A Lack of Familiarity: Learning How to De-Travel

It’s been a month since I left South America. Four weeks ago, my last full day in Colombia, I was on the outskirts of Bogotá playing tejo in a giant greenhouse with a group of Colombian friends; everyone drinking beers at three in the afternoon, throwing metal pucks at little packets of folded paper filled with gunpowder. Trying to make them explode.

I was excited and nervous about going home again after such a long time away, but at least I knew how I felt about the situation. Because I still had both my feet in Colombia, the biggest worry was how much I’d miss South America when I finally left.

But maybe I should have been more concerned with what London was going to throw my way. A month of being back in England, and I still don’t feel settled at all.

Unexpected issues: the London version

When I’m travelling, I love the unknown. I embrace that giddy, butterfly-filled feeling when my long distance bus pulls into the station and I walk out into a city I’ve never seen before.

But the need for a sense of familiarity is even stronger when I’m at home again, and it’s thrown me slightly off-kilter to realise that my version of London – the one I was holding carefully close to my chest during those last few weeks in South America – just isn’t the same anymore.

Summer evening skies above the London Underground

Late summer evenings in central London

Within days of being back, it became clear that my life was very different. I’ve spent solid hours on three kinds of public transport to reach meetings with friends, having panic attacks at the sheer glut of people in the process; vowed to buy myself a bike and then panicked (again) about cycling on London’s terrifying roads. I’ve felt awkward and a little nervous when resurrecting friendships that didn’t quite ‘pick up exactly where they’d left off’ the way I’d hoped.

And worst of all, I’ve watched as Jasper, my fourteen year old cat, as he coughed, refused to eat, and hid under the sofa more and more often. Eventually we took him to a vet who spoke slowly, kindly and sadly while she pushed a final needle into his leg, and I cried harder than I have in a long time.

Jasper the cat

To combat the unexpected surprises London was throwing at me, I bought a yoga mat, signed up for the local gym, and began a regime I’ve never managed to stick to in my life so far; exercising every day in some capacity, be it Pilates and yoga classes, running on the treadmill or simply forcing myself to do planking and sit-ups in the privacy of my bedroom.

In a physical sense, I guess I feel pretty good about myself. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not doing this right. Surely I should be aiming for something big, something important? Surely I should feel more settled by now?

Why hasn’t travelling made me into a better version of myself?

The problem is obvious: I haven’t really had to deal with a permanent life in London for many years now. Since I was 18 I’ve switched back and forth through a cycle of semesters at university, internships, and travelling, and I’ve never settled anywhere for long. I’ve also always had something else in the pipeline that’s been a breath of fresh foreign air to look forward to.

Now, I’m putting all my eggs in the same basket. Permanency in London while I study for my Masters, with just the occasional short trip abroad to keep me going. It feels very, very weird because I’ve suddenly turned my usual lifestyle on its head. I feel guilty for not being happy about where I am. As if I should only feel positive about my move back to London, or else it means I’ve got it wrong and might have made a horrible mistake.

But I don’t wish that I was travelling right now. In South America I’d reached a point where I really just needed to stop, and London made more sense than anywhere else to do that.

I simply wish my life felt more…well, mine.

Barbecuing in the rain

Brighton lanes in the sunshine

The more serious problem with feeling so unsettled is that my writing is clearly suffering. I feel jaded and irritable. I feel unable to produce anything good: the simple act of writing, usually so easy for me, is becoming a struggle. I sit and stew over my keyboard, occasionally disappearing for fresh cups of tea or a bowl of granola. I repeatedly attempt to clear my desk and the areas surrounding it, which often descends into a full blown “well I’m not getting anything done so I may as well do a proper tidying session”, whereby I spend three hours cross legged on the floor throwing old receipts in the general direction of a dustbin.

Then I return to the desk again, head aching and guilt ridden, to the same blank page.

The question continually flying round my head is terrifying. What if I can only write when I’m travelling? What if being back in London makes me boring again; bereft of the ability to twist words the way I want them to go, so they sound real and exciting and compelling?

A park bench in Peckham Rye

I’ve been visiting the park near my dad’s house a lot to sit and think…

I know this is normal. Writer’s block is unavoidable from time to time. And when I think about the situation I’m in, it’s not hard to understand why. After so many months and years of squeezing in time to write about a multitude of foreign situations, I’m suddenly back in London, in the room I grew up in, eyes flitting around a garden I’ve watched change, on and off, for twenty six years. No wonder I feel suddenly stagnant.

More than that, though, I feel like a fraud. Where I could be busily attempting to make every second count because ‘I’m travelling’, now I’m back in an environment where it’s normal to spend entire days working, without missing out on an incredible travel opportunity – but there are so many things on my London to-do list that I find it nigh on impossible to fully complete even one of them.

A confession: London isn’t as great as I’d hoped

It’s hard, being back. I have to remember that while I’ve been fully engaged in travel activities, my friends back home have been just as busy in different ways. They’ve spent the last eighteen months moving house and getting engaged and changing jobs and reasserting what’s important to their lives – and I don’t know the important details that make each whole. I’m learning to be humble about not knowing; learning to be malleable enough to accommodate these changes. Just like they’re accepting the new South Americanised Flora.

I have to remember, too, that this was my choice. I decided that I needed to come back – even if I was still in love with travelling – because there are moments in your life when you have to do what’s right. Even if it’s opting for the less fun and more serious decision.

It’s so easy to take familiarity for granted, but it can change and disappear just as easily. One night there’s a cat sleeping on your bed, and the next day he isn’t. But my writing will come back, I’m sure – and London is still London, despite all the ways I see it differently. And ok, so I’m not much of a traveller anymore. That’s not the worst thing in the world to come to terms with. It just might take me a little while to get there.

Longer than four weeks, anyway.

Sunset above the roofs in Peckham

How do you handle coming home after travelling? Do you find that things are less familiar? Or that nothing’s changed at all?   

 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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43 Responses to A Lack of Familiarity: Learning How to De-Travel

  1. Kiara Gallop August 14, 2014 at 6:42 am #

    I returned from just 5 months in South America (or more specifically Peru and Bolivia) to find one of my close friends engaged to a man she only met a few weeks before I left, another living with a different man to the one she was seeing 6 months ago, and my godson (who could barely sit up when I left) is now walking, running, and getting his hands on/in everything in sight! My hometown hasn’t really changed much but I can’t say the same about the lives of the people within it!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

      It’s crazy how much people’s lives can change when we aren’t around! Hope you’re handling the return ok, Kiara 🙂

  2. Cassandra August 14, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    I can definitely relate to this feeling, Flora. It’s unsettling when you’re expecting your original “home” to still hold all of the familiar comforts only to find that they’re not so familiar anymore.

    One of the difficult adjustments for me is bouncing between a European capital and my tiny hometown. When I’m in Madrid I crave the silence that comes with having no neighbors, small town courtesies, a slower pace, etc. Yet, when I’m at my parent’s house again, I become acutely aware of how far I am from other people and events. I enjoy the solitude but after a few weeks I want to return to a place where I can hear different languages, walk everywhere, take public transportation, travel easily, and explore the unknown.

    Best of luck getting back into the London groove!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

      It’s all about finding a balance. I was initially quite overcome with how loud and busy London can be (something I hadn’t really remembered to its full extent!) but I then I remembered the park nearby, and I’ve been walking through it almost daily for some peace and quiet (knowing that the busy London atmosphere is just around the corner if I want it!).

  3. Kirstie August 14, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    I haven’t yet returned home, but, after years of living in Spain and traveling frequently, I’m now fairly settled in Australia, with a full-time career-oriented job, a serious relationship, no travels scheduled aside from weekends two hours from Sydney, and no plans for any big life changes any time soon. So this post really struck a chord with me. My life here is good, but it’s really hard to settle down after traveling, and I’ve been trying to come to terms with that. I spend far too much time fantasizing about being able to travel again in the future, but I just don’t know when that will be!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

      I think that’s part of the issue with me, Kirstie – I”m actually looking forward to settling in London for a bit but part of me can’t shake the constant “where am I going next?” mentality, which means I start resenting the wonderful opportunities I have right in front of me. I’m trying really hard to look at my life from an outside perspective and value all the good stuff – even if it’s not explicitly travel related 🙂

  4. Sarah August 14, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    Oh Flora, I’m sorry to hear the settling in period has been filled with stress and sadness. I’m so sorry about Jasper. My childhood pet passed while I was overseas and while I was surrounded by people who shared their favourite pet memories with me to help me grieve, I would have appreciated being close to her when it happened.

    As for the unsettled feelings continuing, I don’t know if that ever goes away. I think it’s a feeling of readjustment rather than a feeling of settling that frequent travellers get. I’ve been back in Australia after spending about 18 months in Colombia and I still don’t quite feel settled in. I still feel like I’m in limbo. My fight or flight response is still engaged, I’m still waiting for that moment when I have to protect myself or think on my feet or find myself in a situation that only I can make myself out of. But living in my home city, those situations don’t arise. I’ve found that it’s a process of trust. Trusting where I am, where I’m going, where I’ve been and knowing that I’m exactly where I need to be.

    Un abrazo desde Australia

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

      Yep, there’s definitely a sense of limbo for me too. Not to mention the occasional panic moments about not knowing where my passport is (because it’s safe in a drawer instead of constantly to hand)! Thinking of it as a process of trust and readjustment is a great idea, thanks for phrasing it so well! I know that London and semi-permanency makes sense for me right now – it’s just convincing the internal travel bug of the same thing.

  5. The Queer Nomad August 14, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Oh dear… Sad to hear that even for born & bred Londoners, maintaining friendsships is hard here. When I returned from travelling, virtually all my British friends had moved back home to buy a house, get married etc., or I had otherwise disappeared from their world. Even though I got in touch with people many times, they kept saying “Ah, we won’t invite you down the pub, you’re not in the country, anyway.” So I knew e.g. via FB that friends were meeting, told them I want to join, but nobody bothered to actually tell me WHERE as “We thought you’re not here.” Some even thought I somehow betrayed Britain as I was away for so long and was now too critical about the British ways O_o (man, I love Blighty – I’m German but grew up among Brits, and I consider the UK my home, not the country that issued my passport).

    What helped for me is to find other “traveller” friends (or rekindle friendships with those). I now travel lots in Europe with 1 – 2 longer (1- 2 months) trips outside Europe per year, and it’s so nice to have friends that have a similar lifestyle… There’s somthing in between the standard 9-5 life, floating student life and full-time travel and I promise, there are loads of us.

    Let me know if you feel like meeting up 🙂

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

      We’re very lucky that the traveller/blogger community is so welcoming 🙂 I’m sure we’ll run into each other at one of the meet ups soon enough!

  6. Kate August 14, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    This was really good to read for me, in large part because I am on the cusp on entering a phase of de-traveling in my life. I have been sort of settled in London for the past year, as I have been completing a Masters, but I am not British, so even being settled here is still a sort of travel or expat life. However, in two months, I move back to the US, albeit to a state I have never visited, to settle for… a while. An undetermined length of time. I’m rather uncomfortable with it, because I’ve lived with an “end date” for so long. Whether things were wonderful or terrible, or just somewhere in the middle, that end date was an encouragement, and I’m not too sure how to adjust to living without one again.
    All this to say, thanks so much for sharing and I will be eagerly following along your journey through de-traveling as I enter my own period of the same.

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 6:09 pm #

      Not having a set end date can be seriously worrying. I’m just going with the end of my Masters program for now, and not thinking anywhere beyond that. Because who knows what stage my life will be at by that point? Glad you’ll be following along with all the de-travelling though, Kate – a problem shared, and all that 🙂

  7. Mikeachim August 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    That sounds tough.

    Sounds a lot like you need a Fortress of Solitude. It doesn’t have to be physical (although that helps) or if it’s physical, it doesn’t have to be yours (a quiet public space, or hell, a weird public space, will do just fine – like a quirky coffee shop or a strange little room in the library that hardly anyone visits). But it does have to be something you invent in the middle of this new London you’re discovering.

    Also, challenge: I know you want to pitch major publications. And I cannot think of a better topic, a more *you* topic, than having to reinvent a city you grew up in because otherwise you’ll feel like you’ve taken one massive step back and all the novelty is gone. If you’re feeling that now, mixed with bewilderment at how much things have changed (and in some cases, upsettingly, refused to remain the same)…then turn your big, big brain to the task of digging out a London you’ve never seen, partly because you never knew it was there, and partly because you’ve seen it so many times you never *see* it.

    Reading suggestion: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/08/12/on-looking-eleven-walks-with-expert-eyes/

    And how about turning this into your defining quest on this ‘ere blog? “I, Flora Baker, vow to make London weird to myself – and to my readers as well.”

    TL;DR: hang in there.

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

      I’ve just ordered ‘On Looking’ and have held your suggested quest in my mind while wandering around London ever since I read this comment. London is hereby going to be as weird as I can make it – and your advice is constantly invaluable, Mike 🙂

  8. Kara August 14, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    I think you showed quite nicely the cognitive dissonance of returning home (in my case, to the US). Like anything else, I think it just takes time. Getting into routines, like the gym for you, sounds like a good way to try to settle down. But maybe you’re just not ready to settle down, whether it’s London or somewhere else?

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

      Hopefully I can accept settling for a time, even if I’m not ready for it – I kind of need to in order to study for my Masters..!

  9. Gary Cartzdafner August 14, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

    Hang in there Flora…there is a reason you decided to return home…..there will always be more travel in your future….

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

      Thanks Gary 🙂

  10. Tracey August 14, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    So sorry to hear about Jasper passing away. At least you got to see him again before he passed.

    I’m currently planning a RTW trip and the hardest part will be leaving my pet cat Cleo who’s been by my side for the last 8 years. I don’t care about my house, my belongings – all can be sold. And friends and family can be chatted to anytime over the phone or through Skype. But having to leave behind a beloved pet is the hardest.

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:08 pm #

      It’s amazing how difficult leaving a pet can be – but I’m sure Cleo is akin to a member of your family, like Jasper was for me. I’m just really glad I made it home and had a few weeks with him before he died, as I would’ve felt so helpless to know I’d never see him again. Hopefully Cleo will be healthy and happy throughout your trip, Tracey – and when you’re Skyping home, get them to get Cleo on the webcam, my dad always did that for me 🙂

  11. Laura August 15, 2014 at 3:31 am #

    Very powerful, Flora. You seem to have found all the right words to express your feelings about being home, so I’m sure all of the other words will come soon too. I’m sorry to hear about your cat, losing a pet is always difficult, especially with all of the other emotions your experiencing being back. I always feel strange returning home after being away. Your words rang very true with me. Thanks for sharing and I’m sure you’ll settle back into things soon!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:19 pm #

      Thanks so much Laura, your comment really gave me a boost as I’m still feeling like my words are lacking somewhat at the moment!

  12. Eleanor @ Untranslated Adventures August 15, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Coming home is such a bittersweet thing so often, my blog went quiet for over 8 months when I returned from living abroad because I just couldn’t bring myself to write about my “boring” life in England! When I stopped thinking of this stage as my downtime in-between travelling though, I realised there were lots of things keeping me here – I’m sure you will too!

    So sorry to hear about your cat too 🙁

    Ellie xx

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

      Exactly Ellie – coming home immediately feels like you’ve stopped being interesting, but I guess the challenge is to find yourself new interests in a place that’s already familiar, and go from there. Glad you got yourself out of the rut – and hopefully I will too 🙂

  13. Lea August 15, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Well Flora, coming back is hard it really is, even if we’re feeling god of seeing again our friends, family and boyfriend, the ones we left behind are still so fresh in our minds that is difficult to adapt. One of the biggest problems was came back to my 12 million people city from a 500 inhabitants were I stayed, my fresh air and tranquility were suddenly taken from me.

    I think is really easy to adapt to a new routine in a new country, we are full of expectations, we want to learn this new culture, the persons around us and everything else that we can get in these moments. Then back home is our “old” life that is waiting for us, the places that we grow up inside, the routine we were used to be good with, but deep inside we’ve changed and we are still figuring out what happened inside of us during this period of traveling, but we already need to find a jog, something to do, we feel a lit bit trapped by this new “us” that is not so well steady back to the old routine. What I did to help a little bit, after the first months staying a lot at home, and trying to look forward to my life I decided to do the simple thing I could, enjoy what my city had to gave me: activities, concerts, courses, I get a job that gives me a lot of free time, it’s not to make money just to have an occupation, then I started do learn thins a always wanted to, new things. That’s what we need to don’t feel so stuck, we must keep creating this new “us”, in my new activities I feel challenged, like I felt when I was in a new country…

    I hope things go good for you, London is a great city, I’m sure you can find a crazy new hobby to let your “explorer” side alive in you!
    Buena suerte chica!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

      “Creating a new ‘us'” is a wonderful way of putting it – thanks Lea 🙂 I think taking it a step at a time is the best policy. I like the idea of looking for new activities like I would in any other new country. Gracias por la suerte!

  14. Juergen August 16, 2014 at 9:08 pm #

    Sounds all too familiar! It’s difficult to settle back in, it’s even more difficult to try to be part of the “daily rat race”, to understand why material possessions replace the desire to explore something new… And then there’s the shocking realisation that many of your friends are still leading the same life they were not satisfied with before you left, talk about the same problems they had almost 4 years ago (in our case at least)…
    I’m sorry, I can’t even tell you “it gets easier”, because we left again after trying 3 years “at home”. Home for us is on the road!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      I think there’s a good mix to be met between travelling and remembering why your home life is important to you. However much I love travelling, I still feel indebted to spend some time with my friends and family from time to time!

  15. Ceri August 17, 2014 at 3:37 am #

    Wow, hun. How long’s it been since I read your blog? I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

    I’ve got to be honest with you, hun – I didn’t handle coming “home” after travelling very well at all and that’s why I left again. I realised that I have so many loved ones in the UK, I love some aspects of its culture – the music, the manners, the sense of humour – but I really can’t live there. It’s a place that feels suffocating to me and I know that it’ll probably be a long time before I ever go back there again – if I ever do.

    I do hope you find a rhythm and it’s all good for you though, hun. Maybe you just need time. I can only imagine how weird it must be to try and slip back into UK life after everything you’ve been doing.

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

      Well, it’s definitely proving interesting being back so far… I hope I do ok. Sad to hear that you and the UK don’t get along (particularly as that cuts down on the chances of us actually meeting up!), but fingers crossed you’re still loving South Korea!

  16. Emily Buchanan August 21, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    London is such a massive and complex city Flora, I think it’s going to take many months to get settled – especially in your circumstances. As you know I’ve just moved here too and everyone I speak to says the same thing: they hated it when they first arrived and then 6 months later, they couldn’t imagine themselves living anywhere else.

    It’s easy to feel over (or under) whelmed by London and I think that’s because it doesn’t make any sense as a city. It’s too discordant. It’s too varied. It’s just too much as a whole. Instead, I try to view it as a series of small towns that have been clumped together. You need to find the town you love the most and make a life there. That’s what I’ve learned in the last two months so I’m moving to Stoke Newington in September to do just that.

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 11:55 am #

      When I was growing up here, I always used to think of London as a collection of little towns – but I think coming straight back into the thick of things made me forget about it. Not to mention coming back home to somewhere so acutely familiar has left me somewhat apathetic…

      Luckily I’m moving to a different part of the city soon so hopefully I’ll be able to start from scratch again, and rediscover somewhere new 🙂

  17. John August 22, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

    Thank you for this post, I think it’s a fear all travellers have.

    We recently stopped off in London (now live in Sydney) to visit my family after 7 months in South America, and always build it up in my head. The truth is, once there it just doesn’t feel the same after growing up and enjoying what it had to offer for so many years.

    We have some time left on the road, who knows what will happen when we get back to Australia. Fingers crossed it works out as we keep hoping in our heads.

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 11:46 am #

      I hope things work out how you want them to as well, John! It’s always going to be tough going back to ‘normal’ life again post travelling – I think because you often paint an overly rosy picture of what home is like when you’re away from it..

  18. Katie @ The World on my Necklace August 28, 2014 at 2:44 am #

    Hang in there Flora, it took me about 6 months to really feel reconnected to a stable life after being on the road for 13 months. You just have to give it time, as fruistrating as it is.

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Thanks Katie 🙂

  19. Stephen & Jess October 27, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    I think the way we deal with it is by denial and booking another holiday to remind us that we are still planning to travel. I suppose we haven’t really done the whole long term travel thing yet (we will be early next year), so maybe we will have to revisit this in a years time 😛

    • Flora November 16, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

      I guess that’s certainly a truth – I’m already making plans for where I want to go next! :p There’s quite a huge change in your mentality when you come back to a permanent, routine lifestyle after a long time of jumping from place to place though. I’m sure you guys will know what I mean soon enough..!

  20. vn shetty March 31, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    So true..nice one 🙂

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