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Looking down without fear

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The Spectrum

As I stood at the foot of the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower, I felt energized. I watched the 336 gaslights sparkle, heard the clock strike 10 p.m. and pretended I had half the confidence of the glamorous Parisian girls elegantly clacking around me on heels I could never walk in, let alone glide in their effortless way.

I felt nauseous.

But I knew I had worked hard to get here – my first trip to Europe for a study abroad program – and I didn’t want my secret shy, fear-ridden self to ruin this moment for the person I was trying to become.

Whenever my mom talks about my childhood, she always describes how perfect I was. I always slept in my stroller and never interrupted adults.

What she doesn’t say is that I didn’t leave my stroller because it was my haven, my place of safety. How could I consider interrupting an adult when I didn’t even have the courage to talk to one? I would hide behind my mother whenever someone tried to speak to me.

My shyness kept me from joining the drama club in middle school and singing duets or solos for music class. It’s kept me from parties, clubs and from making new friends. Instead of trying, I just stayed with the people I knew. It’s also made thinking about, searching for and interviewing for a job scary.

I know there won’t be any strollers I can hide in.

I have always imagined I could be different, that I would be the kind of person to walk up to strangers and start talking to them or travel to a foreign country and live there for a while. But my introverted personality has prevented me from trying.

The day I received an email about the winter study abroad opportunities at UB, particularly the chance to study journalism in Berlin, I knew I had to step out from this shadow that had hindered me for so long.

So there I was, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, with five other UB students who I had just begun to consider close friends and who were traveling with me in a few days to start the Berlin program and I had to face yet another fear – my fear of heights.

I know the exact moment when this fear began and I can’t recall it without feeling dizzy, weightless and nauseous. It’s like I’m falling all over again. I was 10 and I was standing on my rollerblades at the top of a large hill with my 12-year-old sister Whitney. Suddenly, without warning, my sister pushed me and I went barreling down. I remember hearing my screams echo through the empty space. I wanted to close my eyes but the wind wouldn’t let me. I watched myself coming down the hill. I also saw a blue minivan speeding toward where I was heading. My body shook as I tried to veer away. I smashed into a rock and tumbled onto the rocky pavement. I still have the scars on my legs.

Today, heights still make me nervous. I feel the weightless nausea coming on and don’t know how to stop it. I felt it at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower.

But how could I not go up?

Jordan Oscar, one of my new UB friends, hovered over me, interrupting my thoughts about the self I wanted to shed. His smile settled my uneasy stomach for a moment.

“I don’t know about any of you, but I want to be able to say that I went to the top of this incredible monument,” he said. “I will go alone if I have to.”

He stared at the five of two men, three women, all excited for our few days in Paris. We had just met six weeks ago, and already we had begun formulating lifelong friendships.

“I’ll go with you,” I said finally.

I bit my tongue at the thought of being 1,000 feet in the air.

We crammed into the first elevator with dozens of strangers and, as we inched upward, my nerves made my pulse quicken. While everyone else brimmed with excitement, I was shivering with fear.

But when the door of the second elevator opened and I stepped onto the platform, I saw the Seine River filled with lighted dinner boats carrying passengers under Paris’ famous bridges. Lights glowed everywhere. Cars circled around the Arc de Triomphe, while tiny people rushed across the street to beat the traffic. The Ferris wheel circled, the water glistened and as I watched, I felt invigorated, not nauseous. Clarity replaced dizziness. My fear was fading.

I had flown on my own to a foreign country. I was living with a group of strangers and hoping they would be lifelong friends. I didn’t have my family around me – there was no safe haven or mother’s legs to take refuge behind. But I also didn’t need it. I was 1,000 feet high and I wasn’t afraid.

I started reading the information about the Eiffel Tower and learned that when it was built in 1889 for the World’s Fair, a lot of people ridiculed it. People thought it was “deformed,” incomplete and didn’t fit with Paris’ “look.” But Gustave Eiffel, the architect, didn’t give up. He believed in himself and his monument and today his “incomplete” design is Paris’ most iconic monument.

Standing at the top of Eiffel’s tower and reading his story, I felt powerful. It was the most independent and whole I have ever felt in my life. Like Eiffel, I may face situations that frighten me but I will find a way to overcome them.

I spend a lot of time worrying about what I am going to do with my life. I worry that I am a senior English major with no specific career path or plan beyond May.

In that moment, though, my anxieties stopped biting at me. They stopped the whole time I was abroad. In Berlin, I learned to navigate the subway alone and fit into a culture not mine. And I not only learned to walk up to strangers and ask questions, I learned to understand answers that weren’t in English. I learned to find ways to not only understand the diverse cultures around me, but to also embrace them, learning how to be punctual for a meal, research a topic I don’t know much about, find experts quickly and even how to seat myself at a restaurant in Berlin.

I’m different today than I was just after Christmas, when my adventure began. I’m better. I’m more authentically me than I’ve ever been. I’ve learned how to outgrow habit and smash fear. I’ve also learned to trust the person I am becoming and that I don’t need all the answers today.

In Berlin, we met journalists who had changed careers three and four times before landing where they are today. I wrote an article about a Turkish immigrant who made a fortune on stuffed veggie sandwiches. These journalists and Berliners taught me to push myself beyond my fear.

Journalism gave me an excuse to ask questions, and now I plan to be more outgoing. I also feel ready to test myself in new ways – to push myself to experience new cultures outside of Buffalo and see what they have to teach me.

That scared little girl is still with me. But she has lost her power to hold me back. I don’t need a safe haven anymore.

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