|Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on August 10, 2016 at 4:05 AM|
On August 10th 2015 my husband and I boarded a plane in Toronto to start a new chapter of our lives. After a 10 hour flight we landed in Prague, Czech Republic. Our decision was very intentional. I'd just quit my job at Harvard Medical School, and we'd spent the past two months saying good-bye to friends and family before embarking on our journey.
Many people dream of making similar choices. Perhaps you've sat in your cubicle at work trolling Facebook and feeling envious of your friends who are exploring the world. Or maybe you recently had a baby and feel like you'd pay $1,000 just to be able to leave the house. We often glorify travel as a luxury reserved for 20-somethings who don't know what to do with their lives, or millionaires who can afford to own property in multiple locations.
Well, I'm neither of these things, but I've devoted a decent amount of time and money to travel over the past few years - despite the fact that I'm in my late 30s and I don't own an unlimited bank account. Given that today marks one year since I made my move to Europe, I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on my experience and share what I've learned so far.
If you've been bitten by a temporary travel bug or you'd like to make a semi-permanent move abroad, use the tips below to help bring clarity to your experience.
1. Expect The Unexpected
One of the main things that worried me about moving to Prague is that I don't speak Czech. My husband was born and raised in Canada but his parents are Czech, so he speaks the language. But I didn't want to rely on him as my personal translator. I had visions of being incapable of accomplishing basic tasks like grocery shopping without dragging him along.
I also had fears about not being able to find fresh, healthy food. Listen, I love Czech food. My mother-in-law introduced me to all sorts of goulashes, sauerkraut, and smoked meats that make me salivate just thinking of them. But traditional Czech food tends to be very meat heavy, gluten heavy (dumplings!) and vegetable light. I had visions of myself eating processed meat every day and possibly developing scurvy.
And don't get me started on my fears around personal hygiene. Most of my beauty products are natural/organic, and I was convinced that I wouldn't be able to find these products in Prague. When I moved here, half of my suitcase was filled with organic soaps, lotions, and make-up (luckily none of them exploded en route).
But here's the thing - all of these fears turned out to be completely false. Let's start with the language. I've been absolutely amazed at how easy it is for me to speak English in Prague. In fact, it's too easy, which has resulted in a certain degree of laziness around me taking Czech language lessons. Pretty much everyone under the age of 40 speaks at least some English. Sure, sometimes I need to use creative sign language or pull out Google Translate, but it isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be.
When it comes to food, Prague has so many farmer's markets that I still haven't had a chance to visit them all. And if you drive 15 minutes outside of the city the small highways are full of farmers selling their goods. The Czechs seem to be all about supporting local vendors, whether it's for fruit, vegetables, honey, or clothing. My husband's relatives make their own teas and syrups out of fresh herbs, and they regularly offer us free-range eggs from their chickens. And the most surprising part: Prague is full of fantastic vegetarian restaurants. There are also lots of stores where I can buy every freaky deaky superfood and gluten-free product out there (Gluten-free bread? Yes. Maca? Yep. Coconut oil? For sure! Kelp flakes? Absolutely).
My point here is to check yourself before you wreck yourself. North Americans tend to see themselves as living in a land of plenty that no other country could possibly match. Don't let unfounded fears about a foreign location prevent you from making a temporary, or even permanent, visit. I bet you'll end up being pleasantly surprised.
Do, however, keep in mind that some of the things that you think might go wrong will go wrong. Flights will get cancelled, documents will get lost, food poisoning may occur. This is all part of the experience. If you can't hack it, then it might be best to plan your trip for escape rather than growth (more on this in a moment).
2. Knowing Is Different From Experiencing
No matter how much you think you know about a culture, you will encounter surprises when you immerse yourself in it. I learned a lot about Czech culture from my husband's parents, and I even spent 10 days in Prague in 2005. But visiting here and living here are two completely different things. It didn't matter how many articles I read on expats.cz or questions I asked my father-in-law. I'm sure that having a baseline level of knowledge about the Czech Republic was helpful, but for the most part living here has been a trial by fire. In other words, I simply had to rip off the band-aid and experience it instead of filling my head with information.
Here's an example. I've been amazed at the general vibe here around leisure and quality of life. I've been told countless times that Europeans tend to have a more laid-back lifestyle, but I didn't fully understand it until I experienced it. On the one hand, I absolutely love the way that many Czechs seem to value time with friends and family. Every day of the week (day and night) the pubs, patios, and parks in my neighborhood are full of people enjoying time with each other. There's a palpable feeling of slowing down, especially in the summer (as long as you avoid the tourist areas).
On the other hand, the North American side of me that's used to a more frantic pace of life is still learning how to take it easy. In most major cities in North America you can get things done when you need to. Stores are open 7 days a week and customer hotlines are available 24/7. In Prague, on the other hand, it's not uncommon for stores to close at 5pm or 6pm. Sometimes offices are randomly closed mid-week from 2-5pm. And it's almost impossible to get anything done on a Friday afternoon. In the summer, some stores and restaurants even close down for an entire month. People get a decent amount of vacation time here, and they use every minute of it!
Sometimes I get really frustrated when I show up at a government office on a Wednesday afternoon to find it closed. Or I try to book a meeting with someone to find out they're away on vacation for 3 weeks. But immersing myself in this culture is slowly (very slowly!) breaking me out of the frantic pace that I followed in Boston.
Government office closed? I guess I'll go enjoy a Czech beer instead.
3. Use Anonymity for Discovery
When we moved here I didn't know a single Czech person. I'd briefly met some of my husband's relatives, but very few of them speak English. In some ways this has been a blessing. When I walk down the street here I have very little chance of running into anyone I know. Each person is a blank canvas, as am I. When I meet people, they have no preconceived notions about who I am, what I do for a living, or what I'm all about.
This sense of anonymity has led to a lot of personal discovery. When no one knows who you are, it gives you a chance to be who you want to be. I don't mean this in a deceptive way, like telling people I'm a circus performer who travels the world in a caravan (although that might be fun). What I mean is that since people have no expectations of me, I can simply be who I really am. When I meet people here, I tend to talk about meaningful, interesting topics instead of immediately focusing on questions about the weather or what I do for a living. People don't look at me and automatically know my career path or family history. It's extremely liberating to simply be myself.
Plus, when you don't speak a verbal language, you need to rely more closely on things like body language, energy, and intuition. This opens up a whole new world in terms of experiencing people's personalities that can be quite illuminating.
Whether you're considering a temporary trip or a permanent move, consider how it might feel for you to be anonymous (and non-verbal). Who are you without your current identity of mother, father, doctor, plumber, Canadian, etc.? Perhaps a bit of travel might help you figure it out.
4. Discern Between Escape Versus Growth
People typically engage in voluntary travel for one of two reasons: escape or growth. Escape travel happens when we go on a trip to get away from our daily lives, like heading to Florida on spring break. Growth travel involves a desire to expand our horizons and learn about new cultures.
Both types of travel are equally valid. Escape travel isn't necessarily a bad thing - we all need a break and vacations are awesome. And growth-motivated travel helps us discover new people and places and learn about ourselves in the process.
However I think it's important, when planning any travel, to pay attention to your motivation, because doing so will help you plan the right trip for you. If you love your job, but you need a short, relaxing trip, plan an escape. If you want to explore new cultures then plan a growth-inspired trip.
Some people have accused me of moving to the Czech Republic out of a desire to escape. And while it's true that I did want to leave the Harvard stress and frantic Boston lifestyle behind, I'd done enough personal reflection to know that my primary reason for moving was for growth. No one can answer the escape vs. growth question for you, it's something you need to discern for yourself. But the more confident you are about your travel motivation the better, because you will inevitably face questions.
5. Resist Having All The Answers
When you plan an extended trip or a permanent relocation (especially if you're over the age of 30 and it's not a job that's relocating you) people are going to ask you a lot of questions. They are going to want to know why you aren't fitting into the script that people your age are supposed to follow. They will wonder why you aren't married, or why you don't have kids, or why you don't just settle down or go to grad school or pay off your student loans.
They are going to wonder why you seem like you don't know what you're doing with your life.
And guess what? You are probably going to be wondering the same thing.
Which is why you don't need to have all the answers. Why? Because you don't owe anyone any explanations.
When people started asking me why I was moving to Prague I felt tremendous pressure to give some sort of rational, mature, adult-like answer. I gave answers about personal growth and my husband's heritage. But I noticed that these answers didn't often satisfy people. So I started to simply reply, "Because I feel like it."
These days I'm getting two new sets of questions. Our Czech friends and relatives keep asking us whether we're staying here, while friends and family in Canada keep asking when we're coming home.
And we don't have the answers, so we just keep saying that we don't know. Because really, does anyone have answers? These days, people can work at a job for 25 years and get laid off in a heartbeat. But for the 25 years that they spent in that job I can almost guarantee that no one asked why they were working there or whether they planned to stay or go.
My take home point: Make your decisions from a soul-centered place and don't feel obligated to justify your life to anyone.
6. Balance Exploration With Ease
My desire for growth-related travel is often on overdrive. I want to see and experience as many new people, places, and things as possible. I've tried laid-back vacations like all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and Caribbean cruises, but after 3 days I'm so bored that getting stung by a jellyfish seems like it would be a good time. So these days I tend to travel to cities where I can explore and grow. Take, for example, a 17-day trip I took this past June, where I cruised the Baltic Sea to visit countries like Sweden, Russia and Estonia.
However, as any experienced traveler will tell you, travel is often overrated. There's only so much living out of a suitcase, eating out, and visiting crowded tourist traps that any person can handle. It's important to bust the illusion that travel is going to magically fix your life - or even leave you feeling refreshed. Truth be told, I'm often exhausted after many of my vacations. I expect to be exhausted because I tend to travel for growth-motivated reasons. After an extensive period of travel I usually become a hermit for several weeks and barely leave my house. Or I'll make sure my next trip involves a simple getaway in nature.
This is why exploring your motivation for travel is important. Balancing exploration with a sense of having a home base can be an important part of keeping yourself sane during travel and coming to terms with the fact that sometimes travel isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Final Boarding Call
I hope these tips are helpful as you ponder, plan, and explore your travel options. While it's important that we don't over-glorify travel as the answer to all of life's problems, it's also useful to keep in mind that travel can be worthwhile - and possible - regardless of your age or stage. Because as J.R.R. Tolkien so famously said, "Not all those who wander are lost."