I’d like to start out by thanking everyone who made study abroad possible for me! Special thanks to the Academy; to the world’s best fans; to Dean Bogucki and Ken Yanes for helping me out with an impossible situation; to Dov Weinryb Grohsgal and Tara Zigler for all their help; to Nick Boddington for helping me get acclimated; to my parents for the constant help from back home via Skype and email and you know the whole raising me thing too; to Julie and Papa for keeping me company; to Michael Chang for letting me sleep on your floor even though I apparently snored; to the friends at home who either Skyped with me or kept me in the loop; and to all the friends abroad who made my travelling more enjoyable.
This post might be a bit underwhelming as I have a feeling that much of what I’ve learned here won’t be evident until years later. I’m not one to speak in platitudes just for the sake of it.
I returned to Princeton’s campus after a whirlwind few months. The first thing that gave me the distinct impression of “I’m home” was when I was buying some Nathan’s hot dogs at 30th Street station and they swiped my credit card, no more of that European insertion stuff.
When I got back to campus, it felt pretty weird. First off, I was sleeping on the ground in my own dorm room. Of course, the two students (both named Thomas) who replaced Hansen and me didn’t see it that way, but it was definitely my room as indicated by the futon, TV system, posters, and CA flag that I left behind.
It also felt more like visiting my high school campus than a return to college. I wasn’t really a part of campus and everyone’s lives had moved on without me. I recognized people and seeing me was (I hope) a pleasant surprise for them, but then they’d have to attend to their own upcoming finals. I think most friends were generally interested in hearing vague details of my trip up until the point where they stopped feeling happy for me and then started to feel a bit resentful – since they had finals to study for and I didn’t.
Ah, where to start? I guess the most obvious question is if I have changed at all. Do I have a greater understanding of the world? More mature? Worldly? Have I gained anything? Is anyone still reading this? Biggest success? Regret?
Unlike the previous post, I don’t think I’d even be able to answer these one by one, or perhaps I don’t even know the answers. Instead I’m just going to write paragraphs until I have nothing left to say.
Just kidding, sorry.
First off, I haven’t really spoken English in about a month. Other than the blog and Skype, most days in the Balkans I didn’t have more than one extensive conversation in English. I decided to stay in apartments (halfway between hotels and airbnb) rather than hostels. I wanted my own room and bathroom, they were cleaner, had parking available, and were only $5 difference. So I was on my own with no one to talk to, though I wasn’t lonely at all – except when I got sick in Split and just wanted someone to take care of me.
Most of the places in the Balkans I visited were off the beaten track, ranging from popular tourist destinations among Europeans (Croatia) to strictly local gems (Albanian Riviera). The choices of a solo roadtrip through the Balkans and staying in non-touristy places and not staying in hostels meant I wasn’t going to make new friends. I met interesting people to be sure (more than if I had travelled with a friend) but very rarely did I spend a significant amount of time with anyone else.
Was I doing this trip incorrectly? Well, perhaps in your eyes. My goal was simply to see the world and all of the decisions I made were to further that end. I’ve been told that the most memorable parts of travelling and my most interesting blog posts were the ones concerning interactions with other people.
Travelling alone and by car gave infinite freedom. Each day, I booked tomorrow’s lodging and decided what to do that day. No public transportation schedules to dictate times and possible destinations (the biggest factor). No debates about where and when to eat and rest. And it also allowed me to do things that no travel companions would have wanted to do. Staying in nice places allowed me to get enough sleep to enjoy the next day and be productive in down time with wifi when it was available. I could just leave stuff in the car and pack less in suitcases, yet be able to carry around more (I bought a soccer ball in, I think, Albania just to play around with). Anyway, those are the main decisions I made and why.
At this point in the post, I’m having issues figuring out what to write next. So maybe just do icebreaker questions and see if it sparks something.
Biggest regret? To be honest, I believe I did a great job in pursuit of my goal to see the world. Within the trip, I think I made the right decisions at the times given what I knew. A lot of it was damage control – my wallet stolen, tire worries, getting sick. But given my goal, I don’t have any regrets. So the only thing left to consider is if my goal was the right one. In many of the places I visited, there were super romantic spots and I would find myself as one of the only single visitors there. Of course, it would have been great to share my experiences with someone. Sharing experiences through this blog is not the same as true shared experience, but again, I’m independent enough to enjoy time alone.
Have I changed or gained anything? I’m not coming back a Communist. And I definitely did not bring any agricultural goods back with me through security.
I was never in doubt of my abilities to handle myself alone through the Balkans. There were numerous compromising situations – detained at the border, alone in the streets around high teenagers, without money or credit cards, pulled over for no reason, and many more. Each of them at the time were scary or nerve-wracking but I never got to a point where I was nervous I wouldn’t make it out of something unscathed. Perhaps the worst feeling was when a road closure in northwest Bulgaria forced me to travel by country roads (aka not roads) that weren’t even big enough to make it on a map. I budgeted it at about 50/50 that I either wouldn’t make it to Sofia or there’d be a flat. Papa was waiting for me there in Sofia. And this was without a phone, internet, spare tire, or knowing how to speak the language.
I’m guessing that all of this made me more mature, street smart, worldly, but I couldn’t tell you for certain. It confirmed that I couldn’t handle myself on my own. I’m not able to introspect enough to determine whether I have any type of improvement of character or skills. It doesn’t really matter.
You don’t go on a trip like this for tangible benefits. You just go to experience something new – which is the common theme for why I went on study abroad to begin with. That’s why I left LA to go to college on the east coast, I went across the pond to spend a semester away from Princeton, why I took new subjects of classes, why I booked a same-day plane ticket to Lisbon to travel on my own for the first time, why I travelled with friends other times, and why I went to the Balkans instead of Amsterdam or Paris.