Traveling: feeling that door shut behind you as you wander down the unlit hallway of your life

Traveling is great and it’s also hard. It can feel shitty to talk about what’s hard about it because as someone who’s able to travel like this, I’m in a huge position of privilege and opportunity, and I’m grateful for it. But the reality is, nothing’s as perfect as Instagram makes it seem, including “the trip of a lifetime”. 

Traveling alone sometimes feels like this.
Traveling by yourself is an incredible feeling. You can go where the wind blows, learn what you’re capable of, face your fears, learn to navigate (or at least improve a little bit), and meet people you never would’ve met if you already had a friend or partner with you. But sometimes you don’t meet those new people, and sometimes you just get tired of having the same introductory conversations with new people over and over. Sometimes all you want is to go to dinner with friends who feel like that perfectly worn-in sweater, and have a laugh-filled conversation where you don’t have to try at all. 

The reality is, if you travel like this, you’re leaving a lot behind. You’re choosing one door over another. Even if the door in front of you is exactly what you wanted, it’s painful to close a door you’ve cared about for a long time. 

Years ago, I spent two months of the summer in the south of France with my then-boyfriend. When I got back to university that fall I was chatting with some friends about our summers. One person talked about how she worked in a trailer park running programming for kids, and shrugged off her experience as boring compared to France. But to me, it didn’t matter that I was in France and she was in Ontario. Our lives weren’t that different. Mine looked glamorous on paper and on social media, but my day-to-day was pretty boring too. I wasn’t doing anything particularly special, I’d just bought a plane ticket. I reassured her that what I did wasn’t any more interesting than what she did. 

Of course, I’m personally drawn to traveling, and I do love a lot about it. But sometimes I wonder why on earth I do it. Traveling has its moments–the views that blow you away, the people you never would’ve met back home, the conversations you have, and the skills, knowledge and empathy you gain. But you also have desperately lonely days, important events that you miss back home, friends and family you can’t be there for, and relationships that end. Is the trade-off really worth it? 

Most people don’t travel indefinitely. Eventually, after some amount of “getting it out of their systems”, most people settle down somewhere, put down roots, hang out with their friends, maybe have a family, and build a life. Now, I do believe that building a life can mean a lot of different things, and it doesn’t have to be one where you have deep roots in one place. But for me, after traveling for a while I start to crave the normalcy, routine, and old favourites that I left behind. I miss being able to see the people I love in person, our favourite dive bar, my yoga studio, the coffee shops I felt comfortable in, and the bagel shop that I would sometimes start my day with. 

As I’m settling into a new city, where I’ll be for three months, I feel itchy. I’m desperately craving places where I feel like I belong. After three months of traveling, unpacking my backpack feels great, but I’ve been here for three weeks and I don’t feel grounded. I know there’s potential here, and I know it takes time to meet people and get to know a place, but it’s this feeling that makes me want to just pick a place and root down deep. 

The trouble is, I don’t know which lifestyle I’m built for. When I lived in a place where I could’ve rooted down, I felt restless. And now that I’m completely free from ties, I feel aimless and alone. Maybe I’m not built for either. But then, what do I do? 

This feeling of restlessness and searching for purpose and belonging is in no way limited to traveling. I know that many people my age are struggling with these feelings too, and I’m pretty sure these feelings don’t magically go away when you reach some milestone either. So I’d love to hear from anyone with advice in resolving their conflicting desires for adventure and belonging, or about making friends as an adult, or whatever other advice you want to share. This happiness thing isn’t easy. 

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It’s been harder than I thought.

I meant to write before I left, but it turned out to be much harder than I thought to leave.

My flight was delayed four and a half hours, giving Ryan and I extra time together, which I was grateful for. But we had been saying goodbye for weeks now. The last few days have been lovely, secluded, often just the two of us, but being so aware of losing someone for so long can make you crazy. I cried sporadically throughout the day today—every time Ryan did something I love and appreciate about him, I would burst into tears thinking about how I wouldn’t get to enjoy that thing in person anymore, for the next year anyway.

Of course, it was hard saying goodbye to my mom, and my sister a few days ago, but it’s easier with them. Of course I’ll miss them terribly as well, but I already miss everything about Ryan—things a computer can’t possibly accommodate for. A year is a long time to be away from your best friend. I felt literally sick to my stomach most of the day with stress and sadness, so much so that I wasn’t at all excited for my flight. I am completely mentally unprepared to arrive in France in a few hours.

Speaking of which, I write this while on the plane, somewhere just past the east coast of Canada with about four hours to go and I’ve been reminded a few times that traveling alone is unusual unless you’re in business class. I’ve flown alone before, to visit my dad in Nova Scotia years ago, but for most of my flight experience I’ve been accompanied by someone, usually my sister, Geneva, and most recently Ryan. I’ve never flown for so long, or over water alone before. Flying over water makes me anxious. It shouldn’t, really, because what would the difference be if it came down to a choice between ground or ocean from 10,000 miles up? But I’ve always had a fear of drowning, a fear of confined, vulnerable spaces, and especially a fear of the two combined. I do badly with the idea of cruise ships. I’ve been on two dinner cruises off the harbour of Toronto and both made me nervous. The worst is the idea of sleeping in a closed space while on the water. I’ve explained before that I would probably be okay on an overnight cruise if I were allowed to sleep on the deck—perhaps in a life jacket. As far as planes go, I’ve not let them interfere with my traveling, but instead resorted mostly to taking advantage of the various courses of free liquor offered by Air France and KLM. Unfortunately, Air Transat offers a mere glass of wine with ones meal, which for me isn’t until morning, so my usual plan has been of little help. It’s 6:22 am and liquored or not, I can never sleep on planes. I haven’t since Geneva and I were seated in business class as unaccompanied minors probably 10 years ago. We got lovely roomy seats with built-in massagers and I was asleep too fast to even enjoy them.

Although I’m alone, I’ve always been slightly annoyed by nosy seatmates on planes and buses trying to talk to me. I once had a clichéd old lady tell me to live my life to the fullest and travel the world while on a bus from Toronto to Ottawa. My sister and I had a Spanish seatmate when we were maybe 13 who spoke no English but we managed to have a broken conversation and he managed to spray my new aerosol body spray into the air and get us in trouble for stinking up the plane (that is when those types of things were allowed in your carry-on). I was hoping to avoid nosy seatmates this time but now I just wish I knew the person next to me, even a little bit. I feel so lonely when I should be so excited. Maybe that’ll change tomorrow. I think it will, I hope so. I’ll write when I’m not so sad next, but I thought it was only fair to record how I’ve felt today and how I’m feeling now, because it’s really easy to forget what you’ll miss when you have your eye set so strongly on adventure.