Confessions of an overthinking backpacker

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Illustration by Leone Brander, Design Director
Illustration by Leone Brander, Design Director

Here’s the toughest thing to admit about my four-month solo “Eurodyssey:” I’d built up high expectations of adventurous discovery, falling in love with a pretty European girl and segueing into wild romantic escapades, and then brunching it after a hedonistic booze-fuelled night. With these ideals of what SHOULD happen — rather than what COULD happen — you can imagine the setup for letdowns.

On one such day trip to Mont St. Michel in France, with the mist and damp air adding a layer of ancestral and mysterious ambience, the weather was particularly awful. After over two-and-a-half hours on the semi-isolated UNESCO Heritage site, my travel companion Margaux and I made our way back along the artificial causeway. After briefly debating whether to join fellow tourists boldly barefooting it in the squish-thick mud, we soon found ourselves talking about the romanticized image of travel in print compared to the actual site.

“It’s so stupid, because if you’re going to complain you might as well fucking stay at home,” Margaux moaned.

“Exactly. How can people imagine something is going to look exactly like they’ve pictured it?”

I said it with an illuminated attitude as we made our way to the bus station, stopping on a bridge to survey the muddied delta leading out onto the Emerald Coast. I pondered the aspects of our conversation, yet was unconsciously stuck over our last conversation piece. I have the blessing (and curse) of what some might call “an analytical personality.” While I didn’t get stuck inside my head for three out of four months backpacking around Western Europe, I did find myself more preoccupied with questions about the direction my journey would take me; expectations of fellow travellers and desires of possible romances which clashed with the reality of being annoyed at the prospect of pay toilets or how lost on the Munich U-bahn you get after a full Stein of beer at the Hofbrauhaus.

According to Huffpost Online’s “Millennials are Changing the Face of Travel,” my generation is more driven to travel for the possible opportunities to build experiences, values, and connections instilled for life-affirming richness of the self (go figure). It’s not surprising, perhaps, that many millennials would be dead-set on travelling before they reach their 30s despite appallingly high student debt, increased concerns regarding terrorism, and the reawakening of xenophobia in the States and post-Brexit Europe. “Our generation is plagued by the fear of missing out” a friend in Australia emailed me, so I wasn’t alone. Maybe we could do with some “heads up” that maximizes enjoyment and avoids the mindgames of overthinking, because after all, what kind of vacation is judged by the things you DIDN’T do?

Planning, planning . . . and winging it!

In retrospect, an enjoyable experience all comes down to planning and being ready for what’s tossed at you; proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. Multiple times, however, I found myself asking “Is this really doing it for me?” I generally knew where I wanted to go but was often divided over what I actually wanted to do: Which museum should I visit? Should I go on this walking tour or that one? (Actually, this works out well if you need a rest stop in the morning to recharge whilst avoiding throngs of onlookers.)

Unlike a loaded telephoto-camera-packin’ tourist in shorts and tropical dress, I alternated between hosteling the big cities (London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona . . . ) and volunteering with hosts in rural and suburban areas as a “workaway.” (It saved money, stretched time, and connected me to the non-tourist culture of the country — at least until I found that my bank account got hungry and my energy drooped significantly). Some of the best advice I got was from my last workaway volunteer host in the Sutherland Highlands: “Plan the work; work the plan.” Worried about funds? You’ll get farther living out of your passion than just your wallet. Such opportunities might not come your way again. I’m still kicking myself for not heading to the tour-optional sex show in Amsterdam — although I saved the risk of being an unwilling stage volunteer.

Countering proper planning, it’s also important to keep in mind that just because you don’t get where or what you want doesn’t mean you aren’t already on your way.  After I had left a workaway with a judgemental and incompatible host in the Brittany countryside, I railed to Paris and ended a glum day with strangers-turned-friends and a bottle of wine under the sparkling Eiffel Tower. And how could I know that deciding to hop from Amsterdam to Berlin to Prague to visit my Rastafarian-lite cousin would highlight the end of my 90 visa-free days on the continent? I didn’t expect to wrestle with sheep for a morning on a Sutherland croft, either. Itinerary and planning aside, some of the most memorable and fantastic experiences abroad spring from spontaneity.

It’s easy to quickly feel small and overshadowed whilst encountering “Bright Lights/City Sights” and bumping into people who’d been all over the map while on a budget. The nightlife of London’s Piccadilly Circus perfectly assigned me this emotive mood on my first week abroad. Neon light displays in Chinatown restaurants, trendy cafes and bars surrounded by theatre placards . . . and here I was, a young humanities graduate with barely enough to spend on modern tourist “kitsch” (although a West End show à la Kit Harington is certainly not that). Appealing, but I wasn’t obsessively passionate about them in the first place. You gotta make it YOUR experience — forget what the others are doing that you wish you could do. I met up twice with two Aussie nurses who seemed to have covered nearly ALL the bases in a few months (slaughtering credit cards along the way). When I told them “I’m actually a bit envious,” they said to not worry about it and just really make the best of your time. So I didn’t take the Jungfrau Funicular to the top of the Swiss Alps, but I did the next best thing by ridiculously hiking down (and then up) the ski slopes of Kleine Sheidegg. In March. Wearing shorts. Only a naive, male Canadian like me would have the gall to do that.

Finding that human connection

There’s usually little time to feel completely alone — and lonely — while exploring new ground; but boy did I feel lonesome at times around others. Not in the least was the socially unfulfilling ten-day TopDeck bus tour with only ten other guys against thirty girls from the just-outta-high-school pool. Due to the demographic makeup and ruminating self-doubt, it reminded me of teenage echoes of angst by the time I left for my first workaway in Catalonia. A conundrum occurs when only so many people you meet “click” and you’re occasionally left feeling like the odd man out.

However, I found that encountering interesting personalities and going alone after at least a month eases your nerves and frees your character from “the slot you fit in” back home, which allowed me an uplifting sense of accomplishment. Again, I’d successfully convinced myself people /were/ interested in me and enjoyed my company, knowing how a good friend said “you’ll probably never see them again” if it didn’t exactly work out. Which is hard, because I can’t wait to see some of those people again.

I found that listening makes all the difference while travelling. We talk so much in our home country because we’re familiar with the environment, but overseas we become cultural sponges, which is why I focused more on listening than talking. Call it the ‘60 per cent to 40 per cent rule.’ As I write this, I realize it probably helped deepen my time and connection with people, whether it was listening to my Normandy workaway host Brian detailing his work with the BBC and toils to trophies as a rally driver or musing on inner goals with David on the dunes near Zaandvoort and Zee, Netherlands. Those were genuine people I valued over there. And in regard to dating and everything between the sheets, it’s best not to put it at the top of the list. Tinder and flirt at all the abs and skirts you want, but it’ll trap you before you realize it eventually.

Looking back, I can’t say that I’ve automatically grown from experience and inner ponderings about what it means to have travelled on my own, simply because getting into it even more defeats everything I’ve just said, and puts it in a more compartmentalized sense. Let it come naturally, I say. I suspect I may be pleasantly surprised.