When travel is less than perfect: my bittersweet London memories

Last Sunday I woke up without an alarm. I felt rested and content. I went for a walk up Mount Victoria and sat cross-legged on top of an old concrete bunker and marvelled at the beauty that is home. To my left, the perfect symmetry of Rangitoto. To my right, the harbour dotted with sailing boats against a backdrop of white beaches and rolling hills. Directly in front of me, the calming presence of North Head and a dozen islands stretching out to the horizon.

This is the place I call home.

Rangitoto Island

North Head & beyond

My hometown often leaves me speechless. Gratitude bubbles up in my chest and silences my restless mind. In moments like these, I think, this is enough. My life feels both expansive and tiny at the same time. Expansive because my mind is flying free, soaring over the blue water. Tiny because my home seems so small, this little peninsula, a collection of streets, familiar houses.

I feel immensely grateful that I love the place where I grew up. That my desire to explore has never been marred by a desire to flee. That no matter where I go, I carry home in my heart.

But sometimes I worry that I will get too comfortable, too content. That I will become complacent. As I sat on top of that bunker, on that still Sunday morning, I thought: I hope I never take this beauty for granted. I hope it is forever enough to calm my frantic mind.

Beyond home

Another Sunday dawns. Today it is rainy and humid. I wake up at 5.45am, my throat parched, gasping for air. The weather is warm and sticky. I pushed open our two bedroom windows, as far as they would go, and lay still, listening to the wind swirling outside.

I can’t sleep, but it’s too early to get up. I check my phone. I scroll through Instagram, Facebook. Spring has dawned in London. The sky is a bright blue, people are at the pub. Immediately, bittersweet memories flood my brain.

I close my eyes, and for a few moments I am back in London. Walking to Putney Bridge. Shopping at Waitrose. Leaning against the doors of the tube on a weekday morning, reading about nicer places, as I speed towards work. Fumbling for my swipe card to enter the office in Farringdon. Always fumbling for my swipe card.

Sitting in our back garden in Fulham, chatting about the world with our flatmates, interrupted by planes flying low overhead. Heathrow Flight Path.

Waking in the middle of the night to shouts from the flat above. The neighbours are arguing again. People run up and down the stairs, cursing. The front door bangs.

Venturing to unseen corners of the city on weekends, eyes wide open, minds exhausted. Eating the best chocolate cake we’ve ever tasted in Brixton. Always looking for a quirky, independent café to try. Often ending up in Pret-à-Manger, hungry and tired, eating a ham sandwich.

The best chocolate cake, ever, at Brixton Village Market

After-work drinks in the pub during winter. Old pub, low ceilings, pint glasses overflowing. Standing outside in the rain, trying to get to know my colleagues. Navigating the different cliques and unspoken rules. Yearning to be asked about my home, for someone to listen to my story, for someone to see the real me.

Shopping for winter boots in Bromley in the rain. Feeling broke and broken. Desperately looking for something practical, something I can walk long distances in. Most boots are fashionable, with chunky heels and non-existent lining. I leave the store with sturdy lace-ups, something I’d never wear otherwise, out of a primal desire to avoid cold, damp toes.

Catching the train to somewhere new, and feeling the breath return to my chest as we soar out of London, passing the rows of houses and finally seeing nothing but fields of green, or even better, a glimpse of the sea.

Revisiting old favourites. Being transported back to my 19-year-old self in the Tower of London, a mesmerising piece of history. Climbing the Monument for the second time in my life and seeing a completely different view. Walking past private gardens and posh shops in Chelsea, but this time wondering what all the fuss is about.

Tower of London, one of my favourite places

Eating curry in Brick Lane. Feeling conned. As usual, wishing we knew the area better, so we could seek out the trendy eateries and meet some locals.

Coming home from work during a transport strike, after three hours on a bus. Collapsing, exhausted. Tom takes my shoes off, puts me to bed, hot drink and a piece of toast. Crying my eyes out, out of sheer exhaustion.

Loneliness, even though Tom is nearly always by my side.  Wanting to get to know locals, to form a connection, to be part of a community. Wanting to be asked about New Zealand, getting the odd question about Lord of the Rings if I’m lucky. Telling people about New Zealand anyway, often met with kind eyes and blank faces.

Always talking about home, thinking about home, until one day: home.

Right back to where we started

We went home. When people asked me about London, I didn’t know how to answer. When I am passionate about something, a place or a person or an idea, I can’t stop talking about it. I speak fast and freely and excitedly. I get frustrated when people can’t see what I mean, because my heart is so full, my soul so alive.

I felt this way when I returned home from my first big trip overseas. When I was 19 I went on exchange to Lyon, France. I arrived in the city alone, with nowhere to live, and spent my first ten days in a hostel, madly visiting flats and putting my classroom French to the test.

My six months in Lyon were exhilarating. They remain one of my fondest memories. I awakened an independent streak in me I didn’t know I had. I made new friends and spoke a new language and pushed myself far beyond my comfort zone.

It was in Lyon that I decided to move to London one day, even though I might not have known it at the time. What I did know is that Lyon was just the beginning of my overseas adventures – I quietly vowed to come back to this side of the world.

19 year old me, living in Lyon

When I met Tom, I had been back in New Zealand a year but Lyon was still fresh in my heart and soul. He quickly established that I wanted to live overseas again, that this was something I envisaged happening in my near future.

One year later, the company he was working for went into receivership, I was stuck in a job I hated, and we decided to move to England.

We all form opinions based on previous experiences. I had no doubt in my mind that this second round living abroad would be just as exhilarating as the first, perhaps even more so, going with the man I love.

But London was no Lyon, and for some reason, for reasons I am still trying to figure out, my soul did not engage.

Moving to London was a hard and difficult process. Unlike when I moved to Lyon, there was no time-cap on the experience. We could be there for a year, we could be there for ten years.

We made decisions blindly, fumbling in the dark. We went in the wrong direction more than once. I spent a lot of time isolated, unemployed, looking for a job while Tom worked long hours. It was tough.

Things got better. We moved house, lived with close friends from home. I found a job. We met other Kiwis living in the area and we managed a few holidays in our spare time.

But our ‘everyday’ was a slog, it was an uphill climb. It took most of my energy to commute to work and then spend nine hours in a job I wasn’t passionate about. I wasn’t earning enough money for weekend escapes to outweigh the dullness of my 9-5 reality.

I felt like we were failing. I still sometimes wonder if we did fail. Did we give up too soon? Were our expectations too high? Did we make too many wrong decisions? Did we not have the right attitude?

When we arrived home, I was still working through these feelings. People asked me about London, and I didn’t know how to answer without sounding ungrateful or small-minded.

Redefining travel

My experience in London forced me to redefine what travel meant to me. I had been on three other trips: a one-month exchange in Tahiti when I was 14; a two-week trip to Rarotonga with my best friends when I was 17; and a six-month exchange to Lyon at age 19.

All three of these trips were challenging but exhilarating. They nourished my soul and mind and helped to shape the person I would become.

Before London, to me travel was synonymous with adventure and discovery. It was undoubtedly a positive experience, despite any negatives.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that London felt like none of these previous trips, and did not warm my heart in the same way. I kept wondering: where did we go wrong?

But the lessons I learned in London are now propelling me through my life in New Zealand. The complete lack of direction we felt in London has helped us define our way forward back home.

Making the everyday extraordinary

When Tom and I were living in London, we had Europe on our doorstep. We had infinite options. The city was alive and buzzing. There was always an event on, a new show to see, a new park to visit. Although some people thrive in a busy environment, to us it felt heavy, suffocating.

There were moments when it was brilliant. When I adored the city and its people and its history. But these moments were the exception, not the rule.

The day-to-day grind, the long commute to work by tube, the grey weather, the constant need to be on high alert, this didn’t feed my soul.

And it was then, when we were both trapped in a routine we didn’t love, that we decided we did not want to live our lives waiting for an exception to the rule.

We wanted every day to have a little bit of light. We weren’t prepared to sacrifice daily dullness for the odd wild weekend or once-in-three-months trip abroad. What we wanted was to love our ‘Ordinary Wednesday’, to create a life we didn’t want to escape from.

If we hadn’t lived in London, I’m not sure we would have arrived at this conclusion – at least not so soon in our relationship. After being home a few months, I realised I had been devaluing the time we spent in London because it wasn’t an incredibly positive, happy time.

Walking to Putney Bridge, where I did most of my soul searching. Always a relief to see the murky Thames.

That was my first mistake. Just because something is hard, or not the right fit, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. And most of all, it doesn’t mean you failed.

I’m sure everyone has bittersweet memories of some kind, anxieties about the past, worries that you could have tried harder. What if you had done things differently?

When I see glimpses of London on Facebook or Instagram, I sometimes feel sad that our time over there wasn’t what we expected. And sometimes I wonder, if everyone else is loving it so much, then where did we go wrong?

But then I remind myself that travel is an intensely unique experience for every individual. We all respond to situations differently. What works for one person may not work for another.

The beauty of travel is it awakens you to who you already are. It shines a light on your uniqueness. Through comparisons and new experiences, you are able to identify what is really important to you on an individual level. And that is invaluable.

On the road to our Ordinary Wednesday

Another lesson that London taught me is time is finite. Many people describe London as being a city made up of small cities. There is music London, or theatre London, or café London, or pub London, or history London… whatever you are interested in, you will find a group of people interested in the same things, and they will become your community.

What this taught me is that there is not enough time to do everything. We only have so many hours in each day. So, you have to be selective.

Find what it is that feeds your soul, and concentrate on investing your time, money and energy into that. Don’t worry if it’s different to what other people want, or more importantly, what other people think you should be doing.

We are all unique and life is too short not to listen to the desires of your heart. No matter how bittersweet my memories of London, I will always be grateful to the city that put me on the road to creating my ideal life.

The London List

Richmond, London "The problem with a place like London is – where do you even begin?"

Sometimes, my inner control freak expresses herself in strange ways. There are moments when I catch a glimpse of myself from the outside, almost as if my subconscious leaves my body and gives me a birds-eye-view of my own unique, slightly batty, approach to life.

A few nights ago I had one of such moments. Sitting on my bed, surrounded by Time Out magazines and coloured pens, I was frantically flicking through the pages and carefully tearing out articles.

“There’s just so much to do in London!” I exclaimed to Tom, who was sitting quietly next to me, absorbed by an article on the internet and effectively blocking out my little circle of stress.

I was feeling anxious – but in an excited way. You see, I’ve had a tough few weeks. I’ve learned something new about myself: I’m not very good at being unemployed. I’d been moping around feeling blue and dreaming of flying back home to the New Zealand summer. But then I snapped out of it, by deciding to conquer London like it was the to-do-list of all to-do-lists.

I had started thinking of London as something I had to do, a task I had to tick off my ‘list of things to do in life’ before I could move on successfully to the next stage. Like a level on a video game. Or a chapter in a book. I felt as if there were certain coupons I needed to collect before I could say “I’ve DONE London.” Like visiting all the major tourist destinations. Attending a high tea. Eating fish and chips in a local pub. You get my drift.

But the problem with a place like London is – where do you even begin? London is huge, not just in terms of population or land mass, but in terms of what it has to offer. Even if you lived here your whole life, you couldn’t possibly do it all.

Besides, to make things even more complicated, there are many different Londons within London. There’s the arty London, the muso London, the foodie London – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Whatever you’re interested in, you can find a group, club, venue which caters to your passion.

All of this only contributed to my anxiety, as I sat on that bed and tried to find a way to begin.

“I think I need to buy a clearfile,” I said to Tom. “You know, so we can organise activities by category – food, tourist, music, art etc.”

“Mmmm,” said Tom. Eyes still glued firmly to the computer screen.

“Or maybe we should just fold up pieces of paper and put them into a bucket and pick one every week? You know, be adventurous?”

“Yep, sounds good.” This time I get a small nod.

“Oh but then we will have to categorise the buckets, you know, for rainy day activities and sunny day activities, expensive activities and free ones. Otherwise we could pick out an outdoor activity when it’s raining?!?!”

At this point my voice was most likely beginning to border on slight hysteria and I was probably chewing anxiously on my pen, mind going a million miles an hour. An OUTDOOR activity on a rainy day?! God forbid.

Tom shut his laptop, placed it on the floor and turned to me slowly.

“We just have to begin,” he said simply.

Begin?! But that’s what I’m trying to do, I protest. Doesn’t he understand?

“We just start doing things. You don’t need a clearfile, or a bucket system, or to organise it logically. We just get out, every weekend. Simple.”

Simple?

And that’s probably about when my subconscious left my body and gave me a birds-eye-view of my silly state of anxiety. I could almost see the stress particles zooming around my head, in the form of Time Out cut-outs.

All of a sudden, it dawned on me how completely ridiculous I was being.

London is not a task. Living here is an experience. And here I was, trying to turn it into a chore of enormous proportions and tackle it like a project at work, or a university assignment. Armed with highlighters and post-it notes, I was ready to blow this thing out of the water. I wanted an A+ on my London report card. I wanted to tick ‘101 things to do’ off a list with a bold red marker. I could already see the blog posts unfolding. “Look at me, I’m up to number 59 – getting attacked by pigeons in Trafalgar Square!” Let’s face it, no one wants to read about me trying to play the role of ‘perfect tourist’.

Fortunately, opposites attract, and I have a relaxed, logical partner who kindly helps me see things through clearer lenses. We don’t have to begin – we’ve already started.

Don’t worry, I’m still writing a list. I like lists. But the anxiety is gone. The ‘list’ is just for kicks now :)

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

My brief encounter with Athens

"I felt vulnerable, scared and sensational. I had a huge grin on my face and my skin was tingling. It was one of those “am I really doing this?” moments, where everything feels surreal." One of the best things about travel is the people you meet along the way. I ended up in Athens by accident – I hadn’t planned on visiting the Greek capital on this particular trip. But when my new Greek Australian friend Alexia invited me to visit, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, and before you know it I was touching down in one of the world’s most celebrated cities.

I flew to Athens from Lyon via Zurich. To say it was an adventure is an understatement. It was the longest flight across Europe I had done by myself, involving a rather tight changeover at Zurich Airport. I barely slept the night before, and was up at 4am to get to the airport. Little did I know the day would unfold to be one of the most memorable of my entire six months abroad.

I landed in Athens to find the whole city was on strike. All public transport was stopped (as far as I could gather, not speaking a word of Greek). Alexia’s clear instructions were rendered useless: go out of airport, turn right, catch X96 bus to the port of Pireaus. With no bus and limited time, I found myself in the back of a taxi, placing all of my trust in a short, balding Greek man with a bright smile.

My first encounter with Athens was short-lived but it is seared in my memory. My mission upon arrival was to make my way to the port and catch a ferry to the island of Aegina, where I would spend a few blissful nights with the Demetriou family. I expected the journey to be colourful, but couldn’t have possibly prepared myself for the combination of adrenalin and fear that was to come.

Fast cars and Greek men

The taxi ride between Athens Airport and Pireaus was possibly the scariest and most expensive hour of my life. But it was also the most exhilarating. For those of you who don’t know me well, I’m a bit of a wuss. I try to avoid putting myself in scary situations. I hate anything even slightly adventurous, from gymnastics to ski-biscuiting. And I definitely do not like fast cars. So as this taxi driver was speeding along the motorway at 120km/hr, while simultaneously talking on a cellphone, smoking, and TURNING AROUND to look at me as he spoke enthusiastically in Greek, I thought to myself: “I could die in a taxi in Athens”.

Did I mention he didn’t indicate? None of the cars seemed to. They just kind of weaved around each other, all driving at crazy speeds, none of them even looking in the right direction. I honestly do not know how driving in Athens works, but somehow it does. Any person driving safely would probably be squashed in a matter of seconds.

I felt vulnerable, scared and sensational. I had a huge grin on my face and my skin was tingling. It was one of those “am I really doing this?” moments, where everything feels surreal. Arriving in Athens forced me outside of my comfort zone, and reminded me that you can’t always play it safe. And that sometimes just rolling with the punches is the best way to travel.

Obviously I arrived at the port of Pireaus alive and well, albeit sweating profusely. The crazy taxi driver got out of his car and showed me to the ticket stand, then gave me a weird hug goodbye and lingered awkwardly. Was I meant to tip him more than the giant tip I’d already given him? Hug him back? I shouted thank you in a slightly manic voice a few times and he finally walked away.

As I sat down on the ferry and looked out over the sparkling sea, I felt an immense wave of relief. I had survived my first encounter with Athens. The city seemed like a big, scary, hungry hole waiting to swallow me up (or splat me on the side of the road in a taxi), but I was already in love.

Round 2 – late nights and Greek coffee

After a few blissful nights in Aegina, where life is good and the sun is always shining, Alexia, Minna and I made our way back to Athens. I was a little wary of this big bad city and sad to leave the calm paradise of Aegina, but in the end I warmed to the capital.

We stayed with Alexia’s friend Zoe. Staying with a local always makes a huge difference. Zoe showed us all the places that you just wouldn’t know to look for as a tourist. We drank Greek coffee at 9pm in a cute street of what looked like lively bars only everyone was still drinking coffee, before grabbing dinner at this dodgy little kebab shop with hideous décor. Wherever we were, it felt edgy and slightly dirty, but at the same time incredibly vibrant.

We did make time for some traditional tourist spots, like watching the change of the guards at parliament and visiting the Acropolis. But it is the balmy winter evenings sipping coffee in the dark that I remember with the most fondness. I enjoyed getting to know some Greeks. They have an infectious, welcoming, easy-going nature, but at the same time are often deeply traditionalist. Their roots run deep.

The political landscape is turbulent, and I sensed apprehension and weariness in many people, but at the same time an irrepressible joy and love for the land around them. The Greeks I met were fiercely proud of their homeland and eager to share their stories and experiences with newcomers. I hope I will visit again one day.

All-in-all? Athens is not to be missed

I’m not going to sugar coat it: Athens is a challenging city. It’s often dirty and dusty and slightly intimidating. You have to know where you’re going or be prepared to stumble across some confronting sights. And you will be surrounded by other tourists, all trying to see the same things, all battling the heat and the crowds and the dodgy food stalls.

But I would recommend it to anyone. Sometimes the best trips are the least comfortable, because they make your senses come alive and open your eyes to new ideas. Athens is ancient, but you’ll leave the city feeling new.

Aegina: Greece’s best-kept secret?

"It’s quaint and quiet, but at the same time incredibly vibrant – there’s life everywhere you look, but you still feel as though you’ve got all the space in the world." When it comes to a holiday in the Greek islands, one hears a lot about Santorini and Mykonos. But just a short ferry ride away from the bustling city of Athens lies a magical retreat: Aegina Island.

Famous for pistachio nuts and dotted with beautiful beaches, Aegina is a great destination if you’re short on time but want to get a feel for island life.

I spent a few nights there in January thanks to the kind hospitality of a close friend. I’m so glad that I met Alexia Demetriou. She’s nice, hilarious and one of the most genuine people I know. She also happens to have an amazing house in the heart of Aegina with sea views from every window.

Was our friendship fate or what?

I fell in love with Aegina as soon as I stepped off the ferry. Having come from bustling Athens, arriving in Aegina felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s quaint and quiet, but at the same time incredibly vibrant – there’s life everywhere you look, but you still feel as though you’ve got all the space in the world.

The heart of Aegina Island: the small yet vibrant town centre

As I stayed with Alexia and her family, I had the luxury of enjoying an authentic Greek experience. If you visit Aegina I would encourage you to avoid the resorts and hotels, and instead find a small, authentic Bed and Breakfast. That way you will catch a glimpse of what life is really like for many locals.

The highlight of my stay had to be the food. In Greece, the whole day revolves around food, especially the main meal of the day: lunch. Alexia’s grandmother – known affectionately as YaYa – would begin cooking lunch before she’d even had breakfast. I remember waking up to a pot of pumpkin soup bubbling away on the stove and thinking, I have to wait until this afternoon before I can devour that?

I can remember the smell as if it were yesterday. All of the produce was fresh. Whole onions and garlic and huge chunks of pumpkin simmered for hours to capture the flavours, before YaYa mixed all of the ingredients together to form a soup.

But a traditional Greek lunch couldn’t possibly be only a delicious homemade pumpkin soup. Come midday, the table was laid with bread, olives, wine, octopus (surprisingly tasty) and my personal favourite, Tzatziki – a natural yoghurt dip infused with cucumber and plenty of garlic. I could eat it by the spoonful. I can see why the Greeks have siestas – after a meal like that, all you want to do is curl up in the sun and snooze.

Afternoons were time for relaxing, the perfect lifestyle for someone like me who can’t concentrate past 3pm. We’d play cards, sleep, read, go for a walk, go for coffee. I imagine every day feels a bit like a holiday when you live on a Greek Island.

Other food highlights included homemade baklavas (pastry dripping in butter and sugar, oh so good), the simple yet perfect Greek salad, fried cheese (sounds disgusting but is actually mouth-watering), freshly smoked tuna, Greek-style kebab (warm flat-bread with fries inside!) and lightly salted calamari with lemon juice. Some of the food in Greece is high in fat and sugar, but the diet is based on plenty of fruits and vegetables. When you eat fried cheese with a giant green salad, you can somehow convince yourself it’s good for you (although I’m not sure my hips would agree!)

When I wasn’t eating, I was exploring Aegina. It’s a stunning little island and the people are lovely. It seemed like every second person we ran into was related to Alexia! Greek families really are big and complicated. I think it’s fantastic – I don’t know many of my second cousins or great-aunts, but in Greece family ties are always cherished.

I found the island had something for everyone. Whether you are into pondering life over coffee, shopping, lying on the beach, hiking, visiting ancient artefacts or sipping cocktails by the pool, you will find Aegina more than meets your needs. If you find yourself craving a bit of downtime after a few busy days in Athens, Aegina is the perfect place to unwind.

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!