It is common knowledge that travelling is the best teacher. There are lessons we pick up almost naturally. Lessons like these: knowing a few sentences in the local language goes a long way, always pack a sweater just in case, and stay clear of unlit alleys in locations with high crime rates.
Nevertheless, there are also lessons that we never expect to learn, those that sneak under our skin uninvited. Some are applicable only when on the road. Others, however, change the way you look at the world even when you’re confined to your desk. So, in no particular order, these are my four weird lessons I learned while travelling.
4. It can get scary
There, I said it. Behind all the photos of sunlit quares and beautiful monuments in faraway places, there are moments of unease and fear. By that I don’t just mean crime. Instead, what I mean by travelling getting scary is that it’s not just a way to experience the world. It’s a way to experience yourself, too.
The journeys and trips we take are mirror images of ourselves. It is easy to feel comfortable in your hometown or in the city you grew up in – you know its nooks and crannies, you know how they affect you. At any given point, you are surrounded by the familiar and by the people who know you for you.
When you are travelling, you are nothing but a blank sheet of paper, reduced to your most human self.
When you are travelling, you are nothing but a blank sheet of paper, reduced to your most human self. A couple of years ago, I was supposed to get on a flight to see my best friend. It’s easy, believing that nothing is going to go wrong and just feeling bubbly happy to be on the road again.
Times of crisis
But my flight was cancelled and so I stood with hundreds of other people in the waiting room, all alone. I’m the kind of person who thinks she is very chill in times of crisis, which I mostly am. But when I’m tired, hungry, and worried about whether I’m going to have to sleep over in the airport, that’s not the case.
So when I’m a mess of nerves and someone looks like they need help, what do I do? Do I help them or do I brush them off because I’m nervous and worried myself? This is what I mean by travelling being scary. We embark on it with pretenses, of course we do, but when our regular personalities are taken out of the context of comfort and pre-imagined possible mishaps, who do we become?
Sometimes we’re good people. Sometimes we’re not. Things are not always life-or-death, sometimes it’s just helping others and sometimes it’s noticing that someone has been following you for a while on an empty street at night.
What matters is how we choose to react. It doesn’t matter that we are honors students or marketeers or published authors or mothers – the world doesn’t care. In that moment, we are reduced to our most human self. In that moment, we are no one but what we choose to do. It can be either terribly liberating or terribly condemning. Sometimes, it’s both.
3. The importance of fluffy socks
Or: things we think we need and things we really need.
I’m probably not the only one but I feel like travelling has really set my priorities straight. There are about five material things I actually need, and others might be shiny but I will let them whoosh straight past me. How did I learn that? By bringing fluffy socks.
2015 was a weird year for me, in a good way. I’ve slept at airports a couple of times, waiting for the connecting flight, and the thing that’s stuck by me the most is that I really appreciated small comforts like a sweater and fluffy socks. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a light packer – I’m not. I’m the kind of person who started lifting weights just so she could carry her suitcase up the stairs without having to ask for help. But in the end, none of my clothes or other supplies meant as much. What I really cared about were the fluffy socks. Those were what I actually needed when I was tired and a little homesick.
What I really cared about were the fluffy socks. Those were what I actually needed when I was tired and a little homesick.
Sometimes travelling is a matter of getting to know yourself. I like looking good when going out and about but in the end, I’m just going to choose shorts and chucks for sightseeing on a hot day.
Travelling has taught me that I’m a person who’s always going to choose being comfortable over being stylish. Maybe one day, that’ll also teach me not to fill up my suitcases with 20 kilos worth of clothes I won’t even wear.
2. I remember the small joys, not seeing the Eiffel Tower
The truth is, I forget a lot of things from trips. I know I have seen the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona but I don’t quite remember it. What I remember, though, is having the best lunch in the world on Plaza Real for just 15€ and laughing with a bunch of friends.
This might be connected to lesson number 3 in that travelling shows us what really matters to us as people. My ideal outings are always good food and close friends. But I know I remember that day in Barcelona because it was sweltering hot and we were all hungry, so the restaurant on Plaza Real looked like heaven. And Picasso Museum was beautiful, but nothing was better than sitting down on the steps on Montjuic after a long, hot day and relaxing with a plastic glass of sangria. I also remember running off from Musee d’Orsay to get coffee, and not the museum itself, so there is that, too.
The tiny moments that seemed insignificant? Those stay. Those are the ones we remember for ages.
I think the lesson here is that these huge, majestic things? They eventually fade away for some of us, interspersed with images we’ve seen on the TV. But things like walking around a new city, getting good food, laughing, seeing street musicians playing on trains? The tiny moments that seemed insignificant?
Those stay. Those are the ones we remember for ages.
1. You learn how to love the stillness
It’s funny, how much of travelling is just standing still and yet, we rarely acknowledge it. I’m not a patient person, not by a long shot. I want everything and I want it now, so when I say that travelling has helped me become more patient I sound weird to myself, too. It seems like the opposite of patience, it’s all dynamic and active, rushing from one place to the other, soaking up the sights and the feelings of new places (or well-known places that still hold some secrets).
But the in-betweens, where nothing’s ever happening? I love them now, too. Truthfully, I love having a long layover where I can just sit tight, draw or read or go through the photos on my phone, reminiscing good moments. I love being on the bus and getting the moment to catch up with my newsletters or listen to music. I find things to do.
And when I can’t find something constructive to do, I watch the world around me. Everyone has a story to tell and I bet we could have all written this post differently. That is the main lesson, I think. Even though we are all different, even though there are a thousand lessons to be learned from travelling, the one thing that never changes is that the person who left is not the same person who came back.
Everyone has a story to tell and I bet we could have all written this post differently. That is the main lesson, I think.
Even if I didn’t love travelling for the experiences and the sensations and the people, I’d love it for that change. For the lessons we learn and think they are little, only to find out that they have always been so much bigger.