Looking back on a year of travelling less

As some of you might remember I started this year with a resolution – travel less.

I’m happy to report that I actually managed to stick to my resolution for the first time in my life. Which is almost like one of those inspiring stories of a 30-something homebody suddenly dropping everything to go, I don’t know, swim around the world, except in reverse? And much less inspiring (but also with fewer shark encounters).

I’d expected it to be a difficult transition, and it was – but often in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Like how it turns out that post-travelling blues is a real thing and also one hell of a pain in the ass when it’s got you in its nasty little paws. Plus there’s this sneaky feeling of shame/guilt/impostor syndrome in telling people you’re planning to have a completely uneventful summer at home when so much of your identity is tied up with travel, which leads to an intense and annoying need to make everyone understand that this does not mean you’re “settling” or “giving up”, you’re just taking a goddamn holiday. Then at some point you then realise that it’s probably a good idea to get over yourself because a) it’s all in your head and b) you’re not a special little snowflake just because you’ve got commitment issues and a backpack. It’s also pretty trippy how one’s childhood home can feel so intimate and unfamiliar at the same time, like remembering the melody of a song you used to love, but forgetting the words.

But let’s start at the beginning.

I spent the first five months of the year in New Delhi, studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Now I could write a whole book about that time, about all the wonderful, insane, infuriating, delicious, exhausting, exhilarating parts of it, but really – you’d have had to be there.

While at JNU many of my colleagues used any free time they could scrounge together for quick trips – a day trip to the Taj Mahal, a weekend in Goa, a holiday in Rajastan – and while I was tempted to do the same I soon realised that it was more of a should than a want to. I had spent seven months travelling through India just the year before and as soon as I managed to set aside my FOMO and think about things rationally I knew that the places I wanted to return to or discover anew were too far away and deserved more than a short visit.

With time I immersed myself into the rhythm of life at JNU, which was made much easier by the fact that life on campus was exposing me to a whole new side of India, one that I could never have had access to as a visitor passing through. (All the really amazing food helped too.) In the end not only did I not leave Delhi for the whole 5 months, I barely even left the campus, thoroughly enjoying life in our little academic oasis where the dogs were friendlier, the traffic practically non-existent, the air slightly more breathable and the crazy cacophony of New Delhi a lifetime away.

I loved my time at JNU, but as April rolled around, bringing with it a sudden heatwave and the beginning of exams, I started wondering whether my deep love for the place was not in fact just Stockholm syndrome. These days my roommates and I gather on conference Skype calls and sigh with longing at the memory of our time at JNU, but my rational mind can still just about remember the exhaustion and delirium that hits when you combine heat exhaustion with an insane academic workload. I remember our little room in the women’s hostel, which turned into an oven as soon as the temperatures went up, making sleep impossible. I devised an elaborate constellation of fans, wet shawls and water buckets to cool down during the night while my roommates simply dragged their mattresses under the ceiling fan in the centre of the room. I remember banging out endless pages of term papers, carefully positioned right under the fan in the library or the canteen, exchanging exasperated and sympathetic looks with my fellow sufferers; sitting for three-hour exams in large stuffy lecture halls with no air conditioning; the desperate dash across the highway to the refrigerated bliss of a Starbucks, the strong coffee laced with guilt.

The final weeks felt like competing in a three-legged race after having chugged half a bottle of tequila – you’re flailing towards the finish line, uncomfortable and sweaty and more than a little nauseous, pretty sure you’ll faceplant and/or vomit all over yourself before you make it there. But you’re also kind of loving every second of it.
You run run run run! And then suddenly – done. One last extravagantly delicious dinner with my friends, a couple of illicit beers on the hostel rooftop, and home I went.

Our glorious hovel during the final stages of exam chaos. (Not pictured: two great roommates.)

Home – that was part two of my little experiment. It’s been almost a decade since I left Slovenia and for the past eight years my visits were rarely for more than a couple of weeks at a time. My plan to suddenly stick around for a full five months drew many surprised looks from my friends. So, are you back now? Are you done with Berlin? No more travelling?

I spent the first two weeks mostly sleeping and eating, trying to get back the energy and the weight I had lost in the Delhi heat. I dreamt about JNU almost every night – strange, feverish dreams tinged with nostalgia in which I was always trying, and failing, to go home – and took great pleasure in wearing warm clothes, taking long walks through the forested hills near my home and eating lots of cheese.

I was full of stay-at-home plans for the summer, which seemed so full of promise and potential back in Delhi. My ascetic life on JNU campus meant that I had enough of my scholarship money left over to make it through the summer, and I rejoiced at the thought of finally having free time unencumbered by deadlines and obligations. All the things I could do! I could write for hours on end, I could read hundreds of books, I could redesign my website, I could train for a marathon and become a master meditator and stop procrastinating and finally touch my heels to the floor in downward-facing-dog and make tonnes of unforgettable memories with my friends and grow out my pixie without ever going through a horrid mullet phase!

Instead I stumbled directly into a pit of sticky, gooey despondency that I can only in hindsight diagnose as that most ridiculous of ailments, the post-travelling blues. I felt both listless and restless, my mind exploding with ideas and crawling up the walls of my skull while my body could barely gather the energy to make it out of bed.

For almost three years travel, and later studies combined with travel, provided the framework that gave my life its recognisable shape and purpose. The constant chase of the next destination or the next deadline gave me the forward momentum I needed to keep going and without those my life suddenly lurched and stood still. The long empty summer stretched in front of me like a deep chasm, no longer full of potential and promise but simply a dead space separating me from… what? Thesis research, a degree, a “real” job, an apartment lease, marriage, kids, varicose veins, death? (At least my broke-ass generation doesn’t need to worry about mortgages or retirement.)

Thinking back on it now I can barely remember what I did with myself during those days. My mom’s friend had gifted me three large boxes filled with back issues of the New Yorker magazine and I read them ravenously, littering every room in my parents’ and my boyfriend’s apartments with dog-eared copies. I stared at empty pages on my computer and in my notebooks, in the quietly masochistic way of those who want to write, but can’t. My creative brain still seemed to be on lockdown after having churned out such quantities of mercilessly academic writing and refused to cooperate point blank. Having spent the past five months in a large women’s hostel on a large university campus, sharing a tiny room with two classmates, the privacy I had so often longed for suddenly felt cold and empty. I went for aimless walks and held long conference calls with my JNU roomies, who found it equally difficult to adapt to “civilian” life.

About a month and a half after returning home I finally started unpacking my bag.

End of June I went to Piran, a painfully pretty little seaside town in Slovenia, for a week-long summer school on migration in the Euro-Mediterranean region. Being part of an international class felt pleasantly familiar, and there are certainly worse ways to end a long day of classes than taking a dip in the sea and drinking Malvazija wine on the beach while waiting for the sun to set. In the evenings I would sometimes sneak off on my own and get lost in the labyrinthine streets of the old city with my camera.

Piran is the kind of place that seems to have been made with the frame of a postcard in mind, a warren of narrow streets flanked by gorgeously shabby facades, all of it crammed onto a narrow strip of land jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. While the port in Koper to the north takes care of the business side of things and Portorož to the south prides itself on its large hotels and casinos, Piran remains a low-key place full of hidden wonders. It also turns out to have the most photogenic night-time lightening of any city I have seen so far, turning itself into an intricate canvas of warm colours and deep shadows at the end of each day.

I had been to Piran so many times before – with my parents, with friends, on day-trips, school excursions and dates – but I’d never seen it like this before. My years abroad had created enough distance between me and these familiar sights that I could suddenly appreciate them with the eyes of a foreigner, enthralled by the discovery of a new and beautiful place.

My perspective started shifting during that week in Piran but the change was so subtle, so gradual, that I didn’t really notice it until a couple of weeks later as I was walking up Miklošičeva Cesta, the street that leads up to the main train station in Ljubljana. Here I am, minding my own business on my way to wherever, thinking about this that and the other, and then, passing a spot I must have passed hundreds of times, I look up and – whoa. There is a great hulking mountain range on the horizon, its hard rocky face glaring at me from between the buildings.

It’s not that the mountains had moved, you understand. The Kamnik-Savinja Alps had always been there, just as grand and impressive as now, and yet in all the countless times I’ve walked this same route – my favourite burek joint is on this road after all – I’ve never really noticed them before. It’s incredible, the things we manage to take for granted.

A pretty shitty photo of a damn fine mountain.

And so after the low came the high. I felt like I could see my home city clearly for the first time and started walking around with a dopey grin on my face that must have been very distressing to my fellow Slovenians. (It is common knowledge that people smiling for no apparent reason are not to be trusted because they are either American or high as a kite.)

The very air filled me with joy, so clean and crisp in my lungs after a winter in New Delhi. The hills dotted around the city and the mountains just beyond threw into stark relief the shortcomings of Buenos Aires, flat as a pancake far beyond the city’s borders. Being able to walk home alone in the middle of the night without giving it a second thought was a luxury I had forgotten about completely. The quiet charm of the old city centre, where one can take a walk without worrying about traffic, the throngs of people catching up with friends over coffee, the air rushing through my hair as I cycled through town – I was completely enchanted.

My Slovenian friends understandably had little patience for my swooning – they weren’t here on a pleasure cruise, they were in it for the long haul. My unabashed excitement betrayed me as a tourist despite my pedigree, as someone who could afford to look at all the beauty a country has to offer while ignoring it’s uglier sides – the lack of jobs, the low wages, the lumbering politics, the alarming rates of alcoholism and depression that suggests all might not be well on the sunny side of the Alps. My friends and I all knew that I’ll be returning to Germany after my back-to-the-roots extravaganza and that, apart from my relationships and a vague sense of national pride, I have no skin in the game.

Luckily a number of foreign friends – among them my JNU roomies and a dear friend whom I had last seen in Burma two years ago – decided to use my long summer home as a pretext to finally visit Slovenia, so I was in steady supply of wonder-struck company.

We walked around Ljubljana and then got into a car and drove all over the country, from the Alpine northeast to the Mediterranean coast, stopping to do some Gandalf impressions in Škocjan Cave along the way (“You shall not pass!!”). We bathed in lakes and feasted on seafood and drank wine in parks and climbed up to Ljubljana castle and had lots of random conversations and some really deep ones, with plenty of bad “that’s what she said” jokes thrown into the mix.

I always enjoy showing my friends around Slovenia and seeing it through their eyes – the incredible variety of geography and culture that we manage to cram into out tiny country, the unspoiled nature and heart-stopping vistas, the wine and the food and the indecipherable language (“Kaja, what is a slap?” “’Slap’ means ‘waterfall’ Amy.” “Slap Šum, Slap Šum!! Oh this is fun to say!!”).

And now, for the first time in many years, I felt like I could own it. Yes, this is my country. Yes, this is my home, my language and my people, as messed-up and indecipherable as they might be (both the language and the people). And so, my dear reader, we reach the climax of this little coming-of-age movie – the prodigal daughter returns, loses her shit and is finally redeemed. Cue tears and applause.

*     *     *     *

While my long summer at home wasn’t quite the motivational montage I had originally hoped for I did end up doing all the important stuff, albeit at my own pace. I spent many evenings shooting the shit with my friends. I spent a lot of time with my family and finally tried out living like a “normal” couple with my boyfriend. I walked all the way to Škofja Loka across mountains to get some pizza and beer. I stood in the rain in Congress Square to watch the Slovenian team win the EuroBasket cup, and for a wild couple of moments I really, truly cared about basketball (how’s that for a first?). I re-introduced my body to the concept of running after an almost three-year hiatus. I did a great internship and started with my thesis research. I wrote a little bit and thought a lot and read excellent books. I finally accepted the fact that I don’t get social media and deleted my Instagram account. I baked empanadas and they were delicious. I watched with awe and trepidation and more than a little bit of pride as my mom quit her high-ranking job at a newspaper house after 31 years in order to start her own travel magazine.

And at some point – I can’t even remember how it started – I started planning my next trip, with the kind of excitement and eager anticipation that I would have thought impossible a year ago. Or rather, we started planning our next trip, because it looks like this boyfriend of mine is here to stay and also we want to go on a road trip and he’s the only person in this duo with a driver’s license. Or a car, obviously.

I’m back in Berlin now, cohabiting with my designated driver in a cozy tiny apartment above a supermarket, writing my thesis and having recurring nightmares about doing a job interview in German. It turns out that life on the other side of summer is really not that much different from my life before – it might look a bit more grown-up from the outside, but it still feels just as thrilling and scary and fascinating on the inside.

I’ve also realised in the course of this year that I really, desperately want a home. I’m now coming up on a decade of itinerant life, of living in cheap dodgy hotels and sublet rooms, surrounded by other people’s furniture, sleeping on other people’s mattresses. Almost a decade during which my possessions rarely exceeded the contents of a 70-litre backpack.

As my travel plans become more ambitious, structured around my desire to learn and write rather than an aimless restlessness, I also feel ready to make a home to return to, a stable foundation on which to build my funhouse.

And this is what 2018 promises so far – terrifyingly grown up job interviews in German, a long summer road trip, and the search for a place to call home.

Stay tuned.

K

 

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