I Realized That My Longing to Go Abroad Wasn’t a Longing for a Place I Could Travel To

I feel an ache in my heart and this ache is urging me to go abroad for a while. But I don’t know where to go, or when to leave.

Riikka Iivanainen
11 min readOct 11, 2022

I’ve been troubled by one question for years now. I’ve thought about it from all possible angles resulting in one of the most complex polygons my mind has ever drawn. I’ve talked to friends about it. I’ve waited, hoping that time would one day drop the answer in my letter box. But the polygon remains incomprehensible, my friends keep listening and nodding consolingly, and no letters have arrived.

I regularly ask myself: Should I stay or should I go? And I’m not talking about a relationship.

Image by Jackson Hendry on Unsplash

For several years now, four years to be exact, I’ve had this longing to go abroad. I feel an ache in my heart and this ache is urging me to go to a different country for a while.

But when I say I want to go abroad I’m not talking about traveling. Less than week-long trips only leave me more stressed than before. But I’m also not talking about moving — I’m happy with my life in Helsinki.

I’d like to go abroad for at least one month, preferably three or six, perhaps even a full year. Just enough time to start “getting” the new place, but not enough to properly settle in. I imagine doing fairly mundane things like going to the local rock climbing gym or sitting at a café having mint tea. I want to breathe in life at a different place, that’s all.

Why don’t I just go then, you may ask. I could work remotely as long as the time zone is approximately the same. I could probably even take some unpaid leave and do what my sister did, go on a sabbatical.

The problem is, or at least I tell myself it’s a problem, that I don’t know where to go. Should I go to a place where I already know people, to a city in which a close friend is living? Maybe I should go to a German-speaking country to maintain my German skills? Or perhaps somewhere where I don’t speak the language or understand the customs?

Because I don’t know where to go, I don’t know why I should go. Or should I say: Because I don’t know why I should go, I don’t know where to go.

Because I don’t know where to go, I don’t know why I should go. Or should I say: Because I don’t know why I should go, I don’t know where to go. To me, it makes sense to go abroad for a job or an exchange or to visit family. But to go to a random place with no apparent reason? Uh-uh.

Perhaps there are people who do that. People who wake up one morning, take out a map (or Google Maps), close their eyes, point their finger at a random place, and decide to travel there. I’m not that person.

I’m used to having some external force shape my decisions or at least having a clear idea about where to go pop into my head. Like when dad got a job at Siemens in Munich and our parents asked my sister and me if we wanted to move to Germany. We said yes. Years later, I went on an exchange because my sister had been to France a few years prior; I was inspired by her like I’ve always been. I ended up in Clearwater, B.C., by chance: Canada was second on my list of countries (the Rotary Club doesn’t let you choose). Then, towards the end of the exchange, I had the urge to work in Germany for the summer and my mom found a job ad for a restaurant by the North Sea on a Finnish employment website. I ended up spending three months cleaning tables in St. Peter-Ording. Three years later, the university newsletter asked me if I wanted to go work in Canada the following summer. I said yes, applied, and spent three months in Toronto. During my master’s I decided to do an Erasmus exchange. I wanted to study in German for which my master’s program had two options: Wuppertal or Berlin. Since all the Germans I talked to told me not to go to Wuppertal, I chose Berlin and studied at the University of the Arts for five months.

All of this is to say that going abroad has felt quite natural up to the Erasmus exchange. I’ve just needed to say yes, choose from a narrow set of options, or follow through on a random idea. But for a few years now, I haven’t come up with a specific-enough plan to rationalize leaving.

The longing, however, hasn’t disappeared.

Whenever I travel, it whispers in my ear, “Hey Riikka, remember me?” This has happened on all my trips this year: Croatia, Switzerland, Austria. In my regular life in Finland, it doesn’t show up every day. Not even every month.

I envy people who move abroad or go abroad for a longer period of time.

But when it does, it’s often disguised as jealousy. I envy people who move abroad or go abroad for a longer period of time. Recently, a guy I used to date announced on Facebook that he would be moving to the US to start a fellowship at Harvard. I felt a tinge of envy. I also felt it when I found out that a person I used to study with was going to an artist residency in Arbon, a small town in Switzerland. While we were chatting about it at a music festival this past summer, I imagined myself in his place: exploring the old town, goofing around with the other artists, and shopping at the local Lidl as I had recommended he do to save money in this extremely expensive country. If only I was an artist! Such a three-month stint would be perfect.

The yearning also shows up more elusively. Like when I watched the Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner and cried almost throughout the two-hour film.

Why I wept, I’m not sure. But there was something about Bourdain’s witty and poignant narration combined with his friends’ and film crew’s sharp-eyed commentary. Maybe I cried because of the immaculate storytelling. Or maybe I related to the conflict he seemed to carry inside of him: longing for adventure, but also for normal family life barbecuing burgers in the backyard. As Josh Homme tells Bourdain in one scene, “Nothing feels better than going home, and nothing feels better than leaving home — the bittersweet curse.”

The longing even appears in my unconscious mind. I have these cities I occasionally visit when I’m dreaming. (And I’m not talking about daydreaming but the kind that occurs while asleep.) They’re not real-world cities; they’re more like big-city archetypes with a city center, an old town, the hip neighborhood that everyone complains is being gentrified, and a shoreline — my mind’s idea of the perfect place to visit. In these dreams, I’m familiar with the city: I know how to get to the beach, the old town, the thrift stores, the street food vendors. And usually I’m either thrift shopping or trying to find the restaurant to dine at. Occasionally, I find what I’m looking for, but more often than not I know where the best restaurants are located, but I can’t find the street that takes me to the right neighborhood or I get lost inside a labyrinth-like shopping mall.

What if my longing to go abroad is a kind of unhealthy treasure hunt?

In these dreams, I’m clearly treasure hunting. But it’s not only excitement I feel. There’s a sliver of anxiety in the background, the tension of not quite finding what I’m looking for.

What if my longing to go abroad is also a kind of unhealthy treasure hunt? That’s what my sister sometimes alludes to.

When I talk about this going-abroad conundrum with her, (and this is a conversation we’ve had several times), she says I should figure out why I want to go abroad. She’s afraid I’m running away from something. Or deluded that getting rain instead of slush in December or jogging along the river instead of the forest for a few months will solve my problems or help me discover the real me.

My sister might be right. Maybe I am running away from something, maybe I am deluded.

It feels wrong to just ignore the ache in my heart though.

I recently read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and a passage towards the end of the book stood out to me. The protagonist, Santiago, is speaking with his heart and his heart tells him that everyone has a treasure waiting for them, but that hearts only speak of this treasure to children. Over the years, hearts begin to speak more and more softly. Santiago wonders why that is, why hearts don’t keep telling us to follow our dreams, and asks the alchemist for an explanation. “Because that’s what makes a heart suffer most, and hearts don’t like to suffer,” the alchemist responds. Santiago asks his heart to never stop speaking to him and promises to never stop listening.

I wondered if my heart’s voice would slowly turn into an inaudible whisper if I ignored it.

When I read this passage I wondered if my heart’s voice would slowly turn into an inaudible whisper if I ignored it and agreed that hearts suffer when they’re constantly blaring the alarm with no one listening. Perhaps the jealousy, the crying during the Bourdain documentary, and the dreams are messages from my heart, omens put on my path as they would’ve been called in The Alchemist.

Since we’re already in the woo-wooey realm, let me tell you about one more omen, a peculiar insight meditation from three years back. I usually only do silent meditations and when I use a recording it’s about observing your thoughts and bodily sensations. But this time, for a reason I can’t recall (I was probably confused or having a hard time or both), I was listening to a meditation which asked me to go deep inside to receive inner guidance. I’m skeptical of these kinds of meditations but I followed the instructions and put a pen and paper on the table in front of me. The idea was to write down whatever came out at the end of the meditation. Supposedly, this would be your authentic self. When I had finished listening to the recording, I wrote down “adventurer”.

I looked at the paper like, me, an adventurer? Far from it. I’m the one who’s worried she won’t survive in a country where she doesn’t speak the language (you can get by with either English or German in surprisingly many places, the last surprise being Croatia). What about those hole-in-the-floor toilets still widely in use? Yaiks. And when someone says Thailand, most (Finnish) people think of beach holiday; I imagine dying in a traffic accident while being driven around Bangkok on a scooter.

Still, “adventurer” somehow resonates with me. When I’m doing my thing while abroad, I feel like an adventurer. When I’m searching for the best hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a big city (I prefer holes in the wall to the floor), sneaking into a brutalist high-rise in a suburb, or jogging to the local calisthenics park and borrowing a rubber band for pull-ups from two guys speaking Spanish and listening to reggaeton on a boom box, I feel like an adventurer.

And looking back, these kinds of experiences constitute what I call the best summers, falls, and winters of my life.

*

I still don’t know whether I should stay or go. I don’t know where to go. Or when to leave.

But while writing this text, I finally understood my longing. The epiphany came to me on a bike ride home one Friday afternoon.

On that day, I had decided to skip a dancing session with friends because I was tired of running directly from work to hobbies. I needed a day on which I wasn’t hurrying home, shoving down an early dinner, biking to the other side of the city and back in rain and darkness, showering, eating an evening snack, reading for a bit, and going to bed, only to do it all over again the next day.

Instead, I decided to pop by a bookstore after work. And while I was lingering between the shelves searching for another Paulo Coelho novel, I overheard a conversation between two teenagers. One of them was loudly complaining: “All everyone ever says is ‘read between the lines’. But I can’t read between the lines. There’s nothing between the lines. There’s just air.”

Hearing this, I immediately pulled out my phone and typed it out. I’ve begun to collect funky bits of conversation (I’ve become somewhat obsessed with dialogue after joining a poetry class this fall), and this statement was a total gem. Perhaps a little naive, the girl’s observation was frank, making it relatable and funny. It sounded like something I could write.

On my bike ride home I kept rolling those beautiful sentences around in my mouth and felt happy to have been eavesdropping on this particular conversation. I would’ve never overheard it had I simply located the book I was searching for, marched to the cashier, paid for it, and biked home. That afternoon at the bookstore felt similar to the times I’ve spent abroad.

And that’s when it came to me: I miss who I am when I’m abroad.

I miss the person I become when I’m some place where I know I’ll only be for a while. I linger, I observe, I listen. I become the curious one. The playful. The adventurous. The one who says yes.

I miss the person I become when I’m some place where I know I’ll only be for a while.

It’s the memories of being that person that set off the ache in my heart. The memory of taking the subway across town with another exchange student to visit a library that according to some blog has funky architecture; going on a Tinder date in a dimly lit bar where my date’s band was playing and ending up at his place watching a thunderstorm on the patio while smoking a cigarette; joining a Hanukkah party in Berlin where one of the guests sang Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn in Yiddish, where I sang Lady Gaga’s Poker Face in karaoke — twice — and playing dreidel with the rabbi’s daughters and other guests; sitting on a tram in Zürich attentively listening to conversations and repeating the overheard phrase ”chemische Reinigung” with the brash “ch” sound to practice the Swiss German dialect.

So problem solved? No need to go anywhere. Just be more like the person I am when abroad.

Not so fast.

Although I can tap into the mindset I just described regardless of where I am, I believe that part of me truly is an adventurer. I just interpret the term differently than most. To me, being an adventurer can mean sitting down at a café and people watching in downtown Copenhagen or paying a visit to a fortune teller in a small Canadian town. And it’s possible that someday it’ll also mean comfortably squatting over a hole in the floor in the Yunnan countryside or fearlessly scooting around Bangkok.

In case the gods of international travel are listening, I have one more thing to say. If you, dear gods, someday decide to send me an idea, an opportunity, or a destination, I’ll be more than happy to follow through.

And when I get there I’ll try not to forget the thing that makes me love being abroad so much: I’ll try not to forget myself.

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Riikka Iivanainen

Writer, content designer, and user researcher fascinated by the human mind and behavior. I study (social) psychology for fun and love to tell stories.