Travel Essay on Wanderlust
I could live here.
Ever get that feeling, when you’re travelling down an avenue full of life, or having a drink in a small town somewhere, and you just get that optimistic, world-beating whiff of air that hints (loudly) to you: you never want to leave here. And you know you will, home beckons, work, routine, your roots, they are a pull too muscular to resist. But the idea, the thought of emigrating, becoming an expat, changing worlds, fills you with the kind of optimism only love can match.
Yes, wanderlust is a kind of love. In our evolutionary history we needed to know our surroundings intimately, in case it betrays us by poisoning or mauling; thus, loving a place, loving our environment is as natural as loving our partner.
The first time I ever got that feeling was when I first travelled to Valencia. It happened more than once, in more than one place; when I was in the Barrio, in an Horchateria, in the Plaza del Virgen, and pretty much the rest of the damn city. That was straightforward: yes, I could live in Valencia. And I did, for a grand total of two weeks of my life. For what it’s worth, right.
And I got that feeling in most other places I’ve been to (with perhaps the exception of the UK – the beer is good, but only because there’s no sun, not for me) and it was always as straightforward as that. Maybe not so straightforward, when you analyse it, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance there; I want to live here even though I know I never will. Let me dream of it, fantasise about it, safe in the knowledge I never will. A moronic oxymoron.
Things change, however, when in Rome. In that simplest of capitals of that simplest of nation with the simplest of delights; nothing was simple for me. It was after a morning’s wandering the area around the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Campo dei Fiori, coming across old bookshops, hole in the wall wine bars, walking along the Tiber and the Castel San Lorenzo; after a long morning’s trek and a desperate hunt for somewhere to eat (we only wanted somewhere small) we came across a wine bar/café/bookshop in a quiet street not far from Piazza Navona.
The place was sleek, busy, overpriced, had walls full of shelves, a constellation of Italian contemporary classics, the tables heaving with locals on work breaks, drinking cappuccinos and sneaky wines. It was there, after ordering a Birra Moretti and a pulled pork sandwich that I got that whiff, that old familiar musing: I could live here.
It wasn’t inspired by the place (although the fact that there are no wine bars/bookshops in Malta certainly fuelled the inspiration) but the rest of the morning’s walk around not necessarily the grandest streets of Rome, but the most surprising. I’m that kind of traveller: I find a side street full of bookshops and bars more exciting than a landmark like the Pantheon, which is saying something. I can get lost in streets, it’s the one true genuine feat of exploration we can undertake. You can go on Tripadvisor and Wikipedia and read up everything you need to know about the Pantheon. But the streets are still uncharted territory.
And thus, my I-could-live-here moment was explicable, charming, but predictable, I could rationalise it. But something strange and unwelcomingly complex accompanied it. Something new, something I had never paid attention to before; the corollary sentiment: what if you did come to live here, would you actually be happy? Son-of-a-bitch why ruin a moment like that! What a joy-kill of a sentiment to have at such a euphoric moment! And yet, I couldn’t help mulling over the question, like a lapsed alcoholic contemplating a first, last drink.
We are all born with the wanderlust gene. Our ancestors populated the entire planet within a few tens of thousands of years after their communal exodus from Africa. We left Africa around 100, 000 years ago and reached South America 11, 000 years ago; not bad going considering we did it all on foot and maybe rafts and stopping off for extended stays along the way. We are a travelling ape. But genes, this is their poker-magic, are variable. Just as some people are more at risk of obesity and certain cancers, so some people are more prone to wanderlust than others. Some are more travelling apes than others.
But how can one now? Are there any tests that can be done, some individual genes that can be identified, can you just spit into some tube and some lab will send you the results? I tell you what, I’d sure as hell like to know. Because in Rome, in that wine-bookshop – it’s not that I was feeling homesick, God forbid – I realised that yes I could live here, but I probably wouldn’t.
I come from a long line of, well, people who must have misplaced their wanderlust gene somewhere in the gene-pool. Most of my family have lived not only in the same island but in the same town for generations. A couple of ancestors migrated permanently to the UK, Canada and Australia, but they were the exception, the black sheep. And I used to think I was the exception too. I often dreamt and even planned of migrating to Spain in my youth. But like most youthful, tripped-up dreams, it didn’t pan out. I was happy to settle for having Malta as a convenient base for exploration, I could live with it.
And up until that moment in Rome I never really thought about the lifestyle, the living there is to be had in Malta. I always lived like an expat in my own country – thinking, writing, and immersing about foreign cultures. I write in English I think like a Spaniard eat like an Italian and read like a snobby Frenchman. And where does home-sweet-pissing-home come into it? In truth, it never did. And whenever I travelled I indulged in our nation’s endemic Stockholm Syndrome. You see, Malta has been colonised throughout most of its history and at some point we’ve fallen in love with our captors, foreigners. I suffer from that inversely small-island mentality that yes, everything abroad is better than here. It’s a natural thing to feel when you live in an island you’ve seen in its entirety by age 17 so everything else feels like a droning repetition.
But Rome has something complexly unique: it is similar to Malta. Or, more accurately, Malta is similar to Rome. And this must be what inspired that joy-kill corollary. The things I was enjoying in Rome, the walking around old streets, the food, the wine, the squares, the history, the simple, Epicurean living; are exactly the things tourists enjoy in Malta. And wait, they are things I enjoy too, in Malta no less! Talk about unwanted epiphanies. But cazzo, when you’re right you’re right.
So maybe, just maybe, all that travelling I’ve done around Europe, thinking, feeling I could live here here and here, was really pointless, because really, the only place I could live in was the place I do live in, have always lived in… would always live in? Can the wanderlust gene be snuffed out by one moment of doubt? Or, perhaps, was it never there in the first place?
Maybe my lust for wanderlust was an artificial adoption, an external pleasure, the kind people indulge in to look good, like fine wines or yoga or gyms. It could make sense; growing up all my reading was travel literature, an overload of Hemingway, Conrad, Rimbaud, and watching films like The Motorcycle Diaries and Il Postino. Could I be, really truly deep down, just another hermetic frump like the rest of my gene-pool?
This is really a serious existential question we must all face at different stages in our lives. Life is good, yes. I do like living in Malta, it was made for me, designed for my simple pleasures, strolling, having a beer by the beach, good food, simple people. Yes, yes I am happy here. But then, couldn’t I be even happier somewhere else? I feel happier in Madrid and Granada and Rome than I do in Malta. But is that maybe because I’m just on holiday there? Is it all just a veneer?
It’s a gambling problem, at the end of the day. Blackjack, specifically. Let’s say I’ve got a thirteen showing and the dealer has a two. I’m happy with thirteen. Thirteen’s a good number (and I guess, yes, that about sums up my happiness in Malta, thirteen) to have if the dealer has a low number. I could stay, right? If I stay he’s likely to go over, too many, and I win my hand. But I could also take another card (move abroad or at least travel around). I could get an eight and get twenty-one. A seven is good to and I get twenty. He won’t beat a twenty when he’s got a two. Hell, he won’t beat a nineteen or an eighteen. But thirteen, you know, he could easily get a sixteen or a seventeen then I’ve had it. What do I, stay and hope for the best. Or gamble and try for a better hand.
But what if I get ten and go over?
I just don’t know. And just as the dealer will eventually tell you to hurry up and decide, so life will eventually tell you, tick-tock, time’s a-ticking, make your move. But hell, it’s an impossible choice. Thank you Rome!