Every day since we started this trip around the world I wake up knowing one thing for certain. No matter what we’re doing or where we do it, at some point in the day I’m going to feel like an idiot. This is the nature of international travel. You aren’t going to know everything – ever. While some days I might confront only a very brief period of confusion, without a doubt the uncertainty is out there waiting for me. Maybe it comes up because a lady at the grocery store points at my head and starts speaking to me in Czech. Maybe I come out of a metro station from the wrong exit and now I’m walking in circles around the block trying to find the street I need. Or maybe my translation app keeps telling me the words on an important directional sign mean “get hairy.” Every day presents numerous opportunities to be confused and bemused.
You would think this continuous cycle of befuddlement would get exhausting, yet it’s become strangely exhilarating. Because here’s the thing…every time we feel like we don’t know what the hell we’re doing, something miraculous happens – we figure it out. Whatever the confusion or linguistic obstacle, we eventually get through the task and accomplish whatever it was we were trying to accomplish. I feel like a little kid mastering something for the first time. Instead of “Look, I put my shirt on all by myself!” it’s become “Look, I figured out that yeast comes in little foil cubes and can be found in the refrigerated case by the yogurt!”
Every day presents its challenges, which means every day comes with its own set of victories. It makes life interesting and memorable. I doubt I will ever forget the glorious appreciation I had for pumping gas into my rental car after driving aimlessly around southern France for an hour looking for a station. Nor will I ever look at twine the same way again having finally figured out where in Croatia I could buy this common yet elusive household item. And I will now always keep in mind that toll booths and border crossings can look very similar after giving our passports to a rather confused tunnel toll cashier near the Austrian border. These are just a few of the MANY examples where we started out as idiots, but then eventually figured things out.
While experiencing other cultures and seeing beautiful sights firsthand is definitely a major draw for international travelers, I think part of the allure of travel is this feeling of accomplishment that comes with muddling through uncertainty. Obviously a person doesn’t have to be overseas to deal with life’s challenges. However, I’ve noticed this phenomenon much more since we’ve been on this trip and I can tell it’s changing us for the better. Continuously overcoming small obstacles seems to make Brian and I happier, calmer, more empathetic and maybe even a little smarter.
If you have the right perspective, these little wins put you in a good mood. You’ve overcome an obstacle and have reason to celebrate. A visit to the grocery store in the U.S. was simply a chore I had to get through as quickly as possible. I never came home smiling and waving a little cube of yeast at my family saying, “Look what I found! We can make bread now! Aren’t you excited!!”
After experiencing this whole confusion-learning-success cycle multiple times, you begin approaching both big and small challenges with a more serene and logical outlook. Having practiced your problem-solving skills on so many other occasions, you start to realize every issue, no matter how bizarre, will get handled somehow. “So, I’m surrounded by a flock of swans while getting yelled at in a foreign language by an agitated, scroungy-looking man. I’m sure it will all be just fine.” It’s easier to take on new (sometimes weird) challenges with the experience of so many others already under your belt.
Feeling like an idiot yet knowing you’re not one makes you much more empathetic to those around you acting like idiots themselves. You recognize the slow movements and bewildered looks, the stopping in the middle of crowded areas to stare at a phone or map. You’ve been there. This empathy means you lend a hand when possible, and you don’t get irritated with others as quickly as you once did (subsequently contributing to the aforementioned happiness factor).
Trying new things, whether you’re young or old, is good for your brain. (Even my 10-year-old says so.) Learning new transit systems, changing to different currencies, memorizing basic phrases in other languages, understanding the geography of new areas…. The list of new information we’ve digested over the last 4 months seems unending at times. Each time we come into a new place, the learning curve seems quicker and easier than the last time. Perhaps we’re developing new connections between synapses, or maybe we’re just acquiring more foreign street smarts.
The benefits of “certain uncertainty” not only enrich our experience on this trip, but also improve our outlook and interactions with others. As our girls watch Brian and I guide our family through these daily challenges, I hope they’re learning from this too and seeing how obstacles can help them find the joy in life’s small victories. When we eventually return to life in the U.S. where we won’t have to deal with language barriers or constant uncertainty in our daily activities, I think we’ll be able to maintain this appreciation for the value of life’s hurdles. After all, challenges are present in all of our daily lives. Our family’s plunge into foreign cultures has simply made them more obvious.
The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it. ~Molière
Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body. ~Seneca