Travelling gives you perspective. When you live and work in a culture different from your own, you get to expand your horizon. It can be enlightening, annoying, frustrating and sometimes downright awful. You probably don’t find yourself, but you do get a better sense of how the world works. Here are a few things that really stuck with me.
1. No-one cares about your country: Local media is astonishingly egocentric. It makes you think that the world is focused on you. That, of course everyone knows your history and your current affairs. It is easy to build conspiracies about how the world is out to get you, because of course everyone is focused on you and what you are fighting about.
Occasionally, I found myself starting discussions with phrases like ‘everyone knows that Kenya…’ Turns out no-one does actually. I mean, once, my classmate came to tell me about the cool book he read about how the mau mau terrorists were so brutal. I was absolutely enraged and insulted until I realized that I had absolutely no idea about anything that happened in Croatia. And that he spoke to me in the same way- assuming that I have, at the very least a comprehensive knowledge of his country’s drama and history. Specifically, he and his fellow Croatians would always talk about THE WAR. Over and over again and in capital letters. And I had absolutely no idea what they were on about. My mind did not make the connection between the news I heard in the 1990s that inspired me to nickname my little sister Sarajevo and what they were talking about.
Every country is obsessed with its own internal politicking and everything else is just a passing affair. Pages will be dedicated to whatever local bullshit is going on, and international news gets a few lines. If you think about it though, it makes sense. With the exception of people majoring in political affairs, few people have the time or the emotional energy to follow every little story coming from every corner of the world. It’s impossible.
2. Everyone thinks that their weather is unpredictable: I had a Belgian colleague who loved to use the phrase ‘Belgium is the only country where you can experience four seasons in one day.’ Noooo….no it isn’t. For me, Belgium came in two seasons: cold and rainy, or just rainy. I honestly don’t understand why people are so proud of this. And it’s not just the Belgians. South Africans, the French, Kenyans, literally everyone. I mean, really who cares? The weather happens, lets get over it already.
3. Magic exists in the world: I have had the great fortune of meeting three people who made me feel like I had reunited with a long lost best friend. I don’t know why or how but we just gelled almost from the word go. Despite coming from profoundly different worlds, these people just got me in a way that was unbelievable. There was none of that awkwardness about trying to be politically correct. They did not have to modify their vowels and neither did I. I could make a joke and they would get it, and vice versa. They were my partners in crime. People I could sit with in silence for hours or have long, elaborate arguments about fuck-all. And also do the most incredibly stupid shit possible and get away with it together. It’s like finding a part of your soul that was missing and it is pure magic. (This is not gender specific by the way)
Also, I have to mention the astonishing kindness that people treated me with on so many occasions. Virtual strangers who went out of their way to help me. For example, my first night in France was a comedy of errors that led me to being homeless for the night. My neighbors were having a party and they took me in, gave me champagne, good food and a place to sleep. When was the last time you hosted a scared looking foreigner who’s name you couldn’t pronounce? People can be awesome.
4. People are overly concerned about their accents: Every time you open your mouth, you announce to people where you came from. Where you went to school, your social class, your level of education and quite often, the region that you came from. And it makes people uncomfortable as hell. In every country I have ever visited, certain regions are mocked for their backwardness (and often, implied bestiality) and they are mercilessly mocked for their accents. Then you have people who speak French, Spanish, Hungarian or whatever as a first language. Some of these people go to the UK for six months and as a consequence, speak in a bizarrely contrived ‘English’ accent for the rest of their lives. It sounds just as awful and as painful as a Kenyan guy trying to speak American. True story
5. Food is astonishingly political: If you grew up on beans and maize, the food is just fuel that gets you by. If your country has more than 300 types of cheese, then it is perfectly acceptable to get into arguments with other people about what region produces the best cheese. You can have a beer with your friends, or you can sample wines and complain about the lack of body and therefore imply that your friend has poor taste and is therefore a pleb, probably with a back water accent and incest running in the family.
6. The world is deeply racist: yes, yes, not everyone is racist. Sit down. Even within your own borders, you harbor some deeply held beliefs about people from other regions. Luos waste money on stupid things, Kikuyu bosses will work you to death. People in Paris are arrogant, people from the south of France only care about plastic surgery and getting tans. South Indians are not very smart, North Indians are arrogant racists. This is all on a national level. When you go international, things get even worse. If you want an example, scroll down to the comments section of news on immigration, ebola and other third world concerns. Such thoughts and opinions are the result of years of deep conditioning. I doubt very much that people’s opinions have changed from the 19th century on some things. Different words are used now, like ‘developing’ instead of ‘savage’ and the like but the basic idea remains the same.
7. We are all slaves of our culture: Politicians in Africa have a tendency to shout about how African culture is somehow superior to others and that we should maintain our ‘culture’ because it is pure and unadulterated, unlike the rest of the world, which is drowning in moral decay, weekly abortions and rampant ‘gayism’. Everyone is having the same discussion. Culture is not something that can be controlled in a laboratory. It evolves and changes and it informs everything you do in your life. Everyone is worried about the erosion of their culture, and is, to a large extent, convinced that their culture is somehow superior to the others.
8. You will never be as happy as you are right now: Life can be easier or more convenient in places where the government functions. Life is good when your family and friends are intact. But your outside surroundings will never make you happy. In fact, the added stress of being in an unfamiliar culture can make you downright miserable. Sure, the adrenalin rush of adventure and novelty can distract you from whatever is going on in your mind and soul, but generally, your state of being is a constant. If you are unhappy at home, then you will find reasons to be unhappy, no matter where you go.
So yeah, and that is that, I would say. I still have hope in humanity.