Tomorrow morning I'm heading to Brussels with M for a long weekend spent exploring a new city. I have a rough (ok, meticulously planned) itinerary featuring the First World War, Edith Cavell, Tintin, Magritte, and a variety of bookstores. I've got a novel by Georges Simenon and a collection of contemporary short stories set in Brussels loaded on my kindle. I'm all set and, for the first time in a long while, I don't feel uncontrollably worried.
I've talked about being an anxious traveller before and I can tell you now that this time is not any different, but what is different is my attitude towards my anxiety. I'm worried about how it's going to be, whether we will get lost, how I'll cope going into restaurants or cafes, and whether I'll put the brakes on and refuse to experience things. I'm also worried that I'll forget something, that I won't have the right clothes, that I'll be too cold or too hot, that our AirBnB won't look like the pictures, that we'll miss the train or sit in the wrong seats or do something wrong. All these thoughts are buzzing round my head like flies, but oddly I feel quite calm. I feel like I could take on these worries and win.
I think there's a bit of battle brewing in my head between anxiety and determination, and my determination to beat anxiety is starting to take the lead. I'm not winning yet, not by any stretch, and a number of things over the past couple of weeks prove that. But you know, I'm not going to let that stop me from living the life I want. I'm going to try my absolute hardest not to let it stop me exploring and if it does, which I accept as a possibility, well then I'll pick myself up and move on.
Exploration is almost synonymous with life, I think. There's something about travel, about journeys, about adventures, about trying new things and seeing new places, and above all, about learning, that makes me feel alive. I don't know whether it's the same for you. I think it must be if you're a reader because reading gives you all this from the security of your chair. Regardless of your preferred method of exploration, you are still doing it. You're putting yourself out there, you're experiencing new things, you are living.
I know that as long as I feel that lust deep within myself - to go to the next place, to do the next thing, to learn what's next to learn - then I know I'll be fine. I might have a panic attack; I might feel nervous or scared or restless; I might stand outside a cafe for half an hour trying to pluck up the courage to go in and find myself just walking away in the end. Those things might happen - heck, they will definitely happen - but I can pick myself up and say to myself that it's ok because I'm trying, and because I'm trying, it means I'm living.
Actually, do you want to know something? Walking away is courageous. It may not feel it at the time, but it is. Walking away means that you have the strength to know and accept what's right for yourself in those moments. There are times when I've not walked away and instead talked myself into doing something that makes me beyond anxious, and whilst there are times it has worked out in the end, all too frequently it doesn't. Have the courage to know yourself and to say no. Know when it's appropriate to walk away and when it's better if you take a deep breath and dive in.
There's no point to all this. I've got no handy tips for nervous travellers or book recommendations for armchair exploring. I only want to say this: never give up exploring. Whether you explore from the comfort of your home or work hard to encourage yourself to just get out there, or even if you are at your most comfortable when you're backpacking across Asia: never stop.
I'll leave you with a few words from T.S. Eliot:
'We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.'