“The world is a big place, much bigger than we can possibly imagine, and the best way that we can learn about it is not by reading books or by roving the internet but by going out and experiencing it first-hand. It is there that the flesh of life can be found.” -Anonymous-
Before you begin digging into this text (Note the irony based on the aforementioned quote), it is important for you to know who I am; it is rather essential. My name is Brian Heyel and at the time of writing this I have just turned 24 years old. I was born and raised outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. My childhood was not spectacular enough to merit any great detail or in-depth mention. Suffice it to say, however, that growing up for me was what I consider to be rather normal. I rode my bike, and played with friends, and laughed a lot as children are inclined to do.
I would not describe my childhood as outstanding for the sole reason that I do not believe that the events that would follow–little to my knowledge at the time–would or could rest upon the laurels of any great childhood. The events that would follow my childhood were perfectly plausible results of a normal childhood.
Despite the fact that I grew up in a small Midwestern city, by the age of 24 I have lived in six different countries and visited nearly 20. I have seen more major cities outside of the United States than within its borders. I have met and become friends with people from places that I have yet to visit. Consequently, after getting to know these people, the desire to travel burns within me more than ever before.
If I have your attention now, I want to make a point very clear. This is nothing that you should consider to be extraordinary. It is not a feat that requires some form of superhuman strength or intellect. The reason I say this is because as the tales I tell will reveal, success abroad can be obtained through the simple merit of will. If it were so difficult, I think that I should have more stories of failure and adversity. This is not the case, however. My travels thus far are much more wrought with adventure, excitement, fun, and most importantly learning. Remember the adage: what one man can do, another can do.
What is my motivation for this attempt at inspiration? The answer is primarily two-fold, beneficial in two main respects. The first is that if you succeed in stepping outside of your borders you will have the chance to encounter things that will open your mind to the World out there, to a world that goes on everyday but that you never knew existed before that moment. With this experience you will gain a deeper understanding of the human condition as well as a deeper respect for mankind as a whole.
The second part of the answer relies wholly on the success of the first part. By becoming what some might call a citizen of the world, your personal transformation will cause those around you to seek a greater sense of understanding as well. You see, the effect is rather infectious. If you can go out and meet people from another culture and show them who you really are and show them that you want to understand them, they will want to understand you. Chances are that you will make a great impression on these people.
I know that this last idea may sound a bit far-fetched and even corny to some of the more skeptical readers. I understand how one might arrive at such an opinion. Allow me to unveil an example from personal experience of how this idea/ideal was carried out. When I was sixteen I lived in Spain as a foreign exchange student through a yearlong program with AFS (American Field Services). While there I attended high school and lived with a host family where I was treated like one of their own children in as many ways as was imaginable.
One of my classes there in the high school was philosophy. In my American public education I had never even fathomed taking a philosophy class, but the Spanish educational system accorded it to every student. Hoping to make the best of the experience, I tried my best to learn as much as possible–not only in Philosophy but in all my classes. My Philosophy teacher was visibly dedicated, one of those teachers that was motivated by people who were interested in learning something from her. Conversely, she was rather put off by such motions of apathy and motivational inertia. I got the feeling that she rather scorned these ideas. I found her class rather interesting and I did my best to learn from her. Near the end of my year in her class she approached me one day to speak to me.
During most of the year our conversations never passed beyond class material-based question and answer sessions, but this day was different, more personal. She proceeded to ask me where I was from, and I explained. She knew that I was American already, but she did not know from where exactly. After a brief bit of questioning she told me that I had succeeded in changing her opinion of Americans as a whole. When I first started her class, she explained, she had discounted me as another lazy foreign exchange student in it for the free and wild ride of living in another country. Through my hard work and interest I had succeeded in changing someone’s opinion about an entire nation. This was an empowering feeling, and I became rather inspired to continue with this trend.
Inspiration was not at its end there, however, as the possibility of learning other languages was another incentive to live in other countries. It is relatively safe to say that the majority of Americans are exposed to some form of a foreign language in their formative years, but that very few Americans actually put those extremely important skills to use. By the time I turned twenty I was well on my way to being able to communicate with nearly a billion people in their own language. That concept alone blew my mind. With skills like that, I could feasibly live almost anywhere in the world and not be at a loss for words. I did not just like to speak languages, though. I enjoyed speaking them well.
When I lived in Spain, at the end of my exchange program, I spent 17 days traveling around Spain, touring from city to city. Keep in mind that I had not yet turned seventeen years old. For the entire time I lived in Spain I always tried to work on my accent, sounding more and more like a Spaniard with each passing month. I even remember walking about my host family’s house in Spain saying things to myself before I would say them to anyone else to assure that my accent was okay. This practice came in handy, though. As chance would have it, upon checking into a hotel room in Cordoba in southern Spain, the young man (the owner’s young son of maybe 12 years of age) came to ask me with two different colored cards in hand where I was from. You see, one card he held was for Spanish nationals and the other card was for foreign visitors. He had no idea which card to give me. I gleamed as I responded to him that I was American.
Even today, here in Sint Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean-where I currently reside-I fool people on a regular basis. They will hear me speak one language, thinking I am of the corresponding nationality, but then I will switch to another language, throwing off their judgment completely. Today at a restaurant I recommended a lunch special to a Frenchman; not knowing immediately that he was French, I spoke to him in English. When his wife came in and he spoke to her in French, I immediately switched and threw him off completely. The surprised look on his face-and on the cashier’s face for that matter-makes having learned multiple languages such a joy.
Beyond being a joy, though, it has its professional uses. Currently I am working as a sales executive for two small marketing-oriented companies. This particular island is host to over 90 nationalities so multilingualism comes in quite handy. I generally conduct my business in English until I find out if my client is from a country whose national language is French or Spanish. If this is the case, I immediately switch over and without fail the demeanor of the relationship I have with the client warms as well.
I remember dealing with one client from Columbia-but I wasn’t aware at the outset-and at the very beginning our business dealings were very serious and professional. One day I asked him where he was from. He happily responded and I began speaking Spanish to him. Immediately, he took a whole new interest in me. Since that day, every time I visit him, we generally sit and chat for a good ten to fifteen minutes before getting to business affairs. By having taken an interest in learning his language, he immediately took a greater interest in understanding where I am from as well. This idea again goes back to one of the primary benefits of living abroad-how infectious interest in someone’s culture can be.
I do not want to give the impression that I was just blessed with the ability to instantly be able to speak other languages. It is definitely something one has to work at. Unlike riding a bike, if you stop speaking a language for any period of time, you generally lose your ability to speak it. It is a matter of constant effort to not only maintain but to also improve language skills. I had to work rather hard to get where I am at with my language skills. I must admit that I have always done well with languages, but I attribute that primarily to the fact that I take a determined interest in them. With experiences like those that I have described, it is hard not to be motivated to learn more.
What all of this ultimately means is that living outside of your country can also mean stepping outside of your language comfort zone. If you don’t speak a second language, fear not. You can still live outside your country while living in a country that does speak English. My brother is a prime example of this. Even though he learned a little German in high school and college, he ended up with an English girlfriend. As fate would have it, he is getting his Masters degree in England, which has a culture very unique from that of the United States. His experiences there are ones that the rest of our family just loves to hear about when he returns on vacation. He is able to take advantage of living in another country while not having to worry about the language barrier, once he’s figured out the basic differences in the way we talk.
Personally, though, I encourage choosing a country where you do not speak the language. One reason I encourage this is because I have found that places where they do not speak your native language tend to harbor a culture more different than your own. If at all possible before you leave, though, take a beginner’s course in the target language so that you can at the very least express basic needs and wants. I find that once this can be accomplished, most of the other elements of the language fall into place with a certain degree of ease. Starting from scratch can be much more difficult. Immersion in the language is great for learning it, but it is always great to have a little head start.
What is really amazing-and fortunate for that matter, from an American perspective-is how many people speak English already. In all of my travels I do not think that I have ever been in a situation where I was stuck in terms of communication, although I have come close on one particular occasion in Switzerland. In that particular experience, I was backpacking around Switzerland with my friend, Angela, and we had gone to Lucerne for the day. We had read about this beautiful statue of a lion carved into a rock wall, so we wanted to visit and see it, among other things. German is the dominant language in that particular part of Switzerland-one of the four official Swiss languages-and neither Angela nor myself were very well-versed in it. As luck would have it we got rather lost and needed to ask for directions. There weren’t too many people around where we were but as we passed a car lot, there was a father and his son. I asked him if he knew where the lion statue was. English, French, German, Spanish-nothing. Italian? Sure enough. Dove stá il leone? His response put us back on the right track and further aimless wandering was avoided. As it turned out, the lion was absolutely beautiful and definitely worth all the trouble.
Apart from that small stumbling block, however, English is a very prominent language throughout Europe. Even in countries like France and Spain, I was never hard up to find English-speaking people. The easiest way, without a doubt: the Irish pubs. It is unique to find that there are places where by the very nature of their establishment, they draw in a clientele who speaks a particular language. This is true beyond Irish pubs when considering the various languages you can find. Typically, the easiest to find are based around food and drink. You like Spanish? Visit a bar that plays Salsa music and you are sure to find Spanish spoken. In my travels, if I was ever yearning to meet a few Anglophones, all I had to generally do was visit the nearest Irish pub. By doing this you will generally meet people from the entire English-speaking world: English, Irish, Scots, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and of course Americans. It is not surprising in places like this to find people in similar situations such as yours. They too may be world travelers seeking experiences abroad. Visiting comfort zones like this can actually ultimately propel your desire to travel even more, ironic though it may be.
That is yet another great benefit to living abroad: meeting people from everywhere. Certain places tend to be a crossroads to the international community, and it is within places like this that you will have the opportunity-as I have had-to make friends from the entire world. Living in places rich in international flavor allows you to taste many cultures without traveling much. Its akin to trying everything on the menu before you commit to a particular dish. You may find certain characteristics to be common within certain nationalities that you adore, just as you may find characteristics completely reproachable. When noticing these trends, however, be wary of assuming that they will hold true for everyone. Nevertheless, you do-by living in international crossroads-get the chance to learn from people whose culture is very different from your own. This is an invaluable skill in dealing with people both on a personal and a professional level.
Speaking from experience, in my last job, where I worked for a tour operator with twelve staff and seven different nationalities represented, cultural differences could account for difficulties as well as for advantages. In terms of difficulty, occasionally staff members would misunderstand meanings of certain things that were said and tempers could flair. With experience in dealing with these types of situations, a certain degree of adaptability is ultimately obtained. If you pay attention to how people work in terms of their culture or upbringing, you will be able to bring understanding to others around you in times of conflict. Thus you are able to turn conflict into a positive experience of greater understanding for all parties involved.
Similarly, there are benefits to be gained from operating in an international atmosphere. You will undoubtedly get the opportunity to learn other languages, or at the very least phrases from other languages. Without immersion, you will find that learning a language in depth becomes difficult. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t pick up knowledge here and there. If you really wish to pursue it, you can take advantage of the background of those around you and learn their language in a more structured setting. I myself have traded Spanish lessons to a Welshman in order to learn how to play the guitar; he has since moved to Honduras and I can only hope that what I taught him has come in handy.
It was when I lived in Spain that I came to realize how useful speaking another language could be. As I have already stated, I spent nearly three weeks backpacking around Spain by myself when I was only sixteen years old. The crazy thing about that statement-apart from the fact that I was only sixteen-was that I was almost never alone. Reason? I spoke the local language in a place where many travelers didn’t. I became useful to many people around me, just because I could make their stay in Spain a little more enjoyable. It was in this way that I was able to land a cheap place to stay outside of Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls without having made any prior reservation. It is worth noting that every hotel and hostel within an hour’s drive of Pamplona had been booked weeks and if not months in advance for what has become the third largest party in the world. It was also in this way that I landed free meals courtesy of an old English couple who had difficulty reading their menu at a bar in Valencia. Beyond scoring little freebies here and there I was simply able to help people who seemed to need a little assistance, which was always appreciated with a smile and at the very least a brief conversation.
Beyond learning the language, though, being familiar with the culture and history of a place will also serve you as it serves others. I spent nearly three days hanging out with the same family as they toured southern Spain. As I recall they were from Georgia, and when I met them we were waiting in line to visit the Alhambra and Mezquita in Cordoba. Having lived in Spain for nearly a year at this point in time and taken a Spanish history course that covered these architectural marvels in detail, I was able to serve as a tour guide of sorts for the family as we wound our way under the arches of the Alhambra. After spending the afternoon together, it was time for me to catch my bus to Sevilla where I planned on spending a few days; I split off from this family, but not for long.
By chance I would run into them in Sevilla. Just as I had recovered my sense of direction after getting lost while walking through the back alleys of Sevilla, I looked up to see the El Cid statue almost staring me in the face. This stare was immediately followed by a loud and excitedly uttered “Hey!” from the family I had left the previous day in Cordoba. They were passing by on a carriage tour and offered that I accompany them for the remainder of the ride. I spent that day and the following with this nice family, touring about and teaching them some of the history and culture of southern Spain. Ultimately, I was even able to use my language skills to meet people from my home country. Experiences like this are valuable in the sense that it brings a little bit of home into your life at a time when home is physically quite far away.
Now perhaps one of the most valid questions that I ever get from people is whether or not I miss home. The answer to this question, I believe more than any other, will vary from person to person. I can honestly say that I have only felt what I would describe as homesick once, and it was only for a very short while. This particular instance took place when I lived in Spain-my first experience away from home. During the first few months there, I was so occupied with activities and learning about where I was that the idea of missing home was perhaps the farthest thing from my mind.
Nevertheless, by sheer chance, I lived in a part of Spain that has a very long and consistent rainy season. This fact alone I consider to be the primary reason behind my feeling homesick. I reiterate, though, that I only felt this way for a brief period of time. The rain, which once it had started seemed quite loathe to stop over a period of a few weeks, was keeping me penned up indoors. This stir-craziness resulted in me thinking about home quite a bit and starting to wish I was back there. My days and nights began to be filled with a desire to get away from this place that was quickly becoming an international experience from behind four walls.
And then one day it hit me. I had spent the better part of the year leading up to that point raising money and working towards getting where I was. I would be damned if a little inclement weather was going to ruin my experience and drive me back to Wisconsin. There was too much invested, and more importantly there was too much to see still to consider giving up. The short-lived taste of the best of Spain remained fresh in my memory; I wanted more of that. With this in mind, I decided that regardless of the climate, I was going to enjoy where I was. I started going out and meeting people. The locals, having grown up there, were quite acclimated to the conditions, and soon I became just as acclimated as they were. From that point onward the experiences of living in Spain began to shine like gold in my memory.
It is important, though, to emphasize that missing home affects everyone differently. There are various reasons for this, and in the end you will never know for sure how you will react until you give it a try. I knew foreign exchange students in Spain who at the outset seemed doomed to return to their home countries within a very short amount of time, but in the end they stuck it out and made the best of the challenge before them. One girl in particular stands out in my mind to this day. She was from Japan and spoke no Spanish at the start. To make matters more difficult for her, she spoke no English either. Communication for her was extremely limited at first, almost relying entirely on gestures and expressions. She studied and listened and forced herself to interact. Some of the kids in our group always tried to include her in things we did, which certainly helped her in the grand scheme of her time there. It was an enormous challenge for her. Indeed, this aspect of living abroad can prove to be the greatest hurdle you will experience in your time away from home. The most important thing to recognize, then, is that the tougher it is to accomplish, the more valuable the experience becomes in the long run of things. It has been said that without the sour, the sweet is not as sweet. A great lesson.
Now bear in mind that I am only giving you tidbits of my overall experiences over the last several years, but if you are reading this and thinking to yourself that this sounds amazing and something to the effect of “I wish I could do that” comes to your mind, the only thing that I can re-iterate is that chances are that you can do it. I really can’t push this point enough. It is important, obviously, to consider one’s personal situation when pondering over the idea of packing up and moving somewhere. Maybe right now is not the right time, but I will tell you one thing; if you don’t ever decide to go, you never will. Stuff will constantly get in the way. It is a simple matter of planning. Think about all that you can gain from such an experience and try to see if you really want to give yourself a chance at it all. Once you have decided-and obviously I hope you decide to do it-then start making plans. I know people down here in the Caribbean who used to have homes and 401k plans and investments and so many material possessions that a fleet of U-Hauls was necessary for moving; they did exactly what I am talking about. They decided to give it up for a shot at what many-especially down here-call a better life. Your entire value system can change. Your entire outlook on life can change. Your perspective on human relations can change. You will change. Better yet, you will grow.