Lesson One from Austria: The Comfort Zone

Last night I climbed Schloßberg–the picturesque “mountain” looming over the city of Graz, Austria–with my beautiful Ukrainian roommate, Vika, to watch the sun set behind the mountain ridges surrounding Graz and eat some fresh-baked Austrian Pita Brot (pita bread) with Grecian hummus and sautéed Roma tomatoes. 

(View over Graz from Schlosßberg)

Vika is a pretty magical, wonderful human. She currently sits at 18 years of age, graduating from Ukrainian high school a year early at 16. With zero prior knowledge of either German or English (the only languages that are actually helpful to know in a German speaking country), she moved to Graz to study medicine at the Technical University. 

Yeah, um, study medicine in German

She came to Austria alone, at the age of 17, and had to register with the city, find a bank account, get a visa, find her way around, find housing–all of this that has taken about 4 years away from my life span–alone and without being able to speak any languages that people here know. And then she goes on to study medicine. 

I don’t know how you are feeling currently, but this blows my mind. As much as I really deeply love Graz already and as much as I have intensely bonded with the beautiful friends that I have made, it has been no picnic to get everything sorted and accounted for. 

So when I asked her, “Liebe Vika, how in the world were you able to go completely out of your comfort zone and move to Austria of all places?!” To which she stared at me for a while (half because her English isn’t very developed and I speak too fast anyways, and half because the question struck her as absurd) and replied,
“Vat are you talking abut? Dies ist not out of my comvert zone. Dies has been my dream forever. I am nut so gut at going out of my comvert zone.” 

Translation: she honestly didn’t believe that any of this constituted as her going out of her comfort zone. She went on to explain that she has a home here and running water and showers and she likes her routine….she believes that she is in her comfort zone because she is so intune with miscommunication and adapting to things. All of her friends and family have done this, once they graduate high school they all move to different parts of the world for studies. 

But for me, even though I have it much easier than she did, moving to Austria has put pressure on the circumference of my own zone. I am thrown into situations daily that I feel are out of my comfort zone–having to navigate through the safe parts of the city to get home alone at night, being paired with a far-superior-German-speaking-international-student for an oral German placement exam in order to be placed in the appropriate German intensive course level, going to sleep at 2:30 and waking up at 6:30 multiple nights in a row in order to both make friends and also make it to class the next day, having to deny my own pride in order to ask so many people to help me because I don’t understand how to do so many necessary things…

It’s easy to listen to Vika and think, Wow. I was only kidding myself when I thought that I was doing such a great job at expanding and going out of my comfort zone. 

But then some pretty neat-o realizations began to take place. I started to talk about my intense passion and drive for Ultrarunning, the feeling of pounding through long, long distances alone and then finishing and wanting to immediately do it again. I started to talk about how I want to do a 100K and eventually work my way up to the 100-mile distance. I told her about my dream to thru-hike the entire Appalatian trail. I told her about my weekend plan to spend the day hiking Austrian mountains with a friend.


(The mountain we climbed)

She began to get the same look on her face that I did when she was telling me about herself. “But VY? Vy vould you want to do dies? Do people do dies? Dies 100K running? Do they actually hike for 2 months straight vivout any showers or comverts?”

Translation: she was asking me how on earth I could enjoy going out of my comfort zone like that. Pretty much the same question that I had asked her. 

Those things aren’t really out of my comfort zone, though. Running a half marathon or even a full marathon is just another weekend run, it doesn’t seem that long to me anymore. I don’t say this arrogantly, or at least I hope you don’t take it as such, none of these distances are run even remotely fast. It’s very within my comfort zone to stick to my well-thought-out plan of running increasing distances every day, by myself, with the pleasure of my podcasts and the pleasure of my gels and mid-run fueling. It’s out of my comfort zone to give this up because it has become so familiar to me and so comforting of an activity. 

I have read so many memoirs of Appalatian thru-hikers. So many memoirs of intense ultra runners. I have listened to so many podcasts. I don’t think that my 50K race is anything super special (I mean, it is super special to me, but in the greater scheme), because I have listened to so many accounts of people running far greater distances with far faster times. 

I came to realize this very important fact: the comfort zone–like almost everything else– is also completely relative.

Vika does not have a bigger comfort zone. Her comfort zone isn’t greater or more adaptive or more expansive than mine. Likewise, I do not have a “better” comfort zone than her. There are some people that I have met who tell me fantastic stories about the adventures they have gone on, things that are normal for them but extreme for me. But these people that I have met are older than me by quite a few years or they have lived in places that afford them these opportunities, so in no way is it justifiable for me to compare my comfort zone with theirs. We are different people.

You’ll go nuts. You’ll lose the plot, as my Aussie friends call it.  

Some personal takeaways from this potentially obvious-to-you realization: 

  1.  The only comfort zone that I need to be mindful of is mine. All I can do is work diligently a little each day to expand my own comfort zone. 

2. Stomaching the urge to compare myself with others, I can definitely gain perspective from listening to what other people are comfortable with. I come back to the flat after a long day of running around trying to figure Austrian life out and plop down on the floor in a state of being semi-defeated. Vika, noticing my obvious distress, talks me down and tells me everything is going to be okay, that she went through this too and that it wasn’t that big of a deal. That it’s going to work out.

 3. Maybe I haven’t gone cross country skiing through the Alps. Maybe I haven’t been cliff diving off the coast of Indonesia. Maybe I haven’t moved to a country where I am 100% unable to communicate. But because I am an individual, because there is no one like me in terms of age, nurture, passion, tendencies, flaws, regrets, schooling, pet peeves, observations, processing abilities…because of these things, I have something to offer, too. 

 4. Just because it’s not about “anyone else” also does not mean that it is about me.  

So, update from Austria

I can’t believe it’s only been one week; honestly, I feel as if I have lived a couple of years in such a time. There are so many memories that I have already made and so many wonderful things that have happened that I want to share. But I’ll narrow it down for you:

Top 5 Highlights from the week: September 5-September 10th:

 • Going to an organ concert with Vika in an Austrian cathedral in the middle of a thunderstorm was BOMB. 


 • Every Wednesday most of the international students go to an Austrian pub called The Office and my first experience of an Austrian pub was being surrounded by now-familiar faces and friends with whom I have become very bonded and close with. That was pretty tight.

 • In a registration session reserved for only students studying in Austria for the full year (featuring some pretty disheartening news about FBI background checks and also more fees concerning not being deported from Austria) I met Rodrigo from Brazil. He asked me where I was from, to which I replied “Kansas”, to which he got excited and told me that for 5 months he lived in Manhattan, Kansas with his uncle who is a professor at Kansas State University. I go all the way to Austria to meet a new friend comes all the way from Brazil and has shared my hometown of MANHATTAN KANSAS. How insane is this world that we live in. 

 • A British tourist couple asked me for directions when I was on my way home from the university. Perhaps the first time that someone has told me, “I’m glad you speak English!”.  

 • Went out this morning for my first solo-run (I have found that I infinitely prefer this to group running) and found these pretty sweet trails that snake along the Mur River. Just me, early Austrian morning, leaping over roots and rocks and trying not to fall in the river. 


Peace and Blessings,

Josie

  

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