“I’ve been abroad... So who am I now?”
Keen. Passionate. Mean. Shy. Smart. Clever. Self-confident. Quiet. Excited. Greedy. Beautiful. Self-centered. Lively. Cruel. Weird. Pretty. There is a word for everything. For every trait, characteristic, and tendency.
So, who was I before I went abroad?
Female. Austrian. Rather quiet. Self-conscious. Smart. Kind. Humorous. Caring. Always worried. These are words that I would have described myself with before I went on my EVS to Belfast for a year. These are also words that people who know me would associate with me.
It was summer. I was 18 years young and full of excitement and joy to have graduated and I realised that the words above were not enough for me anymore. I wanted more. Therefore, different than all my friends, I decided not to go on and study, but to fulfil myself a dream to be a volunteer abroad. Luckily, I found a placement in Belfast in an organisation called Women’s Aid, which helps violence survivors and supports them through their way back.
This is it, I thought. This is how I will be part of the change in someone else’s world. This is how I can contribute to the world.
However, little did I know back then that this was not only my chance to help, but this was an opportunity to grow and figure myself out more than I could ever have dreamed.
As I was sitting on the plane and then on the bus to Belfast, my new home, realisation that this is happening, that my life is changing more than ever, dawned on me. All the things I was familiar with and knew were left behind and all I had were strangers that were sharing a house with me, a workplace that I still needed to get to know, and random pictures from home chosen to be decoration for my new room.
However, soon strangers became friends, and a second home was created. After a few weeks at work, I knew how everything worked and what to do and where to go. I knew my way around the place and soon it became not only my workplace, but a place where I realised how much help I could be and how much fun work is when I enjoy it and when every day brings something new.
It drizzled most days I went to work. I can still feel the light rain that would wake my sleepy eyes up when I walked to the bus stop, and I can still see the wet roads in front of me as if it were yesterday. Pure chaos often welcomed me at work. Chaos that originates from the fact that women of all ages with or without children were not only living in the same building, but sharing a kitchen and living room, and having been through an awful lot of issues. I can still hear the arguing that sometimes occurred, the women’s explanations or excuses. When I close my eyes, I can still see the worries and anger in their eyes.
Work was all of this. It was fun and worrisome and happy and sad. It was stories from survivors of violence every day. Stories from victims. Stories from strong women and children. It was children’s laughter and tears. Women’s anger and self-doubt. It was me trying to give back to the world by being part of a support system, of a great organisation that managed to build up refugees all over Great Britain. And I loved every second of it. The bad and the good. The complicated and the simple.
I grew a lot when I was working. I learnt how to wait patiently for somebody else to be ready to talk and get better. I learnt not to push and how to be there for somebody who might not want my help just yet. I learnt how strong people can be. I learnt that the slightest laughter or smile after tears and cries was worth more than I ever thought it could be. I learnt how children’s drawings told stories of their lives. I learnt how to be brave and straight-forward.
However, my year abroad was not only work. It was friends and people from different cultures. It was food, music, dancing and travelling. We were exploring Northern Ireland, Ireland, Scotland and England and many adventures happened. From driving into a flock of sheep, because we thought following a dirt road was a good idea, to waking up at 4 am in the morning to see the sunrise only to find out that it was cloudy and the whole walk up to a hill was for a picture full of white and grey fluffy animals in the sky. With friends and the new environment and culture I was in, I was discovering qualities I didn’t know I had, like drinking 5 cups of tea a day, being sociable seven days a week, walking endlessly long roads, because a taxi was either too expensive or we would have to wait 40 minutes for one, and - one of the most surprising ones – being able to let go and love myself loudly rather than being quietly proud of myself.
Throughout this whole year I got to know myself better and could learn things about myself. However, I wouldn’t have said I changed very much or that I was different after the year abroad. I thought I simply stayed the same with a bit more experience. But then, rather at the end of my stay in Belfast, a woman at work asked me: “How do you make something bad into something good?” And without really thinking about the question, I responded: “I don’t. I just don’t let it ruin all the good things.” And I meant it. And that was when I realised that I changed during that year abroad. I wasn’t the worried girl I once was, but I grew to become self-confident and take on a realistic view on life. The bad wasn’t cancelling out the good like I often felt it did beforehand. The change was visible in how my views and opinions grew and got better informed. How my will and belief changed and became stronger. How I knew what I looked for in people that I want in my life. It was knowing what I wanted out of life.
A shy person became an outgoing one. A smart one became more self-aware.
And with tears in my eyes, and a heart full of memories, I travelled back to Austria. The first days were excitement, sadness, joy, and heartbreak all in one. It was coming home to a place full of people I love and care about and it was leaving behind the second home I had built in Belfast. Stories were exchanged and hugs were shared.
In a little while though, I realised that the adjectives others described me with didn’t change. Well, they did, but it didn’t seem to fit.
Female. Austrian. Self-confident. Self-aware. Smart. Kind. Humorous. Caring. Quiet.
And I indeed was all of that. However, I was bothered by people describing me with these words.
They seem like simple words, right? Why would I care about the words others use to describe me? Why was I bothered by this when I wasn’t before? This was still me, right? - Yes and no.
Yes, because technically the meaning of these words would fit me. No, because during that year in Northern Ireland, I learnt to refuse to be put into a box. I refuse that since apparently, there is always a choice of two boxes and you can only be put into one: Short or tall. Selfish or caring. These are the unspoken rules.
However, who says there are rules to who I am? I can be self-confident yet nervous. Independent but home-loving. Caring and selfish. This is all me. I am not just one of each pair. And this is why it bothered me. Before I went abroad, I was okay with being put into those neat, little boxes. Now though, I am not, because what if I am self-confident and insecure? Because I am. I am breaking those unspoken rules of who I am supposed to be. I am more than just one out of two words. We all are.
Simply put, humans are not meant to live in one box out of two.