Monday, May 26, 2014

Three months in Italy: Maintaining a sense of wonder

While some people claim that cultivating a childlike sense of wonder is one of the keys to a generally happy life (and I agree), I would suggest that it is essential when living abroad.

Of course, travel is a natural, easy way to experience a sense of wonder. Without even thinking about it, you show up to a new place eager to explore, ask questions, meet people, and enjoy. However, as time passes and the gritty details of everyday life begin to dominate your reality, it becomes more important to keep the sense of adventure alive. If not, you risk waking up one morning (after the initial honeymoon period has ended, your spouse and visitors have gone home, and you have a pile of work to do) and realizing that you are all alone in a strange place with an incredibly small circle of friends and a rather sketchy understanding of the language and culture.

This might just happen. Actually, it probably will happen. I'm not really a fan of the term, homesickness, because it connotes a simple longing for home. Similarly, the term, culture shock sounds like a sudden, fleeting blow. What we really need is a term to explain a process.

Low moments experienced while living abroad are certainly related in some sense to missing the people and places of home; however these lulls also have to do with the general stresses of adjusting to life in a new place: frustrations navigating a system you don't understand, insecurities of all sorts, lack of connectedness with the local community, etc. The fact that the same process occurs in reverse when you return "home" (and I have experienced it!) supports the notion that homesickness/culture shock is not just about missing where you came from, but is a more holistic challenge that incorporates all aspects of learning to live in a foreign land.

There are many ways to deal with this, and I would argue that perhaps the key is maintaining that initial sense of wonder you felt when you first arrived. How to do this? Wander down a street you haven't yet traveled instead of taking your usual route, strike up a meaningful conversation with a stranger or shopkeeper, take a day off and visit a new place, participate in a class or cultural event. Importantly, understand that low moments are normal and okay. As a dear, well-traveled and internationally-minded friend always says, "be kind to yourself".

For me, another key is having a sense of gratitude (and again, this applies to life in general, as well). Even in low moments, I never stop feeling grateful for the opportunity to be here, to do this work, to meet these people, to learn this language, etc., in large part thanks to the love and support of my husband, as well as the flexibility of colleagues at home. I am so lucky! Another international friend I met in Padua summarized more or less like this: "I love living abroad. It's difficult, but it's wonderful." Exactly. So here I am, after three months in Italy… loving the opportunity, in spite of normal ups and downs, and continuing to feed my sense of wonder.

Choosing "the path less taken" in Verona

You never know what you might discover! View from a deserted vicolo in Burano. 


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