Throughout my life I have been pegged with the same label over and over again: shy. The desire to break free from this label is partly why, in the fall of 2015, I packed two suitcases and boarded a one-way flight to Madrid, Spain. I never expected that I would acquire a new label while living abroad: brave.
I moved to Madrid to work as a Language and Culture Assistant through a program sponsored by the Spanish Ministry of Education. I spent the five months between receiving my placement and my departure meticulously planning out everything I could think of. I had everything scheduled: where I would stay while looking for an apartment, where and when I would purchase a SIM card for my phone, what I would need to buy to get myself settled once I found an apartment. I poured through travel books and read as many blogs written by those who had already gone through the program as I could find. I was terrified of the realities of moving abroad, and by planning and getting organized I attempted to lull myself into a sense of confidence and security.
But, there are some things you can only prepare for so much. My first few weeks in Madrid were challenging. Simple tasks felt laughably difficult, and I quickly found myself thinking about going back home and forgetting that I had ever been to Madrid. It felt like moving abroad was something other people could do, but not me. I was terrified at the prospect of spending another nine months feeling completely overwhelmed.
When I told him I had gone by myself, he caught me off guard with his response. He told me that he admired me for travelling alone, that it takes bravery to do so. Brave? Me?
In the end, there was always something that kept me from leaving. Although some of it came down to stubbornness, I eventually came to realize that the biggest thing keeping me in Spain was the feeling that I wasn’t going to let anyone, especially myself, stand in the way of following through on something I had always dreamed of. There were too many places I wanted to explore and experiences I wanted to have to let myself give up when things became difficult. I was lucky to have the chance to move abroad out of my own desire rather than necessity, and only I was responsible for making the most of the experience.
I began to explore Madrid, other parts of Spain, and as much of Europe as I could squeeze into three-day weekends. I tried to focus on one day at a time, to keep my feelings of fear at bay. Spending time planning trips proved to be a great motivator. I knew it would never be as easy for me as I had it then to explore Europe. On these trips, I almost always travelled alone. I realized that the shyness that has followed me all my life isn’t actually shyness at all – it’s introversion. I love spending time alone. I feel more energized when it is up to me to decide what I spend my time exploring. I never considered not visiting a new city or museum or monument because I didn’t have someone to travel with. This was one aspect of living abroad that I felt I had under control.
There were too many places I wanted to explore and experiences I wanted to have to let myself give up when things became difficult.
Once a week, I would meet with the principal of my school to help him practice his English conversation skills. We would discuss what we had done over the weekend, and during one particular meeting I told him I had visited London. “That’s wonderful! I love London! Who did you go with?” he asked. When I told him I had gone by myself, he caught me off guard with his response. He told me that he admired me for travelling alone, that it takes bravery to do so. Brave? Me?
This wasn’t the last time someone told me I was brave when I mentioned that I had moved to Madrid, or that I travelled alone. I almost always brushed it off. I didn’t feel brave. I spent too much time giving myself pep talks and convincing myself that I could walk into a restaurant and eat dinner alone. That didn’t feel brave to me.
It wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. the following year that I began to realize that what people had told me about being brave was true. By moving abroad and pushing myself to expand my boundaries, I was able to see that most of my limitations were self-imposed. Bravery doesn’t have to be loud, and it doesn’t even have to feel particularly brave in the moment. Sometimes it’s about getting up and putting one foot in front of the other, and not letting yourself stand in your way.