Monday, October 15, 2012


It's been a while since I posted about travel and over a year since I left for South Africa. I do miss it. But while I used to believe that I loved traveling, I now realize that I miss something different. It isn't just going abroad that I enjoy, but the permanence of living abroad. Traveling can be eye-opening and wonderful, but it can easily become a tireless trek from attraction to attraction. There's nothing wrong with that, of course -  many of my trips abroad have been just that, but after a while it can be stressful and exhausting. And often at the end, I don't feel like I ever really knew the place. I think what I most enjoy about going abroad is immersing myself in something different. When living abroad, every mundane task becomes an adventure.

My first attempt at buying a trash bag in Seoul. Instead of buying a ten liter bag, I bought a one hundred liter bag.
Take opening a bank account. I opened an account in Bordeaux when I studied abroad and in Seoul when I taught there. They produced two very different experiences that I believe taught me more about those countries than visits to a vineyard or noraebang. In France, as with just about everything there, it was a bureaucratic hassle. Armed with an EU citizenship, a French residence, registration as a student at a local university, and decent French language skills, it still took over a week and mounds of paperwork just to set up an appointment to meet with the bank manager. When I finally had my appointment, she asked me a number of questions, had me sign a lot of contracts I didn't understand, and finally granted me an account. From start to finish, it took two weeks. In Seoul, on the other hand, it was swift and efficient. I showed up just before closing, asked if they had anyone who spoke English (they did), handed over my passport, and within a matter of minutes had a fully functioning bank account.
My kitchen in Bordeaux. It wasn't long before I learned the words for "mouse droppings" - "crotte de souris."
Closing my bank accounts produced just as different, and just as telling, experiences. In Bordeaux, the bank teller, who had come to know me well from my visits to the ATM, was shocked when I told him I wanted to close my account. "Why not leave it open for when you come back?" he said. "I don't know when I'll be back," I answered. His face fell. "But you just moved here." I told him that I'd been studying abroad and had to return to my college back home. He shook my hand, wished me well in life, and encouraged me to return. It was an oddly sentimental ending to what I'd considered only a business relationship. In Seoul, closing the account was as easy as opening it. No one knew me or cared that I was leaving after almost a year in the country. Fifteen minutes and a few quick entries into a system and my account was dissolved as if it had never existed.

In Korea, prescriptions come in daily portions, so that you don't have to worry about what to take when. Unfortunately, it also means that if one of the drugs upsets your stomach you have no way of knowing which one to stop taking.
When I was in France, this experience and others taught me that the French eschew shallow relationships. Sometimes appearing unfriendly, they rarely chat with the person next to them in line or welcome the new foreign student. But once a relationship is established, it runs deep. In Seoul, on the other hand, people are warm and welcoming to visitors and it is easy to strike up a conversation with someone at the park or on the street. But at the end of the day, Seoul is a mega-city in which millions of people engage in millions of transactions every day. A foreigner closing a bank account does not elicit much interest.

Scotsmen really do wear kilts!
What I like about living abroad is the reduced pressure to rush around taking pictures of iconic attractions in a span of a few days or weeks. I like that living abroad creates unexpected hiccups and surprise friends. To that end, I think I'd rather live in a few places than visit many.


  1. Such a good post! I find that grocery stores elicit the same sort of philosophical musing in me. The Germans encourage you to count your change at the register, while the Italians hustle you out and refuse to accept anything over a 20-Euro bill. How else can I break my 50, grocery store lady? Be reasonable.

  2. Totally! I remember buying oranges in France and despite there being a huge line the cashier said she'd wait for me to go back to the produce section, weigh them, and then come back. In Seoul they just said "no" and that was the end of it.