Wednesday, December 8, 2010

#3: spend a month in a foreign country

You know what was awesome about college? Lots of things: having a meal plan, my only responsibilities being school and tennis team, my ‘job’ covering the men’s soccer team for the school paper (I won an award for it—seriously). But if there’s one thing that’s great about college that’s even harder to find out in the real world than a job that involves watching hot men play a sport you only marginally understand, it’s the study abroad program. You get to not only travel to but live in a foreign country and someone makes all the arrangements for you: what you’ll be doing, where you’ll be staying, your visa—all taken care of. I’m sure that some people have horrors stories about studying abroad but I did it twice—once for a month in Uruguay and once for a semester in France—and both times it was life-changing in the best way.  

I do love to travel but I find it often leaves me with an unmistakable longing for more. An extended stay in a country where you learn to communicate in the language and actually make real friendships is simply in a whole different league than spending a day or two seeing the sights. It’s like the difference between a one night stand and a real relationship; both can be great but if you’re wanting the later, the former simply won’t do.

So before I turn thirty, I wanted to have this experience one more time. I’ve toyed with the notion of doing it for a whole year; getting certified to teach English and moving to somewhere like Paris or Berlin but I know from friends who have lived abroad as real live post college, non-packing grown-ups that relocating to a foreign country is no joke. I have two friends who spent a year together in Australia, one of whom moved to Hong Kong where she is living still and I have watched them struggle with the Herculean efforts of securing housing, jobs and visas in foreign lands and dealing with the accompanying bureaucracy (I even got to write a letter to the Chinese government on behalf of my HK friend enumerating that ways in which she is an amazing human being). Basically, moving abroad is a major pain and takes a huge commitment both financial and otherwise that I’m just not sure I want to take on going completely ex-pat; and much like having children or buying expensive electronics in hot pink moving to a foreign country is one of those things you’d better be damn sure about before you do it.  

Besides all this, I just moved to a new city a year ago. Even though I grew up in the Northwest, I hadn’t lived here for a decade when I moved back and the first year in a new place is always tough so I’m not exactly in the mood to completely relocate anywhere. What I really need is an adventure, something between a vacation and a full on move.
Since I don’t have my next freelance gig coming up until next year, I decided January was prime time for this little sabbatical. Since it’s cold in Europe now and they’re busy striking over thing like having to work until age 62, I decided that the southern hemisphere would be better: specifically Argentina.

I believe that just as when you meet certain people and know right away that you will be friends, certain places can be your kindred spirits. For me Buenos Aires is one of those cities. I mean: wine, tango, art, music, great shopping, ridiculously attractive people, and a literary tradition that includes Jorge Luis Borges, what more could you want? And it just has that ineffable ‘I could live here’ quality that gives you the deep desire to make a place part of your personal. I spent a few days in BA a number of years ago when some friends and I took a short trip there form New York. One of my favorite Thanksgivings ever was the one that I spent there; it was 80 degrees and we had a big traditional Thanksgiving in a friend’s penthouse with his family from Southern Virginia and a couple of American ex pats who were living there. Towards the end of the night our host told me—upon hearing my interest in tango—that I should come back some day for an extended stay to learn it. Guess the idea stuck.
So naturally right when I began this list—before I could talk myself out of it—I booked a mileage ticket for one month in Buenos Aires and got myself set up with some Spanish and Tango classes (conveniently checking off numbers six and seven, learn Spanish / Tango).
This list item also covers something that I think every woman should do once in her life: travel alone. I think we’ve all had the experience of wanting to go some place—and maybe even having the time and money to do so—but having no one idea who we might go with. I’ve done a little bit of travel by myself here and there but this is by far the most ambitious trip I’ve taken. A dear friend and former NYC roommate of mine did a trip around Europe by herself a couple of summers ago. She called me one time from the side of the road in southern Spain where she was taking a solo bike trip (mind you she neither speaks Spanish nor is what one would call ‘outdoorsy’) and she sounded so happy, like she’d suddenly found a whole new side of herself. For writers especially but for everyone I think, learning to be alone and to enjoy being alone is a vital skill and what better way to embrace it than to take yourself completely out of your comfort zone?
Any good, bad or ugly stories about living abroad?

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