By Kyla Clarke
Unas veces se gana, otras se aprende. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. Anyone who travels regularly knows there is much more to it than lazy beach resorts and nightclubs that never close – it’s about what you learn. I have been fortunate enough in my 25 years to travel substantially throughout Europe, Australia, the United States, and South America. It’s something I have made a priority for most of the past five years. But with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities also come life’s toughest lessons.
In Spain, I learned the difference between prosciutto and provolone (not a fun lesson for a vegetarian). In Argentina, I learned that pajaro means ‘bird’ and pajero means “wanker,” and that pronunciation is very important. And in Germany, I learned that maybe German cars aren’t as great as they are hyped up to be, but their auto shop employees do provide excellent customer service (and in English)! Amidst all the little lessons you're bound to learn every day while wandering through a foreign city, the truest lessons are the ones in which friendships are tested, relationships are ended, and you’re left figuring out what it all means when you go back home.
Lesson #1: Not all friendships are built to last.
When I was 21, and had finally graduated from four grueling years of earning a linguistics degree, getting a job was not on the top of my to-do list. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. And so did my best friend.
I had met her on the first day of university, an embarrassing set up, care of her dad and my grandmother, but it lucked out that we actually liked each other. We spent countless nights (and sometimes days) getting drunk on vodka and embarrassing ourselves in residence dorms, Quebec nightclubs, and sometimes even football stadiums. Everyone else seemed to exhibit some level of shame or self-control, but we had each other, so we never cared about anything like that. As we matured, so did our friendship, and by the time we were finishing university, we had seen each other through some of the most challenging times of our lives. When I announced that I was desperately hoping to go to Europe, she was right there with me. Nobody else was going to join us on our adventure, but to Europe we went.
By the fifth day, I knew we’d have issues. We were in Dundee, Scotland, where I have family who graciously took care of us and toured us around. One of my Scottish cousins is about the same age as me, so we planned for a night on the town with some of her friends, and we’d crash at her flat that night. We all got separated at one point, and while I was cozying up with some fabulous gays I’d met at the club, she had been cozying up to some Scottish bloke back at his place and never came home. How she ever made it back through the twisty, cobblestone streets to my cousin’s flat at seven in the morning, I still don’t know.
I guess we had different understandings of the phrase “I just want to meet new people” because as we made our way from city to city, our nights out at the bar began to follow a familiar pattern. I was bothered, not just because of the obvious safety concerns, but because this was supposed to be our trip and I was always getting left behind at clubs with the random people we’d meet at hostels. One night in Madrid, on my 22nd birthday, I told her that all I wanted that night was to have fun with my best friend. Flash forward to five o’clock that morning: We’d been in the basement bathroom stall of la discoteca for over two hours, screaming and crying, fighting over everything we’d never said in our entire four-year friendship (my pants around my ankles the entire time). When we resurfaced upstairs, the bar was closing and the sun had come up.
Six weeks later her sister was flying to the Canary Islands to meet up with her and finish the trip, and I was on a plane to Portugal with someone else.
A lot happened on that trip that led to our “divorce.” Some of it had to do with money, some with boys, and some with our personality differences. Maybe it was too much time stuck with one person, maybe we had different expectations of what our trip would be, or maybe we just weren’t meant to travel together. I flew back to Canada alone and she flew back with her sister, and we had an awkward reunion a month later when she came to my grandmother’s house to “get her things.”
Though we have patched things up, our friendship will never be the same. No matter what happens, though, the experiences we had in university and on that trip are ones that we uniquely share, and we’ll both always hold onto. I have learned that friendships move like waves, and even if the tide is out right now, I still have love for her and I know when and if the time is right, the tide will roll back in again.
Lesson #2: You can chase love all over the world but that doesn’t mean you’ll catch it.
In the name of love, I have flown to Texas exactly four times. I have also traveled to Europe, South America, and returned to Canada, each time thinking that this time “he” would be mine, that this time it would last.
I am still single.
The first time I went to Texas, it was because I was in love with a musician who was seven years older than me. We started dating in Ottawa the summer I was 21, but he had already made plans to move to Austin in the fall, and I was leaving in November for the aforementioned Euro-trip with my best friend. We knew it wasn’t going to last, but I didn’t expect to fall so hard. We kept in touch over the fall and winter months and by the time I returned to Canada in February, he was practically begging me to visit. I had already been secretly planning my trip down there since September. A major music festival in March made for the perfect excuse to vacation in Texas.
I bounced off the airplane with high hopes and a full heart, but the week wasn’t exactly a scene from The Notebook. I had come down the airport escalator expecting him to be standing beneath the “Welcome to Austin” sign with a bouquet of roses, where I would leap into his arms and we’d embrace dramatically. I was instead forced to wait on the curb outside while he showed up late and eventually greeted me with the most awkward of hugs. While emotions were high and feelings confused, we did have an enjoyable week and ended up driving back to Canada together, all the way from Austin. Those four days on the road brought us closer than ever before, and brought me closer to him than any other man before him. By the time we were back home, I was planning the wedding.
As you may have guessed, things fell apart. After a month’s visit at home in Canada, he was supposed to be staying in Austin, but lasted only a few weeks down there before he came back north - for another girl. “We never said we were exclusive,” he said, as I slammed my phone down and cried black-mascara tears into my pillowcase. I was devastated. Never trust a musician, they’d said.
My next visits to Austin were for a different guy who unfortunately happened to live in the same city as the last one. He was an old friend who had moved to Texas years before. One drunken night somehow turned into the deluded idea that a long- distance relationship made sense. Six months of Skype dates and expensive flights eventually led to the realization that we barely knew what we wanted for ourselves, let alone with each other. We broke up.
The travel bug bit me again, around the same time that Canada’s harsh winter was biting me too. I was living in Edmonton, bored with my job and uncertain where my career or life was going. I’d often considered teaching English abroad, and I was ready for a change. After a three-week vacation in South America, I’d had a taste of the life, the language, and the type of people (read: men) I could meet. This time I didn’t have anyone specific in mind, but the possibilities thrilled me, so I moved to Argentina. Alone.
It turned out that dating in a foreign country is even more horrific than dating at home. After six months and a few failed attempts at Latin love (among other concerns), I began to crave the familiarity of home and a good Canadian boy. The depression from living abroad was eating away at me, and consequentially, I was eating away at it. I’d gained three pant sizes and had nothing left to wear when I came running home to an ex-boyfriend who made me feel that I’d find more comfort in him than I could in pizza napolitana.
Do I travel for love, or is it all for the love of travel? With the musician, I knew I’d cross any border to be with him. The second time around, I often wonder if I was more excited about the possibility of traveling to see him than I was about actually being with him. What I have learned from these experiences is that love is not subject to climate, language, or latitude. A relationship takes commitment and nurturing to grow into something healthy and long lasting, regardless of where you find it. Sometimes travel brings the possibility of love, and a relationship can bring the possibility of travel, but it’ll never work if you’re both not in the same place.
Lesson #3: You can’t always come home again.
“If it doesn’t work out, you just come home,” my mother would tell me each time I announced I was taking off again. The truth is, when you do come home, things are never the same. Once you ignite a period of instability into your life, it’s impossibly difficult to find your footing again. Not only have you changed, but your friends have too. Or worse, they haven’t changed at all.
After two years away, I came back to Ottawa expecting to pick up exactly where I left off. The reality is, while I’ve been working various throwaway jobs to save enough money only to leave again, my friends have been focusing on furthering their educations and progressing in their careers. While I’ve been cycling through one short-term relationship after another, my friends are living with boyfriends and getting engaged. Homes, cars – hell - some of them have kids. Often, my problems seem insignificant to them, and their lifestyles seem boring to me. Some have moved, some friendships have fallen out, and some remain as perfectly intact as they were before I left.
While I’m still figuring out what it means to be an “adult,” travel has given me a greater understanding of the way the world works, and what’s important in life.
I came home looking for routine, stability and a sense of closeness to my loved ones. Things didn’t work out with the ex-boyfriend I came back for, one of my closest friends won’t speak to me, and I’m still flat broke, catching up from all the money spent on travel. So while all the things I came home for seemed perfect at the time, they haven’t been so easy to hold onto. I’m learning that if I want to make progress happen, I need to slow down and stay in one place. But I often fear that if this settled kind of life goes stale, then eventually, whatever it was that caused me to come running home will soon make me want to run away again.
Travel has taught me an endless number of things. Navigating a subway system in any city has become second nature, I can order coffee in at least five languages, and I have achieved an expert skill level at packing light. While these skills are useful and didn’t come easily, I also faced moments that tested me more than anything else ever has. From breakups with boys to fights with friends to battles with my inner self in raw moments of loneliness, the truest lessons were the ones that shook me to my core. I came home from every trip exhausted, exhilarated, and changed. Not every travel story ends with a champion but if there’s one thing you can take away from each experience, it’s this: sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.