I grew up in a small beach town in Florida. During my school years, I resented the place. It was dumb, flat, and simple. Teenage girls got pregnant. Boys got drunk and wrecked their cars. Snowbirds flocked during the winter months to clog up the streets with their Lincoln town cars. Youth was a dying breed year round, though. People vacationed there, and I struggled to see why. I possessed the typical sentiment of anyone who grew up in a small town. I considered it bleak and unimpressive. I always set my sights elsewhere. When I finally left that town, and Florida for that matter, I knew I’d always live in a cultured place. I’d live in Europe, or New York. I remember looking at apartments in the places I dreamed of living — New York, London, Paris — and getting an estimate of how much money I’d have to be making to live comfortably there. I remember going on Google Maps and roaming the streets of Vienna with street view.
All I ever wanted was to leave.
Travel is always so glamorized. People say traveling will change you. It will introduce to you your life’s purpose. You will have the best experiences of your life while traveling. People make it seem like this great awakening, like it’s nothing but euphoria and falling in love with culture and bedding foreigners and finding your raison d’etre between their legs. There are countless articles detailing the benefits of travel, and at this point that horse is dead. It is battered to hell, so leave it alone.
While traveling is an insightful experience, it is not necessary for X, Y, and Z reasons. Eating tapas in Spain will not change your life. Jumping off a cliff in Costa Rica will not change your life. Drinking Guinness in Dublin, while it may be fun, will not change your life. I’m sorry.
I have spent a year living in England and have spent days in various countries of Europe. I also spent time in the Bahamas babysitting for a wealthy family, and am not sure if the experience was particularly authentic, but still. I have many more places to go, of course. The difference between living in a place and visiting it is extraordinary, so travel in terms of both of those instances should be distinguished from one another. The former is fun of course. That is the addictive kind of traveling. Even if you don’t take the initiative to learn about the history of the country, or the culture, and you want to drink yourself to oblivion, then at least you will have experienced something a bit different from your normal regiment. It’s not the worst thing you could do. Living in a different country for a decent length of time is different because it stops being a vacation and starts to become more enriching and eye-opening. I’ve done both, and that’s my opinion on both.
I’ve often reflected on my time spent in Europe as the time that allowed me to recreate my dreams. I always thought I’d go out into the world and find something better. What I found, instead, was perspective. Each place you go will hold a certain beauty, but it will also have different faults. It is hard for me to say one place is better than the next. Everywhere is so different, in truth. Certain places have advantages others do not and have capitalized on those advantages. Truth be told, every place on the planet has terrible qualities. No place is ideal. Traveling abroad and around Europe allowed me to see the ability of any area to work with its circumstances. And so, in regards to my once-resented hometown, I couldn’t help but see the light shining on its better qualities. After that year, I was no longer the girl who wanted to get as far away as possible but I was the girl who recognized the beauty in where she came from. I went from wanting something more to being able to be content wherever I am. I went from thinking it was the place that made the life, to knowing it’s the people you are surrounded by who are the most important to achieving any sort of happiness.
Travel is great, but to tell someone else to go take on the world is a silly request, especially if it’s not their top priority. There are people who have always loved their hometowns, and who will live and die there. There are people who are focusing on enhancing their career. Some people are content with learning about places on the internet. There are perfectly informed people who have never done aid work in Africa. There are people who live paycheck to paycheck. There are people with responsibilities that tie them to a place. A yearlong stint in a foreign country is nothing to glamorize, in my opinion. It’s just another experience. It might be your own personal renaissance, but maybe not.
While traveling, I became, in the best way possible I think, a little disillusioned with the world outside my childhood home. I think a lot of people go through a phase where they think the grass is greener somewhere else. It’s just different grass though. That’s what I gained most from my experiences. You will gain perspective, and you will find a way to be content wherever you go. The only way I learned that, however, was to travel. That was my own personal lesson though, and it’s one a lot of people don’t need.
I saw this great big world and was perplexed and intrigued by it at first, and then I conquered it, or a part of it, and there was nothing left to be afraid of. It’s not that I removed the wonder of the world, but it’s just that I understand it better than I used to. I am not the same wide-eyed 17 year-old kid in the airport preparing for her first international flight. And I am not the same anxiety-ridden 20-year old preparing for her year abroad. The night before I left I could hardly sleep, and kept wondering if I was doing the right thing — hoping I would like it, hoping I could make friends, and realizing I would miss my friends who would all be returning to college without me, and the boy I’d just begun seeing, and my brother who’d become one of my best friends. Returning to England after Christmas break in the U.S. was as casual as anything. I remember looking down at the countryside preparing to land in London and feeling the relief of returning home, and then feeling relieved that I was relieved.
If you leave, you will realize what you had before you landed on the other side of the world, and you will find a new appreciation for the things you took for granted. You will find yourself missing small, seemingly meaningless things, like the way your glasses fog up after it rains. Then you will leave, and you will walk into a building in your home country and smell stale cigarettes contrasting against the cold winter air and you will think of your flat in England. You will become able to find the worth in anything, even the armpit of a burnt-out beach town your grew up in. But in order to achieve that you must leave home long enough to find yourself missing it. Two weeks in a foreign country teaches you nothing of homesickness.
I often wondered why people vacationed in my hometown, and then I realized people just like to vacation because there is beauty in novelty. On a brief stint in France, we stopped in a small town south of Paris on the way to a chateau. It was quaint. It was beautiful. The bakery woman was extremely accommodating and sweet. It was by far my favorite experience in France. And then I thought there must be a 17 year-old girl there who wants nothing more than to leave her small boring town, the same town I absolutely loved. Brief stints in countries like that, I don’t think, are the bread and butter of travel experiences. They are fixes on an addiction to novelty. Are they better than nothing though? Yes.
This is not my way of saying to not bother traveling. Do it. I’m sure to go to other places all over the world on my lifetime. But my warning is: don’t believe that traveling will make you a more interesting person. That’s like reading Ulysses just to say you could. I’m still fundamentally the same person, except I get to tell people funny stories that could have just as well happened in America, but happened to have happened in Europe. Equally, you will meet interesting people who’ve never left the country. Don’t travel because it’s what everyone else is doing. If you are happy where you are, don’t let people lead you to believe you would be happier elsewhere. Don’t be jealous of the girl who traveled the world her whole life. If you travel do it to feed your curiosity. And if you ever find yourself feeling at home, if you’d rather live in the same town as your family than live halfway across the world, or if you chose to stay at home with the person who keeps you warm at night rather than teaching English in Brazil, in terms of who is the most enlightened person of this generation, I think you’ve already won.