Not long after I got engaged in July of 2013, my fiancé Kurt left the country for a year to live in Vienna, Austria as a Fulbright Scholar. During that time apart, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to see him three separate times. While each visit was full of wonderful tours and meals which allowed me to truly experience a culture so different from my own, that first visit was much more difficult than I had anticipated. I’d like to share with you three things I learned about myself as a result of leaving my country and my comfort zone!
As someone who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania not far from New York City I had experience with public transportation and the hustle and bustle of a large city. I also had previous experience with international travel. All of my previous travel had, however, been to other English-speaking countries.
What was almost immediately disorienting about Vienna was that while everyone seemed to look just like I did, they sounded completely different. When your surroundings are familiar enough but the language spoken is entirely unfamiliar, it has this very unnerving effect! In all honesty I expected to be able to navigate this language barrier rather easily, but when every street sign, store front, and statement made reminds you of how little you know, it’s not hard to get overwhelmed. My naïveté was truly shown by the little effort I had put into learning German before the visit – I just assumed English would be everywhere and I would be fine!
During the five days I was with Kurt on this first visit we mixed in familiar activities with those that were more traditionally Austrian as a way to ease me outside of my comfort zone. We went shopping at the local grocery store where I was able to easily connect German words with their accompanying items. We saw a movie in English and we went to beautiful libraries and museums where language didn’t matter because everything could be appreciated without explanation.
With each day that passed, we ventured further and further around the city so Kurt could show me all of his favorite spots. With each trip we made I listened more and tried to appreciate how little I knew. It reminded me, much like my first experience with Sigma Kappa’s Initiation ceremony, that I am much smaller than I, at times, understand.
So with all of that in mind, here are three things I learned about myself as a result of traveling internationally that you could employ within your own life and travels!
1: If I don’t articulate my needs, no one will know
By the time I arrived for my first visit Kurt had been living in Vienna for about three months. He had a routine and had become comfortable with all of his surroundings. So when he picked me up from the airport with a full itinerary, I wanted to do everything he had planned for us! However, those first days of the visit were so overstimulating that I got to the point where I was almost too overwhelmed to leave his apartment. I didn’t share with him right away what was difficult and what was enjoyable because I was so excited to be together. However, because I didn’t share how I was struggling with not being able to understand what was going on around me, he had no idea and didn’t know how to help me.
This is something that is not at all limited to traveling. It’s so important to share your needs with others, especially in situations that are unfamiliar – after all, we aren’t mind readers!
2: If I don’t try, I’ll always wish I had
On one of the last days of my first visit, Kurt had planned for us to visit Ludwig van Beethoven’s summer house just outside of Vienna where The Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter written to his brothers detailing the despair he is feeling about his diminishing hearing abilities, is kept. Beethoven is one of my very favorite classical composers and as a musician I was so excited for the experience to be able to read the words he wrote about this pivotal part of his life. However, the morning we were supposed to go I was so nervous to leave Kurt’s apartment that I could hardly speak let alone walk out the door. Because I had shared earlier in the visit what was overwhelming me, Kurt was able to help me find the confidence I needed to get on the train and visit this historical and important place.
I often think about what regrets I would have if I hadn’t overcome my fear that day. It’s certainly true for other things that I’ve let pass by me because I was too afraid or didn’t think I was capable. I always wish I had tried, even in a small way, instead of letting the fear and insecurity inside me win.
3: I’m stronger than I know
One of my very favorite quotes is from the author A.A. Milne and it opens with that notion of being stronger than you seem to be. That first trip to Vienna helped me to see my own strength because it held so many small accomplishments—even outside of overcoming the anxiety of being in a country where your language isn’t primary. By finding the courage to step outside of my comfort zone and experience a culture and country different from my own I learned about my fears and my self-confidence in a way I hadn’t ever before.
Our lives give us so many opportunities to identify our strengths: job opportunities, relationships, side projects, travel experiences—these things give us the chance to show others just how strong we are, even if we don’t know it ourselves.
Choosing to step outside of your comfort zone is not always easy. The important thing is to try and see what benefits will come your way when you do make that leap. In my experience it was not easy at first, but when I made the choice I was rewarded.
I would love to hear what experiences you’ve had with stepping outside of your comfort zones. What have you learned about yourself as a result of trying something new?