I had two plans for tonight; one with a dear and life-long friend who I’ve not seen in months (and before that, years), the other whom I see almost daily. Both of them cancelled. With no one to say goodnight to and a deep hankering for chocolate, I hit the streets.
There is something about venturing out at night in your home city after returning from abroad that weighs on you a bit. It’s a nostalgia, a slight pang of sadness, small regret and a recognition that both you and it have changed, and the distance is irreparable. Beneath this, it’s the subtle acknowledgement that you will still always have your history and the marks left by it.
Roaming around the city through streets lit up by a Saturday night crowd, I found everything one would expect. I found an old friend just as she left to join a cab with her friends. I found a couple of new night clubs and bars scattered down a street that was once full of industrial warehouses. I found a mural off the main strip that was adorned with poetry about love and humanity. I did not, however, find chocolate.
At some point I lost track of what I was looking for. After a while I found myself staring inside a cafe whose floor was littered with cardboard and paper cups. I was studying the Marzocco on the counter and rummaging through memories of London and latte art when it suddenly dawned on me; I was searching for life, for movement, for authenticity.
This is what living on another continent does to you. It breeds within you a lust for authenticity, and for a deeper sort of connection to the world around you. It’s like stretching your stomach when you eat too much; it stretches an already insatiable hunger for real human experience and a veritableness that can only be found in cultures who have known the horror of revolution and the satisfaction of a falling empire. Each time you experience the kind of rich and prolific lifestyle that comes from years of cultural transmission and oral tradition, it’s hard to look at your old life the same. Standing there looking at a fake Italian espresso machine and the plastic placards on the wall, I knew I wouldn’t find my chocolate here.
All of us who have left feel that same combination of sadness, regret and nostalgia that I did in front of that cafe, albeit to varying degrees. It’s a symptom of leaving an unfamiliar you’ve grown used to for the familiar you’ve begun letting go of. The pain of leaving that unfamiliar lies in knowing that the place you’ve left and all who are encompassed by its vibrance will move on without you unaffected. Cities are but giant microcosms, constantly developing, changing, relentlessly moving forward with whatever intricate combinations of plans they’ve written. To leave the microcosm is to separate yourself from it.
You’ll find yourself constantly trying to satiate an appetite that will forever return with vengeance when you leave. You’ll Google tickets to Amsterdam at 2am, or TEFL programs in Barcelona, or teaching English in southeast Asia, or work visas in Australia. You’ll circle the drain looking for ways back out of the country until you can’t take it anymore; you’ll finally pick one and stick with it or, you’ll readjust.
If you leave, you’ll commit yourself to working like a dog until you’re packing your suitcase and on your next plane. If you stay, you’ll become part of your old microcosm again, this time with something more. You’ll (somewhat reluctantly) settle back into what you once new, but with a sense of wisdom and self-security that you didn’t have on the mantle before. You’ll share it with those who show an interest, and hope that in some small way you’ve lit the same fire for them and inspired them to do more, if only for themselves.
I left the flat in search of chocolate, and came home understanding what I’d really gone out seeking in the first place. There are no doses of cocoa powder and sugar that can fill the void left behind by a life abroad, but there are infinite wisdoms to be found in the heart of someone with wanderlust. It’s something we all share, with each other, with others, and with ourselves.