The reality of how travelling changes your life

A person can not tell your country of origin by the contents of your toiletry bag

I was amused recently when I was looking at the items in my bathroom and realized just how diverse my toiletries truly are. Lotion from Spain, facewash from Germany, medication and contact solution from England, conditioner from Moldova.

We all know that packing toiletries is annoying, and sometimes it’s just easier to pick things up while on a trip. Though while in Moldova, specifically, we find the toiletry shopping experience to be a bit of a drag. For example, buying ibuprofen here means going to a pharmacy and speaking to a pharmacist about what you need. They don’t carry ibuprofen in grocery stores. And for other things – like contact solution – I have yet to figure out where to buy them. Sometimes I prefer simply to wait for a trip to buy the next thing I need.

Granted – it does take forever to read the packaging in different countries when trying to figure out what to buy. But it’s interesting to hit up at least one grocery or drug store on each of our trips. Remember our amazement at groceries in Moldova? It’s like that again and again when we travel around Europe.

So yes – the unexpected perks of travel: exploring grocery stores and letting your toiletry bag do the bragging instead of the stamps in your passport.

You oscillate wildly between appreciating different cultures and wishing everyone would just act “normally”

I mean – let’s be real – you can have those moments when you think everyone around you is bizarre even in your own country. For me, it’s just been magnified while abroad. I think Daniel and I are generally excited about cultural differences. We like to hear people’s stories and learn some of the deeper things about a country.

But oh boy, am I realizing just how quickly my fascination can turn into frustration. On a single 1-2 week trip, it’s a easy to maintain the magic of a foreign culture. Everything is new and tasty and interesting. And although you might recognize some frustrating aspects, it’s easy to keep your focus off of them. For starters – how can you critique a culture you don’t even know??

But give it a few more months, and you find your magical assessment also has a reverse side that involves intense judging. And it is beyond me how quickly I can go between the two. Let me tell you about one of my triggers: personal space violations.

On the trolleybus or in any line ever……people stand obscenely close to each other. The line part is the worst, because they won’t even stand close behind you, but they’ll stand like immediately behind your shoulder. And they inch in ever closer if you leave too much of a gap with the person in front of you – like pressuring you to violate another person’s personal space as well.

In the beginning I didn’t notice this. Then I noticed and started to find I grew irritated in these situations. Now I can feel this instant switch every time someone is uncomfortably close to me. It’s a trigger, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a cross cultural trigger before.

Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean I don’t love and respect Moldovan culture. It just means that I found one small part I can’t stand. And the interesting thing is that I have found it goes the other way into my own culture. (See! At least I am impartial in my judging of other people! Haha.)

After this time abroad I now have a lot less grace for some of the shortcomings of American culture. So although I am honored when Moldovans drool over the prospect of a life in America, I also find myself getting real with them about American flaws. And let’s not forget my near meltdown in Walmart when we were back in the states visiting. That might be my American trigger right there.

You finally realize just how average you are

Let me just finish out this blog vent session with some painful honesty. It felt really good when our friends and family were excited and impressed that we were moving to Eastern Europe for one year. Although I have a friend who did the Peace Corps and several other friends who have studied or spent time abroad, we still felt like we were part of a small and special group of people. We were embarking on this great cross-cultural experience.

And we were. We still are. BUT, after meeting so many interesting internationals, I have realized that I am painfully average. Take the Moldovans for instance. Everyone speaks Russian and Romanian, and most people are learning or have some capacity in another language. Honestly, finding someone who speaks 4 languages is not that rare. Do you know anyone in the U.S. who speaks 4 languages? So here I am trying to learn a second language – doing okay but not phenomenal – and starting to feel super mediocre. I am neither unique in learning nor especially gifted at the language itself.

And then we meet other people who are doing remarkable things in Moldova. We met a middle-aged woman who has been in Moldova for something like 20 years – and has created an entire foundation for autism therapy and education. We met a family with an autistic child and they assured us that those resources are terribly lacking in this country.

Or even just the other day, I went kayaking on river east of Chișinău with a Moldovan tour company. The founders of the company are a young Moldovan couple who love their country and want to share its natural beauty with tourists and locals alike. They have partnered with the EU to create a robust tour that connects travelers with retirees in Moldovan villages. This means that while on a break from kayaking a river, you can drop by a local grandmother’s house and learn from her how to make traditional food. Brilliant, right?

So once again, we return to Daniel and myself: volunteering….trying to learn a language….mostly taking it easy. Of course, I don’t want to minimize the things that we are doing. All I’m trying to say is that our lives are pretty unexceptional. And that realization gives me both freedom and food for thought. On the one hand, I want to embrace the fact that lots of life is lived in mundane moments. Therefore, I don’t want to overlook those. On the other hand, does this year abroad spur us on to a more meaningful and intentional life when we return to the U.S.? What will our careers, hobbies, and schedules look like?