When I think about the last four years, a whirlwind of places come to mind: London. Spain. Sweden.
From teaching English, to building a technology start-up, to studying journalism. Exploring three of the world’s seven continents. Falling in and out of love a handful of times with a handful of foreign men. Learning the meaning of heartbreak, and how to survive on my own. Growing used to sitting in a café and hearing a symphony of chatter in unknown languages. Perfecting the art of observing differences in mindsets and manners. Developing awareness of why things are the way they are. A slow acceptance of other countries, people, languages, and ways of life.
Living abroad is romanticism at its finest. Our perception of those who take the leap and cross their own borders seeking rich experience is always favorable. Ever since the day I bought my first one-way ticket to Spain, a steady stream of friends have frequently been in touch to confide how thrilling my life appears. Adventure likes to walk hand in hand with travel, and even the most conventional among us seek adventure.
Countless trips to the corners of the world later, I’m left feeling the need to reflect on what I’ve achieved in my travels. I was 21 when I left the United States, and here at 25, I am finally preparing to move back.
Four years far away from home, and I’m immensely grateful for it all. The friendships I’ve made are irreplaceable. Too many unbelievable exploits I’ve found myself living: from paragliding off of New Zealand mountaintops, to scuba diving with Indonesian sea turtles, to cliff-jumping off the coasts of the Mediterranean. Snowboarding down the daring ski slopes of Bulgaria, getting lost in the enchanting canals of Venice, even photographing the ancient passageways of Barcelona. Wandering the vineyards of Southern France, sailing down the sparkling waters of the Algarve, bathing in the thermal pools of Budapest. The list goes on.
Unforgettable moments in unforgettable places. The snapshots of my time overseas have been indescribable, but the reality filling the spaces in between is far from the romance these memories suggest.
Lonely is the best word to describe a life on the move.
There is something to be said about being a part of a community and belonging to a culture. Something we often take for granted, until we no longer can.
I didn’t understand my own desire to be an intrinsic part of a community until I first found myself without one.
One year in Spain, two in London, followed by a year in Sweden all taught me the same thing: time is everything. It takes work to develop real relationships with the people around you. Time is needed for true connections to be established. This is a tough lesson to learn regardless if you are alone in a new place; imagine how difficult it gets when a language, background, or custom isn’t shared with those you are trying to establish a bond with.
Moving abroad means you end up spending a lot of time by yourself, crafting a new life. Always trying to adapt to the area so you can immerse yourself as quickly as possible. What no one tells you is that it gets harder and harder with each place.
The first country you move to, you will be filled with a blissful naivety—eager to meet everyone and learn everything. All of your senses will be shocked, but in a delicious way. Like a new relationship, you are head over heels for an intoxicating new way of life.
Also like every relationship, this stage has an expiration date. By country number two, the novelty of starting over is beginning to wear off. Things that seemed insignificant before start affecting you. You find yourself begrudgingly buying the household things and clothes you couldn’t bring along. This time, you get fewer home decorations—after all, why invest in making a house yours if you are not planning to stay for very long? Your adaption to the culture and the ways the people around you manage their day-to-day begin to wear on you as well. Just like the point in a relationship when you start to really get to know one another and decide if you are truly compatible or not, this second big move begins to influence how you view living abroad.
As any true wanderer, you begin to get restless after too long in the same place. Listening to that inner call for adventure, you head off to the next foreign land. This time, the experience you have will likely determine if your relationship with moving around lasts or falls apart. The cost, immersion, and adaption necessary to survive in a different country is no longer unexpected. You recognize that something has changed in you. The wiping of the slate and beginning anew in a community is either the easiest, or most difficult.
So sets in an awareness that you have left behind sets of friends, loved ones, and lifestyles. All for what? Will you decide to yet again say au revoir to a people, culture, and way of being? Are the sacrifices you have to make to keep experiencing an exciting existence abroad worth it?
A crossroad lays up ahead and a decision is to be made: to break up with the nomadic lifestyle, or not to.
Am I the same person I was four years ago? No. I’m not. But neither are those who have stayed in the same place, who haven’t ventured into other worlds.
Time brings about change all on its own; travel isn’t a prerequisite for that. So, what has made all the struggle of living overseas worthwhile?
Four years of exploring new places, and I’ve learned what it means to adapt.
Born with a fear of pretty much everything and everyone, I used to be narrow-minded. What I didn’t already like, I didn’t try. Who I didn’t know I would get along with, I avoided. When I didn’t know I would succeed, I would do whatever I could to not fail.
Whereas many suitcases and passport stamps later, I can confidently say that what was once closed is now open. My entire perspective of new people, places, and things has dramatically shifted. Although I still don’t have a taste for sushi, can at times clash with other strong personalities, and am unable to say that I enjoy the feeling of failure, I have become the type of person who routinely ventures out of my comfort zone.
Old me, the one who had never lived on my own in a foreign country, that girl wouldn’t recognize this brave being.
At 25, my time as a wandering soul has come to a close. With my homecoming will come a fourth, and hopefully final, new beginning. What I’m leaving behind are treasured memories and trying times. Learned and lived, this inner nomad is ready to lay down roots.
I would like to think I’m well-prepared for a stable life up ahead, but if I’m honest, I reckon traveling has made me a bit ill-equipped. Financial stability, strong personal health, and long-term goals are all concepts that don’t usually exist in a globe-trotting world. Unsurprisingly, this is often the case when you live out of a suitcase and act at the mercy of your own spontaneity. I would like to say that this curse has solely been mine, and if you decide to pursue a nomadic life you can still achieve stability, but I’m not so sure this is the case.
It goes without saying there are exceptions to the rule, but what I believe determines how your experience will go is your reason behind moving in the first place. Why have you decided to pack up everything you own and relocate somewhere far, far away? What is driving you to leave everything and everyone you’ve known behind in search of a new permanent lifestyle?
At 25, on my third country in four years, I finally know my answer. All this time I had been running from who I was. Like most 20-somethings, when I took off for Europe I was unsure of myself and looking to escape a dull path. Moving abroad was a way to develop a different personality, one that I thought I could find by embodying a life untethered to people, places, or things.
What I wish someone could have told me beforehand is that no matter how far you go, you can’t run from who you are.
My advice to those who are pondering living abroad is simple:
You are on the edge of a great unknown. It will not be easy; in fact, it will be the hardest thing you have ever had to do. The adventure will have plenty of good days, but just as many bad. Routines are what we need to survive, so if you are trying to escape yours, try and figure out why. Once the excitement wears off, you will still be you. The mundanity of life is everywhere, which is important to recognize before you decide to go.
Running from yourself will likely lead you right back to where you came from.
If you are still contemplating the change, be wary of sacrifices down the road. Ready yourself for what you will lose in the process. Don’t undermine what you may gain. Get breathless about the jaw-dropping moments and worldly encounters that are sure to come. Look over the edge with the knowledge that when you make it back, you will be wiser, braver, and stronger. Don’t hesitate. If you feel the pull, jump now.
Remember to hold steady, embrace the reverie, and always keep handy an emergency parachute—one that can carry you home.
Author: Ayurella Horn-Müller
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron