What’s left behind when the plane takes off

Constant travel is exciting, but you can’t take everything with you when you go.

Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) from Pexels

I’ve always loved moving. My attention span is pretty minimal, and although I’ve fallen in love with all but one of the cities I’ve lived in, I also feel ready to leave after a certain point.

I’ve had different feelings towards moving throughout my life. The predominant one has been indifference — neither excitement nor sadness — just the same feeling you might have when going to the supermarket or going out for coffee.

At times, I have been excited. I’ve felt so done with the place I was in, and looked forward to moving on. In recent years, I’ve started feeling sad every time I move.

Counting places I’ve stayed in for at least 2 months, the past 3 years have seen me living in Cambridge, Windsor, Istanbul, Doha, Dar-es-Salaam, Amman, Oxford, and Geneva. That’s 8 cities, 7 countries, 3 continents. When leaving each of these places, I was excited for the next step, but I also just didn’t want to leave. All I knew was that I felt down about leaving, but I didn’t know why.

Last week, as I was leaving Geneva, I really got to thinking about why I didn’t want to leave. This is what I came up with:

1. Habits

More than anything, I was attached to the habits I’d built. In Geneva, I worked Monday to Friday, and in the evenings, I went to the gym every other day, worked every Monday, went to a language exchange every Tuesday, met my friends every Wednesday and Friday, met the other interns every Thursday, and went to my favourite cafe with my friends every Saturday and Sunday. It seems mechanical, but I loved it. I loved knowing what I was going to do every day, I absolutely loved the routine.

Over my last couple of weeks in Geneva, I found myself thinking about how I would miss going to the gym after work, talking to my personal trainer, exchanging eye contact and knowing smiles with the regulars, going for food and a protein shake after the gym.

Or how I would miss stopping at the supermarket for food on my way to my favourite cafe, talking to the baristas, hearing about their weeks, debating with them — again — about whether “hot chocolate with a shot of espresso” was the same as a “mochachino”, and sneaking free coffee from my favourite baristas.

Or how I would miss walking by the lake to the language exchange every Tuesday, practising French with strangers or getting caught up talking English with friends, and cycling back with a friend.

I know these kinds of habits are everywhere. I go to the gym regardless of where I live, I always have a favourite cafe that becomes my living room wherever I am, I always find a language exchange to go to, and I always meet my friends.

So why do I feel down about missing these habits when I’m leaving a place?

A small part of that answer is that it’s an established, familiar routine, and I know it will take me a while to build up a new routine when I go someplace new. Another part of the reason relates to the next part:

2. Corridor people

2 years ago, when my friend was graduating, she wrote a Facebook post about “corridor people”. She said that, when she graduated, there were 3 categories of people: (1) friends, (2) corridor people, and (3) others.

She would still be in touch with her friends. She would talk to them on Facebook and Whatsapp and arrange to meet up with them. Then there were others, who she wasn’t friends with, and didn’t want to keep in touch with. Both of those categories were sorted. But, she said, she would really miss the corridor people.

Corridor people are people that you sometimes run into in the corridor, stop to talk to, then go about your day. The relationship isn’t strong enough for you to be friends or for you to arrange to meet them again. But you do like them and enjoy their company. My friend had a quandary about how to keep up the relationship.

This is what I’m most attached to when it comes to the habits I’ve described. There are people I met at the gym, became friends with, and now I stay in touch with. However, there are other people that I just made eye contact with and exchanged small talk with. We don’t have each other’s contacts and there’s no reason for us to keep in touch. But I don’t want to just lose them. That’s the same for the baristas in the cafe, or the regulars at the language exchange that I didn’t quite become friends with, or the guy in the fast food shop who knows my regular order and asks me weekly whether I’m sure I’m not Moroccan.

In comparison to my friends and family, these near-strangers don’t have as big of an impact on my life, but they’re part of what makes a place feel like home, part of what makes any routine. I wouldn’t like to be somewhere where the people are horrible — having nice people is a huge part of any place. I know that when I leave a place, they’ll just become a memory. This, again, leads onto the next part:

3. Potential

Sometimes, I wonder whether there was potential for these people to become friends, if only I’d stayed longer. But I also think about all the potential in the place that I didn’t make the most of. For example, Geneva is a beautiful city, with plenty to do — but it’s also near lots of renowned hiking spots in France, as well as other beautiful cities in Switzerland.

I found myself wondering whether I should have “made the most” out of the place by hiking the mountains and touring Switzerland, and eating the country’s famous fondue and raclette. I wonder whether there were more clubs or activities I could have been involved in, whether I could have really improved my French more, and whether there’s a lot more that the city has to offer that I just haven’t explored yet.

And then there’s the final part:

4. Uncertainty

There are so many what-ifs around travelling, even when going back to somewhere you’ve been before. What comes next? Will my friends and I fall out of touch? Will I like my routine there? What am I going to do? Am I going to find new friends? Will I like the place or not?

When you’ve been in a place for a bit, you’re already settled. You know things are good and stable. But when you’re going to a new place, you just don’t know if things will be good or not.

None of these aspects make me not want to move. None of these aspects make me want to settle somewhere long-term (for now), because god knows I would get restless if I did. But, looking back at every time I’ve felt down about leaving somewhere, these are the main reasons that have made me want to stay.

Being aware of them, here’s how we can make our experiences of travelling more fulfilling:

1. Habits

Make travelling a habit too.

Not everyone likes having habits and routines the way I do. But if you are anything like me, build habits around travelling too.

Purposefully visit all your favourite place the day before leaving. Get coffee at the airport with your friends before you leave. Write goodbye cards. Write about your experience on the plane — that way, you’ll memorialise the experience while it’s fresh in your mind, and have something nice to look back on.

2. Corridor people

Build meaningful relationships where possible.

If a near-stranger can become a friend: work on that. Ask them out to coffee or dinner. See if there is space for you to be more.

If not, remember this: relationships don’t have to last forever to be meaningful. Make your shared moments meaningful. Talk to the baristas instead of texting while waiting for your coffee. Dedicate a few minutes to talk to them — maybe while they’re clearing the tables or when you’re leaving. Exchange positive interactions with other gym-goers — smile, offer them your weights once you’re done if you see they’re waiting for them, wave goodbye when leaving.

Enjoy your time spent talking with people. An interaction doesn’t need to lead to a long-term relationship in order to be meaningful.

Don’t under-estimate the power of ‘thank you’. If a person had a positive impact on your experience in a place, let them know. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to stay in touch or become friends. Everyone has moments when they feel down or inadequate. A simple note of thanks, expressing how much they meant to your experience — can make a person feel valued, and give you a sense of closure with the relationship.

It doesn’t have to be weird or awkward. Something simple like this can go a long way: “Hi Jess, I just wanted to say that it was great to see a friendly face every weekend at Boreal — meeting you is part of what’s made Geneva so special. Thank you for the coffee, and for always having a smile to share. Best of luck with your History class!”

3. Potential

Plan ahead.

When you arrive somewhere, you know everyone raves about certain things in a city. In the case of Geneva, these things include fondue, the makeshift ‘beach’ by the lake, and hiking.

Decide whether you actually want to do these things or not. There’s always more to do, so you’ll never get the “most” out of a city. So prioritise: decide what’s most important, and what you’re happy to invest time and money in. A make-shift beach may be the popular, Instagram-friendly option, but would you actually enjoy it over spending time cycling around with friends?

When planning, it helps to think about this backwards: “When I’m leaving, what will I regret not doing? What will I wish I’d done?”

4. Uncertainty

See the excitement in uncertainty.

It could be worth planning ahead to mitigate the uncertainty. Meetup is a great app for doing just that — it lets you see what’s going in the city where you’re headed. So you can build up some excitement about going there, knowing you’ll have events and activities to look forward to. You can look for gyms online, and know you’ll have that aspect of your routine sorted.

Beyond planning, yes, you don’t know precisely what routine you’ll develop or whether things will be good — but it’s nice to have the options so open — to discover new things, and to navigate whichever situation you find yourself in.

These tips are personal to myself, and to my own experiences travelling, but they may very well resonate with someone else who travels often. Either way, some of these tips can be applied more broadly to any change in your life, whether or not travel is involved.