Anyone (and Anything) Can Teach You a Lesson
|In life as in academics, learning abroad is endless.
My current washing machine, when powered off, wobbles unsteadily on three nubby legs. When washing, it undoubtedly registers on the Richter scale and is migraine-provoking for my next-door, upstairs, and downstairs neighbors. My dryer–five yellowed ropes hanging above my bathtub, which itself is spacious enough for about ¼ of a normal-size adult—averages 2.5 days to do its job. I have thrown out loaves of moldy bread three times, suspiciously sniffed (and speedily disposed with) leftovers twice, and tacked and re-tacked with imported Ukrainian putty the posters cheering the confines of my otherwise white-walled, Soviet-era apartment. I have no TV or internet, only what I now consider to be a lifetime laptop companion and a modest but movingly faithful teapot.
I have never been more content in my life.
Moving here to central Warsaw from the warm, brightly lit dorms, the ever-open libraries, the facility-fullness of Princeton University has proven somewhat of a stark and strenuous transition. Though it is not the first time, it is for the longest period and under the most solitary circumstances that I am abroad. And I am growing into myself more every day.
A Polish maxim states simply, “Travels shape.” Undoubtedly this is valid, in the sense that, when abroad, one takes in tiny parts of a new culture to add to oneself. Qualities, mannerisms or preferences collected like souvenirs become ornamental or, sometimes, fundamental additions to a given character. But traveling also makes a person infinitely more malleable, understanding, tolerant—and appreciative—of small things that, earlier, never seemed to matter at all. Level sidewalks. Stoves. Warm weather. Cool weather. Company. Solitude.
For instance, I learned to speak fluent Italian the summer of my freshman year when I took a graduate-level literature seminar at the Urbino University, located in a tiny hilltop town in Northeast Italy. The textbooks were packets of Xerox copies and the classrooms were just areas sectioned off in one breezy, doorless room. My best friends and conversation partners were the baristas that made life-giving espresso-based drinks for me every day. They nicknamed me “la secchiona” (nerd) as I shamelessly consumed Italian-English dictionaries along with my morning pastry. It was there that I became a more animated conversationalist and an avid reader of Leopardi, that I learned How to Have Fun and how to extract semi-visceral sensations from ancient texts.
Then I added French to my linguistic collection when I spent my sophomore year summer interning for a PR firm in Paris. My apartment resembled a life-size shoebox: one long room fit a bed and couch (a foldable futon), a kitchen (a hotplate and extendable wooden plank), a wardrobe (two shelves and some wire hangers) and a bathroom (an unruly showerhead and a hopelessly talkative insomniac of a toilet). My ability to speak fluently was not the result of exchanges with my stubbornly good-looking co-workers but with a reggae and poker-loving posse of recent HEC graduates. Of course, it was also that of devouring French-English dictionaries in sunlit public parks during lunchtime.
At Oxford, where I took a semester abroad my junior year, I heeded the word SILENCE—a single admonition etched in menacing black letters on almost every library wall—with complete deference. I drank port while lounging on a couch discussing Nietzschean philosophy with one tutor; I trembled on the edge of a hard green chair as I defended my thoughts on Diderot in front of another. I grew to abhor starchy tubers of any sort–boiled, fried, mashed, sautéed, marinated, roasted or baked–as they were apparently compulsory for sustenance in England. Once back at Princeton, I went briefly through an irksome phase of handing in essays using British spelling, but once I had broken that habit only good ones remained: I was newly self-motivated and less afraid to be more analytical than original in my writing.
Princeton was crucial in allowing me to secure all of these opportunities. As soon as I expressed an interest in going somewhere—anywhere, I was guided almost exclusively by an imprecise sort of wanderlust—its Study Abroad Office placed a number of options before me. The office’s counselors assured me that it made no sense to worry about requirements or grade transfers—I would never regret going abroad, they said. They were absolutely right. I graduated having obtained academic credit for some programs and none for others, but the contents of my transcript have long ceased to be the gravitational hub of my existence, anyway.
Any regrets I have associated with going abroad have only to do with not making the most of every minute of my time. The nagging feeling that, “I should have met more people,” or “I should have been to more museums,” or, “I should have studied less, played more,” seem unavoidable. For me, they only went away when I vowed to return, somehow, some day, to my favorite places. I have. I made the 14-hour trip via taxi, plane, train and bus back to Urbino when I was in France. I stopped back in Paris at the end of my semester in Oxford. Although Oxford itself is still on my list, I have just returned from taking the LSATs in London–where I successfully reaffirmed my distaste for potatoes.
Without a doubt, my life has been most profoundly altered when I lived it alone, usually, and for months at a time, in unknown places. Some of the most meaningful and lasting lessons I have learned were imparted by voiceless teachers like household appliances, foreign keyboards, bus schedules or minor natural disasters. Indeed, it never seems to strike one soon enough, when abroad, that in addition to studying, working, researching or otherwise exploring, it is necessary to remember–or learn for the first time–to simply survive. When my parents arrived as first-generation immigrants to the United States, the primary reason they ever attempted saying a word of English to their next-door neighbors was a domestic crisis–a cracked, frozen-over water pipe complicating things in their basement.
I would not give my washing machine that satisfaction. My odd but entertaining octogenarian neighbors are coming over to regale me with stories of the Old Times later tonight.
||Olivia Victoria Andrzejczak graduated cum laude from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, obtaining Certificates in French, Italian, Contemporary European Politics and Society and European Cultural Studies. Olivia is currently in Warsaw as a Fulbright Scholar carrying out a series of independent research projects on Chechen asylum seekers, contemporary Russo-Polish relations and Polish migration control policies at Warsaw University’s Center for Migration Research. She speaks fluent Polish, French, and Italian and is now studying Russian and German.