How Traveling Triggered My Puzzle Piece Syndrome

More than ever, I start to identify myself as a part of the puzzle that doesn't fit in anywhere. Every time I leave for a new destination and return, the symptoms seem to intensify.
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by THINK Global School student Liisa Toomus


Liisa back home in Sweden

When I was six, seven, and eight, there were always two men or women dressed in medieval costumes selling roasted almonds in a wooden wagon on the main square of Tallinn. Nothing was better on dark and freezing winter days than these warm and crispy treats, and I think it is fair to classify them as the best roasted almonds of my life. To this day, I still can't go anywhere in the world and eat almonds without reminiscing sadly that they are nothing like the ones from a wagon in Estonia.

It might seem ridiculous, but I genuinely believe everything we experience etches onto us and helps to shape us into new beings. Therefore all the opportunities we have, big or small and even the ones we miss, help to define us in one way or another. The roasted almonds of my childhood were just a warm-up for what else my travels would bring, and how they would come to define my behavior and perception of belonging.


Liisa in Bhutan

Over the years, I can attribute many of my habits in life to my travels. Example being: incapability to drink chai lattes after having about a million cups too many in India, constantly clutching on to valuables in public after being mugged in South America, and a general confusion when it comes to grasp left and right side traffic after traveling internationally. While away, I have also outgrown my old favorite jeans and started to feel too mature for my leather-look-a-like jacket from my old school, which I carefully put hundreds of metallic studs on only a few years ago. I now see my old clothes and room with new eyes, and I am questioning how I can feel so remotely unrelated to items and rituals that I so cherished while still living in the town that I grew up in. I start to question if I have always been this out of place when I realize my political views no longer necessarily match the ones of my family, or when I struggle to make small talk in my own language during a coffee break at work. More than ever, I start to identify myself as a part of the puzzle that doesn't fit in anywhere. Every time I leave for a new destination and return, the symptoms seem to intensify.

Coming back home after traveling, I often feel like a puzzle piece in the wrong box, or a lot like my jammed suitcase that requires jumping and sitting on until, reluctantly, it begins functioning normally again. Because, really, coming back to a place so familiar after such a long time always leaves me feeling like a faraway alien asking, "Is this it?" Even though I sometimes feel like a stranger to what used to be the core of my identity -- my hometown -- I know deep down inside that I still remain nothing more than a visitor in remote countries due to my light blonde hair and thick accent. Therefore, I am forever destined to be part of a minority of walking, talking, and traveling human puzzle pieces solemnly hoping to find home. Considering the many people I've met at airports, vivid slam poems by friends, and informational "third culture kids" video clips on Vimeo, I can at least sigh and say, "well, at least I'm not the only one."


Liisa and her THINK Global School classmates in Kyoto, Japan

Equally perplexing, I keep thinking what it means to be under the "Puzzle Piece Syndrome." Maybe the goal is to finally find a place so perfect that you may stop looking any further. Maybe the goal is to adapt yourself to the puzzle, to truly tear yourself apart and enter a new shape, then justify yourself as a fitting member of the new puzzle. Another theory is that we should keep scavenging, not for puzzles, but for puzzle pieces. If we are meant to create our own puzzle solemnly with our own pieces, mine would consist of travelers that became friends and friends who became family. In that case, my puzzle would best be described as colorful, optimistic, and open for growth.

To justify all of this though, I should be able to start a puzzle at home. For this reason, I will work as hard as I can to find meaningful puzzle pieces and cautiously place them together, knowing that one day I will insert the final piece and create a wonderful picture. I can already assure you that the result will be exceptionally different from the one I have created through travel, but I would not trade the many layovers, cases of jet leg, culture clashes, and wisdom for anything in this world.

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