What Am I Doing Here?! (and other travel concerns)
As much of a cliche as it is to say, now that I’m settling back in at Oxford for a new term, I am realizing what a life-changing month I’ve just had. It was beautiful, rewarding, exhausting, terrifying, incredible, and eye-opening. Let me explain.
I was traveling with a confused identity. No, I don’t mean just this: “Where am I coming from? Um…well, I’m from California, but I study in Washington, in the States…but right now, I’m studying in the UK, I mean obviously not right now…but I just came here from Athens. The last country I was in? Oh, Spain! Yes, Barcelona. Yes.” (Met with a sigh and a wave to pass me through passport control). Besides that. I mean that I kept asking myself, “What am I doing here?”–what intentions do I have as a visitor to this place, and what does that mean for who I am and what I will gain from this experience? Shockingly, more often than not, I didn’t have an answer.
Before studying abroad, I had traveled to Europe once before, with a student group. I was 13. I spent a year prior to the trip learning about the countries we would visit, because the point of the journey was to better understand other cultures so that we would be more able and willing to respect the differences between ourselves and others. Though it’s been 8 years since that trip, the lesson stuck with me. I’ve never viewed international travel as something set apart from a deep learning experience–my family couldn’t go on elaborate vacations abroad, so that incredible adventure I went on when I was 13 became my standard for world exploration. And I’m so grateful for that.
So what went “wrong” this time? I’m not going to blame myself for not spending a year in advance studying up on my travel destinations. The fact is, I had just come from one of the most challenging periods of adjustment in my life, and didn’t have much free time between essays to plan my trip, let alone deeply analyze each part of it. But the effect was that when I got to each country, I felt deeply unprepared. I knew next to nothing about the cultures, languages, and people that I encountered, and that made me feel guilty. And I will take responsibility for that.
I started to recognize that most minor inconveniences for me were actually reflective of serious issues that I was just a bystander to. In Barcelona, I struggled to communicate, learning that my limited Spanish was nearly useless. Though most people in Barcelona speak Spanish, the main language is Catalan; the area known as Catalonia, which has Barcelona as its capital, is currently fighting for independence from Spain. By assuming that my limited knowledge of Spanish could get me through, and not even attempting to learn any Catalan phrases, I soon realized that I was only contributing to a sense of disregard for Catalan history and culture. Coming into Athens, my flight was delayed for over 12 hours due to an airport employee strike. I didn’t know at first that strikes are very common in Greece, because strikes are often the only way employees believe they can see change to unfair conditions. I was relieved that all went smoothly when I was about to board a ferry leaving Athens, not yet fully aware of the tension among employees at Piraeus Port, which the Greek government had just sold to a private company, or of the uncrowded areas surrounding the port, which signaled the recent forced movement of refugees to detainment camps and the beginning of deportations to Turkey.
My lack of knowledge about these issues got me thinking. What am I doing in these places? I struggled to figure out whether my intention on this trip really was to have a learning experience, or just a vacation. The fact is, I got both, and neither. I spent a good deal of time relaxing near beaches and eating good food, wondering how fair that was to do in places where there is so much turmoil. I spent a good deal of time talking with local people, visiting museums, and anxiously doing online research, wondering if it was unfair to myself that I wasn’t really taking much of a “break” from my impulse to study, even during spring break.
I’m still translating this experience into lessons that will stick with me. What I can say is that even if I didn’t go in as prepared as I should have, these past few weeks have inspired me to be more aware of the world around me. While it’s important to take a break every once in awhile, I think that there’s something deeply disconcerting about seeing another country merely as a place where one goes to relax and forget the troubles of one’s own world. Right now, I’m focused on learning more about the places I’ve been. In the future, I don’t plan to travel unless I can do so responsibly, with a basic knowledge of and respect for where I am going.
With that, I’ll sign off with a photo from each country I was lucky enough to visit: Scotland, the Czech Republic, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and Greece. I can’t even begin to express what an amazing and thought-provoking adventure this was.