Let’s face it: traveling takes planning, is expensive and, depending on where you’re going and who you’re going with, can be a little nerve-wracking. Your Facebook feed may be giving you wanderlust — what with that one rich friend posting an endless stream of cocktail-clinking photos in Mykonos — but to take the plunge yourself, to say, “Looks like it’s time to leave my comfort zone for a while,” is still a serious decision.
Nonetheless, it’s one of the best decisions you can make. There are always a million reasons not to do something, so when it comes to hopping in that plane, train or automobile and leaving behind what you know for however long, be it one week or one decade, there are many truly great reasons for why you should indeed start packing your bags. After all, there are certain things about yourself, about others, and about life that you can only learn once you’ve lost yourself in a far away place. Bon Voyage!
1. To Become a Child Again
Whether you want to or not, visiting or living in a new place will force you to become a child again. There will be sputtering and confusion over local dialects (I say “dialect” instead of “language” because I definitely do not speak the same English as someone in northern England), and even simple daily tasks like, say, grocery shopping, can prove anywhere from slightly odd to totally bewildering: Why is milk not refrigerated in France? Why am I being sold a totally intact creature – feathers, eyes and all — when I ask to buy duck in New Guinea? Like applying a sort of anti-aging potion, living abroad takes you back to basics: making new friends, finding your way around, and, perhaps most importantly, getting to decide who you want to be. As the poet Randall Jarrell said, “One of the most obvious facts about grownups to a child is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child.” Traveling disrupts that equation, allowing even the most mature grownups to tap into their adolescence.
2. Time Slows Down Drastically
Think about that odd feeling in which the trip to your destination seems infinitely longer than the trip back. Once we’ve grown accustomed to a place, our minds flicker elsewhere, uninterested in the journey itself. When we live and travel abroad, every little nuance — the cracks in the sidewalk, the smell of fresh pastries, the wide horizon in the distance — all seem new. The little things seem to engross us and demand our attention, elongating our sense of time. It’s impossible not to feel that life has slowed when we’re somewhere foreign because we savor each minute, using each of our senses to their fullest to appreciate and negotiate the differences we find. Constant newness can be tiring, sure, but time is infinitely valuable, and to have the ability to seemingly extend it, well, that’s something everyone should take advantage of.
3. New Personality Traits Arise
When I speak French (or, rather, when I try my best to speak French), I become a better listener and more reflective. Now that’s somewhat due to the fact that rambling off a slew of sentences in a non-maternal language usually comes with a few embarrassing errors, but it’s also indicative of a general shift in personality. In France, I’m way less into sports, happier on my own, a more prolific reader, and more understanding of others. This personality shift occurs whenever we travel, allowing us to find traits within ourselves that we might want to tease out and explore once we’re back home. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that studying and living abroad changes personality for the better (e.g. greater kindness, emotional stability, openness, agreeableness), so don’t think that a trip to Florence will somehow bring out the evil side of you that you never knew existed. It might, however, show you that you’re more of an extrovert than you thought or that you’re immensely passionate about, say, painting and sculpting. You’ll never know until you go.
4. To Learn to be Alone
There are few things more important than learning how to be happy by yourself. If you’re horribly uncomfortable alone and unsure what to do without guidance, life can quickly become a chore. Silly as it may sound, you spend more time with yourself than anyone else, so learning to have a good time by yourself is a seriously useful skill to pick up. Travel can be fun with others, but going it alone can be a chance to test yourself, to see what you’re made of, and to, hopefully, find a sense of contentment with yourself.
5. To Be Less Materialistic
Endeavoring to travel light is like trying to start studying for exams far in advance: you tell yourself that you really should, but, at first, it just doesn’t happen. Once you’ve failed enough tests though, you might actually schedule in some study hours for the weekend preceding. Same goes for that trip where you spent your last three days trying to shove everything you brought and bought into your annoying roller luggage instead of going out and enjoying the city. You might take a hint and pack lighter on the next round. In traveling, especially the backpacking and hiking variety, one finds that minimalism is an exceptionally useful skill. As with many travel-related revelations, it’s a skill not just to be applied to traveling but to life in general. Cutting down on things de-clutters the mind. Plus, a lifestyle free of junk is an untethered state of being, which means you can travel, leave, escape whenever you very well please.
6. To Reassess Your Life
Traveling can affirm or bump you from the path you’re on. Maybe you’ll want to stay on the path you’ve paved for yourself, but to never really think about it, to never distance yourself from what you think you should be doing, is to miss an opportunity reserved for the young. We’ll always be in control of our fates. Even a man in his seventies has the ability to “throw off the bowlines” and travel as Twain would say, but it’s better to reflect, to assess, and to wonder how exactly we want to live when we’re still free to explore and change our futures with relative ease. In the madness of our daily life, the ideas of our family, our friends, and our culture are slowly ingrained into our psyche, possibly distorting the person we think we want to be. The only way to get a clear view is to spend time somewhere far from these things. Sometimes it’s only once we’re separated from both home and the expectations of others that we’re able to be honest with ourselves.
You’ve just read about all sorts of serious stuff, but let’s be real: travel is just as much about eating as it is about finding yourself. Be it a feast in Morocco or a street-side snack in Vietnam, it’s in food that we find purpose, a chance to reflect, confidence, and comfort with ourselves. Oh yeah, and in travel.