Last weekend during my first trip to visit Rachel in London, I got a brief taste of the world I left behind. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.
The UK isn’t exactly America’s twin. But after living in Rome for two months, surrounded by people speaking a language I don’t understand and adhering to cultural norms I haven’t fully learned, being in a place that felt so normal gave me a sense of calm and comfort—a feeling that I haven’t felt in quite some time.
On the way from the airport to Rachel’s apartment, there were clear signs (in English!) directing me how to find the train, and at the train station, how to transfer to the tube. The tube cars were clean inside and out (no graffiti!), and people boarded them orderly (they waited for everyone to exit before cramming on). When I exited the tube station near Rachel’s apartment, the streets were clear of debris and everything looked so orderly and tidy. And when I got I got lost along the way, I didn’t have to fear approaching a stranger to ask for directions…because I actually could communicate with them!
It was a weekend full of simple pleasures that I had come to overlook—from the pure convenience of being able to speak the native language to the joy of eating Mexican food at Chipotle (overpriced, but so good!) to the amazement of walking the aisles of Whole Foods marveling at endless number of food products all available in one place (no grocery store in Italy has nearly that wide of a selection).
When the weekend ended, though, it was back to reality. Back to a world that still seems so foreign. Back to a sense of always being on my toes, of never truly understanding what is going on, of being uncomfortable and challenged and pushed outside the realm of what is safe and familiar.
But while that fleeting dose of familiarity may have made me nostalgic for what I left behind, it also forced me to take a step back and think about why I am doing this: Why did I choose to give up what I knew? Why did I choose to move to a completely new city? What in the world was I thinking?
I run through this set of questions most days, and even more often when I’m feeling homesick or exasperated by culture shock. I don’t fully have the answers yet, but two months into this adventure, some thoughts are beginning to crystallize.
Pushed outside of your comfort zone, living in a totally new culture, you learn about yourself. About how much more resilient you are than you give yourself credit for. About how quickly you can adapt to a totally new lifestyle and circumstance. About how you actually appreciate seemingly “ordinary” life back in the US.
You learn different ways of being—of living, and enjoying, and appreciating life in its so many forms and from its so many perspectives. Sitting in the basement of a neighborhood restaurant alongside Giacomo (the friend I’m renting my apartment from) and his friends, I watch as their hands wave in front of them and fluid Italian sentences flow off their tongues at a rapid staccato speed. They pass the dishes from one person to the next, taking the time to savor what they eat and the company they eat it in.
And you see things that make you think, that take your breath away, that help you put together your place in the world and with those that came before you.
Walking out of a meeting at one of the other UN agencies here in Rome last week, I was greeted by a panoramic sunset over the Palatine Hill, with the Coliseum cresting in the distance. The center of the known universe for hundreds of years, and the source of so many ideas, decisions, and cultural trends that continue to shape our world today.
Every now and then, there are days that put you into a funk and cast doubt on your decisions. Days when things just don’t seem to work. Days that have you longing for order and efficiency—and at least some semblance of customer service!
But then you experience something new, see something truly special, and understand something on a deeper level. Then you realize that living abroad—living in this perpetual state of uncomfortability—just might be worth it.