21 x 2 = 42.
A few weeks ago, I randomly went down a YouTube rabbit hole and watched 30-some videos of former New York Yankee Mariano Rivera’s greatest moments. Mo, as he’ll always be known, lives down in history as the greatest closer in modern baseball. During the most agonizing, desperate moments of nerve-wrecking ninth inning, when the bases were covered, Mo was consistently calm as a cucumber, shutting down tie-breaker games with his ultimate signature cutter. On the back of his jersey was the number 42.
By the time I publish this Founder’s Note, I’ll be in Montenegro where I won’t be alone to celebrate turning 42. Two weeks leading up to my birthday, I gifted myself a solo trip which kicked off in Tirana, Albania followed by Belgrade, Serbia. This would be my first solo trip since post-COVID, invigorating an inexplicable angst, especially when some friends heard about my destinations, descriptions of wars and battlegrounds shoved my imagination into the deep end.
But solo travel is my wilderness, it’s when I feel the most free. As anxious as I was, I plunged after saying a few prayers.
Fortunately, Tirana’s quaint charm and rustic streets symphonied solace. As the only Asian woman strolling down the street anywhere in the city, the stare game became very real. Except, once locals initiated conversations, it was furthermore evident that Albanians sparked an incredibly likable, sweet innocence. With an actual Taiwan Park, Pool and Complex (how could I not fall in love with a city center that carried the name of my homeland?) fears and doubts were not only erased from my journey, but rather, replaced with a peculiar yet meditative joy. Similar to the first time I visited Budapest almost ten years ago, falling in love with up-and-coming cities seems to fulfill my appetite. When discovery has yet to be mainstreamed, when prices have yet to surge.
Since I adored Tirana, Belgrade started out rough. Locals seemed colder, with a tougher edge. In some neighborhoods, I feared for my life and blamed Google map for routing me to paths inside stinky tunnels underneath busy highways. On my second day, I decided to stay in all day since I left my heart in Tirana but finally forced my butt out of bed for a Michelin-starred dinner in a building protected by numerous police cars.
“Excuse me, but this is really daunting with all the securities outside. I just got to Belgrade yesterday and this does’t feel like the warmest welcome.” I told the concierge. It wasn’t a question, I needed to vent. Serbia wasn’t Albania, I needed to whine, even just a little.
She smiled kindly, “Sometimes, we have important events here.” A few hours later, I found out that the Serbian and Turkish presidents were having dinner at the same restaurant. No big deal…
During dinner, I met two charismatic New Yorkers who became my friends in a hot instant. Not only did we spend the rest of my Belgrade journey together, they introduced me to local friends from whom I learned enormously regarding Serbian customs, politics and culture. With them, I indulged in Belgrade’s iconic nightlife scene. Basically, I turned 21 all over again and had the time of my life. Serbia shifted from semi-disappointment to a bubbly surprise. I couldn’t have designed it any better myself, yet that’s exactly what solo traveling is all about – dancing, rejoicing in my wilderness.
I’ve never been a true believer of numerology, but 2 has always been my lucky number. It started in high school, when I was the second person to try out for cheerleading. That naive afternoon, I knew that I made it on the team and that 2 would be my lucky number. I love the symbolism behind the number: my sister and I, mom and dad, the pairing of a dish and a glass of fantastic wine, a second chance, the opportunity of a redo.
In the last few months, I’ve been revisiting several destination for the second time. It began back in May in Istanbul, where my first trip took place when I was a rebellious 16-year-old high schooler. June was when I traveled for the second time to Ibiza, where my first trip happened pre-COVID, when I had just turned 39. Madrid in July was just as hot as the first time I visited as a twenty-something young woman, fresh out of college, about to embark on a crazy career. At the time, I had no idea what was to come. In August, I went back to St. Tropez with memories of dating a French chef in my late twenties. Strolling through the French Riviera’s nostalgic cobblestone alleys, I remember when he picked me up on a scooter, when I waited for him to finish work at the restaurant facing fancy yachts.
Isn’t the idea of a redo so fabulously wonderful? In the last few months, every time I returned to a destination already explored, I recollected old memories that led to the rest of a decade already survived. This time in my forties, I can reflect upon how far I’ve come, how much I’ve changed, what it took to arrive at the same place – second time around.
During my 41st year around the sun, I decided to examine my life in a complete 360-degree angle. Turn every rock of pain and every pebble of trauma upside down. Stare into the source of toxic patterns to profoundly understand each maze of trigger. Every month in the last year, there were aha moments of clarity on a constant basis. It wasn’t easy, in fact, it was excruciatingly exhausting to vigorously connect the dots between patterns and behaviors. But I wanted to do it all on my own, without the help of a therapist (not there there’s anything wrong with it,) because only I knew myself the best, only I could bring courage to the table to ask myself achingly tough questions. I knew that I could figure myself out to arrive at the moment kicking off each day, the second that I open my eyes and ask: How can I be better today?
At the turn of 42, I’m humbled by the beauty of Montenegro’s graceful mountains speckled with crimson roofs against luminous Bay of Kotor’s quiet water in the shade of pine trees. Without the need to celebrate how I used to: party buses, wine tasting trips, costume parties; I’m welcoming a birthday for once, in total peace.
Just as Mo would step on the mound during clutch moments of a game, amid anxiety from massive and boisterous Yankee fans, he was legendarily collected seconds before throwing out a perfect cutter that silenced his opponents.
After a year of digging deep into my soul, I’m ready. I’m at the mound, for everything that life has to offer. It took a ridiculous amount of work and actualization, but I’m finally ready for the pitch.