9 Things I Learned About Myself During 9 Months Abroad

Translation: Negative thoughts are not allowed here.

1. Words have a profound impact on me (emotionally, mentally and spiritually).

One word that I identified with the most this year was this one: writer. This was the year that I started calling myself a writer. Words of affirmation is my love language and they affect me deeply. Affectionate, passionate or anger-filled words affect me deep down to the core of my being and I will be pondering on them for days, even weeks sometimes. (I could also write a whole post on this one observation -which is how much of an impact words have on me- but I may save that for another time.)

2. A good, deep conversation energizes me and can sometimes keep me awake for hours.

Preferably over tapas and good wine… 
And a nice, steaming hot cup of tea helps too.

This was a brand-new discovery that really surprised the introvert in me. I’m still fairly introverted and introspective (and writing or thinking by myself helps me process things) but I get a small bit of energy from other people. It mainly had to do with what any given (small) group of friends and I discussed and the words that were spoken. I could discuss ideas, theories and life experiences for hours and doing so helps me process my thoughts and envision what future plans or events might be like.

3. Language and culture are inseparable for me.

Translation: You’re not my soulmate (other half of the orange), you’re my juicer (juice extractor). Ouch!

I didn’t know just how much this was true until I traveled to Portugal last November and then France last Christmas. I’ve studied Portuguese on my own for a couple years but hadn’t been back for two years. The doors to a country that was once closed off to me because of the language barrier were suddenly flung wide open the moment I realized I understood almost everything that the people around me were saying. I had the opposite experience in France as I didn’t (and still don’t) speak French so I felt more like an outcast and an outsider looking in on such an interesting and intriguing culture. I love getting to know people in their own language and being able to share experiences with them. It’s one of the most beautiful gifts in the world, in my opinion.

4. Little things in life instantly brighten my day or turn an ordinary day into an absolutely extraordinary day.

Some of the roses in the rose garden at my school in A Coruña this spring

Some of the most wonderful days that I spent abroad were doing simple yet extraordinary things. Or seeing breathtaking sunsets at the beach or the mountains. Or when one of my students said the most honest or hilarious thing to me. I found that it doesn’t take much to make me happy but that it is easy to take small pleasures for granted. I have to keep reminding myself to enjoy the simple things in life because in the end, they are the things that matter the most.

5. Alone time doesn’t have to be lonely (but it is necessary).

Especially if I can go somewhere with a view like this!

Even though I mentioned above that good, long conversations energize me, I have to prioritize alone time in order to write, process my thoughts and re-energize myself. I also need time to pray and read the Bible as those things are very important to me and my overall well-being. While in France last year, I spent a total of 12 hours by myself (with no one else around me – tourist or local) in the 14 days I was there. I thought that I was going to go completely crazy! As much as I love being around people and spending time with the ones I care about, being alone keeps me sane and allows me to continue interacting with the outside world. It’s my saving grace in a way.

6. Getting to know people and having meaningful experiences are better than buying souvenirs.

With new friends and our new Galician friend, Moises
I have a huge postcard collection. I love collecting keychains and the occasional mug when I visit a new city. All those things are nice but, ever since I started my love affair with Spain 5 years ago, I’ve been focusing on collecting people, experiences and stories – not particularly in that order. I would much rather invest my time into getting to know someone from any given city or country rather than do a whirlwind trip and see a bunch of historical sights (aka places full of tourists) and buy a bunch of things I don’t need. And the plus side is this: you will either have someone to go back and visit or if you meet in a new city you will be able to go visit your new friend(s) in their hometown or vice versa! Everyone is different and I believe that our differences help us (instead of hurt us) and can teach us valuable lessons about the world around us.

7. Versatility and adaptability can be learned over and over again.

I had almost no idea what I was going to be getting myself into when I arrived in Galicia (the rainiest region in all of Spain). Nor did I know what my school in A Coruña would be like on my first day last fall. I was already a fairly versatile person and could adapt to many different climates and living situations. I mean, I did move out of my parents house at age 18 to go away to a university some 800 miles away, after all). I ended up loving the region, getting used to my plans or classes changing at the last minute and even assisting one of the teachers to teach Art class in English to Spanish speaking 3rd graders! The most important thing I learned about being open to change and being versatile was that it’s a must. You can’t avoid it especially when you live somewhere that you’re not familiar with but the challenges and tests will come in new forms. Just be ready and expect the unexpected!

8. Getting to know myself continues to be a lifelong journey and discovery.

Having something to guide your way through life is a great help

Being a 26 year old young woman, I’ve had a few life experiences thrown my way. I’ve lost friends and family members in the short span of time that is my life but I’ve always learned something from each person and experience. In general, I’ve learned how I process different life events and what not to do next time so to speak. I don’t handle loss very well because I love deeply and with my whole heart. I did, however, think that I knew almost everything there was to know about myself and pictured this stint abroad being a journey of sharpening my strengths and building up my weaknesses. Well, thanks to the countless new experiences and new people that were thrown into my path during those 9 months, I learned brand-new things about myself.

One the big things was that I didn’t ever think that I could become fully content with being single for as long as I have and loving myself for who I am (flaws, blemishes and all) but I came to that place of contentment this past spring. It was a very liberating time for me both emotionally and spiritually. I’m definitely still keeping my eyes out for a potential love interest to emerge but I’m not obsessed with finding him like I was a year ago. I’m focusing on living my life to the fullest, following my dreams and learning to grow in this new city where I’ve been planted.

9. I’m more adventurous and courageous than I ever thought I was (but I get scared too!)

Translation: Do everything with love. A simple yet challenging command.

I still have a comfort zone but it’s becoming smaller and smaller as the years fly by. I’ve taken more risks, gone on more adventures, made a fool of myself in a few different languages and poured myself and my time into other people these last five years than I ever thought I would. Most of the time I am scared to death or as nervous as can be before setting off on a new adventure or even simply making small talk with a stranger. However, I still force myself to go. I make myself choose ride sharing options where it’s likely that the driver doesn’t speak English, I go up to both guys and girls, older men and women and either ask them how to get to the Love Lock bridge in Paris or simply shyly ask for their name (happens all the time with cute guys.) I interrupt people to ask them the meaning of a word they just said. I go to classes for traditional dances taught in languages I don’t know, try out a free class for a sport I have never wanted to try (like fencing!) until that very day or moment. I go to places where I don’t know a single soul. I travel by myself in order to get a more authentic experience and force myself to ask for help from the locals or get to know them over tapas or a drink.

I do all of the things in that paragraph above because I know that having those experiences will enrich my life and help me grow in ways that wouldn’t be possible if I were in my home country. I don’t always ask the right questions nor do I give the “correct” answer but I step out of my comfort zone and I take a risk. It’s through these experiences that I grow into a more confident and capable woman with each passing day.

(Unless I’m sick in bed all day after having given myself food poisoning but that’s a story for another day…which you can read all about it here if you want!)

Have you ever lived abroad? Where did you live and how long did you live there? Where do you live now? What is one major thing you learned about yourself while living abroad? Tell me your story in the comments below!

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