The girl who walked the streets of Earl’s Court in a blue rain jacket last August, shivering and hoping the rain would hide the fact that she was crying, is much different from the girl typing this. Traveling changes you in lots of ways. It is perhaps the biggest reason for personal change there is. I was able to reinvent myself through traveling last year, and I’m a much better person for it.
I wasn’t unhappy with the person I was before I left, but my life wasn’t exactly easy either. I was terrified every time I had to get on an airplane, I worried about taking the train alone, even driving long distances made me nervous. I always had my cell phone on me, making sure it and the extra battery in my purse were charged “just in case” I needed to call my mom for help, advice, or just to calm me down. Every situation was an opportunity for anxiety to flare up. Because of this, choosing to spend my first semester of college in London was uncharacteristic of me. I got on the plane anyway.
I wasn’t unhappy with the person I was before I left, but my life wasn’t exactly easy either.
I would continue to get on planes ‘anyway’ throughout the semester. I visited Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Liverpool, Brighton, and Edinburgh. All of these trips provided difficulties in some way – for example, in Spain we had to get around the fact that neither of us spoke Catalonian and practically no one in Catalonia spoke English. In Edinburgh I had to deal with the German men who came into our hostel room, took off their stinky shoes in the middle of the floor before going back out again, and left the room smelling like gag-inducing German sweat all night. However, while they were trying, none of these were particularly great challenges. The real challenge, and what truly changed me, was Italy.
For our week-long break my friend Sara and I decided to go to Italy because it was somewhere we’d always wanted to go, and we were a short plane ride away. We booked the trip a month out from break, which was in early November, and the October sunshine made it seem like the best idea ever. I was psyched. We chose the perfect destination – Sorrento, which was near the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Vesuvius, and Capri. We would spend a day in Rome, four days in Sorrento, and then return home. It was going to be the dream vacation.
The day before we left was rainy with none of that optimistic October sun, and we still had errands to run for the trip. We had to go get Sara’s phone fixed, I had to add money to my phone plan, and we needed to print and sort boarding passes, maps, tickets, and booking numbers. Then, of course, we needed to pack. As all of this went on and the London drizzle soaked us through, our spirits dropped lower and lower. The thought of catching a bus to the airport, then a plane, then a train from the airport in Rome to center city, then walking to our hostel was daunting, and that was only the first day of the trip. I was feeling the old familiar anxiety, which I had been putting at bay so far, rushing in less like a babbling brook and more like a towering tsunami. I popped some sleeping pills and went to sleep rather than dealing with my concerns, knowing that the sun would rise and I would somehow end up in Italy.
The real challenge, and what truly changed me, was Italy.
Before the sun had the chance to peek over the horizon, Sara and I were running, backpacks swinging, to the spot where a shuttle bus was supposed to take us to the airport. We waited, the sun came up, and the bus was not there. We had no idea what to do since we had no internet and were standing on the sidewalk waiting for something that wasn’t coming. If we left to go back home and figure out an alternate route, we’d be late to the airport. If we stayed, we’d be late anyway. We tried calling our RA, Jonny, to help us out, but he didn’t answer. We had no choice but to wait. The bus ended up being 40 minutes late, putting us at the airport door 40 minutes late, which meant that as we arrived, breathless, to security, the sign was announcing that our gate was officially closed. The foreboding red letters did not help my anxiety. We went through security and ran all the way through the airport, past every single gate, to the very last one.
As we ran, I had a choice. I could either freak out and leave it all to Sara, checking out of the situation as I would if I were a child. I also could have taken it as a sign that we weren’t meant to go to Italy and turned around and gone back to the familiarity of London. Part of me wanted to do that, because it would certainly have been easier. A younger version of me probably would have done it. I, however, had put down payments on the hostel we were to stay in, not to mention purchased the plane tickets, and damned if I wasn’t going to get my money’s worth.
At the gate a maintenance man was sweeping, and the plane was still sitting on the tarmac. There was no one else around. We spoke to him and he told us that there would be a later flight but we had to be ‘decontrolled’ through the airport. This began a long and complicated process that got us to know Gatwick Airport intimately. We were led backwards through security, customs, and check-in, and were forced to wait in line to get new plane tickets. We were informed that there was no chance of us getting a refund and we were forced to pay well over a hundred pounds to switch our flight to a later one that day, one that would arrive us in Rome at 6pm. Our money and our day in Rome were disappearing, and again I had a choice. I could pound my fists on the counter and start crying, or perhaps I could disappear into the bathroom and cry there. Or I could grow up and deal with the situation.
I chose the latter. I sent a calm and composed message to my parents to inform them of what happened, telling them that I didn’t need anything because it had been dealt with but I thought they should know that plans had changed. I sent out a few annoyed tweets. Then I ate a sandwich and waited for the new flight. It felt good knowing that a problem had arisen and I had dealt with it maturely.
Our Italian misadventures did not end there. After spending our “Roman holiday” in our hostel eating mini cheese wheels and supermarket bread spread with jam and nutella, we got a good night’s sleep that lasted just a bit too long.
Our Italian misadventures did not end there. After spending our “Roman holiday” in our hostel eating mini cheese wheels and supermarket bread spread with jam and nutella, we got a good night’s sleep that lasted just a bit too long. We missed our train out of Rome the next morning. By this point we were master reschedulers and fortunately this didn’t have a fee, but it was certainly another blow, and an opportunity for more teariness and whining. After all, for about a half hour before we were able to reschedule the ticket, we were theoretically stuck in Rome with nowhere to stay. Instead of getting nervous, we laughed and promised each other we wouldn’t mention this to anyone. It felt good to turn it into a joke rather than to let it worry us.
Plenty went wrong in Italy, but it all served to show just how different I was becoming from my former self. At each juncture I was able to decide whether I wanted to be the kind of person who would turn around and give up, or if I would choose happiness and fix the problems. I stayed calm and I didn’t even have to call my mom to do it! Every time I solved a problem on my own it empowered me just a little bit more, so that by the end of the trip I felt like I was on top of the world. Each challenge became easier and easier because of the precedent I’d set for myself by solving the previous ones.
Why was I able to change abroad more than I could here in Pennsylvania? Perhaps it was because I was more accountable. No one was there to fix my mistakes for me, so I had to do it myself, and in doing so I realized that I was more than capable of it. Maybe it was because I could be anyone. No one knew me as I’d been before, so no one expected me to be anxious and scared. Therefore I was able to change into a more confident, happy, calm person, freed of previous expectations that had come from others and myself. I reinvented myself better than I ever could have at home.
There is no better agent for personal change than travel. When you get on that plane you can become anyone you want, so I decided to become the person I’d always wished I was. More than that, realizing that you can do anything is empowering enough to change you for the better.