The End (Weekly Recap, Weeks 42-43, July 15-30, 2019)
When we left on this trip on September 30, 2018, nearly everything was open ended. We bought three one way tickets to Rome just in time for me to start my teaching gig at the American University of Rome. We had student housing there for six weeks. We had the beginnings of plans for where to spend Christmas (Paris). That was about it. Everything else was planned as we went along. One thing that we purposefully didn’t decide before we left was our end date.
When we first started talking about this trip, we decided we’d take six months to travel. The more we mulled over possible plans, the more we thought nine months made more sense. Then we thought: why not give ourselves a year?
But we also were careful to temper our excitement. We were, after all, traveling with a baby. WP was eight months old when we left, and she seemed open, curious, adaptable, and like she was fond of sleeping -- all good qualities for a travel companion. But what would she be like at a year? What would it be like once she started walking? We didn’t know and, as first time parents, couldn’t really begin to guess. So we also kept open the option of cutting our trip short. If WP wasn’t happy, we figured, we wouldn’t be either.
After the first couple of months of traveling, WP was doing great, and it was really clear to us that there was so much we wanted to do. Couple that with the fact that we were much more slow-moving with a baby and all the corresponding luggage and we knew it would take us more than six months to feel like we’d really done what we wanted to with this trip.
Not that we had very specific goals. But there were places we wanted to see, people we wanted to visit, travel companions we wanted along on the journey. We wanted to take some time really, really away from regular life. To completely disconnect from the United States of America, at least as much as you can with international news (turns out, you can disconnect a lot...other countries are much better at reporting our meaningful headlines and tuning out the noise; they have their own issues to obsess over).
So we extended our forecasted return date and kept planning more travel. We zigzagged around Europe, went to a half dozen places in Morocco, and spent two months living in Spain.
It was halfway through our time in Spain, in late April, six months into our trip, that I began to feel that perhaps our time was no longer waxing but waning. I was very happy in Valencia, and we had a ton of fun, but we were in a bit of a tough pattern. We were gearing up for a big road trip through northern Spain (highly recommend!) and coordinating upcoming travel with five different sets of people. Each day we’d wake up, do something fun, put WP down for her nap, and Mike and I would spend two hours furiously planning travel. We’d groan when WP woke up and as soon as she was down for the night, we’d start again. I was neglecting the blog, I was barely getting through my obligations at work, and I was not reading or relaxing during any of our downtime.
And that’s when I realized that I was burnt out on doing something that I truly love: planning travel. I was sick of it. It was my first hint that maybe it was getting to be time to go home.
With a big final push we made it through planning all our logistics through July just as we were invited to a wedding of one of Mike’s high school friends in Massachusetts in early August. It was not in our plans to come back to the US at that point, but we realized that maybe we could use the wedding as a sort of turning point in the trip where we left Europe/North Africa and traveled back to the Americas. We’d fly into and out of NYC, drop some stuff off, and after the wedding we’d head to Latin America.
We then began the process of picking a destination in Central or South America. We researched, we narrowed down, we pinged colleagues and friends, we pored over blogs about tiny towns across a half dozen countries… and we just couldn’t get excited about any of it. Part of the issue was that we were looking at August travel -- humidity, hurricanes, and high temperatures in most places, or winter in others. The weather was against us. But part of it is that we were tired -- certainly I was. The idea of touching down in the US and then heading out again held little appeal.
So in mid-June we made the decision -- our flights to NYC on July 30 to return for the wedding would be our final ones. Ten months to the date from our September 30 departure, we’d return to the US.
At this point we knew that, with Latin America off the table, we had to go out with a bang. Or at least with a stretch of relaxation. Our plans to go to Wales end of July had fallen through, so we took the opportunity to think more broadly about where we might go to end the trip. In the end, after considering and shelving lots of West African destinations (we have so many future trips plotted there now though!) and considering squeezing in another European target or two, we landed on a simple week of relaxation in the Canary Islands.
So we changed our flights from Stockholm to London to come back a few days earlier, repacked our bags (leaving yet another round of stuff with Alisha and co -- thank you!!), and headed out to Tenerife and Fuertaventura.
We used credit card points and stayed in resorts (except for two nights in the volcanic national park in the center of Tenerife where we went for world class stargazing!). We ordered room service and ate at buffets and rented umbrellas and chairs at the beach. If ever there were a way to put a fine point on the fact that we’d been traveling for ten months but it had been more trip than vacation, this week in the Canary Islands did it. When we returned to London we were tanned and relaxed.
We ended the trip with good friends before hauling all our stuff to the airport hotel at Gatwick for our early transatlantic flight to New York on July 30.
When we landed at JFK I felt exhausted but I also felt light. We’d been so focused on this trip for the last year that we’d almost forgotten that at the end of it we were not actually returning anywhere -- we weren’t going to SFO, where we’d left from. We were landing in New York. Suddenly, by ending our trip we realized -- we’d moved to New York City.
Sure, we don’t have a home, we need jobs, childcare, and we’re still living out of our suitcases, but we’re now home -- whatever that may mean.
Now that the trip is over, I feel some relief -- all the planning, all the moving around, the new cultures, new languages, new customs -- it’s over. I feel trepidation -- what will our life actually be or look like in NYC? There are too many variables outstanding to feel settled. But mostly I feel proud.
We spent 303 days on the road, exploring, lugging with us the bare minimum we needed to be comfortable, and doing it all with a small child. We raised a human who says “hola” and thinks dogs go “waowaowao” because that’s what her babysitter taught her in Valencia, Spain. When she sings to herself it’s Frere Jacques because that’s what her babysitter sang to her in Marrakech, Morocco. Her favorite song to sing together is Baa Baa Pink Sheep which we learned at music class in Edinburgh. She can count to 10 and dances when she gets to eight because on travel days she’d always watch the same episode of Sesame Street that we’d saved offline and the number of the day was eight.
At the wedding this past weekend, I was making small talk with a guest I didn’t know. When she found out what we had just finished doing she quipped, “must be nice!” I didn’t demur. I know how lucky and privileged we were to be able to, when we felt like it, pick up and run -- whether towards or away, or both. “It was nice,” I conceded.
Most people probably can’t do what we did. It was expensive. We were lucky that I was able to land consulting work that essentially covered the cost of the trip, but not everyone’s professional skill set lends itself to this. We had no obligations at home that we couldn’t walk away from, even if it was difficult, painful, scary, or risky to do so. That’s not true for many.
But it is true for some, including many people I know. Many of the people who said to us “I wish I could do something like that!” were the precise people who, truly, could. But it is scary, even scarier than I realized when we decided to go. We were successful but unhappy. We needed a change -- perhaps many changes. It seemed hard to walk away from what we had, but easy to dive into what we didn’t know.
Now that we’ve done it I’m sort of amazed at how hard this self-indulgent thing we did was. The full-time parenting that I’ve written about -- for me as someone who has never wanted to be a full-time parent -- but also the full-time partnering. When on earth do you spend nearly all day every day for 303 days in a row with your partner, or any other adult? Nearly every new experience I had for the better part of a year was shared with the same person. That strained and strengthened our relationship in ways I didn’t even bother to anticipate before we boarded our first flight.
And for all the time away, I have not accumulated ten months' worth of epiphanies into my life, my future, my priorities. I have had some useful insights for sure. But when I think about what I want to do with my career I’m only slightly farther along in my thinking than I was when I left. When I think about what kind of parent I want to be and how I want to build a family, it’s not too dissimilar from what I thought before we left, or before we even had kids. Perhaps that should be affirming, but I find it a little disorienting.
Most of the last year was not spent collecting aha moments, it was spent just living in the moment. And planning out future moments. It was spent grocery shopping for the zillionth time in a country where I didn’t totally speak the language or understand how the aisles were organized. It was spent walking for miles because I wasn’t there for long enough to figure out the public transit system. It was spent eating doner (giros for you New Yorkers) at dozens of holes in the wall and noticing that in Spain they fill a version with corn and olives and in Marrakech they wrap a version like a burrito, put it in a panini press, and call it a taco.
I could not be happier to be back. I’m truly home, in my hometown of NYC, after 12 years away. But I am also nearly certain that we’ll do this again, in some form. It was too extraordinary, and too ordinary, to be done only once. It was once in a lifetime because we’ll never recreate the itinerary, we’ll never watch WP take her first steps in Parma and say her first word in Bruges again. But it also isn’t over because it’s taught us that travel will a hundred thousand percent continue to be a super important part of our lives even with kids.
Next time I think we’ll try the other version of a year abroad -- rather than 11 countries and 48 cities (tons of fun stats to come later), we’ll try one location, maybe two. I don’t know when it will be, but I am pretty sure it will be, and so I don’t care to think much more about it right now. In fact, I don’t think I’ll be planning any trips at all for awhile. But it doesn’t matter at all, because I know there will be many more to come.
In the meantime, folks, that's a wrap. Thanks for following along!
(PS There will also be a few more blog posts to come, topical ones on things I've learned, but I'll be taking a break from blogging for a bit to work on getting settled. ✌🏽)