My biggest fear: being an adult

Me and Germany have some history, you know? When I was sixteen I did an exchange, not unlike this one, as part of a program my school has for all tenth graders. El intercambio (the Exchange), as it’s almost ominously known back home, is a milestone in the life of anyone who attends my school. It’s the chance to improve our German skills, get to know the culture that shapes our education, and our first taste of independence. El intercambio is everything.

When my time to go came, I was just as excited as the next person. I worked my butt off in school to get the necessary grades to be allowed to go, I made every effort to find a great family in a great place (Berlin, because when you don’t know Germany, Berlin is Germany—it’s not) and I made every preparation I needed. I was ready for my great big adventure in Berlin. I thought I was going to be able to travel everywhere, get along with my host family and make a new (if temporal) life for myself in a completely different country.

My expectations were quickly proven wrong. My host family hated me, and the feeling was very mutual. We didn’t get along at all and we had very different ideas on how the other should behave. I’m very shy and I like to keep to myself a lot, and that’s something my friends and family have come to accept as part of my identity; my host family simply couldn’t accept that I didn’t want to interact with them 24/7. Long story short, they ended up doing a very shady thing that resulted in me getting sent back home early. It seemed to me that Germany didn’t like me, and so I started to dislike it too.

And that’s the impression I had of Germany until I decided to do my semester abroad here. It started with me taking German classes at UMass to not forget the language. Through that I started reconnecting with the culture that had shaped a great of deal of who I was. It was also an opportunity to be closer to the people I cared about the most, who, ironically enough, were all living in Berlin.

But that didn’t take away the trauma of being rejected. What if something similar happened? What if Germany didn’t like me once again? What if I was jumping into something, I wasn’t ready for? So many things could go wrong, and that terrified me to the point of almost choosing to not go through it.  Plus, I had other ghosts to face I didn’t necessarily want to.

Then I came here, and let me tell you, it felt like Germany didn’t like me. No, really. I developed an allergy to the water here, my skin got so dry I got eczema, I got an infection and couldn’t get a doctor’s appointment, and the other day I tripped and cut my chin really bad. And, as if all my injuries weren’t enough, my room was infested with spiders.

And that’s when more fears came rushing in; not only did I have some emotional wounds to heal, but I now also had some physical ones to tend to (not to mention the spiders).

As a middle child, I’m pretty independent. I’m definitely that stereotype of the forgotten child, so I know my way around my own life, which is something I’m pretty proud of. However, even though I like doing most of my stuff on my own, in the past I always had someone to fall on. I could always call my parents crying because I got a cold at the same time as my skin was breaking into rashes all over and the spiders were plotting to kill me and my family, and usually my mom would tell me that everything would be okay, she would call the doctor for me and my dad would murder all the spiders before they could murder me. And, even though I could call my family and complain, I had to deal with all my problems on my own.  

I was so surprised by the fact that I, miss I’m-a-middle-child-I-don’t-anybody-else, was so scared of having to deal with my own problems, that I had a full-on meltdown. I felt useless and powerless and, once again, terrified of having to be a functional human being.

But eventually I did it. I accepted the fact that I had to be an adult and I forced myself to do it. I started by going to the Apotheke and getting some allergy medicine and lotion for my skin. Then I went to the drug store and got every kind of pesticide I could think of (don’t judge me, I tried coexisting with the insects, but they were colonizing my room) and then I faced those ghosts from visits to Germany past, and I did it all by myself.

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I can do it

I’m no stranger to being separated from the people I’m closest to and what I’d known to be my way life for most of it. I left Bolivia three years ago, and I still feel like a small part of myself lives there, buried somewhere beneath the mountains and a lifetime of memories.

My first few months in the US I was clinging as hard as I could to my old customs and routine. Every time I met a new person, I compared them to my childhood friends; every time something happened, I would think to myself “in Bolivia we do this and that this and that way.” It was really, easy to keep myself inside that little bubble of memories and stories, so easy in fact, that for the first few months of my life in the US I closed off to meeting new people and experiencing new things. I was sure that I had experienced enough in life and that the US didn’t really have anything new to offer.

To quote Julia Roberts, it was a big mistake, huge.

Soon enough all my friends, who were scattered all around the world, pretty much everywhere except where I was, started meeting the people and experiencing the things I was so sure I didn’t need. I was getting all these stories about guys they were seeing, placed they went to, classes they were thinking. It got to a point where I would get scared if they asked what I was up to or what I did over the weekend, because the answer was always the same: nothing.

Everyone always talks about new this and new that, about exciting new experiences and people and an exciting new life (exciting is usually the word of choice), but not a lot of people prepare you for the part where you have to leave behind pretty much everything and everyone you’ve ever known and start over from scratch. It can be really scary, or at least it was to me.

And that’s the first thing I learned from leaving my world behind, that starting over can be terrifying.

I was nineteen, by myself in a new country, a new school and speaking a language that, although I had mastered, wasn’t my own. Where was I supposed to start? Everyone told me that meeting new people is step number one, but I have social anxiety, so even step number one was incredibly hard. And it didn’t help that I was so hung up on my old life in Bolivia and what my friends were doing, that I had forgotten to start a new life for myself. 

But figuring who that person is all while trying to figure out how to function in a new environment was, and still is, one of the hardest things in the world.

Now, obviously, it’s not all bad. Kind of the beauty of moving to a new place is the whole starting over part, even if it’s going abroad for a semester. You get to be whoever you want to be; no baggage, no history, no reputation, just who you truly are and who you truly want to be.

When you’re somewhere new, you get to choose which part of yourself you want to present to the world, and there’s certain beauty in that. When I moved to Virginia, I didn’t have to be the party girl I was in high school. When I transferred to UMass, I didn’t have to be the shy, quiet, Latina girl. And now that I’m Germany, I don’t have to be the girl that lost her mom. Obviously, all those things and many, many more, make me who I am as a person, and I wouldn’t change a single thing from who I was in the past, because that’s what made who I am today, and I honestly love that person. But there’s something refreshing about being in a place where no one know who you are and what you did; where you’re just you.

The other thing I learned about myself is that I’m pretty good at being alone. First things first, I feel I need to clarify that there’s a huge difference between being lonely and being alone. Loneliness is the potential sad byproduct of being alone but being alone isn’t necessarily something to pity. In fact, everyone should learn how to be alone. It’s not only that you should learn how to take care of yourself by yourself, it’s that you should learn how to enjoy your own company.

As an introvert and proud holder of the social anxiety card, being alone is my jam, which is not to say that I enjoy it 100% of the time. But, taking myself on dates every once in a while, is something that taught me the value of my own company. I took myself out to dinner, to the movies, on walks trough the park, to meditate. I took myself out because sometimes the world gets a little too loud, but that’s okay. Being alone taught me to tune it out whenever a stranger’s presence got a little too loud.

Being in a foreign country taught me a lot of things about myself, but mostly, I learned that I can do it. I can speak the language. I can do the homework. I can meet the people. I can cook every day of every week. I can travel by myself. I can live by myself. I can be on my own.

I can do it.

The Journey Begins…

Choosing where to study abroad isn’t an easy task. With what seems to be like a million programs in a million different countries, and hearing all over the place that it’s going to be the best time of your life!!, it can become a rather daunting choice to make. So, when it came down to making my choice, I was pretty lost. At the beginning I was dead set on going to Spain. I went to Madrid three years ago and fell in love with the city and everything in it, and after that trip I promised myself I would go back in the near future. But then I ran the idea of going to Sevilla by my mom and she was less than excited. She pretended for my sake, but I could tell she wasn’t thrilled with the idea of me going to Spain by myself. I was more than disappointed; then I started taking German classes at UMass.

I went to a German school in my home-country of Bolivia. Over there, there’s one school from kindergarten through senior year high school, so I spent a great deal of my life surrounded by the German language and its culture. I’ve spent over a decade learning the language, and I even have a German high school degree. I never thought much about it when I was in school, but when I started going to school in the US and I had to make the switch from German to English, I realized just how big a part it had played in my life. Taking German classes at UMass reminded how much I liked the language and everything that hid behind it. So, I changed my plans. Spain suddenly wasn’t my one and only option, and Germany, specifically the Freiburg program, became the strongest contender. Because I can’t decide anything by myself, I asked my mom what she thought and her reaction was completely different. Instead of half smiling and saying, “that’s great honey,” she was asking me questions about where I would go and what the program looked like; plus, my cousin had moved to Freiburg the year before. And so, in great part thanks to my mom, the decision was made.

Now, as we all know, the universe usually has plans of its own. My cousin had to move back to Bolivia due to some visa issues and my mom passed away just over a month before I was set to begin my trip. Leaving my home during such a difficult time was perhaps one the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’m used to coming and going. In fact, there was a period of time in which I didn’t spend more than six months in one place. I was always hopping from city to city, always back and forth between the US and Bolivia. So yeah, I wasn’t a stranger to leaving home. In the past year it had become increasingly difficult to leave. My mom was getting sicker and sicker, and I never knew how long she would have. I was always terrified of getting “the call,” you know, the one that said I had to go home right away. I panicked at the idea of not making it there in time, and so I was always with one foot in Bolivia and the other at UMass. That was a significant concern when I decided to go abroad. What if something happened while I was in Germany? What if I had to go back but I didn’t make it in time?

My fears never came to be, but they were replaced by a grief I’d known for a long time I would have to go through, but never quite expected. Packing my bags was the usual last-minute hustle. Goodbyes at home and the airport were also the same, if only a little heavier than usual. I can’t say I’m glad to leave everyone behind during this time, and I have to admit that for a little while it felt like I had made the wrong choice. My two main factors for picking this place where gone and I honestly felt like I should’ve chosen Sevilla instead of Freiburg. But then I came here, and I saw Freiburg. I saw how a beautiful a place it is and how great the people are, and I realized that I still had a very important reason to be here: to honor my mom. Every time I remember how excited she was for me to be here, how her eyes lit up at the thought of me going to a completely new place with completely new people, how she smiled whenever I told her a piece of news about my application process, I feel like I’ve made the right choice.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my mom, it’s that everything happens for a reason. The universe has a plan for all of us, I guess, and I strongly believe that part of my plan is to be here. I think that Freiburg can not only help me grow as a person and reconnect with the culture that has shaped a great deal of who I am, it can also help me heal my soul in ways that maybe other places wouldn’t have been able to.

And so, the journey begins.