I stepped off the plane, exhausted and a little disoriented from the nine-hour flight. After navigating my way out of the terminal, I scanned the crowds of people, searching for a familiar face. There she was! My baby, my world traveler.
I scrambled to break through the barricades of humanity to reach her, to hold her again. I’d waited 98 days, 14 hours and 27 minutes for this moment—and this hug. I breathed in her scent, catching a hint of lavender shampoo, as I squeezed her a little tighter. My little girl, now a twenty-year-old woman, greeted me with “I’m so glad you’re here, Mom.” Music to my maternal ears.
ROLES ARE REVERSED
As we bustled our way out of the airport toward the bus stop, our roles reversed as she, now a world traveler, handed me a metro pass, explaining the importance of always having it and my passport easily accessible. “After the Brussels bombing, they’ve tightened up security around here,” she added. “Don’t be surprised by the military presence and people walking around with guns, Mom. It’s ok.”
Trying to blend into the confluence of people, all in earth tones with eyes cast downward, we boarded the bus. One bus ride and three metro stops later, we diverted into her favorite cafe for a much-needed caffeine boost. She ordered for us, giggling at the barista’s response. I couldn’t understand a word spoken, but could feel the camaraderie between them and the pride she felt in her ability to communicate in her secondary language. As we sipped lattes and munched on pastries, she shared photos of her recent travels—castle ruins in Germany, cathedrals in Belgium, pubs in England, statues in Hungary, concentration camps in Poland.
HOW MY DAUGHTER BECAME A WORLD TRAVELER
My daughter, the world traveler. When and how did this happen? As a tot, this same human would literally cling to my leg when I’d try to leave the room. Her pediatrician called it “separation anxiety.” I called it frustrating. Back then, I would dream of the days I’d be able to pee alone or to leave guilt-free for a meeting—a time when she’d feel safe and secure without me tethered to her.
When did my clingy, blue-eyed, Barney-the-dinosaur-loving girl become this worldly young woman? She went from singing about the wheels on the bus to actually riding busses, planes and trains across Europe—all by herself. In hindsight, she was always curious about far away places and the travel bug bit her early. She began talking about studying abroad in junior high, eager to go global and explore the world beyond her modest midwest upbringing. While most girls her age were reading Seventeen, she buried her nose in National Geographic.
She worked long hours during her high school summers, socking away hard-earned dollars to fund her travel dreams. And when the time came, she chose the Czech Republic as her home for a semester abroad. A country under Communist rule during my lifetime, until the Iron Curtain parted in 1989, this shining star of the Eastern Bloc drew her in. Prague, known as “The Heart of Europe,” would be her address. She left her small, private campus of 3,400 students in the breadbasket of America to attend Charles University, the oldest and largest university in the Czech Republic and home to 52,000 students.
LETTING GO OF OUR GIRL
Her dad and I had been supportive of her endeavor from the get-go. However we weren’t without concerns. Her required documents, Visa application and extensive travelers insurance that included (gulp) repatriation of remains—along with the heightened security issues in Europe—made it quite evident this wasn’t a simple vacation. Somehow, our mixed emotions were calmed on departure day as we watched her walk through the airport security line toward her dreams.
Just days after she arrived in Prague, I received a text message…
“Hi Mom! Leaving beautiful Prague for Moravia today. Will text you when I get wi-fi there—just to let you know I made it.”
My first thought was, I don’t even know where Moravia is! I didn’t know if she was traveling by train or plane or bus and I had no idea what I’d actually do if she didn’t get there. Wherever there was.
CULTURAL CHALLENGES CREATE NEW PERSPECTIVE
Adapting to a new culture is not without its challenges, she tells me as we stroll along the Vltava River near the famous Charles Bridge. My small town girl explains the culture of this city of 1.2 million people, a place where the norm is to not engage in small talk or exchange niceties on the subway. A city where people keep eyes cast downward when passing one another on the cobblestone streets, where “Minnesota nice” doesn’t exist. This, she explains, was one of the first surprises she encountered. She came to immerse in the culture and meet new people—not easy to accomplish with broken Czech language skills and an American accent.
The language barrier was her greatest hurdle and yet an incredible opportunity for personal growth. Not only did she gain speaking skills, she found a greater sense of compassion for others as revealed in this Facebook Post from her first weeks there.
An important lesson learned this week abroad that can be applied at home: Be patient with someone who is struggling to speak your native language. I have only just started to learn Czech in the past week and know that while living in this beautiful city, I will have to learn and speak Czech at a certain level. I not been here very long and have not learned how to do so yet. Any patience shown to me by any person in a public space while trying to communicate has been noticed and SO appreciated! Their patience gave me the confidence to use Czech and not be so quick to ask for help in my native language. If you encounter someone this week who has trouble speaking your native language, be patient with them and empower them to learn. You never know someone’s story or where they are at in their language learning process.
In another post, she revealed how this experience has also taught her humility and exposed her to the power of simple acts of kindness:
I received an unexpected blessing yesterday, one I didn’t know I needed. I was in the supermarket, which is typically a pretty stressful experience as it’s always busy and I have a hard time reading the packaging on “normal” food. I was waiting in a long line when I felt a tap on my shoulder. One of the employees directed me to the self-checkout. Knowing it would be a mess if I tried to do it myself, I began to say, “My Czech isn’t good enough yet,” but before I could get the words out, the woman started to help me work the machine so I could buy my food. We didn’t have a common language, but neither of us had to say a word. She gave me the gift of dignity while I struggled to do something I take for granted at home. I will forever be amazed at the kindness of strangers.
I have no doubt her experiences abroad have changed her and shaped the woman she is—and the woman she will be. I can see she has developed a deepened respect for other cultures. She’s acquired courage to try new things. She’s gained an education that cannot be taught in a classroom.
But my mom-heart ponders over how this will all affect the trajectory of her life. Will she be a peacekeeper? A diplomat? A journalist? Will she move abroad permanently once she graduates from college? Will she remain safe? These questions creep into my mind as she leads me on a tour of Vyšehrad, a 10th century fortress in Prague. I push my questions aside and take in the moment—and the calm confidence of my daughter as she embraces her path to adulthood—wherever it may take her.
Author’s Note: One year ago today, we watched our daughter embark on a journey of a lifetime. She left to study abroad for a semester. I wrote this essay, which was previously posted on Grown & Flown, to share with other parents the mixed emotions, new-found maturity, and altered perspectives (hers and ours) that came from her study abroad experience. I hope you enjoy it!
Kelly Radi is a Minnesota mom of two. When she’s not bundled up by the fireplace with a glass of merlot, she’s living her dream as a writer and public speaker. She shares her mothering wisdom at outtoseaparentsguide.com and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Her book Out To Sea: A Parents’ Guide to the Freshman Voyage is now available at a bookstore near you.