In 2008, I came to Europe for the 1st time intending to walk across a continent & conquer the world. Five days into my voyage, even the sound of my own language was enough to make me cry (I was in London, at the time & was surprisingly alienated by the fact that everyone spoke English, yet no one sounded like me. It felt like an utter betrayal). Two weeks later, lost in Paris, I meandered my way through the streets of what i found out later was Montmartre, following the light, a gag lie of tourists tasting wine & the distant strains of Parisian street music...until, low & behold, the city opened up before me & suddenly--there stood the the Eiffel Tower! But all I could think was that my little sister, my parents, my partner, my best friends...none of them was standing by me to see it. I heard a million terrible covers of Wonderwall on a million street corners, listened to accordions & violins; saw museums & castles, ate 1,000 decadent pastries…but my alone-ness was resounding & my emptiness devoured me.
...I wanted to go HOME..
A week into the trip, I became sick. A month later, I asked my boyfriend at the time to help me arrange a plane ticket back to America, shattered by my 'failed' attempt at singlehandedly conquering the world. I wondered if the certainty I’d carried since childhood— that I was meant to wander the earth scaling mountains, sleeping by rivers, learning a thousand beautiful languages, tasting strange foods & seeking out stranger customs—was all a lie.
I believed I was a lie. I believed I was a coward.
I wrote to one of the newly acquired friends I'd made while researching 'how to travel long-term, alone,' Wade Shephard—an exceptional man who is as we speak receiving interviews from orginizations like CNN & the BBC & is in the process of publishing his first book on The New Silk Road, in the midst of vagabonding around the world for the last 16 years, (half of those years with a family). I asked him what I'd done wrong. I told him I felt like a failure.
He said, “Look. You went to Europe–one of the most expensive parts of the world–with very little money, no contacts, no experience, all alone…and survived for over a month! Wasn’t this your first time traveling--at all? You didn’t fail; what you did was incredible. You will learn that when you are a traveler–and you are a traveler—there comes a point when you understand that going home is part of traveling. So is going back out again. Home is part of the journey--it's another destination.”
Now, I am a bit of a loner; an introvert. Part of why my longing to return to America & my family & friends struck me so hard was that I have never felt as though I had a home--though to me this is not a negative. I have always felt welcomed wherever I go & I am a part of many diverse places & communities. It is simply that no one house, town, city, or country or group of people feels like 'HOME' more than any other...or at all.
When I am stationary, I spend my time longing to be everywhere but where I am. I spend hours staring out the window. I itch to explore new worlds & kinships. I change apartments & neighborhoods the way some people change their clothes (in almost 8 years in Portland, OR I think I lived in something like 14-15 different houses). I also have the innate (and seemingly unique) ability to truly carry my friends with me. I rarely ever feel alone, though I have many times felt quite lonely. Still, this is amplified when you travel. The road can be quite an empty place, even in a sea of people, and though I have never felt as though I belonged somewhere, like most people in this world I have longed for a place to belong to....a place to call "home."
After my first so-called attempt at freedom, I spent years longing to go back out again, but could never seem to shake the memory of feeling lost & helpless. But I had also left for the wrong reasons. My life, at the time, was falling apart & I wanted to run. I also had no sense of balance in my life, nor did I take great care for myself. My life, however, has changed quite a lot over the last decade & somewhere along the way I realized that one can be lonely even in good company & (for me at least) home does exist, but it is not truely defined by places or people, but is created by you, constantly. It exists in the act of treating myself kindly, listening to my body its needs. Home means safety & care; it is allowing myself the time to truly be still & affording myself certain luxuries or oddities, no matter how illogical they may seem. When that happens, then I excel in what I do & in the end--no matter where I am or what I'm facing--all things fall into balance.
I recently heard a story of a girl traveling on the road, who carried nothing but a rucksack, a water bottle, two sets of underwear, a dress….and a small potted cactus. People laughed at her for carrying around a plant in a heavy pot, but to her--that was home. She had grown up in the desert & planted that cactus herself & when she left & the world seemed all too much, she only had to look at it to feel Be reminded that she wasn't alone. For me...
1.) Home is in my morning espresso. Many people ask me how I can afford to visit a cafe every day & suggest it to be quite frivolous, especially if I am on such a strict budget, but I actually find this to be the most useful of all my acquired travel habits. It has become a ritual that gives my life some consistency & regularity, in a sea of what might otherwise be chaos.
Every time I enter a new city or country, the first thing I do is seek out the ‘right’ coffee shop to make my 'home base,' if you will. I make get to know the owners/baristas/servers, which allows me contacts & local information, not to mention potential other resources--where are the best places to eat/stay, hear music, connect with other artists; which tourist excursions are traps & which ones you shouldn't miss; names of people to contact or interview, etc. (On a few very lucky occasions, some of these connections have even lead incredibly dear friendship which I am utterly grateful for).
Buying a coffee or pastry or breakfast roll is expensive & adds up quickly, but when I buy these things, I am also buying a familiar place to work--uninterrupted--for a number of hours (provided it's not too busy) & internet in order to complete my work, contact people & figure out my next steps--book a hostel, look into couchsurfing if I do not already have something lined up & do research about the area, etc.
It also allows me a moment of ritual & peace; a moment to breathe in the city--it's sounds & smells & energy. Some days, this moment is far more important to me than eating the ‘correct’ number of meals. When I drink my espresso (or tea or chai), sitting & watching the world go by, the people hurrying in & out on their way to work…I become still. This moment is when I can drown out the disappointments of the days past & worries about the days to come. I can ponder on where I’m going, what I’m doing, who I am & what I’ve been through...and once in a while make peace with it all. I can reflect on what is working & what is not--or I can simply release my thoughts, close my eyes & lose myself in the smell & warmyth of something familiar & listen to a thousand foreign voices, making a sort of music together.
2.) I cannot afford to carry many belongings with me. A heavy bag makes for slow feet, high baggage fees & an angry body, but I carry a few objects with me others might consider unnecessary, even silly. For example, every day I wear a single hand-made ring (& as of a month ago, a bracelet that was made by a new, dear friend). I have slowly let go of most of my jewelry because it is an unnecessary weight & everything becomes heavy when traveling the way I do; but these two things have almost become part of my body. This ring has become part of my hand & this bracelet makes me feel safe & remember that I am cared for.
3.) Among other seemingly 'frivolous' things, I carry a small Norwegian Troll (who seems to like rehabitating in northern Spain these days...along with me). His name is Chez (short for Cheswick). He likes buttons & weighs even less than my jewelry. I'm not into toys or kitschy things (and especially not carrying them), so why do I carry Chez? Because he makes me laugh. A lot.
Every time I find him in a random pocket of my backpack or take him out to see the view or introduce him to someone, I can’t help but laugh at the ridiculous expression on his face & the ridiculous reality that I carry a troll in my backpack.
4.) To add to my list of oddities, until 2 months ago I carried a purple, cotton-stuffed frog which I had acquired as a teenager while performing in a production of Once Upon a Mattress when I was sixteen. Like Chez, she made me laugh & reminded me of my friends & my childhood, but--most importantly--she served as the most comfortable & adaptable PILLOW I had ever found.
Now, I have slept in some pretty sketchy places--on some pretty sketchy floors/couches/hostel beds, etc. & closed my eyes, ignoring all sorts of internal health battles, but having a clean pillow is an absolute necessity for me. Winnifrog (so named for the character I played in the show) had been to 12 different countries with me & though her shape deteriorated a bit over the last decade, I always managed to cram her into a side pocket or bag of some kind.
Unfortunately, she apparently saw fit to stay in the Riad Rouge in Morocco & we had apparently reached the stage in our relationship where I was subconsciously ready to let her travel alone. Perhaps she was tired of the traveling life, or mayhap she had grown accustomed to the wonderful taste of Tajine & sun--I’ll never know. But my secret hope is that she is bringing some small child in Essouira quite a lot of joy & that she gave a good laugh to housekeeping on the morning that I left for the UK.
Either accidentally, or on purpose, you tend to shed even the things you are most attached to as you travel...step by step. You begin to realize that many of the things that seemed like necessities...in the end, really aren't & that some of the silliest things aren't so silly after all. Whatever you end up keeping usually has a great amount of value...but also, like the saying goes, most of the true important things in life aren't 'things.' These days, I would constantly trade most of my 'things' for experiences without a second thought...
5.) I have always found the best way of recalibrating myself & finding a sense of peace & place is through MOVEMENT & MUSIC. This may seem obvious, considering what I do, but it's not always. For example, I have a particular playlist of songs that I keep specifically for traveling. When I am overwhelmed, I find a hostel or cafe that is willing to hold my bag for an hour, plug my headphones in & walk for hours with everything I have. Usually, by the end of the list, I’m singing or dancing & the world is full of hope again...
6.) Having a GUITAR on hand has made all the difference in the world. It is my best friend; my family. When I play, I go into myself--comforted by the brush of strings against my fingers & the vibration of the soundboard against my chest; by it's curving shape that I can hold to me, like a lover. My music, in addition to soothing others, also allows me to soothe myself. It has become more addiction than anything else.
And then there is TANGO...
7.) Tango & dancing in general can be tricky because, like performing music, there can be so much vulnerability that goes into it. But ultimately, the joy of living in your body; experiencing a stranger without needing words; the sense of community that exists around different dance groups--all these things reflect how alive we are & brings people together. For me, it offers ultimate familiarity within strangeness.
I walked into a Milonga (tango dance) last summer in Italy. It was the first time I'd dared to dance Tango in months; it was the first week of my trip. I knew no one; I didn't speak the language. I was exhausted & terrified & out of shape & out of my comfort zone. I went with my host, not intending to dance--but from the moment the glass door opened & the strains of D’Arienzo washed over me, I felt at home in a way I had never felt before. I knew this music, like I would know the body of my lover. This was familiar. This was home...
8.) Lastly, I make sure to spend a portion of my travel time with Dead People.
“What!?!” I hear you say. Well, where are three places that are almost always quiet & beautiful?
BOOKSTORES, LIBRARIES &…………(ready for this one?)………CEMETARIES. Yep. Besides a cafe, these 3 places are the places you will usually find me at least a few times per every week when I am on the move in a new city.
In Paris, my one salvation was reading a book among the beautifully carved headstones of it's most famous cemetery. There was no one there--and if there had been, they would likely have left me alone. I was surrounded by the quiet rustle of the leaves, the smell of earth & autumn air…a natural sort of silence--just me, the crickets & the birds. It was amazing.
In bookstores, you are not required to purchase anything to browse (though I try to make a point of buying SOMETHING if I plan on spending a good amount of time there). What's more, they often have their own cafes attached--(the best of both worlds). Libraries are another source of free internet & silence. Not to mention the smell of books & parchment & the sounds of pages turning or wind rustling through leaves is enough to make me high…(though that’s my own peculiarity. No judging, now. We all have our favorite smells that make us happy). And, obviously, all three of these are excellent for conducting research of varying kinds...
I read in a book once that most people in the Western World believe they want to be rich, whereas what they actually want is to live the way they picture a rich person lives; affording themselves certain luxuries that otherwise seem frivolous or innattainable. To me these are my daily latte; fresh cut flowers. The time to be with friends & get to know strangers; to savor my meals & allow myself to move at a slower pace of life--reading all the books I 'don't have time for' in my settled life or going for long walks & adventures. Travel. Mystery. Connection. TIME.
To me, these frivolities become necessity & change the quality of my life & my travel, where money cannot. They give me routine, ritual & familiarity in a strange world. They help give me a sense of home. Though, now, the longer I travel......the more I begin to realize--even on the loneliest night--I am not really so lonesome anymore. Because, you see, I've come to realize...
I am my home.