Why I Travel, Or “What Makes You Feel Alive?”

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Glasgow is most itself on days when heavy grey clouds hang low in the sky, saturated with rain that aches to flow freely, spewing droplets on the tiny people below. The scent of petrichor rises up from the streets, and the world feels dense and alive. You can tell when someone has lived in Glasgow a long time if they seem oblivious to the rain, don’t carry an umbrella or even a waterproof coat. I had an umbrella once, but it broke, and I could never quite be bothered to spend the £3 or so it would cost to replace it.

Today the sun is shining, and my rainy grey paradise could pass for a European tourist destination. I look out my living room window, at the green grass of the cricket pitch across the road, and all I can think about is the future. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, more so even than the past. I graduate in a year from now, and before then I must choose a path for myself, or at least a starting point. If you’d asked me a month ago what I wanted to do with my life, I would have said I wanted to be a television producer or a screenwriter. If you’d asked me a couple of days ago, I would have said I wanted to travel, live my life out of a carry-on suitcase, relinquish all ambition and go where my wanderlust takes me. If you asked me today, I would say I don’t know. I think the answer lies in between those two options, but I don’t know how to reconcile them.

Yesterday I lay on my bed, as late evening sunlight warmed my feet through the window, and I looked at the collage of postcards and keepsakes I’ve curated on my bedroom wall. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they decorate their bedroom. The thing that’s most evident from mine is that I am sentimental (and really like purple). I imagined unpinning each postcard and Polaroid picture, taking them down from the wall and packing them into a box, sending the box to one of my parents for safekeeping. I imagined donating most of my clothes to charity, the dilemma of what to do with my books. I imagined choosing which mementos would be worth taking up limited suitcase space. Of all the objects that are valuable to me, how many of them do I care enough for to carry them around the world?

I think that’s why running away, I mean, travelling, appeals so much to me. I love Glasgow, and for the most part, I love my life here, but there is so much baggage. I think it’s impossible to truly live a life somewhere without that place becoming bittersweet. Every street, every park, every room is filled with half-remembered conversations, ghosts of hugs I can no longer feel on my skin, versions of myself layered inside each other like Russian dolls. It’s beautiful, but it’s heartbreaking. Glasgow is my home now, and I have to leave to come home to myself. I often joke about travelling to “find myself,” and I’m only ever half serious, because I know it’s a cliché. Often when I’m travelling, I don’t know who I am at all. I lose my autopilot, I have to make a hundred decisions a day, which I am not used to doing. It’s awkward and unfamiliar. But at the end of it, I have a better idea of who I am.

Mostly, I travel to heal. Every journey I have made, I thought I was running from something. Running from pain, trauma, discomfort. Running from responsibilities, running from obligation. Looking back now, I wasn’t running away from anything; I was running towards myself. Every time I have travelled, it’s been in the wake of an experience that’s made me question who I am, question what I am worth, where I stand in the world. Then I hop onto a plane, spend 2 hours and 55 minutes high up above the clouds, and suddenly I am in Estonia, and the trees are dark green and the earth is soft and black, and the city’s towers look like something out of a fairytale. It’s not a haven, some refuge I run to when life gets too hard. Travelling isn’t easy, and I have to face my demons no matter which country I choose to rest in. But it gives me perspective. I don’t have to talk, I don’t feel the same obligation to reply to messages or check my phone. I mean nothing to no one, and I can be everything to myself.

Last night, I stayed up late, reading the travel blogs I wrote the first time I went to Estonia, when I was eighteen. I forgot I’d typed them all up on my phone, because I hadn’t taken my laptop with me. There were more typos than I remembered, and my writing has definitely improved since then. As I read, I watched myself grow over the course of those two weeks, watched myself improve as a writer, question who I am and what I want. I forgot how scared I had been, how I cried from loneliness every night for the first five days. I don’t think I have been truly “happy” any time I’ve been there. I don’t travel to find happiness, I travel for something else.

Lately I’ve started asking people something I don’t think we talk about often enough. I ask them “what makes you feel alive?” I feel like we go through life as zombies, we perform our duties, we complain, maybe vent about our problems on twitter, text our friends a long, overly-dramatic description of whatever’s put us in a bad mood that day, we drown our sorrows in wine, or ice cream, or our own tears, if we feel strongly enough about something to cry. Most of the time we just feel numb. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else.

A couple of months ago, I got a job. It was at a huge UK pub chain that shall remain nameless, but is famed for selling cheap cocktails and being owned by a Brexiteer Tory. I lasted three weeks. It was closed for refurbishment for one of those weeks. So actually, I lasted four shifts. The pub had a capacity of 902 people, and it was often full. During my last shift there, three customers, and one of my bosses, made me cry. I remember catching my reflection in one of the large mirrors that hung from the wall, and seeing this dead look in my eyes. After every shift my legs were too sore to move. I would come home and sprawl out on my bed, too tired to eat properly or even watch TV. It was my personal hell. I’d worked in crappy customer service jobs before, but this was a whole other level. Before I quit, I made myself a promise. If I wasn’t going to spend this summer working, I would spend it committing to my writing, committing to getting fit, committing to becoming my best self.

I work on my novel every day, I run most days, I’m careful with money. But it’s only the 12th of May, and I am bored. The first stage of boredom was: I want to travel but I have no source of income. The second stage of boredom involved a lot of maths and budgeting. I realised I could afford to go to Estonia for a couple of weeks, if I lived off rice and Lidl’s 65p hashbrowns for the whole summer (I exaggerate). But cheap accommodation is hard to come by in peak tourist season, and I worried it would be too expensive. So I turned to my good friend Google. After a few “how to make money quickly” and “how to make money as a writer” type searches, I changed tack, and ended up with “how to travel cheaply.”

At first I considered couchsurfing. Then I discovered a website called workaway, where travellers can volunteer at hostels/farms/b&bs in exchange for food and accommodation. My prayers/screams of existential frustration had been answered. That was four days ago, and I haven’t heard back from the potential hosts I emailed. Patience has never been my strong suit, but I keep thinking about how the longer I leave it, the harder it will be to find flights. I want to be in control, and right now I’m in limbo. There’s this part of me that wants to book my flights now, and work out the rest when it comes to it. But I’m the poster girl for uptightness, I don’t know how to take a leap of faith like that.

In the past, travelling has been something I wanted to do. Now, it is a compulsion, I ache for it. It hasn’t even been five months since I got back from my last trip, and all I can think is that I need to leave, I need to be somewhere else. It’s not even about boredom now, it’s something else. I want peace. There is so much heaviness inside of me, and I don’t know how to unpack it, not here, where so much of it first came into being.

One of the workaway placements I’m hoping to get is on Saaremaa, one of Estonia’s islands. The largest town has a population of 15,000 people. I grew up in a tiny village, and ever since then I vowed to only live in cities. Some nights, I stand on the path outside the door to my flat, and look up at the sky, trying to see the stars. Back home, the stars were everywhere, you could get lost in them. If I go to Saaremaa, I can spend a month or six weeks looking up at the stars. I can walk along the beach, I can run on country roads, instead of having to dodge pedestrians and navigate traffic lights. I can hear the kind of quiet that is but a distant memory for a girl whose flat is right beside a railway line. I would work part time, and when I’m not working I could write. And I could learn Estonian, something I have wanted to do for three years now.

I have this vision of myself, with long, wild, curly hair, and tanned skin, placid and peaceful. Freer than I am now. The last time I travelled for two months, I crossed seven countries in that time. It was exhausting. But two months in one country would be different. I can feel deep inside that this is what I need. But I can’t bring myself to book those flights.

I could put it down to being a control freak, not wanting to make a move until I know my accommodation is guaranteed. There’s a part of me that fantasises about saying “to hell with planning”, and couchsurfing for two months if I have to. Maybe I’m scared that two months is too long, that I’ll hate it. Or maybe I’m scared that I won’t. Maybe I’m scared that living a quiet life in Estonia for two months will feel more like home to me than my life in Glasgow, and that I won’t want to come back. This is my last summer of ‘freedom’, of zero responsibilities before the marathon that is fourth year, and graduation, and the six or so decades of work that come after.

I feel like it’s my last chance to figure out what I want. Some days I have to remind myself that I’m not an old lady at 21, and graduation won’t mark the end of life as I know it. I won’t suddenly change who I am the moment four years of study have been traded in for a sheet of paper. I still have a choice, whether I’m 22 or 52. In the end, it’s all an adventure, it’s all a learning experience.

I need to stop writing about life being an “adventure.” Last night when I was reading my blog post from three years ago, I came across this line “maybe university will be the biggest adventure of all…” The most exciting thing that happened to me yesterday was finding I still had half a bag of quorn vegan nuggets in my freezer. Life isn’t always an adventure. Some days all I want to do is eat carbs and watch TV. Yesterday was one of those days.

Some days, carbs truly are an adventure

But when the carb cravings are over, and I’ve seemingly watched every show on Netflix, I come back to that question “what makes you feel alive?” My answer is simple: spinning around on a beach at sunset; dancing in the rain; dancing – full stop; talking to someone one-on-one, looking into their eyes and knowing I have their full attention; writing; being praised for my writing; hugging people who hug me like they mean it; more dancing; acting, performing, being on stage; running; travelling; being seen, noticed, understood.

One of the promotional images for a play I starred in in March

The first time I watched the sunset from an Estonian beach, 3 years ago

Dreadful red-faced running selfie (but it makes me feel alive so it’s okay that I look like a tomato)

When I ask myself what I want out of life, the answer isn’t a career, or a person, it’s a feeling. The giddiness, the rawness, the honesty that comes from truly living in the moment. I want bravery, I want vulnerability. I want something real. I am tired of fantasy, I am tired of seeing what I want in people, rather than seeing them for what they are.

I often wonder what it would be like to learn a new language, to be at the level where I can hold a conversation, but not speak fluently. I imagine how direct I would be forced to be, if I couldn’t wield the language like a weapon the way I do with my native tongue. I want a life that’s blunt. I want to say what I mean, make decisions without second-guessing myself. I want to be the kind of person who says “yes” instead of “yes, but” or even “yes, and.” Most of all, I just want new stories to tell.

I’m tired of bonding through pain, of telling people my darkest secrets as if that’s the only way to know me. Maybe that’s why I’ve started asking people “what makes you feel alive?” because all I seem to hear is what makes people want to be dead. Screw the pain, screw the trauma, screw the years and years worth of heartbreak. Those things are not what define us, no matter how often it feels like they are. Yesterday’s Eliza would kick me for continuing to say that life is an adventure. But you know what? If finding long-forgotten junk food at the bottom of your freezer is enough to brighten up your otherwise mediocre day, then let that be an adventure.

Life often feels like this zombie-making machine that’s designed to churn out miserable people and force them through cookies cutters, so they can all run this same race of which the only finish line is death. Morbid, I know, but where is the lie? It’s like: go to school, go to university, attempt to get a job in the over-saturated job market, do a masters degree, accumulate more debt, still not find a stable job, get married, have kids, get more debt, grow old, get a divorce, have your body start to ache all over, die alone, be eaten by feral cats. It would be so easy for our lives to be meaningless.

But somewhere within that zombie-machine, we are individuals, and we have a choice of how we live our lives. So I’m asking you: what makes you feel alive? I don’t mean “what makes life easier?” For me, the answers to that are probably “alcohol,” “television,” and “overpriced vegan ice-cream,” and they only make life feel easier, they don’t actually fix anything. I’m not asking you how you numb the bad parts, I’m asking you about the moments where you don’t want to escape, don’t want to suppress your life force.

At the risk of sounding like a youtuber, if you have an answer to that question, leave a comment below. I’m fascinated by what it means to be human. There are two things I truly find beautiful: living, and human connection. So let’s live, and let’s connect, let’s share in our humanity. What makes you feel alive? (I’m also just really nosy).

Other things that make me feel alive:

My sweet baby William, RIP

Pink and purple things; coffee

Meeting adorable dogs

Flowers in my hair

Grenzy (also RIP)

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