Why I Travelled to Europe and What I Found Instead

I would like to say that I went to Europe because I wanted to see the world and experience different cultures, but quite frankly, that would be a lie.

Sure, those two reasons factored into my decision to go, but as embarrassing as it is to admit, I really went because I was bored and frustrated. I just desperately, desperately wanted out. I was about to turn nineteen, and some part of me felt like I had never done anything exciting in my entire life–I had never had a true adventure. I suddenly had this insatiable need for excitement that couldn’t fulfilled at home.

So I lied and gave the usual list of reasons for travel to anyone who asked why, and it worked. Cecelia was up for going–we had been talking about going to Europe together since we were fourteen–and my parents and doctors gave me the go ahead. The two of us purchased tickets, and I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation as we rushed to pull everything together.

And you know what? I didn’t find that excitement in Europe. Not at all. I was surrounded by amazing museums, monuments, restaurants, shops, buildings, and parks; I was with my best friend doing the things we had dreamed about doing for years; I was of more than legal age everywhere we went; and there were no adults to tell me what to do and when to do it; but I still found myself bound with the same weird feeling of boredom. I could feel myself still screaming, “I WANT OUT! LET ME OUT! I AM HERE IN THE PLACE THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIBERATING AND NOTHING IS HAPPENING!! PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST LET ME OUT!”

And it wasn’t until I was sitting on the Tube on our last night in London that I realized that I didn’t know what “out” was and what was holding me back from getting it. I was vigorously straining to free myself from these mysterious shackles in London as much as I was at home. Some part of me felt like I needed to do something bigger, that really proved that I rapidly approaching the end of my second decade, so I dragged Cecelia to a pub one night where I drank a glass of terrible lemonade and Cecelia ate a salad. But even that wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my morals to do anything further like ordering a proper drink. So I left London, happy with my experiences there, but still hopelessly trapped.

Then, one evening in Paris, after being embarrassingly and unjustly nasty to Cecelia following an unfortunate Metro experience, I figured out what it was: I could run away from environments all I liked, but I couldn’t run away from my own head and my self-imposed repression.

I have a list of rules a mile long, and I am insanely strict about following them. I don’t curse, and my eyes will actually skip over those words while I’m reading so that I will not say them in my head. I won’t knowingly eat food that has alcohol in it, even if it has “cooked off.” I don’t wear skirts or dresses without bike shorts on the off chance that my underwear might show. If I can’t see at least one rib without sucking in, I drastically cut back on food. I pinch myself whenever I take the Lord’s name in vain (which I do far too often), and I will just leave or pretend I don’t know them if I think the people I’m with are acting inappropriately. And the list goes on. In short, I can be a horrible, horrible prig.

I also can’t escape how mental illness has affected my life. I can’t change that I spent a majority of my Junior and Senior years of high school missing out on numerous social and academic activities because I was in and out of treatment facilities and heavily medicated. Those feelings of alienation and loneliness are going to take a long time to fade, and I don’t think that I will ever fully be freed from mental illness–I’ll only ever be able to cope better.

And what happened then continues to affect me now. This past year has been spent hanging out in a waiting room before leaving for college. It was all about coming up with productive ways to fill my time or things that numbed the shame of being left behind again. Everyone else was doing wonderful, exciting things, living on their own, being independent, and learning while I was tapping away on my computer, grading book summaries, and reading so much that I would end each day seeing double.

They came back home matured and confident, with stories of their adventures, and all I had to contribute was “so I went to this book event in the city about a book you’ve never heard of by an author whom you have probably only ever heard me mention, but believe me, it was really good.”

My life was dull and greyed compared to theirs, and I felt so abandoned and embarrassed to be unable to relate. And more than all of that, I was perpetually aware that if I didn’t find some way to prove myself in this waiting room, I was only going to be stuck in there longer. I spent a lot of time lying about how wonderful it was to take a gap year, and each fake smile and untruth made me feel even more ashamed.

Europe, no matter how wonderful, isn’t going to get me away from being unreasonably self-repressed or ashamed. That can’t be purchased on High Street in London or found below The Eiffel Tower. Even the middle of Lac Léman isn’t going to have the answer. The solution comes from within and being able to forgive and liberate myself, and gaining the ability to do that is going to be a lifelong process.

On the plane ride home, during hour three of eight, I started to think about whether the trip had been a failure in that regard, whether I was returning with the same amount of self-hatred I had before I left, and whether I should have waited to go. Was it a mistake to have gone seeking something I could have found at home?

But after a little more reflection and accidentally dumping a cup of soda in my lap, I realized that the trip had been a success in so many other regards.

Maybe I was still quite ashamed of myself, but I had climbed to the top of Le Arc de Triomphe, even though I am monstrously afraid of heights;

Ah, the weird facial expressions of someone who feels both victorious and like they are going to faint.

I ate three meals a day for nearly two weeks, something I haven’t done since I was thirteen;

I didn’t regurgitate any of the food I put in my mouth;

I only took two real breaks due to anxiety;

Feeling faint and checking my pulse halfway up Le Arc de Triomphe. It was absurdly high, and I nearly cried, but I did not hyperventilate and got to the top.

I only cried from unhappiness once;

While I don’t actually have a picture of me in tears–Cecelia is far to nice to ever take a picture of me doing that–I do have a picture from while I was crying. You’ll just have to imagine me into it–mental photoshop, if you will.

and –though I’ll let Cecelia be the real judge of this–I don’t think that I was quite as priggish as I normally am in stressful situations.

My self-imposed rules didn’t vanish like I hoped, but I learned that I can be braver and take bigger emotional risks than I truly though possible. I got to spend loads and loads of time with my best friend, and I had a monstrous amount of fun exploring London and Paris, my two favorite cities, visiting the Geneva area for the first time, and meeting Cecelia’s French family. I spoke French and managed not to make any embarrassing mistakes. I got to go shopping at my favorite at my favorite British and French stores, and I saw some amazing museum exhibits. And even though this wasn’t the first time I’ve travelled by myself, or even travelled to Europe alone, I feel like I truly proved that I can be an independent adult.

In the end, I got the things I had lied about seeking, seeing the world and experiencing different cultures, and didn’t get the thing, that “out,” I was actually searching for.

And you know what?

I am totally okay with that.

In fact, I am glad that it turned out this way.

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6 thoughts on “Why I Travelled to Europe and What I Found Instead

  1. It’s amazing that you had at least set a goal and actually pursued it. That’s more than the average person can say! The answers are out there, and I’m sure you’ll find it in your reading.

    If you haven’t read ‘the magic of thinking big’ by David Schwartz yet, I suggest giving it a try, it’s one of my favorites after ‘Resolved’ by Orrin Woodward. It is what helped me answer a bunch of questions and develop a plan for my life.

  2. What a beautiful post! I’m glad you think I’ve become more mature and confident, but I just want to let you know that I actually am impressed with all of those obscure book events you’ve gone to.

  3. So happy for you, Ella! That you left the country and got a new perpective for a bit. I know–some cities are so hyped! Better for me to have low expectations, if possible :) Recently, at a writers conference I heard Melody Moezzi and she was amazing! Open about her highs and lows with mental illness.
    It seems most creative souls have lots to deal with, in some form or another. Normal & natural–but very, very difficult.

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