“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” (Marcel Proust).
Six weeks ago, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this post.
In fact, six weeks ago I wasn’t really doing much of anything. No writing, no photography to speak of, no travel planning. Everything was too much of an effort. I’d gone from feeling great to feeling lethargic and listless, like I was getting nowhere, like I was constantly trying to move – mentally and physically – through treacle. Even the prospect of a short trip to Paris at the end of August didn’t inspire that much excitement. Instead of being happy to be going back there again, I began feeling a slight murmuring of fear whenever I thought about it. What if it all went wrong? I’d only booked three days – what if I got sick and wasted them? What if the apartment I’d booked wasn’t decent? What if the weather wasn’t good enough to do the photography that I wanted to do? Stupid worries, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about them…..and I had no idea why.
Suddenly I was exhausted, short tempered, and down all the time. Some days, I was barely able to get out of bed, into work, and back home again without either bursting into tears or yelling at some poor unfortunate soul who said or did the wrong thing at the wrong moment. I thought that maybe I was just tired from too much work, too much play, and a difficult time at home. But after a couple of weeks, I was getting scared – scared that the depression which left me literally grounded in my twenties was making an unwelcome return, and that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
Depression was a hot topic earlier in the year when, for a brief few days, the world mourned the tragic loss of Robin Williams. This insidious disease – that, incidentally, affects 1 in 6 people at some point in their lives – was suddenly headline news. No one disagreed with those that proclaimed how terrible depression is, how vital it is that something more is done, how shameful it is that mental health services are so badly underfunded. It is terrible. Even more terrible is the fact that it took such a drastic action by a very public figure to bring it to attention. Predictably enough, the cries of “we must do something about this” have now died down….and those of us who suffer(ed) with the disease have once more been pushed under the carpet and left to get on with it.
Believe it or not, I don’t really want to get into the nitty-gritty details of my previous experience of depression here. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it wasn’t pretty. But, getting back to the point of this post, in terms of travel…..well, it puts a whole new spin on things. We all know what it’s like being alone and in a strange place, not speaking the language and not knowing how things work. It can be exciting, but it can also be terrifying – and it can be incredibly lonely. Now multiply that by ten. Add in the feeling that the rest of the world is on one side of a very thick pane of glass, unable to see or hear while you’re slowly overwhelmed by fear, hopelessness and self-loathing on the other, and you’ve got an inkling of what travelling with depression can be like. For years, I couldn’t do it, and by the end of the summer I was beginning to have serious doubts about whether I should be trying to do it then. Despite the feeling that I really needed to get away – perhaps escape would be a better word – I told myself that if I was just going to crawl under the duvet in Paris, then I might as well stay put and save the money. If I was going to feel terrible, then I might as well stay under my own familiar, comfortable duvet and get on with it.
I didn’t stay put. I did go to Paris, and I struggled. Part of me wanted desperately to stay there forever, in the city that has very quickly become like my home; the other part just wanted to get back on a plane and retreat to that duvet. I called my husband in tears, despite the fact that we’d argued right before I left. I even Skyped my friends in the US and Canada, which isn’t something I normally do when I’m away. Mornings, I quickly discovered, were my best time. Fresh out of bed and with a new day ahead, I felt that intense, sheer joy that I’ve only ever felt in Paris….but nights were sleepless, endless, torture. In the early hours of the morning when even Paris is sleeping, time seemed to slow down. Every sound was magnified – the creaking of the old apartment building, the dripping of the tap, the rustle of the leaves in the courtyard – but I couldn’t hear anything from the street. I felt like I had the city to myself, but rather than relaxing into it and enjoying the rare solitude, I just felt horrendously lonely.
Back home, I decided that this had to be it. I wasn’t going to put myself through that anymore. I had two trips already planned and booked – one to Wales with my mother, and one to Lisbon – but, apart from that, I decided that I wouldn’t be travelling again for a while. I wrote one of those “I Need a Blogging Break” style posts for the blog, and began to think of other things to fill my time in. Things that wouldn’t take me so far from help and support if I needed it. I began to look into the art history MA that I’ve wanted to do for so long – because, despite the low self-confidence that comes with depression, if there’s one thing I know I can do it’s study. I went back to writing the perpetually-unfinished novel that’s been languishing on my laptop for months, and drafted an email to the writing tutor who also hasn’t been contacted for a while. I started digging up the garden. I packed a bag for Wales, thinking that I just had to get through those few days, and then another few days in Lisbon – and actually felt a twinge of relief.
As usual, though, things don’t always go to plan. By the end of five days in Wales, things had changed – not drastically, but enough. It wasn’t a change I’d been expecting. My mother and I don’t generally get on very well, and I think we’d both been a little nervous about the prospect of being cocooned in an apartment somewhere on the Welsh coast, with nowhere to escape to and not a lot to do. But she surprised me. I think I surprised her. And Wales surprised us both.
I’m sitting outside on the terrace at almost eleven at night, the glowing light of a half-smoked cigarette dying away in the darkness. The wide river is illuminated by moonlight. It gives the outline of the boats an eerie glow, the reflections of their tall masts clear in the still, silver-tinted water, and I can smell the autumn mist that will descend properly later. Lights from the houses cast shadows down into the road; a couple cross over to the river with their dog, talking in hushed tones as they dodge the darkness and navigate by the light of the moon and a single security lamp. Their quiet conversation – that I can’t quite hear – mingles with the distant calls of the geese whose home this estuary is. I’ve seen them every evening, gliding their way down towards the sands that stretch out into the bay – long lines of them, sometimes thirty at a time. A car speeds past, headlights blaring. It makes me squint, and the couple duck back into the shadows of the jetty, pulling their dog with them. I wonder what they’re talking about, but as I strain into the darkness, trying to catch a few words from my vantage point above them, the headlights of the car are mimicked on the river. The silver water ripples out like a shimmering, rolling fan, the calm disturbed. Perfect moonlit reflections disappear as the blazing lights of a patrol boat slice through the water, moving closer and closer to the jetty where the couple are still standing. On cue, a jeep appears along the road, pulling a boat trailer along behind. The craft on the water is like a huge inflatable dinghy, its occupants alien in high visibility orange jackets, hats, waterproof trousers. The crackle of a radio seems to come from outer space. The geese are disturbed: their calls are louder. I watch as the jeep backs down beside the jetty, its back wheels dipping into the water before the trailer is far enough back for the boat to be pulled onto it. One man jumps out, up to his chest in the inky river, and somehow – i don’t see how – the boat is on the trailer, ready to be taken…..where? I don’t know. I wonder what they’ve been doing, patrolling up and down the river. I wonder where they’re going now – because, with another crackle of the radio and a sharp bark of laughter, they’re all in the jeep and gone as quickly as they came. The river returns to peace. The geese quieten. The stillness of the water is restored and, gradually, I can see the reflections emerge once more.
From my viewpoint on the terrace, I’ve just had a glimpse into lives that I know nothing about. It intrigues me. And yet I never will know anything about them, because tomorrow is another journey, another destination, another night with a different view and more lives waiting to be glimpsed – and the thought makes my stomach tingle with an excitement that I thought I’d lost.
I think this is why I travel in the first place.
For some reason, Wales gave me new landscapes and new eyes. I relaxed. I slept. I made time to read. I ate proper meals, and – probably most importantly – I was forced to slow down. I had time to think, not just about travel, but about a whole host of other things that haven’t been making life easy. And I came back, not feeling one hundred percent better and ready to take on the world again, but with a tentatively renewed desire to keep going – because that few moments on the terrace had made me realise that staying in one place wouldn’t help. Eventually, it would just make things worse. I’m too curious, too interested in the world around me and what it has to offer, to restrict myself to one little corner of it. Yes, in some ways travel is an escape. That’s ok. It’s also a way of learning, a way of quenching a thirst for discovery and knowledge and new experiences that I’ve always had and I probably always will have. As long as I still have that curiosity, I decided, I’m going to try and keep travelling.
It was the only answer I did manage to come up with – out of all the ones I was beginning to ask myself – but it was a start, and it made me start to look at things in a more positive way. I abandoned the MA application again, and didn’t feel bad about it (there’s always next year, right?), and booked a short course online instead. The novel has made progress, the writing tutor will be emailed – but not as a substitute for travel.
Nothing, for me, can ever really match the feeling of being alive that travelling gives.
Oh, and those autumn mists looked beautiful at dawn………
The section in italics is from my travel journal – not something I normally share, but it seemed appropriate here!
Categories: Travel Philosophy