The past few weeks I’ve been a bit of an emotional mess, breaking out in tears at home, on the dance floor, in a café and on the street. The littlest things set me off these days. And, as such, I’ve found myself looking inward more often than out. Even while roaming the streets of Valencia today, I find my mind elsewhere. After my birthday recently, I set some secret goals for the future—nothing really concrete, but things I want and need to do for myself, and for my future. I’m working on big changes in my life, now that I’m in my 30s, and trying to figure things out. Not just who I am, but what I’m doing, where I’m going (metaphorically) and what all of this means. I think it’s natural to have these kinds of thoughts, and there’s nothing wrong with the emotional instability that comes with them, but it has been a challenge.
So that’s how I’ve found myself looking back at the defining experiences of my life—those things that have made me, me. For myself, this has been an exercise in unraveling some bits from my past and using them to piece together the present (and the future). Tell me below if you’ve had some of the same experiences, if they’ve helped to shape you. Or, if you haven’t, what do you think has made you, you? I want to know.
I may have still been naïve and not knowing what I was doing, who I was or how to fully appreciate the experiences, but I was trying. And at that point in my life, it’s just what I needed. It was the first step in a new life of trying new experiences and going to new places, taking risks along the way. Studying abroad was an integral part of my decision on where to study in the USA. And having been at a private university, studying abroad actually turned out to be cheaper than my usual tuition (even when I chose two of the world’s more expensive cities: Sydney and London).
Studying abroad was just a first step. I still remember the fear when I landed in Sydney Airport, a few days before my program was to start. I was nervous—unsure of what to expect, how to make new friends, living in a big city and discovering a whole new culture. My parents paid for a hotel for the first two nights before I could move into my university housing and I barely left the place except to grab fast food and a quick search to find where I was supposed to be a few days later. Months later, I was going out every weekend (and plenty of weeknights), even totally unafraid to approach strangers in bars and clubs. Studying in Sydney for those first five months, I learned how to meet new people and how to navigate a foreign place.
The following semester, studying in London for five months, I learned how to navigate an incredibly overbearing city, discovering the culture and the hidden bars and clubs and all the crazy parties that came with it. I learned it was okay to be alone in London, to attend concerts alone, to go out clubbing alone and still meet people. I learned how to find out about events and how to live in a big, BIG city.
Studying abroad was just a baby step, though.
I think it was those experiences abroad that made me itch to stay longer in a foreign country. I’ve lived abroad twice, now, but it was the first time, when I unexpectedly took an internship opportunity in Tel Aviv that really had a profound effect on me. Already three years out of college, I’d learned a bit about being an adult. I’d learned how to keep a budget (and break it). How to save for the future, how to cook for myself and how to generally be responsible. As responsible as a 25-year-old can be. So when I arrived in Tel Aviv, ready to stay longer, I already thought I knew a bit about life, about living, about adulting. But the experience of living abroad was nothing like expected.
This was the first time I was in a totally foreign country, where I didn’t speak the language or understand the street signs, or know how to communicate with those around me every day, all day. I was only in Israel for five months, but they were important ones. Living abroad in a totally foreign country taught me more about myself than I could have ever expected. I learned to trust my instincts and go even further out of my comfort shell. I remember trying new things on an almost daily basis. I was willing to do just about anything, so long as it was new. I wanted to see and do new things, to feel something special. It was my first real relationship, my first attempt at yoga, my first time working in politics and my first time trying to learn a new language (albeit terribly).
Living abroad forces you in uncomfortable and sometimes-difficult situations, but it makes you stronger. It changes you. I was a new person after my extended stay in Tel Aviv, with a fresh perspective on life. A year later when I moved to Berlin, I was more prepared for the experience of living abroad. But in Berlin I learned more about what it really means to be an expat: to make your home, your life, your business in a foreign place—far from home, from family, from old friends. It’s a real challenge, one many people won’t ever experience. I know I have the luxury of choosing to live abroad, but it’s not always easy. But it’s that challenge and that experience of fresh, new challenges every day that make it so rewarding.
At the time, going to college felt like nothing special. Just about everyone I knew from school was going to college. Most of my family had been. It was never a question of whether I’d go or not, but where I’d go—a norm for middle-class America. From as long as I can remember, I’d decided I would go far away from home to college. I just didn’t want the home state-college experience, so I ended up in Boston which was close enough to some of my family, but not so close that I couldn’t try to develop as my own person.
And while like most students, I found the experience of college sometimes tedious, boring or unlikely to help me in the future, I did try to make the most of my experience. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to be when I signed up at Boston University, but I was intrigued and interested with their School of Communication, which was a natural progression from my high school studies in journalism. It didn’t take long for me to change my course of study out of journalism, realizing I didn’t want to be a reporter. I wanted something more, but didn’t quite know what it was. After a while, it turned out I wanted to be a graphic designer, but transferring to the fine arts school was out of the question because of my study abroad aspirations. So, as a compromise to myself, I studied advertising and marketing, which I felt was close enough to what I’d want to do later on down the road. And in-between all my required courses, I studied what I wanted: American literature, German Romanticism, Color Theory, International Politics, Astronomy… A mix of subjects, but all touching on various interests of mine (and courses that weren’t too early each morning).
In college I learned it was okay to fail (looking at you International Politics), but it was also important to try new things. That’s how I was able to discover even more about myself, about what I wanted. Just another part of my evolution as a human. And college really gave me that chance: to try new things, to learn different things, to experience something new. I know college isn’t the same for everyone, and I know that the debt from college can be crippling, but I am really glad I had that chance. That chance to muck around for four years.
For years I’ve loved to tell people how much I hated, how much I loathed, growing up in Texas. How I felt so isolated. How I wished that I’d grown up in a more cosmopolitan place, somewhere where the culture was more diverse, where there was more to do for more types of people. But in all truthfulness, I’m actually so thankful and so glad I grew up in Texas. Sure, it wasn’t always the best of places, but I know now of how Texas has shaped me—in a positive way.
Growing up in Texas gave me plenty of opportunity. I don’t think it made me tougher, because in fact I was never really very thick-skinned. But it made me appreciate the many different opinions that fuel American culture and society. There’s also a truthfulness to “southern hospitality” and growing up in that environment (even when it’s hostile to those with differing opinions), did teach me to be kind. To care for others, and to even show kindness to strangers. Please and thank you. Good morning with a smile. These are things sometimes missing from our daily conversations with new people, but when we’re taught them growing up, it really does become habit. And it’s a good habit, too.
I grew up in a warm and friendly environment. One where differing opinions with my neighbors and my friends (but thankfully hardly ever with my family) made me appreciate other things in life beside hot-button political issues. I could see these people as other humans, with their own worlds and demons to deal with—separate from my own. And there’s a kind of beauty in that. So long as you can be you and I can be me, I think we’ll be alright.
It feels funny to include a job on this list, but I’m an American after all, and our jobs notoriously define us. But this one is different. Since I was 16, for six years through high school and college I worked at a bookstore. And not any bookstore, but THE BIG ONE: Barnes & Noble. From the moment I was eligible to work there, I applied at my local store. I had to wake up at 6am on Saturdays to stock the shelves, when no one else was in the store. I touched so many books during those years. I saw so many book covers. And I read so, so much.
It was working at Barnes & Noble that taught me the power of design—and what made me want to work in publishing. One of my dream jobs (at one point, and maybe a tiny bit still today) was to simply be a book designer. That led me down the path of typography. Which in turn led me to understand the power of words, even the power of a single letter. Working in a bookstore, I saw the world not necessarily as it was, but how it was recorded. How it was written. I’d read just about everything—children’s’ books I was too old for, teen dramas, sociology books, historic essays, the bestsellers, pop fiction, art essays and self-help books. Working in customer service as a bookseller, I learned the power of selling—and even how to sell. I remember a colleague at the Prudential Center Barnes & Noble who wouldn’t just recommend books to customers, but would demand them to buy books she deemed more relevant for their interests—after just 2-minute conversations.
In the bookstore, I learned how to talk with people, how to understand them and how to share something with them. One of my favorite parts of being a bookseller was the chance to recommend a book to a stranger, to share with them something that meant something to me. To be completely honest, I think it’s my experience working as a bookseller that pushed me to start this blog—this blog which serves as my way to share my world with you.
One thing that you might find surprisingly missing from this list is THE BIG TRIP. In 2010, I quit my job and traveled around the world for over 15 months, spending $20,000 along the way and visiting 14 countries. That’s the trip that started with this blog, and it’s what led to my career in travel. While in a lot of ways the trip did have a profound impact on me, I think it actually was a culmination of all the things listed above which led me to actually leaving on THE BIG TRIP. It was a momentous part of my life, and continues to effect me, but it’s not one of the defining things that’s made me, me. Obviously travel is very important to me, but it isn’t all of me. It’s these moments above which I come back to over and over again—they’re the reason why I am who I am, why I do what I do. Whether that’s traveling, writing, understanding, sharing, learning or just simply…being me.
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