Posts Tagged 'Returning Home After Abroad'

*Itinerary Subject to Change: Temporarily Suspending a Trip Abroad

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Montmartre, Paris at nightfall.

A young American woman sits alone at a café, studying Sartre’s L’âge de raison in its original French.

In front of her sidewalk table the glorious Basilique du Sacré-Coeur glows like an angel that finally got his wings.  It’s spring, but the air is still cold.  The waiter, more homme than garçon, helps a middle-aged woman with the zipper of her fur coat.

Totally engrossed in existential philosophy, the young woman looks up only once and briefly, to acknowledge receipt of her café au lait and croissant aux amandes, and to ponder the meaning of life.

And scene.

That is an excerpt from Me in Paris, a screenplay I wrote nearly two years ago before my family’s one-week vacation to France.  Nevermind the impossibility of that fantasy – it was fall, I’m nowhere near that proficient in French, and coffee makes me jittery – even if it had come true, it would have represented just a few hours of one evening, not the entire trip.  Honestly, I probably would have spent the rest of the time worrying that the almond croissant would transform itself into a muffin top.

Daydreaming with wild abandon is as integral a part of any pre-overseas ritual as getting vaccinated and renewing your passport.  If I remember correctly, my visions for Argentina involved dulce de leche and tango dancers, while those for New Zealand featured bungy jumping and one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords.

Sadly, those snapshots tend to spontaneously combust upon arrival, when you realize that neither you nor your destination at all resembles the picture in your head.  You then construct a new image of yourself from the rubble, only to have it destroyed again.  This creation-destruction cycle continues until finally your idea of who you are in a given place matches reality.  In my case, I started out a peacock and arose from the ashes a hummingbird.

Faced with the promise of Australia, my imagination began painting the walls of my mind as if it were a hyperactive child with finger paints and an innate appreciation of the works of Jackson Pollock.  Prominent subjects of the fantastically colorful mural were surfing, koalas, and the stage of the Sydney Opera House.

However, at some point imagination gave way to realism.  In a flash of lucidity, I prophesized myself living in a backpacker’s hostel and temping at a telecommunications company, friendless, penniless, and with too much stuff.

Not two months ago, I was camping on the beach in New Zealand with my boyfriend.  Today, I am sitting on the couch of a close friend in Buenos Aires.  The idea that I traded all that for the opportunity to be lonely, frustrated, and uncomfortable in Australia made me queasy.  Of all the things I’m good at, bargaining is not one of them.

On two separate occasions, I have moved abroad alone, with no job or contacts, and minimal savings and language skills.  I did this for a reason – to free myself of familial, societal, and peer pressure, and to find out who I was when there was no one there to tell me who I was supposed to be.

The last five years were phenomenal, propitious, and absolutely necessary for my personal development; but now that I have a clear idea of who I am, what I want to do, and how I want to live my life, I can’t justify subjecting myself yet again to the solitude, insecurity and anxiety inherent in going overseas on your own.  It’s not that I no longer want to be abroad; it’s that I can’t stomach the thought of starting over from scratch a third time.

As with all good nervous breakdowns, this one turned out to be a revelation: after so many years of ego-tourism, I am done with journeys of self-discovery, for now. The next time I travel, it will be with one backpack and a budget, I will leave from and return to the same place, and I will not worry about working, making friends, or paying rent.  Unfortunately, I am broke and burnt out, and in desperate need of a break before I can manage such a trip.

When I called my parents from Buenos Aires to ask if I could stay with them for a few months (instead of through mid-May as originally planned) they were both shockingly sympathetic, supportive, and delighted.  I’m uneasy about the prospect of returning to Michigan, but excited to have two summers in a row.

Postponing my trip to Australia was not an insignificant, easy, or expected decision. But of all the lessons I’ve learned from my time abroad, perhaps the most important are: trust your instincts, drop your pride, and all itineraries are subject to change without prior notice.

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Geographically Polyamorous: Having Multiple Countries At One Time

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’m in an open relationship with four countries.  I guess you could say I practice geographical free love.  I entered New Zealand on a one-year Working Holiday Visa.  My first few months were an absolute tragedy, and I had no more intention of extending my stay than of coordinating my five-year college reunion. Weeks were wasted in Wellington wrapped in fleece blankets, listening to depressing music, and devising schemes to get deported.

Then I moved to Auckland, where my quality of life and mental health improved significantly.  By month twelve, I was infatuated with New Zealand’s majestic beauty, in love with my boyfriend, contended with my lifestyle, and reluctant to leave. I was also receiving weekly emails from Immigration New Zealand reminding me that my visa was due to expire.

Protecting your privacy on Facebook is more challenging than obtaining a New Zealand Working Holiday Visa.  For U.S. citizens, the application is free of charge and lodge

d online.  All that is required is that you are between the ages of 18-30 and willing to lie about having health insurance and being financially solvent.  Once you’re hooked on life in New Zealand, the government starts making demands.

To be fair, it is not impossible to extend your stay in New Zealand.  If you have a short-listed skill, are in a long-term, committed relationship with a Kiwi or someone with residency, or can convince your boss that you are indispensable and irreplaceable, you have a good chance of getting another work permit.  However, the process takes months, costs thousands of dollars, and involves medical exams, joint bank accounts, letters of recommendation, and winning a spelling bee.  More to the point, I didn’t fall into any of the aforementioned categories.  My only option was a tourist visa, which would have been tantamount to paying $700 to drain my savings and delay the inevitable.

The best I could do was to take out the atlas and decide where to go next. The obvious choice was Australia.  Ever since arriving in New Zealand, I had heard nothing but rave reviews of Oz from fellow travelers and certain Kiwis whose names have been changed to protect the innocent.  In December, I successfully applied for a Work and Holiday Visa and booked a one-way ticket to Sydney on V Australia.  The flight from Auckland takes about four hours.  My trip will take two and half months, thanks to a couple of extended layovers.

I flew to New Zealand directly from Argentina on a roundtrip ticket.  I never intended on using the second leg, but it was the cheapest option at the time.  However, when I began to contemplate life after New Zealand, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for Argentina. The energy radiating from the city on a warm summer night, the buttery smell of fresh medialunas, the euphonical sound of Castellano: these sensations rose to the surface of my memory like bubbles in a bottle of aqua con gas.  More importantly, I missed my friends.  Returning to Buenos Aires for a few weeks made the most sense emotionally, if not logistically.

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

Even though my bedroom is now the guest room, my mother insists on taking offense when I tell her that Ann Arbor, a city I haven’t lived in for nine years, no longer feels like home.  Nevertheless, before I booked my flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney, I called to inform her of my plans. A few days later, she made me an offer she hoped I wouldn’t refuse.

“We’d like to bring you up to the States from Argentina.  You can always fly to Sydney from L.A.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I yelled. “How many times do I have to tell you, I’ve no interest in going to the States? What possible reason could I have for coming home in April?”

“Well, Amy,” my mother sighed, “your grandmother is turning 95, your father 65, and your brother 30.  And we were going to surprise you with your own private jet.”

“Oh, you could have mentioned that sooner.” No matter when I talk to my mother, it seems to be that time of the month.

Following our conversation, I apologized for losing my temper and graciously accepted the free ticket home.  I even agreed to stay for an entire month to be there for Mother’s Day as well.  I didn’t want to go to the States at that time or for that long for a number of reasons – genuine disinterest, impatience and anxiety about moving to Australia, lingering teenage angst, fear of getting sucked into the black hole of satellite TV – but I simply cannot skip my grandmother’s ice cream social. What is the furthest distance between two points?  My trip from Auckland to Sydney.

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor

No longer do I worry about baggage allowances, long-haul flights, or lengthy transitions.  My only fear is that I’ll never find a compound big enough to house all of the pieces of my life. No matter where I am, I’m always missing someone or something. While I had a wonderful boyfriend in New Zealand, most of my best friends were in Argentina, and all of my family was in the States. Four friends will get married while I’m in Australia, and who knows how many breakups, engagements, births, deaths or really amazing dinner parties will occur in my absence?

Of course, if I were willing to stay in one place, life would be a lot less complicated.  But it would also be a lot less exciting and fulfilling. The irony is that the thinner I spread myself, the more complete I become.  For a long time, I didn’t know who I was, where I belonged, what my purpose was, or what kind of life I wanted to lead.  These last few years have been like an epic scavenger hunt, where I travel the globe collecting clues to these riddles.  In the process, I’ve overcome fears, gained wisdom, met amazing people, and done and seen strange and wondrous things. I’ve learned to be independent, open, confident, composed, and most of all, happy.

For me, traveling is equal parts compulsion, education, and mission.  Sure, my life can be frustrating, uncertain, and lonely at times, but then again, whose life isn’t? I’ve finally come to terms with my insatiable curiosity, hunger for new experiences, and wanderlust.  Maybe someday I’ll be ready for monogamy; until then, I will continue to be geographically polyamorous.


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