Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Unpredictability

I revel in remembering just how excited I was that first time my passport came back with a visa in it just for me: a big sticker with shiny decals and official stamps and authoritative signatures that took up an entire page.  I was giddy with excitement as my family and friends wished me happy travels and sent me along armed with a booklet containing all of their addresses, while they waited at home hoping to receive a post card.  I was completely unafraid of the unfamiliarity that lay ahead, in fact it was the unfamiliarity, newness, and unpredictability of everything that excited me most.  I was leaving everything I had ever known and starting a completely new life.  

This time it's different.  I'm certainly intrigued by the opportunity to work in an embassy and see a country I've long wondered about, but that childlike giddiness isn't there.  Beyond the difference in my perception of what lies ahead, the reality of this trip is different as well.  I don't look at my move to Moscow as "starting anew" in the same way Belgium was.  This time it's a continuance of the life, education, and career I already have. I see this trip in context, and I think that's been making the whole experience seem more predictable, and therefore a little less enthralling, than Belgium.  My trip to Belgium had no context: I had never set foot in Europe, I had no idea what to expect, I had no specific goals (other than to learn French), no real responsibilities, and I went into it with the attitude that I'd just wait and see what happened.  The possibilities seemed endless.

Not so this time.  I have responsibilities -- big responsibilities.  I have to be able to function and be productive in a professional setting.  I have to learn and be proficient enough in Russian to acquire and interact with important contacts who will be instrumental to the completion of my thesis research.  The quality of my thesis depends on the quality of the research I collect, and the numerous unknown variables that are inherent to overseas research is risky.  As exciting as unpredictability is, I can't afford for this trip to be unpredictable.  Things must go as planned, to a certain extent, or I'm going to have a lot of problems on my hands when I return.  If all my objectives for the trip aren't met, I might not have the credits I need to graduate on time. If I don't get all the credits for Russian I might have to give up my minor and settle for graduating with just one major. I might not be able to produce a coherent and cohesive thesis, and it could get rejected by the Honors Council, meaning....well I don't know exactly.   

So I'm struggling.  As much as I want to be carefree and excited about the trip, I'm weighed down by the awareness that I need to constantly stay on top of planning, crisis management, and progress evaluations. It's funny, people keep asking me: "Aren't you nervous about not liking the food?"  "Are you worried about safety, crime, and the mafia?"  "Do you really think your living situation will be very comfortable?"
These are the least of my worries.  I'm not so scared about things that might happen while I'm gone, but their consequences once I get back.  A lot depends on my ability to pull this off!

My reflection on that first trip to Belgium was prompted by my letter-writing this afternoon.  I was writing in French to a contact in Bosnia, a former general in the Bosnian army who was educated in France, whom I met while traveling in Bosnia in 2007.  I paused to think, How neat that I have the ability to communicate with this person on the other side of the planet, in a language that is neither of our native tongues!  And how rewarding that all my hard work and study in Belgium paid off, allowing me to sit down and compose a heartfelt, personal, and grammatically correct letter to a person whom I would really like to speak with.  You can have all the great ideas and sincere sentiments in the world, but how useful are they if you are unable to communicate them to the right people?  This is the question I asked myself several years ago, and it is the underlying principle of my passion for studying languages.  I want to be able to communicate with as many people as possible, and I don't want to rely on interpreters in order to do so.  

So even if the worst happens; even if my credits don't transfer right, even if I don't graduate next spring, even if my thesis is a flop....I won't regret going.  I'm sure I'll have met some fascinating and influential people along the way, and I'll come back with at least an enhanced ability to communicate with them.  


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