I came across an article recently about the growing phenomenon of students who spend almost every weekend of their semester abroad traveling somewhere outside of their host city, and often outside of their host country. I immediately thought of my students last fall in Greece, many of whom spent exorbitant sums of their (or more often, their parents’ money) to leave Thessaloniki as often as possible. I know they did this because I was responsible for knowing their general whereabouts. I know about the exorbitant sums they spent because so many of them told me, almost proud, about all the last minute flights they booked.
The article details this extreme sense of urgency, the idea that this is a once in a lifetime experience. On most of my trips leading study abroad students or being on myself, I have heard this urgency expressed in a variety of ways. Some students spend little time sleeping in order to see it all and do it all, and inevitable crash or become ill or get sun sickness. Others never get to know their host country or host city because they only see it in Monday-Friday terms. Face it, if you never spent weekends in the place where you live, it would seem to be a very different place. Then there are those who are so busy cramming in all the “right” “must-see” sites that they never see the best stuff. The everyday things, the regular people who aren’t in the service industry, the places that no one writing for Lonely Planet noticed because they were on deadline and quite frankly weren’t being paid to linger and discover.
For me, the lingering and the discovering is the thing. That’s where the nature of a place is hiding, where the most worthwhile friendships have cropped up, and where I’ve seen the kind of beauty that makes a permanent spot in my heart for that place.
I certainly do go to many if not all of the places on the must-see list, but that’s for the first day or week or month, not for your settled-in stay. The people you meet there will likely be fellow tourists, so judging a place based on those crowds is unfair. Often, those landmarks are old. There’s nothing wrong with old, but I find something perverse in worshiping a place only for its past, while ignoring all the amazing things that are happening in the here and now, ignoring all the people and innovation and art and history, ignoring the current identity of a place. Basically, if all I did in Egypt was go to the pyramids and king tut’s tomb, I would have missed out on thousands of years worth of Egypt to fall in love with.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in the service industry (in fact, they almost never let me down with friendliness, patience, and recommendations, at home or abroad), but it’s no accident that Americans have a reputation for “befriending” every cab driver and bar tender, and no one else. If the only time you see a person is when they are paid to not only do something for you, but do it with a smile and inviting personality, perhaps this is not actually friendship.
There is nothing wrong with traveling while you’re abroad, and I understand that many people see it as cost-effective since they have already paid for the “big flight,” which in these conversations is almost always to Europe. Because let’s face it, even though other sites are gaining popularity, most study abroad participants are still going to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. But for those who want to travel, I recommend getting to know other parts of the same country. See something beyond a capital city, because good lord a country is so much more than that. Go to the country, go where residents of your city go on vacation, go to the secondary cities that matter a great deal to locals but outsiders seem to ignore. Your time in your host city and your time studying your host country has created an outline. Let your time traveling around familiarizing yourself with the nooks and crannies fill in the picture, slowly.
I feel that urgency too, and I try to fight it. That urgency makes a person look to the next thing on the list instead of noticing what’s happening around you in the present. That urgency makes you competitively compare at hostels, instead of just happily share. That urgency will always leave you feeling you missed out, even as you were doing or seeing something amazing, or meeting someone amazing.
When I feel that urgency hit, I think of something a professor said to us toward the end of our time in Egypt: Do not think of this as goodbye. Don’t think of this as leaving Egypt forever. You can always come back, and you will come back, if it means that much to you. There is nothing to stop you from coming back here, if you want.
And to be honest, almost all of us have gone back. And it was exactly what I needed, and it will be again when I return. So when I get to feeling frantic, I tell that urgent, Fear of Missing Out voice to shut up. I hold onto the
feeling knowledge that I will be back, and try to do what makes sense in the moment. Sometimes that means going to a foreign city. Sometimes it means staying in to get some rest. Sometimes it means reading a good book in the sunshine. And sometimes it just means lingering and discovering a new side to the same old place I’ve seen a thousand times before.