This topic came up on Twitter and slid into some private discussions. Being the queen of packing my bags and moving as far as I can manage every few years, I obviously have a lot to share about this, much more than I can fit into an instant message program and definitely more than I can fit into Twitter. So, I thought, this is a perfect opportunity to wipe the dust off this quaint (if I do say so myself) little corner of the internet.
Genesis of a Nomad
I was 20 years old, at the beginning of my second year of a 3 year specialized B.A. in psychology. I told my parents that in the next year I was going to go to school in the US. They were nothing short of horrified.
Here is a summarized version of the conversation, for your reading pleasure:
Me: I’m going to do a semester at an American school.
Mom: Oh no you aren’t!
Me: Yes I am.
Then I packed my bags, flew to California and had the time of my life.
My parents did come around eventually. My mom relaxed when I showed her my 4000$ grant, and I think both my parents changed their minds when I came home a happier, wiser, more outgoing and more confident person. When I decided to move to Newfoundland for 5 years, then to Northern Alberta for a 2 year contract, they were far more approving. Now I’m talking about a year in Australia and South East Asia and they sound… excited for me.
The pivoting point was, I think, when I proved that moving away, even far away, as a young person, on your own, is actually a fantastic idea. You make connections, you learn about the world, you learn to get yourself out of trouble, you learn how to ask for and receive help…and the list goes on. If I were to redo the experience, I would have actually started at a much much younger age. (Us North Americans are so sheltered. I had a Vietnamese roommate once, she came to Canada by herself at the age of 15, barely speaking any English. She was my roommate 4 years after the move and she was doing just fine.)
Over the past couple of days, I compared my own experiences to the experiences of others – others who had good experiences like me and others who had bad experiences. I tried to figure out what we did right, what we did wrong, then I compiled a Cosmo-style list. A list that just fits nicely in this post.
1- Be Realistic About Your Experience
“What the hell are you running from?”
– My distressed mother upon hearing of my US plans.
“I’m not running from, Mom, I’m running to.”
This understanding seems to me to be the main difference between those who have good experiences after a big leap and those who don’t.
If you’re struggling, moving away is not going to solve your problems. The common denominator to your problems isn’t your environment. The common denominator is you. If you need to brush up on your financial, your family, your communication skills, you’ll still need to brush up on them 1000 kilometers later.
However, living away, or even just traveling for a long period of time, forces you to develop new skills. If you’re very dependent, you’ll be forced to learn independence. If you’re too independent, you’ll be forced to learn how to ask for and accept help. If you’re bad with money, you’ll be forced to learn basic financial management. If you have a bad sense of direction, you’ll be forced to develop that too.
In other words, being far away won’t fix your problems, but if you submit to the Travel Gods, they’ll teach you the skills you need to solve your problems yourself.
2- Have a Plan
The better your plan, the easier time you’ll have.
At very least, know your basic legal requirements if entering another country, and the availability of transportation and accommodation.
Different travelers have different levels of tolerance to the unknown. I have a very anxious personality. When I travel, I generally study everything about my destination. Quite often I’ll even have bus schedules and radio stations memorized. A friend of mine, on the other hand, loves adventure and has no problems sleeping in train stations when needed. She just leaps in blind.
But you’ll save a lot of time if you know about visa requirements, and a lot of discomfort if you know about transportation and accommodations. The more you map out, the smoother your adventure will be. You don’t even have to follow your plans, you just want to have a safety net ready should the Spontaneity Gods not be on your side.
If you’re traveling or moving with a spouse or kids, having a plan is even more important. A new location is a huge stress on everyone and the more unknowns you eliminate, the more relaxed everyone will be.
3- Build a Social Network
This is another major difference between happy re-locators and regretful ones.
I find that human beings are human beings no matter where they are. There are cultural differences, yes, but the essence of a human being, for better and for worse, is always the same. If you refuse to make connections on the premises of “people here aren’t friendly”, you’re almost guaranteed a terrible time.
Personally, looking back, my warmest, fuzziest memories aren’t about the pretty sights or the unusual experiences. They are always about the kindness of strangers, the wisdom of elders and the warmth of fellow adventurers.
The easiest time to make friends is when you’re new to a place because you’re basically a living conversation starter. Fascination with people from afar is an almost universal phenomenon. Just find an excuse to let an “I just arrived” slip and, congrats, you’ve scored yourself a 20 minute chat.
Find other people from away, or local hobby groups. In smaller areas it helps to get to know the post office workers, the grocers, the bus drivers, the barristas and the pharmacists. They tend to be in the know and you’ll quickly learn everything you need to have a good time in town. You don’t have to make lifelong bestest best friends. What’s important is having a social support group to keep you company, to give you advice, to provide a shoulder to cry on and to help you out (or point you to someone who can help you out) when you’re in trouble.
4- Accept Imperfection
You read National Geographics. You subscribe to travel blogs. You carefully examine all your friends’ Facebook travel pictures. You are well aware that worthwhile travel experiences are 100% rosy.
I’ll let you in on a secret.
When I reached my dorm room in California, my heart sank. When I reached my dorm room in Newfoundland, I curled up on my bed and bawled my eyes out. Even when I’m just on vacation, I get very depressed the first day. Oh, and I’ve had tons of wet clothes experiences (followed by the even lovelier moldy clothes experience). I’ve lost a lot of money because of bad guesses, I’ve locked myself outside in a hurricane, I’ve had bloody feet, I’ve even ended up in the hospital in a foreign country. And that’s nothing compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard on the road. (One woman had a car bomb go off next to her in Vienna. A CAR BOMB!)
Just because things don’t go perfectly doesn’t mean your experience is a write-off. What you have to do is focus on the good times. When bad things happen, start narrating in your head how you’ll tell everyone about this later. Because there are two types of experiences when you’re far from home: good experiences, and good stories.
Obviously, there are some extreme situations that can’t make a good story no matter how you look at them. Luckily, these situations are very rare, and are just as likely to happen at home as they are to happen far from home. Maybe even more likely to happen at home (remember, most acts of violence happen between people who know each other!). We kid ourselves into believing that in behaving a certain way, or dressing a certain way, or saying certain things we’ll be safe. Truth is (with the exception of avoiding uber risky trades like drugs or prostitution) there’s very little you can do to avoid being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Take comfort in reminding yourself that you’re waaaay more likely to die in a car crash than to experience something too awful to laugh about later while far from home. And if it happens, it happens. If you refuse to live your life because of the tiny chance that other people might be assholes, you’re letting those assholes win without them even having to lift a finger.
Conclusion: Just Make the Most of Everything
If someone asked me for short advice before making a big leap, I’d say look at everything, listen to everyone, learn everything you can and write a lot of stories in your head.
These adventures, from potential permanent moves to short vacations, are such amazing experiences. Even when things go wrong, they still become treasured memories in the end because of the strength, the perspective and the wisdom they’ve given you. I can’t even imagine how much my life would suck if I hadn’t had the boldness to go to California.
Back in the day, I saw the world as a huge, intangible, frightening place with dangerous strangers lurking in the shadows. Now I still see it as huge, but as a huge, huge home filled with wise grandparents, goofy uncles and party hardy cousins. As a person, I now feel like I’m in control of my life, of what I do with it and of where I live it. I find it easier to relate to others, I experience more enjoyment on a daily basis and I feel safe. Safe and powerful. That’s what my daring moves have given me.
So you’re asking, should I run off somewhere?
So I say yes. Do it right, of course, but definitely do it.