The Secret Downside to Travel

mind the gap

When I was in high school, I watched The Real World: Paris.  It was the four thousand eight hundredth season, and was called the most boring by many critics, cited as evidence the franchise was failing.  To me, though, The Real World: Paris represented who I wanted to be.  Look at those cool, college-age kids (not to be confused with people actually in college) gallivanting under the Arc de Triomphe!  If I were in France, surely I would be flirting with beautiful, accented men at clubs.  I would be eating baguettes in sexy heels, or meeting friends in quaint cafes with spindly tables and tiny coffee cups. When, four years later, I found myself in Paris, I was staying at a hostel on the outskirts of town, unable to afford the outrageously expensive rooms in the busier areas.  My roommates were not seven strangers, picked to live in a house, but rather a family of cockroaches, a cold shower and an Irishman named Stephen who was always drunk (although on further contemplation, the latter holds true to the MTV series).  I wandered around the streets during the day, expecting to be hit by the wonder Paris had long promised in my imagination.  And to be sure, it was beautiful---the Sacré-Cœur Basilica glowed shining white on the hills of Montmarte, while the Notre Dame crouched in its gothic glory on its lonely island in the Seine.  By myself, though, seeing the sites felt single processed: I saw it, and I was done.  There was no one to digest the experience with, to complain about the upwards trek to the church on the hill, or to share a crepe with on the banks of the river.  Most importantly, I was no different in Paris than I was back in the United States:  the simple change of location didn’t render me suddenly high-heeled.  It didn’t make accented men want to flirt with me and it didn’t make me suddenly enjoy coffee, in tiny cups or otherwise.  It was the first time I realized a change of location wasn’t enough to warrant a change of self, and the first time that the reality of a place didn’t live up to my fantasy.

Yet, I kept doing it.  Social media took what The Real World began with and elevated it exponentially: even my failed Paris adventure was documented in a series of photos artfully designed to portray the image of the trip I had before I took it.  When I was readying myself for my move to London, I found myself picturing weekend jaunts to Berlin and Rome, likely with a jaunty hat and a perfectly structured leather tote bag, perhaps embossed with my initials.  I pictured Zack and I strolling hand in hand through manicured English gardens.  When, in my imagination, it started to rain, we would laughingly duck into a quaint pub to nurse hot toddies while the droplets pattered against the ancient paned glass.  I pictured myself surrounded by groups of English-accented creative types, who would have immediately taken me into their circle and invited me out to inspiring, interesting events all over the city.  Needless to say, I have an overactive imagination.

When I came to London, I was lonely. It felt lame to disclose it even to my family and friends, to admit that this European city I was lucky enough to move to felt closed to me.  Zack, busy with the program that we moved out here for, had less time for strolling than I expected, leaving me with large chunks of time to fill on my own.  With no job and no friends, I spent a lot of time by myself.  There are so many hours that can be filled by browsing career websites, by Facebooking and reading blogs that, after a while, all seem like they say the same thing.  I walked around by myself a lot, although the ever-present rain rendered that, even, more difficult than my pub-filled fantasies had allowed for (there are only so many times one can duck into a pub a day).

It’s gotten better: I’ve found writing groups out here, I’ve started building my own company, and slowly but surely, my circle of friends has expanded.  But it’s not perfect. It’s not, unlike my Facebook or Instagram might suggest, a series of charmingly strange foods (prawn cocktail chips anyone?), beautiful parks, and friend-filled nights out.  It’s these things, yes, but it’s also the moments that I don’t document, the trip to the grocery store in the pouring rain, the night when, alone in the house, I spend far too much time talking to my cat.  And that’s okay.  It’s not that my life isn’t the real world---it’s that the real world isn’t real.  The good, the bad, the rained on, the postcard worthy---that’s the real real world, and that alone makes it better than anything a fantasy of television or social media could offer.