We go abroad for lots of reasons. We have goals. We wish to grow in ways we wouldn’t be able to at home. We want to get away, to travel the world while we still can. To see another culture, and to see ourselves through the eyes of another culture.
And if we’re lucky, we learn something while we’re out there.
Here are five things I learned outside the classroom while studying abroad.
I like pistachio gelato.
It’s green. Kind of electric green, in some cases. Not exactly the color that comes to mind when you think of dessert, and definitely not something that I, as a pistachio-virgin, trusted initially. But I tried it, it was awesome, and now it’s one of my favorite flavors.
I’d never been “picky,” but I’d certainly never been adventurous, either. I’d try something new, but only if I’d gotten enough recommendations to do so.
That applied to other aspects of my life, too. Never too picky – always just adventurous enough to scroll past all those “try new things!” posts on Facebook and think, “doesn’t apply to me!”
But “passable” doesn’t quite cut it if you want to live more than just a “passable” life. It’s not conducive to any experiences, well, out of the ordinary. And come to find out, the best foods, people, places, and ideas are *all* out of the ordinary. And the best gelato.
How a person cooks is a solid indicator of who they are. And food knows when you’re afraid of it.
I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist. Just someone who had standards high enough to get ahead. But the signs were there nonetheless.
My roommate and I were in the kitchen making tiramisu with our host mother. She delegated us the task of separating the eggs.
I soon noticed her laughing to herself.
“You two are so different. Perfect for each other, opposites.”
My roommate’s eggs were finished. There were some bits of yolk in there, and maybe even a shell or two. I was barely finished with my first egg. I’d taken so long trying to separate it so that there was not a single molecule of white in the yolk or yolk in the white.
Our host mom dumped the contents of both our bowls together (making my inner perfectionist cringe) and finished my remaining eggs with the ease and competency that only an experienced Italian mother could manage.
Then, she gave us each turns whisking the yolks and sugar together. My roommate went first – whipping the mixture with enough force and noise that had it been the whites – they probably would have peaked. Then, it was my turn. I held the bowl gently, quickly but quietly stirring it together. Our host mother laughed again.
“You can tell how a person is by how they cook,” she started.
She explained to my roommate that she was a vibrant young woman, full of life and positivity. She suggested that she attend more to life’s details. Then, she turned to me.
“Bethany, always so careful, always so gentle. But too shy, too afraid. Relax – you have to be a confident woman. If you are afraid of the food, it will know. It will taste like you were afraid of it. Here. Try again.”
She gave me the whisk once more. I left the bowl on the counter this time and mixed with more speed and force. A bit of goo flew from the bowl and onto the counter.
I did too.
Life doesn’t need to pass a checklist to still be great.
Another wisdom nugget from my host mother.
The three of us were chatting after dinner, a tradition that as the semester went on, became my favorite time of the day.
We’d been giggling about an unsolicited phone number I’d recently received from a waiter and a young man who’d soon be helping my roommate with her Italian over pastries. She asked us what they were like. We started with the positives. After each quality, we jokingly make a check mark in the air, and said, “check!”
Then came the “but”s.
“But who gives their number to random girls at work?” I said.
And, “But how are we going to even start if we can’t speak each other’s languages?” my roommate said.
Our host mother laughed that knowing laugh of hers.
“Remember girls, they don’t need to get a perfect score to be wonderful young men. They could have great qualities you’d never think of, or bad ones too, that you’ll never know of if you don’t give them a chance.”
And then I realized, that’s kind of how life works, too.
Earplugs are lifesavers.
Studying abroad is an intentional disruption of routine. Even the most sacred of routines – sleep – is disrupted. Between communal hostels, overnight transportation or even just adjusting to the sleeping habits of a new culture, there’s a lot out there that can threaten that oh-so-holy time of the day.
Then one day my life was changed.
A friend of mine suggested that I try earplugs, saying that they’d worked for her throughout her entire college career. I’ll admit, I was slow to adopt the idea. How was I supposed to sleep with something shoved inside my ear? I thought for sure that would be just as distracting, if not more distracting, than the noise itself.
But after a few more sleepless nights and another glowing endorsement of earplugs, my resolve broke down and I gave them a try.
They worked. And I haven’t looked back since.
I felt my frustration melt away, but not just because the problem had been fixed. The frustration had melted because I’d let it. I wasn’t getting increasingly angry at the world and its noisemakers anymore, asking them why they couldn’t just change themselves and be quieter. Instead, I met the world halfway. I fixed what I could, and let the rest go. And I felt so much lighter.
Bottom line: expecting the world to give you what you want will only make you angry. Do what you can and let the rest go.
Thank God that life is unpredictable.
It was nighttime in Romania and my friend and I had just been chased from the Parliament building by a young guard.
(Okay, so we weren’t actually chased, but the adrenaline we were feeling from the encounter made it *feel* like we’d been chased, so that’s what I’m going with.)
As we laughed about having survived and caught a glimpse of the building anyway, the conversation shifted to the other cool things we’d done over the past few months. What an experience it had been, we realized. We reminisced about adventures both in Florence and beyond, what we thought of them before and how we saw them now.
Then came the reflection on things we wished had gone better.
“It was totally my fault, I definitely should have been nicer to her,” I said, in reference to a snappy attitude I’d adopted one early morning in a foreign airport.
“Yeah, but thank God you did it, anyway.”
I paused. That wasn’t exactly what I was expecting to hear.
“Well, if you hadn’t done it to her, you might have done it to me. Or whoever’s on your next trip. Or whoever you’re with the next time you’re out and about doing anything, really. Imagine the person you’d be if you never messed up – you’d be intolerable. We’d all be intolerable.”
“You know, you’ve got a point there,” I said.
We have this idea when we go abroad that everything is supposed to be picture-perfect. We ‘try new things!’ and ‘experience new cultures!’ while ‘finding ourselves’ in ways we’d never even thought possible before.
But we also snap at each other to walk faster in the airport and bicker about which way to go when we forget to print out maps beforehand.
Both experiences have value.
One is wonderful, the other teaches us a wonderful lesson.
Things happen – either when you’re abroad, or in life in general. And thank God they do.
Final Gelato Count: 55