Monday, September 16, 2013

Seven Years, Seven Lessons: What I've Learned from Living Abroad

Seven years ago today, on September 15, 2006, I embarked on a bumpy ride along a rocky road less traveled. I heeded every warning sign along the way, carefully considering each one without letting any of them throw me off course or stop me altogether, entering and marching through brand new worlds of possibility, discovery and occasional bouts of fear. I can't believe I've already been traveling this road for so long. Time flies when you're having fun taking chances.

When I relocated from New York City to Buenos Aires that day, I went from a life of stability and certainty (as a full-time employee in one city) to a life of surprises and uncertainty (as a freelancer in multiple cities) and rotated from a circle of friends to a circle of one. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, trembling, because I have no idea what my future holds or where I'll be living when it rolls around, but I've become accustomed to question marks, and I've always liked the way they look.

I have no doubt that I'll eventually settle back into some semblance of my old lifestyle (one city, one job, minus the obsession with material possessions, a demon I believe I've conquered for good), and when I do, I'll have a better grip on both myself and the people around me, thanks to the valuable life lessons I've learned living abroad, which brings me to the first one.

1. A jerk is a jerk is a jerk -- no matter what language he's speaking. The names might change (the other night at Circolo Degli Artisti in Rome, I met my first-ever Gianluca, which is a name I'm pretty sure I'd never encounter anywhere but in Italy) and so might the opening lines (who would have expected "Sexy!" to be so popular in Germany?), but guys disappoint in such predictable ways pretty much everywhere.

The ones in Italy are cruder and ruder in their pursuit of meaningless sex than the ones in Germany and Australia, and Thais are less inclined to offer florid declarations of love within one hour of meeting you than Argentines, but all over the world, men can and will piss you off with equal efficacy. They stand you up with that all too familiar callousness (no call, no text), are generally interested in sex only, and when the hammer falls, as it inevitably does, it hurts just as bad everywhere (if you really liked the guy), or it's as much of a relief (if you really didn't).

And an increasingly peripatetic international gay community makes it harder to assign character traits to specific countries. Once during my early nights at DJ Station in Bangkok, when a guy shook my hand and then tried to place it around his exposed private part, I was tempted to put it in my "Only in Bangkok" column (and yes, that's the sort of thing that's more likely to happen in Bangkok than anywhere else I've been over the course of the last seven years), but the man with the dangling dick was a Swedish expat who had spent most of his adult life living in Boston.

Who knows where he learned that trick? I've never been to Sweden, but I'm fairly certain it's not an acceptable Scandinavian custom, and I know for a fact that's not how they do it in Boston. But in Bangkok, a city filled with men from all over the world, wild things run fast, embracing the sort of inappropriateness that some men are inclined to engage in not because they're from any particular country but because they're men.

2. Commitment is a lot scarier than turbulence. Look at me now: I'm having trouble committing to a rental agreement for longer than one month (which makes the three-month one I signed in Melbourne earlier this year a small miracle), to one city, country, or continent, or even to a return ticket from anywhere. What if I want to stay (longer)? Or leave early?

Sometimes I can't believe that I worked for my first post-college employer, People magazine, for a whopping eight years. Today, the idea of a full-time job in which I have to be physically present in an office at least five days a week, eight hours a day, fills me with dread. And don't get me started on the dreaded C word when it comes to guys. I've only used it on two in the past seven years, and the last one was more than four years ago.

I wasn't always so gun shy in my personal life. I used to be the kind of person who loved making plans and having my entire weekend sorted out in advance. Now if I already have a Saturday night date on Thursday, it just feels like a noose around my neck. I spend all day and all of the night on Friday and most of Saturday praying that I won't be the one to have to cancel it. Thankfully, No. 1 holds true in this area, too: My would-be dates rarely disappoint -- and it's usually at the last minute, if they bother to call, or text, or email, at all.

3. Traveling sucks. There's a big difference between traveling and being in new city or country or continent, and if that difference is more than an hour or two, I'm over it. If only I could snap my fingers and magically appear in my next destination. I need to get bewitched by my own personal Samantha Stevens, have my dream of Jeannie come true, or get a job on the Starship Enterprise, so that I can be transported to far-off locales in a matter of seconds.

This going to and from airports, dealing with long lines, security checks, taking off my belt and shoes, removing my laptop from my backpack, Customs and baggage claiming -- well, I could really live without it. And before my recent return to traveling through Europe by train, I'd somehow romanticized the entire process in my head. In my current reality, it just puts me in too-close proximity to strangers when I'd rather be alone, which brings me to my next lesson....

4. Only you (and you alone) is the best company you can keep. I've always known this, but living on my own abroad has turned me into an even bigger recluse than I was before. Moving to countries where I know few people, if anyone, and often can't speak the language, has resulted in some blissful moments of silence that sometimes can last as much as one week. Some of my happiest days in Buenos Aires came before I took my first Spanish lesson and could finally begin to understand what people were saying to and around me. Of course, it's easier to enjoy the silence when you can communicate without uttering a word, which brings me to my next lesson....

5. Modern life is not all rubbish -- as I already pointed out two posts ago. Not to contradict the 20-year-old album title by Blur (1993's Modern Life Is Rubbish), but I have no burning desire to return to the way we were. I think I fooled myself into believing that I was indifferent to technological progress for a long time because I'm always a little -- a lot -- behind the curve. I bought my first computer (a Sony VAIO laptop) in 2001; I didn't know what an iPod was until everyone else already had one; and I only got around to purchasing a smart phone in January. In some ways, I was stuck in the '90s -- back when I was still using a Discman, landlines and my friends' computers -- too long after they were over. I might always be a little late to the party, but once I arrive, you can't get me to leave.

I already pointed out my current tech dependency in that previous post, but one thing I didn't mention in it was my addiction to Wi-Fi. I can live with a telephone (I haven't filled mine with credit since I left Australia in June), but that's pretty easy to do when anything you can do on a phone you can do on your laptop if you've got Wi-Fi. And I must have Wi-Fi. I checked out of a perfectly lovely hotel in Bali after one night just because there was no Wi-Fi in the rooms, and I never travel anywhere without my Acer Aspire One mini-Notebook.

I'm not sure how I used to keep in touch with everyone back home when I was on the road. Maybe I didn't. Back in 2006, I don't think I even knew what Wi-Fi was (truly -- I only discovered the miracle that is Bluetooth a few months ago), the idea of traveling with my laptop seemed insane (though I was always relieved to check into a hotel with computers in the business center), I thought YouTube was a passing fad which couldn't pass fast enough, and my only knowledge of Facebook was via those invitations I'd occasionally get from plugged in friends which I would continue to ignore for two more years. Now I wonder if I'd love being away from home as much as I do today if I had to do it the way I did it in 2006.

6. Running is good for the mind, body and soul -- and its not a bad way to sightsee! Although it feels like it's always been a major part of my life, I didn't start running around towns until a few weeks after I moved to Buenos Aires. I initially went on the run because I needed my exercise, and I couldn't find a gym that I wanted to join, but now I do it as much for the mental benefits as the physical ones. I write some of my best blog posts in my head while I'm running up and down hills, around lakes and along rivers, and nothing short of a shot of tequila soothes my cranky disposition the way an hour of roadwork does.

7. I'm a boy of summer at heart. I used to spend August counting down the days until September and the arrival of autumn. Now I don't believe I own a single turtleneck, which used to be one of my wardrobe staples. Besides leaving my friends behind, the hardest part of departing from New York City in September was that I'd be missing my then-favorite season and jumping right into the frying pan in Buenos Aires, where the seasons are reversed.

Seven years later, I find myself diligently avoiding cold weather and shuddering at the thought of a turtleneck. I don't know if this is the real me or just a temporary one, but my ongoing life-long disdain for winter sports might be a clue that I've always been a summer lover deep inside. I haven't experienced winter since my last one in Buenos Aires, in 2010, and if it weren't for the approach of autumn in Europe, I'd probably be heading to Amsterdam in a week instead of Tel Aviv. But I have a few winter clothes on hand should I change my mind because of all the lessons I've learned in seven years, the biggest one is that I'll probably change my mind.
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