I use my favorite travel photos as my desktop backgrounds. I’ve told my computer to rotate through a folder of photos, all my best ones, changing every time it wakes from sleep. I love this way of remembering where I’ve been. Every time I open my laptop, a new place pops up and I’m flooded with memories of standing right there, looking at that, capturing the moment.
I wish I could capture the feeling. Sometimes it washes over me in a wave of nostalgic tears, and I sense so acutely that part of me is missing.
What part, you ask? There’s a lot of writing out there talking about how traveling changes your life, that it’s life-changing, that it impacts everything you think and believe in, thereby changing your life through all the life-changing experiences. Sense a pattern?
I kind of believe that, but I think it changes lives not in the generic just take off and land somewhere and you’re insta-changed sense, but in the sense of it really makes you think about yourself, where you came from, and where you’re going. And it makes you think about the now.
Maybe it’s a photo. Maybe it’s a song, or a smell. Sometimes I get any kind of sensory stimulus and it’s suddenly specific and transporting me back. I’m back on the streets of Valenciennes, strutting over the cobblestones with my school bag bouncing on my hip, in my no-nonsense black boots, watching out for ubiquitous dog crap (no matter how lucky it is to step in it). Other times I’m sitting in the Jardin de Luxembourg, under the Paris sunshine with my best friends, market cheese, and a bottle of wine per person. I’m alone in the deserted streets of Somain, walking to school before the sunrise. I’m in the metro, bathed in eau de métro – a mix of beer and pee, maybe some mold or garbage, occasionally punctuated by the wafting warm smell of a fresh batch of croissants from the metro cafés. I’m on a train heading somewhere I’ve never been, journaling about last weekend’s parties, my experiences with French people, my struggles with the language and with homesickness.
I was solo, all over the world. I made new friends and saw lots of things, and it was the first time I’d ever felt the true weight of my decisions. Each direction I took determined the likelihood of finding my way through a foreign land. Each social occasion determined whether or not I’d have genuine companions in my expatriation. Mulling over, making, and accepting my decisions was the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. I learned my own agency: I can do whatever I want, I make my own life, and I accept the consequences of what I make. At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was feeling comfortable in my boots and confident enough to explore again tomorrow.
Being back home is like, suddenly there are more people to take into account, and way more past and future things to think about. Old friends, S.O.’s, family members, a serious 8-4 job, the next job, the life direction. There are a lot more expectations about where I’ll devote my attention, a lot more things distracting me from what I’m doing now.
Those brief moments of nostalgia are breaths of fresh air in the muggy swamp of my routine.
Then again, so is the view of Mt. Rainier at sunrise on clear days, as I drive over Lake Washington. So are margarita nights with Mom, Indian food with Dad, sushi dates with my boyfriend and house parties with friends. So is the occasional trip out of town to see more of the great Pacific Northwest, and so are the funny stories from my days spent with kindergarteners.
Being on my own in a foreign place, concentrating on the now, the great things, the adventures of every day – it taught me how to bring that mentality everywhere. When I get those waves of nostalgia, it reminds me of the gifts of the present, of where I am. And even though I’m not alone, I’m not struggling with language, or traveling, or whatever else…I’ve still got the gifts of those experiences: many tools for feeling comfortable in my boots, and confident enough to explore again tomorrow.