My dad and I have something in common -- we both travel to escape the things that make us unhappy. We appear to be part of a large community, because just about every vacation package, hotel, and wanderlust-themed website deems travel an "escape" in some variation of the term.
My dad ran away from his home in Bosnia at 16 to be a sailor for ten years, travel the world, and get away from the strict communism of Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia. His teachers forbade him from writing with his left hand and enforced a strictly pro-Tito mindset; being the rebellious individualist that he was (and is), my dad was not having it. So off he went to become his own person, entirely separate from his community in Prijedor, Bosnia -- much to the dismay of his mother.
My version of becoming a sailor was applying for every free trip that came my way in high school (to Mexico, Germany, Spain, and Turkey) and then finding a summer internship in London after my sophomore year of college that paid for my travel and living expenses.
After traipsing through dozens of countries, hundreds of cities, and strutting through airports all over the world, I began to feel the high of traveling and of being my truest self in all corners of the world. Naturally, I started planning my study abroad options the moment that I was accepted to Georgetown, and I wanted to do a year-long program starting in my sophomore spring; long story short, I'm antsy and I don't like to be in the same place for a long time. I looked for summer study abroad programs, fellowships and internships abroad, flight discounts -- anything to get away.
My dad and I have almost always traveled for the same reasons -- to get away from stress, to change routines that have become monotonous, and most importantly, to become different, better people that we couldn't possibly be if we stayed put. Traveling was at the core of my person, and I thought it always would be. I became that loud, extroverted dancer in the dingy bars of Amsterdam at 5am; I became the witty intellectual in London's modern art museums on cold and rainy afternoons; I became the trendy cosmopolitan in the hidden shoe stores of Milan, as I got the last pair of black wedges -- works of art, really -- that happened to be in my size.
So I shocked my friends, my parents, and myself when I decided to withdraw my application to study abroad in Sydney, Australia last year after having pulled an all-nighter to finish by the deadline.
After years of fleeing, I've come to a conclusion that every version of myself eventually reaches: traveling is never the escape that we romanticize in books and movies. Living in another country for a few months or a year is incredibly difficult, stressful and confusing. You'll experience some of the hardest days of your life, when you won't know who to turn to or how to simply move forward. You will never completely fit in, and many people will judge you for being an American.
It'll be an escape for a few moments, when you're exploring, going out, or relaxing in a way that wouldn't be possible at school, but the stresses that you ran from will always follow you.
Don't get me wrong: I do believe that, regardless of your initial motivations to travel, you'll experience growth during a long period of living abroad. You'll become more independent, cultured, mature, and empathetic toward others. But I also believe that traveling for the wrong reasons takes away from a different kind of growth -- one that comes from facing your problems directly.
I realized that I wasn't going to Sydney because I wanted to learn about the culture or because I was excited for the things I would do there. I was going because I was frustrated with the unknowns of my post-graduation career, the disappointment of some of the classes that I took, and the daily routine that had become boring. I was frustrated because I had always imagined my junior year self as someone much more ready for the future, and sitting on a beautiful beach in Australia was much more appealing than facing this truth.
I don't know if it's a fight-or-flight response or just the naivety of youth that makes us want to flee to other countries when things get difficult, but I do know that traveling from a place of contentment rather than one of impatient confusion is a profoundly better experience. There's no such thing as leaving your worries behind or traveling away from yourself; there is only life here and now, and all of the stresses, frustrations, and disappointments that come with it - and therein lies its beauty.