Among the many reasons people cite for travelling internationally, broadening your perspective and growing as a human being is probably the most well-worn. What precisely that means, however, varies dramatically depending on what type of growth results you are looking for. Making your Facebook friends jealous and being able to trade tips with your yuppy friends on what to order in a Paris café are some of the more mercenary goals, perhaps. But at the bottom of all of it is the belief that encountering more kinds of people and more ways of living makes you a better human being.
I do actually believe that, otherwise I would have chosen the kind of life I’m living. But often what we think of when we talk about the kinds of experiences that make us broader, wiser, more tolerant people are the kinds of experiences that teenagers write about in their college essays: either the types of experiences that put us in touch with the goodness in all humanity (including our own) by bearing witness to triumph over adversity or the types of dramatic self-discovery that occur when our plans and expectations are radically upended.
I’ve been living abroad for six months now, and I’m not really sure that I’ve had either type of experience. Perhaps that is because I am living the same kind of middle-class, 9 to 5 (well, 10-6 because Europe does everything an hour later than America) existence that I would in the States, associating primarily with other expats and intimidatingly well-educated, cosmopolitan Russians. The Russia I live in is a fairly rarified on. The challenges I have experienced have been of the “Thanksgiving is coming and I can’t for the life of me find ground cloves!” variety. Ok, a few weeks ago, an entire work day on the last day of classes was hijacked for a two-hour cab ride with five other colleagues to the Immigration Office in brutal Moscow traffic in which one of the cabs got into a wreck, and the cab driver had to pay off the other driver so that we could make it in time.
But maybe that’s the point. Rarely are we given the opportunities for the kinds of apocalyptic self-examination that make good memoirs. I know people who have had those sorts of experiences, and I am not excited to follow in their footsteps. For the most part, it’s in this kind of mundane bullshit that you come face to face with your limitations and the places where you could stand to change and adapt and, you know, “grow.” And the reason why travel abroad is often associated with that is because for those of us who don’t have children, going to another country is the best possible opportunity we have for being ruinously inconvenienced.
At least that is what has happened to me on our winter vacation to Southern Italy. Vacationing in a different country is, as it turns out, a very different beast than living in a different country, and in many ways, it is a fiercer one. There is far more pressure to have the time of your life, for example. “I have spent quite a lot of money to be here,” you tell yourself on a daily basis. “I had better not spend it playing another level of Plants vs. Zombies when I could be out there having a good time.” “Italian food is amazing,” you tell yourself as you realize that you are possibly doing permanent damage to yourself with the amount of wine, pizza, and gelato you are consuming in the name of seizing the moment. And it is in the name of making the most of your time in this place that you consider waiting in a queue for the Sistine Chapel so long that it would give you a rage stroke if you encountered it outside the context of this vacation.
I do not want to set you up for the expectation that this has been a bad trip or that I am ungrateful for this opportunity. Far from it. Please believe that I did jump up and down when I saw the Colosseum and that I have been gleefully uploading photos to Instagram every night. I embarked upon this trip overflowing with optimism. And maybe because of that, it has also been a particularly acute period of encountering the disappointing limitations of both the trip and of myself as a human being. I have learned that I am precisely the type of over-ambitious, type-A vacation planner I always thought I wouldn’t be, treating the guide book like a check list and becoming livid at my spouse because he broke up the day’s itinerary with his suggestion that we go back to our Air BnB in the mid-afternoon after five hours of walking and have a nap. In other words, we have become the most disgusting, overworn stereotype of travelling couples ever.
I have also learned that in both psychological and physical terms, I am completely inflexible when it comes to my tea intake. I am basically a grouchy, be-tweeded Brit or Uncle Iroh (take your pick), and Italy is coffee country, where the best a tea-drinker can hope for outside of certain very specific Roman establishments (where tea is served as a sort of novelty or sop to tourists) is a bag of Lipton Yellow Label served in a cappuccino mug. And a reliable wi-fi connection is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. “The internet connection is really just there for checking tourist information,” my landlord tells me when I complain that it is too slow and cuts out all the time. “You are history’s worst monster,” I think, mourning the episodes of 30 Rock that I planned to watch quasi-legally via VPN connection. (If an Italian coffee-shop–those places where you guzzle espresso while standing at a counter–advertises Wi-Fi on their front door, take it with several grains of salt. This is not a country where you can expect to park for several hours with your laptop.)
I, who like to think of myself as a tolerant, open-minded person have found myself characterizing the inhabitants of an entire country based on the rude, pushy behavior of off-brand tour guides outside of the Vatican, a couple of obnoxious waiters, and that family in front of me walking very slowly and taking up the entire sidewalk while throwing their trash on the ground.
I will not, as it turns out, wait for multiple hours to see a Michelangelo masterpiece. I will instead buy handbags.
It occurs to me that I may have sort of lucked out by landing in a country that happens to support most of my addictions and neuroses, where it is dark most of the time and the free wi-fi is plentiful, where I can swill tea around the clock even if it does keep me awake at night and where the locals share my preference for putting on a set of headphones and staring sullenly into the middle distance while using public transportation, avoiding eye contact with strangers at all costs. If a Muscovite complains about the fact that everyone on the metro stares at their mobile devices rather than striking up friendly conversations with the person next to them, they probably exile him or her to California, where fiends like that belong. If someone is standing on the wrong side of the escalator or is blocking the door of the metro car, you can shove them out of the way. No one will blame you. This is Russia, mofos.
In other words, the ways in which travel forces you to grow are often far more mundane than the ones you think are worth writing home about. In truth, it’s the times when a little kid dumps tacos in your purse that you come face to face with your humanity and are forced to become a better person. I hear that having human children gives you this sort of opportunity all of the time. I also think I’m content to remain precisely this selfish and this limited for now. At least until my next vacation.