Living Deliberately: What I Have Learned From My Time Abroad

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DId you ever see those two Gilmore Girls episodes that deal with Lorelai and Rory backpacking through Europe after Rory graduates from Chilton? One episode ends with packing troubles, Rory’s graduation and an implied commencement of their Grand Tour. The next episode is Lorelai screaming at a van that drops them off on their lawn after their “traipsing” around Europe has concluded. My first thought was WHAT?! Why would you not spend more time commentating on the experiences of backpacking through Europe? I mean, come on! There have to be dozens of interesting situations Lorelai could have gotten them into and out of again with her witty, fast-paced jabber. And there’s the fact that she probably couldn’t find a decent cup of American coffee abroad. I’d love to hear her thoughts on that.

But it was incredible to me that their time abroad wasn’t elaborated upon. Granted, a studio in Burbank would be difficult to transform into a believable Parisian cafe or towering St. Peter’s Basilica. Even so, going abroad teaches a person so much. I can only imagine the impact that it would have had on someone like Rory.

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I probably lost my one reader by now (because who reads this blog anyway), but what this post is really about is learning—what going abroad by myself taught me. It is impossible for someone like me to see what I saw, to experience what I did, and come away with nothing.

It has been difficult for me at times to process everything, even almost months after I have left Italy. I miss my life there. My routine. My friends. My students. I knew what I had to do, and I knew the weekend would hold some grand new adventure for me. It was very close to perfection in my book. I have left my temporary surety and returned to something I greatly fear: the unknown. I went abroad not only to travel, but to gain experience in teaching young adults, to see if it could be something I could see myself doing. I felt kind of Thoreau-esque right there. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…”  Ok, Jaclyn, that’s enough.

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Anyway, in the long run, I did like it. Now, I have to decide what route I should take, and that is a daunting task for someone who is infamously indecisive.

That’s what I’m facing right now. But I am going to open up a bit, be more forthcoming, and disclose to you, dear reader, a few things I learned abroad.

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1) I am capable of more than I ever thought possible.

I’m an introvert. People scare me most of the time. I don’t make friends very easily. I don’t like change. I could make a nice down payment on a new car. Have you seen Taken? You don’t even know the number of excuses that came up months, weeks, and days before I left—excuses that would have given me an out, a reason for not taking a giant step into the unknown. I was terrified of traveling alone, of meeting new people, of living with strangers, of being somewhere where I knew no one and spoke next to nothing of the language. I realized that there was no turning back when the Alitalia flight left the runway of snowy JFK and all I saw out the window were the tiny orange lights of NYC. It was a terribly frightening feeling, but it was a liberating one.

Everything worked out just fine for me in the end. I had a nice host family, a great school, and made many valuable friends throughout my time there. I was able to understand some Italian and found that I had a decent head on my shoulders when it came to navigating. By the time my last days in Italy arrived, I was navigating Rome alone and being mistaken for an Italian. It was awesome. If you had told me a couple years ago that I would have chosen to go by myself to Italy for three months, I probably would have cried from the mere anxiety of the thought. However, this experience showed me that I am, in fact, independent and, through prayer, am perfectly capable of doing things that seem frightening. I get emotional just thinking about it. To some, it may seem insignificant, but this trip made me proud of myself.

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2) Travel is not a bug that you have to get out of your system.

That was one of the lines that I used to defend my choice in spending the money and taking three months out of my life to go to Italy. “I just have to get this out of my system.” Well, I went, and I still have the bug. In fact, traveling only makes me want to do more traveling. I’m an anomaly in my family. My parents and siblings didn’t quite comprehend why I would want to go traipsing around a European country. The US has everything I need; I haven’t even seen much of my own country. The only way I can explain it is that I’m an old soul in a young body, and old souls like to see old things and experience beauty. Europe did that for me in the breathtaking way that only she can. Honestly, I feel like I didn’t even get to see that much, and I have made a promise to myself to go back someday. And since I’m probably heading on the right track to being single forever, maybe that will actually happen! But really, all I want to do is eat and travel. Does someone want to finance me forever? No? I didn’t think so.

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3) I struggle with who I am, but appreciate it at the same time. 

While I was in Italy, I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing girls from all over the U.S. We were all very different from one another, but, for the most part, got along famously, old chap. I had some very interesting nights abroad; many were interesting and fun! But, quite honestly, sometimes, I felt significantly out of place.

I’ve been called a stick in the mud before. And for the longest time, it has bothered me. I have been wanting to force myself to be more outgoing, more talkative, more like every other girl that attracts tons of friends. I just want to be normal because, really, nobody wants to be the Debbie Downer of the group. Now, I realize that I’m not actually that bad, but I also realize that I can’t be something that I’m not. I became “all things to all people” for those nights out. But I always came back to conviction that I am not comfortable in the party settings and just won’t ever be. For us awkward, shy introverts, a loud, thumping building swarming with people socializing is one of the last places on earth that we want to be. I’m much better one on one. I have a sense of humor and a decent personality, I swear!

I am grateful for these different experiences because I did have fun at times, and, now, I have some good stories. And I absolutely love these girls here. We are going to be lifelong friends, indeed.

Epiphany: some things can be changed and improved, but only to a certain extent. My personality is what it is, and I shouldn’t have to change that to make people like me. I still struggle with being so reserved, but I also saw that it can be a very beneficial thing at times. This trip was just as much about personal growth as it was about personal and interpersonal discovery.

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4) I am good at adapting.

I adapted to a new way of life for three months. I developed a routine and liked to stick to it. I walked to the bus stop, saw my friend, Mattia, on the bus every morning, went to school, saw my students, sat with Mattia at the bus stop until we got on our separate busses (Maura drove me home on Wednesdays). walked home, ate lunch, relaxed for an hour, went running (I had no motivation the last couple of weeks), did some kind of lesson planning or games with the girls before dinner, ate dinner, went to volleyball on Tuesdays, and went to bed. Weekend traveling was the spontaneous part of my normal routine.

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I adapted to Italian cuisine, which is extremely different from our American cuisine. Pasta sounds good. Until you have it for lunch every day. I went through phases when I liked it, grew tired of it, liked it, grew tired of it. Ask my friends, if I could avoid a panini or pizza, I did. Call me crazy, but I missed American food. Actually, I missed our enormous variety of American food. I have heard people complain about our seemingly excessive variety before, and I never really took it into consideration until I was removed from it. To me, it’s a marvelous thing. I can go into a grocery store, and that grocery store will have ethnic sections where I can get Mexican food, Chinese food, Indian spices. Or I can just go for good old American peanut butter and oatmeal. Good luck finding that in Italy. But I adapted and now, I certainly crave that delightful croissant and shot of strong espresso for breakfast. I wish my host family would ship me a case of Palmira’s homemade pasta sauce. I’ve even bought prosciutto and pancetta since I’ve been back.

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5) I am inspired to continue learning.

I was truly inspired around every corner in Italy, continuously bombarded with reminders that I knew nothing and must make sure that I was more informed in the future. I know almost nothing about the greats like Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Galileo. Or Gaudy. Who the heck is Gaudy? Don’t worry, I learned a little bit, but sheesh! There is so much history that I don’t know about, and Italy inspired me to try to remedy this dilemma. I have some extensive reading to do.

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I was inspired seeing these middle school students speak some decent English. They knew WAY more English than I knew Italian. In Italy, students start learning English words at the age of 6. What are we doing here? Taking maybe three or four years of a foreign language… if we’re overachievers?

Vienna brought out the musician in me, inspired me to continue the art that I had dropped over six years ago.

In short, my trip abroad has inspired me to try to make myself a more rounded person, not just a girl who eats, goes to the gym, watches FoodNetwork, and drags herself into her restaurant job. I don’t have to be done learning even though I’m between schools right now. Learning is a life-long process, one that must be undertaken not imposed. My next post will be some examples of what I’m going to do to ensure that I continue learning.

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So that was my book. My last post about traveling. Only a fraction of my thoughts on what I have learned from being alone in another part of the world. I have learned so much about others, about the world, and about myself. I couldn’t be more grateful to God for allowing me an experience that so many go without having. I can only pray that I be worthy of another.

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