In the months leading up to my college graduation, I felt a cold panic slowly setting in. It seemed that every day, I spent more and more time wrestling with the questions swirling around in my mind and threatening my sanity.
Where was I going to live? What kind of work would I be doing? Would I even be able to get a job at all with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, a minor in Russian, and a total lack of any practical skills whatsoever? Should I apply to grad school straight away, or wait a year or two? Would I be able to pay for grad school? Did I evenwantto go to grad school?
But more pressing than these questions, which are common to many graduating seniors, were the existential worries I faced. I knew I would be okay. I knew I could get a job, even if it wasn’t in my field. I knew I would survive. But there were other questions, questions that filled me with dread and kept me up at night.
Is this the end of my freedom? Is my life about to get boring? Did I miss my chance to make my life into something more meaningful than a 9-to-5 office job and a two-week vacation once a year?
Being the compulsive researcher that I am, I started looking into my options. Grad school in the US was expensive, there was no guarantee it would make me more employable, and most importantly, I wasn’t completely sold on any area of specialization. A job in my field with just a bachelor’s degree was virtually nonexistent, and the thought of some unrelated office job seemed boring, meaningless, and filled me to the brim with the aforementioned existential dread. So – just for fun, I thought – I started looking into graduate degrees abroad. I’d always wanted to live in Europe and, other than a short study abroad in St. Petersburg the summer before, had never done it. I figured this might be my last chance to even flirt with the idea before the reality and drudgery of true adulthood got its hold on me.
I found a search engine for master’s degrees, narrowed down the results to degrees in linguistics that didn’t cost any extra for non-EU citizens, and ended up with no less than two results.
Of those two results, one stood out. It was like it had been crafted specifically for me. The holy grail of master’s degrees was staring me down from my computer screen on a sunny April day in the backyard of my little house in Salt Lake City. It was something called The International Joint Degree in Sociolinguistics and Multilingualism in the Baltic Region (SoMu for short). It was, amazingly, tuition free. And the cherry on top: as part of the degree requirements, students would spend semesters in three (!!!) different European countries. One in Lithuania, one in Germany, and one was a choice between Sweden and Estonia.
I thought it must be too good to be true. This couldn’t be real. There must be some catch. But, after hours and hours of research, by which I was too consumed to even take too many popsicle breaks (or study for finals), I came to the conclusion that it might actually be real. It might actually be possible. I might be able to live a life, for the next two years, that had the potential to be more exciting and picture-perfect than any of the daydreams I’d managed to come up with in my 22 years of near-constant daydreaming.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, that sunny day in my backyard that I spend neglecting responsibilities in favor of researching dreams ended up changing the trajectory of my life. I called off the trip I had planned to see a few grad schools across the US, as they no longer held any appeal to me. I sucked it up and got a boring, full-time office job, as well as keeping my old job at a jewelry store for the occasional night and weekend. I made a budget and a goal and spent the next year funneling every spare penny into my savings account. I applied and was accepted to the SoMu program. I researched the first country I’d be moving to, Lithuania, within an inch of its life. I knew that berry-picking was the national pastime and that nobody in Lithuania had ever been killed in a terrorist attack (a very relevant detail in 2016).
As the weeks went by, August grew closer, and the prospect of moving across the world slowly started to feel real, people around me began to worry. They realized this was more than just talk, that I was actually going to do it. I can’t count the number of times people told me that it was too dangerous. That there were terrorists in Europe. That predators would abound. That I was just asking for trouble – a young, helpless woman moving alone to a far-off country, with no knowledge of the language, no experience in the harsh, mean real world, and no fear to keep me careful.
I went anyway. I spent two years living a dream – but it was more than a dream. It was a life so extraordinary that I had never even dreamed it up. It wasn’t perfect, of course. There were hard days and dark winters and language barriers. There were even a few less-than-pleasant encounters with strangers. But, overwhelmingly, there was kindness. If there’s one thing that placing myself in a situation like that, making myself more helpless than I’d ever been since learning to talk, showed me, it’s that there are good people everywhere. There is always someone willing to come to the aid of a stranger. And there is so much more goodness, kindness, and positivity to be experienced out there in the world if we’re able to look beyond our distrust and our fear.
Take an experience I had in Lithuania for example. It was November, sometime in the evening, and it had been dark for hours. I was alone on the bus, on my way home from a long day at the university. I was the only passenger on the bus until the doors opened and an old woman climbed aboard. As soon as I caught a glimpse of her, my whole body reacted instinctively with fear. My heart started pounding; my hands started sweating; every muscle in my body tensed up. This woman looked like she’d been taken straight from the pages of a children’s book about a Halloween witch. She was hunched over, with drapey black clothes and long, wild gray hair. She had a narrow, crooked nose. Most remarkably, her skin was green. I don’t mean a faint tint or an unfortunate choice of eyeshadow – it was fully, truly green. I didn’t understand it then, and I definitely couldn’t explain it now – to this day, it remains one of my life’s greatest mysteries – but there you have it.
As my logical brain tried to take over control of my body and my heartbeat slowly grew calmer, the woman began to make her way down the aisle of the bus. As she walked, she clutched the seats on either side of her for support and babbled wildly to herself. I felt my jaw clench and my heart speed up once more as she took the seat directly across the aisle from mine. Then she directed her gibberish at me (to be clear, my Lithuanian was, in fact, quite basic and any utterance of the language would have been mostly unintelligible to me. But this was, even to my untrained ear, not normal Lithuanian speech). I got a hold of my mental faculties enough that I could smile and nod as she spoke. But then her intonation changed, she paused, and I had the distinct impression that she was asking me a question.
I gathered my wits about me and pulled together my limited linguistic resources to provide a response.
“I’m sorry,” I said in Lithuanian, “I don’t speak Lithuanian.”
The woman looked at me with knowing eyes. “Ahhh,” she said “Angliskai?” I nodded.
Just like that she was up and out of her seat, moving with more speed and agility than I would have thought possible. She darted across the aisle and settled into the seat behind mine. She leaned forward until her face was next to mine, and spoke in slow, clear Lithuanian.
“Hello. Do you knowhello?”
She moved around so that her face was on my other side.
“Hi. Do you knowhi?”
Back around she went to my other side.
“Good day, do you knowgood day?”
Then, as quickly as it started, it was over. The bus came to a stop in front of my run-down, Soviet-era hotel-turned-dormitory. I smiled my thanks and stepped out of the bus and onto the cold, wobbly pavers of the sidewalk. As I made my way through the light rain to my building, I wondered: did I just meet a real-life good witch? Was she just a friendly old woman going about her business as usual? And, most importantly – why was her skin green??
This impromptu language lesson on a lonely bus in Lithuania was far from the only time I experienced unnecessary kindness at the hands of a stranger. There was the time, a few months later, when I was walking through Stockholm, pulling everything I owned behind me in a suitcase that weighed as much as I did, and no less than four people in a matter of ten minutes stopped what they were doing and went out of their way to ask me if I needed direction, help carrying my suitcase, help with anything at all. There was the time a kind soul, seeing my intention to attempt hauling that same suitcase down a flight of stairs, ran out of her way to stop me and point out the elevator around the corner. There were the countless times locals invited me to dinner, made me feel welcome, or took time to practice the language with me, despite their own flawless English.
I learned a lot during my two years in Europe. Languages and history. Sociolinguistics and Baltic language policy. Researching and writing skills. You name it. But, above all, the most profound lesson I learned is this: There are people everywhere willing to offer help and kindness to a stranger. Scary things happen everywhere in the world, and they probably always will, but more tragic than any one event is the idea that we can let these negative things cast a shadow over all that is positive, that we will stop experiencing all of the good the world has to offer for fear of running into the occasional bad.