Get the Hell Outta Edmonton

by Zosia Czarnecka

With the new year, you’ll inevitably hear people’s bold resolutions to change their lifestyles, alter their perspectives, revolutionize their careers, and get one step closer to world domination – this will be THE year! If we were all successful in our intentions each year, we’d live in a perfect world. Unfortunately, the majority of us are doomed to fall short of our goals and then by around October, we’re all half-joking, half-begging for the year to be over or just claim us as its last victims. By November, we’ve resorted to drinking away our disappointment and by December our spirits are back up and we optimistically reassure ourselves and everyone around us that no, no… sorry, next year will be the year. Small calculation error. Or was it? I think a lot of us unfortunately approach our resolutions a little too naively, and while we can all remind ourselves that we need to set small goals, manageable tasks, tackle life one day at a time, and so on, one thing we often forget is that to change our lifestyle, we need to change our perspective.

Humans are inherently comfort-seeking sloths – we naturally resist large changes. If we cut fried food out of our diets without changing anything else, we immediately fall back to our guilty pleasures at the first sign of adversity. It’s not a bad thing – we enjoy comfort, and in today’s world, especially in Canada, comfort is easy to find. Perhaps to change one small aspect of our characters, the easiest way to do so is to change everything about our surroundings. In other words, get the hell outta Edmonton for a while, travel, and let the world influence your character.

Admittedly, it’s not easy because one of the great things about Edmontonians is that we are a tight-knit bunch. I wasn’t even born here and yet I feel this strong sense of home in this city – even if deep down I know there are opportunities and cities out there waiting for me that I haven’t discovered yet. My friends often joke that I have the travel bug – I start getting twitchy if I have to stay in Edmonton for longer than eight months without a short getaway. But a weekend trip usually isn’t enough to change your perspective, help you clear your head, and get you started on a new set of goals. To change your habits, you need to understand what really underlies them in the first place – what makes you tick. What exactly is it that makes you comfortable and how far can you stretch yourself outside that comfort? For 2017, I encourage you all to find that point – push yourself until you’re no longer comfortable, and then, once you find that line, take one more step. Some deeply coded sense of survival will instantly kick in and you’ll start taking risks you didn’t know you were capable of.

Lucky for me, my parents took it upon themselves to push me to that point continuously during my childhood. When I was in grade 8 for example, my family moved to France for a year. I remember having a panic attack on the plane when I realized I knew exactly one verb, in one tense, and had an extensive Halloween vocabulary (a holiday that wasn’t even celebrated in France at the time). Essentially I could say, “Hi, I am a witch” and that was it – my parents were convinced I would make friends in no time. Somehow, they proved to be right and I picked up French quickly, made friends, managed to clarify that no, this wasn’t the famous Quebecois accent but rather just me struggling to communicate and ended up doing exceptionally well in school. In fact, the following year I graduated from that school with the second highest national distinction on my exams (much to the disappointment of my French professor who hated me for butchering her beloved language and wanted nothing more than to watch me burn). When I came back to Canada, I entered high school not only as a proud bilingual, but as a student with a broader perspective outside our city. That didn’t mean I wanted to leave Edmonton again – on the contrary, it meant that I suddenly saw what needed to be changed in my community. Within a few weeks, my friend and I started a Francophone Club to promote French culture within our school because we saw that the curriculum simply wasn’t convincing students of the beauty of the language.

In university, I realized languages would be my highway to unique opportunities and took on Spanish. I then came up with the brilliant idea of travelling alone to a remote part of Ecuador for two months to work in a hospital where the nurses weren’t yet convinced that wearing gloves was a necessity. But working in an area where no one spoke a word of English, no one had ever seen an international volunteer let alone an iPhone or a MacBook, changed my view completely. I had gone down to Ecuador excited to learn about medicine and experience the profession first hand. Instead, my greatest lessons came from an exchange of ideas with the locals – I taught them the importance of eating healthy and exercising, and they taught me how to live modestly and non materialistically. I returned home infatuated with the medical profession but also as a more humble and mature student with an appreciation for networking, community, and a non-materialistic lifestyle. In a city such as ours that is so centered around innovation and technological development, it’s easy to forget the rooted characteristics of success in any field – passion, dedication, perseverance. I’m eternally grateful to Ecuador for grounding me.

Finally, last summer, the travel bug struck again and I took off to Germany for three and a half months. Granted, you may think this would be a significantly easier trip than remote Ecuador, however Germany came with its own set of challenges. This would be the longest trip I had ever done alone, in a country that I really knew very little about, with a language I hardly spoke. Adulthood hit me right in the face – I proudly found my own apartment with two of the loveliest roommates anyone could ask for, cooked on my own, worked 5 days a week, explored Europe on the weekends, worked on Edmonton-rooted activities in the evenings and studied for the MCAT in the mornings. I may have been mildly burnt out by the end, however, I completely rediscovered myself during that trip. I realized that I’m actually very independent and that I love it, I realized that I’m most productive in the evenings, that I don’t really like eating a big breakfast, that I love travelling alone, and that I have a dangerous obsession with markets and shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables. More importantly, I experienced working in scientific industry for the first time – previously I had only worked in university research labs which are significantly more idea rather than profit-oriented. The implications of this on my research back home were endless. Perhaps most notably my newly-instilled German discipline and perfectionism to repeat experiments and take very careful notes of all my ideas.

The common theme in these stories isn’t going abroad, but rather coming home. It’s the idea that you need to step away from what you love to see its imperfections. And by stepping away, going somewhere where you don’t know anyone, where you don’t understand the language or the traditions, you learn about your own imperfections, how you act, how you make decisions. And if there’s one thing the world desperately needs, it’s thorough, informed, and validated decision-making.

Banner photography courtesy of Nathan Froemming.