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European adventures, continued

April 11th, 2013

DUBLIN  – It’s now April 11, and I’m sure you’re all wondering the same thing: “How is St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland?” Well, to be honest, it was fairly anticlimactic. As much as I would have liked to have been sipping on multiple Guinnesses in a Dublin pub, I was, unfortunately, sick, and therefore my festivities were a little lackluster.

The day after St. Patrick’s Day I boarded a plane to Portugal, the hidden gem of Europe. Most people have never been there ( it’s not really Europe’s number one tourist attraction for those who live outside of the E.U.), but boy, is it beautiful.

Most of my time was spent in Lisbon, which reminds me a lot of San Francisco. Steep hills, trolley cars, mild weather. It really is a lovely city filled with tons of history and interesting things to see, including a castle, Europe’s widest river, a bridge that was designed by the same man who designed the Golden Gate and sidewalks that qualify as works of art.

The most difficult thing about being in Portugal was not speaking the language. Yes, they speak their own language in Portugal (you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know that). Portuguese sounds like a mix between Spanish and Russian. I’m sure that no Portuguese person would appreciate me saying that, but that’s the truth. It’s like Spanish, but a lot of sounds are softened. It sounds most beautiful when it is sung (listen to “The Girl from Ipanema” if you don’t believe me).

The trip was at least 10 times more of an adventure than it normally would have been because of the language barrier. Imagine having pink eye in a foreign country and trying to explain to a pharmacist what was wrong with you. Do you have that image in your mind? Okay. That’s what happened to me in Portugal. I’m pretty sure I got the sketchiest eye drops ever. But hey, the pink eye cleared up, so I guess our sign language conversation actually worked out for the best.

We missed a train and had to take an overnight bus, meaning that we were dead tired when we got into London on Sunday afternoon. At the time, we were absolutely distressed and over-exhausted and “hangry” (when you’re hungry and the low blood sugar makes you angry).

While all of these travel experiences were happening, we were thinking about how terrible our lives were; but now, even though it’s barely two weeks later, we are able to laugh about it. Whenever any one of us mentions our disaster-ridden trip to Portugal or London or Scotland, none of us can help but laugh.

One of the most important things that being abroad has taught me is to just roll with the punches and take things as they come.

So, something bad happens, you’re in a foreign country. Calm down, put your thinking cap on, and come up with some ideas about how to solve the problem. You have a mouth and vocal chords, don’t you? Ask questions. Ask for directions, or when the next bus is, or where you are.

Maybe you don’t speak the language. Smile, use what few phrases you know, and talk in a kind tone. Kindness is the universal language. Even if you don’t speak the same language, people can understand when you are being nice and genuine; and even if you can’t understand the words that one another are saying, you can still understand the general tone and way in which they are being delivered.

While in a bus station, Maggie and I had to ask where we could purchase tickets for a bus back to Lisbon, if we had gotten off at the wrong stop (which we had). The bus driver didn’t speak English, nor did any of the people getting off of the bus with us.

One elderly woman, even though she didn’t speak English, seemed to understand our dilemma, and very sweetly tapped Maggie’s arm, babbled something in Portuguese, gently grabbed her sleeve and led us in the right direction. She then began to explain our situation to the woman working at the ticket counter.

Even though she didn’t really know what we were saying, and even though we didn’t really know what she was saying, there was an understanding on her part that we needed help, and there was an understanding on our part that she was helping us. Kindness crosses language barriers.

Studying abroad is unique, in that it pushes a lot of kids to the edge of their comfort zone. I have to talk to people in something other than my native tongue. A lot of times I have to approach strangers and trust that they are going to help me. When things go wrong, I have to relax and figure out, on my own or with the help of only a few others, how to remedy the situation.

The most important thing is to remember to laugh at yourself and the ridiculous situations you get yourself into. To every problem there is a solution and a crazy-ridiculous story to tell your friends and family when you get home. And that’s something that doesn’t just apply when studying abroad, but in all situations in life.