Moving to Castellon, Spain when I was newly 26, became quite the journey. After a long flight, I got myself and all my luggage to the Valencia train station. Sweating, tired and arms hurting from trying to maneuver all my bags, I got to the kiosk to buy the ticket. Luckily there was an English option but when looking through my destinations, I couldn’t find Castellon. Hmmm that is strange I thought. One option said “Castello” but after so many hours flying, I was afraid to choose at it didn’t match my destination. So I had to drag all my luggage to the line and wait there and then mumble my way to getting a ticket to Castellon. Apparently, Castello is Castellon, but in the Valencian language. The start of what would be many language challenges over the years.
The first few weeks in another country are usually stressful trying to navigate the system, understanding the cultural faux pas and just trying to figure out everything in your new life. Although it wasn’t my first time living abroad, it was quite an eye-opening experience. Fruit stands and tiny hole-in-the-wall bars at every corner, old men playing bocce in the park, groups of friends both old and young alike drinking beer outside in the terraces. Breakfast consisting of coffee and toast or some small biscuits, later to be followed by 4 more meals including one “bocadillo” around 11. A sense of frustration that when you are free to do shopping, every place you want to go to is closed. Being able to let go and taking a siesta in the afternoon. Getting used to the fact that it appears that everyone is obsessed with ham-and wheew…how many types of ham there are to learn about. Or eating with a group of Spaniards and the meal lasting for more than 3 hours and everyone keeping their napkins on the table (as opposed to what we Americans have been taught-that your napkin on the table is rude).
I learned so much from my years in Spain. I was always a law-abiding citizen in the US, respecting the police, following the rules of society. After being in Spain, slowly over time I adapted to the relaxed way of looking at rules. If I could pay cash for something or “under the table”, I didn’t even bat at eyelash. I learned about myself, how set in my ways I was and how I was so used to American society. I learned about my own country and how people view it from outside. I learned that non-Americans don’t really care about what is happening in the US. I also had a chance to reflect on where my beliefs came from which is always a healthy thing. In the end, I learned how to live in a completely different culture than I had spent the first 25 years of my life doing. I got used to having lunch at 2 and dinner at 9 or 10. After 3 years, I finally started seeing Spaniards for who they were and how they lived with all their nuances. I started understanding why people said they had “their village” but lived in the city during the week. Though I still don’t enjoy eating paella on Sundays as much as the locals, I did come to enjoy going out on Thursdays to a street that was filled with tiny rectangular bars, having tapas and beers and not spending more than 10 euros. I enjoyed seeing families and children and older people (oftenly referred to as the Third Age “tercera edad”) sitting in plazas and just enjoying life at all hours of the day.
There is something so beautiful about the Spanish culture. There is a strong sense of family and friends, having meals together. There is not as much stress as in the US. People don’t often play on their phones when eating out. Villages and local fiestas take center stage. In some ways it is like going back in time (people still pick olives and make their own olive oil or mushrooms during the mushroom picking season) with all the benefits of living in the 21st Century. Going to Spain at 26 helped shape my life forever and I certainly will be grateful for all that Spain has showed me.
To see the beauty I was able to experience, check out this short video on the province of Castellon.
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Another benefit to traveling abroad!
As if we needed more reasons why we should travel or study abroad-Now we have one more….and it isn’t what you think!
We all know the benefits of traveling-
- Gain new perspective on the world.
- Increase language skills.
- Test your interests.
- Meet people from different places and make connections.
- Break out of your shell.
- Enjoy life like never before.
But now there is one HUGE benefit that we can attribute to living abroad. Creativity! Yes, traveling and living abroad helps the brain with creativity. So let’s get to the bottom of this. An interesting book called IMAGINE by Jonah Lehrer talks about how our brain works in terms of creativity. Here are some highlights:
- Traveling cultivates an outside perspective. Often, we are physically near the source of our problem. This means that our thoughts are “constricted” because they are “bound by a more limited set of associations” and so this inhibits the imagination. So this is where travel comes in. It helps you escape from the place where you spend most of your time. Those ideas that your mind had previously suppressed now are able to be awakened!
- And what is more interesting, is that the longer you are away from home, the stronger the effect. One study showed that “students who lived abroad for an extended period were significantly more likely to solve a difficult creativity problem than students who had never lived outside their birth country”.
So really-how does traveling change us? Well first of all, experiencing another culture provides open-mindedness to the traveler and in this way, he/she has an easier time realizing that “a single thing can have multiple meanings”. An example given is the simple act of leaving food on one’s plate. In China, leaving food on a plate is often seen as a compliment, a signal that the host has provided more than enough food. But, in the US, the same act can be seen as an insult. These cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are open to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different ways of interpreting the world. Because they have “felt like outsiders before, immersed in foreign places, they’ve learned to examine alternative possibilities”.
In other words, increased creativity, according to the book, appears to be a side effect of experiencing difference. When traveling, you need to change cultures, societal norms, “feel the disorienting diversity of human traditions. The same details that make foreign travel so confusing-Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me?-turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises”.
So when you are struggling to figure out which side to kiss on, or if you should even kiss, or what the cashier is saying to you, or how the heck to read the train schedule, know that all of your struggles are helping your brain!
And as the book says, “when you get back home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything”.
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