I took the month of December off, to get away from the daily grind and recoup from a particularly daunting year. I’m lucky to work for a company that’s as loyal to me as I’ve been to them. In fact, it wasn’t my idea or really even my choice. My boss sensed my burnout and insisted until I agreed. (You can say I have an overwhelming sense of responsibility that sometimes blinds me to my own basic needs.)
Friends and co-workers were enthusiastic and supportive (and only a skosh jealous). They commented on the length of time I was taking off, the variety of destinations I had planned, and always threw in that it was well deserved. (I guess everyone in my life except me recognized I could use a break.)
After getting over the initial feeling of guilt from leaving my post for that long, I began to get excited. In spring, I’d booked a trip to Iceland over the new year, and as new opportunities arose, plans seemed to fall into place. I spent a weekend in November with two computers open, scouring travel sites for deals and figuring out timing and other logistics. (Conclusion: God bless you, Mrs. Reynolds, my friend’s mom who was a AAA travel agent for 30 years. Even with the “convenience” of sites like Kayak and Booking.com, it was my idea of a very specific nightmare.)
The itinerary went like this:
- 5 days in SF
- 3 days in NYC
- 2 days in Miami; 4 days in Key West
- 8 days in Scranton, PA (home for Christmas)
- 9 days in Reykjavik, Iceland (New Years; 5 days leisure, 4 days work)
- 2 days in London
- 5 days in Brighton, UK (for work)
Packing was… interesting, to say the least. When it was time to finally take off, I was wide-eyed and wildly optimistic, with that twinge of gut-wrenching excitement that accompanies all beginnings.
It didn’t take long for the East Coast to remind me why I moved away from extreme seasons. The bitter cold forced me to immediately buy a puffy Eskimo coat (the kind with the fur-lined hood), and it still felt bone-chilling.
Florida was a nice reprieve in many ways.
The first day home with my family, I got hit with a monster cold — the second one in a month. (I guess I was pretty run down after all.) The previous cold had left me with raspy lungs that hurt when I breathed deeply, so I self-diagnosed and started taking an inhaler I’d been prescribed for bronchitis earlier in the year. I’d later come to find out that corticosteroids can trigger a nasty and persistent form of dermatitis that occurs on the face… which it did for me.
I’d admired Iceland since I started following the atmospheric band Sigur Ros, which has become a favorite of mine over the years. I decided to finally make the pilgrimage to see the strangely beautiful landscape for myself when Sigur Ros announced they were putting on a 4-day festival in Reykjavik at the end of the year.
At the time, I hadn’t considered that there would be 20 hours of darkness a day. I hadn’t thought through what it would be like coming home to an empty apartment (AirBnB always seems like a good idea… ) after wandering the desolate landscape alone all day. Icelanders aren’t particularly friendly, and I realized quickly that small talk wasn’t going to cut it with them. But as a tourist with no other grounds for initiating conversation, that’s all I could muster. So I basically acted like I was on a silent retreat for a week.
I hadn’t reflected on how it would feel to be in literal isolation during a holiday that primarily exists to celebrate being with loved ones (but really, what holiday doesn’t?). And one thing they don’t tell you about about the stark beauty you see in photos of Iceland is that it feels as desolate as it looks. Most days I felt like a ghost floating around town, unsure if people could even see or hear me. (At one point I questioned my actual existence. I went home and drank a bottle of wine by myself and watched Netflix. It worked: The next morning my existence was very apparent.)
Needless to say I was happy to get back to work when it came time. Over the course of last year, my company acquired a small website located in Reykjavik, so I extended my trip and worked the back end of the trip from the office there. (PEOPLE! CONVERSATION! EXCHANGE OF HUMAN WARMTH AND KINDNESS! YAY!)
London was a whirlwind, but felt a lot more like New York than I’d remembered, which was both familiar yet disappointing.
Brighton was a delightful little seaside town, but I only got to see the few blocks between my (trailer of a) hotel and the office in daylight. I’m sure the English coast is lovely in wintertime.
In other words, the trip wasn’t exactly as I expected (but what ever is?). I got sick. I got a weird face rash that made me feel like the elephant man. I got lonely. I got scared at times. I got homesick. But I got to see some places I’d never seen and spend time with people I’d missed dearly. I got to meet new people (particularly my far-flung co-workers) and try strange foods that I’ll probably never eat again (like fermented shark, smoked whale, and puffin — I know, I know! I’m sorry!). I took a few nice photos. I saw one of my favorite bands perform an amazing show. And I did a LOT of thinking and self-reflection, even by my usual standards of non-stop thinking and self-reflection.
I thought about how old people without family must feel every day: no one to talk to, wandering around by themselves, feeling extremely isolated from society.
I thought about people who live with conditions that affect the way they look: how isolated (in a different way) they must feel, how it might affect their self-confidence and their desire to be social, the way they notice people looking at them, and how frustrating it must be that their physical appearance so inadequately reflects their true selves.
I thought about all the beautiful Instagram photos that belie the actual experience behind the image of it. How we’re made to believe that everyone is always having such an amazing time, without any hardships or moments of self-doubt or suffering.
I thought about what we are trying to achieve when we “vacate:” a departure from our environments and our routines, an escape from ourselves, or maybe all three. And in depriving myself of my normal everyday life, I found myself wanting it, even the pettiest things.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to get back to my routine. I wanted to have my alone time, (but not too much of it!). I wanted to be in my beautiful apartment that I decorated with all the things I love. I wanted to sleep in my own bed and use my own shampoo and have a closet full of clothes to choose from. I wanted to be in California in wintertime. I wanted to sleep with my window open and breathe in the intense saltiness of the ocean air all night. I wanted to see my co-workers. I wanted to work from my office again. I wanted to feel productive. I wanted to do yoga at the studio down the street from my apartment. I wanted to go shopping at the farmer’s market and cook for myself. I wanted the convenience of ordering things I need on Amazon Prime and calling a ride with the beep-boop-bop of a finger. I wanted to be in a place where I know where things are and how to get somewhere without constantly consulting a map.
It took traveling thousands of miles away for me to discover that I’m content with my life as it is, and that’s a pretty big accomplishment — one I’ve been working at for a long time. Maybe that’s the purpose of a vacation: to reset your appreciate for what is. To reintroduce you to yourself and rekindle the spark with the life you’ve set up for yourself. To wake you from the slumber that arises from monotony. To wrap you in the familiar comfort of that towel your mom would warm on the heater during bath time. To gingerly dry the pruney fingers that result from being somewhere too long. And to confirm that you’re precisely where you’re meant to be.