Coming to the realisation that I am really the slowest of the slow travellers... so slow, it's not really travel at all. It's actually moving.
I came to a realisation recently that I am not a traveller.
By that I mean that I am not the kind of person that can pack all their stuff in a backpack and head out into the great unknown. I know folks like that, who spend months – even years – on the road without a home base. I admire it, but I’ve recently realized that that type of travel isn’t really for me.
I think I’ve subconsciously known this for a while, but my conscious self has been loath to accept it. In fact, back in 2003 I wrote the following in an email (later reproduced as a blog entry on my final days in South America):
Truthfully, I have been crashing since my last few days in Buenos Aires, and I have little energy left to be the great explorer anymore. One of the most important lessons I learnt on this trip, I am not meant to be the kind of person that spends 6 months backpacking around the world. I still love travel and seeing new places, but the energy required to be constantly planning your next move and the laissez-faire attitude required for the travel is just not in me… Don't get me wrong, I am glad I took this trip. But I don't think I will be taking another like it again. My next trip - shorter, more focused on a single location or task and planned in advance.
Passport stamps from South America
While I never really took to planning in advance for any trip I take or going to just one place, I have found that I enjoy my travels a lot more if they are focused on a specific topic or event. I don’t do well just drifting without a plan (at least for more than a couple of days).
Despite writing those words back in 2003, I’ve resisted accepting that I am not a long-term traveller until recently. I chalk that reluctance to a simple reason. Since taking that trip in 2003, I have found myself drawn to keep taking trips, both for business and pleasure. Each of those trips has driven a further desire to head further afield. Each trip has increased a feeling that I had that somehow travel was important to my life. Confusingly, though, I wasn’t really sure why or how. I just knew that somehow all this travel was important and was leading someplace.
Eventually where it led, as you are all probably aware, is to a flat in King’s Cross, London, where I now live as an immigrant to the United Kingdom. Despite pretty much nothing going to the plan I had in my head when I first moved over here more than a year ago, somehow it has all felt really comfortable. Even the setbacks have felt like a movement forward.
Immigrant statue, Albert Dock, Liverpool, UK
The reason for this feeling of comfort can be found in something I wrote more than a year ago. Back in early 2008, I was feeling increasingly unsure about my future at the company I was working at. I started to jot down my thoughts on what I wanted to do next. I sometimes do this when I am faced with a big decision, finding that the writing helps me think through the issues I am facing and make a decision I can feel comfortable with. In my musing on my next move back in early 2008, I came up with a number of options, including moving to another division, moving to another company, starting a new career, starting my own business and going back to school. Over the month or so I was musing on my next move, one idea kept coming forward stronger and stronger. About two weeks before I finally made a final decision on what I would do, I wrote the following statement.
“Option: Quit job and move to London.
Analysis: Least sensible option, but for some reason this feels important to do.”
Despite being the least sensible option, I did end up taking it. When people have asked me why I did it, I’ve often dodged the question or responded with a vague reason like “wanted international work experience” or “hoped to miss the recession by moving abroad.” The real reason is that it felt important to me to do it, and there is no rational way to explain it. It was a feeling that I had to follow.
All this recently came into focus when I stumbled across a definition of something called “existential migration.” According to Dr. Greg Madison, the Canadian-born, Brighton, U.K.-based psychotherapist and counselling psychologist who coined the term, existential migration is “conceived as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner.” It is different from “economic migration, simple wanderlust, exile, or variations of forced migration” in that it is a chosen move, not driven by economic or political needs. In his research, he found those that many who he has spoken with “adamantly insist that they couldn’t have stayed; they had to go.” Even though politics, war or economic need didn’t make them leave, there was something in them that made them pack up and go.
Immigrant family statue, Yonge Street, Toronto, Canada
There were many things that struck a chord with me in Madison’s research, but a lot of what had been driving me over the past few years made sense. I realized that a lot of what had been drawing me into my career as a consultant was the opportunity to have a mini-migrant experience. I would move temporarily to a place and get to experience life there. It was a more settled and familiar experience than long-term travel, but still placed me in the foreign and unfamiliar. Consulting was a chance to dip my toe in and try out being an immigrant with the safety net of having a home back in Toronto.
In the past few years though, I would find myself getting “itchy” for a change after four to six months on a consulting project. At the time I thought that it was because I wanted to move on, get some place new. Now though, I am starting to think that the reason I got jumpy was because I wanted to take a further, deeper step into migration and knew that ultimately I wasn’t getting that from a temporary contract experience.
It was on reading Madison’s research that I realized that I wasn’t a traveller. All this time, I hadn’t been travelling. I had been slowly working up to what I am doing now, living in another country.
I am not a traveller. I am a migrant. It has just taken me a while to get around to actually migrating.