10 things I learned in my first month abroad

Well I finally did it. I left my office job, handed in the notice for my flat, and went off travelling in Spain. This trip is a lot of things, ambition and folly in equal measure. Certainly not a drastic undertaking on a global scale, but a scary enough proposition for many in the privileged “West”: having to deal with a non-Anglophone society and being removed from our carefully-curated circles of allies. Here are some observations from Month One:

  1. It’s not what you do; it’s who you are with

We all have dreams and visions about what we’d like to do and see. But it counts for little unless you are sharing the experience. I’m not naturally the most sociable person, and enjoyed solitude in my teenage years, but there have already been numerous moments of punishing loneliness. It’s amazing how much I’m looking forward to friends coming to visit and how much I am tied to that infernal “mobile phone”. Although I’m not on Facebook quite yet.

  1. Life needs structure

Everyone is different but for me, I need structure. Even if it’s just daily goals for work, study, a bit of exercise. Two weeks away from the office and I started to go insane. Be wary of Parkinson’s Law though: that little bit of structure or task you just need to do can easily consume your days and distract from your bit of culture.

  1. You don’t really exist

How curious, not having an address or place of work. Or any possessions beyond a backpack. I’ve found that I’m qualified to do or purchase very little these days, and many forms I fill in – online or otherwise – simply have no fields that apply to me. It’s like I’ve just fallen through a gap in the system. Society needs to categorise you (in a mundane sort of way). Good job I’ve got a British passport and saved up some cash, eh?

  1. To learn, you have to be sociable

There is this perpetual myth that says if you are in an environment, you will adapt and learn by osmosis. This might be true to some extent, given enough time, but the onus is still on you. You. Proactivity and practice is the name of the game, whether it’s Spanish, sport, or spreadsheets. Just being in Spain is not going to make you fluent in the language. You will certainly absorb a lot, but using it is another matter. Being sociable is a big asset, but if you lack natural confidence like me, then having a thick skin or just being oblivious to humiliation helps :)

  1. But you still need your space

Disregard everything above: no matter how many new experiences there are to enjoy, however you enjoy spending time with much-missed family, you need your space. Time to reflect, relax, and heal. And maybe sleep off a beer or ten.

  1. There’s no such thing as linear progress

Everyone in the world knows this (OK, maybe they don’t have such a silly name for it). And I don’t mean in the Spanish sense – todo el mundo – which just loosely means everyone you know or in an area, I mean literally everyone. It’s just more amplified when you are abroad without your safety net and your routine. No matter how prepared, well-informed, and composed you are (to be honest that doesn’t describe me at all) there will be setbacks and detours and re-planning. That’s just life I suppose.

  1. Queueing is not just a British thing, but it certainly ain’t international

Spanish people queue! And it’s just like queueing in the UK! However, there is an internationally-accepted tourist code, including the mysterious “W/C” which I was recently told does not originate from the USA… Anyway, this code includes cutting queues with reckless abandon. I am not the most tanned individual, but I now feel ghostly enough to appear in an edition of Pac-Man.

  1. There is a gap that is never filled; a thirst that is never quenched

I’m stating the obvious once again, but there is a real tendency to keep looking forward to the next challenge, the next location (a lot of this is for practical reasons too) and even going home and having a nice settled life. Appreciate what you have.

  1. You need to roll with the punches like never before

Every day: confusion, disorientation, and abject humiliation every time you make a Spanish utterance. Learn to love it.

  1. You are only as good as your last game

We are all familiar with the certain je ne sais quoi that is confidence. Again, everything is so amplified when you are in a foreign situation and trying to learn and apply something in real life. A successful conversation in a bar puts you on cloud nine – you are fluent, this is easy! – until the next day you can’t even muster a decent buenos días and it’s the end of the world. No-one to moan to, no teacher to encourage you. Get it sorted.

This was my first ever blog. I am obliged to say “hello world!” Even if you found it boring, great: at least I made you feel something :)