You can’t be what you can’t see

Why living and working abroad is important

LONDON – As my loyal readers (my dad and my cat) will know, I have spent the past eight weeks working at an arts marketing firm in Southeast London acting as an intern and second pair of hands for the five person crew.

Since being brought on mid-February, I’ve had the opportunity to live tweet the launch of a UK-wide project, draw up a consultancy brief for an up-and-coming client, offer my views on event names and attend meetings for large-scale projects.

And to think that on my first day, I was stressing out about messing up their tea.

Before I came abroad, I thought I’d pieced the puzzle together. Everything seemed to line up – what I wanted to do, where I wanted to live, how my future would probably play out. It was neat and tidy and, in my mind, there was definitely a pretty little bow on top.

That was, until I started work at The Cogency. Led by two powerhouse women, the five person arts marketing company takes on projects that a huge corporation would cower over. But “I can’t” simply isn’t in The Cogency’s vernacular. Except maybe, “I can’t resist another cup of coffee”. Seriously, the coffee is overflowing there.

As you can imagine, it was a pretty intimidating office to waltz into.

But quite contradictorily, I was suddenly laden with the thought of “I can’t” after my first harried week of work. I’d never worked in the arts before, much less in arts marketing, much less in the arts capital of the world! How am I supposed to know how to advise clients on what they should and should not do? How is my view valid amidst my dedicated and intellectual coworkers? How is some 21-year-old small town American undergraduate qualified to be working and living in London?

And what if I mess up their tea?

However, I signed a contract that solidified my eight-week commitment in cold hard legality, so I ignored my feelings of inferiority and allowed myself to become a part of The Cogency team – eliminating “I can’t” from my vocabulary and thoughts.

And now here I sit, finished with my time at The Cogency and wondering where I would have been had I had the freedom to walk out of the door. Probably back where I was before – thinking that my puzzle was perfectly arranged, painting glue over it to seal it in all its puzzling perfection.

To work abroad is to shine a light on a darkness that you didn’t even know was there.

After my time at The Cogency, my puzzle pieces are scattered about – lost in unknown imaginations and possibilities. And that’s just the way I like it. If I’ve learned anything from my time here, it’s that there is no possible way of nailing down fate.

Every plan and vision and idea is just a human attempt at making sense of the real confusion that is the future. It’s only natural. But the real fun rests in the knowledge that you shouldn’t even try to figure it out – you’ll probably end up restlessly searching for invisible pieces while the reality sits in front of you, waiting to be put together.

My semester working in London has left me more confused than when I came. I don’t know where I want to live or work or travel. I don’t know what I want in the next year or five or ten. And I don’t think that I should be trying to find that out.

The future will always be the future but the present only happens once before it becomes the past.

So I’ll be happy with my constantly ruined puzzle, piecing things together only to have them scattered again. It’s like a game – one that rewards those with patience, open mindedness and not a bottle of glue in sight.

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stubbornness abroad

PRAGUE – It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting on the curb of a deserted street in Prague – backpack beside me, friends to my right, river below me. And there is a smile on my face. Maybe it was the delirium setting in, but there was indisputably a smile there.

Rewind to nine o’clock. My friends and I sit divided in our hostel room. It has never happened to us, but we are in disagreement about how to carry on with our night. Tensions rose and eventually we set out of our hostel door with no plans and heightened sensitivity.

We walk the cobblestoned streets and talk like strangers. Eventually, we say nothing at all. It’s my last night in Prague and I have to catch a bus at three o’clock in the morning – so no clubs for me. Or pubs. Or anything alcohol-related. But still we follow our friends who didn’t have our unfortunate flight time on a pub-crawl.

It started out predictably sketchy – an alleyway meet up with a middle-aged dude whose English is shaky at best followed by a five-minute walk to a smoky pub.

I’m still holding on to my resistance to this plan. I am almost determined to not have fun – to be the martyr of The Night Out, living proof that nothing good is to come from the events of this night.

But then I thought about those words that are flashing across my mind. I am actively snubbing fun, enjoyment, Prague – I am consciously making a decision to ruin my night to prove that these plans would ruin my night.

How backwards is that?

My hand was clenched around what I wanted, what I thought was right, what I, I, I… So much so that I couldn’t grasp anything else. Holding on to my stubbornness wasn’t going to make my night any better. So I decided to let it go (cue readers to start singing “Let It Go” in their head…) and see what this night in Prague held for me.

It started out with an overly drunk guy waddling over to our table and hitting on an engaged friend and ended in a five-story club dancing to eighties hits with my raincoat tied around my waist like the 2000s never happened.

We walked the Prague streets – through historical squares, past ancient clock towers, over legendary bridges – thinking not of a plan or what we wanted to do or anything else except the fun that can be had between good friends.

Joy knows no circumstance. It is wherever you want it to be, so long as you choose to look for it. Had I stuck to my stubborn ways, the drunk guy would have been too annoying to be funny and the club would have been too loud to be able to stand.

But it didn’t end up like that. I ended up having the time of my life doing things that could have gone either way – and they didn’t go the wrong way because of luck or circumstance or coincidence, but because of a personal choice to readjust my outlook on the events playing out in front of me.

It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m on a curb in Prague waiting for the bus that comes in fifteen minutes. It starts to rain. My friends and I look at each other and laugh. We’re in Prague, we just danced on a disco floor to the Macarena, we have a flight back to our home in London. Why hold onto something when you can reach for so much more?

My hands unclench and open up to the world of possibilities.

infinity plus one

LONDON – For three months, I haven’t left the UK. Rooted in my desire to make London my home, I’ve explored the twisty streets and bustling markets of my chosen city during the weekends instead of jet-setting off to new adventures.

Up until last weekend, where I decided to join my friends on a trip to Munich, Germany – a delightful city that I’ve fallen in love with each of the three times I’ve been there.

But this time was different.

At first I thought it was the language barrier – feeling like the stereotypical American as I stuttered through broken phrases and apologetic looks. But I’ve been here before and I have never felt as I did this weekend.

Luckily I had an airplane and two busses in transit from Munich back to London to think it over. After hours of drifting from thought to sleep to thought again, I still couldn’t put my finger on it.

I swiped through my iPhone’s collection of the past weekend’s memories. Traipsing through the Englischer Gartens, drinking litres of bier, eating something called “The Butcher’s Platter”, getting hopelessly and hilariously lost… There was nothing that plainly told me why my time in Munich was a bit hazier than my other visits.

Then I glanced out of my bus window and saw my city. I saw the Eye and the Shard and the Tower of London and I realized – it wasn’t that Munich was lackluster; it was that London is now my home.

Before when I’d visited Munich, it was part of a country-hopping extravaganza where Europe was a thing to be tromped through, places were to be seen briefly then passed on for the next shiny statue and glimmering river. There was never a place for me to call home across the pond and so each different country was treated as a wondrous spectacle, a passing holiday, a shooting star about to disappear.

I had never fully realized that deep knowledge wholly trumps superficial frolicking.

Having now lived and worked and studied deeply immersed in London culture, I have learned something that this weekend in Germany helped me realize – true culture can only be understood and appreciated by living for a substantial amount of time in one place.

It sounds like common sense, but I, as well as many other study abroaders, had fallen into the all-too-easy trap of thinking that we know it all.

When I studied abroad in Florence last summer, I was gone every weekend, each time coming back and telling my friends of what exactly the French do when they dine or precisely how you have to hail a cab in Romania or the authentic pronunciation of köszönöm in Hungary.

In short, I had become a pretentious prick, falling prey to pride instead of accepting that knowing how to pronounce köszönöm does not make me an expert of Hungarian language.

So armed with my new revelation, how does one move forward? How does one humbly encounter different cultures in a short span of time? Can real culture even be experienced on a weekend holiday?

At a work party last Tuesday, I met a woman who had traveled from Austria to live and work in London 12 years ago. She has since spent her weekends traversing Europe and drawing inspiration from its different sects, cultures, areas. She told me that she views her travels in terms of infinity – for everything that she can know, there is an infinite amount that she cannot.

It is with this in mind that I go forward.

Even with 21 years under my belt as an American, there is still an infinite amount of knowledge that I cannot and will not know about American culture. What are three months in London? Three days in Munich? The most I can do is to accept my ignorance and recognize the truth of infinity.

Life, studying abroad has shown me, should be about turning a No into a Yes and a Yes into a question mark.

a weighty issue

LONDON – “And they say English food isn’t good.” We think we’re being hilarious, defying the widely held belief by stuffing our faces full of perfectly delicious English food. Fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, with the added diversity of London ushering dishes from India, Lebanon, Holland, France, Spain, Italy…In short, you can trust me when I say that the food here is utterly divine.

And twelve weeks in I can tell you something else about it. Something we all whisper about when our friends go abroad and what all of us over here joke about, pout about, fret about, eventually decide to do nothing about.

Pounds. And I’m not talking about the currency.

At first, I tried to ignore it. Then I was justifying it – “it is my second week abroad, after all”. And slowly, slowly I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My jeans were getting decidedly smaller and belt notches had to be reversed.

As with most things, it was joked about a lot. But underneath my self-conscious jokes lay real anxiety. My lifestyle had been completely uprooted when I came across the pond. I’d climb often and do yoga twice or so a week, had an entire gym and riverside trail at my disposal, my meals were well planned out, and I had a comfortable university schedule, complete with a car, a ten minute walk from home to classes, the works.

But that kind of activity simply couldn’t be kept up here. A gym membership was £40 a month, a climbing one similar. I didn’t even bother looking at the prices of yoga classes in my posh Chelsea neighborhood.

To be fair, I did try to be active when I got past the “denial” stage. I’d do yoga from a free app on my iPhone (thanks, Starbucks!) and climb at a place that took me an hour to get to and cost me £7 each time I went.

But every time I’d have to block out time to climb or do yoga, I’d be missing out on a fun London trip with my newfound friends. It was a choice between fitness and friends. And I chose friendship. I chose experiences and sightseeing and discovery.

That choice didn’t come without a cost. As vain as it sounds, gaining weight isn’t an easy thing to come to terms with. And it’s something that we’ve been taught to fear – tainting occasions such as going to college with labels like the ever-ominous Freshman Fifteen.

But I didn’t choose to study abroad to be comfortable or to have an easy path. I wanted a challenge and I got it. Even if it is my own mindset.

As I see it, London is a town marinated in culture – it is all around. From the narrow towering town houses to the gold covered statues to the hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant with specials on weekdays from 5-8. Culture is not merely holed up in a museum or encrusted in sculptures, it lives and breathes and, coincidentally, eats on the streets of London.

To truly live here, to call this place my home, I found I have to treat each inch and pound as a souvenir.

Because, really, it is.

What is the St. Patrick’s Day parade without a Guinness or two (or three) or a hard day of work without a biscuit to dip in my tea at tea time or a football match at the local pub without a cold pint to accompany me as I pretend to understand what’s going on? What is a stroll through Borough Market without picking up a sample or two (or three) or a day walking in the rare London sun without an iced coffee from our favorite French café or a visit to Shoreditch without checking out its frenzied food stalls?

To fret and worry and stress about a couple of extra pounds is to deny myself a true cultural experience. And while I’ve managed to find more balance here – I do try to use that yoga app after work – I don’t tie myself to it over an experience that can truly only be seized here and now and with the people that I’m with.

Friendship, culture, life is more important that an inch or two (or three). I promise.