Living With Your Wanderlust

by Julia Phillips

So you want to go away! Let’s talk about it. Do you have your list? You know, your list, the list of countries you want to visit ranked in order of desire. I keep mine handy at all times. Right now it goes: Mongolia, Egypt, India, Iceland, Greece, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Argentina, New Zealand, Antarctica, Thailand, Finland, everywhere else in the history of everything ever. (Antarctica is a recent addition.)

While I’m still gathering experience in the sphere of actually going away, I am considered a master in wanting-to-go. Fourteen years in suburban New Jersey allowed me the time to cultivate such skills as map collecting, airplane doodling, and fantasy packing, which is when you imagine fitting your life into one piece of carry-on luggage and walking out of this town for good. You know that game, right? I sat in Geometry class, inked in the margins of my notebook, and made strict rules for my suitcase. No more than two pairs of shoes. One lightweight jacket. One ready camera.

Recently, a friend wrote me an email that included the line “I do really want to be on my own for a bit in a new place.” “I feel like I need more independence and to get away from the crazy awesome but intense and co-dependent support network I have here so that I can figure out what I am doing with my life,” she said. I responded immediately and in all caps, like this: “AHHHHHH.” Only more and more H’s could express how fully I agree with her. The thing is, I’m away right now. I’m away yet I still want to go.

Like I said, I don’t have much experience in this. After high school, I enrolled in a college 20 miles away from my hometown. After college, I moved five neighborhoods south of campus. Every few weekends I took a bus back to my parents’ house to eat roast chicken and then lie in a post-dinner haze in front of their fireplace. In a short lifetime, I’ve managed to find some of the most incredible friends in the world, who forgave me years of suburban rage, indulged my cravings for Ethiopian food, and organized slumber parties around the movie Jumanji. Life was perfect and whole.

Still, I checked on my lunch breaks.

Still, I flung myself against my boyfriend’s futon and whined, “I’ve never been anywhere. Not anywhere!” as he patted my back.

Still, after a while, I left.

I only moved six months ago, so time isn’t on my side — but if we’re awarding points for distance, then listen up: I’m in Kamchatka. Oh, you didn’t watch that PBS nature documentary? Or you don’t know this place from the board game Risk, because you don’t play Risk, because you’re not my dad? Kamchatka is a volcanic peninsula on the far eastern edge of Russia. It holds titles like “highest recorded density of brown bears on Earth,” “only geyser field in Eurasia,” and “longest occupier of the top spot on my places-to-go list.” It’s a fantasy suspended on the end of the world.

At the end of August, I finally packed my suitcase, extorted promises from the boy I love to wait for my eventual return, and flew 20 hours away from home to this distant, hissing, beautiful land. Here, I rent a brown and yellow two-bedroom apartment that comes complete with a cat. And aren’t I happy? Didn’t I dream of this? A master of wanting, didn’t I fantasize about this exact existence for three years before my plane took off for Russia? (Yes, yes, yes.) Why, then, do I sit in my bedroom in Kamchatka, watch movies about Kamchatka on my computer, and long to travel to the place I already am? Why do I ride the public bus here and start shaking with the sudden awful desire to flee?

Wanting to go is a hard habit to break.

By this time, the desire’s getting pathological. Let’s get to its root. Why this want?

Of course, you want to see the world. There are all these places you’ve never been, people you’ve never met, foods you’ve never tasted, adventures you’ve never had — and you won’t be able to do it all, but if you start right now, like get on a plane this instant and go, you can make a dent. Go! Do you speak more than one language? Do you speak more than five? WHY NOT? Think of all the conversations you could have in Portuguese! You travel for the same reason you attend class, read magazine articles, chat with strangers at parties: you want to learn.

And maybe actually the truth of it is you want to see yourself. “I feel like I need to get away,” she wrote in that email, “so I can figure out what I am…” If you strip away all the support, the family, the friends, the brown-eyed lover who brings you apple cider on Sunday afternoons, then you will be left with just yourself for once. What’s that like? Get to know that for a while. Figure that out. Come home a long time from now with more strength, better posture, great understanding.

That’s how it worked in my Geometry-class fantasies, anyway.

Yeah, that’s how it works.

Pack your imaginary suitcase. Now pack your real one. Soon you’ll go away, see the world, and find yourself. Set in motion, you will, like the space shuttle, release your tethers, achieve orbit, enter a state of continuous free fall. The universe around you becomes enormous and bright. You float. Even the act of bumping into somebody becomes somehow unusual, because you’re doing it in a new atmosphere. Meanwhile, the things you love fall away constantly beneath you. Hello, you say to the world, and then: Goodbye.

So you want to go away. I do, too, unendingly, ferociously — let’s talk about it. I want to see and do spectacular things in my life. Bungee jumping at Victoria Falls, traveling the length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, kissing at the top of the Eiffel Tower… I want to string experiences together like souvenir key chains, so I jangle with adventure when I walk. I want to hear other people’s stories. I want to learn new languages. I want to get into, then out of, my own head.

We want, we want, we want. At home, in the air, on the move, I want without sense or satisfaction. And after becoming an expert in wanting, I have no experience in resolution — so if we’re having a conversation here, then you tell me what to do next. I know how to be home and, now, how to go away. But how do you do both? How do you board planes, see volcanoes, immerse yourself in foreign worlds yet keep the people you love and your place among them? Can you travel trailing relationships behind you and trust they won’t get damaged? Can you go away without deserting what you left behind? Let’s talk about it. Tell me how.

Julia Phillips lives in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.