Learning requires a sense of adventure. It involves exploring the unknown and risking the comfortable. It requires us to admit what we don’t know and to be willing to make mistakes. Most importantly, learning requires a willingness to expand our minds to unheard of ideas and to submit ourselves to new beliefs.

I had the opportunity to live in Romania—a country the size of Oregon, located south of Ukraine—for a year and a half. While there, I learned Romanian, as most of my work involved speaking with the people.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me to teach Romanian to him. As we began, I remembered some important things. First of all: Romanian is hard. As a romance language, it is related to Italian, French, and Spanish, and they say it is the closest living language to Latin. Because it is a Latin language, one might assume that it is easy to learn. But the truth is on the contrary.

Another thing I remembered while teaching my friend is that in order to learn a language, one must speak it. I remembered my first few months in Romania and feeling like a child as motherly Romanians would correct my pronunciation and grammar. Even more humiliating was the fact that real children, maybe one or two years old, spoke better than I did. To learn to speak, I had to speak. I had to say what I knew, be corrected, and then say it again. Perhaps the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” derives from old dogs’ unwillingness to learn because they would have to admit to their lack of knowledge.

The next thing I remembered is that in order to learn Romanian, I had to learn about the people and their culture. I had to mingle with them, share their culture, and learn (almost) to think like them. Communication involves more than just words. I could learn the words they spoke, but I wouldn’t really learn to communicate with them until I put myself in their shoes.

For example, most Romanians live in “blocks,” or blocuri, as they call them. These are large gray apartment buildings that line the city streets. One building could be twenty stories high, line the street from one intersection to the next, and have up to twenty stairwells. Although individual apartment size varied, typically each apartment had a kitchen, a living room, one bathroom, and anywhere between one and three bedrooms. By modern American standards, their living was meager.

While in Romania, I lived in one of these blocks. I came to understand how hard it was to light a gas stove, to have a garden that consisted of a three- by five-foot balcony, to clean rugs without vacuums, to drain a clothes washer into the toilet and then to dry clothes on a clothesline. I came to appreciate American food like fresh milk, mayonnaise, maple syrup, brown sugar, cheddar cheese, and peanut butter. I learned the true meaning of bed bugs, food poisoning, and worms—the kind that live inside you. Because I understood these things, I had more empathy when Romanians would discuss burning their food, ridding their balconies of pigeons, beating their rugs, flooding their apartments, and looking for clothes that had blown off the line. I enjoyed the luxury of milk from a box, learned to make cornmeal with water the way Americans make rice, and learned to like pickles, mustard, and herbal tea—foods with which my tongue had never previously agreed. Bed bugs became a normal part of life, just like food poisoning and worms, and when Romanians complained of being sick to their stomach, I felt their pain. In general when people complained of life in Romania, I couldn’t say I blamed them for complaining.

I had to learn the way they thought and their traditions. There is something within the culture of Romania called curent which is actually similar to what it sounds like—current. This curent is any current of wind that might blow from any source: open windows in a car, a fan, air conditioning, two windows open on opposite sides of the house, and any other source that might cause air to flow quickly. It is the belief that if a person gets sick, either with a cold, the flu, or anything besides cancer, the cause was probably curent. It is then because of curent that Romanians do many of the things inherent in their culture: old women are often seen with scarves on their heads to keep curent from getting in their ears; old men do not use scarves, but stuff small pieces of cotton in their ears; young mothers wrap their babies in winter clothing during the summer to prevent the sickness called curent; taxicab and trolley windows are never opened, even during the blistering summer months, because of curent; for the fear of curent, NO ONE has air conditioning except in those buildings built by Americans or Western Europeans. I had to learn to accept these beliefs and traditions even if I didn’t agree with them, and understanding curent made it possible for me to follow conversations in which it was being discussed.

I realized in trying to teach my friend Romanian, that I was trying to teach him not only grammar, words, and phrases, but traditions, beliefs, and ways of living. There would be parts he wouldn’t understand because in order to thoroughly learn a culture, one has to live it. The best way he could learn Romanian without actually going to Romania would be to have an open mind and submit himself to their ways without reservation—risks that constitute a great adventure.