Three weeks ago, I boarded a Eurostar train for a trip from London to Paris. There was something particularly special about traveling before dawn. Seeing a city stretch its limbs after a night’s slumber is something of a secret world: the businesspeople walking with purpose towards their early-morning destinations; the street cleaners wide awake, the noise of their machines breaking the silence; the taxi drivers heading home as their overnight hours come to a close.
Knowing that I would be in an entirely different country before most of the city took its first tea break was exhilarating.
It’s been 11 years since I took my first extended trip to Europe. I traveled that summer through several different countries, with various friends, for six weeks. Though I was still in my 20s at the time, I felt ancient; I had the sense that I was late to the game of travel, that I had somehow missed the boat, even though I held my precious Eurorail pass firmly in my hand.
Sometimes, I wonder what choices I might have made if I’d indulged my well-known wanderlust sooner in life.
It smacks into me when I’m actually in places I’ve never been: the day before I took the train to Paris, for instance, I walked into a coffee shop that made me nostalgic for the girl I wasn’t, back when I didn’t make the determined choice to travel. As I sat there – in the Four Corners Café – I listened to the baristas talking about parties and hookups and music. I reveled in the vibrancy of their enthusiasm for the messy, sexy pieces of life. I fell a bit in love with them, perhaps, with the whole scene, built to implore others to wander. Yet I recognize that while I can dip into that world for a moment, it is no longer mine; over time, I’ve come to understand that there is discovery, too, in sitting still, in creating a community. I want that, too.
I’m proud that I’ve made travel a permanent fixture in my adult life, and that I’ve made sure that I am comfortable in my own skin as a traveler: that I know how to pack and what to bring, that I know what to throw away and what to save, that I know how to navigate a culture in which I don’t speak the language and how to navigate my own country when it seems like a foreign land. And I am proud, too, that I’ve finally realized the joy that comes with not just being completely untethered but that also comes from knowing where my home is, and when I will return to it.
By the time I got to Paris, I had napped and I had woken; I had watched the sun rise over a field in France, and I had read the bilingual magazine in my seatback pocket cover-to-cover, deciphering the French as best I could before referring to the English section for clarification. And though the city before me was not new, it still was everything I craved.
I climbed down from the train, carrying with me a mix of all my years: the self-assurance of my 30s, the restlessness of my 20s, the dreams of my teenage days. And – for the girl I once was – I carried the desire for something unknown, which turned out to be the wonderful, expansive, challenging, and beautiful act of simply boarding the train in one country and disembarking in someplace entirely different. Whatever changes may come, that will always remain precious, a gift to myself that I hold dear, in every corner of my wandering heart.