About Sucking So Much at Traveling

I’ve been putting a lot of time into reading lately and one of the books I’ve picked up has been earth shattering for me. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman has been inspiring and comforting, and I’m only on chapter four. Why is it so impressive?

It’s honest.

This is the first book I’ve found that admits to the hardships of traveling that I experienced on my trip to Europe. Most travel writers talk of success and boldness while minimizing the idea of stress and complete dependence on the understanding of strangers. The author of this book talks about being terrified of her situation, about being overwhelmed and full of doubt. Admitting to her humanity and the doubts in her heart makes her a bold and refreshing voice.

“For perhaps the first time in my life, it became viscerally clear to me just how little I mattered, just how much I was not in fact the center of the universe. It was like a swift kick to the gut.”

During my own trip, I had a lot of doubts. I was halfway across the world in a place where English is fairly common, but not on the list of official languages. Everything seemed the same on the surface, but the details were always different. I wasn’t confident in myself or anything around me. During all of my months of research, no one ever mentioned how completely incompetent and small I would feel in the face of the whole world opening up around me.

“We had one moment of perfect, shining, cross-cultural communication. Then he said something completely incomprehensible.”

I vividly remember walking up to the counter to buy shampoo during the first week of the trip. I sheepishly put it on the counter, said “alstublieft” and was sure I had nailed the interaction. Then the cashier asked me a question in rapid fire Dutch. I froze in a way that could only be described as a deer caught in headlights. My boyfriend took over, confirming that I did not in fact have change. I was so angry with myself and the moment was a weight on my heart for a long time.

It is so incomprehensible to be completely incapable of saying “No, I have no change” to a cashier. I was caught within my mind, between being too nervous to speak Dutch and too full of pride to speak English. I felt like speaking English would make me one of those people who came into a country and demand to be catered to. It would have been so easy to just apologize and speak English, but I wanted so much to just feel normal and to maintain my independence, which I have always been so proud of.

“Being a tourist, I was beginning to see, meant being infantilized much of the time… This is why, I suspect, so many otherwise decent people back home behave like assholes abroad: There’s nothing quite like feeling helpless to turn you into a world-class control freak, to make you forget your manners and throw a tantrum if your room isn’t ready and there’s no ice in your drink. In a strange environment you feel like a baby and you’re often treated like a baby, and so you behave like one.”

While I never belittled anyone who was serving me, I did and said things that I’m not proud of. I behaved childishly in moments that would have benefited greatly from my own zen. I was upset with people close to me for little to no reason. I felt childish and reliant on everyone for everything, which has always been a trigger for my petty behavior. Little setbacks made me lose my mind. When I went by myself to get my hair cut at a local salon, I discovered that they spoke almost no English. I couldn’t have come up with the Dutch for “cut off all the split ends” if my life depended on it. I stomped back to the house with my hair cut wrong, my wallet fifty euros lighter, fuming the whole way. Why didn’t I just laugh and accept it for the strange situation it was?

It took me a long time to feel like I was starting to get comfortable in my own shoes again. I can’t count the amount of times I held back tears (or failed to) in the face of simple things. It wasn’t until two months into the trip that I began to realize that I really was making progress, that I was learning something and becoming independent in small ways.

Until I started reading this book, I was sure that I must have been the only person to ever suck so hard at being on vacation. The worst things I had ever read from travel writers were about the horrors of jetlag and laughing over the mistakes they made while attempting to speak in a local language. What about people like me? People who were so nervous that they couldn’t utter more than a please and thank you, people who had no idea what they had gotten themselves into?

I’m learning now that what happened to me might not be as abnormal as I felt it was, that I might not have done everything wrong. I take comfort in knowing the mistakes I made and knowing that someday in the future, I’ll choose to do things differently.

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One thought on “About Sucking So Much at Traveling

  1. pj

    Catherine…this is funny…and real at the same time…I have not had quite the experience that you had in a country so far far away, but I have had a similar experience here in our own country… in Quebec actually ….many many years ago…when I was hummmm…..23, I met someone and we went to live in Montreal. I wasn’t prepared for what was to come…and to boot, I had to find a job…..well….I remember trying to buy a pop at the local store next to us while everyone else was at work…went in and looked around….found the pop….went to the counter and put said pop on counter, pulled out money and the person behind the counter smiled at me and said…that will be 50cents, I paid and took the pop and went home…..thinking hey….this isn’t so bad. But….that was the only and I mean only time people spoke English to me….the next time I went anywhere by myself, like you I was flabbergasted by my inexperience to ….speak…any language even English….I was so overcome by confusion I guess… and the tears came on a few occasions, ok maybe more than a few lol. That was when I started to listen to how and what was being said at home with the people I lived with….I captured a few words, a few phrases and some hand gestures and practiced them when I could ….little by little I began to semi speak French….little by little I began to make sense …to others I mean, to myself I sounded like an idiot but at least an idiot who tried right! By then I had landed myself a pt job at a clothing store in a mall… don’t know how that could have happened but it did and I like you felt like the deer caught in the headlights ….but slowly….very slowly, I adjusted and I found if I laughed and semi apologized for my bad French, people let me away with more stupid sentences and bad French….then there were people who wanted to teach me French….the bad French, and one day I used one of the words at work and the look on the customers face was like I had hit her with a mac truck ….and I realized I must have said something wrong….and asked her what the word meant in English….she told me and then the mac truck turned around and ran my ass over….the next day I found the person who schooled me on the word and gave her whatfore and told her she wasn’t very nice ….apparently she didn’t think it was so bad to do that to a new comer ….but I did think it was … so she was out then lol. But all in all , I think I did pretty good …. I was able to work in an environment that I was not used to and speak my own bastardized form of another language….in my mind, that ain’t too bad haha….
    So….my words of wisdom are these….go ….laugh….have fun…..and try to speak the language… you will always find good people who will help the new comer learn the language….just watch out for the bad words lol
    Love you Caw
    Auntie PJ xoxoxo

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