Svetlana Goncharenko: Soon it will feel like home

Interview conducted on January 24, 2016

IMG_0080“I wanted to leave to a better place for more opportunities.  I needed to start over where I knew no one and no one knew me.  Wherever was the furthest away from home–across the ocean seemed appropriate.”

The concept of “home” means something different for all of us.  Svetlana never had a single place to call home.  She was born in Ukraine and grew up in Israel.  Many of her decisions during her adolescence were not hers to make, and when she did chose, it was often between the lesser of two evils.  Leaving Israel and coming to the United States for a higher education was one of the first positive decisions she made purely for herself.


Initially, Svetlana was registered to attend university in Israel. On the way home from registering for her first semester, she saw a billboard advertisement on the side of the road encouraging people to study abroad in the U.S. This sparked her curiosity.

She researched the logistics of studying in many locations, but something kept pulling her back to the American universities.  I asked her what she knew about the States before she began her research and she said, “I watched so many movies about the U.S. and the ‘American Dream.’ I didn’t really have a lot of information before I came, besides the videos and movies.  I didn’t mind where I went [to university], I just wanted something new. I asked myself, ‘Why not?’”

“I wouldn’t say I was afraid, but I was excited.  Those two emotions feel the same inside you, so I decided to feel it as excitement.  I was completely in the dark about what it would really be like.  I came from the same friend group my whole life, so I was worried that I wouldn’t meet new people.  I was scared that I wouldn’t succeed in school, as well.  But, I was more excited than scared.  I wanted to come to the U.S. so badly, but had no idea what to expect.”


Svetlana says she was inspired by her uncle and her grandmother.  Her grandmother really believed in her through this whole process, and Svetlana had always looked up to her uncle.  With his support and encouragement, she was able to bring her dreams into reality.  

She found a school for SAT preparation, English language classes, and advice for studying abroad. Her advisor was a great help, preparing her emotionally, and helping her choose a city. Svetlana applied to universities in Massachusetts, California, New York, and Texas. After about a year of paperwork and weighing all the pros and cons, Svetlana decided on Suffolk University in Boston.  


On her first day in the city, she panicked.  She had no idea where to buy pillows, one of the few things she said she needed to sleep that night.  After attempting to use a physical map (this was before she had a smartphone) to try and find what the random passer-bys called a “department store”, she was graced by a nice couple who walked her all the way to the closest TJMaxx.  They asked her what else she needed and they proceeded to show her where to find a phone and take out money from an ATM.  She described her whole first day as surreal: “People on the street looked exactly like the movies; the people spoke exactly like the movies.  They were almost like cartoon characters to me.”

At the beginning, she said, every problem or concern led to small panic attack.  Things that seemed second nature to her now would result in extreme frustration because she couldn’t explain exactly what she wanted to do in English.  But, every small success, whether it was ordering food in English at a restaurant, or figuring out how to buy a train ticket for the first time, made it all worth it for Svetlana.  

“I started to have routines.  I began to know the chain restaurants and other businesses like CVS and Target.  I got used to American things and American foods. The food is so weird!  The sizes are so big!  Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches were life-changing.  And fluff– who thought of that?!”


Svetlana explained that she needed her first year to be at a smaller university, like Suffolk, because she was able to obtain the individual help she needed in mastering the English language.  

“I needed to prove it to myself that I could do it,” she said. “Once the spring came after my first semester, it was better.  I was no longer taking 8 to 10 hours to read a few pages.”  As her confidence in reading and writing in English grew, she set her sights on a larger university, Boston University.  Here, she would have a larger international student body with which to meet, more opportunities, and a world class psychology department from which to graduate.  

When she started her first semester at B.U., she felt much more comfortable.  She joked that because she was able to find an apartment in the U.S., she could now do anything else in Boston without being scared.  At this point, she was able to talk to professors and get good grades.  She had a lot of momentum starting B.U. and viewed it as one more goal to accomplish.  She said that she was moving forward and felt confident that she could adjust to the new university.  

Boston and B.U. began to feel like home.  Svetlana said she met people “instantaneously” from classes. And through these initial connections, her friendships began to grow.  “When you have people that you actually care about and you begin to love,” she said, “that’s when it feels like home.  That is B.U. for me, a collection of little moments.”  



“I had to re-learn how to communicate.  I did not see that coming.  People smile at you on the street.  This was the most incredible thing I noticed.  In Israel, people argue with others; it’s the way of life.  In Ukraine, life is hard and people don’t smile.  Here, people smile all the time! It’s so weird to me.  Now I smile all the time and say, ‘Hi, how are you,’ when I see people.  It’s easy to talk about nothing to anyone.  Small talk is something I never did before.  Sometimes people just talk about the weather.  Americans don’t cut to the chase.  It took time for me to be ok with it.  The beauty is that people can be so smart and so superficial at the same time.  I struggled with the American notion of ‘extreme politeness’ for the first couple years.  There’s a certain way to say something, good or bad, and show how you feel with words.  I had to be a spectator at first and see how people communicate with each other and how people have friendships.”


Prior to coming to the U.S., Svetlana said that she felt like she had two parts of herself.  She felt like there were two people inside her; two customs.  Now, after coming to the States, there’s a third, an American piece in addition to the other two.  When she travels to Ukraine or Israel, she notices how she changes.  She said her words and body language both change and her heart is divided into three pieces.  Svetlana understands the American culture now. “It’s an additional layer of myself.  Every place I go, there’s something I learn and it adds to myself,” she said.  

The U.S. is unlike anywhere else she’s lived. There’s something special about it, Svetlana says.

She thinks that the people are amazing.  They have a love for life, an energy, and they do things because of goals.  They do their jobs with passion and with a lot of drive.  This drive, she said, has rubbed off on her and now she’s thinking of what goals she has for the future.  


“When you go abroad for so long, it changes you to a point where the world seems so small, but it’s really so big.  If you overcame difficulties coming abroad to live, and you were open to those experiences, then you can be a better, stronger person.  By being a part of so many cultures, I’m actually a part of none.  I’m not looking from the outside in anymore, but rather putting myself inside the culture.  I get to live within the culture and look at everything differently.  If you take this mentality to everything you do, you open your mind to other beliefs and you can learn from each other.  At this point, I’m not afraid of anything.  It’s everything I ever wanted and more.”

Svetlana’s advice for someone looking into studying abroad is to “just do it.”  Don’t be scared, she said.  Be ready to change and adjust your opinions and beliefs.  Be open to the experiences and try everything.  Fear and excitement feel about the same.

The final piece of advice Svetlana can give is: “Take a moment during long drives or on the train to understand where you are.  Be present in each moment and experience everything fully.  Expect small setbacks at the beginning.  Every new thing might knock you down, but soon it will feel like home.”IMG_4043.JPG



Here’s my newest interview with Jon and Jo!  They’re an English couple who sold everything and began what they call “land sailing”.  Read about their experiences and advice in this Q&A.

Be sure to follow them on Twitter and their blog to find out where they go next!

Interview conducted on February 20, 2016.

“When we tell people what we are doing with our lives we get one of two responses. Either they think we’re crazy and irresponsible or they love the idea and think we’re very brave. I’m not sure that we’re actually either one entirely, perhaps a little of both. We’re just us doing what we want to do together. It wouldn’t work for everyone and we wouldn’t dream of suggesting that we are something special. We are just living our lives in this moment in our own way and enjoying those moments.”


TCK: What caused you to begin your journey? Do you remember the exact moment?  

JW: There wasn’t a specific moment or a single reason that prompted us to start our little adventure but a gradual feeling that built up over a long period of time. Our three sons had all left home, unfortunately as we miss them like crazy, and we found ourselves living in a family house with no family. Our lives hadn’t changed but we felt a nagging sense of ‘there must be more to life’ creeping up on us. We were both 53 and the realisation that we had potentially another 14 years at work stretching ahead of us caused us to sit down and discuss what we wanted from life and what was important to the both of us. We realised that we weren’t sure what we wanted but that we did want to get into a position where we could decide. So we made the decision to sell the house and get rid of the majority of our possessions. We felt that if put ourselves into a position where we were renting a property with minimal furniture and clothes then we could make a fair decision on the future.

2It took nine months to clear out virtually everything that we’d gathered over the previous 30 years and we found ourselves in a tiny 2 bed rental property in Maidstone. Still working but now in a position to take any path we chose. Unfortunately a serious illness in the family arose and it was another few months before we were ready to make that decision.

The exact moment was 11am on Sunday March 15th 2015 when we both agreed that we just wanted a little adventure and had a real window of opportunity in our lives. We decided we’d leave work, get rid of the remaining stuff, and go travelling. No destinations were decided but we both resigned the next day and put notice in on the rented house.

TCK: When did your journey start and where have you been so far?

JW: Once we’d resigned and started the process we both drew up a list of places that we’d like to visit and compared notes. Amazingly the lists were identical so we decided we’d go to Australia and New Zealand as they were the furthest places and potentially the most expensive to reach. Also we realised that the past 18 months had been quite stressful and that the next two could be really hectic so we decided to spend our first three months just relaxing in a few locations across Europe before we started the trip down under.

We left England on June 1st 2015 and spent our first month just south of Nijmegen in Holland in a quite little village called Groesbeek. The plan was to sit back and do a lot of not very much. It didn’t quite work out like that as we got into some serious cycling and developed a new social life with some reconnected old friends and our new Dutch hosts. It was exactly what we needed and we absolutely loved our new lives. From there we went to Bavaria in Southern Germany for another month in a tiny village outside Munich, where we just walked and talked and read books and hung around in beer gardens. Brilliant again. Our last European month was across in Austria in a tiny remote village called Vochera. We really planned to spend time just finalising our Australian plans and doing nothing but again it didn’t turn out like that.

3.5The family that we stayed with took us in completely and our month was filled with family parties, barbeques, concerts, day trips, local shows, and getting to know vast numbers of family and friends. It was one of the most wonderful times of our lives and we became part of the family. Words can’t describe just how kind and welcoming our hosts Eva and Othmar were, we’ll be good friends forever now.

So from there, we had a few days back in the UK before flying to Perth and a three month tour of Australia followed by three months in New Zealand.

TCK: What were you most afraid of beforehand?

JW: Our biggest fear was that of missing our three boys so much that it might spoil our little adventure. We are a close family and although they were all unbelievably supportive you just don’t know how you will feel until you have left and are actually in that situation. Luckily it is just so easy now to keep in touch via Skype and Whatsapp and of course through our blog. Apart from that we had no worries whatsoever, we are a fairly laid-back couple and fairly well organised so as long as we were together we knew we’d be fine.

TCK: What were you most excited about beforehand?

JW: Strangely we didn’t get overly excited about anything at all. This may have been due to the vast number of things we had to do and plan for before we left but as I said earlier we’re fairly level-headed and take most things in our stride.


TCK: How do you keep in touch with your family?  Is it difficult at some destinations?

JW: We made a big decision right at the beginning that we would not have phone contracts when we left. We don’t like the idea of being contactable 24 hours a day, and I personally think being online constantly is unhealthy and makes you lose sight of where you are and what you’re doing. We decided that we’d use maps to get around when necessary and if we needed information we would be completely old-fashioned and actually ask someone. You know, speak to a local. So many travellers walk around with their faces in their phones missing everything and everyone around them. That was not what we wanted. As long as our accommodation had Wifi we could email and blog etc in the evenings. Simple and sociable.

TCK: What were your favorite places so far and why?  

JW: We both love places with character and personality and although Australia is a pretty modern country we loved Fremantle on the west coast and Manly on the east. Both had so much history and charm but weren’t too in-your-face. Also, the whole of Tasmania was a real surprise. The scenery took our breath away and a couple of the driving trips there were spectacular. The whole of the South Island of New Zealand is awe-inspiring but if we had to choose a single location it would have to be Wanaka where we immediately felt at home and could have stayed forever.

TCK: How do you think you have changed?  

JW: Many people told us when we left that the whole travelling experience would change us but I think to be honest that it has really just re-affirmed our views and what we want from life. We’ve become more relaxed, if that’s possible, and don’t let anything worry us anymore. We’ve learnt that life throws surprises at you constantly and it’s no good gnashing your teeth and getting stressed, you may as well just roll with it and enjoy the ride. That’s what we’re trying to do. We told each other when we left that we should be like the Yes-Man and never decline an offer or say No to anything as that could be an experience missed. So far we’ve nodded and said Ok and done some incredible things that perhaps previously we wouldn’t have agreed to.

4TCK: I know you said that you used Airbnb in Europe, but what other accommodations have you used?  Does it change from location to location?  

JW: We try to use Airbnb everywhere as we love the hosting experience so much. Hotels are so soul-less and hostels are really aimed at the 18-25 age-group I think. We’re currently on our 30th Airbnb I think, easy to lose count, and it really is the people that make it so special. I keep telling everyone that travelling is about people not places and that it’s the moments on the way that you remember forever rather than a tick list of countries. Well our moments are full of shared time with our hosts and so many of them have become good friends along the way. We can’t always get an Airbnb place everywhere, especially if we’re only staying a single night, so we have stayed in a few motels and hostels but really just for places to rest our heads. Occasionally we feel that we need a hotel to properly visit somewhere. In Sydney for example we got a small hotel centrally that enabled us to do the tourist things for a day or two before moving further out to an Airbnb for a longer time.

TCK: What are a few of your favorite memories thus far?

JW: All of the best moments of our trip so far have been shared with new friends and people we’ve met along the way. There have been so many that it’s tough to pick any out but a couple really shine for both of us. A boat trip and dive on the Great Barrier Reef was just one of the most wonderful days we’ve ever spent. It surpassed our expectations and the experience of snorkeling in the ocean around the Reef will never be forgotten. The other really special memory was Christmas Day. We decided to do an overnight trip out on Milford Sound. The weather was perfect, we canoed and swam off the boat, had a wonderful Christmas dinner, and loved every single minute. However the one moment we treasure was the following morning. We were first up on the boat and sat up on deck as the sun rose all alone just watching the world come alive all around. So special and so unique. We will never ever forget that.

TCK: Is there an end date for your journey?  If so, how long do you think it will be until you journey somewhere again?

JW: When we began our little trip we decided that we would do it a stage at a time and not think about what came next until halfway through each stage. So we had no idea what was happening after March this year until mid-November when we talked about what we should do next. We decided to go again on JWalking 2 and that will last until December now. We’ll discuss what happens next sometime in late summer. We are very serious about enjoying the moment that we’re in and the place that we currently live and don’t ever want to be in the situation where we are forever thinking ‘what’s next, where are we going’. So no end date ……………….. for now.

5TCK: Can you explain how you came up with the term “land sailing”?  Personally, I think it’s very clever!

JW: Ha, I’d love to say that it was all our idea and that we’re so clever but that wouldn’t be totally true. We were in Fremantle in a Map shop (I love maps and can’t ever pass a map shop without exploring it) and we bought a map of New Zealand. Got talking to the nice lady at the till as she asked if we were tourists. Now we always hated being called tourists and didn’t really feel like travellers or backpackers and explained this to her. She said ‘so what are you then? Grey Nomads?’. We explained that we were slow travellers who knew where we were going and just wanted to take our time and enjoy the ride. ‘So you’re Land Sailors then?’ she asked. ‘We are now’. Loved the expression as it perfectly describes our attitudes to travel and the way that we’re moving and planning our route. So it’s all thanks to Liz in the Map and Chart shop in Fremantle.

TCK: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone (or a couple) who wanted to do what you are doing right now?  (Or general advice regarding land sailing).  

JW: The biggest and hardest decision we had to make in all of this adventure was the initial one to just change our lives. After that each step seemed fairly simple. Some people have said how lucky we are to be doing this but it’s not luck, anyone can do this. It’s all a matter of priorities. If you’re priority is a nice big car and a huge house and 5 star all inclusive holidays then that’s fine, but ours are different. We don’t want or need any of that so we’ve made the decision to have a little adventure. The luckiest thing we have is that we both want the same thing. So my biggest piece of advice to any couple thinking about leaving the rat race and land sailing is to be totally honest with each other about your dream, hopes and fears. It won’t work if one of you isn’t 100% on board.

Secondly, I really think planning is the key. Both where and when you are going but also the financial side of things. It’s boring but sensible budget planning, or SFM as we call it (Strict Fiscal Monitoring sounds like something seriously important), is key. It isn’t a holiday and we aren’t throwing our money around. It’s our life now and we’re living in all of these places and we know exactly what we’re spending and what we have left.

Thirdly, always try and say Yes to new experiences. Be open to any offers and suggestions and you just never know where you’ll end up (within reason of course). Our hosts in Rotorua asked us a couple of weeks ago if we’d like to come swimming with them in a Maori mud pool in the pouring rain?  Obviously it was a great big Yes and we had the most magical time in an incredible hot spring in the rain in the shade of the mountains. Unforgettable.

Make sure you follow JWalking on Twitter here and their blog here!


Jess Hutchings

Wondering what it’s like to volunteer abroad in Uganda?  Read my new interview with Jess Hutchings on!

Jess didn’t know why exactly she wanted to go to Uganda, but she was definitely excited.  She was excited for the unknown, but didn’t know what to expect.  Her father had traveled to Africa when he was younger, so perhaps a little of her desire was to follow in his footsteps.  In her high school years, Jess participated in a student ambassadors program in Japan, but this experience, she said, couldn’t have prepared her for the foreign culture in Uganda.

Read the full article here!

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Courtney Greene

Check out my new interview on Courtney Greene!  She is studying abroad for her full degree in Ireland.  Thanks, Voy Abroad and Courtney Greene for your time and energy!

“I’d be a fool to not try Ireland,” she said.  “If I don’t like it, I’ll stay for a year.” It was a great comfort to her that her family was only about an hour train ride away.  In addition to her cousin going to the same school and in the same year, this provided a safety net, just in case she felt homesick.  Fortunately, she said it never came to that point and has never regretted her decision to move across the Atlantic.  

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Fernanda Molina

Check out my guest post on! Interview with Fernanda on her experiences and advice from studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence.  Thanks to both Fernanda and Jessica for your time and energy!

Fernanda is studying linguistics, with an emphasis in ESL teaching, at San Diego State University. She moved to the United States when she was 18 and, since then, her life has been full of wonderful opportunities. She’s had the chance to live in other countries and learn everything that comes with that experience: the language, the culture, the people, etc. She has been forever changed by it and cannot wait for her next international experience.

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