Everyone knows traveling abroad is going to reward you with things like amazing food, breathtaking views, and cheap Dolce and Gabbana eyeglasses. But there are many other wonderful factors that you may be unaware of until you spend time in another country. Here are ten of my favorites:
As an American, freedom is (thankfully) a huge part of my everyday existence, but it’s when I’m traveling abroad that I really feel free. It has little to do with the fact that I’m far away from the redundancy of ordinary life and the pressures of work, and more to do with the awareness that I simply can’t be bothered.
To me, freedom is not speaking the language so all passing conversations simply fade into beautiful background noise. It is also looking like I don’t speak the language and knowing that I can stroll down the street without anyone bothering me, I can walk into a shop and browse without being harassed, and I can walk out of the store without feeling the least bit guilty if I didn’t purchase anything (but let’s be honest, I did). The international travel equivalent of covering your ears and screaming, LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU! At home we have freedom of speech. Abroad we have freedom of me-no-speaky.
It’s also a feeling of being remarkably uninhibited. Freedom to wear whatever you want and not care about the opinions of others (ask my hiking buddies), visit any and all of the kitschy tourist sites you want, and make all the mistakes you can. Freedom to skip showers and ride bicycles into traffic with a three month supply of Hello Kitty paper towels in your basket. Freedom to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at the top of your lungs at a hotel bar in Iceland because it’s the most American song you could think of at the moment. Purple mountain majesty, bald eagle level freedom.
2. GETTING LOST IS A GOOD THING.
In Taipei I did this like it was my job. I would leave my apartment and mosey until the bubble tea ran dry, and let’s be real, it never did. At home we are trained to avoid getting lost and carry with us an assemblage of tools to make sure we don’t. With our tight schedules, getting lost is a son-of-a-bitch!
But overseas, getting lost is often how you find the best stuff. The rad bars, the best boutiques, the blind Chinese massage parlors, and oh-my-god the gelato. It’s not the flashy main streets that excite me but the alleyways and side streets I enjoy exploring the most, the ones that really represent a place’s character. The local residences and hidden sunflower fields. The café with the best tuna sandwiches with the secret red sauce (yeah, it was ketchup), and the parrot that only speaks Chinese.
I’m not saying that you should go out of your way to get lost because that can be a nightmare itself (see: #7), but if you do find yourself turned around, don’t forget to enjoy your surroundings. Besides, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if there weren’t any surprises!
3. EVERYTHING IS INTERESTING
I mean EVERYTHING. Sidewalks, brick walls, street signs, toilets (honestly, visit Japan), drain pipes, street meat on sticks, graffiti, I even have a picture of some dog poo in Taiwan. Stuff we completely overlook at home is, abroad, somehow noteworthy. But WHY?! Why do I always take pictures of pigeons? We have those here! There’s literally a pair of pigeons at my window staring at me right this very moment. We’ve all at one point mocked that stereotypical foreign tourist with the camera documenting EVERYTHING but that is SOOO me. Come on, admit it, you’ve also photographed the insides of gas stations before.
4. ENJOYING BEING TOTALLY UNPLUGGED.
Oh the dread! The horror! Of turning my cell phone back on after a trip away that is. There’s going to be texts, there are going to be voicemails I’m not going to listen to anyway, there are going to be pictures of someone’s dog’s birthday party on Facebook… and none of it is going to be half as interesting as the stuff I’ve just done.
I love the thought of being completely unreachable while I’m gone. I love lacking the ability to check email, text messages and social media every ten minutes. I love not making or taking calls and that no one knows where I am if I don’t want them to. It’s such a liberation that seems utterly out of the question during our normal day-to-day reality. Does that show my age? Because I can remember a time before that was the norm? But when you’ve just spent two weeks EIN PROSIT-ing your ass off in Germany and climbing 7,000 foot mountains in Switzerland, returning to the sight of someone’s pooch in a tutu wearing a birthday hat might be more depressing than the $100 you spent on pizza and Sprite at Dominos in Iceland.
5. AMERICAN ‘80S MUSIC
That shit is everywhere.
6. HEARING THE AMERICAN DREAMS OF NON-AMERICANS.
Take a minute and think of your dream vacation. Anywhere in the world. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I bet it has nothing to do with driving from Chicago to New Orleans, does it?
Well there’s a man I met in Munich two years ago whose lifelong aspiration was just that. And Thomas, I totally get you. Part of my most recent trip included making a six-hour drive from Germany, through Austria and on to Switzerland with no less sense of wonder. I love the rolling hills and green countryside, the thrill of almost 100 km per hour in the right lane of the autobahn, and the vast numbers of sheep! Any type of livestock really. Sheep, cows, chickens, they all elicit the same scream of excitement as if it’s something I don’t pass on my way to work every. single. day. I totally understand Thomas’s appreciation of the flatter than flat, muddy brown landscape, the seedy roadside motels and gas station/Arby’s combinations, and the endless cotton fields. Actually, cotton is pretty cool.
Another such story takes place on the island of Maui. On a short drive to the beach, my golf cart driver and I talked briefly about the mainland and he mentioned he has lived his whole life on this tiny island. It was then that he told me his dream is to take a road trip. Just, in general! The island of Maui is 727 square miles so it makes perfect sense. Just as most anyone you ask would kill to spend some quality time in Maui, this man just wants to be able to drive more than 45 minutes in one direction, or in Boston terms, still not as long as it takes me to get to work in the morning.
7. THE TASTIEST WATER ON EARTH IS FOUND COMING OUT OF IRON PIPES ON THE SIDEWALK, NOT IN FANCY BOTTLES.
Whenever you see these, fill up. Trust me on this. They are called Nasoni and you can find them all over Rome (and many other European cities), though you will probably just walk past. The water is safe, clean, super cold, and probably the only free thing you can get in Rome, except the damnation of an Italian grandmother after you’ve ordered the only thing on the menu she hasn’t prepared that day. “I will not make the gnocchi for you!” she shouts as she wrings her arthritic hands.
8. YOU ARE EXPECTED TO EAT CRAZY AMOUNTS OF FOOD.
Other countries know not of the moderation of Americans. I first encountered this phenomenon when I was spending the summer in Taiwan. Let me begin by stating that Asian cultures have many rules pertaining to dining etiquette, far beyond that of “Get your elbows off the table, this is not a horse’s stable.” One of them being that you should finish everything you have been served. No problem, I love Asian food!
One time, I was lucky enough to be invited to a private dinner with a very elite Taiwanese businessman and millionaire in his private dining room in the hotel that he owned. Don’t forget to eat everything! I told myself. The first couple of courses went well but they never stopped coming. By the end of the dinner I had consumed all of twelve courses (most of which were alive minutes before we ate them. The chef kindly showed me before each course.) When I left, strangers could have thought I was pregnant with twins. I literally thought I was going to die. But offend him I did not!
The same goes for Italy. If I for some reason (that reason being I have the stomach of a hummingbird) couldn’t finish all of my pasta, the waiter would get visibly angry with me. “Why you no finish? What is wrong? No good?” Meaning he thought his food wasn’t good enough for me. When in actuality it’s just absurd to me to eat antipasti, then pizza, then pasta, then a meat course, then dessert, and don’t even get me started on sipping espresso past 9 PM. I don’t advise making yourself sick eating in other countries, but be aware of what is expected of you so you aren’t so confused by the confusion. Living in a country where we are constantly encouraged to cut our meals down to smaller portions, count calories, and ya know, just not eat at all, it’s nice to visit places that don’t even consider these as options.
9. GETTING AWAY WITH STUFF IN PUBLIC YOU OTHERWISE COULDN’T IN AMERICA.
Crying in public and truly not caring, changing clothes on the street, and my personal favorite, street drinking. I’ve done my fair share of crying in public places: after getting robbed in Italy, getting lost (not the fun way I mentioned earlier) in Taiwan, the time I wasn’t allowed to board my plane to Venezuela, and one mountaintop panic attack. For better or for worse, no one cares, and better yet, you don’t either!
I should’ve earned an Oscar for the performance I put on in Italy. To open your eyes on a train and discover all of your shit is missing is nothing short of devastating. It was like a scene from a movie, a real life train caper.
I ran up and down the train car, clutching my purple leopard print pillow with fringe tassels because it was the only thing I had left. Through whimpers and gasps I managed a, “Did anyone seeeeee anything?!!! Waaaa!!” Crickets. I ran to each and every person on that train and checked under their legs to see if they were hiding my stuff which, surprisingly (or not) also didn’t warrant the attention of the passengers. “Pleeeease somebody hellllp meeeee!” I did manage to earn the eye contact of one man that was seated near me. So naturally I was sure he dunnit.
My first mistake was sitting near an exit and I knew in my heart that some a-hole had just snatched and ran, but try telling that to ol’ Waterworks. I immediately went to work writing down a list of everything that was taken. I guess the a-hole decided my pen wasn’t good enough? As I started remembering the things I had been carrying the sobs and wails got progressively louder and more desperate. “He stole my glasses! Waaaa!”… “MY LAPTOP!!!!!!! Waaaa!” … “He t-t-took the p-p-pretzel necklacceeeeee! Waaa waaa!” Keep in mind I am sitting alone on a packed train screaming these sentences to myself, to the chagrin of no one. I unleashed tears all over Rome’s Termini Station that day and not one person gave a damn, myself included.
10. NOT EVERYONE KNOWS YOU’RE AMERICAN.
To say I always thought my Americanness was blatantly obvious would be the biggest understatement since Robin Williams said, “Yeah I know a few jokes.” The Chuck Taylors, the Starbucks, the messy bun, saying the word ‘y’all’ in every sentence. But touché! This was something I hadn’t even considered until I was shopping (for Gucci eyeglasses this time) in Italy and the store clerk thought I was from England. I was like, “Y’all really can’t tell?” Still, nothing.
This happened again on my latest trip to Germany. We were at our favorite Irish Pub (I know, can you believe it?) in Munich after spending the day at Oktoberfest. I was dressed in my finest dirndl drunkenly burning the roof of my mouth on the most American snack ever, a basket of fries with ketchup.
A guy about my age walks up and starts into a long drawn out conversation, in German. I stare back blankly with one eyebrow raised but still, he continues. Finally he takes a breath. “In English?” I ask. Bursts of laughter pour out of his mouth and he finally squeaks out, “I was saying, my friend (the one wearing a Chicago Cubs hat) would like photo with authentic German girl.” I know it had to be the dirndl, but did dancing (and I use the term loosely because if you’ve ever seen me dance… well, just picture someone doing jumping-jacks over and over to music) on stage with the guitar player to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” reallllllly not give it away?