When People Travel and Live to Tell About It

(This is cross-posted at BlogHer.)

I love reading books written by females who have moved to another country. There’s just something about these women and their stories — a combination of internal strength and sense of adventure — that lures me in every time. I like reading about their personal reactions to things they’ve never before seen or experienced; how they end up handling these situations and ultimately adjust to them. Most importantly, I like to see how putting themselves into these unfamiliar situations ends up changing them. It’s impossible to uproot yourself from a familiar way of life, throw yourself headfirst into another culture, and not be changed in some way.

I lived in another country for five months, and even though there wasn’t a lot of stress involved (it was a semester-long study abroad program in college), it still changed me. Just because I didn’t have to worry about finding a job, and just because I went to a country (the Netherlands) where mostly everyone spoke English with some degree of proficiency, that doesn’t mean things were always easy. For instance, just because people know how to speak English doesn’t mean they prefer it, so a non-Dutch speaker like myself spends a lot of time listening to conversations she doesn’t understand.

On one occasion I was on a train, returning from a visit with a friend, and when we pulled into a station (not the one where I was supposed to get off), an announcement came over the loudspeaker in Dutch and everyone got off the train. It took me a few minutes before I was able to locate someone who could tell me the track was closed and that everyone would need to find an alternate route to their destination. And on another level, due to the range of countries and languages represented with the students where I was living, there were multiple instances of having to change the way I said something so I could make myself understood — or, in certain cases, correct myself after I’d been misunderstood.

Putting myself into that kind of living situation and having those experiences changed me. Even though I didn’t continue to travel the world after I returned home, I’ve used the inspiration I found there on multiple occasions — most notably when I made the decision to move from one side of the U.S. to the other, and when I’ve changed a job when the current one I was in wasn’t challenging enough.

It wasn’t until after I got back from living overseas that I started searching out other people’s stories, but since then I’ve read a fair amount of memoirs by people who have moved to unfamiliar locales — a majority of them women — about the various circumstances they’ve been in and places around the world where they’ve ended up. I’m not so much interested in reading a description of the places they’ve been, as I am in reading about the situations they find themselves in, and the people they meet along the way. Anyone can visit a place, but not everyone can really describe what that experience meant to them.

This, of course, also extends to blogs. You can find the same types of life-changing experiences happening all the time in a well-written blog, but since you’re reading along as everything is happening, the events and new experiences are more spread out than those that are condensed all nicely and neatly in a book. The experiences on a blog tend to be dirtier — as in “fresh” and “raw” — than something that has been tidied up and edited, and that’s the draw. That’s why we read blogs; they tell us what a person is going through right now, what’s on a person’s mind right now. You can also read about mundane, everyday experiences — which, even though it might not be quite as interesting, means you get to see that living in another country isn’t always such a crazy ride.

The best part is, you don’t have to want this kind of life experience for yourself in order to enjoy reading about it and feel inspired by other people. Maybe I’ll never leave the United States again, and if I don’t, that’ll be my decision and I’m okay with it. But hearing about other people’s experiences not only gives me a taste of another culture, I get to see how that person felt going through it and how they handled themselves (and believe me, there are all kinds of situations an unsuspecting person can find themselves in). If there are women out there who have the strength to move to a country where they don’t know anybody and can hardly speak the language, don’t you think you can sign up for that class you’ve been wanting to check out? Don’t you think you can take that job in another city? After all, you don’t have to be in a foreign country to do something out of the ordinary.

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