This post is kind of personal. Well, it’s super personal, actually, and if you’re not really interested in reflective stuff then I strongly advise you to just keep scrolling. However, if you do fancy hearing what I’ve learnt over this incredible year and getting a rare insight into my thought processes then be my guest…
What can I say? This year has been filled with life lessons galore. Living in Russia pushed my comfort zone to the max and I had to adjust exceedingly quickly to a culture that was completely unfamiliar to me (and -20 degree temperatures). It was hard but I loved my time there for that exact reason. Challenges excite me and now I know that I’m capable of dealing with anything that life throws my way and that I can accomplish a lot when I set my mind to something (I sound like I’m trying to impress an employer, don’t I?).
I loved my time in Madrid for a totally different reason – it wasn’t hard or challenging, it was just a fairytale. I lived in the centre of a capital city with 30 incredible people from all over the world, my studies weren’t degree-threateningly important so it was totally acceptable to spend my days adventuring and my nights air-guitarring around my bedroom in pyjamas (nightclubs… what are they?). Choosing frozen yoghurt toppings was the most stressful thing I had to do, nap taking was encouraged and I felt more at home than I’d felt in years – bold statement coming from a nomad like me and for that reason, I know that this experience was a ‘once in a lifetime’ kind of thing.
Ok, sure I could move back to Madrid when I graduate but it wouldn’t be with the same people and I’d probably have to work a 9-5 job to pay the rent (I will miss you, ERASMUS grants) – so yep, it really is over. It was heartbreaking at first and it took me a lot longer than I imagined to get over it but I just had to remind myself that there’s a million ‘once in a lifetime’ events to come and if the last 21 years is anything to go by, my life will be nothing short of a masterpiece.
All I know is that you’ve gotta be in love with your life, every single second of it. You can’t just wake up in the morning, you’ve gotta want to wake up in the morning. You’ve gotta find what you love and run with it, no matter what it is, no matter how absurd it seems, no matter how many people tell you it’s selfish – you are totally in control of your happiness. Little things will phase you and there’ll always be negativity to avoid but it really is a lot simpler than we think. Of course we can’t do ‘whatever we want’: I can’t get on a plane out of the country tomorrow because I have university assignments due in. I can’t model for Victoria’s Secret because I am a 5 foot 5 average looking human. I can’t even drive to the supermarket right now because I don’t have a licence… (seriously, Tara, please take your driving test). We are ALWAYS going to be confined by our limitations but that’s no reason to be defined by them and that’s precisely where my motivation comes from. I’m not going to grow old and remember the time that I gave a cracking presentation on Russian government reforms or the time I correctly conjugated a Spanish verb but I am going to remember the time I spent actually living in those countries… that’s what really matters.
I don’t think I’ve changed this year (aside from the fact that I started with 0 piercings and now I have 5… sorry Mom) but I do think I’ve grown up a lot. People joke about ‘finding yourself’ when you travel, and what I’m about to say will sound incredibly cliché, but I did to some extent. I’ve learnt a whole bunch of stuff about myself and I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own skin. I’m done with justifying my music habits (The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate), my eating habits (Pizza or abs? Pizza), my drinking habits (I dance better sober… honestly), or even my life habits (My Converse have holes in them but I spent all of my money on plane tickets and can’t afford new shoes). I’m proud of who I am…. I am proud to say that I eat peanut butter out of jars with my finger, that my pyjamas have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on them and that I take a small stuffed Stitch toy everywhere I go. I have no idea how to take a good selfie, my nose is still a little bit broken, my hair is always messy and one of my ears is way smaller than the other but I can still contribute a ton of good to this world so does any of that stuff really matter? This year has taught me that you’ve just gotta be unapologetically yourself. So, if that makes me the girl who can live out of a backpack for 3 months (cold showers, tents and all) but freaks out when she leaves the house without her Tiffany necklace then I’m totally OK with that.
Anyone that knows me, knows that my life has been far too busy over the last year for me to have even considered adding romance into the equation. If you’d have told me before I moved to Madrid that I’d end up falling for a surfing-skating Mexican with crazy afro hair who also happened to be one of my flatmates, I’d definitely have laughed in your face, but hey, I didn’t just use that description for no reason – these things are notorious for happening when you least expect them to.
Of course there’s an expiry date on the relationship, which means that it can never really be a ‘relationship’ but it taught me to live in the moment. There was no need to think about the future or to worry about how it would end because we knew the answers already. It sounds kind of depressing but it was great for someone like me, who always has to be in control, to just let go and enjoy it while it lasted. For the first time in a very long time, I let my guard down and remembered what it was like to say ‘I love you’ and really mean it.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and just as friends can turn to lovers, lovers can turn to strangers. To make the choice between what could be a lifelong friendship or a short burst of romance that’s bound to end in you not speaking is one of the hardest decisions to make and it seems that I never choose the right one. I guess, that’s just how these things run their course – Life goes on. Sometimes the guy that tells you you’re special is messaging 27 other girls the same thing and sometimes the guy that tells you you’re special really means it. How do you tell the difference? I don’t have a clue. Right now, I don’t think I have the time to be working out the answer to that question. I know I sound a bit cynical, but I can assure you that I’m a hopeless romantic at heart. It’s just that I make a concious decision to accept no less than what I think I deserve and if that involves putting up a wall then so be it. I’ve only just turned 21 and, right now, living freely is my priority. Travelling the world and being a kick-ass academic is the hardest balance in the world to maintain – then throw in 2 jobs, dance classes and a social life and you’ll understand why being single isn’t really my biggest concern. I’ve always felt so tied down when I’ve been involved with other people but I’ll know it’s the right time when I find someone who I can trust, who wants to conquer the world with me rather than expect me to watch them do it and who accepts me exactly as I am, without me having to sacrifice my freedom (or my Taylor Swift CD’s).
Let’s face it, this is what the year abroad was all about after all… I’m on a mission to become trilingual and these last 15 months served as a huge stepping stone towards that goal. Am I fluent? Absolutely not! In fact, I sometimes question whether I can even speak English…. when you’ve got three languages whirring around in your head it becomes impossible to get a sentence out in any of them! No, no, I’m kidding (sort of), I can honestly say that my written and spoken skills in all languages have improved drastically, whilst reading and listening have kind of plateaued at a high level. Some days I find that the words coming out of my mouth feel more natural in Spanish and the next day all I want to do is speak Russian and, of course, there are some days I don’t want to think in a foreign language at all! I forget key vocabulary and I muck up my grammar more times than I can count but I know that I can communicate more effectively than ever now (even if there is a LOT of sign language and facial expressions involved…) I have made friends all over the world and had conversations covering a huge range of topics that I could never have imagined speaking about 3 years ago. It’s so rewarding to recognise a difference in myself in terms of language ability – so, cheers to you, year abroad!
I guess it’s also important to understand the culture of the place you are visiting and speaking a language only facilitates this understanding. The Latin American ‘machismo’, the cold/blunt responses of Russian people and the lazy work ethic of Spain can all only be described as stereotypes but regardless of whether they are accurate or not, it’s still important to understand the cultural reasons behind them. Russian is a straightforward language and can sometimes be incompatible with British mannerisms. For example, the classic Englishman’s line goes as follows: ‘Excuse me, could you possibly close the window for me please if it’s not too much bother?’ but this simply becomes, ‘Close the window’, when translated into Russian. Neither of them are wrong in context, but we may take offence to the second version and Russian’s may think we are crazy for using the first.
On the opposite end of the scale, in Spain and Latin America, I was constantly being hugged, kissed, caressed and touched on the hand or shoulder when having a conversation. This took me by surprise and I had a minor panic attack every time I was introduced to someone new – Is it 1 or 2 kisses? Right or left side first? Do I hug them too? Just a handshake? ‘Tu’ or ‘Usted’? HELP ME. I think I’ve mastered it now, just about… and affection from strangers doesn’t freak me out nearly as much as it used to!
Unfortunately, at this stage, I can’t really see myself using languages in my future career. Translating, interpreting and teaching don’t really appeal to me right now but perhaps I’ll find a way to incorporate them into something that I love. If not, I will always strive to maintain a high level of Spanish and Russian and who knows, maybe I’ll be able to add even more languages to my repertoire? The important thing for me is the communication aspect… you don’t realise how many doors languages can open for you. When you travel, you can get by with English but if you really want to dig deeper into a culture, it definitely helps to know the native language. The remote parts of Peru would have been impossible to navigate without some Spanish knowledge and my host-family in Russia spoke absolutely no English – it’s times like this that I look back on my experiences with pride. To talk to a Russian family in their native tongue about the Ukrainian crisis and a Peruvian about ever-increasing poverty reveals a different side to what the BBC news broadcasts on our screens at home.
It’s no secret that I love meeting new people. I want to find out every little fact that I can about this Earth and the people that roam it. I can get lost in book after book after book and engage in conversations from politics to philosophy to science all night until the sun rises and not have a clue where the time has gone. I want to know what people dream about, what makes people tick, what they think about life and death and quite frankly, whether they prefer octopuses or jellyfish (and then, while we’re at it we may as well open the octopuses vs octopi debate)… I think intelligence is a beautiful quality and I take pride in having some of the smartest, funniest, well-grounded, inspiring people walking through life with me…. and all the choices that I’ve made thus far have led me to them. Thanks, universe.
So, what am I trying to say? As generic and cringey as this may sound… Go and explore. Learn languages, talk to people, take the tourism out of travelling. Go and learn more about yourself – discover what you wake up every morning for. Be a good human, treat others better than they treat you – open your mind and your heart. Find your purpose. Jump out of planes, get soaked in thunderstorms and fall in and out of love as many times as your heart desires. Build walls and break them. But most importantly, never settle. Not for anything less than extraordinary ✨
Goodbye 15 months of travelling, I think I’m finally ready to let you go!
But ‘back to reality’ was never really my thing… I may have a degree to get but this is just the start of the next adventure… Where shall we go next?
‘The world is not respectable, it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms…‘ -George Santayana