Growing up in rural Eastern Washington State my best friend Cyndi and I often dreamed of more exotic lands. In high school we launched a full-scale plan to leave our sleepy town and move, together, to London. Feeling a bit stifled by the simplicity of small town Americana we, like many teenagers, were anxious to explore the greater world around us.
When I went to college in the more populated greater Seattle region I had a bit of a shock. I felt, though it likely wasn’t true, that everyone around me was far more sophisticated and worldly than I was. Having made a few quick jaunts to Canada and brief venture to Europe after graduation I had felt I was decently “well-traveled.” But many of my new classmates (current boyfriend included) seemed like they had seen much more, not to mention, knew much more. In my adolescent naivety I instantly blamed my small-town origins. How could my parents raise me in such a place? My parents were (and still are) exceptionally smart, cultured, and open people, I couldn’t understand why they would do this to me. I didn’t care that they wanted a safe place surrounded by the outdoors and friendly neighbors. I vowed to always live in a city from that point on, and never subject my own kids to such a limiting upbringing. I loved my parents deeply, but I was admittedly, a bit miffed. Of course, six years later having seen much more of the world and lived in both New York City and Los Angeles I’ve come to appreciate the simplicities of rural life, and understand where my parents were coming from. But back then, my personal life mission was to break out of the inflicted bubble to become this ideal of what I viewed 20-something women to be.
I idolized New York, in those early college years. With my best attempt at imitation I garnered an interest in fashion (well, what I thought was fashion) and city culture, my stubborn nature at its best, I was determined. I believed people who lived in the city weren’t subjected to the perceived rules and ignorances I encountered in my childhood confinement. I wanted, desperately to break free, to have no box, bubble, or other enclosed geometric shapes for that matter, holding me back. What I’ve learned since has not only shattered this impression, but has forced a 180 view of what we consider isolation, and made me question if “breaking free” is as simple, or necessary, as I thought.
Riding my single-speed on a warm July afternoon in Williamsburg Brooklyn my day bag stuffed to the brim with farmers market finds. I had spent the lazy sunday morning perusing the market and grabbing espresso at Blue Bottle watching the slow hum of good-looking twenty-something girls with short-cropped hair and oxfords smoking American Spirits meander around me. On my way back to Park Slope I stopped at the entrance to a warehouse turned motorcycle repair shop, and wandered through to the back open air courtyard. There were a few racks of clothing and a designer taking measurements; a sample sale. I picked up a few things, quickly ensured their fit in the make-shift dressing room formed by hanging a sheet over a branch and headed home. Everything I had wanted as an insecure 18-year-old had come to fruition. I lived in New York, at first Manhattan before realizing Brooklyn was more my style, spent my weekends brunching with girlfriends and lunch hours at sample sales in the city. I could navigate the subway and knew obscure dining options under the Williamsburg bridge. I felt, as if any shreds of my previous bubbled life had been completely blown away. That is until, one afternoon. A friend and I had heard about a craft beer festival and decided to go. There were all sorts of people everywhere. But we both made a startling realization. We were in a group of people that were largely unlike us. By living in Brooklyn I (we) had created a new sort of wall, surrounding ourselves with similar others. Though living in New York affords you the opportunity to see and meet people from all over the world, and come accustomed to strange occurrences everyday (that guy is riding the subway in boxers, in February, no big deal), we were greatly under prepared for what simply was, normal Americana. Never have I felt so estranged by guys in football tee’s and girls in denim mini-skirts then I did at that moment. Alex often jokes that I had been spiraling down into the depths of hipsterdom, only rescued by moving out west, as evidence by my pure shock when confronted with “normalcy.” My attempt at forcing a life without borders had caused me to find a way, without my knowledge, to bubble myself in again, but in an entirely new way. I certainly don’t regret it, I loved my time in New York and miss it dearly, but I will admit at some points I lost a bit of my ability to relate to others who weren’t in my tiny niche of a community.
My time abroad has had the incredible ability to shatter preconceived notions I didn’t know I had, and view the world, for good and bad, in a totally new way. I met some of the most incredible people from every corner of the world who helped me broaden my perceptions of every facet in my life. I gained a deep appreciation for family, and all the blessings I had been so lucky to have received simply by being born in the US. And I came to view isolation less as an imposition, and even began to question if cities and progression were really all that great anyway. After meeting an isolated family who subsisted on their own land, and despite being relatively poor appeared in strong health and greatly happy, with a strong sense of family, I began to see my upbringing as fortunate. But within the comforting setting of fellow travelers, expats, and volunteers my sense of reality was again altered. When traveling the usual questions when you meet someone changes from “what do you do” to “where are you from” and “where are you headed.” The friends I made became the norm, the sort of people who viewed uprooting and spending months in the third world normal, and hardly a stretch. They were giving, adventurous, compassionate, and most of all, understanding. We all shared this wanderlust that had brought us abroad in the first place. Despite having grown up far apart what we shared in common out weighed any culture difference, significantly. The downside of this is an expectation of understanding. On several occasions back in the US I watched as friends lost interest as I told them about my trip, not because they didn’t care, but because they couldn’t relate. Instead of joy of travel I met strange opposition regarding my not caring too much if I were going to grad school right away, getting married, or jumping on the job band wagon. Many were accepting, but many didn’t understand it, and a few deeply questioned or even disapproved.
I never would have guessed that travel would end up alienating me, the exact opposite of what I set out to do in college. I wanted experiences and world knowledge in part, to relate to others. Instead of feeling like an ignorant farm kid I wanted to know about the world, to be “sophisticated,” so that I might be able to contribute more to dorm room conversations (or the later in life version). Of course, my travel intentions had little to do anymore with my teenage insecurities, but I never would have expected that by essentially ridding myself of borders and constraints that I would find myself no longer relating to many the very people I used to be closest to. Because my priorities and life were so different (no better, no worse) I found I had even less to contribute in everyday conversations. I accept it of course, and have forged strong relationships with the friends I do have, some who have traveled extensively, and some who haven’t, but all of them have a similar spirit.
Travel has a way of changing you in many ways. It redefines who you are, and what you care about. And more often than not, these changes in perspective, such as this, are often entirely unexpected, complete with all the benefits, and sacrifices that come with.
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