Travelling is amazing and uplifting and inspiring and life-changing. It has taught me a whole lot about the world and about myself, but I’ve been failing to put the whole experience into words lately.
This is mostly because I tend to be quite sceptical about things and my past year has been a real positive one, so I haven’t really decided yet where I need to shove my cynicism.
However, I had a discussion with a good, new friend over a beer the other night and have finally found a way to express a little something about this experience. So right now, I’d like to place emphasis on one very real reality… which is the phenomenon of being the foreigner.
People generally tend to like the foreigner.
You’re interesting because you come from a different world and you speak a different language and you were raised with strange traditions and customs that are fascinating and sometimes even exciting. When you speak English you have a weird accent that few people are able to pinpoint and sometimes the way you do things is simply laughable to these new-country people.
It’s fun for locals to chat to you, find out about your life and stalk your Facebook profile to try and gauge what your country looks like and what kind of people your friends and family are. It’s just as fun to talk about you because having a foreigner in town somehow seems to be fundamentally noteworthy.
Being the new, foreign girl is similarly thrilling for you yourself. Not only because you’re immersing yourself in this new world but also because you know that, to them, you’re interesting. Your visit here somehow gains more purpose when you discover that the people you converse with are also learning new things about the world with you being here. They find your language and your background entertaining, and somehow their interest makes you appreciate where you come from and who you are.
Though at some point, you’ll start wondering whether these locals actually consider you a friend, or whether you’re simply a temporary form of entertainment to them with your weirdness and your awe of their country.
Being the foreigner, realistically, gives you little chance at blending in.
Even after 11 months of trying to perfect my Dutch accent, people will probably always notice that I sound a little bit like a goat (apparently) when I speak it. Being super short, not having blonde hair and lacking the ability to cycle 5 km’s and still look like a total babe undoubtedly makes me very not Dutch. No amount of time in this country will ever change that and I will always be the tiny alien from Africa.
And somehow, living in the shadow of your foreigner status, the place you’ve travelled to hardly becomes home. It gets pretty close to it. Some days I feel so normal it’s like I never travelled far to get here at all. After some time, people warm up towards you. The lady at the supermarket learns your name and the bakery dude gives you a special yet creepy “I already know what you’re gonna buy” nod when you enter his shop lately. The barman does this too.
But this still somehow is not home. You’re from a different world. Your past is there and your people are there and that is where your heart is embedded.
And some days, missing a place that is so very far away can cause for the hurt to travel straight to the fibers in your bones.
But there is a way to overcome your foreigner feeling.
When I left home the first time to go to Italy, I wrote about how Paulo Coelho made me feel less foreign through the words in his book, O Aleph. On a journey through Russia to promote his new novel, the main character has a couple of revelations about moving through spaces where everyone and everything is unlike anything you’ve come to know. Somehow he managed to discover that we, as foreigners, are not that much different from the locals…
Because we are all travelling. We are all full of the same questions, the same tiredness, the same fears, the same selfishness and the same generosity.
We are human. And so we innately have something in common with everyone who crosses our path. We may be from different worlds. We may eat different foods. We may drive on different sides of the road. But we all live in this world and the world is small and our fears are frighteningly similar.
And as such, you reach a point where, even when you order a beer in Dutch and they look at you with a smirk on their face, you enjoy that beer like a local. And even when you still struggle to pull away up a hill with your bicycle, you build your confidence right back up again with your ability to cycle with only one hand.
Because no matter how foreign you are and how much you simply do not fit in, this experience has shaped you in ways that make you more aware of the world than you would’ve become simply sitting there at the southern tip of Africa.
So be foreign. Be weird. Be different. Annoy the shit out of the locals with your foreignness. Just make sure you leave something positive behind for them to remember your people by. They may forget you. But you represent a nation when you enter the world. You represent a language and a culture and, essentially, a country.
So make their memory a good one.