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