Having spent the better part of the year in Spain, I’m realizing that all the flowery talk about getting to know oneself through experience abroad is actually true. But it’s not because everything goes smoothly. It’s not because you book an Airbnb for a steal one weekend and enjoy terrace views of worn, burnt-orange rooftops amidst a sunset while you and three of your closest American-friends-you-made-abroad enjoy a drink. And it’s certainly not because you continually mispronounce the name of the coastal city Málaga as Ma-LA-ga, which sounds about as good as if you decided it would be a novel idea to start phonetically pronouncing the word “bologna.”
Rather, it’s because a lot didn’t go according to plan. It’s because the manner in which you learn more about yourself consists of the times when you didn’t plan on missing home so much; when you’re having a hard time getting to know fellow university students; when the self-doubt creeps up as you’re constantly comparing your experience to another’s through their consistently updated Instagram. But it’s not supposed to be a frolicking foray into culturally appropriate manners followed by a deep sense of belonging. Life scoffs at seamless transitions and uneventful adjustments. And it should. Sometimes you need to get lost.
I’m not talking metaphysically lost in your thoughts about which ancient city you’d rather take a weekend trip to, although feel free to worry about that. I mean merely lost in a city.
One time, a couple of friends and I went out for dinner, and as we were heading back we realized we were hopelessly lost without a clue. Not lost as in, “oh my god I am miles from civilization and may be kidnapped by a lurking human at any moment,” but more like “what in the hell the map says I’m here and the hostel is literally so close but there are SO MANY STREETS SOMEHOW I don’t get how I’m not there yet,” mixed with some “how do these streets change names all the time?” It’s precisely the kind of lost that only seems to happen in narrow European streets. What a hard-knock life.
However, the amusing part was watching my friends figure it out as I quickly removed myself from the situation and became a bystander when it became obvious we’re clueless. One friend has a personal philosophy of feeling it out, so she just walked wherever her instincts and not wanting to appear too hesitant took her, never looking at a map. The other was born with directions to life in hand and proceeded to stop at every block to verify his location and conclude the next logical step.
At some points they were both actually walking in opposite directions, leaving me to admit to my knowing them and try to, quite literally, find some common ground. After a mix of map checking, instinctive wandering and some good fortune, we found our way out of the labyrinth and were back at the hostel, not much worse for the wear.
So what’s getting lost got to do with it? It has to do with letting your guard down and throwing your expectations out the window. To avoid micromanaging life in a new environment and to be OK with not knowing what’s next. There’s a lot more to enjoy and a lot of room to grow when you don’t try to fit into a preconceived notion of how things ought to be. Don’t worry if you can’t roll your r’s or you’re guilty of going to Burger King abroad; you’re still you, after all.