The grass is always greener... or is it?

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence "The mind can play tricks on you. The mind is rarely bound by the present moment. It can travel miles, remember years. You’re forever dashing between seemingly perfect memories and visions of the future."

We’re all familiar with the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”. No matter where you’re standing, the next paddock over will always seem more appealing. It’s a never-ending cycle of comparison, a trap that often stops us from standing still and appreciating what we have right here, right now.

Yet people continue to climb over the fence and seek shiny new possibilities, glimmering so beautifully on the horizon.

Preparing for the climb, for the transition from old to new, is always fun and filled with possibility. Our imaginations go into overdrive, conjuring up images of how wonderful and special our lives are going to be once we become acquainted with the next paddock over.

Climbing the fence is also exhilarating, adrenalin pumping as you swing one leg over and promise to write to those you are leaving behind. Coming down the other side and placing your feet firmly on fresh ground is like tasting freedom and opportunity.

The rose-tinted glasses work their magic for awhile, allowing you to soak up your new surroundings and fall blindly in love with the alluring beauty of possibility. You wander the streets and imagine yourself living here, there, everywhere. You take more photos and wonder why you never used your camera at home. You live outside of your comfort zone and you thrive.

But, eventually the rose-tinted glasses wear off and reality starts to creep into the edges of your vision. You get tired, your brain over-stimulated. You start to notice things, like how the water tastes different or the air feels funny. And you start to think about that place you call home.

A glimpse of the other side... wandering through a former Estate in Bristol

The mind can play tricks on you. The mind is rarely bound by the present moment. It can travel miles, remember years. You’re forever dashing between seemingly perfect memories and visions of the future. It’s unsettling, keeps you up at night, and you start to wonder – have I made the right decision? Am I in the right place? Should I climb back over the fence, or find a new path?

We are incredibly lucky to have choices, the freedom to not only imagine an existence different to our own but to actually climb the fence and see the other side for ourselves. I believe the promise of more, the lure of a better life – be it a facade or not – is what keeps us going, what propels us forward. It’s part of being alive.

But if you’re not careful, it can come at a cost. Too often we let our egos dominate our dreams, and climbing a fence becomes not about self-exploration and freedom, but about proving a point – to ourselves and to those back home. The last thing you want to admit is that the other side didn’t live up to your great expectations. Because that would be failure, an admission of defeat.

So you update your Facebook profile with glowing statuses and gorgeous images. You tell everyone back home that it is wonderful on this side of the fence and encourage them to make the climb too. And you become so busy protecting your beautiful image of what you want the other side to look like, that you forget to stand still and appreciate what you have, right here, right now. You forget to see things for how they are, not how you want them to be. And in that frame of mind, you struggle to be truly happy.

Isn’t the mind a funny thing?

What we need to remember is that it doesn’t matter what the other side looks like – the mere fact that you climbed over the fence and gave something new a try is success enough. We need to take our egos out of the picture – and with that our fear of failure – and allow ourselves to be vulnerable for a little while until we find our feet again.

In sharing my experiences, I want to be honest. I want to challenge the grass is greener mentality, as I believe it’s detrimental to our happiness – and our sanity. I don’t want to present a perfect account of my travels, focusing only on the good times and leaving out the bad. Because that’s not real. I want to remind people that the grass is never greener, it’s just different. I still have good days and I still have bad days.

Currently, I’m homeless and jobless and things feel a little daunting. Tom has a job offer on the table and together we’re searching for a new place to call home. Things are progressing, albeit slowly. It’s not easy, but it is teaching me to appreciate where I’ve come from and trust where I’m heading.

It’s also teaching me that it’s important to be flexible. We wanted to live outside the hustle and bustle of London, but I couldn’t find work. We’ve changed course many times since we’ve arrived, trying to find a path that feels right, and so far nothing looks like what we imagined it to be. But we’re okay with that.

Climbing the fence is one of the most challenging things you can do. But if you knew that before you set out, you may not have left home. If the other side looked scary and challenging, full of dark alleyways and blind corners, why would you possibly want to make the leap? Our optimistic vision of the other side is a blessing, a necessary tool to propel us forward into the unknown. The rose-tinted glasses have their place. But it’s important to know when to take them off.

The grass is greener where you water it

Bittersweet homecoming: what it’s like to come back to NZ after living abroad

Travel changes you in ways you don’t expect. It opens your mind and your heart and your soul to new ways of living and being. It finds beauty in unexpected places and sees pain surface in others. You are the same you, but forever altered by what you have seen and felt. Coming home is often by choice, but sometimes it is the biggest challenge. My time in Europe feels like a dream now that I am back in New Zealand. It’s easy to forget everything as you fall back into familiar routines. Most of the people that I met were slightly older than me, and doing an exchange in their final semester of university, so many of them stayed overseas and kept travelling, or came back to new jobs and new adventures.

But I went overseas in the middle of my degree, so I have come back to finish it. I have more or less come back to exactly the same life I left behind – which is by no means a bad thing – but it is strangely disorienting.

When I left for France, I couldn’t imagine my future. I had no idea what the next day would bring. I was like an open book and the sense of freedom and adventure was intoxicating. Even though I knew I was coming back, I felt like I never would. Homecoming was always far away on the horizon. This sense of freedom was empowering and dizzying. I did things before I left that were out of character, daring, a little crazy – because I felt as if I would never return.

But six months isn’t actually very long. It felt like eternity at times, while at others it was whizzing past and I felt suffocated by the fixed time frame – the return date hung over me like a shadow. Then in January, I was overwhelmed by inescapable homesickness. I couldn’t wait to hug my mum, my little brother, my family. I wanted to laugh and talk with the girls, hear all of their stories. I was craving NZ food, coffee, my bed, my hometown.

I was completely consumed by the idea of getting home, but I never once let my mind wander to what it would be like. I wanted to get home so bad that every time my mum raised the question, I would brush her off, saying that I would be so happy to see everyone I wouldn’t worry about how it felt.

And coming home was amazing. Touching down in Auckland is a memory that will be with me forever. Seeing the familiar landmarks from my plane window, I felt safe and secure once again, kissing goodbye the feelings of vulnerability and adventure that are both thrilling and exhausting. It was time to recharge and revive.

But as everyone who has travelled has said: it is hard coming home. You don’t believe them through bouts of homesickness because homesickness is so consuming. Its nostalgia and longing at its height. But when you get home, the mind being the tricky thing it is, simply reverses that nostalgia and longing and pins it on what you left behind – Europe. How unfair is that?

Because I’d completely unprepared myself for settling in back home, within a few days I had fallen back into exactly the same routine as before I left. I touched down on the tarmac, confused and jetlagged, but woke up the next morning and went about my business as usual. I didn’t reflect; I didn’t have time to. It was only a week later (and in a very hungover state, which always heightens emotions) that I began to try to process just how big coming back home really is. It’s such a challenge. You fall back into old habits that you thought six months in France would break, with such ease that it makes you feel like a little bit of a failure. You think to yourself, “Hey, I’ve been halfway around the world, I’ve seen sights that give me goosebumps to remember, so why I am still acting like this?

I think it takes effort to keep the momentum, energy and appreciation you have while travelling present in your everyday life. I would actually even go as far as to say that it is intellectually more challenging coming back home to the same, than it is branching out and visiting the different. Because at least with the different, you are constantly learning, soaking everything up. It’s amazing.

But with the same, the familiar, you can get stuck in a rut if you’re not constantly working to keep your life fresh and fun. The familiar is easy, but it is much less rewarding –and once you’ve had the high of constantly being rewarded as you travel, by the people you meet and the places you see, it feels like a real drop coming home to nothing new. It is a huge challenge trying to fit yourself into your ‘old’ world. On one hand, the old routines come like second-nature, on the other you feel like you are wandering around aimlessly, not sure what to do next, now that the big adventure is over.

I guess that’s the place where I am at, at the moment. A huge part of my life has finished. I lived a completely different life for six months, in another city that became my home, and now I am at a loss for what comes next. I need a new challenge, something to aim for, but at the same time I don’t want to move on from the last challenge. France still lingers within me, but as each day goes by the experience seems more and more distant. It’s like I’m holding tightly to the tail of a fish as it tries ferociously to swim away. I know that the memories I have aren’t going anywhere, but memory is often evasive and I am yearning for something more concrete. Sometimes nostalgia and melancholy aren’t welcome guests when you are trying to figure out what your next move is. I have no idea what the universe has in store for me now; when I find out I’ll let you know.

How to give in to homesickness (and for this to be okay)

I just booked my flight home. 9th of February.  A few weeks ago, in the midst of homesickness, that would have seemed like a life time to wait. But now it feels just around the corner, and the homesickness has disappeared. Vanished. Gone. I can’t tell you how weird that is, because homesickness is one of the most consuming feelings I have ever felt; it exhausts you. It’s a feeling of constant displacement and nostalgia. It’s a kind of yearning that comes right from the bottom of your gut, an invisible string tugging in the direction of home; a physical presence even though homesickness is almost purely mental. It’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up and it hovers over your thoughts all day, so that you are walking around in a dream-like haze. Yeah I know what you’re thinking. She’s nuts! She’s in France, how can someone be homesick in France? Well that’s another reason why being homesick is so exhausting: because when you are in a country like France, and on one of the biggest adventures of your life, it feels like a sin to be missing home. So not only are you walking around with a constant yearning for the comforts of the familiar, but you are also kicking yourself at the same time for being so stupid, when you have all these new and fabulous experiences to replace everything that you left behind.

It’s only now that I all of a sudden don’t feel homesick anymore, that I can actually reflect on this and put it into writing that seems remotely coherent. Because when you are in it, you can’t describe it. You can only feel it. And it’s different for everyone.

I didn’t think I’d get it. I was never that kid in primary school that had to be picked up from sleepovers because I was ‘homesick.’ I’ve been away from my friends and family for lengths of time before and – no offence to them – have coped fine. I like to think that I’m pretty independent. I left New Zealand unpatriotic, focussed only in the direction of Europe. I didn’t even cry at the airport!

But I got it. Right around the time when I started up this blog; when I needed something to do, something to connect me with back home, something to start organising all of the million different ideas floating around in my head every day. I think it’s worked. I love writing, and I can explain things so much better this way, rather than trying to on the phone, where I end up jumping around and using my hands and trying desperately to make people understand what the latest crazy theory is that has popped into my head. It’s virtually impossible because unless I sit down and write it out. By putting my thoughts in words, I can write, rewrite, backspace, edit until I’ve finally figured out how to say what I’m thinking in a way that isn’t going to encourage blank looks (or concerned confusion) from the people I talk to.

Homesickness. Its funny, whenever I write that word, I always associate it with flat whites. Coffee. Ha, how much of a snobby Devonport café kid am I? No but seriously, I really miss being able to order a strong, creamy but not too creamy, milky but not too milky, frothy but not too frothy, silky smooth flat white in winter, from a café with booths and heaters, a variety of quiet conversations humming around me, where I can take a seat by the window and enjoy the sensations (yes, sensations!) of an AMAZING coffee, by myself, with a good book. That was me time. When I needed a pause, a moment to reflect, to write a to-do-list, to just take a break; that is what I’d do. Usually in the window seat of Sierra in Devonport, or almost every day in the back corner of the Arts Café at uni. It was my thing.

And I remember distinctly the day I realised I didn’t have a local café here in France. It was a wet, windy, freezing – horrible – day. You know, the kind of day where you wish you’d just stayed inside, because nothing is going your way. I was overtired, angry at the weather gods, rushing around like a crazy woman, and all I wanted was to sit in a quiet-but-not-too-quiet café and take five minutes to myself. Long story short, of course I couldn’t find a café. France’s café culture is a little different to NZ’s. And in my particular area they were non-existent, the only alternative being these weird diner slash restaurants that often have overweight old French men at the counters and that I have never dared to enter because they seem like the only place you’d go if you were, well, a local. Which I’m not.

I ended up at a McCafé ordering a cappuccino because they are closest thing I have found to a real milky coffee since being here. A McCafé! They put the same freaking chocolate sauce as they put on their sundaes on top of my cappuccino! On top of my coffee! I will never forget miserably sitting in McDonalds, drinking my cappuccino (aka warm milk with chocolate sauce) and thinking to myself; what the hell am I doing here, in France, halfway across the world, by myself, in a McDonald’s café?

Ok so you are probably back to thinking I’m crazy. It’s just coffee right?

Point is; it’s not the coffee, it’s what it represents. And to me, coffee represents comfort. Home. Familiarity. Mum has worked on and off in cafés since I was a little girl. I grew up in cafés. Literally, my mum was a single mum so we spent a lot of time hanging around her workplaces, whether it was in the back rooms of Ice It or watching the goldfish in the pond outside Devonport’s old Watermark, cafés are comforting to me. I can even smell these places right now; the ground coffee, slightly damp in the rubbish bags. Food packed away in the fridge, having slightly lost its smell and appeal, after the end of a long day. The weird mix of baking and cleaning products, as everything is being wiped spotless while the next batch is in the oven, ready to make the same mess.

I never feel out of place in a café, ever. But here I do. Because they aren’t the same. And the French don’t really do food and drink by themselves. Eating and drinking is more of a ritual over here, which is great, but sometimes you just want to drink a coffee by yourself without being judged for it, you know? Whoops, I steered back to the coffee.

Anyway. What I’m trying to say, is that for me, coffee represents just one of the little things that I miss about home. And it’s the little things that seem to get to you the most. Because they are the things you don’t really take into consideration before leaving life in one place, and starting fresh in another. You expect to miss your friends and your family; that’s just a given. But to physically yearn for cafés? The thought didn’t even cross my mind. I can call, Skype, Facebook my family and friends every day, but I can’t transport myself to a Sierra coffee booth for five minutes to really feel at home.

That’s why homesickness is so displacing. Because you are the same you, but somewhere TOTALLY different. You are the same you without all the little things that make up home. You are the same you without all the people who know and love you best.

New connections take time, effort and an open mind. Being on exchange means you are constantly meeting people of different cultures and different backgrounds. You’ve got to try a bit harder. EFFORT. Being away from home, from everything and everyone you know, takes effort.

So that’s my experience of homesickness. Missing my daily comforts and routine. Missing not having to try. Missing not feeling like an outsider.

But I’ve realised that it’s okay to get a bit upset, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to miss home. Giving in to homesickness is often the best way to cope. Lock yourself away with a good book, stay in and watch your favourite TV show, do whatever you need to do to mentally recharge, so you can get back out there and face the fireworks again. So that when you need to put in the hard yards, you have the energy to do so.

Funnily enough, it’s that trying, it’s that effort, that simultaneously makes being on exchange so worthwhile, so soul-forming. Go on, gag, I know you want to – this is about to get cheesy. But it’s true. Being away from home takes effort, takes work, takes risks, takes tears, takes guts, takes determination. But that’s the sort of stuff that makes you grow as a person, man! Sometimes it seems like I can feel my brain expanding, with all the new stuff that gets shovelled into it every day, all of the new experiences. I’m growing up. Learning about myself, all that exciting stuff. Growing as a person. That freaky thing is happening to me, where I’m recalling my parents saying to me – well, Dave, actually, my step-dad – “one day you’ll understand,” in that awful condescending way that makes you yell ferociously “no I won’t!” in your teenage angst purely because you want to disagree with them – well I’m recalling that and going, oh shit, I understand now. Weird. Doesn’t mean I still agree with everything my parents and I have argued about, but I do understand. And now that is one freaaaaaky feeling! (Dave, smile away to yourself, but if you bring this up with me in person with a smug grin I will probably deny ever saying it).

After all that, the homesickness has kind of evaporated into thin air. Or maybe I’m just used to the feeling of constant nostalgia. Nevertheless, this has been a good week. And I felt like sharing all that, partly so you don’t just all think I am a crazy woman for missing little old New Zealand while I’m Europe, but mostly because the whole growing-as-a-person-thing is one of the biggest experiences I’m having over here. In between all the partying and travelling and living the high life, there is a little bit of seriousness going on too.

It’s funny how if you trust a little bit, if you push through the hard times, things all seem to fall into place. You just got to ride it out. But it’s having that trust, turning blindly towards the future, closing your eyes, jumping in and hoping for the best, that is one of the hardest things to do. Sticking with what you know is so much easier. But just think of the rewards. Look at the life I’m living! It’s exhilarating, baby!

But don’t worry, I’m not going to come back all smug, worldly, condescending. One thing I’m learning over here is that every single person has their own story, their own experience. And as much as it is sometimes so frustrating that no one can quite understand exactly what’s going on with me right now, at the same time who am I to expect you to? If I can get on that plane home in 3 months time, with a heart full of good memories and content to keep them forever, without feeling the need to force them onto everyone else, then I know coming home will be beautiful, not reverse-culture shock or depressing. Bring on that flat white!