As I contemplate moving abroad again, it seems fitting to stop and consider the place travel has in my life. I was never someone who always wanted to travel; National Geographic wasn’t my favorite magazine; I graduated college without studying abroad for a semester. It wasn’t until my first big trip which came through seeming happenstance that travel became a part of my life. Sure, I thought about majoring in International Relations and I ended up majoring in French, but I always thought of myself as a future stateswoman, not a prospective world traveler. Most of the people in my family have only been to the Bahamas or other Caribbean islands (and Canada), and I just never anticipated travel becoming such a big part of my life.
There are many levels of travel- seeing sights, speaking the language, talking to locals all contribute to the depth of an experience. Luckily most of my trips have been a bit more than sightseeing, and I do hesitate to use the world tourism. To me, tourism smacks of tour buses filled with people looking to buy memories at the gift shop and “go home happy.” It’s not that I don’t like souvenirs, or eating in nice enough restaurants and taking my time to vacation a little. But to me, travel bespeaks a more rigorous existence, things sacrificed for experiences, trying to do it on a shoestring budget and thus inadvertently living a bit more like a normal person, immersion in something foreign, fascinating, and challenging. It does mean escape from the humdrum, from the ordinary, to learn in something much more than a living museum. It means taking on another world, and letting yourself take so much in that you need a new pair of eyes when you come home. It means giving yourself over to transformation, to the moment, to the unknown. It means finding golden moments in someone else’s ordinary so that you can find the exceptional in your own life; it means being willing to judge your own way of life and bringing critical eyes to your own existence while being open and adaptable to someone else’s, trying to combat natural prejudice of the new. For me, it has meant trying to preserve my “self” and shedding elements of my identity that no longer fit; it has meant being more than another face in the crowd, it has meant sometimes feeling a stranger in my own land but a friend everywhere.
When you travel somewhere, even for a long time, it is not the same as the place you were born. You can see the whole world, and gain in perspective and wisdom, but understanding nothing. One of my fears is having little depth. You can see the Tour Eiffel and think you’ve been to Paris, or you can be a French major and recognize landmarks from history and literature; or you can be a French person and see the capital of your patrie; or you can be a francophone from the former colonies and see the decadent center of the country that exploited your friends, family, and compatriots in the not so distant past (and arguably, to this day). The Paris of Hemingway, Madeline, and “Midnight in Paris,” is not the Paris of an Algerian immigrant, and certainly not that of a Frenchman.
To a certain extent, when you travel there has to be a sacrifice of depth, of your own roots, to see from other eyes, other perspectives. Your gaze shifts and elongates, your awareness opens, but what binds you to one part of earth over another is weakened, knowing you have walked on other soil. My tongue speaks two languages, has feasted on many cuisines, has kissed lovers from faraway places. Sometimes it seems my eyes have beheld more than my heart can bear. It is a blessing, to no longer be captive to supposed limitations, to have the wisdom and humility of a long journey. But still, the heart wonders: where is home?
Most recently, I have been assailed by the realization I am expert at nothing. To work wonders on this earth requires time and great patience, endurance, and continuous effort. A liberal arts major, I think that my appreciation of the depths behind all the fields is quite strong. However, I want to be a master of something. Perhaps I will be a master of traveling, though there will always be more to do and see. Perhaps my quest will take on that air of obsession, of having a goal, of being a premeditated great work of my life, instead of simply a wanderlust, a following of the wind. Somehow, I don’t want to lose the whimsy. Though I admire those with professional travel blogs who have seen all the countries in the world and made it the goal of their lives to see everything, I personally find a certain emptiness in that. The wonders of this world are infinite, and aren’t easily plotted in a map or put in lists of things to see. It also suggests that those who stay in one place are missing out on something, which they are, but I don’t think they are missing out on the main beauty of life.
More and more, I appreciate stillness, and depth, and sameness. Though life brings us change and transformation, and so much in my young life I have just wanted to change everything with a wave of a wand, and be able to change it back again with just a wink or wrinkle of my nose, I am beginning to recognize the beauty of continuity and stability. Although I don’t know if I love, or am prouder, of being adaptable. The challenge of adjusting to something new, rather than perfecting what is known. I don’t want to be a tourist of life, and I don’t just want to be a “hack.” I want to get the satisfaction that comes from watching a seed grow into a plant into a flower into something that bears fruit. Sometimes I am so tired of scattering myself to the four winds, to be reborn in all directions. Sometimes my heart breaks again, knowing what I may never see again, that it is all just a moment in time with the end date already known, as much as fear and anxiety at all I will never see or do. This life is so finite, so short. Everything changes. Sometimes this is the deep sadness of my existence, my life as a traveller.
So as I think about taking the next big leap into the unknown, I pause. I appreciate what I have. I still feel restless, and the idea of staying anywhere forever is still unfathomable and gets itchy under my skin, annoying. As much as the kiss of a familiar sight warms my heart at times, it is only the absence from it that made me appreciate its familiarity. And everything becomes familiar. Chaos transitions to order, the unfamiliar becomes routine.
I’m uncertain, fearful, scared before the next big leap. Knowing there is no reason not to do it, but wondering if its what I really want. I know I have the courage to jump off into the unknown, and that I will adapt to whatever waits on the other side and bring the happiness in my heart with me. But I need a reason besides, “Why not?” and “What else?” and “I’ll be bored otherwise.” Are there better reasons for doing things that are new and frightening? I don’t know. I do want to be a master of French, and that would seem to require a bit more time, and taking a few more chances. Submitting to yet more change, and staying someplace. For an indefinite period of time, if the right opportunity comes. I’m scared, I’m shaking in my boots, and I’m still left with my mouth open, after all the wonders I have seen, wondering “Why?”