"What? Four months!" my dad exclaims in horror as he nearly hurls a piece of tarte flambée at a duck. It is the autumn of 2016, and we are sitting in a beer garden in the city of Oberhausen, and I have just booked my very first long-term trip. At this moment, four months seem as long as four infinities to both of us. I am as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve, while my dad already is having visions of me lying on the highway with a bullet hole in my head.
What was planned at the time as a once-in-a-lifetime dream has morphed into my actual lifestyle. Travel grabbed me at that point and has never let me go. Especially traveling a lot and long-term travel.
In 2021, I tell my dad I am flying to Costa Rica in the summer, he asks me how long the trip will be.
"Two weeks," I say.
"Oh, just? Why not a month?"
I start to laugh.
Traveling often and for long periods of time not only changes you, and the people around you, but also changes the way you live, the way you travel, your sense of home, your circle of friends, and your view of the world. And now that I am experienced in long-term travel, I will now try to offer you a little insight, with practical tips, for anyone planning a longer trip.
My dad is better than a polygraph for sensing when something is going on. He has a certain look on his face that silently asks: “Are you crazy?“
When I embarked on a five-month trip last summer, I had a backpack and a mini-suitcase with me. "And where's the rest?" Dad asks, giving me that look.
There is no rest. Ten years ago, I dragged a huge closet on wheels for a three-day, 300-mile trip to Berlin. Plus, a backpack and a fat shoulder bag. Many trips and miles later, I have learned how to greatly reduce the amount of luggage I carry. And no, I don't throw it out of the plane window during landings. It's not an airlift here.
The more you travel, the more you begin to realize that more luggage becomes an unnecessary burden. And the more you travel from one place to another, the more you realize how little you need at all to be happy. I used to carry several pairs of shoes, clothes, makeup, jewelry, big bottles of shampoo, and a whole lot of other stuff that I used daily and thought I couldn’t live without.
Today, I wash the same three shirts multiple times—and sometimes just with hand soap in dubious-looking sinks I encounter in cheap motels. I've gone from fashion statements to practical stuff like windproof, ultralight pants that convert from long to short by means of a zipper. Makes the item equally comfortable in 95-degree rainforest or in freezing snow. There are also small, travel-size bottles of shampoos, deodorants, and creams in the drugstore. And they last a surprisingly long time.
Bottom line: Many trips or longer trips do not mean more luggage, but rather less.
I've been traveling for about six months a year for about five years now. Not always all in a row, but sometimes I do it all at one time. The million-dollar question now becomes, "When will you be home?"
It's a question that I am thinking about more and more lately. Yes, just where is this home, anyway? And what is it? We often assume it is a fixed place. A building. A city. An address.
But I think home is always wherever you feel good.
Of course, the people I've known since childhood mean a lot to me. Coming back to them after a long journey definitely makes me feel like I am “home.” My grandparents' house, where I currently live, is also a real feel-good place. It is a place where I had a homemade sandbox as a kid, a place where I played soccer, and a place where Grandma hid Easter eggs all over the house every Easter. Once even in the washing machine. I still remember my grandpa flipping her the bird for that and saying, "You're nuts!" I think I'm related to her.
But home for me is also the USA, where my boyfriend lives. Or an Airbnb in the jungle, a tiny hotel room in Tokyo, a guest room at a friend's house in St. Louis, or even a tent in the desert. The more I travel, the easier it is for me to settle down somewhere. Home is where I'm happy. And there are surprisingly many of those places in the world.
And just as there are many of places I can call home, there are also many people I can call friends. Even doing a lot of solo traveling doesn't mean that you must be lonely. Instead, it can be a means of meeting a lot of people, old friends and new. People who make you feel good. People who show you surprising new points of view, new ways of life, old traditions, and stories of many kinds. People who will inspire you and enrich you in such an incredibly close way.
We Germans are often so distant and cool. In other cultures, people who have almost nothing in their house or cupboard will often open their doors wide at midnight and selflessly invite you in.
I am not talking about friendships where you get drunk together in a club, but friendships that make you grateful.
"Friends? You've only seen her once!", you might say. But sometimes a brief encounter with a stranger on the New York subway, a monk in the mountains, or a warm-hearted host in an Airbnb may result in a more gratifying experience than you get with acquaintances you have known for years, yet who only blather on out of habit.
I also think it's ultra-cool to meet people from Instagram or blogs in person. I recently did just that during a nine-hour layover in Seattle on my way back to Germany. Meeting all these people face-to-face makes what seems foreign, smaller, and your world bigger. But at the same time, closer.
One of the strangest things about coming back after a long trip is the smell in your home. Do you know it? It's something between an Egyptian tomb and the house from Jumanji. That's why I usually shove open all the windows of my place immediately.
Then I want to burn up all my luggage because I don't feel like unpacking anything. A good trick is to wash all your stuff just before you return home. That will save you one more chore you must face when you are tired and groggy from the time changes and travel fatigue.
After that, eating and sleeping are close to the top of the hit list. And then I usually celebrate ´Mittsommer, also known as "the longest day of the year", for three, long, jetlagged days and nights where I cannot sleep because of the time difference. Yay, wonderful!
Otherwise, the return after each trip feels less spectacular each time for me. My dad, who is either at the wrong terminal or can't find the car in the parking lot—again (running gag!)—always provides enough entertainment on arrival. After that, there is frozen pizza for the first night, and then a few days off from any duties to visit friends and family.
Especially if you've been away for several months or more, there's a lot of catchup work that must be attended to: doctor's appointments, business appointments, house repairs, and letters from the savings bank advisors (Gee, I just got back after being away for five months and I really don't feel like optimizing my pension plan right now!).
And when I begin to rest on the couch with a cup of tea and some photos from my last trip, my dad sneaks around the corner and asks, "So, when will you be gone again?"
I'm sure there are many more tips. If you like, you can write something about it in the comments. Cast off!
For more on why I can travel so much, check out my article Digital Nomad: Yes, I do have a Job! The Truth about Money, Time and Traveling.