Taking a Vacation from Your Vacation: Three Things You Might Not Have Anticipated When Planning a Year Abroad
Travel is good for your soul, but it’s sure as hell not good for your soles. Remember when I said my feet were planning a coup as I dragged them down Avenue du New York? I’m pretty sure they’ve succeeded – I spent yet another full day inside, recovering from intense muscle cramps and what feels like a gradual disintegration of all of ligaments in my legs.
As I casually mentioned it to my parents – trying not to freak them out too much by joking that I might be looking into amputation in the near future – I found myself constantly justifying my laziness.
“I’ll be here for a week.”
“I’m never going to see everything anyway.”
“Things are so expensive here; I’m saving money this way.”
“It’s not safe to walk around in the dark by myself.”
“Je ne parle pas français.”
“Oh, whatever, it’s Paris. I’ll inevitably be back.”
But what they reminded me, and what I intuitively know, is that it’s not “laziness” – it’s much-needed rest. The pain in my legs, knees, and ankles might have originated from wearing the wrong shoes, but its persistance speaks to the fact that I’ve been traveling for nearly three months, walking around way more than I’m used to and taxing my body with higher levels of physical stress than even my enormous gypsy purse ever could manage. Most importantly, I’m not allowing myself time to heal.
Speed dating the world is fun, for sure, but it can burn even the hardiest traveler out. Below are three very important things to consider when planning and embarking upon long-term travel – if you don’t learn them now, you might end up learning them in a surgeon’s office as they detach your legs from your body.
1. Colbert Says: “Better Know a District.”
An old coworker once listened to my projected Voyage route and cautioned against the 30+ country itinerary I had listed. “Spend more time in fewer places,” he warned, “otherwise you’re going to be rushing between countries and never have a chance to really see anything.”
Slow travel, the industry name for this philosophy, isn’t very intuitive to the novice gypsy. If you only have a limited amount of time, wouldn’t it be wasted if you were only in one or two places? How are you going to ever explore the cultures of the world if you’re restricting yourself to only a few destinations at a time?
Since, though, I’ve understood – I’ve been lucky enough to know people from each culture, so my experience in Norway, for example, was a lot deeper than a cruise up to the famous Nærøyfjord or a visit to Trondheim for a viewing of the Northern Lights. (That being said, these trips are definitely happening in the future, maybe when I am not a fresh college graduate and actually have significant savings.) But even so, a highlights reel of a city doesn’t express the true character of it, nor does it accurately represent the country on a whole.
Add to that a combination of confusion, stress, and the physical overcompensation of being lost (or at least reorienting yourself), which can undermine the fun of discovering new things while lost. Once you develop a sense of your surroundings – which naturally comes from having spent more time in one place – you cut out the time spent wandering around, looking for that elusive metro stop that would take you home to warmth when your energy is spent and you cannot possibly be saturated with any more beauty. In those moments, every minute spent searching is an hour’s worth of exhaustion, so spending more time orienting oneself can pay off in the clutch.
Moreover, things start to blend together. The cities I spent the least time in – Stockholm and Copenhagen – are indistinguishable to me. They’re both pretty towns, with several bridges and rivers and beautiful architecture and smartly-dressed people and blondes everywhere you look. But because I didn’t explore them well enough (maybe because I was staying with non-natives, or maybe because it was so expensive that I was keen to move on from Scandinavia), I couldn’t tell you which one you should visit if you only had time for one.
And that makes me feel guilty, because when places become indistinguishable, isn’t that kind of a waste of a visit?
2. Give yourself enough time to take a time-out.
Cumulatively, I spent three weeks in Germany, the longest that I’ve spent in any one country apart from the States since starting this Voyage. About half of that was spent in Berlin, the deservedly applauded metropolis with a million things to see and do, and half in Tübingen, the sleepy university town that features exactly three tourist attractions.
My first go-around in Berlin, I pushed myself to the max, mingling with locals and attending cool events and getting my mind blown with how amazing Berlin is over and over again. I was doing something 24/7, and I loved every second of it. Then I went to Tübingen, where the student life kept me surprisingly busy with lavish dinners every night, interesting conversations all hours of the day, and many opportunities to soak up the idyllic nature of the quaintly German town.
They both had their charms, and they both made me feel extraordinarily ungrateful when I wasn’t out and about, doing something or seeing something or making something out of this trip. But as I learned, ten days might be the magic number: the minimum amount of days to spend in a city without feeling like you rushed through and missed everything.
In Tübingen, I somehow still skipped seeing the main touristy things, but instead relished the return to a college environment, which I loved primarily due to the very low-key chill out sessions with laid-back, intelligent people. Time wasn’t “wasted” as much as it was “appreciated.” I still got to see the Old Town, go to long dinners in cool underground restaurants, and wander out into the countryside for unsuccessful sledding adventures.
But ten days were enough for me to do all that and still have some time to myself, which I needed every now and then to slow everything down and take care of important trip-planning details. It also allowed me to recover from various hip, back, and ankle injuries, acquired through various worthwhile but at times painful experiences.
In Berlin, I would never have seen everything, though I didn’t really try that well to do so. I instead got an insider’s look into Berlin, a more representative impression of the city that highlighted its uniqueness and its quirky sense of humor. Maybe I didn’t go up the Reichstag’s glass dome, or visit Potsdam, or check out the hundreds of galleries and restaurants and bars that make Berlin appealing to anybody from any walk of life. But just knowing that put me at ease and allowed me to meander at my own pace.
On top of that, I had returned to Berlin with a low-grade fever, what I suspect to be another symptom of traveler’s burnout. I spent the first two days back in bed, or more precisely, in my friend Anton’s hammock. I would have felt guilty for missing out on the city, but I didn’t have time between feeling so sick and exhausted.
But as I mentioned at the start of this post, sometimes you have to prioritize getting better over having a good time. (Plus, spending time in cozy artist apartments with hammocks isn’t really a bad trade.) You’re not going to enjoy walking around all day if your knees are killing you and your sinuses are all blocked up anyway, so taking a time out is a necessary investment in your trip, and giving yourself the time to do that is key to prevent the inevitable feeling that you’re constantly missing out on something.
3. In the autumn, the Sun only works from 9 – 5.
“Europe in the fall” sounds like a beautiful, romantic notion for a hipster holiday getaway (er, oops, did I say Europe? I meant Africa). But do not be fooled – though the leaves might be changing colors in the most charming of ways, it’s a sign that they’re also losing their battle against the winter freeze that has been enveloping the continent earlier and earlier every year. My Indian roots, but more importantly my Californian upbringing, cannot handle such cold! But it’s cool (get it? Pun!) because I planned for this – I started my trip up North, and gradually made my way down to Southern Europe.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s cold. Like, I don’t even remember what the inside of my jeans feel like, because I’m always wearing a second layer. The gloomy, overcast sky has a way of sapping me of my energy, plus the fewer hours of sunlight do not work well with my sloth-like tendencies and my impossibly long morning ritual. Europe is shutting down for the winter, and I’m experiencing this continent-wide depression for the first time in my life.
My mom mentioned that this might be the reason for my exhaustion and achy muscles. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common problem in Northern Europe (particularly near the Arctic Circle), and as I experienced last year, I run worrisomely low on Vitamin D as is. On top of that, my lifelong involvement with sports (primarily basketball and tennis) has introduced me to joint injuries of every variety, with very few of them healing correctly – when it gets cold, these joint problems get worse, perhaps explaining the lingering leg pain I alluded to at the beginning of this post.
I never thought of myself as particularly weak – surprising, I know – but there are times when I cannot deny my anatomy. I’m traipsing around half of Europe with half of my body weight mounted on my back and shoulders and in my hands. The cold winter is coming, and I’m historically ill-prepared for it. These are things that I didn’t want to think about before, but c’est la vie, asi es la vida, etc. etc. That’s how it goes. And if living in Europe is ever going to become a serious consideration, such experiences are necessary, and certain precautions must be taken (wool insoles, for one).
As I mentioned in my first point, seeing a city requires more than just a few days of tourist attractions. I don’t claim to “know” any of the cities I’ve visited on this trip, though there are many I’d like to court more exclusively. However, during the winter, the magical Ten Day rule expands in exact correlation to the contraction of my knee joints – since there are fewer hours of sunlight, physically seeing a city becomes more difficult, and thus is spread over more time. It’s possible to experience somewhere by night, but I truly believe that a city breathes on the streets. Community can be hard to find when everyone’s locked in their homes, shivering in front of their fireplaces (though around this time, armed with glühwein and expensive heating bills).
“Mind over body.” “Mind your body.”
Spending three months bouncing between other people’s homes can be – amongst a million positive adjectives – very tiring. Everyone has those days when they’re too lazy, sick, or antisocial to be around people, and planning a trip that spans an entire season thus necessarily requires for a flexible buffer period, a big vacation time-out. And the three pillars of this post – cultural immersion, healthy recovery, and happy winters – all revolve around one thing: time.
Even though a long-vacation seems intuitively to be nothing but time, it requires a tremendous amount of researching, planning, coordinating, exercising, and smiling. (Yes, smiling – it burns a lot of calories, and it’s absolutely necessary when confronted with new people and new opportunities.) Though it may appear that traveling allows for plenty of time to yourself, the truth is that traveling is defined by the people you meet, and thus it’s easy to forget yourself amidst the semi-constant hustle and bustle, the diplomatic meet and greets.
But make no mistake: a well-balanced vacation combines a curiosity of your surroundings with an introspective spirit, one that takes into account both emotional and physical well-being. It’s a big world out there – if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help anyone else, and you can’t expect anyone to help you. So do yourself a solid and give yourself the time you need. As a friend once said, “Life isn’t short. It’s literally the longest thing you will ever experience.” Don’t burn yourself out just yet!