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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Dilemmas of a rolling stone, or Are we bound to settle down eventually?

Bittersweet doesn’t do this feeling justice.

In 23 days I’ll be on a plane to Barcelona. I know this because EasyJet keeps sending me reminders. I’ll meet up with my friend Sarah and we’ll end up in Istanbul, then to Mumbai and eventually I’ll be alone in Delhi where I’ll spend three or four months. This is the biggest adventure I’ve yet to undertake and I’m really excited about it. But it also means I won’t live in France anymore, and that thought breaks my heart more than a little bit.

I’ve become surprisingly attached to this place. Surprisingly only because I didn’t immediately connect with this city, maybe because it’s a city and not the southern French countryside and life in a city centre may not be for me. Starting my life over nearly from scratch definitely had something to do with it. I was beached on a bit of an emotional rock when I got here but that’s exactly what happens when you move somewhere alone and then promptly break up with your long-time boyfriend.

But now I love it. I have a small herd of reliable English-speaking friends, and a handful of French friends I’m proud to have made in the very grown-up fashion of actually participating in community events. I have favourite cafés, I’m a regular at a corner grocery store and at a bakery where the owners know my order, and my friends and I go dancing at clubs that have become habitually regrettable. I can give directions like a lyonnaise, I say “yes” when strangers ask if I live here, and I’ve come to do so quite comfortably in French. But there’s still so much of Lyon I don’t know. I haven’t come close to memorizing the Musée des Beaux Arts like I intended despite my free pass as a student, I still have loads of French to learn, and thanks to the ridiculous amount of holidays in May I’m continually finding new cafés and markets in corners of Vieux Lyon.

In short, I just don’t feel done here. But I suppose the question is, would I ever?

I spent four years in Kitchener-Waterloo doing my undergrad and even then I didn’t feel totally ready to leave. I don’t know if you can ever be ready to leave the people and places you’ve come to love. And yet it’s a position I’ve put myself in multiple times over the past year and it’s a position I’ll be in again as I start over yet again in India.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. On one hand, I absolutely adore travelling. I love it. I love exploring new places, meeting new people (when I’m not feeling overly introverted), immersing myself in new cultures and all that cliché tripe. And I’ve never been one to favour short stints of holiday visits to new places. If I’m going somewhere I go somewhere. I move there if I can help it. I can appreciate a week-long trip to Istanbul but I prefer three months in Delhi, if you catch my drift.

But inevitably, every time you move to a new adventure, you leave the previous one, and in my experience the exit is tear-filled and painful. On top of the difficulty of leaving, it’s no cakewalk to start up somewhere new. You don’t know anyone and you’ve literally left your comfort zone behind. (In an unconscious effort to find a universal comfort zone I often take to the bathroom; there’s something reliable and safe about a sink and a mirror and a bathtub, if you’re lucky. You can close the door, lock out the scary unfamiliar world, and no one will judge you for it–except maybe to think that you’re fighting off a bout of Delhi belly).

But even in the most comforting of bathrooms, feelings of loneliness can be downright overwhelming and I’ve found myself countless times questioning my own motives.

Why bother with all this? What am I trying to accomplish? Why go somewhere to build a life only to knock it down? Why don’t I just go home?

I’ve had this discussion with friends here and elsewhere who have or are currently facing the same situation of quasi-life abandonment. Most of them don’t seem nearly as concerned as I am, or at least they don’t let on that they are. The answers I get to my quarter-life crisis boil down to the same adage: live in the moment. Supposedly, if I just learn from what I’m doing, appreciate the people and environment around me while they’re there and grow as a person it’ll all be worth it.

But what if it’s not? Or at least, what if it’s no more worthwhile than living in the moment in one single place and skipping the heartbreak of travel all together?

Interestingly, the “live in the moment” advice is usually followed up by a complementary piece: Make the most of it, get it out of your system and then you can settle down somewhere [and really start your life].

But if the comfort comes from the solacing fact that I’ll eventually settle down–if the eventual goal is that I’ll be satisfied enough with the adventurous years of my youth that I won’t restlessly overturn my family life in a midlife crisis search for adventure–do these years of international displacements really serve anything more? If I could only come to these inspired moments of self-realization on my own could I skip the heartbreak and the adventure altogether? Could I settle down in Toronto, get a job, buy a house, have a family and a dog and just be happy?

When I think like this I immediately get a pang of pre-empive regret in my gut. Why do I feel like I’d be betraying myself to consider such a normal “end” to things for me? Why is it that I consider myself to have such an abnormally exciting destiny that Toronto seems insufficient, based on geography alone, regardless of what I might do there? (I can only hope that these pangs suggest high ambition rather than total self-righteousness).

But if I honestly consider the options, would it really solve anything if I settled down in London, Nice, Bangkok, or Madrid? Would moving across the globe every few years resolve it? Would a job where I travelled half the time do the trick? Or does my young and restless blood just need to chill out, grow up, and realize that at some point excitement in life comes from family, work and internal fulfilment rather than a plane ticket and recently updated vaccines?

I know that I can find my tribe pretty much wherever I station myself. There are interesting people everywhere and it might be true that “only boring people are bored“. But those interesting people are constantly in transition too. Life would move on around me even if I settled down. Perhaps that’s the lesson I’ve learned: everything changes, including myself. Everything is transient. Simultaneously, I am the only feature in my life that I will never escape. Wherever I go, there I’ll be, and I’ll be better off if I use this to my advantage; it’s myself who I have to rely on.

For now I’ll allow myself the silver lining to a pessimistic adage; if it’s true that we all die alone, you may as well see the sites.

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.