It is true what they say about travel. Well, it’s true what ‘they’ say in so much as those inspirational quotes that pop up on social media stating that it’s all about ‘moments’, ‘adventures’ and all those stories you’ll tell your grandkids. The stuff of fantasy – but what if your life entirely comprises of being in different places, living the people, cultures and languages? How does it feel when you leave your roots behind on a full-time basis?
I’m sure this is a far more common occurrence in short bursts of travelling. A couple of weeks around Europe, a month doing Asia… As a person who has lived ‘long-term’ in seven foreign countries outside of the UK, this magic has become much tougher to define for me. Defining it certainly requires going far deeper than the selfie-fodder romantic buzz that my younger self would have got from standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, or in front of St. Basil’s.
It is always fun visiting a new city. Only today I visited Brescia, in the north of Italy. I assumed it would be a small, fairly industrial city with a few churches and squares. While there were squares and churches in abundance, there was a lot of character to it. Stumbling across large events is always fun – I walked into the tail end of the Brescia Art Marathon and passed a great number of people still running the race as I went through the streets. I was also surprised to see that Brescia had a metro system, and quite a modern one at that. The trains are driverless, and the stations must have been recently built.
On the flip side, cities can really become repetitive. Especially cities with focal points for tourists, where you’ll inevitably be bothered by people selling cheap selfie-sticks and mobile phone covers. A sign of the times, perhaps. I wouldn’t say that most city centres are ‘when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’, but you often notice patterns. The street entertainer you saw in City X performing that levitating trick was impressive, but when you see a guy do it for the third time, you realise there must be a ready-made kit that you can buy for this kind of thing, and it’s far less about an idea.
So what is it all about if it has all become a bit of a routine? If you believe your perception of travel might have adjusted beyond the point of no return? Where you worry that you might have built up a bit of a resistance to the adrenaline rush it once gave?
For one, I am sure that age plays a role the change of perspective. Between my 20th and 30th birthday I spent eight years living in those seven countries outside the UK. Your twenties are still formative years, and by throwing yourself into a life without that anchor of living in a single place, it is only natural that it all becomes a bit normal. I still remember listening to ’23’ by Jimmy Eat World in Switzerland when I was 18 wondering what the hell I would be doing at that age, where I would be, who I would be with. Now, at 30, it seems like a long time ago. That five year gap seemed so long, whereas now looking forward to 35 seems like it could pass in a flash. Will I even change at all in the next five years?
It is also true that as the years pass, you (well, I) become less inclined to go out every night (week?) in the way you would in your late teens. I really love meeting new people, and often the best moments in this life come from a person who might only very recently have entered your life. One person can turn an average day into a quite spectacular one. Yes, those moments are indeed magic that can be attributed to travel – I would never have experienced that at home.
Great moments come up in this profession too. Teaching English to people can create lasting memories. A fantastic class will live long in the memory, and when you find one that you can genuinely have a laugh with, you do not easily forget them. Here in Italy I have some hilarious kids – I actually teach about 200 of them at the moment in different schools in my town. This is something that I believe only comes from my unique situation: my town has a population of about 20,000, which means in theory I potentially currently teach 1% of the population. It leads to some funny situations when someone will always say hello to you when you pop into town, or take a stroll near the river. You feel like a bit of a celebrity, and this is certainly a product of having chosen to come here and do this work.
Lovely travel moments occur when you sense the genuinely welcoming nature of a person or a group of people. Here, a teacher at a local secondary school I teach in brings me Italian newspapers every week so I can pick up the language more quickly. It’s lovely that she thinks to pop out of the classroom and do this every week. Likewise, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a city I both absolutely loved but also felt quite intimidated / overwhelmed by, the locals were one of the high-points of being there. That ‘celebrity’ thing of being a westerner in a very Asian city aside, I felt some of that magic when I was shown Vietnamese food by my Vietnamese friends there. Likewise, having such curious, open-minded, intelligent students was also a real buzz.
Despite all this, the day-to-day business of being abroad can be a little mundane. Possibly even alienating at first when you feel your lack of language ability can be a block when it comes to meeting people, or starting a hobby that would require your understanding of an instructor. Therefore, quite often the magic moments come at times when you are alone, in tiny, spontaneous moments. Going on a run and finding a small village you hadn’t visited before, bumping into some locals on a long walk and having a small conversation about where you’re from, where you’re going and naturally apologising for not being able to say anything like what you want to because of your crippling lack of vocabulary!
It is these moments that come back to me more than any other, actually. The really tiny, occasionally mundane, but essential moments. The combination of the feeling of the blazing sun on your skin and the sea breeze on a beach near Lisbon. In fact, any day when the sun is shining strong in a hot country is quite beautiful. Portugal was fantastic for this, as was Spain. I am hoping Italy will give more of the same. Speaking of Spain, getting a tapa you loved. That was great. The characters you encounter travelling on the train in the less popular routes going in and out of Moscow. Walking in the sun and smelling cut grass and a barbecue drift through the warm air as you pass an Italian farmhouse. There are too many to list.
With any number of possibilities ahead, the potential to up sticks and move to another new country, or even to return home and do nothing for a month or two, there is an element of instability to being a serial mover. To jumping into the deep end of so many different pools. There was probably a sliding doors moment at some point in the past that led to this way of living, and in that alternative universe I may be in an office somewhere with a wife and kids. Which version of myself would be happier? It’s entirely impossible to tell, but one thing that sticks in my mind is that it’s entirely possible that one day I will be back home with a family and 9-5 job. It’s entirely possible that this current chapter will have closed for good, and my 30-year-old self will seem as young and naïve as the 18 year old did.
“Travelling. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta.
Perhaps it’s also true that…
“You’ll sit alone forever if you wait for the right time, what are you hoping for?” – Jimmy Eat World
I think the more you move around to live in different countries the more you exercise your cultural adaptation “muscles” and it makes you versatile, flexible and open-minded – useful skills wherever you go and whatever you do. “Les voyages forme la jeunesse”