A couple of weeks ago, my mom and I traveled to Italy. We stayed in the city of Florence and took day trips out into a few Tuscan towns. It was a dreamy trip. I loved it.
I’m planning on writing a couple of different posts about the trip (the fashion and accessory trends I noticed while I was in Italy/art and architecture/etc.), but I wanted to talk more generally about the idea of travel this week. My stage of life is ideally suited to travel – out of school, single with no kids, in steady employment (with vacation days), old enough to viewed as a responsible adult, but young enough be gung-ho about getting up and going. But the idea of the twenty-to-thirty-something single white woman traveling the world has become a cultural cliche and not simply because it is an opportune time of life to take a longish trip.
Since the Travel Stage of Life has some idealogical baggage associated with it, in the past months I’ve been thinking about good reasons to travel and bad reasons to travel. Motivation really does matter. We can do good things for bad reasons, like giving to charity just to show off. On the flip side, we can do bad things for reasons we think are noble, like eviscerating a stranger in a Facebook comments section after they posted something that could be taken as an insult to a friend.
True heart motivation can be difficult to determine. I think my own thoughts all the time and I have a hard time deciphering my own motivations sometimes. But when I have an especially difficult time determining why I did something, it is usually because admitting my true motivations would be unflattering to myself. And it is a very common practice to apologize in a not-very-apologetic-at-all kind of way by saying, “I’m so sorry I snapped at you – I don’t know what came over me.” That kind of apology is much more flattering to the ego than the honest kind, which would be something along the lines of, “I’m sorry for being envious about what you were just talking about – my envy just spilled out and that is why I snapped at you.” So I want to start off with a few BAD reasons to travel and then move on to the good reasons. (And to anybody who is feeling offended already, remember I’m preaching to myself first. These are all temptations I am drawn toward myself and need to remember to avoid.)
Bad Reason #1: Escapism and Avoidance
Don’t travel to escape your home or to avoid putting down roots. If you hate your job and plan trips in order to escape from the drudgery and boredom, a trip won’t really help that situation. It’s better to deal with what is in front of you, rather than temporarily leaving the problem behind. And it might be that the problem is your bad attitude about your job or the problem might be a genuinely terrible workplace environment, but it is better to straighten out the problem first. Otherwise, the situation will still be bad when you come back from your travels and it might be even worse than when you left. Whether it’s your job, your roommate, your family, your schoolwork, your apartment, your relationship, or your whole life you want to run away from, resist that urge. Your everyday life is more important than travel and sometimes the times we most want to run away are the most important times to stay.
Don’t avoid putting down roots. Invest in where you are and what your are doing. Build and maintain good relationships with your family. Make friends. Go to church. When you go to school or to your job, do your best work. Help out in your community. Buy a house, if you can. Do not fear the future. Do not fear missing out. Do not fear commitments. Usually avoidance stems from fear, so don’t let fear govern your actions. If you need to choose between traveling and putting down roots where you are, home is worth the investment. I haven’t bought a house yet, but I’m planning for it and once I find the right house and start making payments, big travel plans will probably be on hold for a few years. Riding off into the sunset on an adventure might look more like bravery, but staying put and being faithful is usually the more courageous thing to do. Aim for more responsibility, not less.
Bad Reason #2: The Ultimate Consolation Prize
“Travel while you are single – it’s going to be way more difficult once you have kids!” “Lucky you! You can travel whenever you want!” “You have so much freedom right now, so take advantage of it!” These are comments that single women get all the time. There is some truth to these statements – it is logistically easier for me to travel by myself than with a gaggle of small children.
The problem is when a mental line is drawn between singleness and unshackled freedom on one side and family life and responsibilities on the other. Travel has been turned into the world’s greatest consolation prize for being single and unattached. Travel and freedom are linked in our minds.
Maybe even worse is when I find myself accepting this “consolation prize” all on my own. Well, I have no husband and no kids and nobody on the horizon at this point, but hey – I can at least travel! That’s not the right way to think. I need to be completely grateful without comparing what I do have to what I do not have. Living life “in the meantime” is a great way to live a disappointed and uneasy life. Travel isn’t a shiny prize to keep us amused and distracted until real life starts.
Bad Reason #3: To Find or Transform Yourself
As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Travel doesn’t transform you into a different person. If anything, it intensifies who you are already. If you are a nervous wreck at home, I guarantee you will be an anxious ball of nerves in a new environment. If you don’t know who you are at home, I doubt you will find out when you are surrounded by strangers.
My temptation is to assume I will come from a major trip like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, with brand new confidence and a stunning new wardrobe and nobody will recognize me, because WHO IS THIS ELEGANT STRANGER? I mean, I know that won’t happen. But it’s a very tempting daydream to fall into, because sometimes I get bored being me and want to be somebody else. That bored and grumpy attitude is discontent working its way out, so it is best to stomp that fire out as soon as it starts to smolder.
Now on to the fun part – the good reasons! There are so many great things about traveling that I can’t list them all, but these are three I’ve been thinking about recently.
Good Reason #1: Education
Travel is a concentrated learning time, especially when you travel someplace completely new. Navigating airports and public transport, finding the place you are staying, finding food, and getting to all the places you need to be when you need to be there – all while trying to communicate in a different language? It’s exhilarating and overwhelming and SO MUCH FUN. Going through the Uffizi Gallery taught me more about Renaissance art in one morning than I would learn in a month in a classroom. It’s the same with learning a language. Until I need to use a language, my brain puts it on the back burner. No matter how much Duolingo studying I do, until I’m trying to communicate in the real world, languages don’t stick in my brain very well. The challenge is part of the delight.
When everything is an unknown, it is a crash course in trusting God. When I am home, I can fall into the assumption that I have some power over my surroundings and circumstances. But when all the illusion of control is taken away, it is a constant reminder to trust God every moment for every tiny detail.
I don’t know about you, but I fall into routines without even realizing it. My brain settles into a rhythm and then I start taking things for granted. When I’m in a new place, I’m hyper aware and everything is new and I take nothing for granted. Then when I get back home, I see my home with a fresh perspective, because I’m still aware and awake. Trips are also an amazing time to learn more about people, especially the people you are traveling with. Lifelong friendships are forged when you travel together. So many stories are told and so many stories are made. Soak it all in!
Good Reason #2: Being a Stranger
Every so often it is good to go to a place where you are an outsider. It keeps us from becoming complacent, teaches us humility, and should prompt us to be kinder to outsiders in our midst. A repeated theme in the book of Deutoronomy (which I have just been reading) is kindness to strangers. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17-19)
When I am out of my element and it is my turn to rely on the kindness of strangers, I am so grateful for kindness and warmth. Traveling teaches me humility and gratitude for other people and shows me how to be kind to the sojourners and strangers when I go back home.
Good Reason #3: Refreshment
A change of scene can be just as refreshing as the changing of the seasons. When the leaves start turning and the morning air turns cold and smells of metal, I am ready for fall to come. Whether it is an half an hour away or half a world away, getting outside of my normal pattern is a welcome departure. And any departure from the normal is an adventure, even if that departure is something as small as going to a different market to buy groceries.
My test for a good trip is whether I come back with a fresh perspective and a happy heart. I love to travel, but I also love coming back home and enjoying my little house more than ever. I come back full of plans – artwork to create, stories to tell, and a desire to get even better at my job. (Because in his painting The Annunciation, Leonardo Da Vinci painted every single blade of grass and wildflower in the lawn and he didn’t need to do that.) Grateful for where I’ve been and grateful for where I am – that is the goal.
Thank you for reading! It has been a while since I posted on the blog and I have genuinely missed it. Keep your eyes open for more Italy posts and, as always, comment with any questions you have and I would love to answer them.