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Do I Need a Vacation from My "Vacation"?
Over-wrought ponderings on travel: what defines it, what orbits it, and all the ways to explore it
A note for you (written more so for me):
I’ve toyed with this newsletter in my drafts folder for a little over a month now. (Pause for the hilarity that is calling this a newsletter. I’ve skewed more toward reporting on the contents of my own mind [news no one asked for] than our travels, and, frankly that’s what most of you came here for. Yet, need I remind us, I swore no oath to stick to any one topic over another.…)
While I allowed myself pause in an attempt to untangle my thread of thought here, the more I thought, the more I wrote, and soon I was left with something less focused and structured and more like the bagel from Everything Everywhere All at Once. (I probably didn’t need to tell you that; the many topics in this piece stitched together like a patch-work quilt made by a first-year home ec student do a fine job of showing you.) Alas, I continued writing in the hope of finding the end. What I found instead was a tangle of ideas left on the page like a pair of wire headphones (remember those?) at the bottom of a purse. So, I just surrendered to the dead-ends, the messiness, and the twisting tangents that remained and Substack (once again) telling me my post was too long for email. (A prime example of how the process can mirror the content.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between place and self, about what it means to travel, and, by extension, what it means to live. A couple nights ago, Brooks and I watched Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, and I finally felt one step closer to the end of my thought thread. In one piece of footage, Bourdain is stretched out in bed (in what looks to be either a small, white rectangular room or the cockpit of a boat), his arm bent to be a makeshift pillow for himself, and behind him, taped to the wall, is a piece of printer paper with the following words written in black Sharpie: “Be a traveler, not a tourist.”
When I think back to how I felt vacationing as a kid, I relished being a tourist. One sip of my virgin strawberry daiquiri and I was magically released from the shackles of a schedule. Life suddenly became more luxurious and simplified and new. Novelty was everywhere, flying about like the fireworks in the finale of a Fourth of July fireworks show.
Novelty is what reawakens us.
It’s what jumpstarts our fuse, sparks and feeds off our curiosity.
It’s what can transform us from passive to active participants in our own lives.
Esther Perel, a psychotherapist and NYT best-selling author, talks a lot about novelty as it relates to desire and modern relationship dynamics. But novelty isn’t confined to just relationships with other people; it’s a part of everything we find relationship with and relate to in life. Traveling, switching up your hairdo,1 making a new friend, going on a first date, buying a new pair of shoes—they’re all punctuated by novelty. Novelty can occur naturally or spontaneously; it can appear like a rabbit in a hat or be consciously cultivated or temporarily injected into our lives.
The novelty that greets us when we arrive at our vacation destination is a special, mystical force all its own. It gives us a second wind, makes us try things we’d never try, prompts us to put things in our mouth we otherwise wouldn’t back home (that’s not a dirty joke, I swear [unless you want it to be]). It bewitches us in a way real life doesn't always seem to.
We draw a line in the sands of our mind and create a very clear demarcation between vacation and real life, and perhaps that’s why we go for it—really go for it!—when we’re on vacation. Perhaps it’s what gives us permission to fully relax and unwind, enough for our alter ego to come out and play; why some of us suddenly find ourselves going full dad mode, rising early and knighting ourselves the plan-it-all fun master. Not only do we take a break from our life back home on vacation, but we take a break from parts of ourselves, too.
Now, as an adult, in this niche travel situation I find myself in, the line between vacation and real life is less defined. After all, what is “real life”—and what does it mean “to vacation”?
As Carrie Bradshaw would say, “I couldn’t help but wonder…”:
If you go away for a couple weeks, a couple months, can you really call the entire trip a vacation anymore?
If you take a vacation to escape from or take a break from your real life, does that make vacation an alternate reality, sanctioned to forever live in opposition to your everyday life?
The phenomenon of the “stay-cation” (vacationing at home or somewhere new but still in your town or city’s limits) challenges the blueprint of the traditional vacation. Comparing a vacation to a stay-cation suggests that vacation just comes down to a state of mind, not physically going to a far away locale.
And then you have the people that go on vacation to enrich their life—to experience a new place, a new culture—or are perpetually away and make a living doing so. But that’s not vacation, is it? That’s travel.
To travel for a living, as Bourdain proved in his A Cook’s Tour and beyond years, is not imbued solely with #vacayvibes. It’s a job that consumes your life to the point it becomes your life. Travel can also conjoin a profession and a lifestyle in a more balanced way. Take the digital nomad, for instance. Nowadays, in our “new normal” and tech-heavy world, digital nomads are all the rage and find time to work and play in a vacation destination. Tech, in many ways, has made travel harmonious with everyday life, not something limited to PTO.2
“Vacation” and “travel” (and “trip”) are synonymous, often used interchangeably. But in concept and in affect, they start to differentiate themselves. Vacation is often driven by escape or the need for pause and is punctuated by a curated experience, by being serviced and taken care of. Vacation is marked by all-inclusiveness and upholds the everyday as its antithesis. Sure, it’ll likely be bookend by the stress of traveling to and from, but, once you arrive at your vacation destination, stress is expected be curbed at every moment. Eventually, though, you must go back to whence you came. When you board that plane, vacation you is packed away in your suitcase, to be stored in your closet at home until the next trip. You may be a bit changed after your vacay but not completely stripped of your former self. Travel, though, is unpredictable, more organic; it doesn’t promise full relaxation, pause, or five-start dining and bell boys nor is its goal to completely shut a particular section of your life (e.g., work and stress) out. When you travel, you arrive at another place and you have to both lose yourself and integrate yourself into the new environment. You have to balance observing with participating. When, or if, you return, you return changed, in some way—and some people never return.
When you read the above, you may disagree. And that proves my point. Vacation and travel are subjective, defined by personal experience, goals, financial capabilities, interests, and preferences that range from the thread count of sheets you seek to the climate you feel most drawn to. Regardless of how you slice and dice and define and analyze “vacation” versus “travel”, there is a moving target of difference between the two, and the question still remains: Are they separate from or integrated and integral parts of “real life”; or, are they just other versions or states of living, period? Given what prompted Brooks and I to go abroad and where I find myself now, I’m starting to believe that the answer lies in perception and if/how we chase and dance with novelty.
For the entire time Brooks and I have been abroad, we’ve slow traveled (i.e., we’ve stayed in one place for almost a month or more), which has allowed us to both relish in the novelty of each new place we’ve visited and experience the point where novelty loses its luster and starts to fade. Our to-be six-month abroad experience has been punctuated by novelty in varying degrees. At times, I’ve felt like I did traveling as a kid. Other times, I’ve felt disenchanted by the lack of novelty I thought I would experience. Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, our last stop for the rest of our time abroad, I was suddenly confronted by the fact that this vacation we took wasn’t really a vacation anymore. Maybe it was never a vacation to begin with.
The minute we touched down in Thailand, restlessness, annoyance, irritability, boredom, disinterest, and fatigue started to hit me like a hail storm in the middle of summer. I chalked it up to the effect of the rain and humidity in Bali, the still turbulent turnings of my GI system post stomach bug, just general travel malaise. I thought, Shit, I need a vacation…from my vacation.
On more Mondays than I can count, I remember rubbing the sleep out of my eyes as one of my coworkers would ask me (in a tone that was a little too chipper for nine in the morning) how my weekend was.
What weekend? I worked. I did chores. I worked.
I’d screw on a smile and utter the agreed upon (but not always true) socially acceptable response of ambiguity: “Good, and you?”
As they’d rattle on, and I’d try to blink the glazed look out of my eyes, the soon-to-be, must-do, and “strongly suggested” meetings, team building exercises, emails, and hours that occupied my Monday through Friday (and, oftentimes, Saturdays or Sundays) would start closing in on me, choking me out like the smoke coming from a fire that’s yet to trip the alarms. My burnout was looming.
I started to wear indifference like a suit of armor in an attempt to protect myself from my own racing mind and the work that invited itself home with me. No matter how much therapy I did to unpack and retrain the people pleaser within me, to set better boundaries (at work and in my life overall), work still lived rent free in my mind 24/7, and the stress sweat didn't cease. Setting my phone to “Do Not Disturb” didn’t cut it. The line between my work and home life had blurred like the line between church and state—like the line between vacation and everyday life.
Eventually, I was burnt to a crisp and in desperate need of an extended vacation. Since there’s no such thing as a time- and community-honored two- or three-month summer vacation in the States, like there is in Europe, my desperation for some peace of mind (and of being) drove me to create that time off for myself at the cost of my job and financial security. Extreme? Perhaps. Necessary? Definitely.
There’s a lot of talk about “burnout” and “work-life balance” and “boundaries”, but, when push comes to shove, the work culture itself doesn’t honor these realities, or, more often than not, we don’t honor our boundaries because we’ve been trained not to. We fear coming off as unavailable, aloof, or inflexible: marks worse than a scarlet letter in the workplace. Even when I’d take week-long vacations here and there, I never allowed myself to fully disconnect because I could feel the anticipation of my return before I even left in every prep email and exchange I had with my superiors and in every lesson plan I made to leave with whoever was subbing for me.
Thanks to the mark of capitalism, productivity will always be priority number one and anything that gets in the way of it and the dollars it brings in will be frowned upon. Until we collectively recalibrate our perspective around productivity, and the work week is scaled back to four days a week and vacation time is treated as sacred, I'll raise an eyebrow at any messaging via the professional development workshops that champions rest and employees using their PTO because all other signs still point to this truth: Life before work is celebrated, life taking priority over work is not.
So, here I am, trying to live my birth-right of just living and not being a slave to some corporate schedule, someone else’s profit margins, and yet I’m feeling burnt out. This time, my feelings weren’t a result of overworking, though, no, but of over-vacationing.
Unlike work burnout, which is a result of doing too much without enough chill, travel fatigue results from having too much choice but not enough familiarity (hello homesickness!) and doing too much while also having the option to do nothing (because you can!).
The travel fatigue came in intense spurts, but I staved it off with new activities. Perhaps the onset started with the homesickness brought on by watching A Charlie Brown Christmas in Koh Samui during the holidays. But was that the onset of it all? That was colored more by pangs of nostalgia, not burn out symptoms. The tickles of burnout soon turned to pain (ironically but also understandably) once we made it to our final stop in Chiang Mai, when I could finally take a beat. Truthfully, if it wasn't for that birthday getaway to Chiang Rai, where nature swallowed me whole and I could take a deep breath to soak in all the unfamiliar scenery, I think I would have cracked.3
I was, and am, tired—but it's that good kind of travel tired. The kind of tired where you want to give more but are already running on empty. A fatigue that comes with the whirlwind of the new. When I finally return to our room after a day spent out and about, all I want to do is veg out and watch Netflix, disconnect somehow…. But I can’t! I couldn't! After all, I do that at home and here I am
on vacation traveling. I refuse to waste energy on anything that isn’t a part of the new place I find myself in. That would be blasphemous to the sanctity of travel!
Aside from feeling this pull to engage with and unplug from my surroundings, there’s also a sense of helplessness and autonomy constantly at war within me. Not to mention the general frustration that creeps up as a result of having to live out of a suitcase and be reliant on restaurants for all my meals. Factor in the countless miles my body's endured traveling in the air, on land, and in the sea (thanks Dramamine); the many long days of walking and site-seeing; and the flood of so many options and new sites, and you have sensory overload at its zenith.4
Novelty may be a spark that reawakens the soul, but it can also burn you out mentally and emotionally if you light the fuse too often. In the inescapable new and unfamiliar, I now see that the mundane can be precious just the same.
Lately, I’ve longed to do laundry consisting of all towels and difficult-to-fold fitted sheets. I want to go to Trader Joe’s and make myself a simple dinner with my pots and pans. I want to open a cabinet and see all my toiletries. I want to vacuum. I can’t wait to pick up the phone and know my friends and family are not living a day behind me. I miss being able to seamlessly do my freelance work without having to calculate the time difference between me and those I’m conversing with. I’m tired of being 12 or 15 hours ahead yet always feeling behind.
I’ve found myself romanticizing that feeling of walking into my apartment (of which I don't have anymore), or a place I know where everything is, and just plopping down on the couch or in a chair that knows how to support and hold me in all the right places. I haven’t been able to sit on a couch like that since I was at my dad's house on Halloween.
Even though I believe the phrase “home is where the heart is”, and I’m traveling with my significant other (whom I love deeply), that feeling of being physically content in a space so familiar to me can’t be manufactured, even in a homey Airbnb. Digital nomads talk about creating community wherever they are by creating routine and finding community to ground them. Those who travel often for work talk of bringing a few items from home—like photos, candles, or pillow sprays—to make whatever hotel they find themselves in “like home”. But that feeling and odor that everyone’s home has can’t be packed in a suitcase. In the spaces where familiarity is normally kept but remains missing, loneliness and nostalgia take up residence.
When I catch myself ruminating in this place of nostalgia or spinning mundane, once monotonous, tasks into a tapestry of romanticism in my mind, I have to force myself to pause and recalibrate my perception. In taking my life and shaking it up like a snow globe, I re-invited much needed novelty back into it. I can’t deny the freedom that traveling and the unknown has granted me. It’s what’s given me the time to write this newsletter, after all, and just live and be, not constantly plan and do and work.5 For what feels like the first time in my life, I am not living within and to fulfill the to-dos set by the overlapping structures and demands of multiple schedules. I am setting my own schedule, choosing when to work and what to work on with full freedom, driven by wants and needs totally detached from outside influences and demands.
I have no place I have to be, no superior I have to report to.
I’m so untethered right now, it’s exhilarating!!
And I’m scared shitless.
Maybe it’s the fear, fatigue, too much free time, or a menage of all three, but I find myself retreating away from the place I find myself in. When the rhythms of travel slowed and I was once again given the option to formulate a “normal” daily routine, I started to feel lost. Brooks, on the other hand, is a man of routine. It’s his life raft. Routine is the North Star that’s guided him in Phuket and Chiang Mai, Thailand; Dublin, Ireland; and Madrid, Spain. Routine for me, on the other hand, stems from necessity, not so much desire.
Outside of my get-up and go-to-bed prep, routine often bores and drains me with its dull drumming of easy-to-anticipate rhythms. It doesn't ground me like the urgency of outside to-dos. However, with our simplicity of life here in Chiang Mai, I have no urgent to-dos to structure my day around. I arise when I want (a lot later than I’ve grown accustomed to), eat breakfast (also a lot later than I’m used to), write at our favorite cafe, have lunch (maybe) but more likely a snack, have an early dinner at a walking market or a small stall restaurant, watch a movie or write some more (with the exception of Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which are discount movie night and trivia night, respectively), go to bed, and then wake up to do it all over again. My day is a blank slate and it leaves me feeling frazzled. The simplicity has been translated by my mind and nervous system to mean a lack of variety and thus monotony, despite an abundance of newness always waiting for me outside my door.6
When Brooks’ youngest sister, Avery, came to visit recently, Brooks and I got to play tour guide and tourist again for nearly two weeks. It suddenly dawned on me that part of the reason I’ve felt disinterested with this foreign place is because I’ve started to be passive. I’ve started to allow the honeymoon phase of travel to wilt like a flower left un-watered. I’d stopped being curious.
At first, a new place will show you it’s newness without you having to try too much. You can just let it sweep you up; but then, you have to put in the work to discover more. If you don’t, if you do nothing for long enough, it will leave you feeling empty—the same emptiness you feel when burnout is burning you alive and you don’t take a vacation and have a reset.
In allowing myself to switch out of tourist and traveler mode, I also allowed the realities of life and my murky future to gain weight and awaken the anxious parts of my mind: When I go home, I won’t be returning to my apartment, the first apartment I truly made my own that I loved; my apartment, turned our apartment, that is currently jenga’ed in high heights in a storage unit back in Connecticut will remain that way through the summer while we're on Cape. But after the summer, what then? I got off the hamster wheel of the 9-to-5, but now I’m approaching that point where I must make a choice again: Do I begrudgingly go back or forge my own path?7
The indecisive part of me just wants to stay out here forever, as it would save me from making the choices that await me once I step foot on U.S. soil. If I stayed out here, though, that means I’m living abroad. I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but my love of living abroad has waxed and waned. Maybe it’s the place, maybe it’s just the lifestyle it entails. Whatever it is, I think herein lies two more nuances to consider:
Vacation is always traveling; traveling is not always vacation.
Traveling entails movement; living abroad requires stillness in one foreign place.
The traveling part I like. The living abroad piece leaves me squirming in my seat a bit. There’s always a separation that can’t be closed; the familiarity that is either found or cultivated feels like a replica of the real thing.8 I used to think I could live abroad and travel abroad as fearlessly as Bourdain. I used to think I wanted to travel to live like he did. But if that means hopping from place to place with brief stints in a “familiar place”, in a place you call home, only to return and feel like a foreigner there, I think I’d be lying to myself if I said I now want that life.
In watching Bourdain live a life so full of place and newness, yet still feel so empty and tired, I now entertain the truth that if one travels for too long, it has the opposite effect: It becomes less invigorating and more taxing on the spirit. The novelty of travel therein lies the paradox of travel: There’s novelty in the chase of the new and what the new will bring, but if you chase it forever and gorge on it without a palate cleanser, it loses its newness and grows moldy with the mundane. It becomes unappetizing, just like whatever it was you flew away from to begin with.
That said, I think reaching that tipping point is valuable just the same. In many ways, it forces you to live through “the grass is always greener” argument. For me, after months of new places and getting a break from the familiar, my everyday life in the States seems, well, novel again.
Despite—or, perhaps, in spite of—this pull to return to the familiar, I am cultivating something here in Thailand for the time being (a temporary life, you could say), which, in turn, is cultivating familiarity. In doing so, it's prompted me to really see and assess the pros and cons of both places, of both paces of life, and to realize just how they overlap and differ from one another. And in knowing how life is different here versus there, better and worse here versus there, I feel simultaneously the least stressed and anxious I’ve ever been—thanks to the simplicity of living I find myself adapting to and newfound freedom I'm learning to enjoy—and the most stressed and anxious I’ve ever been. Why? Because I know that what I want (to return to the States) entails complexities and limitations and will, ultimately, reacquaint me with aspects that prompted me to seek an alternative state of being to begin with. Returning to the familiar will ask me to readjust all the same, once again.
Along with the inevitable uncertainties of life, travel has magnified certain insecurities and concrete worries that have followed me from place to place. Logically, though, given where I am, what I’ve been able to do, and who I’m with right now, all parts of my brain say, “Stop worrying! You shouldn’t feel unhappy. Look where you are!”
When I was on the phone with a dear friend of mine, sharing these feelings and worries, I found myself uttering a phrase that unearthed a great nugget of fear within me: "What if it isn’t about the place...and it’s just me?"9
Changing your environment can set the stage for a reset, prompt you to come back to yourself, encourage you to discover new parts of yourself. But a switch of locale is not enough to switch your mindset for good, and although burnout is a product of influence and demands of the environment, it’s also a result of how we response to said environment. (And that’s not a “vacation life” or “real life” thing—doesn’t matter what fucking reality you’re living in.) Even if I draw a line in the sands of my mind, demarcating “vacation life” or “travel life” from “real life”, it’s self-drawn and subject to be washed away simply because I can’t remove the influence that is me. Wherever I am, all parts of me and my life are there, too.
I've since reached the point in my abroad experience where the mundane, the uncomfortable, and the less-than-glamorous parts of myself are making themselves known again—and I can’t take a vacation from them. Nor can I afford to writhe in the discomfort of what I'm feeling: I need to treat all these feelings as if they were Devil’s Snare10 and just surrender.
In catching a glimpse of that Sharpie-d phrase in the Bourdain documentary, all my angst and fatigue and frustration with the mundane, and myself, became clear.
A tourist takes, sits and waits, follows, is led.
A traveler gives, receives, finds, continues looking.
Maybe part of my travel “burnout” is just a result of me being a lil’ bitchy, wishy-washy tourist. Although it feels safe to sit in the safety of my tourist tendencies, it ultimately closes me off from what a place has to offer—including the raw, uncomfortable, ugly, and real experiences. When a tourist gives themself over to the experience and the place fully, not selectively, that’s when they become a traveler, fully embodying the definition of the word.
Traveling asks us to continue to seek and experience and live, even when we are confused and feel ungrounded, because that’s where true novelty can be found. Although I often feel like the mundane and novelty are opposites, and one is inherently better than the other, the truth is not so. Novelty is a shapeshifter of yin and yang—and one of its many identities is the mundane. The mundane can become novel through a new way of engaging with it. That’s why I, and you, shouldn’t fear the mundane, especially in a foreign land, as it can create a taste of the familiar, a slowness, a grounding force in the turbulence of the new. When we accept the many forms of novelty, and ourselves, that’s when the real travel can begin.
If you missed my last newsletter, all about the woes and musings of getting bangs abroad (of which I’m feeling at peace with now), read about it here.
PTO: personal time off.
We got an apartment rental with a kitchenette and a couch at the end of January! Major comfort upgrade after the last couple months. Alas, the couch is in a completely undecorated room and lacks much coziness, but it does the trick for now.
I also can’t deny that money is a huge factor that has afforded me (literally) the ability to do what I’m doing.
While I was editing this piece, I came across a post on Instagram by Dr. Nicole LePera (@the.holistic.psychologist) that talked about running on cortisol or being addicted to our body’s own stress hormones, and it really resonated with some of the feelings I was outlining. Highly encourage you to check out the full thread on IG here, but here’s the gist of it: When we go into “flight” mode, our nervous system releases chemicals in response to the stress (norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol) and our brain releases dopamine (that “feel good” chemical). For those of us who constantly seek drama, feel bored or antsy when we rest, or think we “thrive in stressful situations”, that could just be the manifestations of a stress addiction: the body becoming addicted to the cortisol (and thus dopamine) spikes. Socially, we’ve normalized this cycle of stress (again, hello work culture!) and just accepted it a part of life. But, if we stay in this pattern and cycle of stress, and our stress tolerance goes up without us bringing it back down to baseline, we soon prime our bodies to crave stress to feel “like ourselves.” (Perhaps, this explains why stress and burnout can find us on vacation, too…. We’re so tired and wired from the stress cycle we are caught in that lounging on a beach for a week just won’t cut it.)
The irony that I’m actively applying to jobs right now, some of which require professional development and all the like of the corporate world, is not lost on me. Will I follow through and return from whence I ran from? Only time will tell. No harm in flirting with the idea to keep my options open, though, in the hopes that not all corporate structures are alike in their euphemistic promises to employees.
In spending time abroad for such an extended period of time, and getting to living in a foreign place for a brief stint, it’s made me even more sympathetic of immigrants, migrants, and refugees and how they navigate acclimating to a new place, a new culture, new customs, and the external and internal pressures to assimilate that they encounter. It’s made me thankful that I have a choice to travel, to go someplace new, and that I’m welcome in (most of) the foreign places I want to go.
Before you suggest therapy, don’t. It’s something I’ve turned to countless times in my life, both when I’ve needed it acutely and even when I haven’t (i.e., the best time to do self-work). What do you think informed this self-reflection anyway?