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Foreign Culture as a Backdrop for Self-Discovery

By Dave Fox

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances.”

— William Shakespeare

Before we plunge deeper into travel journaling, let’s take a look at what goes on in our minds when we leave our home turf. All journaling can be insightful and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves. But travel journaling is unique because of the foreign environments that surround us.

You don’t have to travel far from home to feel foreign. Our experiences are more intense if we travel to faraway lands, but even close to home, we are surrounded by subcultures that are foreign to us. A trip to another part of the country still puts us in touch with people and lifestyles we aren’t used to. (For more on this, please see the Foreign at Home exercise.)

Being foreign can feel intimidating. It can also be wonderfully liberating. We each have a cultural comfort zone in which we live our daily lives. We know what’s expected here. We understand how people interact. When we leave this comfort zone, we’re not sure what’s expected of us. Many of our everyday coping skills — our ability to talk to people and read, our understanding of money, our sense of direction, to name a few — are reduced to a child’s level. We can begin to feel lost.

Not knowing the local “rules,” we rely on instinct. We try to do what’s right — based on what we would do at home, or what we observe in our new environment, or simply what feels best. But we’re also far away from most of the people we know. We’re away from their expectations of us. More importantly, we’re away from our expectations of their expectations.

Most of us behave, at least to an extent, based on real or imagined rules in our culture and social groups. When we’re away from these expectations, it feels safer than usual to try on new shades of our personalities. We’re left to improvise, and our social improvisation can spark thoughts and behaviors that lie dormant in our everyday lives.

When these other parts of us, which we’ve never been in touch with, begin bubbling to the surface, they do so quietly at first. They are tentative because we’ve never allowed them to emerge before. They’re easy to stifle if we don’t want to deal with them; in fact, that’s what we often do. We stifle them — not because they can hurt us, but because they’re unfamiliar. We fear the unknown. We’re more comfortable with the parts of ourselves we know — whether or not we like all of those parts.

We go into foreign environments in search of something new. We yearn to discover the unfamiliar. Ironically, however, we tend to resist new discoveries within ourselves. Lack of familiarity within our minds is scary. Certainty feels safer, even if we don’t like it.

A Tale of Two Journeys

When I was 20, I took time off from college and began scraping money together for a journey that would permanently change my personality. I started in Iceland. Then I went up to the northern tip of Norway and slowly wound my way southward on trains, buses, and boats, until three months later I was in southern Turkey. I traveled alone, on a budget of 27 dollars a day. I had friends in a few places who offered me couches to crash on. Elsewhere, I slept in youth hostels and pensions, on beaches, trains, and train station floors.

I journaled fanatically on this trip, stealing moments whenever and wherever I could. I returned home with six notebooks full of words. In the beginning I focused my writing on the cultures I was visiting. But as I got deeper into my journey, I realized my trip wasn’t just about exploring Europe. It was also about exploring myself.

Nothing unusual was happening in Europe. Europe was doing what it had been doing for centuries. Iceland’s volcanoes were steaming. The Berlin Wall was dividing. Yugoslavia was still a single, peaceful country. In Greece, people showed up in the tavernas to eat souvlaki and drink retsina like they did every evening. The unusual part of my journey wasn’t happening around me. It was happening within me. I was experiencing everyday life, but it wasn’t my everyday life.

The more I traveled, the more I understood I wasn’t just traveling across a continent. I was traveling into unexplored parts of my mind. I began to see my body as simply a vehicle for my spirit. My body enabled me to move around, but my thoughts and feelings were what really mattered.

I’d arrive in a town knowing nothing about the place. I’d stay for a couple of days. As soon as it started to become familiar, I’d move on. After several weeks away from my familiar world, my personality started changing. Just as I was free to go wherever I wanted in Europe, I began feeling free to go wherever I wanted within myself.

I had been an insecure kid in high school. I felt shy and awkward. I grew up in a community that felt horribly superficial. Academically, my high school was rated the number one public school in the country, but the social pressures made it a tough place to spend adolescence.

It took a radical change in my life to jolt me out of this insecurity. As I traveled alone through Europe, away from everyone I knew, I stumbled upon a huge thought one day. I could be whomever I wanted. I didn’t have to follow the rules that were foisted upon me as a child. Buried deep within me was my true personality. Through years of socialization, I had covered it up with layer upon layer of who I thought other people wanted me to be. Away from those people, I began shedding my masks. Beneath them was someone I liked much better.

What enabled me to discover this person was being so far from home. I could test-drive new shades of my personality and see how I liked them. If I made a fool of myself, or did something I regretted, I was among strangers. I could hop a train, disappear, and try again at my next stop. As it happened, I never felt a need to play this card. But knowing I could escape if I wanted to, knowing that if I really messed something up, I could get out of there and start fresh the next morning, I was no longer afraid to explore these hidden parts of me.

I still have my journals from that trip. Every now and then, I open up a random page and relive a few days from my journey. Journaling as I traveled helped me understand the process I was going through. As I poured my thoughts onto paper in each new place, I began to see a picture of the real me.

Writing down my inner journey was more than therapeutic. It gave me momentum to keep going on this new inner journey when I returned home. My journals became a verbal road map. They that showed the route I traveled and pointed me in new directions — not just across a continent, but toward the person I really wanted to be.

Travel journaling doesn’t always have to be this introspective, but often, as we attempt to document our travels so we can remember them later, we are rewarded with the bonus of discovering new things about ourselves — about how we think and exist in the world around us. Foreign environments become a backdrop for self-discovery.

Published on Thursday, January 1, 2004

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