I have now been out the UK for two months, apart from a quick trip back to Cardiff for a wedding. It’s the longest I’ve been away from my home country in nearly a decade, and the longest I’ve been away from London since I moved there.
Of course, there are elements of my UK life I miss. Certain people, obviously – the ability to actually meet your friend on an evening rather than subjecting her to an echoey phone call. The ease of being able to speak English everywhere you go, without looking like one of those arrogant Brits who expects the world to bend to their convenience. I miss my breezy mastery of the city – knowing exactly where to go and how to get there – and I miss doing yoga somewhere other than my bedroom. I miss rewatching Peep Show on 4oD, and (at risk of sounding like Mark Corrigan) I miss having access to multiple flavours of hummus.
Other than that, though? No, not really. I was going to say I missed London’s variegated, complex beauty; how the running routes I plotted would take in canals and council estates and woodland paths and reservoirs. But then I looked out my window, and saw a frostbitten Czech forest, ridged by buildings that look like Sylvanian Families dollshouses. On balance, I’d rather have new places to explore than old ones.
And this, perhaps, is the only way to tell whether something like travelling is right for you. It comes down to what your guts are saying two months in, when you’re past the honeymoon period. Are you waking up each morning with pangs of homesickness, which threaten to override any excitement? Or, despite the inevitable lurches, are you more or less at peace? In my case, it could have gone either way.
I’m now in Prague, for just nine days total, before I head to Vienna and then Budapest. My plans after the New Year are still up in the air, but going home – as in, back to London – isn’t really on the cards. Maybe not now, maybe not imminently, maybe not in 2017. After so long trapped in a routine, the fact I’m couching life in ‘maybes’ feels alternately terrifying and galvanising.
Everyone says travelling alone boosts your confidence – you realise your kneejerk response “I couldn’t possibly do that,” was unfounded. For some people, the primary fear pertains to loss of security, or to loneliness. For me it had to do mostly with life admin. My default setting is ‘head in clouds’, which means yes to conversations about Jungian archetypes and whether the universe is a hologram; no to getting the cheapest deal on my car insurance. (Reason #438 why I don’t drive.)
Back in September, as I was trawling through Airbnb reviews and parsing Hungarian train timetables, it was hard to believe all that effort would translate into anything real. It wasn’t a fun month. Recognising my shoddy organisational skills, I went into a state of hypercorrection, treating my future self as some kind of doolally flower child who couldn’t be trusted to catch a tram without a printout. When I tried to get to sleep, I’d be jolted awake by thoughts of Austrian night buses. When I went to the pub, my decision-making capabilities were so spent I had to get my friends to order for me.
The really hard part, of course, was the uncertain payback. There was no way of knowing whether this work was even worthwhile, or whether I was simply equipping myself for a very well-planned episode of misery. It’s only now, as I float blithely through my itinerary (thank you, past self!) that I can see the links between the spreadsheets and the Czech forests.
On the basis of my three days here, I absolutely love Prague. It’s picturesque and cheap and does Christmas markets properly, and after the flatness of Amsterdam and Berlin, I’m enjoying getting some hilly running in.
Berlin I was less psyched by. Before I went away, I had pegged Berlin as my place – the city that was going to call to me a little louder than all the rest. And you know, I can see why so many Brits my age are relocating there – the city is interesting, and appealingly unsanitised, and gets bonus points for not having a housing crisis.
What I have discovered, to my chagrin, is that I seem to crave a certain degree of prettiness in my environment. Much as I admire Berlin’s ‘realness’ – the way it wears its history on its sleeve, and elevates ugly to an art form – a part of me hungers for the well-manicured, the safe, the stylised. It’s an impulse that disappoints me, this Stepford wholesomeness, as is the fact I was too chicken to even try to get into Berghain.
But clearly, what feels like home to you isn’t something you should rationalise, and it certainly isn’t something you should fight against. If I have reached the stage in life where “nice green space to run around and some attractive buildings reflected in a canal” is more important to me than “contains a cybergoth techno dungeon”, then I guess it’s good that travelling has pointed the way.
I’m going to have some big decisions to make, pretty soon, about what comes next. It’s scary and uncertain but (as 2016 has reinforced) the world is scary and uncertain. You’ve just got to roll with it, haven’t you. In the meantime, there is Glogg to be drunk, goulash to be eaten, and castles to be climbed, and I’m so, so happy to be here. No offence intended to London.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands