When I was 13, my parents decided to switch houses with a family living in a little village just outside Paris for a month. As home-swappers, we’d be living like a real French family. I had never been outside the States before—this was the manifestation of glorious possibilities, an adventure straight out of a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie.
We stayed in a large house flanked by gardens; green woodland dominated the surrounding countryside, tantalizingly romantic for us Los Angeles natives. We zoomed around Paris, wiled away hours in the chateaus of the Loire Valley, and adventured for a glorious sunny day to Mont Saint-Michel. For my birthday, my mother took me to lunch at Ladurée on Champs-Élysées; back then an old-world Parisian teahouse, not the chain it is today. I still remember the temperate elegance of those French women, so impeccably dressed, drinking coffee alone with shopping bags discreetly stashed under the tables.
But most memorable was a flock of French teenage girls in our village with nothing to do but giggle and hang around in the street outside our house in hopes that my older brother would emerge. Their leader was a 14-year old named Fostine who had crystal blue eyes and wore spaghetti strap tank tops that exposed a section of her stomach and the top strip of her Calvin Klein underwear, sitting just above the waistline of her skirt. It was very French, and I was intimidated. Yet, she was fascinated by the United States—she and her friends inquiring in their limited English about life in California. Were all American boys as handsome as my brother? It confused me. It was clear that they were bored stiff in this charming French village, and I couldn’t understand why. They lived in paradise—didn’t they know they were the luckiest girls in the world?
My parents are proud of that trip, having managed to take a family of seven to France on a small budget. They exposed us to the beauties of art, history, and a different way of life. But there was a sour side to the sweetness. I came back to Los Angeles to find my own city dirty and unattractive. I longed for pretty cobblestones and green trees. I counted down the days until I could get away again.
That sensation has since never fully left me. Along my travels, I picked up a new desire to wander.
The Wandering Life
It turns out I’m not the only one. In some ways, ours is a wanderlust generation, as many of us crave travel for excitement, novelty, and escape. We grew up on a diet of movies that taught us that a trip is the best route to changing our lives. Under the Tuscan Sun, Eat Pray Love, The Holiday, or, my personal favorite, The Lizzie McGuireMovie, have tried to teach that travel frees us, which it does. A change in location can be the catalyst for empowering lifestyle change. It’s a fresh start, a reset button.
In addition to sheer fun, changing locations makes me feel like a better version of myself. It’s helpful for me because my two greatest weaknesses are pride and impatience. Roaming forces me to be humble, as I face train delays, lost luggage, and countless inconveniences. I become a novice in local languages and etiquette, hoping the natives will accept me as I am. But it’s all part of the adventure and thrill with these challenges. I like the wandering version of myself more than regular me, as I become more positive, more open. And I can be her quite often, thanks to today’s easy access to travel. My peers and I swap coasts for jobs. We bounce from city to city for weddings. We do volunteer work on other continents.
The downside is that, in the midst of all this movement, staying in one place can feel like being stuck rather than being rooted. Each place has its joys and frustrations, and the sad fact is, many of us focus on the latter. Country songs and television shows feature protagonists eager to shake their hometown dust off their feet, to get out and see the world, just like Fostine and her friends longed to escape from their tiny village. This focus on travel and continuous adventure isn’t realistic to maintain. Most of us can’t afford to take more than a couple weeks vacation time, and after holidays and wedding weekends, we’ve over-drafted on those precious allotted hours. Many young vagabonds dream of having a family one day, but a wandering habit gets difficult when there are kids in tow. Despite my deep desire for a home and children, I’m afraid I’ll hate staying in one place for long.
So how do we learn to be at peace with where we are? Can I learn to be my better self during daily life? Traveling is an adventure, sure, but so is living. I want to learn how to be happy with an ordinary life, because that’s what most of us have, most of the time. Even the most nomadic must come home sometimes, and when we do, we must face our true selves, however impatient, proud, and begrudging that self is.
Places Are Like People
After years of roaming, I’ve found cities as fickle as the people that live in them. We can’t predict the horrors or joys that new ground will bring. I now believe relationships with places are a lot like relationships with people, and sometimes there’s a fear of commitment. What enchanted us at first may wear on us in a year. Our view of a place from a vacation is different from our view when living there daily. Traveling won’t solve our problems, of course. We must learn to engage with the present place. We’re accustomed to the sights we see every day, which can inure us to their beauty.
I once knew a man who moved from Boston to L.A., whose view on my city changed mine entirely. He told me that, of all things, he liked L.A. traffic—all those cars switching lanes were like a dance, he said. It was such a delightful thought that I almost fell in love with him on the spot, and I saw my hometown differently during the time we spent together. Then for months after the resulting heartbreak, all I saw in L.A. was the adventures I’d had, the adventures I was no longer having, with the person I loved. My love of the place was mixed up with my love of the people within it, by my experiences there. On the cycle goes, nostalgia turning me back toward the places of my past and anticipation, toward the places of my future.
I’ve lived in six cities in the past four years and visited countless others, and I’ve discovered the cliché to be true: No matter where I go, I cannot outrun myself. If I think about it, much of the discontent I have in any given place has to do with belonging. But I will never feel like I belong if I don’t belong to myself, if I cannot accept myself as I truly am.
I cannot pretend I know exactly how to do this. It’s an ongoing mystery, but I think I’m learning. Part of it means spending time with the friends present in the moment. Part of it is enjoying what my city does offer in the way of museums, food, and festivals. Part of it is enjoying the beauty in front of me. But most of all, it has to do with desire, and my desire has shifted. I want to bloom where I’m planted. I want to learn to love the skies I’m under.