I was five and alone when I got on a plane for the first time. I remember flight attendants handing me snacks to keep me entertained, and holding my hand as they guided me during the layover. I don’t remember being afraid. I’d like to think that I relished the moment of being a “big girl” and being allowed to travel by myself.
Whether that experience was a direct cause, or if it just gave me a taste of traveling, it’s safe to say that I caught the globetrotting bug as I grew up. Now, I’ve been to more countries in Europe than states in the U.S. One of them, I lived in for three months after grad school; in all of them, I have been on my own:
Bulgaria (Sofia and Varna)
Romania (Bucharest, Sibiu, Brasov, Cluj Napoca and Timisora)
Lesson No 1: Patience, patience, patience. Patience is a virtue, indeed. When I arrived in Scotland, I was held at customs for more than an hour because of my “concerning” travel schedule. After all, I had been in Iceland for three months, and was about to embark on a five-week journey through the U.K. and Eastern Europe. A gentleman with a thick Scottish accent questioned me about my finances, and my father’s (which I obviously didn’t have on me), as well as my daily itinerary. A similar situation happened when I later took a train from Paris to London, and officials questioned me in a small room with a table, two chairs and a two-way mirror.
It’s always intimidating to be in a foreign situation, especially in a foreign country. However, when you remain calm and exercise patience, you can handle any curveballs or obstacles that come your way. In the fast-paced world of PR and marketing, patience is an equally valuable virtue.
Lesson No. 2: Find a way to adapt and communicate. After my stint in London and the U.K., I flew to Sofia, Bulgaria. I arrived to find signs I couldn’t read and people who didn’t speak English. I got lost on my first night and ended up at a seemingly Americanized restaurant – where the staff didn’t understand my request of a pizza with chicken and vegetables, and instead brought me one with ham, peas and corn. I hadn’t had ham in about nine years at that point. Oops. Instead of sending it back, I picked off all of the pieces of meat and ate the rest.
A few days later, I found myself at the train station in Ruse, which is right on the boarder of Romania and Bulgaria. Did you know that nodding “yes” means “no” to Bulgarians? I did, but I forgot where I was. When a man motioned to me, asking if he could share my bench, I smiled and nodded “yes” – or so I thought. He backed up and looked uncertain. I realized what happened and said “dah,” which translates to “yes” in Bulgarian.
While I don’t typically deal with miscommunication due to nonverbal cues in PR and marketing, it’s always important to understand the needs of clients and their industries, and to find the best ways to communicate with each to avoid misunderstandings. Clients and journalists might prefer to be reached with an email, a text or a phone call. In any case, finding personalized common ground for communication is a key in maintaining effective and productive relationships.
Lesson No. 3: Be prepared, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. On my last day in Florence, I researched which bus I needed to take to the train station. I read something wrong, and later found out I got on the wrong one – but not until we’d driven a couple of miles. There weren’t any English speakers on board, and my GPS wasn’t showing an accurate location. Luckily, a new passenger helped me out, and I walked about a mile and a half with my giant suitcase.
When I was in Lisbon, Portugal, I accidentally purchased the wrong train ticket and couldn’t exit the station. It was quiet at that point, so I wandered for a few minutes until I asked a guard to help me through. While he was reluctant at first, he eventually let me pass.
Asking for help may be the most important of all lessons, and it can be a tough one to learn. Whether I’m asking for directions in a foreign city, learning how to get a train ticket to the right destination or inquiring about something on the menu, being afraid is never worth it – in travel or in PR. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
Lesson No. 4: Embrace everything, and never stop learning. In public relations, I never stop learning. Even pros who have worked in the field for years are constantly discovering new trends and methods, and finding ways to embrace them.
This constant drive to learn is the same one that fuels my solo travels. When I travel alone, I often experience the city in ways I wouldn’t if I were with friends, a loved one or a family member. I’m open to explore freely and meet fellow travelers. And above all, I’m in a different comfort zone, pushed to ask questions and encouraged to learn and grow – values that I love bringing back to my native country and daily life here, as well.