Five years ago today, I step foot in Budapest airport for the first time for what was to become a life-changing experience. At the time, of course, I had no idea. I was just looking for an adventure and fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine to spend a significant portion of time in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language.
Now looking back, even though I’ve been home for longer than I was gone, it seems like it was only yesterday that I called Budapest home. I recall fondly wandering through the streets of the city at all hours of the day. Fighting to try and figure out the new systems. The friends that I made during that period remain dear to me and conversations with them seem to flow regardless of the amount of time spent apart.
It’s kind of funny that in conversation, I define my life in pre-Budapest and post-Budapest terms. It’s like there is a natural split in my memories. Pre-Budapest, I was still such a kid. I had just graduated from university, working my first adult job that I hated. While in Budapest, between my job and the environment I was in, I was thriving because of the constant challenge of being somewhere so different which pushed me to learn and grow as an individual.
Every day was an adventure it seemed. Sure, there were plenty of frustrations, but that is what made it so interesting. It has turned me into the person I am today and I’m so incredibly thankful that I was lucky enough for all the cards to fall in the right direction so that I was able to make a dream come true. My time abroad was a lot of things to me:
It was a challenge and an adventure
As cliche as it sounds, when living abroad every day is an adventure. Stepping out the front door always resulted in surprises from accidentally purchasing chicken liver bun and wondering why it tasted so awful (true story) to finding a toilet in the middle of the street on your walk home from work (also a true story). Most things were normal and the same as at home: people go to work, people go home. Cars drive on the right, pedestrians stroll on the sidewalk.
And yet it’s in the details where things get strange and weird. Where hello means goodbye and goodbye means hello and addresses don’t quite make sense. A world where English words you thought you understood actually mean different things and to wait in line for an ATM, you stand outside the room to give others privacy. Where trying to cook a meal turns into something so much more than you bargain for.
It was fun observing all these little differences and trying to make sense of things when they did not. It definitely got frustrating at times, but in the end, it’s all one funny story now.
It opened my eyes to a new culture
One of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about my time abroad, is why Hungary? Why did you decide to go there? The simple answer is because I was able to find a job there. The longer reason was because I knew nothing about the country beyond where it was located and had never set foot there. Some thought me crazy, others called me brave, but in reality, it’s none of that. I was after adventure (see #1) and the opportunity to learn about somewhere different that I otherwise wouldn’t learn about.
And learn I did. I observed how Hungarians thought, learned about its cuisines and festivities, like name days, I picked up their social cues, like kisses on the cheek as a greeting and farewell. Even today, I keep up on Hungarian news just to see what is going on in my home away from home. Despite my (relatively) short time there, I managed to learn a lot about Hungary and Hungarians no thanks in part to some fantastic people I met who were willing to share their country with me (also, having a Hungarian boyfriend helped too!).
Beyond just learning about Hungary, I picked up a group of international friends all there from different parts of the world. They exposed me to different ways of thinking and their cultures as well. I learned what a hob is in British English (an oven), how to make coxinha, a Brazilian snack of chicken inside fried dough, from a Japanese-Brazilian, and experienced the football (aka soccer) craze during the Eurocup.
And the cultural sharing goes both ways too. My roommate and I loved entertaining and we got in our heads that we would make a Chinese New Year dinner for our friends.Somehow things snowballed and 26 people and 9 dishes later, it’s now a crazy memory whenever we play the game “remember that time when…”
It was the catalyst to me starting this blog
I started Pack Me To in the midst of my reverse culture shock as a way for me to tell my stories from living abroad. Sure, I kept a blog while I was away, but only so many of my adventures made it on that blog. There were so many other stories to tell. Never mind that I never actually ended up telling most of those stories here (but a few made it here). It was also a promise to myself to continue to go and explore the world despite not living abroad and to make a conscious effort to include travel in my life.
It gave me permission to be myself
In many ways, I feel like my time abroad was like taking a break from life. It gave me permission to just live in the moment and truly be myself. It was like starting a fresh life where people didn’t know anything about me. It allowed me to be my authentic self and realize that I didn’t need to be a certain way or act in an unnatural or uncomfortable way in order to have friends.
It was so so liberating and one of the reasons why I look back on that period of time with such fond memories. That experience of being myself was translated back into who I am today. It’s been a lot easier to just be myself and not try to be someone I’m not.
It gave me permission to grow up
This is a weird thought for me because it was something a fought for so long and didn’t happen right away. Over time, I feel like my time abroad also gave me permission to grow up. To be concerned about adult things like saving for retirement and looking at investing in property. That yes, I had one crazy adventure and now it’s okay to start thinking about THE FUTURE. Going abroad was an opportunity to just go and be – be content with what I have, be in the moment, be myself.
I wouldn’t say living abroad allowed me to find myself because it didn’t. I was having too much fun going on adventures to really reflect on the experience. However, the process of reverse culture shock, of getting re-adjusted back into life at home, was where I did a lot of soul-searching and metaphorically found myself. This period of time was about trying to figure out who I was and the priorities I had in life. Did I want to continue to travel? Did I want to set down roots? Where do I see myself in 5, 10 years? Life planning of sorts.
Looking back at who I was 5 years ago and who I am today, living abroad has definitely shaped a lot of my thoughts and understanding of the world. It is an experience that I would not change (except maybe to have blogged more about it!) and full of memories I revisit often. When I hear of friends getting the opportunity to live abroad, I’m always their biggest supporter. There is no other experience like it and if you, dear reader, are considering a life abroad, I highly suggest you, too, chase that opportunity. You never know, it just might change your life.
Have you had life-defining moments before? What experiences have challenged and changed you?