For the 50+ Traveler

"So, how was it?"

I never know what to tell people when asked about the four years I spent abroad in Spain and Thailand. The last thing I want to do is gloat, but more truthfully, it's really difficult to put into words what the experience was really like. "Unbelievable," "Indescribable," and "Amazing" are a few of my scripted one-word answers, things I say simply to avoid spiraling into a three-hour rant about the greatest four years of my life.

So, for the first time ever, I will sit down at a desk at a local Starbucks in my home country and try to put into words what living abroad for the last four years was like, debunk some of the myths associated with living in a foreign country, and attempt to express how the experience changed the person I am today for good.

Deciding to go abroad

I was in college when I decided to study abroad. I kind of always knew I would do this even before my freshman year started. It's what a lot of college kids do, especially those in my major. When nearly half of journalism students study abroad, you follow suit. Not only was I following the herd of students studying abroad, but as a journalism major, I had to complete four semesters of a foreign language. I had chosen Spanish due to my very minimal exposure in high school and figured what better way to complete these courses than doing it while studying abroad?

After having my mind half made up about studying abroad and knowing I would do so in a Spanish-speaking country, I then saw the film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. For those that don't know, the film depicts a very sultry love triangle between Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, and Javier Bardem, set against the backdrop of stunning Barcelona, Spain. After watching the film, it was official: I was going to study in Spain to look for my Javier Bardem.

I ended up studying in Seville, the capital of Spain's southern region of Andalusia, due to a journalism program offered in this particularly authentic Spanish city. A week before leaving, I endured an extremely traumatic experience that I thought this might stop me from going abroad. Despite my personal tragedy, I powered through and left for Europe on New Year's Eve of 2013 and never looked back.

Maybe I was running away, but leaving the country couldn't have come at a better time.

Blonde journalism student at Plaza de España, Seville.
My first day in Seville at Plaza de España. Photo Credit: Alexandra Mahoney

The unexpected and falling in love with a place

Before heading to Spain, my mother, brother and I went on a two-week long adventure through Europe. None of us had ever been before, so we took advantage of this opportunity and embarked on a journey that, quite frankly, no one was expecting to have such a lasting effect. Call it getting bit by the travel bug if you will, but to me, it was much more than that.

I'll never forget the first moment it really hit me that I was in Europe. It was about a week into our trip, and we were standing outside of the Pantheon in Rome, listening to a woman play her cello flawlessly to passing tourists. I don't know if it's because I was, for the first time since it happened, thinking about the traumatic experience I endured before leaving, or all of a sudden realizing I was now going to be in Europe for the next six months, or the unforeseen consciousness that I had my feet planted on the cobblestone streets of Rome, Italy. Regardless of the reason, all of these conflicting emotions hit me like a brick wall, and I started crying uncontrollably.

It was this exact moment and many more to come that you never expect to happen. You never realize how you're going to feel when you're actually in a destination you've only dreamed of being or seen in pictures in National Geographic. It's moments like these that make you feel small, yet like you're part of something bigger than yourself all at the same time. After arriving in Spain, it didn't take me long to realize that my life was about to change. I thought I was just going to study abroad for six months and go back to my normal life in the U.S. afterward, but this was the furthest thing from the truth. I ended up going back to Spain to teach after graduation, once again only expecting to stay for one year and staying for three instead.

For me, it seemed that the more time I spent overseas, the harder it was to go back home. Traveling and living abroad grabs you by the heartstrings and pulls as hard as it possibly can, making it difficult to go back to the life you once knew. While this is the romantic side of travel, it doesn't always stay this way.

The second year I lived in Spain, I was in a long distance relationship. I promised this person before leaving that I would only be gone for one year, knowing in my heart this was probably a lie. Sitting in Retiro Park in Madrid one day, my friend asked what I was going to do about the situation because I was already showing signs of not wanting to leave. I looked at her and said, "It's really hard loving a person and a place at the same time."

I've never really forgotten this moment and this feeling. Never in my life had I felt this sort of connection to something that wasn't a living breathing human. I suddenly felt a different sort of attachment to a thing rather than a person. I was in love with a place, a place whose culture and people I truly loved and, at times, felt more connected to than the culture and people of my own country. I didn't know how to handle this, and I truly felt like I was a woman without a country. I feared that I would never be able to go back to my life before, and this was something I struggled with for a very long time.

Boys playing with soccer ball in the streets of Seville, Spain.
Falling in love with Spanish culture. Photo Credit: Alexandra Mahoney

Culture shock and global thinking

In both Spain and Thailand, I never really thought I experienced culture shock. Europe's culture is, in general, similar to American culture. When you first arrive in Europe, you might think differently, but the longer you travel and the more time you spend abroad and get to know a given culture, you come to realize that, at the end of the day, people really are the same. We feel the same basic emotions; we love the same, we cry the same, and we connect in the same ways. We may look different, speak different languages, and live differently, but as a human race, we're really not that different. It's this realization that will all of a sudden make you feel connected to a culture, and this forces you to view life through a global lens.

When you make connections with people in different countries and realize we are all the same, you will find yourself empathizing with different cultures. If I hadn't had several friends from Paris, the 2015 Paris Attacks might not have resonated with me in the same way. When I was witnessing the highly publicized Tham Luang cave rescue of the young Thai soccer team, I couldn't help but think of the children I taught English to in Thailand for a year.

One of the biggest criticisms I have of my country is that we are far too self-obsessed in our beliefs, in our media, and in our education systems. We don't really report or educate enough on global matters unless they have a direct relation to our own country. The result is that people don't really care or feel a connection when crises are happening elsewhere. Ignorance is bliss, and if we're not provided the information and understanding of different cultures through our media and schools, we can't expect to empathize with other people. When you travel and make friends with people in other countries, you will feel connected to them and their culture, and you'll care more about issues that affect them.

As previously mentioned, I never really felt that culture shock had an effect on me, but reflecting back on my time abroad I realize I was very wrong on that matter. To me, culture shock isn't about going to a place and being floored by the differences; it's the subtle things you might not even notice are happening that occur after you reside in a place for several months.

Culture shock is being annoyed by the slow walkers in front of you, the loud eaters in restaurants, or the less-than-efficient bureaucracy you have to deal with when applying for a visa. It's these tiny differences that we don't even necessarily acknowledge or recognize that define culture shock. You might not even notice it, but I promise it's happening in some way, shape or form.

Monks in Thailand praying outside monastery
Culture shock isn't always what you think. Photo Credit: Alexandra Mahoney

The myth of dating abroad

I'll start off by saying I never did find my own Spanish Javier Bardem (though I came close once). Dating and falling in love abroad are without a doubt the biggest myths about living in a foreign country. We romanticize the idea of falling in love in a strange land and setting off into the sunset on horseback with our foreign lover. But dating abroad proves time and time again to be anything but romantic.

First of all, there are language barriers. Even if you consider yourself fluent in a given language, the more time you spend with one individual, the more you come to realize not only minor language barriers but cultural differences as well. My sort-of Spanish boyfriend came to visit me in Thailand and, while we communicate well together, there were just times where it didn't totally click.

At one point, he was showing me a video of a comedian who I just straightforwardly didn't find funny. He claimed that it was because I didn't understand the jokes, but I just didn't find this particular gentleman amusing. Though this is a very minor example that could occur even when dating in one's own country, when dating abroad, some things will just get lost in translation. Humor doesn't always translate and at some point, one person in the relationship is either going to get sick of having to constantly speak another language or have to explain things over and over again to the second-language learner.

Though this is an example of my own personal frustrations, the real issue occurs when two individuals have to decide where they will live. When falling in love abroad, we ignore the inevitable truth that, at some point, one person is either going to move back home or live in another country forever. Then there comes the question of residency. Who's going to move to which country? Will they be able to work there? Can they even gain citizenship? While dating abroad is, in fact, one of the most exciting parts of living abroad and I truly believe everyone should at least dabble in it, I suggest doing so with caution.

Handholding, man with sunglasses in pocket

Mastering the art of decathecting

An inexorable consequence of living abroad for consecutive years is learning to say goodbye. Whether it's to family and friends from home or roommates met overseas, we know that, at some point, we're going to have to say goodbye to these people, either temporarily or permanently.

Every new year spent abroad, I learned to brace myself when I met people. When living somewhere new, you tend to grow close to people quickly because you're all thrown into this crazy situation and likely don't know anyone in the beginning stages. Friendships blossom at an alarming rate. Although this is one of the most beautiful aspects of living abroad, both parties must recognize that the friendship will likely be short-lived.

I find myself trying not to get too close to people, for the fear and out of recognition that I'm going to, in some way, lose them in the near future. As explained above, romantic relationships are hard to build because of this, and friendships must similarly be taken with a grain of salt.

Pessimistic as it may seem, I'd like to point out that, despite having to say goodbye to countless people along the way, I've maintained many of these friendships and managed to visit several of these friends in their home countries too.

Returning home for the first time... and indefinitely

Returning home for the first time was heart-wrenching. I suddenly felt extremely detached from everything that was once familiar and felt that I couldn't even talk about it with anyone because no one would understand. It was the first time in my life that my friends and family felt like strangers, which, let me tell you, is a very unusual and isolating feeling.

The day I got back from studying abroad, I had a few friends over and in a moment alone in the kitchen, my mom looked at me and said, "What are you going to do here?" Being her daughter, she could tell just by looking at me that something had changed, and I think she was wholeheartedly worried for my well-being. Once again (I swear I'm not always this emotional), I broke down in the middle of the kitchen knowing that something within me had changed and that I wasn't the same person I was six months prior.

Luckily, it was only this bad the first time I came home from being abroad. Each time I returned got easier and easier, and I finally made peace with a lot of truths about having a life overseas and a life at home. While I was away, I created my own story for myself. No one knew me, and I could be whoever I wanted to be. I had friends from around the world and, despite the fact we were only around each other for a few months or a year, we remain friends for life due to the unique experience we shared that most people can't understand.

While I explain living abroad like it was a fairytale, of course it has its downsides. Loneliness will inevitably occur at some point. There were moments when I would look around and see families and friends that I could tell knew each other from birth. I would watch them and feel this sense of community and belonging that, even though I created a life for myself in their country, I would never truly be a part of.

Despite being in love with the life I made abroad, I came to miss out on a lot of things at home, and after four consecutive years of being away, I knew it was time to head back. I missed weddings, births, birthdays, and even deaths. After years of never wanting to return, I suddenly hated being away. A cousin of mine once jokingly told me that I wasn't even considered family anymore because I'm never home. Though I laughed it off, this resonated with me for a long time. I never wanted to be considered an exiled family member again, and this reminded me that it was okay to lead two lives.

While I loved the life I made for myself in Spain in Thailand, I made an oath to myself to never forget where I came from and, despite our differences, there was no replacing my family and friends from home. I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and while I'm now sitting here in my hometown reminiscing about the four years I spent abroad and how it changed my life forever, I'm confident that, at this very moment, I'm in the exact place I'm supposed to be.

Though I know I'll travel again, I can't say whether or not I'll ever get another opportunity to spend an extended amount of time abroad. Regardless, the life and memories I made will forever remain in my heart, and I'm so lucky to have both a life abroad and a life at home. It's important that, no matter what, you learn to cherish both.