Another square, another equestrian statue. Lyon, France.
The words that feel the least helpful to hear as someone who travels are ‘good luck on finding yourself’, ‘running away from your problems doesn’t help’ or ‘what are you going to do when you get back?’. It kind of assumes you’re going through an identity crisis, got a major emotional problem you can’t face, or you’re having an extended holiday.
If you need to find yourself, your life or the courage to deal with your problems, a foreign country probably isn’t the best place to begin the hunt. If you want to travel for travel’s sake, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.
Travelling doesn’t help you to find your place in the ‘real world’
You might be under the unfortunate delusion that travel is somehow a magic path to ‘finding oneself’. Finding oneself is aptly described as discovering who one is and what one wants to do with one’s life.
It doesn’t quite work like that. By travelling you expand who you are, but you do that whenever you face anything new or challenging. Travel is just one source of novelty. It can only stretch who you are in the way you engage with it. It can’t alter the past. As for discovering what you want to do with your life, isn’t it more convenient to discover one of the many options closer to home?
Rather than trying to discover my place in the real world, I’ve given up on it. Giving up is less poetic and doesn’t fit the ‘find yourself’ travel genre, but it comes with less illusion.
Travelling changes people, but so does a new job, a new house or a break-up. Comparatively, travelling seems a rather small agent of change.
Why running away never works
Wall art in Calvi, a small Italian hilltop town.
I’m sitting in row 26, either seat A or F, a window seat. I breathe in the enhanced aeroplane air and tug my beautiful red Indian shawl tight around my body, like a small child. Inside my head, a war is taking place.
I’m supposed to be excited that I’m going home. Home is filled with people who love me, people who are desperately eager for me to return (I hope). Home is full of the familiar – my bed, my clothes, my balding pink teddy bear. It is supposed to be the place I treasure the absolute most.
Once I get back to England, I know I’m going to be fine. Once I feel my mother’s arms around me I’m going to wonder how I could possibly have stayed away from all this love so long. When I see the smiling faces of my friends as we plonk ourselves down in our seats, twisting our bodies towards each other like jigsaw pieces that fit smooth, I’m going to be so grateful to see them.
And yet, high above the clouds, there’s a battle going on in this crumpled body. When you travel to run away, all you do is postpone the inevitable. You’re still you. The enemy is still the enemy. The problem is still a problem. Hurt still hurts.
How to guarantee that you don’t belong where you are
This weed does not belong in the beautifully tended lawn in front of the tower of Pisa.
Travelling can sometimes reduce a painful feeling of alienation by making not-belonging feel expected and normal.
I don’t feel I have to belong wherever I’m travelling. Fitting in doesn’t matter. I can wear summer dresses on a crowded Italian piazza where every other woman under the age of thirty is in skinny jeans. My uniqueness is what entertains people, and as the traveller with hopefully plenty of stories to tell, I can entertain. But even more importantly, you can practice your English with me, you can get your sheep fed by me and your children dragged home from school. I have value.
However, most of the time, when you’re away, you’re alone. There is nobody to disappoint when you’re alone. Nobody who is going to laugh at you. Nobody who is going to ask you awkward questions about your bank balance, your pension or your prospects. There is nobody who knows you. Nobody.
Loneliness. Is it worse to be the valued guest in a foreign tribe, or feel like an alien in your own?
While you’re busy validating your feelings of loneliness by making yourself well and truly alone, the people back home are talking to one another. They’re going to the cinema, going out for birthday meals, they’re hugging and laughing together. They’re giving each other those minute signals that say – I like you being around.
Happiness comes from friendship, not travel
Happiness, according to Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and assuming that you’ve covered your basic survival needs, comes from living in a space of friendship, finding freedom through fulfilling work and giving time to rational analysis and insight so that you understand your anxieties and needs.
Epicurus lived among friends, worked alongside friends, spent time conversing and hypothesising with friends. But Epicurus could do this because his friends wanted to live in a house with him, wanted to work alongside him and wanted to philosophise with him.
If you’ve got friends you can live in close proximity to, meaningful work to do and time to think, lucky you. Don’t waste to much time travelling.
Some of my friends enjoy a somewhat philosophical conversation. Others it makes uncomfortable. Some of my friends don’t mind me staying over a couple of nights on the sofa. Others would prefer that we just have coffee somewhere so they don’t have to worry about the inconvenience of hosting. Some of my friends would be happy to do a small contained project with me, if it didn’t get in the way of their actual jobs and actual lives and all the other things they need to get done.
Home is an unsolvable puzzle; travel is a beautiful illusion
Could be an Italian lake, or it could be in Yorkshire.
I travel because when it comes to getting the volume of interaction I want from friends whilst doing meaningful work I am a failure. As is typical in our modern society, when we left university my friends scattered all over the place to build their own busy lives.
Travel provides an environment where the expectations have changed. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life travelling. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life with them. But for the time you’re there, they’re more than happy to discuss different worries and outlooks with you – your judgement doesn’t scare them. They’re happy to work alongside you and they appreciate your efforts. You’re teaching their children, cleaning their plough, felling their trees, sawing their wood. And for the short time you’re staying there, you’re welcome to a glass of wine, to sprawl out on the sofa, to eat the last slice of cake and join them for a barbeque at their parents.
It’s not ideal, but it is something.