One of the most coveted parts of studying abroad is travel: whether it’s mountaineering, jungles, beaches, ancient cities, or just the tiny winding streets of a bustling metropolis, everyone manages to find new places to explore. What we forget in all our ideas of travel is the how component: finances, traveling companions, or accommodations. For me, how is transportation. Trains, planes, and buses (I know, I really wanted to put automobiles there for the pop-culture reference as well), all seem to offer something different. Trains offer extensive passes that make using vast rail networks affordable and fun to use. For planes, there is the convenience of quick and immediate travel. Then for the truly adventurous souls there are the long bus rides through the countryside that offers eclectic crowds and cheap fares. For me, I chose the former, trains. And it was trains that have truly shaken me to core on what it means to be flexible.
In the past few weeks I have learned that there are few certainties in traveling. Recently I traveled on a train home from Munich, Germany and a train (partway) to Nice, France. And what do Bavaria and the French Riviera have in common, you might ask? My misfortune.
While traveling home from Oktoberfest my train managed to breakdown at the station in Munich, its replacement arrived 30 minutes later… The time between trains at my connection in Cologne? 25 minutes… After realizing that was the only train back to Brussels that day, I managed to take 4 subsequent evening trains around rural Germany and Belgium to finally catch a midnight train back “home.” After two weeks to recover I boarded another train to Paris, with a connection to Nice, which just happened to coincide with rail strikes and the worst floods the French Riviera has had in decades. Courtesy of an unexpected 20 minute stop in the French countryside, my train arrived late at Gare de Nord in Paris and I was unable to make it to Gare de Lyon in time to catch the last train to Nice. Unfortunately there were no options around France to make it to Nice: Nice is conveniently a small town in Southern France that is hard to get to, was hit by floods and slowly reopened, and railroad strikes simultaneously plagued France and Northern Europe. While I laugh now at these experiences, I definitely took at least a few months off my life.
Flexibility. The buzzword of parenting, the guiding light of the workplace, and the universal doctrine of expats. It is the greatest mind game one can play (aside from doing planks and minesweeper).How far can you push your mind before it breaks. As a guy who loves a plan and back-up plans I struggle with the term flexibility. Prior to coming abroad, flexibility to me was the ability to change the plan to the back up plan on the fly. What I have learned, however, is that flexibility is not simply being able to change the plan but being able to accommodate for the “oh sh**” moments. It’s all about taking a deep breath, accepting that life isn’t in your favor at the moment and pushing forward.
Even Yoda had some “oh sh**” moments, he never really saw the whole Darth Vader thing coming… Flexibility is saying, you know what, I may be stuck in rural Germany but there’s a McDonald’s and I’ll be ok. Flexibility is the combination of gratitude, a calm demeanor, and the ability to simply make something out of nothing. Of course you’re going to have your buttons pushed traveling, its uncomfortable to have to compartmentalize what you believe is necessary to enjoy your time somewhere, then be treated like cattle under the false pretense that you’re an explorer commandeering your method of transport, only to find out you will be late, tired, and unprepared. The thing is, nobody is prepared for all the ways travel plans can go wrong, but they should be prepared for how to make everything go right.
Life throws us curveballs and new environments, and we teach ourselves something new. There is always a new person to meet, an emotion to feel, and travel makes that possible. To those studying abroad: everyday you find out what you don’t know, but the shock is never supposed to eliminate what you already know. In Brussels, I am always on my toes. Whether it is a professor failing 30 out of 33 students on the midterm exam, the city being locked down for raids to find terrorists, getting stuck two towns away from home when the metro shuts down, or simply trying to figure out how to make a 20 euro bill turn into 9 euros worth of .50 cent coins. Breath, do your Zen thing and move on with it.
Traveling is a constantly evolving practice that lets humans live the nomadic adventure that we crave. Yogis, fruit leather, and Gumby are all flexible. But then again, they never missed the last train to Brussels from Cologne on a Sunday evening.