My decision to move abroad started with a fake passport and jerk chicken. I was on an elementary school field trip to Detroit, where they were holding an international culture festival. At the exhibit hall’s entrance, they were handing out pretend US passports for collecting stamps at the booths representing each country.
I remember looking out at the endless rows of tables all decorated with flags and wondering how many stamps I could fit in my small blue booklet. 20 years later, I still have that passport.
I don’t recall much about visiting the country booths, but I will never forget the food hall. The smells of roasted meats and unfamiliar spices overwhelmed me. With so many options to choose from, it took forever to decide what cuisine to experience. Ultimately, I chose Jamaica. My parents had honeymooned there, and I wanted to taste something from the place I had seen in the grainy Polaroids of the family photo album.
I was not disappointed.
The jerk chicken was an incredible combination of sweet and spicy. My mouth burned from the marinade, but I felt proud to be eating something unique, unlike my classmates who were looking for pizza or burgers. The dish was unlike anything I had ever tasted before, and I immediately wondered what other delights the other country’s food tables held. Sadly, I had neither the time nor the money to find out. I spent the bus ride home thinking about tropical forests and passport stamps.
It’s amazing how little experiences can shape our decisions for years to come.
My jerk chicken revelation inspired me to learn more about what the world had to offer. Already an avid reader, I started checking out library books on faraway places and browsing encyclopedias for photos of Komodo dragons and Mount Fuji. I discovered the Travel Channel and was charmed by the cafés of Paris and blown away by the floating markets of Thailand. The world felt bigger than ever before, but I was determined to see it all.
And then a trip to the used bookstore changed everything.
Up until this paragraph, I may have sounded like someone who would leap into the unfamiliar without hesitation. Unfortunately, this was (and still is) not the case. Anxiety and fear of failure have been my constant companions since childhood. Fun fact: I once had a panic attack on my way to soccer practice because I forgot my goalie gloves and was sure I’d get kicked off the team. So, when I came across Patricia Schultz’s book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, I was immediately ready to give up on my dreams of seeing the world. Why even bother trying if you aren’t going to visit all 1,000 places?! It was pointless to begin.
Fortunately, my curiosity won over my fear, and I started flipping through the pages. Frankly, I could not believe that there were 1,000 places that everyone had to see in their lifetime. And by the time I finished skimming its 900-odd pages, I was even more certain:
There is no definitive bucket list for all travelers.
Once I realized Schultz’s book was a source of inspiration for globetrotters, I felt a huge sense of relief. I brought the book home and started combing through the pages, making note of what places were on my personal bucket list. I started developing a sense of what I cared about as a traveler. This helped me come to terms with the knowledge that I could not, in fact, see the entire world. After two cross-country moves and one trans-Atlantic relocation, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die is still on my bookshelf, and I’m still using it to refine my list of must-see places.
In 2004, my expat destiny was sealed.
The Travel Channel started airing a new show called Passport to Europe, hosted by Samantha Brown. Jerk chicken and a giant travel book inspired me to see the world, but Samantha Brown made me want to live in it. Her upbeat personality and love of food struck a chord with me. I wanted to grow up and eat ice cream on the banks of the Seine, and then hop on a train to Rome for a dinner of homemade pasta with a view of the Trevi Fountain. She made Europe seem so inviting, so delicious, and so well-connected. I knew after the first season that I had to live in one of the continent’s magical cities.
Jerk chicken, a travel book, and Samantha Brown inspired me to leave the US and move abroad. I made a lot of difficult decisions on my journey to become an expat, but I wake up every day and feel that it was worth it. My sincerest hope is that I can help other aspiring expats and globetrotters live out their dreams of seeing the world. It only takes a few simple things to get started on your path to adventure.
What moments in your life made you want to travel or live abroad? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!