Two summers ago, fresh from my junior year of college, I found myself utterly alone in the Munich airport. I didn’t have a single euro on me and the currency exchange was closed, I didn’t speak a lick of German, I had no phone or internet, and I wasn’t sure if I’d given my luggage to a shuttle driver or a random stranger. I realized that I was as lost and helpless as a person could possibly be in the middle of civilization.
It was the beginning of my summer abroad in Salzburg, Austria, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Before that summer, international travel had always scared me, and I never thought I’d be able to travel anywhere on my own. There seemed to be so many unknown factors involved in traveling—itinerary-planning, currency-exchanging, visa-wrangling, language-learning—and it never quite seemed worth the trouble. Add my own paranoia to the mix and it was a perfect recipe for sticking to my comfort zone forever.
But when I talked to anyone who’d gone to college, I noticed a curious pattern. No one ever regretted studying too much or partying too hard or any of the things you’d think college students would regret. The only big regret that came up, again and again, was “I wish I had studied abroad.”
When ten zillion people tell you that you will regret not studying abroad, you take notice. So I swallowed my own fears, applied to a summer study abroad program, and took the leap. Here’s how my summer going solo across the Atlantic changed me.
1. I faced my fears.
I was afraid of flying on my own, but I had to do it. I was afraid of public transportation, but I learned how to take the bus or subway. I was afraid of talking to strangers, but I had to in order to ask for directions. I was afraid that I wouldn’t make any friends, and I found that making friends is not so hard.
Fear is just a part of life, and you can either let it paralyze you, or you can face it. I came back to America with a lot less fear than before, and as a result…
2. …because I faced my fears, I became more confident in myself.
I used to be afraid of public transportation, even in America. The whole system of subway lines and bus lines and what-have-you just seemed daunting and scary and I always relied on other people to figure it out for me. But in Austria, I had to take the bus myself, and I discovered that public transportation isn’t scary at all. And once I realized that I could understand the system, even with my limited German, then I felt like I could do anything. I became confident in my ability to figure out how to get from point A to point B via public transport, and now I’m not afraid of taking the subway. For that matter, unfamiliar situations no longer frighten the pants off of me anymore.
3. I learned that the world is not so scary.
There’s a great term, “Mean World Syndrome,” which is basically the idea that the world is a lot less scary than what we make it out to be. Thanks to fear-mongering, negative news coverage, word-of-mouth horror stories, and well-meaning concerned relatives, we end up thinking that outside of our communities, there’s nothing but endless danger. It’s why we think that the entirety of Mexico is crawling with drug cartels, or that every street in a major city is lined with gangs and rapists and murderers. It’s why xenophobic bloggers can get away with telling everyone that the non-American world is nothing but food poisoning and terrorist attacks.
It’s also why we like to blame the victims of misfortune when bad things happen—we tell ourselves that these people got in trouble because they dared to travel in a dangerous world, and it confirms our thinking that bad things won’t happen to us if we don’t travel ourselves.
I’m not saying it’s all bunnies and rainbows out there. Yes, there are dangerous places you shouldn’t explore, yes there are people who will do you harm, yes you should always be vigilant, yes bad things may happen despite your best efforts. But most of the time, the world is not as scary as people say it is. In fact, you may find that the world can be a very friendly place—Mean World Syndrome just prevents us from discovering it.
(Stephanie at Twenty-Something Travel, by the way, has a great post about this scary world nonsense and female solo travel. It’s a good read.)
4. Traveling made me more resourceful and aware.
When I’m in a different country, I feel like I’m in survival mode—not “how to forage for berries and fend off bears” survival mode, but “how to order food without sounding like an idiot and figuring out what that sign says” survival mode. When I’m in unfamiliar territory, I find myself a lot more aware of my surroundings and a lot quicker at figuring things out. In a foreign country, I get better at remembering directions or retracing my path, and in Austria I got really good at figuring out and using German words after only hearing or seeing them once. I’m pretty sure traveling makes your brain smarter and faster that way.
In a similar vein, I also found that traveling made me more resourceful. I’m not just talking about resources like money, even though I did learn how to stretch my euro during my summer abroad. Language is a kind of resource—I had to figure out how to communicate with the locals using my limited vocabulary. Not having the stores, products, or foods I was used to in America also made me resourceful, either through figuring out where to go or figuring out how to make do with what I could find.
5. I became a “global citizen.”
It’s kind of a cheesy term to use, but it encapsulates who you become when you expand your boundaries and your cultural understanding. Living in a foreign country gave me a good look at what life was like outside of my little bubble, and made me challenge my America-centric view of the world. I got to really appreciate a different setting and history than the one I grew up with, and I got a nuanced, in-depth look at a country’s culture outside of the stereotypes and what had only been filtered into American society.
Traveling also enhances your understanding and sensitivity. I visited a WWII Nazi-run labor camp, and no number of books or historical movies could have prepared me for what it was like standing in a gas chamber. It’s very easy to feel removed from history, but traveling can give us the sometimes-painful opportunity to understand the narrative of humankind, and to think about violence and human nature and why we commit atrocities. There are some things that just can’t be replaced by reading or watching, but make you a better, more informed person.
6. I figured out who I was, in a different context.
There’s a reason why “discovering yourself” through travel is a cliche. When you put yourself in a different context, you discover things about yourself—who you are without the familiar external factors of family or friends or work or school. What’s the same about you? What’s different? What aspects of a different culture resonate with you, and which aspects rub against your habits or beliefs?
My time in a country I had no ancestral connection to, without my family or boyfriend or university professors, gave me the valuable chance to cut myself loose and figure out who I was. I mean, I haven’t gotten myself totally figured out, but traveling helps. I think one of the most dangerous things we can do to ourselves is to only define ourselves by our environment or our relationships to other people. If you only think of yourself in these terms, then who are you when they’re taken away?
7. I learned that traveling is more than checking landmarks off a list.
One of the reasons why traveling hadn’t really appealed to me before was that running around for the sake of seeing the things you’re “supposed” to see seemed like a silly waste of time. Eiffel tower, check, Great Wall of China, check, pyramids, check…what’s the point?
My summer in Austria taught me that sightseeing is not the only “point” of traveling. (That being said, sightseeing is still really great.) I discovered that I love trying new foods and sampling a country’s cuisine. I love living a different lifestyle than the one I’m used to. I love experiencing life at a faster or slower pace than at home.
For example, I found out that in Europe, it’s totally acceptable to go to a cafe, order a single cup of coffee or glass of wine, and sit there for hours reading a book or chatting with a friend—and the waiters won’t hassle you to get out or order more food. When I look back at my favorite moments in Salzburg, they’re not all things like seeing a particular landmark or famous movie setting—some of my favorite memories are of sitting for hours in a cafe. That’s what traveling is to me—experiencing a different way of life.
8. It can actually strengthen your relationship.
Bryce and I had been dating for two years when I went off to Austria on my own. Like all lovebirds, we were not looking forward to being apart for so long, and one pessimistic friend warned me that Europe was where college girls went to cheat on their boyfriends and destroy their relationships.
Funnily enough though, we did just fine, and in some ways I think it made our relationship stronger. Being apart—and with me facing my fears and becoming more confident all the while—gave us the opportunity to keep from becoming overdependent on each other. Maintaining a long-distance relationship for a while also showed us what we liked about each other when we weren’t physically together, and I discovered that there’s truth in the old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Bryce himself did a study abroad program in China a year later, and afterwards, since we both had experience solo traveling, it made it easy for us to travel together. Neither of us uses the other as a crutch when we travel, and since we know our own tendencies, we can work together to maximize our travel experience—which, in turn, just makes our relationship even stronger.
9. I got the travel bug.
Obviously, I came away from my summer abroad experience with lasting stories and memories—that’s always a given with traveling of any kind. But I think one of the best things I got from my time in Austria was the travel bug. When I’d realized that traveling isn’t that scary, and that the experiences I’d had were more than worth it, I just wanted to travel more. After all, if I had such a rich and fulfilling time in just one country, what does the rest of the world have to offer?
Have you had similar experiences with traveling, whether solo or not? Any points you’d add to this post? Let us know in the comments!