Life Abroad and the Loss of Innocence

Posted on / by Alex Berger

Old Woman By Fountain

As I stepped off of the curb and down onto an old cobblestone street in the historic district of Innsbruck, I found myself musing.  A few minutes earlier a light mist, far too mild to even be considered rain, had begun to drift down.  I was surrounded by old buildings full of character, each with a wealth of stories locked away behind oft re-painted and restored walls.  As my eyes scanned the street they settled on an old woman standing beside a water fountain.  It was one of those postcard perfect moments.  The type you travel for; that brings to life all of the magic moments you fawned over, dreamed of, and were raised upon.  I paused and soaked up the details of it. It wasn’t until several days later, as I touched down in Istanbul and found myself wandering the storied city’s ancient and exotic streets, that I realized that perfect scene had been the harbinger of a significant realization.

When I made the choice to re-locate to Copenhagen for a two-year Masters program, I knew that a lot of things would change.  Chief among those was me as an individual.  One thing I never thought about or expected to change drastically was my relationship as a whole with Europe.  True, I expected it to become more familiar, but I think at a certain level I expected that I’d just have more time to relish its magic and cultural diversity.

I now realize that in re-locating to Denmark, a large chunk of Europe has lost part of the exotic mystery that made it such an exhilarating and spectacular place to visit as a child and young adult. This shift hasn’t come entirely from the year and a half I’ve lived in Denmark. If I’m to be honest I think I can trace it as a gradual progression as I took each European trip.

The last year and a half has stripped away my innocence.  It has, in a way, mirrored the shift we go through as we grow up and realize that parents can be wrong, that Santa Claus is mythological fiction, and that special effects are constructs and not reality.  I hesitate to say that the magical has become mundane, because that would be a major simplification and, in truth, grossly inaccurate. Yet, it may, in part, get at the heart of what I’ve come to realize.

Istanbul offered me something that Innsbruck did not.  That taste of discomfort, the raw unknown, the alien. It offered the exotic, the strange, the curious all in addition to the pleasures of exploring a typical city. There was a time when Innsbruck and the other German, Nordic, and British cities harbored that same allure.  Now, though, they’ve become part of me.  The architecture differs, but only slightly.  The languages and people are different, but still close enough of a kind that they feel like kindred populations, strange cousins of a sort.

I suppose what I am getting at is that after nearly two years spent living in Denmark, that once-magical-fairytale land that was Northern and Western Europe has become an extension of the United States in my mind.  Just as a trip from Arizona to Florida offered a taste of the exotic, but remained still very much a part of the world of experiences and flavor that is the United States. The same has happened for me within Europe be it Denmark, Austria, Prague or England.

It’s not a bad thing really. If anything it is a chance to better connect with and relate to these countries.  I’m also not implying that Austria and Denmark are the same.  Far from it.  Yet, a part of me is slightly sad to see that period of innocent wonder lost…not unlike the loss of the innocence and wonder of youth. It also comes with the realization that to feed my addiction to the new, to the exotic, and to that sense of mystery – I’ll have to continue to explore other parts of the world I have thus far neglected.

As Asia, Far Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South America call to me I cannot help but be excited for the feast that is fresh discovery.  Still, I cannot help but realize that it will never be the same as my early love affair with Europe.  It is where my wanderlust was birthed, nurtured, and matured.

The lady by the fountain and countless moments like it also put my mind at ease.  It reminded me that there are still an abundance of intimate moments to be experienced here in Europe. It is a wonderous place full of incredible experiences, delectable food, new surprises, and a lifestyle that most Hollywood directors would refuse to craft into their films, claiming it to be far to ideal to be believable.

This post isn’t about regret, far from it. It is merely about the realization of lost innocence. I would make the move to Copenhagen again in a heart beat. I am love with my lifestyle, with the city, and derive endless pleasure from exploring Europe’s historic districts, winding streets, and cozy alleyways.  While every brick may no longer ooze mystery, the opportunity to spend my days casually wandering through real-life paintings is a true blessing.

In discussing this realization with friends who have pursued or are currently on a similar path, i’ve discovered that I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) not alone in this realization.  It is, in a way, inevitable.

To those of you who are dreaming of, considering, or in the process of pursuing expat life – it is a wonderful, informative, and inspiring thing.  Just be prepared and go into it striving to enjoy each and every moment while you can.  Those memories are the foundations upon which great memories and life’s context are built.

For now, I’m off to toss my headphones on, listen to some classical music, and let it serve as a soundtrack to my next adventure.

The open road calls …

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


  • Linda
    April 1, 2013

    What European countries have in common is that they are “first world.” Even though they have different traditions, they have long historys which are connected, even if not directly, then indirectly. Britain for instance, was conquered by Romans and by Vikings, and every time countries collided in history a bit of culture was exchanged. In going to Asia or the Americas, despite colonists having exported cultures we also step into a new dimension I think.

    “……striving to enjoy each and every moment while you can.” is how we should approach every day anyways! I’ve been an expat for a long time now, and sometimes find that I know things about these islands which locals don’t. Be curious would be my advice!!

    • Alex Berger
      April 4, 2013

      This is a great point and very true. All it takes is sitting down with a history book to really see how much cross-germination has occurred within the European theater over the millennia.

  • Dan
    April 22, 2013

    Well said! When are you off to Asia?

    • Alex Berger
      April 23, 2013

      That’s a great question. I still don’t know yet. I’m really hoping for sooner rather than later though!

  • chewy
    May 3, 2013

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this post for a while. Really insightful and thoughtful! I think it is hard to be “real” about travel and how you feel about a place because it is all subjective, but I think you really get at it with your discussion of a kind of loss of innocence.

    2 things really: one, I think it is partly about what you or I or any traveller (maybe naively) expects and then changing your perception based on what you are really experiencing and feeling (as opposed to ignoring it and living in ignorant bliss).

    Two, intimate moments like the one you observed might mean something to you because of how it makes you feel in your special context, but it might be normal or not as significant to the person or other people who also happen to observe. I think these moments can be found everywhere, in familiar and unfamiliar places, but maybe it is the lower frequency of these moments or lack of trying to see them in familiar places that makes them lose their luster.

    It’s also a kind of adaptation though. If we were walking around the world in awe of everything the same way we were when we were toddlers, we wouldn’t get anywhere or get anything done and we’d be exhausted!

    • Alex Berger
      May 6, 2013

      Thank you Chewy, really appreciate the feedback and insightful comment!

      I definitely agree that expectations play a huge role. It’s amazing how much cultural stereotypes or mental constructs from the movies etc. factor into our decision making and experience.

      For point two – I know that when I took weekends back in AZ and re-framed my way of relating to things it made a huge difference. I basically would set aside a weekend and say – this weekend I’m a tourist. I’m going to do tourist stuff, eat at places I’ve never eaten at before, and see things in a different way. It REALLY changed my relationship with the city and the state as a whole. It’s amazing how even a subtle shift like that can help change back the typical and benign to something exotic and unusual!

      • chewy
        May 7, 2013

        I like your method of framing a weekend and dedicating it to being a tourist. It is easy during longer term stays to never do any of that stuff, and always say that you’ll get to it eventually. I will have to try this because I’ve been in my current location (Singapore) for about 4 months and I’ve hardly done any tourist-y things. I will dedicate some weekends to exploration!

        • Alex Berger
          May 9, 2013

          Likewise here in Copenhagen. I did a ton of tourist stuff in the first month or two but haven’t done nearly as much recently. Need to toss my tourist hat back on. Good luck with the discovery!


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