One of the craziest things about living in a tourist destination like Bologna is seeing the backpackers. I’ll be out doing something totally mundane, like grocery shopping or walking Leo or even taking Marcella to daycare. I’ll round a corner and I’ll see them. Sweaty, slightly dirty, but happy ghosts of my former self.
It always jars me a little bit, to be confronted with my younger self like that. I never backpacked through Italy, but I did lug my pack around parts of Eastern Europe, South East Asia, Australia and South America. From age 23- 27 or so, being a budget backpacker was a huge part of my identity.
Those days were some of the weirdest, and most fun times of my life to date. The freedom was exhilarating: no itinerary, no real responsibilities: just a vague plan of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. Sleeping in hostel dorms, becoming instant friends with total strangers from around the globe, drinking cheap local beers and eating cheap dinners of baguettes and cheese or rice and beans or pad thai.
There’s a romance to it for sure, but plenty of hard bits too: people snoring in your dorm room (or worse: having sex), constant money worries as you watch your budget like a hawk, loneliness, bad internet, dirty clothes and the back aches of course, from lugging that constantly ballooning backpack around (this was my pre-kindle days of course- where I hoarded English-language books with little regard for my aching muscles).
A lot has happened since those days. We still travel a ton, thank goodness, but those carefree days are long gone. Instead of a backpack, I travel with a rolly suitcase and a diaper bag. Instead of hostels, we stay in rental apartments or sometimes even hotels or (gasp) resorts. Our trips can be measured in days, not months.
I miss it and I don’t. There’s something bittersweet about contemplating youth you’ll never get back, and freedom you no longer have. Things will never be that simple again. But I’m happy with the way things are now. It’s nice to have money to eat a nice meal or pay for a tourist attraction. I still work online, but I’m not a digital nomad anymore, I’m location independent (yes, there is a difference), and that’s WAY less stressful.
I like to think if I ran into my former self, with her big purple backpack full of books, she would be happy with how things have turned out. You see, her biggest fear was what would happen when it was time to go home. What would I do? Who would I be? How could I fit back into my former life?
Well somehow I managed to swing it so I never precisely “went home.” Instead, I managed to bring home to me: picking up a husband and a baby along the way as I followed the most random trajectory from Mexico to DC to Seattle to Italy. I didn’t stop traveling, instead I swung around full circle to living abroad in one of those “dream destinations” (although she might be disappointed to know it’s not always dreamy and oftentimes quite frustrating).
When I see those baby backpackers I kind of want to hug them. I want to tell them to enjoy themselves, and live it up. Enjoy all of those long nights drinking, endless bus rides and days that stretch into each other seamlessly. They should have so much fun now, but also know that there’s plenty of other adventures awaiting them. That the real world will be there when they’re ready, but that they can pick what they want that life to look like too. Life doesn’t end when you go home; you’re just getting started.
But they would probably think I was crazy. After all, I’m not one of them anymore, I’m just a lady taking her dog for a walk in the city she lives in. So I just keep walking.