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Traveling solo in Romania:

Using the journey to connect

In May 2016 I travelled to Romania for one month. As a Canadian journalism student, I wanted some different stories to tuck into my portfolio. So, essentially, I spun the globe, pinpointed Romania and said: “I’m going there.” I needed a reconstructive experience and I thought that roaming to another country to tell the stories of the people there would be the perfect next step.

Literary criticism uses a term called “defamiliarization.” It comes from the idea that one of literature’s purposes is to reveal a life truth by presenting it from a different angle. Sometimes we can’t see through all of the noise of life, but a story has a way of distilling a nub of truth by offsetting our perspective just enough to let us catch a glimpse of something deeper.

Travel does the same thing in an incredibly tangible way.

A recent article in The Atlantic, published in March 2015, described how travelling and immersing yourself in another culture actually expands your brain’s ability to make connections. It comes from exposing yourself to a different space and a different mindset. The defamiliarization of plunking down in another culture – removing the worn-in armrests of your own – forces you to see the world from a different angle which, in turn, expands your understanding. According to the article, people who do this more often and engage in new cultures at a deeper level than, say, a quick vacation, are often more open-minded and creative because they have learned to make new connections in unfamiliar spaces.

Before I left for Romania, most people told me to stay safe on my trip. That statement wasn’t a flippant one considering the ripples of unrest in the world today. I wrestled with that question because, as much as I understood the sentiment of the statement, and as much as I desperately agreed with it, I also couldn’t shake the thought that God never called us, as Christians, to live a safe or comfortable life. This trip, at its core, was a step of faith for me. It was a pilgrimage between God and myself, because there were things that I knew I needed to learn and the only way to learn them was to jolt out of my comfortable space and see life from a different perspective.

Brene Brown, Ph.D., is an American scholar, author and public speaker who researches shame and vulnerability. She writes in her book, Daring Greatly, that we all throw up defense mechanisms when we feel uncomfortable, especially in the face of vulnerability. One of the “vulnerability shields,” as she puts it, is foreboding joy. This is what many of us do when we are presented with a something that is, or has the potential to be, good and beautiful. We undercut the situation by worrying, or we convince ourselves that since we’re in a good space now, it must mean that impending doom is looming around the corner. This is a shield because it is a form of control: it is trying to imagine the bad things in order to be ready, to prepare, to know, even if the imaginings cause us to miss out on the real life joy and beauty of what is sitting right in front of us.

I packed Brene Brown’s book in my suitcase to Romania. Travelling to a new country alone was one of the most vulnerable situations I could conceive for myself at the time. I wasn’t sure if I was exactly foreboding joy by imagining all of the bad things that could possibly happen along the way, but I wanted to be brave. Going seemed a whole lot healthier than staying out of fear.

Become friends with discomfort
Romania is a country that is rediscovering itself. I arrived in a place wedged between tradition and modernism, and my job was to interview people walking the line between both. Most were artists and craftspeople who respect the traditional Romanian way of life and want to see it live on as Romania grows and changes. Some of the people I met included Laurant Joualt, a French geologist-turned-photographer and printmaker in rural Romania; Jacqueline Novak, a Brazilian actress who cares about promoting the traditional Romanian way of life; Ana Negru, the editor of the magazine I wrote for, who created the publication from scratch as a bridge between old and new Romania. These people all took risks, became friends with defamiliarization and welcomed vulnerability to pursue a higher goals.

Even though I was essentially alone in Romania, I always felt very safe. Maybe it was because I was surrounded by other people who had learned to become friends with discomfort as a route to community and as a method of understanding themselves, both personally and culturally, in a deeper way.

Creating connection
On June 28, 2016, three suicide bombers attacked Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. I had been inside that airport twice just weeks earlier on my layover between flights to Romania.

A month of space separated me from those attacks. Although this is a substantial period of time, when I heard about the bombs I immediately thought of all those people who had cautioned me to “stay safe” on my trip. I was home, safe and whole, but I had also fairly recently stood in a place that was now running across news screens as a scene of terror and grief. My worst case scenario was reality, just not my immediate reality.

Anecdotally, that Atlantic article articulated my experience. Travelling to Romania, spending tangible time in that airport having conversations with strangers from Dusseldorf and Delhi and Bucharest while waiting for my gate to flash up on the screen, made a once-foreign place a very small part of my story. Defamiliarization created a connection in that place. I empathize with the terror there a bit differently than if I had never walked that soil at all. This is what travel, what vulnerability, what entering into the space of another can do.
It creates connection. It humanizes.

Expanding our hearts
Somehow I see a match between what I saw in Romania – the people creating bridges, risking vulnerability, trying to morph a space for the old within the dynamic new – and what The Atlantic article is talking about. Near the end of the article, the authors says that you don’t have to fly far away to get the brain-benefitting experience of travel. You just have to get into the mental habit of defamiliarization, of being willing to explore a new culture and learn from it, whether that is in the next town or in another country. It is a practice of expanding our hearts to be willing to listen to the story of another person and, in that vulnerable space, to acknowledge that there are common links within us, even if we build walls between us.

It is a starting point, if nothing else.  

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