Before I left for New Zealand, one of my professors warned me that when you’re on your own in a new place, your highs and lows of life become amplified. Your bad moments feel exceptionally bad, your good times euphorically good. I thought about this lesson a lot during the mid-trimester break, but one moment stands out in particular. I’m standing in a jazz bar in Sydney who’s usual crowd seems to be people over the age of 50. There’s a band playing, and when the song ends my flatmate Sarah approaches the bass player. I watch them both talk about the instrument with passionate voices, and then she lets Sarah play the next number while our other flatmate Erin and I swing dance in front of the stage. We’d been traveling together for a week, but I don’t think any of us realized why we’d come to a new continent together until that night. The band members had lived many lives before this one -- San Francisco in the 1980s, young adult years spent traveling Europe, people from small American towns who had started a life far from home. They played music here every Tuesday night, letting anyone with a good voice step onto the stage for a number. We’d stumbled into something wonderful.
The friendships you make abroad can be as hard to navigate as the streets of a new country. The first morning I woke up in Wellington, I tried to make tea for Erin and Sarah and ended up melting the bottom of the plastic kettle, filling the kitchen with smoke. After that stunning first impression, we started to become close friends, fast. Back home, I’ve always been a part of a group. It’s nice to have people to joke with, who make you feel supported and less alone. These things become even more important in a new city. We come from such different lives in America that we may never have met, but here we’ve shared tears, joy, and the comfort of companionship.
One thing no one tells you about this beautiful overseas experience is that behind every meaningful friendship you make lurks a feeling of impermanence. There’s a difference between being friendly and being friends, and sometimes it can take introverts like me a while to close that gap. I wasn’t sure what Erin and Sarah wanted out of this travel experience, why we’d all decided to travel Australia together, or whether they just felt stuck with me, but watching the jazz band reassured me that we’d be alright.
Julie, the bass player, didn’t hesitate to pass her treasured instrument into the hands of a girl she’d just met. The trumpet player passed his peeling brass instrument to a friend who ran a graceful scale. The microphone passed from voice to voice, and the music sounded like the casual intimacy between new friends who have decided to trust one another.
That night, the three of us walked back to our hostel full of laughter and wine. The hostel, located in a dimly lit part of Sydney, had peeling walls and smelled like old cheese, but that night we just felt lucky to be halfway across the world. We sang jazz tunes and traded jokes from three of the questionably clean shower stalls, not caring if any of the other travelers heard. They were mostly young people like us, living out of backpacks and navigating a new world.
Traveling itself is a privileged experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s filled with constant adventure. Sometimes it was eating cold noodles for dinner, or nearly crying from the stress of driving on the left side of the road or being so tired that you don’t really enjoy seeing the things you came to see.
When I look back on those two weeks, I’m going to remember exploring new cities and drinking cocktails at the beach, but more than that I will remember who I did those things with. I’ll remember sitting on the hostel bed together, talking about our families, our lives back home, and our fears for the future. I’ll remember the moment I decided these friendships weren’t just getting me through my time abroad -- they were the reason I’d come.