Travel Nostalgia

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still see myself walking uphill, leaving the Sunset District in San Francisco, on a warm November morning after a walk on Ocean Beach. That was my very last day of my two-month USA solo trip, before going back to post-graduation job hunting. Fast forward almost five years and I am happy with where I am, with where I live, where I got to in life – yet travel nostalgia is something I’m going to have to live with. So without further ado, here’s a post about missing the places I discovered via travel, and about what travel nostalgia means for me.

What To Expect From This Post

I’m experimenting with something a little different here. This post is going to be longer than usual, and I’m going to dip into memories and feelings. I’m trying to be less snappy and connect with the person I was in the past: a naive, lost almost adult that, sometimes gladly, sometimes not, I feel I have lost now.

I guess I could say I started traveling solo ‘properly’ (in its life-changing form) only in 2014, at the age of 21. And I did so because I needed – cliche alert – to find myself, even if I couldn’t admit it at the time. So I went looking for places that I thought had something of mine, or that appealed to certain aspect of my character.

Only after almost a year of therapy that I have just concluded did I realise that, throughout my university years and straight after, I did not really know who I was. I was coming from a small Sardinian town with perceptions of myself grounded in teenage rebellion and the wish to be different, but in growing up and looking for somewhere I belonged in, those perceptions made no sense anymore. If you complete this mix with a degree that didn’t turn me in the successful journalist I thought I’d be, and an abusive relationship that questioned my idea of love and my belief in my own strength, you can see why I was a mess.

What happened afterwards was a selection of travels that I enjoyed, but that contributed to the feeling of being unsettled, of constantly running away. So why am I nostalgic for times when I was a hot mess?

What Nostalgia Means To Me

The Cambridge Dictionary describes nostalgia as:

a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past.

The Cambridge Dictionary

I agree with this definition, but I somehow feel that even more strongly. Nostalgia for me is a vision. It’s like being thrown back into the places I saw, feeling what I felt, hearing what I heard. When the nostalgia hits, for a second or two it’s almost crippling: I lose my bearings, because I have to go back and live that moment. And it’s almost always spearheaded by, or connected with, music.

This feels very strange to me because the Carolina I was when I visited the places I feel nostalgic for was a lot more troubled, a lot less happy or settled, a lot less hopeful. When I was in those places, I feared what came next. And yet, probably because of that, I was able to be fully in the moment – something I sometimes struggle with now. Maybe I miss that fear, that innocence.

The next paragraphs will be a blast from my past, a recollection of places I missed and that I haven’t been able to re-articulate in a blog post. Maybe my English has improved, maybe my confidence as a person and as a writer has finally blossomed, but I feel that, back in 2014, when I went on a Couchsurfing trip to the US alone for over two months, I did not do my favourite places justice. I was too preoccupied with being a proper ‘journalist’ (as defined by my then lecturers) to make my voice shine. So hopefully, with this post I will be able to share why the essence of certain cities and places bewitched me and still lingers inside me. It will be a nice way for me – and for you – to wrap our heads around the journey that the past five years have been.

What I Feel Nostalgic For

When I said that the Carolina of 2014 to 2017 was a lot more troubled, I mean that I had just ran from an abusive relationship and hadn’t processed my trauma as I have now. I was also still in love with the person who had abused me, and I couldn’t admit that to myself. To make things worse, I was lost and didn’t know who I was: I grew up feeling strong, quirky, a metal-head and a literary nerd… and who was I now? In 2014 I had just finished a Journalism BA without wanting to actually become a journalist. I didn’t know if anybody would want to hire me. At times, I didn’t even know if I wanted to live. So please be kind with my sometimes basic, often depressed or angsty song/place associations.

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My very lo-fi iPhone’s version of me in Clearwater Beach, Florida

Florida

Florida was my first real contact with ‘real’ American living: New York and DC seemed like a tourist’s paradise, and I couldn’t see how real life translated there. Visiting family friends in Florida, I got to experience the highways, the cocktails on the beach, the houses with gyms and pools. I started tanning, as I walked on the never-ending Clearwater Beach listening to Lana Del Rey’s Florida Kilos, the last “familiar” travel experience before throwing myself into the deep end of two full months of Couchsurfing.

New Orleans

When I picked which cities to go to in the US, it was often due either to movies and series I liked being set there, or to their musical importance. New Orleans ticked both boxes: the set of David Lynch’s Wild At Heart amongst other things, its status as the home of jazz meant I needed to visit. The Animals’ House of The Rising Sun was one of the first rock songs I ever listened to as a teen, and its iconic riff was what I heard ringing in my ears every time I came across certain decadent corners of NOLA.

New Orleans has many sides, and it isn’t only about music. In NOLA, the light meets the darkness with a mystery that draws you right in. I remember walking into voodoo shop after voodoo shop, making my way through skulls and spell supplies, as the jazzy, eerie but cheery The Remains of The Day from The Corpse Bride‘s soundtrack kept playing in the back of my mind.

Image result for remains of the day corpse bride gif

Sometimes, I can still feel the sweat, the heat and the mosquito bites from sunset walks and bar crawls from Marigny to the French Quarter, looking across the Mississippi river to the neighbourhood of Algiers. And The Afghan Whigs’ Algiers, together with Debonair, is what I remember listening to. My best friend and I had both become obsessed with the Whigs that year, and funnily enough I got to visit the singers’ hotel – the Royal Street Inn – right in NOLA. It was meant to be.

Nashville

I have fewer memories about Nashville. Maybe because I was visiting friends, or because I went to it straight from New Orleans and was still overwhelmed by NOLA’s charm. What I do remember is still music related, and it comes from snippets of my solo wanderings.

As soon as my plane landed, the lady next to me told me: “You know that Jesus loves you, don’t you?” and when, tentatively, I said yes, she said: “Halleluja!” This was Nashville: a typically Southern blend of religion and fun. I remember walking down the streets with street speakers blaring Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison or anything Dolly Parton. I remember the Johnny Cash museum and the heartbreaking memorials of Cash’s love for June Carter, as Jackson and It Ain’t Me played in the background.

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#Nashville baby

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I remember standing right on the point marked as where Elvis first recorded Love Me Tender at RCA’s Studio B. I remember how awkward I had started feeling: I was eating American-sized portion three times a day, and I felt my body expand in a way that felt out of control, but I couldn’t stop. I remember the bars, the unidentified Country sound I then discovered to be Bartender by Lady Antebellum. Nashville was a sound, and sound is what it left me with.

Chicago

I was visiting friends in Chicago, and I stayed for only three days. But what I do still feel when I close my eyes is still special.

I remember being asked to join in on a threesome while on the Magnificent Mile – LOL – as I had to shelter inside an American Eagle Outfitters to buy some more wintery clothes. The weather was turning, and the summer dress I was sweating in suddenly wasn’t enough to keep me warm.

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I’m an adult

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And then there was a rap battle. My friend David took me out to restaurants and to a bar where a full on rap battle was going on, and all we could do was nod and marvel at the difficulty of it all, as I replayed Eminem’s Lose Yourself and scenes from The 8 Mile in my head.

Las Vegas

Looking back, I wonder what brought a broke student to Vegas. I guess it was, once again, the movies. The Fear and Loathing soundtrack played in my head as I put on a trashy Hawaiian shirt I bought in New Orleans, my heart-shaped glasses, denim shorts and flip flops. But when I close my eyes, what I see is fifteen people packed into an SUV, with the Hostel Cat’s manager driving us to the main strip to use our $10 tokens to play the slots.

Classy in Vegas

I won $150 that night, and immediately stopped playing. I ended up dancing in my less than fancy outfit in a random open-air club, to Give Me Everything by Pitbull, of all things, until 4 AM. Two hours later, I would hop on a bus to a Grand Canyon excursion, half frozen due to the desert’s temperature excursion, but proud I could pay for it with my slot win.

The Grand Canyon was hot and breath-taking. I was overwhelmed and hungover, and perhaps didn’t take it in as much as I should have. The following night was, once again, about partying. The picture below is one of the few I have of myself from that time, where I decided to put on a half-decent jumpsuit and pretend I wasn’t a poor couchsurfer. That was my very last night in Vegas, and if I close my eyes I can still remember the bus ride to the main strip, the sleazy club promoters, and almost falling asleep while dancing.

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Last night in Vegas

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San Diego

In searching for this post, I have found it so interesting to look through my old Instagram pictures. There were so few pictures of me, and so few pictures in general. So little “adventure” in my caption – everything was safe, no tone of voice was transpiring. Mostly, I didn’t want to be in them. I was afraid of asking strangers to take pictures of me, and thought my body didn’t look good enough to be portrayed. This is one of the few exceptions I made.

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Loving the San Diego life

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I got to San Diego after a dreadful night Greyhound trip with a stopover in Los Angeles. It was 7 in the morning when I started seeing beaches – Newport, Laguna, all the way down to San Diego – and, as a noughties kid brought up with US TV cliches, I put on California by Phantom Planet (The OC‘s theme song) as a soundtrack.

Out of all places I visited in the US, San Diego was where I thought I’d move if I could. It reminded me of what I loved in both London and my town: a lively atmosphere, and gorgeous beaches with relaxed living. I remember the cafés in North Park, the breweries, the taco Tuesdays with the best Mexican food I’ve ever had; I remember the crowds in the Gaslamp Quarter, filling the bars, dancing, laughing. The Gaslight Anthem became part of my playlists after my trip, and even though they’re from New Jersey, every time I hear Helter Skeleton and Old Haunts I think of those nights.

Los Angeles

When I got back to LA, I arrived to the same Greyhound station where I had that dreadful, 4 AM stopover. Although I spent quite some time in Studio City, visiting the Warner Brothers studios where some of my favourite movies were made, my best memories are from my time in Santa Monica.

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It’s a beautiful day in LA.

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The walk from Santa Monica to Venice Beach really is unique. Then Santa Monica ferris wheel, the kiosks, the kilometers of sand and the rollerblade and bike lanes throw you into a movie set within the blink of an eye. As obsessed with Lana Rel Rey as I was at the time of Ultraviolence‘s release, all I had in my ears were West Coast and Summertime Sadness, as I sat on the beach with my iced coffees, my depressed novels and my notebook, in the fresh October air.

From Santa Monica I walked – like a crazy bitch, according to Los Angelenos – to some of the most iconic neighbourhoods in Los Angeles. People would look at me funny when I asked for directions, and they didn’t seem to know how to get to places without driving.

Yet here I was, walking through Fairfax Avenue, through the Jewish quarter and through Ethiopia Town, alternating Guns N’Roses’ Paradise City and the Afghan Whigs’ Fountain and Fairfax as I finally reached, and was disappointed by, the plastic look of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

After my few weeks in LA I decided to wind down in Long Beach before the last leg of my trip. Long Beach was another occasion to make the most of California’s weather, to run and swim as I wrote and sipped iced drinks. Cut through by the Pacific Coast Highway, it made me want to listen to Hole again, and Malibu and Pacific Coast Highway were all I’d sing.

San Francisco

It was in San Francisco that I realised how badly I’d started to miss London. The most ‘European’ of the US cities I’d visited, with its cafés, graffiti and Victorian houses, Frisco seemed like a giant throwback to the Big Smoke. Maybe I was exhausted, or maybe I was afraid that the longer I travelled, the less of a chance I’d have to turn myself into something I wanted to be.

It didn’t always go according to plan. My Couchsurfing adventure always felt very safe, but when in the Tenderloin neighbourhood a host failed to show up and I almost got kidnapped by a Hell’s Angel in his building, I realised how much I’d gone out of my comfort zone. I ran out of that block of flats dragging my now ridiculously heavy suitcase as if it was just a backpack, Bad Luck by Social Distortion ringing in my ears.

As I alternated artist, hippie hosts with Google and tech workers, I set out to visit the city, its breweries, bars and its neighbourhoods. Even though I mostly stayed in the Mission and Embarcadero, it was Haight Ashbury and Sunset that I still see when I close my eyes. The smell of pure California weed and Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart are what I remember from the Haight, as I got two tattoos to mark my trip.

So we come to that final day in Sunset, where I showed up at a coffee shop where one of my hosts was working, just to say goodbye. I remember the struggle up those hills on a sunny but breezy day, I remember the dark-sanded Ocean Beach and those clean, wholesome-looking houses where I would have loved to hit. On my iPod, Hole’s Boys on the Radio and The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang.

I remember wanting to go on that final walk alone. I had met some friends from London who were in town that day, and we went to the Golden Gate park and Bridge together. But somehow, something in my head told me I needed to go to Sunset alone. And as I went uphill, looking at the beautiful, calm streets of the District, I remembered how scared I was when I first boarded the plane that would take me to the US. How I cried my eyes out, how I thought I wouldn’t make it. In Sunset, I thought: I have made it. I have enjoy it. I want to go back, and I don’t.

Cuba

Cuba was later, after the US trip that I thought would help me find myself, but I was still lost. I thought that, after coming back from America and finding that full-time job in PR I craved, things would change. But things don’t change when you don’t work on yourself, and I’d buried the fear and the trauma in work, events and parties that I wasn’t ready for. When the opportunity to go to Cuba presented itself at the end of 2015 – the airline my parents work for now flew there, and I could get considerable discounts on airfare – I jumped on it.

When I think of the nostalgia Cuba gives me, it’s always a blend of heat, decadence and dust, not unlike New Orleans. Cuba had an even bigger element of uncertainty, considering that I sort of understood, but didn’t speak Spanish. Plus, with reduced access to the Internet (restricted to the main hotels where I wasn’t staying, or a long boulevard where you needed to purchase a $3 card for an hour of connection), the “I’m in the middle of nowhere” feeling was strong.

Yet, I made it work and I loved it. The welcoming spirit of Havana and its locals ended up taking over. When I close my eyes I see its derelict buildings and grand squares, its colours, chickens roaming around the centre, people dancing and cheap alcohol flowing. I feel the breeze on the Malécon and the smell of barbecued pork from my host’s New Year’s meal, as he tried to teach me some salsa to the tune of Enrique Iglesias’ Bailando, which was the song of the season in Cuba.

Once again, I was plagued by uncertainty: the following year I would uproot myself and move to Sydney, Australia, to retrain for a master. I was broken and both fearful of and in touch with my ex. But for a week or so, Cuba made me forget that: it’s that peace, that happiness, those slow days that give me nostalgia, making me hope I’ll come back. So now, when I listen to Havana by Camila Cabello, I see the streets of Habana Vieja and crave mojitos and cheap lobster, thinking of randoms asking me to dance outside restaurants.

Bondi To Coogee Coastal Walk

Sydney was the first step of “staying found” (to use cliches from Wild, the book by Cheryl Strayed I’ve just finished reading). I went thinking I’d move there permanently, but I found what I was made of instead… and realised it was London that I would call home.

Australia was a platform for me to explore different things. With a higher salary, I could finally start pole dancing, which I’d always wanted to do, and go to Asia. For the first time, I experienced senior PR roles such as strategist or account director. I experienced the stress and uncertainty of being on the other side of the world – 24 hours away – from my loved ones.

Probably for all of these reasons, and for the heartbreak I was going through, I didn’t warm up to it enough to call it home. But there was one stretch of Sydney that I’d still call home, and that I sometimes crave and miss in my grey London afternoons: the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, that became the inevitable pastime when I was feeling lonely and heart-broken. I’d run on it or walk on it to get my mind off things, listening to my “Presura Male” (a Sardinian expression to say “feeling sad”) playlist, including the Arctic Monkeys’ Love is A Laserquest, Beyoncé’s Sandcastles and Amy Winehouse’ Love Is A Losing Game.

On that walk you can find my favourite spot: the Waverley Cemetery, beautifully laid out on a cliff facing the Ocean. Walking through it at sunset was always magical, and I sometimes wish I could go back to that little corner of peace.

Melbourne and Naked For Satan

Initially, when applying for PhD programs, I thought I’d apply to both UK and Australian universities and let ‘fate’ decide for me depending on where I got in. I think it was in Melbourne that I realised that I didn’t want to apply to Australian universities: I wanted to go back – and I think I realised it in Melbourne because it reminded me of the best bits of London so much that I decided London was where I was going to be.

My favourite place in the whole of Melbourne was Naked For Satan, a rooftop bar. It wasn’t just the name that appealed to my thirst for controversial humour. I watched the sun set over different corners of Melbourne, beer in my hand, from that rooftop. I was completely alone, and yet felt good with myself. People on the rooftop were friendly and I could make small talk. The views were stunning. The city was quirky and random. It was the first time in Australia I’d been able to go out by myself and still speak to people without feeling like a weirdo – one of my favourite things about London.

Before Naked For Satan I’d gone around the Fitzroy and CBD neighbourhoods of Melbourne in my leotard and patched up denim jacket, getting into vintage stores and independent boutiques. I ended up in an esoteric bookshop where I spent an hour chatting to the owner, buying my first tarots and the lone practicing Wicca book I still use. After Naked For Satan, I went from bar to bar, chatting with patrons and bartenders and following their recommendations for where to go next.

Maybe it was Melbourne’s energy that brought me back to Europe, or maybe in Melbourne the person I have become started coming out. Either way, the Naked For Satan sunset was the culmination of that trip, and the beginning of many things to come: leaving the land Down Under and coming back.

Positano

Positano was after Australia, after ‘the comeback’: I went to the Amalfi Coast last year, in August 2018. I was on edge, tired and afraid of what year two of the PhD would bring. I was perennially waiting – for happiness, for success, for uncertainty to die down. Throughout the year, I don’t remember being able to relax.

Yet, as soon as I hopped on the ferry from Capri to Positano, the cliffs towering over me, the sun burning me, something in my head clicked and I was able to let go. There’s something about the beauty of my country that has a soothing effect on me. I wasn’t thinking of a particular song at the time – I was focused on the noises of the sea, the waves, the wind, the seagulls – but I’ve put Fabrizio De André’s La Ballata dell’Amore Cieco and Don Raffaé down in the playlist because those are sounds and songs I grew up with, and that always remind me of home.

Running Away and Staying

This week I’ve finished my first full cycle of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is all about changing unhelpful behaviours that increase your anxiety, and it encourages you to reflect on your actions. Taking it after years of working on myself through talking therapy was a blessing, and it made me want to look back at my travels and at the person I was when I went on them.

I realised that, more often than not, I questioned myself about what I did. Being critical of one’s actions is important, but when you become so self-critical that you blame bad things on yourself and you feel like an impostor when things go well it’s time to take action.

Before the past couple of years I never put my needs first, and when I did I thought I was throwing a tantrum rather than standing up for myself. Before this year, I used to take on so many things at the same time I’d feel overwhelmed. I ended up running away, waiting for travel, or for someone else, to come and save me instead of working on myself.

As I mentioned earlier, during my travels my body looked different; I didn’t always take pictures of myself; my captions were shaky and I was afraid to be too “out there”. So I went back to the places where I felt strong emotions, the places that give me nostalgia, to say the words that I didn’t say.

Now I have two homes – I alternate between London and Sardinia, and although I’d like to travel more, it’s not so much to find myself but to learn new things and to take my mind off works. I’ve learnt that running away from things – and mainly, from myself – has only contributed to weakening my confidence. So enough of that.

Living With Nostalgia

Yes, if I close my eyes I can still feel the San Francisco breeze hit me as I walk back up Sunset. I can still find myself walking up Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, trying to find my way on foot in a city that always drives. I can still feel the sand in my toes from walks on Santa Monica to Venice, or feel the first Pacific Ocean waves hit me and steal my breath from San Diego.

There was a time when nostalgia, to me, meant that at some point I’d be running back to that place – or find a place that hopefully would give me the same magic feeling. Then, after realising my needs, I thought nostalgia would go once I felt settled. It didn’t.

The past few years have been such a journey. I feel like I really discovered who I am and what I need, and to do that I needed to lose myself. I leave you with my very own Travel Nostalgia playlist on Spotify, so you can feel what I felt, at least a little.

Nostalgia #Throwback: Links To My Old Travel Posts

Some of these posts are really old, and the headline and content really awks. The pictures are often bad because I published these posts while traveling, from my old iPhone 4… but #noshame.

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