a meal with cheese and tea or coffee.
Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.
The New York Times Travel section and Lonely Planet guides will be your best friends. You will probably be surprised at how you pore over these, day-after-day.
Keep up a blog. You’ll want to show those you love what you’ve seen. Bring a travel journal with you on your adventures. You’ll want to remember the names of the cafés you went to and the foods that you ate.
Go visit those cities in France you’re interested in. Go to the cities in France that you haven’t heard of before. Don’t restrict yourself to large, famous cities – go explore the small towns and medieval villages; go to the mountains and the countryside. If your friends invite you to their vacation homes, go!
Don’t get wrapped up in the mentality of having to do the Grand Tour of European Capitals. Conversely, do try and visit the other countries that you’re interested in.
All cathedrals start looking the same after a while. Don’t let your trip turn into an “abc” voyage – another bloody cathedral. However, for some reason, seeing castles never makes you think, “oh, another bloody castle.”
Don’t be afraid to stay in hostels and to meet other travelers. You will meet many nice men and women traveling on budgets like yourself. Even though you prefer to sleep in silence, staying in a hostel will allow you to not feel so alone when you travel by yourself.
Speaking of traveling alone, don’t be afraid of going places by yourself if you can’t find a travel companion for your trip. You’ll be thrilled when you realize that means you can wander off into whatever gardens or alleyways you find. When you randomly meet travelers abroad, you will find that you two have so much in common just by being two wandering souls. You’ll meet, have a coffee together, maybe exchange contact information, and then continue along your own paths.
When you do travel with other people, do things that make both of you happy. Otherwise you’ll have a miserable experience. Be flexible. Everything you do you have while traveling you will remember, whether it is in your travel journal, in your photos, or in your blog. Don’t be afraid to try something new or to expand your comfort zone.
You will be shocked at how much you like going to art museums. You’ll be even more shocked when you don’t really like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre but fall in love with Van Gogh in Amsterdam, Monet’s Nympheas at the Orangerie (Paris), and go gaga over the Prado’s Goya collection in Madrid.
You’ll need to bring your camera battery charger everywhere with you, but sometimes you’ll be out of luck if you don’t have the right adaptor.
Go places, but don’t forget to truly live in your city. If you feel overwhelmed by all your travels, take some time to read a book in a café while sipping a tiny French espresso. Don’t forget to live and to relax. There’s no way that you’ll be able to finish all of France, much less Europe in such a short stay. Living in another country and experiencing its oddities and customs is a life-long process.
Don’t feel like you need to see everything in Europe and don’t be worried that you didn’t. You can always come back later. Knowing you, Minh dear, you will certainly find your way back to this continent again.
Congratulations, Minhzie. You made it.
An older, hopefully wiser form of yourself.