In February 2005, with a great, hulking bag upon my back, I stepped off a plane in Vienna, ready to spend the next six months or longer caring for and riding horses in a small Austrian village. The job had come with impeccable timing as I accepted it the very day I was laid off from a US-based banking job that had been a very poor fit. The European family was friendly, the horses were lovely, and the 200-year-old farmhouse directly adjoined the stable. Best yet, the rest of Vienna was a cultural playground and a mere train away from my future village. For the first days, I felt exultant at being woken up in the early hours by the stirring of my equine charges anticipating their breakfast and I relished in my own morning sustenance of dark breads and freshly sliced cheeses.
In a few days time, however, I soon found the days drawn out, the bitter cold and grey skies unrelenting, the size of the village (200 people, most of whom I could not communicate with in my broken beginner’s German)—isolating. My brief day trips to Vienna offered little respite and often sent me “home” lonely and longing. My time in Austria thus, never really became “fun”. There were certainly a number of stunning moments—galloping through fields of sunflowers, dining at the local heuriger (wine tavern), and gawping at gothic cathedrals or the opera’s dress rehearsals—that remain with me to this day and leave me with some mighty fond memories. Overall, though, I cannot say I exactly enjoyed my time in Austria on a day-to-day basis. Though sometimes in tears, I got through it, and while today, nearly ten years later, I would not sign on again, I can still say I am glad to have done it.
The reality of travel is, even for those of us who are the most open-minded and well-intentioned, sometimes the “click” of loving a location doesn’t happen and for whatever reason—culture, weather, the job/program—the enthusiastically anticipated work or study abroad experience is not enjoyable while in process. However, even when things are grim, we can still benefit from sticking it out and may even return home with a fond memory or two upon which to reflect. Below I offer some tips for such times and help to make the most of your less-than-ideal study or work abroad experience:
Commit yourself to learning at least some of the language
Even if you never plan to return to this particular place or situation, the effort can help you in a number of ways: Language skills, plain and simple, help exercise the brain and can lead to heightened neuroplasticity. You’ll likely be adding to your repertoire either a more rare language (how interesting!) or improving a widely spoken one (how practical!)
Secondly, learning and practicing the language will force you to engage (even when you don’t want to) and small successes can brighten an otherwise dreary day. Some of my favorite moments in Austria were defined by linguistic successes—I will never forget the brief conversation with an older German couple over wine in which I actually told a story!
Lastly, studying can also give you a constructive and positive way to pass the time, keeping you from sinking into a negative headspace or whiling away the hours feeling lonely or bored.
Make friends who can relate to your struggles and friends who will challenge or question them. Friends who can relate to your struggles are important; these friends will keep you from feeling alone in your troubles and give you a “safe” place to vent if you need to. That being said, make sure you don’t limit yourself to others who are also having a hard time. Branch out and find some friends who love or understand the aspects you dislike. Their brighter take on the situation may help alter your perspective or just take your mind off your worries by involving you in cheerier events.
As I currently slog my own way through an (fairly flexible) ashram life in a yoga teacher-training course in India, I find that this mix of interactions is essential. My struggle to wrap my atheist head around the mandatory religious practices (e.g., regular prayers) can be isolating and perpetuate negativity, but my head is calmed by the presence of others who are resistant to the dogma while my heart is lifted by the peace found by those who embrace it. Having both influences and outlets has given me the opportunity to figure out how to integrate the religious teachings into my own, non-spiritual, way of seeing the world.
Reflect on your feelings and place of origin
When you don’t like something about the situation, take the time to ask yourself why. This reflection can teach you a lot about yourself and your cultural biases. In fact, once you recognize your own cultural norms (the ones that shape why you don’t like being pushed, cut in front of, stared at, openly reprimanded, etc.), you less troubled by the etiquette of your surrounding culture and understand that they may have little to do with you.
When I first arrived in Fes, Morocco in 2003 to study Arabic, I was appalled to find that locals never hesitated to step in front of me in line, no matter the location. “How rude!” I thought to myself more than once, until I paid closer attention and realized that my very American concept of a polite queue meant nothing to them. From their worldview, I wasn’t standing in line; I was merely standing. I learned to let this go and reconsider my idea of space. Only then did I not mind so much.
Keep a journal
Try to write in it as much as possible! Document your time away; write about the big stuff, but also don’t forget the little things. When you look back on the trip, you may find you have some surprisingly positive memories. When I think about my six months in Austria, I smile when thinking of the tiny chapel across the road, the fact that we composted our fruit and vegetables in the manure pile, and how I’d spend my time cursing my way across icy roads with wild prancing horses in hand on the way to turnout. These were little moments, and not always pleasant in the living moment, but were distinctive and are now most of all, special.
Use your dissatisfaction as an opportunity to practice:
Do you feel like a “bad traveler” because you are not in love with the locale or experience? Don’t feel this way! We can’t like everywhere or everything, though we can certainly find something teachable, if not likeable, in most experiences. Have you judged others in the past for not liking a place that you loved? Reflect on why you did this and let yourself realize that we all have different needs at different times. By ceasing to judge yourself so critically, you may be able to better experience the good with the bad rather than getting tied up in the guilt of your own struggle.
Sitting with suffering:
For many of us, especially those privileged enough to travel extensively and work or study abroad, this may be a new concept. I, for one, have almost always been able to change situations I find unpleasant or uncomfortable. As such, I’m fairly horrible at “sitting with my suffering”. In Bhagavad Gita, a primary yoga text, we learn that sometimes we must accept suffering in order to gain wisdom and grow. Assuming you cannot readily change where you’re at or what you’re doing perhaps you can try to accept it for what it is—an opportunity. Even if you aren’t a yogi nor have a guru, think of how this ability can serve you well throughout your life (think holiday dinners with the extended family!).
As a privileged traveler, I sometimes feel a particular obligation to enjoy every country I visit and every abroad experience I engage in. The hapless truth though, is this may not always be the case. From time to time, whether for a short- or long-term duration of time, all travelers invariably get homesick, tire of the food, struggle with culture shock, lament the weather, or even grow wary of travel itself. Perhaps then, the key isn’t finding the “perfect” situation abroad, but rather in unearthing the benefits, in gleaning all we can, from the imperfect.
Stacey McKenna is a writer, anthropologist, equine advocate, rock-climber, tattoo collector, and aspiring yogi. A long-time vagabond, Stacey has lived all over the U.S. as well as in France, Austria, Morocco, and Canada. When not adventuring overseas, helping retiring racehorses find second careers, or tramping about with her husband and dog in the Western United States’ beautiful mountains and deserts, she writes about an array of issues related to travel, health, culture, human-animal relations, and social inequality. Though she has been living in Fort Collins, Colorado for over 7 years now,Stacey still considers herself a wanderer at heart. Follow her explorations via her blog or on Twitter @mckenna_stacey.