Photo: DisobeyArt/Shutterstock

How I Learned to Come to Terms With Where I'm From

by Paige Smith Sep 21, 2016

Ambitious, enthusiastic, compassionate — those were the words I’d use to describe myself in a job interview or online personality quiz. Not restless or yearning or aching for something I couldn’t put my finger on. Certainly not unhappy. Never desperate.

But that was before I left home.

That was before I moved to Paris for a semester in college to study French, eat my weight in Nutella crepes, and walk home from dance clubs wearing the thin, teetering heels that marked me as a tourist.

That was before I spent a summer teaching fractions and reading comprehension to primary school kids in a suburb fifteen minutes outside Cape Town, which paved the way for a job teaching English in France the following year, where I lived in a cold, crumbling apartment and took train rides on weekends to places like Dijon just to sample the spicy mustard.

Home: a place I have loved and despised in equal measure.

Then I came home. Home to my parents’ house in Southern California, to the region an hour south of LA that inspired a hit reality TV show and a heartwarming drama about wealthy teenagers who eat bagels every day for breakfast and throw parties when their parents are out of town. Home: the place of Hurley surf contests and clean, trash-swept streets. Of middle-aged women with breast implants, sandals in January, and gyms so large they have their own hair salons inside. Of community yoga classes in grassy parks, outdoor shopping malls with acoustic guitar concerts, and “Closed” signs slapped to locked glass doors at 9pm. Of hilly running trails, foggy June mornings, and fish tacos so tender they ruin you for life. Home: a place I have loved and despised in equal measure.

My happiness, however eclipsed at times by occasional pangs of loneliness or the grief of loss, has always been deep-rooted and unwavering. An infinite spring of contentment to sip from after a bad day. And, after a while, an unmistakable part of my identity.

It wasn’t until I came home from my travels during college and beyond that I started to feel the foundation of my certain happiness crack under the weight of something heavier. I’d go to dinner with my boyfriend to a hip new restaurant across the street from all the restaurants we’d gone to a hundred times already. I’d slide wedges on my feet, wear the gauzy white scarf I’d draped around my neck every day in France, though it no longer had the same aesthetic appeal, and eat trendy American fare like brussels sprouts with bacon bits and shoestring garlic fries. Yet despite the simple pleasure of my boyfriend’s hand in mine after a year of living nearly 6,000 miles apart, I felt a persistent squeezing in my chest. A quiet, clear whisper that said: “Is this it, now?

I mourned for my current place in the world, that despite how many adventures I’d had since I parted ways with Orange County, I still ended up in the same place I was before I ever left. It felt like a regression, a fumbling backwards step without the reassurance of a road map to follow.

With every new place I traveled, I was liberated.

What did living at home say about me, someone who defined herself as an adventurer, someone who went to live abroad alone — even though it meant being apart from my long-term boyfriend — because I knew in my gut it was what I had to do? How would the decision to stay near my hometown, borne from a desire to foster my relationship, affect my future? What adventure would I sacrifice for the safety and comfort of having all my loved ones right down the road? What life-altering, soul-fueling experiences would I miss out on?

Rather than answer the questions, I hovered determinedly in the space between commitment and escape.

I spent two years living at home and leaving whenever I could. An eight-day press trip to Norway, a weekend in San Francisco to visit friends, a family vacation to Japan, a solo trip to Peru, a month in Mexico to take Spanish lessons after I quit my corporate copywriting gig.

And with every new place I traveled, I was liberated. I felt the pieces of myself reassemble each time I sat on a flight, M83’s “Outro” in my ears, the rush of uncertainty and possibility setting my nerves alight. Exploring new places and exposing myself to endless unfamiliarity — that’s what gave me fulfillment. Travel brought out the things I love most about who I am: my curiosity, my open-mindedness, my love of conversation, my resourcefulness, my adaptability, my sense of wonder.

When I traveled I felt like the best version of myself.

So I made plan after plan to leave. I’d spend hours scouring flight websites, researching AirBnbs in Panama and Sweden, or calculating how much money I’d need to rent an apartment in Paris. Every time I booked a new trip I’d ride the high from that first email confirmation all the way until the moment when I’d touch back down at LAX and wheel my trusty carry-on through the parking lot.

Somewhere during the car ride home, I’d feel the deflation set in, the pieces of myself I was so proud of begin to fold up and tuck themselves away until the next time I’d leave home again. Then at home I’d trundle along, vacillating between incessant complaints and fervent declarations that I’d stop complaining.

Some days I vented with unnecessary passion about the lack of walkable downtown areas, about how long it takes to drive to a decent restaurant. Other days I found myself feeling immense gratitude for the proximity of my family, the abundance and accessibility of Mexican food, the luxury of taking a salty ocean dip in mid-February. There were gifts and there were challenges. There still are.

Gradually, I realized my disillusionment wasn’t about Orange County — it was about the web of sameness and stagnancy I’d gotten myself caught in. It was change and stimulation I craved, challenge and fulfillment I needed. And travel was the easiest way I knew of to get those things. The easiest way perhaps, but not the only way.

It took a long time for me to understand that the things I love about myself don’t have to exist only in the realm of travel — I can be just as curious and bold and easily delighted by the beauty around me in a new city as I can be in the place I’ve called home for 25 years. Because really, it’s not about my hometown. It was never about my hometown.

It was about coming to terms with my own winding and uncertain path, about releasing the expectations I held for my life and enjoying what was right in front of me. It was about embracing where I was (both literally and figuratively), and letting go of where I thought I should be. It was about learning to define myself in a different way.

The things I love about myself don’t have to exist only in the realm of travel

I learned I could define myself by what I love, not where I go. I can build friendships and discover other cultures and experiment with different ways of living no matter where I was in the world. I can be a woman of action and enjoy the occasional period of stillness. I can follow my bliss and still learn to be content with what I have. I can be a traveler and also appreciate the comfort of having roots.

I can be whatever I want to be, wherever I find myself in the world.

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