In-text Photos by Dehjia Thompkins; Business Administration, ’18
I have baby-stepped toward my independence since I reached my teenage years. One shy and timid step dove me into the world of summer jobs at age fourteen. Another resistant step plunged me into the driving world when I got my driver’s license at seventeen. Two months after my eighteenth birthday, I took my biggest step by moving forty minutes north of where I grew to be a part of Ohio Wesleyan University’s class of 2017. What sold me to my school aside from their amazing theatre program and beautiful campus? The accessibility of study abroad programs.
The most terrifyingly exciting thing I have done in my undergraduate career is plan my trips abroad. I knew since I was a first-semester freshman I wanted to travel in the fall of my senior year. By my third fall at OWU, I knew I wanted to go to Montreal. For the first time in my life, I would live somewhere other than my home state.
Somewhere in between finishing my junior year and planning for my semester in Montreal, a last-minute decision in late March took me to a different continent altogether. Putting my German studies minor to the test, I enrolled in a summer study abroad program in Berlin, Germany with Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Until this moment, it felt like I had been inching along with the diving board of independence — my tearful goodbye to my parents at Port Columbus in June pushed me right off the board and tumbling into independence.
I spent one month away from my parents with a six-hour time difference. If I had a question for my mom, I had to wait for the sun to rise in the United States before I could ask her anything. Most of my conversations with her took place between ten o’clock at night and midnight — the start of her evening and the end of my day completely. I learned how to fend for myself on hard mode — in a different country with a different language.
I can pinpoint for you the exact moment I felt fully independent for the first time. I was walking along Unter den Linden towards Friedrichstrasse to get to the nearest S-Bahnhoff, or street train station. Normally, I traveled through the city with at least one other person, but this particular day I was completely alone. I swaggered with the confidence of a Berliner and felt like I had my place in Germany’s capital. A gaggle of English teenagers sashayed by me, never questioning that I was anything other than German — never knowing I was secretly an undercover American.
An Aufwiedersehen to Berlin and a day spent traveling through time zones brought me back to Columbus precisely one month before my departure to Montreal. In the fastest month of my life, I squeezed everything I’d need for the next four months into one suitcase and a duffel bag. Montreal Canadiens jersey in tow, I said goodbye to my parents at Port Columbus with the experience of an international traveler. I didn’t cry this time because I was scared, I cried because I’d genuinely miss them on an adult level. I already fell off the diving board when I went to Berlin; Montreal would teach me how to swim.
If you took Pittsburgh and Columbus and blend them together, slowly adding in Berlin as you stir, then pepper in a few cups of French, you’d probably get Montreal. It’s both so familiar and so foreign at the same time. Stores are different, restaurants are different, products are different. Despite this, they sell the same things, it’s just a matter of finding out what the Canadian version is.
One thing my traveling has taught me is that I can’t be upset when a new city doesn’t have something that Columbus has. If I wanted what Columbus has to offer, I should have never left. The secret to success abroad is embracing the differences between where you’re from and where you find yourself. Sure, Montreal doesn’t have Skyline Chili. What Montreal does have is the best poutine in the world. After I came back from Germany I would have sold my left leg to taste a Döner kebab one more time — and honestly, I still would. I have four months ahead of me, but I can bet that come Christmas time in Columbus I’ll have to sell my other leg for Montreal poutine.
Montreal is also the safest city to learn a different language. Pretty much everyone I have spoken to speaks both English and French. In Berlin, almost everyone I talked to spoke German and German. If you have to switch to English after three French words, you will survive. The positive is that you tried. If you’re out at a restaurant your waiter is going to be right there to catch you in English. At the first restaurant I went to in Germany, no one in my group remembered how to ask for the check so we spent an agonizing amount of time speaking in vague German trying to explain what we wanted.
Here in Montreal, I can take what I learn in the French Duolingo course, walk outside my door, and try. I can’t be afraid of embarrassing myself in a different language anymore — that ship sailed within my first week in Germany. What matters is trying. People older than me back in Ohio never got the chance to live in a different country. It’s my obligation to them to live these trips out to the fullest. To learn, try, taste, and experience the things they never got to.
That is, after all, the American dream.