“Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
So wrote the great Terry Pratchett, with all his usual wisdom and insight. The man knew what he was talking about, but I’ve always thought there are two ways of taking this: that coming home can be good, or very, very bad. To put it as a question, is your hometown suddenly bright and new, or is it depressingly dull, achingly familiar?
For travellers – gappers, expats returning from overseas jobs, nomads who upped and left and then ran out of money – the idea of coming back to where we started too often feels like a defeat, like stepping back out of Narnia into the mundane world. For some, time has passed, but home seems frozen, unchanged, lacking in excitement. For others, the opposite: the idea we had of our home, of our family and friends, was based on distant nostalgia, rose-tinted and false, and you come home to friends who’ve moved on, with their own stories, their own new lives.
We might not talk about it, but after the thrill of exploring and adventuring, returning home can be – honestly – depressing.
People haven’t seen what you’ve seen, haven’t shared your experiences. You’re not special and they don’t care about your travel stories. You’re worried you’ll become That Guy or That Girl, starting every conversation with ‘Well, when I was in Asia…’ You’re desperate to let people know that you’re not a settler, that you’re not just going to stay put.
And then reality calls, and you need a job, and to catch up with your mates, and you risk falling back into old habits.
As so many travellers know, coming back can be the worst part of all. Thing is, does it need to be?
Highway to the comfort zone
Part of what makes being abroad so fun is that you’re out of your comfort zone, out of the familiar, and that forces (and allows) you to be a different person. At home you follow the old patterns and old limitations of your old self.
But if you can see your own country – your own town – with new eyes, then even the world you grew up in can become something unexpected.
You need to stay adventurous.
Being conscious of how you see the world is important. It’s about noticing old habits and asking yourself why they matter. Ways of relating to people and places are ingrained, and heading home after sustained time away can be a jolt, followed by a slow return to ingrained patterns. This is what you have to fight: the temptation to slip straight into the old way of doing things, going to the same pubs, the same cafes, and being blind to what’s around you.
What did you do when you had a few free hours on the road? Talk to strangers? Find a train station and people watch? You can do that anywhere. Foreign roads aren’t really that much different from yours.
The attitude of adventure
Here’s where we get to the good stuff. Adventure means stepping out your door and seeing what happens, and it’s an attitude that needs spontaneity. For travellers back from seeing the world, seeing your own country might seem a step down, but deciding somewhere is dull before you try to explore it means you’re falling into the trap of returnee depression.
Fight it and get out, on day trips, weekend trips, a few stolen hours after work while the summer light is here. Go by yourself to places you’ve heard of but never thought to visit: castles, forests, canals, mountains, palaces, beaches – all places to visit by yourself or with friends, seeking things out just because they’re there, and because leaving the house is better than staying in.
Adventure is an attitude, a way of seeing the world, and it’s just as easy to do when you have a fulltime job as when you’re freestyling off in the world. The important thing is to consciously look for places to go, places you haven’t been, and don’t confuse proximity for familiarity. Couchsurfing, AirBnB, Uber – they’ve all made impromptu exploration easier than ever. Grab a bag and see what you can find ten, fifteen, or fifty miles from your home.
Coming home is always going to be difficult. Despite the problems of the road – the uncertainties, discomfort, dangers, boredom, disruption, cost – it’s a thrill to experience, and being back where you started really can feel like a strange failure.
Fight that feeling. The things you’ve seen and done, the experiences, memories, stories, the way you’ve changed, makes it all worth it, and it’s OK to accept the feeling of isolation and sadness as long as you ultimately see it for what it is: a temporary blip, coming down from a high, clearing your head for whatever comes next. The world’s out there, and once you’ve been travelling, you know you’ll go again.
It’s worth turning back to Pratchett, and reading the quotation in full: “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”