Final chapter - Returning back home(s)

Travel Nov 10, 2020

I returned from an incredible unplanned 3-month journey working from Europe in the midst of a global pandemic, and decided to process the whole thing how I know best - by writing and sharing. Here's chapter 1,  chapter 2 and chapter 3.

I always knew I wanted to be back in time for the American election. While I can't vote in the U.S, I had high emotional and logistical stakes in the elections as it would determine how long I'd want to stay in the country.

And, it would have felt like a cope-out to not be here. If Biden won, I needed to celebrate in joy; if Trump was reelected, I needed to be here to mourn, and couldn't bear the idea of hearing about it from afar.

The past week obviously proved me right, with the rollercoaster of emotions it came with, and that's a story for another time.  


After a fortunate, completely unplanned hiatus in Morocco where I was able to see all of my family, I came back to Paris for one final week. Things were looking grim and the total disconnect between the numbers and people's lifestyle and behavior prompted me to leave Europe earlier than I thought.

The day after my flight back to New York, a new curfew came into effect in Paris.

A week later, France was under lockdown again.

Happy of my timing, I enjoyed the quiet transition of the 14-day mandated quarantine to find my footing back in this other home of mine.

The hardest? Get back on the 9 to 5 wagon, and not have the whole day to myself before working. I really felt like the 3-11pm work time spurred my creativity, energy and joy like no other schedule. I felt I was in perpetual vacation while being more productive and happy to work than ever.


So what did I learn throughout this adventure?

Expanding my definition of home

Anyone who has traveled, moved or lived between countries knows how hard it is to define what home is. Where is it, who is it? Over the years, I had slowly shifted the pin on the map to confidently say I felt at home in NYC.

Nonetheless, by the end of July, I completely rejected it. I needed to leave. My former manager said it well at that point:

A place can feel deeply like home, until it doesn't.

Was I looking for a new home again?  

No.

I felt at home landing in Paris. I felt at home in Rennes with my brother.

I felt at home in the south, with my college best friends I had missed more than I knew.

I felt like I belonged in Greece, even if it didn't reach the "home" level (yet).

I obviously felt oh-so at home with my parents.

I did not feel at home in the weird-covid-infected-Paris.

And now that I'm back in NYC, my apartment feels like my sanctuary again.

What this trip helped me realize is that I didn't have to have one home. Heck, I come from several places, and have lived in a handful of others, so I decided I was entitled to claim however many homes I'd like.

My summer beach since I was a tiny girl.

My best, best, best friend is my intuition

The lines are very fuzzy between intuition and pure luck, and a disclaimer here: there will be no scientific proof that all of this wasn't just a series of lucky coincidental events. I'm not actually interested in proving anything - I'm one to love looking back and connecting the dots. Especially when the conclusion is how deeply I can trust myself.

Back in July, I was still considering to travel to Florida, or Colorado, or upstate NY, or Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands, or... stop. I couldn't make up my mind because traveling in this land that had become so painfully foreign to me was not what I needed.

Conversely, when the idea of going to France came to me, I had made my decision before I even knew it. I knew in my gut that's what I needed to do. Anything that came after that was assessing risk, confirming feasibility, gut-checking with my family and my manager, and logistical arrangements.

I kept checking how I felt about my decisions throughout the trip. Feeling resistance meant I should look closer, feeling at ease meant I should lean into it. It served me wonderfully.

My intuition grew a stronger voice after each decision, and paying attention to it provided me with a trusted internal compass. All I needed was to stay fluid and not attach to pre-existing plans, especially given how fast the global situation was changing. And obviously, with the assumption some things might not go my way.

Boy, did I miss my people

I knew I missed my brother and my parents deeply.

And not to say I assumed I didn't miss my friends in France. I just didn't realize how much. I hadn't seen most of them for 2 years, some of them for more than 4 years. I have so much to say about the deep pleasure and fulfillment I've found in having old, close friends from different parts of my life.

Seeing we've grown separately, yet our coming together was so smooth and delightful was a unique, precious feeling.

Over the past few years, I've thought a lot about the cost of moving and leaving places: leaving wonderful people behind. I'm now realizing how deep and special those relationships are, perhaps because we've put so much effort in maintaining our friendship.

Traveling alone is a gift to oneself

I can't recommend traveling alone enough. It's very different from traveling with friends or family, and while I acknowledge it might not be for everyone, I think everyone should do it once, if they have the chance and privilege to do so.

This wasn't my first rodeo. I did some travels in Australia, and had been to Honduras last year. But a 2-week, unstructured road trip was a first.

The feeling of freedom was like no other. My schedule was up to me, I didn't have anyone to report to, and had no compromise to make.

I've found I was also more likely to meet people, as being on my own made me naturally more open to others. I had lovely conversations with travelers and patrons that I would never have had if I was in a group. This year in particular, I held on so much to these little chats that reminded me of our pre-pandemic life.

Favorite beach in Paros - Kolymbithres

And, to be honest, I love my own company and enjoy having space to think and dream without external noise.


It also is an extraordinary way to practice upholding one's boundaries.

I used to be scared to not be able to tell people off while traveling alone, if I met someone that I didn't want to spend time with.

Since then, it's a muscle I've flexed, but traveling alone keeps it alive. I don't hold that fear anymore. Anything that I wasn't okay with (and there were some, as a solo female traveler), I dismissed kindly but firmly, and made sure I didn't try to manage other people's emotions over mine.


Traveling alone isn't easy, and there were points where I felt a bit lonely during my 2 weeks in Greece.

Nonetheless, this time around, I leaned into that feeling rather than trying to fight it or pretend like it wasn't there.

I didn't try to "fix" it. Yep, I felt lonely for a couple of days. And it was fine. It passed.

One of my friends pointed out that having your own car is the perfect opportunity for scream therapy without freaking people out. Let me tell you it's very effective (and fun). I would definitely recommend as a way to release negative emotions in a healthy way.

I really don't care about stuff

I love the place I currently live in and have taken pleasure in decorating it to make it reflect my personality and feel like home. But this trip reinforced the freeing feeling that:

If I had to give up all of my stuff to travel, I would in a heartbeat. If I was to lose it all, I would not lose sleep over it.
All I had for 6 weeks. Made it work for 10. 

I had everything I needed in my backpack, and being able to just pack-and-go was magic.

Which makes the following point possible.

I dig the mini-life model

I had come across a writer's idea of having mini-lives in different places. 3 months in Portugal, 4 months in Colombia, 1 month in Italy. It seemed so appealing to me at the time, and I kept that concept in the back of my mind.

This adventure gave me a glimpse of how that would feel, and I adored it. While I used to fall in the trap of trying to maximize the places I saw, having a constraint of working during afternoons, plus the attempt to go where the virus wasn't, forced me to travel differently.

At a more steady pace.

The slowness of it was delightful. Every piece of my trip had a unique depth.

And feeling bored in Santorini by day 6 was not negative at all. I saw it as a signal that I had fully absorbed what I needed to get from the island, which a 2-day quick trip would never have given me.

Europe is cool

Not kidding?! Well, many people in the U.S. have always told me how lucky I was that I was from Europe, and how I must have taken advantage of being so close to so many countries.

I hadn't. I had spent my 4 years of college studying, then sick in bed with a poor back.

So, being back there as an adult was quite the treat. A 2-hour flight took me from Lyon to Greece where it felt like such a different world.

Firostefani, Santorini
Knowing that most countries there have widely different cultures, yet are so close and well connected, only makes me want to go back to see more.

Conclusion

I feel deeply blessed that I was able to recharge my soul so much during this year in spite of such global chaos and grief.

We still have a mile to go with this pandemic, and while I'm looking oh-so forward for it all to be over, I'm beyond grateful to have been able to find some normalcy and escape from it for a little while.

Preparing to take flight.

More importantly, I feel closer to myself than ever, and all the more confident about handling whatever's coming next.

And, well, that makes me feel like home wherever I am.

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Laila Zouaki

Adopted by New York, I made a few life stops in California, Australia, France and Morocco. I'm curious about product, scuba diving, yoga, psychology, art, writing, and food.