Living At vs Visiting a Destination
Difference between traveling to a country and going to live there Travel is a fantastic thing. It is a way of broadening your perspective, opening your horizons, and coming to see things in a different light. No matter how well-traveled you are, however, no matter how many times you have visited a specific country, there is no substitute for getting to know a place like living there.
Travel, even when done well, is always transitory. There’s no feeling of being settled, no sense that the traveler ever truly belongs to a particular community. Staying in hotels or hostels, eating at restaurants, forming temporary relationships… all these are markers of travel, and none contribute to a sense of rootedness. By contrast, uprooting yourself to go to actually live in a certain place necessitates a total change of perspective. No longer are you enjoying yourself and observing a different culture with the knowledge that when your trip is over, you will return home to a place where you feel safe and secure. Going to live in a place is a conscious decision to integrate oneself into a different way of life, a stated desire to contribute to a place different from the one in which you grew up and are familiar. While travel may make one like or appreciate a place, only through living can one truly love.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a look at Ireland. Stereotypes surrounding Ireland and the Irish people abound in the United States, a country with a significant Irish-descent population. Off the top of my head, some of those that I can think of would include:
- All “real” Irish are Catholic, and this faith is very important to Irish people’s identity.
- All “real” Irish hate the British, and are heavily invested in the idea that Ireland is for the Irish Catholics, and not for the British Protestants.
- Ireland is a land of green countryside.
- Irish people enjoy telling stories and speaking your ear off – “the gift of blarney,” if you will.
- Irish people are continually cheerful, welcoming, and upbeat.
- The Irish are incurable drunkards.
And etc, etc. The list goes on and on and on. I must admit that I bought into a great many of these stereotypes until I went to live in Galway, Ireland, from 2010-2011, to earn a master’s degree at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
I had been to Ireland before to visit with my family, and I left thinking that these stereotypes were still generally true. Because I was visiting for about a week, I didn’t get to know any Irish people very well, I didn’t get to know where we were staying particularly well, and I didn’t learn very much about Ireland at all. The trip was nice, and fun, and I very much enjoyed myself, but I certainly didn’t even come close to the level of knowledge I gained from later living there.
Because living there was an entirely different story altogether. To start off, there were some very notable, physical differences between what I encountered upon living there and what I had been trained to believe. The “Emerald Isle” is largely a creation of the American imagination. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely green fields in places, and certainly acres of beautiful countryside, but that’s the key: “in places.” Ireland as a whole is not a monolith of green countryside; in fact, the region in which I was living, Connaught, is rocky and rugged, and many other parts of the country are similarly inhospitable to agriculture.
But to dig a little deeper, the true benefit of living in a place is getting to know the people, and un-learning things you thought you knew. While some stereotypes hold somewhat true, such as that the Irish are on the whole lovely and welcoming (although not “constantly” so; obviously, the Irish are people, just like anyone else, and there are mean people, or people who have bad days), many stereotypes are just flat wrong. For instance, there was one other American in my master’s who couldn’t let go of the idea that “real” Irish should hate the British. It became very evident very quickly that actual Irish people do not think like this; this is largely, if not completely, an American invention, especially when you are talking about the Republic of Ireland (as opposed to the North). And when you think about it, it makes sense; the Irish fight for independence was almost a century ago now, and the “Troubles” of the 1960s and 1970s were in the North of Ireland, not the Republic where I was living. Why on earth should people living in Ireland today care at all about the British?
Yet this fellow student remained stubbornly fixed on this notion, and I remember cringing with embarrassment when she would make comments about hating the British or desiring to shoot British soldiers dead. Everyone in the room would cast uneasy glances at each other, and no one ever knew exactly what to say. What it boiled down to, in actuality, was that living in a place necessitates you letting go of any preconceptions you may have had about a particular place. If you cannot let go of those preconceptions, you are not living; you are traveling. This student never made the leap from traveler to liver, and being a liver is a much more enriching experience.
Of course, there are a multitude of other benefits to living in a place besides letting go of preconceptions. Some people may very well not have any preconceptions at all before moving to a place, and in that case, this step can be entirely sidestepped. Besides overcoming previously-held notions, I learned a lot of very valuable things in Ireland from the people I met and became friends with, things I never would have learned from a mere visit. I learned that it is perfectly acceptable to call someone your friend after knowing them about a week; this is unimaginable to me in an American context, where the title “friend” is carefully and stringently bestowed (think of how often Americans classify someone as an “acquaintance,” rather than as a “friend”). I learned to let myself relax (in America, during college, I used to do most of my work on Sundays; this is a foreign concept in Ireland, for you must allow yourself at least a day of rest). I learned to be friendly and strike up conversations with strangers, and I learned that in a small and insular society, news travels awfully fast (I moved to Ireland from New York City, so this was an especially difficult lesson to learn). These may seem like relatively shallow things, but I learned deeper lessons as well, lessons that don’t fit into the length parameters of this article. Essentially, when I traveled to Ireland, I liked it; when I lived there, I loved it.
The main point is that these lessons would not have been possible from a mere visit to Ireland. If you have the means and the desire, I encourage everyone very much to try living abroad for at least a year. Traveling is wonderful, but it is no comparison for living.