Risk-taking is second nature to me. It fills me with joy and gets my blood pumping. It makes me feel alive. It is so synonymous with my way of life that it hardly feels extravagant anymore. When I decided to move to New Zealand for three months and take a film course, I didn’t really give it a second thought. It just seemed like a fresh stamp in my passport and a new adventure was a natural fit for my established vagabond lifestyle. I had lived abroad before, traveled extensively, and prided myself on being extremely adaptable to any new situation. Plus, New Zealanders spoke English and the culture didn’t seem too foreign from America or the UK. What was there to fear?
As it turns out, there’s everything to fear.
The well-known phrase “Do one thing every day that scares you” became my mantra. I was suddenly in a place where I needed to psych myself up just to leave my apartment to go to the grocery store or go out for a meal in the city. My first week in Auckland was miserable; I had eight days to fill before my program started. I felt alienated and was a bit self-loathing for not making any friends and not having the time of my life.
I forced myself to go out each day and discover the city on my own. I was anxious to explore, but hesitant to do it alone. Things would start out well, but then I would get weird looks from others while sipping a glass of Pinot Noir and snacking on a cheeseboard alone at a winery. Just when I would feel empowered for traveling as far across the world, and for having the courage to do it all on my own, I would become self-conscious that people were staring at me. I was convinced they could tell see right through my façade of belonging.
There were a couple of (okay, many) tearful nights where I debated changing my ticket and coming home the next day. There were chronic internal dialogues featuring an intense argument between the fearful, practical “me” and the spontaneous, globetrotter “me” who had almost disappeared completely. I felt as far from anything familiar as I could possibly feel, and the lack of human connection was slowly draining the life and resilience out of me.
Things become a little easier in a new city when you start to set down some roots, or at least pretend to.
To me, that meant finding my coffee spot. Thankfully, the first one I stumbled into turned out to be a cozy, retro space lined with vintage couches, classic board games, piles of books you could lend out (or borrow) and, to an international traveler’s delight, free Wi-Fi. Plus, they made a mean flat white.
I became a regular at this coffee shop. And being a regular anything in a new place has its own sense of comfort. I was able to run errands and get home without getting lost. I was using public transit. I was sleeping through the night without feeling sorry for myself.
I realized something else very critical to my misery as well. Without even knowing it, I had daydreamed this perfect experience and built it up to unrealistic expectations in my head. Rather than let the road unfurl before my feet as I walked, I had created an entire screenplay for my journey. I was frustrated when things didn’t live up to the impossible standard I had created in my head. I imagined my roommates would be my best friends and we would have everything in common and do everything together. I dreamed that conversation would be easy and the city would be my oyster. Perhaps I would be out exploring the nearby islands, dancing until two in the morning or getting into deep conversations in pubs every night, with people I had just met that day. I would be wringing every drop of adventure and experience out of this city. I would grow in ways I could never imagine, that this would be one of the best experiences of my life.
I was lonely and in agony pretty much everyday. Being cut off from daily, meaningful interactions with friends is an extrovert’s worst nightmare. But then I decided to just lean into this misery that I couldn’t change. I chose to really embrace being alone and without friends and the familiarity of regular places and the comfort of my own home. I was going to do this without any crutches. I learned that I can survive anything and that I often get in my own way of growth and happiness.
One thing is true: I am definitely growing in ways I could never imagine.
I’m learning to lean into that uncertainty rather than fighting to be comfortable. While friends and family comforted me in the fact that I didn’t have to stay, I knew that I needed to. I want to be stronger and better. I want to keep growing, keep moving forward, and finish what I started. So, until this all makes sense, I’m hanging on to the words my dad so wisely told me:
“Hang in there, boldly press forward, and learn everything you can. You will be absorbing life lessons that you are not even aware of, but we don’t ever understand those lessons until after we go through them. Your unpleasant experiences are far more important in shaping you then the positive things that happen in your life.”
When your feet fail you, you keep walking anyway. They’ll eventually build some calluses and catch up to you.
Photo credit: Natalie Schwan