At the tail end of autumn 2018, as the golden leaves made way for winter chill, I watched the Manhattan skyline swell bigger and bigger in my foggy airplane window. Soon, I was landing on the tarmac back home. It had been two months of a whirlwind solo trip through 11 European countries.
As the weeks back home unfolded and the jet lag dissipated, I met up with my friends from NYC. They had watched my travels through the tiny, square windows on my Instagram feed. And I quickly realized I was living the tale of two very different trips.
On one trip, I bopped around on planes, trains, and automobiles. The weather was always warm and bright. The people were always friendly. I drank dark beer and rich red wine, and ate great food all the time. I was blasé about spending money, and it was all play, no work. My biggest worry was the next city on my itinerary. I realized this was my Instagram trip — a mostly shallow, self-fulfilling vacation that people wanted to see from my photos. And in some ways, I gave it to them.
The filters had a warping effect on reality. And I did not recognize this blissful adventure that people wanted to chat about.
On another trip, my trip, I had beautiful days and sad ones. I made mistakes — I missed an expensive bus and cried on the curb in Berlin. I fumbled through making new friends city after city, and hoped I would be accepted in new groups of worldly and exciting people. I got myself in awkward situations and didn’t always feel safe, like the time in Ireland where my host was persistent and pushy, triggering my past abuse. I felt entirely at home some days, and out of place on others. Like a juggler in training, I balanced burgeoning independence with my very real anxieties and fears of being alone.
I dealt with the same old problems I had back home, except all on my own and six time zones away.
In Paris, stuff of romantic dreams, I hoped for a perfect day filled with romantic sunshine and Jacques-Louis David paintings and rosy-colored eclairs. My first month on the road was grinding to a halt. And I had planned to find my “inner peace” by then.
But instead I found myself at an expensive “party hostel” that was entirely out of touch with my current mental state. College-aged kids took shots around the boisterous bar as I huddled up in my 12-bed bunk room, curtain pulled tightly closed. The surrounding neighborhood was full of leering locals who catcalled and made me feel unsafe as I tried to move around. My budget was dwindling and I ate cheap grocery-store meals— a hard baguette and a smattering of cheese—in my bunk at night.
All the time alone had let very real, hurtful thoughts creep into the viewfinder. I started to process immense grief at the loss of my dad, who had died in the springtime five years before. My depression was overwhelming as I walked down the Seine. It was a bright, pleasant fall day. Everyone around me seemed at ease and excited. But my body was signaling me to just sleep — to give up, to go home, to accept that I had pain to feel.
I worked my way through it. I found the social courage to take a free Sandeman’s walking tour, led by a struggling British artist who shared dramatic stories about Paris’ grand history with a comical Shakespearean accent.
I met a new friend from the UK who laughed with me about not understanding Monet’s paintings— “It’s just blurry color! A five-year-old could do it!” We grabbed sandwiches and sat in the shade overlooking the Tuileries Garden. It was full of tiny flowers. French children ran around in the grass. I felt happy. But then my friend, Amy, had to catch her train home. And just like that I was lonely again, knowing no one in the entire country anymore.
Hours later, I found myself laying on my back atop a stony bench by the Concorde. Tourists and locals breezed past me with places to go, but I had found my place. I peered up through the towering tree leaves at the clear blue sky, breathing in the emerging sunshine as my depression clouds gave way to a little burst of light. I had pushed through one of my hardest days on the trip, surviving the pulls of anxiety and grief, and formulating better thoughts and self-love. Photos of croissants and Eiffel Tower sunsets meant little to me now. Here was my joy and triumph.
There were days when I couldn’t push through my post-traumatic stress and depression, which kept me lingering in a hostel bed for hours. Those days I would listen as other tourists packed up their things and made plans with new friends in a swirling layer-cake chatter of different languages. When I emerged late in the afternoon just long enough to make myself a cup of tea and read a book, or say a few friendly words to a stranger, I found myself swelling with pride. There I grew. In those days, purely my own, with no selfies to show for it, my best memories lie.
Life happens in the messy corners, the unexpected places, the peaks and dips we ride when we leave our comfort zones.
Because joy is the hollow in your heart when you understand what being truly alone feels like, no longer a phone call or a car ride away from comfort. It’s the way you bumble out of bed on a dark day, but eventually find the sunshine. It’s missing the last train while lugging around your too-heavy backpack, then relying on an almost fictitiously friendly Hungarian couple to sort you out. It’s breathing in the misty fog in the rolling green hills south of Dublin — enjoying that solitude, as the rain pours down and musses your hair. Feeling small but powerful. Worth infinitely more than a hundred well-posed photos.
Personally, I have no taste for the carefully curated Instagram feeds of travelers. I don’t admire the two-finger “peace” signs flung up into the sunset, with long loping captions of every beautiful thing that’s happened in the day. I stopped following influencers hitting yoga poses on the beaches of Bali, honeymooning blissfully in Positano. I’ve lived life on the road, and I know that the realest, rawest things cannot be captured in 2,000 characters.
Being able to travel is an immense privilege. I believe if we use our platform to inspire jealousy or amass a personal following for our own benefit, we’ve missed an opportunity. In advertising perfection, we strip away the authenticity that comes when we travel for personal growth. Perfection tells us we’re doing something wrong. That we’re simply not enough as we are. But that’s not true. Enduring the hard days is what makes travel, like any personal development, worthwhile.
Life is messy and imperfect. And travel is just life, transplanted somewhere else.