When you travel alone (by travel I mean that your are going to live in a different country for a year or so, and by alone I mean that you know nobody there) you need to check your equipment. Of course you want to have good baggage, a sleeping bag just in case, a phone to check googlemaps etc. with a zero waste policy as you usually don’t have much money.
I am now volunteering in a youth center in Ribadavia, a remote Jewish village in Galicia (Spain). It is a small fabled-like town immerse in a thick fog and very often visited by rain.
Walking in the medieval roads you can meet characters like Erminia, the wise ancient baker, and everybody will great you with a welcoming ‘Hola!’, even if they don’t know you at all. There are cats everywhere and, well, Galicia is well known for both wine and celtic traditions.
However, Ribadavia can be scary: from time to time gunshots resound in the valley, echoes of mysterious hunters, and once a storm has thrown the table out of the balcony, seriously (it was quite hard to convince my flatmate that going out in the middle of a wind storm to take it back wasn’t a good idea).
I believe that the first thing you need, when you arrive in your new town and you finally lie on your new bed after a long journey, is curiosity: an incontrollable impulse to go, explore, meet people, taste food.
When you travel alone you need to accept that everybody else, in the city you’re living, has been there for years, usually since childhood, and you are the foreigner, the stranger (the expat, to use a nice western term, which only makes me think how hard it must be for an actual immigrant).
It is not always easy to integrate with the ‘locals’, especially in a non very international context (I discovered that it is almost impossible to set up a date with a Spanish friend, at least a Spanish friend in Ribadavia) but if you travel alone you certainly love challenges. So here I am, ready to go out with a friend who texted me: I will be en los bares yesss! See you.
Therefore, quite a lot, you will have to ignore the scary thought that you are going out alone, hoping to meet one of the few people you know, who didn’t exactly set up a specific meeting time. Or place.
If you do EVS (European voluntary service) you can expect to meet a lot of other volunteers who will become good friends. In a couple of months it became normal to have dinner with people from Germany, France, Russia, Serbia.
Cultures travel with people, told me a beautiful Irish girl in Santiago de Compostela.
I’m Italian, but it didn’t really mean much to me before I started to live abroad. Now willy nilly it’s strongly part of my identity, so I’m always the one who cooks even if at home my sister only allows me to peel potatoes, for example. That’s the thing, when you leave you don’t know what you’ll find, not even about yourself. It’s thrilling, it’s exciting, and it’s addictive.
The first time I heard a Greek folk prison song I was in the living room of an EVS apartment in A Coruña. Right after I was trying to pronounce Hungarian words with incredible letters and magnificent sounds, new to my mouth. Here’s another thing: when you travel alone life becomes new again. New people, new language, new bedroom, new roads, new sounds. The beauty of all this is that it doesn’t put your identity at risk, on the contrary it pushes you to understand yourself deeper and to grow with others who are sharing your journey. Nonetheless it is challenging, sometimes tiring and even frustrating. Worthy though, always.
I’ve only lived in Europe, thus I can’t speak about totally different cultures like asian or middle eastern, but still you have to adapt quite a lot. In Spain (pardon, Galicia), for example, people have dinner at 10pm and go out at midnight. They do siesta in the afternoon, though. They talk very fast and are quite sensitive about political matters such as independence.
All of my Galician friends speak Gallego (which is the official language here), some of them would want a separate government and a few of them consider themselves Galician before Spanish. However they all agree in feeling European. After a little you are forced to learn that every opinion (almost) deserve respect and that you can’t really judge a culture which is not your own, you can only try your best to absorb it with an open mind.
Meditation was not really my thing before I met my flatmate and colleague (we live together, work together, we are basically a couple). She’s a meditation coach and talks about it a lot.
Her goal is to guide sessions in Spanish, which she doesn’t master yet, so once she gave it a try in a very informal context. We were volunteering for the Noite Meiga, the Galician Halloween, with a monster make-up, chatting with a couple of friends when she started to improvise a session and she came out with a new word: focusamos. That would be let’s focus, in Spanish concentremos. It caused a good laugh, of course, but it was so nice and simple that it became a light motif in our little town.
My compañera always says that meditation changed her life, so I tried it and I can confirm that it is a life changing experience indeed. It makes you more centered, more grounded, more present.
Usually, if you are doing an experience abroad, it comes with an expiry date. You spend time and efforts to build a routine and a network of friends knowing that you are going to leave, sooner or later. I am learning how to live in the present moment a little bit more, caring for people and developing relationships that will not last forever in the same form. As I like to say, I go with the flow.
I happened to meet a girl with whom I felt an immediate connection. We talked, went out, exchanged music, made fun of chicos, but her project was almost over and she left. I believe that I will meet her again, sometime, and we’ll still drink wine and make crepes and have a good time. That’s ok, that’s the flow, go with the flow.
I believe that everyone picks her or his journey. For me, living in different places is now part of my identity, part of who I am besides of what I do. In Spanish language, I Went and I Was are the same, Yo fui (the verbs IR, to go, and SER, to be, share the same past forms. Such a wise language).
When you travel alone, the places you live and the people you meet become part of you. Of course, if you move to a new city you have to leave the previous one and the people you met there. This is not for everybody. You pay freedom with solitude sometimes, excitement with fear.
If you choose to throw your beautiful self on this roller coaster it’s because you value adventure over stability, challenges over easy wins. If you travel alone you are eager to learn from everything and everyone. You change everything but yourself: country, job, language, friends and you love it, because on the other side of fear there’s magic. There’s an incredible view of the sky after a storm from your window, there’s the kindness of a stranger helping you on the train, there are gems of new friendships in a mixture of languages. But most of all, there’s the unexpected.
Img: Ribadavia after the storm