The year after graduating from uni, I had what was supposed to be a ‘gap year’. Time to travel the world, I thought, before settling down to the 9-5 grind! I imagined myself gazing into the Grand Canyon, walking the Great Wall of China, swimming with sharks. I would fall in love with a Peruvian alpaca farmer and be spiritually awakened by a sunset, before partaking in a shamanic tea ceremony and bungee jumping into a ravine.
For sure, there would be bad experiences too – maybe I’d get swindled by a dodgy taxi driver or be forced to share a bunk bed with someone who snored a lot – but all these would make great anecdotes. Once I moved to London and hosted dinner parties (because I was definitely going to host dinner parties) my anecdotes would work up a storm.
Now, this was a pretty long time ago – it was a couple of years before that Gap Yah skit hit YouTube, and it was probably more acceptable back then to be a massive, thundering cliché. It was also before the recession. Nobody of my generation had heard the term ‘financial crisis’, or had realised they’d be living in a broom cupboard till the age of 50.
That said, I’m not quite sure why I thought I could travel the world without any planning (or financial means) at all. “How do I go about this traveling malarkey in any case?” I wrote in my blog, three weeks before setting off. “Do I just turn up?”
Eight and a half years later, I find myself asking roughly the same question. But I’m hoping to work out some answers this time round.
One thing I have learnt is this: no, you don’t just turn up. If I could sit my 22-year-old self down for a chat, I’d slap her lightly round the face before saying to her: “Look, I know you’ve managed to save a couple of grand by living with your folks and working in Wetherspoons, and I know you love the romanticism of seeing where the wind will take you. But nope, you need to plan.”
“Whatever, grandma,” she’d say – “planning is boring”. So I’d rub my crystal ball and tell her:
“While you will make it to New Zealand, you’ll run out of money within a month, having blown it all on backpacker bars, skydiving, sandboarding (?!), and something called ‘The Kiwi Experience’. You’ll then spend three months inputting car registration numberplates into a government database, as you desperately try to scrabble together funds for a return flight. It’s going to be really cold, because you’ve timed this poorly and are currently on your second winter of the year – and it’s going to be really lonely because you’re 10,000 miles away from everyone you know. Also, your New Zealand flatmates’ cat will attempt to ruin your life.”
Having crushed her dreams and decimated her joie de vivre, I’d sit back smugly; my work here would be done. But equally, I wonder if she’d shoot back with some advice for me.
“Travelling is exciting,” she might say, staring at me through rose-tinted, unlined eyes. “It’s an adventure. Who cares whether or not I mess it up?”
These days, I’m possibly too concerned about whether I mess things up. After eight years living in London (but not, obviously, hosting dinner parties) I find myself with itchy feet and a EU passport on its last legs. I also have a job I can take anywhere with me, no hard ties, and a bunch of questions about what the next stage of life should be. This is clearly the right time to go away.
The plan itself seems sensible(ish) too: I’ve decided to do a kind of grand tour of Europe, taking advantage of my temporary freedom of movement to stay in a different city every month. While the specifics are really vague still, I’ll begin with Amsterdam and Berlin, before flying back for Christmas and then heading south.
Effectively, I’m going to be a ‘digital nomad’ – working during the day, while keeping evenings and weekends free for everything else. Maybe life will be cheaper on the continent, and I won’t need to work quite as hard as I do here. Maybe I’ll find a city where life is practically free, and rent a flat – paring down my workload to the basics, even using the lack of distraction to write a book. Or maybe it’ll be just as expensive as London, and what I save on utilities bills I’ll splurge on bungee jumps.
But I need to be open to any outcomes, channelling some of the raw optimism I felt at 22. Travelling is exciting; it is an adventure. It has the seeds of a story, in a way that “I work from home, and sometimes I take my laptop to Caffe Nero on Upper Street where the staff all know my orders but sometimes I try to fuck with them by ordering something different” does not.
In three weeks time, I’ll set off on the Eurostar to Amsterdam, and I have no idea what lies ahead. Who will I meet, where will I go, what will my Instagram end up looking like? Hit me up, Peruvian alpaca farmers.
Perhaps my very jadedness, rather than being a red flag, is an indication I’ve made the right call. Travelling will jerk me awake, I hope. It’ll show me that the world is big, and many of my perceived limitations are self-imposed, and that it may be possible to relocate a kind of lightness that I’ve lost.
Findings to be relayed in this blog.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands