I WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD the first time I watched a city shrink away in the window of an airplane. With my face pressed against the glass and an unfamiliar pressure forming in my ears, the suburbs of Washington D.C. turned into patches of tiny lego pieces, stuck to the ground in rows. It was exciting but so sad all at once — we were flying, but everything I knew was fading.
There was a collection of lakes on the ground. Later in my diary, I named them “The Goodbye Lakes” because they were glistening in the sun with farewells.
I had no idea then that watching my home disappear would be the easy part. Soon, there would be a new school to contend with — new peers, new rules. And as soon a I’d learned the ropes, we’d do this all over again.
California gave my dad a new job. Two years later, Connecticut gave my family a fresh perspective. A new Connecticut town gave us better schools. Then Long Island gave us better bagels.
While many childhoods are spent in one home with a door jam marked by the heights and dates of passing time, mine was spent in different houses across the country, with any door jam graffiti carefully painted over before our cardboard boxes arrived. Whether it was for work or simply a fresh start, my parents had itchy feet that would eventually be passed along to me.
And while memories of lunch rooms filled with unfamiliar faces still give me a sinking weight in my core, the experience of being “the new kid” shaped the person I am today, and taught me some valuable lessons about travel.
I learned to observe new cultures.
When I first moved to California, watching my classmates was like watching monkeys at a zoo. Classes were held in trailers at my new school, and transitioning periods meant an explosion of outdoor activity. There were no orderly lines like the ones we were expected to maintain at my old school. Kids ran amok with a freedom I’d never experienced.
At first, it was terrifying. But as I watched my peers skip and squeal and smack tetherballs as they passed, I slowly understood this new culture.
I was always a shy kid, I still am now. But my shyness pays off when it comes to my travels. My reservation allows me to observe. I don’t allow habit to dictate my behavior in new destinations. Instead, I watch. I listen. I learn from my surroundings, and act accordingly.
“Where are you from?” became a superfluous question.
After a moment of hesitation, I typically answer “New York” to this standard introductory question between travelers. If the person asking is a born and bred New Yorker, they’ll likely disagree, but after living in New York for six years — a combination of time spent upstate and the city, proper — it’s the closest I’ve come to an honest answer.
But honestly, I’m often not sure “where I’m from.”
Travelers pop this question before they even exchange names sometimes. I try to avoid asking — it leads to a carbon copy of every introductory conversation you’ve ever had. After “where are you from?” comes “how long have you been here?”, “where did you come from?” and “where are you headed next?”
So I try to be a little creative with my opening line. If our interaction extends to a beer on the hostel porch, then I’ll dive into explaining the string of places I could potentially call home.
I learned to enjoy my own company.
Last Friday night I went to a movie by myself. My roommate’s response as I prepared to leave our apartment was, “Awww — no one could go with you?”
I didn’t know because I hadn’t asked. Seeing a movie by myself is one of my favorite things to do with my free time. There’s no one to share popcorn with or shush when whispered questions aren’t whispers at all.
The memory of my first brush with loneliness in all its gut-twisting wrath, is of me toeing gravel in the quiet corner of the playground while desperately hoping for an invitation to play freeze tag at my new school. Eventually, the invitation would come. But I learned to never wait for it. I could have fun all on my own.
As an adult, I don’t dread the thought of entertaining myself in a new city. I’m fine with requesting a table for one because I’ve learned how to counter loneliness with my own company. My solo travels have given me friends I wouldn’t have made if I’d already been relying on the company of someone else, and memories that are truly special because they’re mine, and mine alone.
Loneliness still creeps up on me, but after learning to make new friends on foreign playgrounds, approaching strangers never seems that hard.
I know that the rough times are usually worth it.
The first time I was introduced to a room full of frightening, unfamiliar faces in a California classroom as “Britany from Virginia,” I hated my parents for ripping me away from everything my eight-year-old self knew and loved.
I cried myself to sleep every single night, begging them to move us back. People didn’t listen to Ace of Base here, or play X-Men in the playground. It was downright dreadful. Luckily, my parents understood that surviving this transition would be a worthwhile experience. I’d learn how to make new friends, to acclimate to my new culture, and to be proud of my Ace of Base fandom — even if California kids preferred the Red Hot Chili Peppers and made fun of my juvenile taste.
Those months of crying will give me writing material for years to come, but they also made me a stronger, more self-reliant person at a very young age. I learned to understand that neither the good nor the bad times will last forever. Life lessons worth learning are often disguised as the worst of times, but there’s almost always something worthwhile waiting for you on the other side.
Stopping is hard, but that’s OK.
After driving around the states for the past three months, I recently decided to move to Portland, Oregon. I’m now all the way across the country from my family (who lives in Connecticut these days) and most of my friends who gravitated to New York.
“You’re sure you want to do this?” my parents questioned again and again, as I made arrangements to have my furniture shipped west.
“Yes,” I told them, while in my head I yelled, “Nope, not at all!”
But having done it before and knowing I’ll probably do it again, I’m looking at this move as just another adventure. There are no lunch rooms or playgrounds to contend with this time, so really, how hard can it be?
There is both a struggle and a thrill to abandoning the comforts of “home” for something foreign and unfamiliar, but this process has instilled a curiosity in the world that I doubt will ever be quieted.
Every time I travel or move, I experience that same confusing mix of excitement and sadness, thinking about what I’m leaving behind and looking forward to what lies ahead. Maybe one day I’ll own a house, raise kids, and stay in one place long enough to etch their heights on a door jam as they grow. but I’ll know that if it ever comes time to move and paint over those marks, they’ll survive just like I did. And hopefully, they’ll learn to love travel along the way.