Trying to write about the end of this four-month journey in the Istanbul airport and subsequent flight to Chicago is a little awkward, because whenever I think about what this trip has meant to me I get pretty emotional.
I came to Europe with only two companions, an orange synthetic rolling bag and a small backpack, also orange but a clashing shade. I left the rest of my baggage at home. I remember sitting on the plane out of New York, scared of being lonely but obviously very excited – the lack of any real plans or timeframe was exhilarating, nerve-wracking and somewhat comforting at the same time.
What would follow would be four months of adventure, nights out and days in, romance, reunions, excruciating bus journeys, unpleasant sleeping situations, homey hostels, new cultures and most importantly, new friends. Friends from Australia and Germany and the UK and America and Austria, Ireland, Spain, France, Bulgaria, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, India, Japan, Poland, Canada, the Czech Republic and definitely more. Friends who taught me about their cultures, their education systems, their politics – whether air conditioning is common in their countries. Groups who let me tag along for dinner five minutes after meeting and two drinks in felt like old friends. A couple that could have had a romantic vacation in Greece but instead chose to spend a week in an 8-bed dorm with me. Friends who would meet up with me in four more countries or spend weeks with me in one. Friends who taught me that I don’t need much time to feel close to someone. Although I traveled mostly alone, I was never lonely, and I can’t thank every individual I’ve met enough for that.
Though the people I’ve met have really been the best part of this trip, traveling also gave me a crucial realization about life: you never know what tomorrow could look like.
I think it’s important that I said “could” there, because you likely know what tomorrow will probably look like if you’re caught in the day to day of normal life. But hopping from country to country alone, knowing I’d have to make new friends and learn phrases in a new language and having no idea what my hostel or the city would look like – that lack of control – weirdly made me realize the kind of maximum authority I can have over my life.
If I didn’t like the people I met, I could meet new ones. If I hated the city, I could get a bus out (though that never happened); if I loved the city, I could skip my train and stay for a week (my bank account hates me for that one… ok those three ones…). I never had to be stuck in situations I didn’t like, and I could stretch my plans to fit ones I did. I had a control and freedom that I had not experienced in the last 16 years of school and camps and internships and jobs and stringent, mandated routine.
In turn, this taught me that there is no right narrative for my life either. I don’t know where I will be in a year and a year ago I didn’t know where I’d be now. That lack of control and foresight in life is just the same as in traveling. Maybe I’ll find the job of my dreams in Washington and love it so much that I want to stay and make it to work every day and settle back into routine, hopefully getting to travel sometimes still and have a good work life balance. Or maybe I’ll move there and not find what I’m looking for. But then I’ll do something else. I’ve been taught for so long that I had to finish university and go right into my career and do it forever and ever and it better be an impressive one that would make me look smart and interesting and earn me lots of money. But now I realize that I’m not going to accept any life narrative that doesn’t bring me happiness. I think that’s a much better measure of success.
(An aside – I am very privileged to be able to say that, but I think it’s as much of a universal lesson as I can speak to after romping around the world for four months.)
I could go on and on about the things I’ve learned traveling – the incredible cultures, which countries you can cross the street on red without being an obvious tourist, how to travel cheaply, how to make friends like a pro, how to make decisions in a group, how to document my travels (both for myself and publicly), how to cook for a bunch of people with different preferences and fall asleep literally anywhere and know when I need to take a break, how to get someone to stop snoring (cough really loudly until it partially wakes them up and rush to fall asleep before they do) and a hundred thousand other things I could rattle off.
More than anything, though, I’ve learned so much about who I am. These last four months, I’ve felt the depths of human connection in short microcosms of friendships with strangers. I’ve talked about my country’s reputation in the world and learned how I am an ambassador of that at all times. I’ve felt happiness like I have never felt before, and I’ve gained so much confidence in so many aspects of myself. Being the only constant in my travels, I’ve become my own best friend and learned to love myself without exception.
I think the one last thing I want to say about my travels is about why I blog about them. First of all, I’ve still got quite a bit to post after this one (almost a month’s worth, most of which is already written), but it was important to me that this one was actually timely. I think in some ways could look like a self-indulgent form of a personal journal, but I really do write these things for myself. The other reason is that it’s strange doing so much, going so many places and experiencing so many emotions and having no constant person to share them with, so blogging has become my outlet for that.
If you’ve read just one post, made fun of my cheesy outlook on literally everything or even just looked at my pictures, thank you so much for letting me share a piece of this experience with you. If not, I’m going to be looking at this until I’m dead anyway and happy that I’ve got it all at my fingertips. This has really been the time of my life.