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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Random Thoughts on the Traveling Experience

As I told some people when we talked over Christmas, a lot of the time when I'm on the trams or out walking Ted I compose blog entries in my mind, but when I come back to the apartment I just don't get around to typing them up and, of course, they float out of my head by the next day.  With that in mind, today I told myself I'd start to type up some of these thoughts before they disappeared, especially since a lot of them recently seem to focus on the changes in my approach to traveling over the years.

As some of you know, I was lucky enough to start traveling as my dad's "little tax deduction" when I was only in sixth grade (you know it was awhile ago if I was "little"), quite a big deal in our neighborhood where people just didn't often leave the state, much less the country.  When I was just 19, I moved to Dublin as a study-abroad student, a trip that initiated a decade where I lived as much, if not more, in Europe than in the US.  Since then my trips have been less frequent (unfortunately) and my stays much shorter until this year.  The difference between being a poor student with, sometimes, an undefined place in the country and a "Frau Professor Doktor" (to use the appropriately hierarchical German phrase) with a job and staff to help me has just added to the dramatic changes in my experience, but the similarities are in some ways as striking.  Let me see if I can come up with a few of them.

Differences.  OMG, where to start!  There is something enormously freeing about not trying to live on $40 a week (200 French francs) once my housing, heat, basic phone costs, and transportation are paid for.  Yep, $40 a week was food, technology, presents, shoes (I remember that!), etc. when I was doing my dissertation research in Dole, and I'm sure my budget in Ireland was about the same, although everyone there lived on that so it wasn't a big deal.  Now, let's just say I have a more decadent lifestyle and, even better, lovely Finns with fluent English to help me when I need help (and I'm not afraid to ask!). :-)  That really came home to me when I went Christmas shopping and wandered through the store picking things out to have them delivered to the store's export service which packed and shipped them for me.  I just giggle when I think about that, then giggle some more.

In reality, though, by far the biggest difference is technological.  In Ireland, there were no computers (heck, we didn't even have typewriters), I called home once a month for half an hour (max), and wrote letters on this onion skin paper so that I could post them more cheaply.  My parents backed me up for bills and things that needed to be sent to the US, a system that sometimes worked and sometimes left them holding the bag.  Even in France, phone calls were still prohibitively expensive, my laptop was a precious tool that had no hard drive, and I thought I was really high tech that I had a cassette walkman with separate speakers and a black-and-white TV that got three channels.  Now, though, with internet access, the world is your oyster!  With Skype I call more cheaply than I do in the US (something I have to think about) and my laptop is a stereo, tv, cinema, bank, bill payer, and work station.  In particular, I giggle over multi-tasking; I made one call home to Christmas on my IPad with my computer playing Christmas music in the background.

This type of scene vastly changes the living abroad experience, and I have yet to decide if it's better or not.  Certainly it's easier; gone are the days of writing out months of checks ahead of time and labeling envelopes!  The loneliness is also much less, although having Ted around helps with that enormously.  The boredom is easier to avoid, too: if the weather's cruddy I can always watch another movie or mess around on the internet.  Heck, sometimes I can even work when I'm not in the office. :-)

On the other hand, it's much harder to divorce yourself from your home culture and immerse yourself in the place you're living, which is for me one of the main reasons to live abroad and, I think, especially important for folks younger than I am.  I go exploring less, try to decipher Finnish television less (and TV is a great way to learn about a culture), and wander around Finland less than I did as a student, although I'll admit my wandering in Ireland and France was often curtailed by my budget.  Perhaps this is a condition of being older, more of a grown-up, if you will; while I had a set workplace and work when I was doing my dissertation research and panic did wonders to keeping me to a strict work schedule, I didn't have an employer and all those employee-related responsibilities that I now have and that keep me grounded in SC and tied to UHelsinki.  Our working language is English, so I'm not forced to learn the local language like I was in France or to understand the accents in Ireland (trust me, a heavy northern Irish accent takes practice!).  The result is a more detached experience, even while appreciating the pluses and minuses such travel has to offer.

And that brings me to the similarities, because no matter how experienced or confident you become, moving to a foreign country always takes some adjustment, to put it mildly.  While I never experienced the need to sleep 10 hours a day, like I did for the first month in France and Ireland, I only realized how tense I had been as the tension began to recede.  One thing the traveling has taught me is that I will make mistakes, and I'm better about accepting my own incompetence now than I was when I was younger.  I've also learned to revel in the little successes, so I enjoyed learning how to get groceries (and laughing at picking them by the picture on the container), ride the trams, find good walks for me and Ted, weave through the short-cuts at the university, etc.  It's funny to feel like you're beginning to settle in because, just as you do, something brings you up short.

Yet, even with those situations, mood swings are much easier to have here than they are back home.  For example, today while walking Ted, I just started feeling down about everything: I hated that I was fighting with bronchitis, that Ted's leg was still not 100%, that I was getting a headache, that my ears were getting cold because my stupid cap wouldn't fit right on my big fat head, that my heel hurt where I pulled it on one of these stupid lips the Finns seem to have in every stupid doorway, that my stupid Land's End down coat had such cheap stupid snaps that they wouldn't stupid stay snapped stupid when I bent down stupid to pick up Ted's stupid dog poop ... you get the idea. :-)  Of course, I got back to the apartment, took some aspirin, and curled up in bed with Ted to do some reading, and life looked much better in about half an hour.  Now I feel like the only thing that was stupid was me -- and those snaps on the coat, but that's another story.

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