It was a crisp, fall morning as I settled down with my laptop to do a bit of work at a nearby outdoor café.
When the waiter stopped by to take my order, I decided to practice my rudimentary language skills by asking for a macchiato and a mineral water:
“Një makiato madhe … dhe një ujë mineral gjithashtu.”
I fully expected him to:
1) not understand me at all.
2) simply smile, knowing I’m obviously a foreigner bungling his ancient language, and immediately switch to English.
But to my surprise, he responded in Albanian—the language spoken by Kosovo’s 92% ethnic Albanian majority.
I tried my best, but I had no idea what he said next. So I looked at him and sheepishly said in English, “Sorry, my Albanian is still very basic. I’m not sure what you said.”
My pride at ordering in Albanian immediately deflated.
He responded, a little confused, but with a huge smile: “But you speak Albanian so good. Your pronunciation—it’s perfect.”
You would have thought I had just successfully summited Mt. Everest. I was beaming! My fear of looking stupid disappeared, and I suddenly felt like I could do just about anything. This was the best compliment anyone could have given me at that moment—worth bragging rights, or at least a Facebook post, for sure.
Especially since I had just come from a frustrating visit to the market.
Let me explain.
From mountain highs to the lowest of lows
I had been looking for a can opener for weeks. Yes, weeks (see my post, “10 things you’ll never see on my Facebook page”). Someone suggested I go to the market, so I went with another expat friend. We wandered around, looking everywhere, trying our best to explain with hand motions and broken Albanian what we were looking for. It was so frustrating. And soon it simply became comical. Each shopkeeper tried his best to pick up an item he thought we were talking about.
Not even close. Definitely not.
Then they started talking with each other, sending us from stall to stall, trying to follow our crazy hand motions showing a person opening a can with a device. Nothing. We left with nothing.
I felt so defeated. And frustrated at my inability to have a simple conversation.
I’d been visiting and volunteering in Kosovo on and off for 12 years, and little by little, I had been learning Albanian. But now I wasn’t just a tourist—I was living in Kosovo, and so learning the language had become more of a focus. And sometimes a necessity to get things done. And I was frustrated at how slowly I was learning it.
Learning to appreciate baby steps
I think these experiences of extreme highs and lows are typical when you’re in a new culture—and even when you return to your home culture. One day you’re elated because you’ve conquered a fear or successfully navigated the city bus system or paid your cell phone bill. Or ordered a macchiato with the waiter commenting on your command of the language.
Then, the next day you might spend hours looking for an item that you could have so easily found at home; or you ended up in the complete wrong part of the city because you misunderstood the local transportation routes.
It’s all baby steps. And we have to give ourselves the room (and a bit of grace) to fully experience living abroad—with all of it’s adventures AND frustrations. The same goes for when we return home.
It’s easy to have high expectations for your return. You might expect everyone to have missed you terribly and assume they’ll be waiting for you to arrive home so they can hear all about your adventures. Or you’re looking forward to visiting the nearest super store so you can buy everything you missed while you were away.
But then you come home.
And no one is waiting on pins and needles to hear about your time away. Their lives have also gone on, and yes, they’re interested in hearing about your trip, but not all that interested (if you’ve traveled abroad at all, you know exactly what I mean).
Or you make your way to your favorite super store, and rather than the excitement you thought you’d have at being there again, you feel nothing but overwhelm.
Too many options. Too many aisles. Too many fluorescent lights. Heart palpitations.
And you just turn around to find the nearest exit. The result—no matter what side of the ocean you’re on—is that you often feel isolated.
There’s no quick fix here. No easy 5-step way to successfully navigate all of this. But the most important thing I’ve learned through my experiences of “going” and “returning” is that baby steps are OK.
It’s OK to feel like you take 2 steps forward one day and 5 back the next. It’s OK to celebrate finally finding a can opener with hundreds of your Facebook friends. And it’s OK to admit you feel completely out of place and alone. Through it all you keep going, and you keep learning.
It’s a one-day-at-a-time journey, and I’m learning to be OK with all of it.
What about your experience? I’d love to hear from others who have walked this path—whether you’re a newbie or you’ve been doing it for years—what have been your highs and lows? And what’s been helpful for you in navigating it all? Leave your comment here, or on GlobeStory’s Facebook page!