The Search for Familiarity

It was grey the day I arrived, and it was grey the day I departed. The heavy, low-lying clouds brought me a reassuring sort of comfort, and the refreshing breeze flowing between the apartment complexes and the Straßenbahn tracks of Karlsruhe Nordstadt reminded me to breathe slowly and deeply to keep my emotions at bay. It was pouring rain the first time I lugged my black suitcase with anything but grace and ease over the cobble-stoned sidewalks; and although droplets didn’t fall from the sky’s loose grasp as I walked away from my building for the last time, the gloom in the air was palpable. Perhaps it was the weight of my luggage or the heaviness of my heart that made my feet move like blocks of lead as I boarded onto my last Straßenbahn, but two things were for sure:  A part of me was staying behind here in Karlsruhe, and the person leaving it behind was no longer the same as the individual who had brought it here in the first place.

In my opinion, life is full of juxtapositions. I like to think that there are patterns that flow through everything we do – from the places we visit, to the people we meet, to the activities we participate in along the way; and if we are paying attention closely enough, we are given the opportunity to acknowledge magnificent details that might otherwise go unnoticed. From my time abroad here in Germany, I have been observant of a particular cultural tool that I myself especially used during my transition into a new environment, and it involves this basis of comparison and contrast that we apply to our realities in order to understand the world itself. From grocery shopping in an entirely new environment, to that often awkward introductory conversation with a stranger, there is a dominant characteristic manipulating our choices and interactions, and it is this: we are constantly searching for familiarity.

Naturally, there are many components that influence us over time, but it is the concoction of our mixed experiences and diverse lifestyles that tint our vision of what is good and what is truth. The way that we maintain and continuously build upon our identities has entirely to do with the ways in which we equate minor characteristics in our surroundings with an idea at large. This search for familiarity is a game that we are constantly playing, where the purpose is not necessarily receiving the answers themselves to our gaps of understanding, but instead recognizing the internal and external transformations which occur in the process.

In attempts to develop meaning out of my time abroad, I took a chance at trying to understand this search for familiarity, and here is what I have determined:

 

As stated in the movie Into the Wild, “Happiness is only real when shared.” A single location can solace an individual, but it is the company of others that instills significance in our interactions with our environment.

 I once wrote in an Instagram post concerning Germany that you know the place where you belong when find the place where you long to be; however, I now believe that belonging is a not as much of a spontaneous impulse as it is a committed choice. It’s easy to love something when seeing it at its best; but still admiring it at its darkest hour is the real sign of appreciation.

My European journey began and ended with a magnificent trip to the Swiss Alps. As a native Montanan, I find that where there are mountains, there is a perfect canvas for deep reflection, and it has been a big Bucket List dream of mine to visit these famous, beautiful ridges. But as I stood on these high peaks, the most reoccurring thought was that of home. I suppose we can travel the world, achieving goals and going great lengths, but wherever we go, the greatest thing we carry with us is our origins.

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 (Special thanks to GLI for the worldwide support, the educational guidance, and the indispensable stimulating inspiration)

My Advice to You

There is a certain, unmistakable ball of dread that awakens in my chest and circulates to my head, flows down my limbs to the tips of my fingers, and quickens my heartbeat as soon as my foot touches the unknown territory directly below the bus that became my home over the last five hours. Like a car emerging out of a thick fog back into clear visibility, the courage that once surrounded my being, providing not necessarily comfort but the motivation to keep pushing forward, immediately evaporates around me. I start to question my naivety in traveling so far alone without an absolute awareness of the bus stop location in the big, bustling city at night’s dark, intimidating hour. The crisp air soothes the burning anticipation in my chest, and my observation mode kicks into overdrive as I explore the new area in search for the train station. With a deep breath and some small, internal pep talks, I move with the flow of my instincts and expect nothing more than an adventure with each step.

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This was my initial reaction after arriving in Vienna, Austria after twelve long and lonely hours from Karlsruhe, Germany. I had a place to stay with someone to contact if I needed help, and I had heard of some big places to visit while in Vienna, but the rest of my trip was intentionally spontaneous, unplanned and open to any possibilities. Of course, I had traveled alone before to Switzerland and other locations in Germany, and certainly compared to the trip alone from Montana to Europe, twelve hours on a bus was nothing; nevertheless, I had yet to find the remedy for the doubt, fear, or uneasiness caused by the sharp reality of thrusting oneself outside of the welcoming, understanding, and affirming borders of the comfort zone. Yet, I do not want a solution for this sensation.

Some people claim to solve the world’s problems or find the answers to long sought-after questions while in the shower; but for me, this special experience of revelation and re-evaluation find me when I travel alone. These small weekend trips on which I have embarked during my time in Europe have taught me more lessons and instilled more cultural insight than I could have ever extracted out of my comfortable, familiar surroundings. Traveling in general, of course, will invest remarkably into the spirits of the Adventurous; however, I stand firmly in my respect for the Lone Rangers.

Going solo showed me how to be more assertive in my basic needs, such as personal security, and more observant of the most minor details composing the physical environment. Venturing out into the world by myself has taught me how to question reality more thoroughly and listen more sincerely to the answers I receive. Most significantly, perhaps, is the rebirthing of my indescribably deep appreciation for and my continuously un-quenched curiosity about communication and interaction between human beings, which has followed me into every new city and etched itself into my most favorite memories during my time abroad. 

If I could leave you with anything, it would be this: travel alone. Be smart, know your own boundaries and follow your gut if the risk tickles greater than the opportunities. Be curious, be confident, be patient, and breathe deeply when your nerves tremble so strongly that you cannot identify your heartbeat over your self-doubt.

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We as humans didn’t survive by caging ourselves in comfort, and frankly, we never will. These moments, scary as though they may appear to be, are what we, as curious, creative, and compassionate individuals live for.

Re-Learning Creativity

Ten years ago, the most popular, most watched Ted Talk by Sir Ken Robinson was released. Even though an avid Ted Talk fan, I had actually never seen this speech until my new Finnish friend and I bonded over our love for the nonprofit, and he introduced me to this video — his favorite. Out of all varieties that Ted Talks cover, from abstract concepts such as leadership and motivation, to vital educational disciplines such as communication and business, to even random objects like cars, water, or robots, with animals everywhere and in between, it is interesting that the most attention grossing Ted Talk is titled, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” I find this to be ‘interesting’ because, out of all things that unite people around the world, it would seem that the strongest connection we share as intellectual humans (as to be assumed from this Ted Talk’s success in the abundance of other topics) is education.

After watching this video, I had to watch it again. I would reflect on the topics Robinson covers, and then I would watch it yet again. Although I recommend for you reading this to watch his speech and absorb his style of approaching this information, I will explain Robinson’s opinion in brief. Robinson introduced his personal understanding of the definition of creativity to be “the process of having original ideas that have value [resulting] through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.” With both humbling humor and fierce intelligence, Robinson informed his audience that school systems, as we know them to be today, were the initial consequence of meeting industrialism demands in the 19th century, but they have since become a universal hierarchy accepted as a “protracted process of university entrance.” In a nutshell, the Ted Talk revolved around Robinson’s claim that “We do not grow into creativity; we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

This Ted Talk, like all of the other videos provided by the nonprofit organization, offers profound insight into a taken-for-granted and blindly accepted area on a large scale. It is undeniable that our schools prioritize certain academics over others, and whether in America or in Germany, we naturally find academic systems that favor theories over theater and calculations above color charts. Not surprisingly, though, scholars know that learning enhancement can be measured when students have the ability to express themselves through music, dance, and art; and likewise, any school can see the negative effects on students when the arts are cut from curriculums. While I understand the social ranking of mathematics over Mozart in academics, I also see how the strict standards of our school systems unintentionally implant the stigma that, in Robinson’s words, “mistakes are the worst thing [a student] can make.”

Luckily for us students, there is an opportunity that encourages, inspires, and ultimately instills creativity back into our schooling systems: studying abroad. Robinson saw education systems as mine shafts, digging around until finding the commodity that is deemed socially worthy and then exploiting the resource. But, studying abroad has shown me a world where the worth of such commodities are defined differently by every culture and the exploitation of knowledge is a positive human interaction. Studying abroad has introduced me to an education outside of a classroom’s borders, a place where mistakes are actually my best teachers. 

In the end, I do believe that creativity is indeed affected by our education; but, it isn’t a trait that is completely masked by our school systems. Instead, creativity fades when we become so comfortable in our systems of discipline that we lose the ability to react to the unknown.