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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.