As I boarded a plane to Amsterdam last August, I remember thinking about all of the amazing places and things I was going to see in the next four months. Once the plane was in the air, I opened my new, orange notebook and scribbled a list of museums, landmarks and countries I wanted to see.
By the end of my four months abroad, I was able to see most of those places. As the days turned into weeks, I had the satisfaction of crossing those words off my list.
My Instagram posts from my time abroad are a collection of photos of myself in front of monuments, or smiling with a beautiful ocean or canal behind me. When I scroll through these photos, I smile at the amazing memories I made. The images paint a picture of my time in Europe and those are moments I’ll never forget.
But, those photos only tell a very small part of my abroad story.
Almost all of the most important and transformative experiences I had while abroad did not lend themselves to a fun Instagram post because they weren’t about what I saw, they were about what I heard.
I was fortunate enough to live in a homestay during my time abroad. My beautiful and generous homestay mother, Vaji, would cook every night for myself and Diana, another student I was staying with. Most nights, we would sit and share our meals at a small table in the kitchen of Vaji’s south east apartment. Vaji would tell us about her life in Iran and how she ended up moving to Holland after studying chemistry in India. Her son, Sasha, would tells stories about his job and Dutch politics.
While her small apartment was beautiful, I never took pictures at the dinner table. In fact, throughout my time abroad, I only took three photos with Vaji, yet she was the most important part of my time there.
Living with her made it easier for me to engage with the community and actually speak to Dutch people, but when I went on trips to other countries, I resorted back to focusing on the sights around me. I spent my weekends in Brussels posing with fries and waffles. I had a great time, but I can't say the trip impacted me in any way. This was the same for many of my weekend trips.
But, toward the end of my time in Europe, I traveled to Barcelona for a long weekend. I was lucky to have a friend studying abroad there for the semester. He took me and another friend around the city, showing us all of his favorite places. Once again, I took photos of the buildings I saw and the food that I ate. I looked forward to crossing Barcelona off my list.
But, that night, instead of spending our time sight-seeing or drinking sangria on the beach, my friend brought us to his homestay, where his host parents, Carmen and Conrado, cooked us dinner. We spent hours sitting at their dining room table talking about everything from American politics to the Catalan independence movement. I didn’t post any pictures from that dinner table either.
I made more lasting memories sipping red wine and sharing stories with Vaji than I did staring at Big Ben. I learned more from my sad attempt to speak Spanish with Carmen than I did at La Sagrada Familia.
Sight seeing and taking photographs are great, but that shouldn’t be all that our travels are about. The true heart of a country is its people and their stories.
Vaji showed me more of Amsterdam than any map or guided bike tour could have. She let me in and taught me about her culture. My time with her is what truly gave me my global education, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.