It has now become a yearly tradition to listen to “Vienna” every year on July 19th, the day before my birthday.
“Slow down, you crazy child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?”
I remember the first time I heard Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” It was the day before my fifteenth birthday and it was maybe the first time in my life I had stopped to truly listen.
My entire life has been lived in the fast lane. In kindergarten, I did well in school, but my teacher told my mom, “She’s always in a rush to be first.” I felt like I couldn’t help that I was born with a competitive streak. I sang as a child, and when I heard Britney Spears had a record deal by 17, I set a goal that day to beat her and get a record deal by 16 (spoiler alert: this never happened). I knew in order to make this goal a reality, I’d have to get out of my small town in Upstate NY and head to New York City or Los Angeles, so I went to my guidance counselor that day, at the ripe age of ten years old, and asked her if I could do anything to graduate high school early. I remember her laughing with a puzzled look on her face (I mean, I had six years to go!), and she said, “Stay in advanced science and math classes and you will be eligible.” School was never interesting to me despite being “good” at it, and I didn’t have tons of friends. I just had my eye on the prize; to get the hell out of that town. Fast-forward to me getting an advanced regents diploma at age sixteen with a one-way ticket booked to Los Angeles. At least that dream had become a reality for me with perseverance and hard work.
“Where’s the fire? What’s the hurry about?
You’d better cool it off before you burn it out
You’ve got so much to do and only so many hours in the day.”
After living in Los Angeles for three years and being bored to death by the never-dying supply of models and green juices, I booked yet another one-way; this time to New York City. I was now twenty years old, playing open mic after open mic, working at underpaying retail jobs, trying to find my place in the world. Despite being a lost puppy, if I was anything, I was adamant. I wanted to leave my mark wherever it was I went, but I think sometimes I was so focused on the destination, I forgot to enjoy the journey. I moved to New York City and quickly got hit with feelings which can only be described as depression (I remember knowing this at the time but struggling to call a spade a spade). I finally found some solace in bartending gigs in New York City, and while my music didn’t necessarily take the backseat, my focus had become divided between being an adult in America’s most expensive city, and still following my dreams. After years of heavily investing in my music career and making minimal strides, I decided to start putting my money into something else: something strictly for myself.
I had always been interested in seeing the world. I memorized all fifty US state capitals as a child, and was obsessed with maps and learning where new countries were. It started with a trip to France and Spain with my sister, a sporadic trip to Japan with a good buddy of mine, and finally traveling to Hawaii alone with $500 to my name. While I was enamored with France, Spain, and Japan, that solo trip to Hawaii is where the game changed for me. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had control of my destiny. I could do whatever I want; whether it was have a beer at 7am on a hammock or take a nap at 4pm, or hike a mountain and hitch-hike my way back to my Airbnb (which was a boat with a cute black cat). I felt out of my comfort zone and yet in my element at the same time. That trip changed me. I returned to New York and suddenly my life felt more lackluster than ever. Hawaii was just the amuse bouche to my first real big adventure: solo traveling through Dubai, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore. I met a girl at the Dubai International Airport and ended up hanging out with her all day (from riding camels to riding the metro to Old Dubai), I got food poisoning in Thailand, ended up in Indonesia by mistake where I did a sunrise hike of Mount Batur (where I quickly decided I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro at some point in my life), and hated Singapore (why was a drink $20?). I finally had relieved pressure and deadlines from myself and felt free.
“Slow down, you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight
Too bad but it’s the life you lead
You’re so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you’re wrong, you know
You can’t always see when you’re right.”
I continued to balance work, travel, and music, and my life was feeling right. For the first time, I felt content, which for someone who is always striving for more is a terrifying feeling. If there’s something I never want to be in life, it’s content. I was making money, ticking off several new countries every year, and singing with a band who truly cared about my creative input. But I wasn’t hungry. And the five-year-old who HAD to be the first one done with her assignments, even if that meant coloring outside of the lines, needed to always stay hungry. So, what’s next? I decided to take my new passion for travel a leap further. I was going to truly free myself by leaving everything (and I mean everything; friends, relationships, job, dog, family, apartment, bed, clothes) behind. With many steps in between, I shed myself of my beloved collection of colorful fur coats to my friend Derrien, my bed to the corner of Berry St and Division Ave, my $2800/month Brooklyn apartment for a friend’s couch. My dog went on a vacation to upstate New York to live with my parents in their giant backyard instead of the concrete streets of Brooklyn (something tells me he won the biggest prize out of this whole thing), and I walked away from my well-paying fun bartending gig with the best bosses I ever had. Why? Why would someone who finally garnered security walk away from everything a person is to ever want? Well, because… I wasn’t hungry.
The first few months of my life on the road were anything but easy. I thought I’d jump into the travel world, write vigorously, and quickly garner tens of thousands of Instagram followers due to my amazing content, and my ability to be the sole person who takes my own photos as a sign of true independence and being a woman who asks for nothing. Was it me trying to be Britney Spears all over again? After crashing and burning two months into the trip after cramming in fourteen countries (a very rough day in South Korea where I hit an all-time low confirmed this), I decided to do something I had never done before: slow down.
My next stop on the trip was Japan, a place I had previously visited and knew I loved, so instead of only spending a week or two there like I had originally planned, I sent an e-mail to a company to rent an apartment for six weeks. They wrote back almost immediately and confirmed it was mine if I wanted it, so with little thought, I suddenly had an apartment in Tokyo. That apartment changed not only this trip, but my outlook on life. How much can you truthfully do in Tokyo in six weeks? Well, you can certainly do a lot- it’s a bustling city like New York with a never-ending list of how to spend your days. But, my extended time in Japan reminded me that this trip is not a vacation; it’s a journey. I looked up all of the touristic things to do, I visited each neighborhood and fell in love with their unique quirks, I took awkward tripod-selfies at several temples, and it all felt so fake. Was I doing this to post on Instagram? Was I doing this to say I’ve “lived in Japan?” Was I doing this to fulfill some type of void that could never possibly be filled by spending six weeks in Japan, or quitting my job, or moving to LA, or graduating early, or moving to NYC? What was it I was trying to prove?
I learned I didn’t need to prove anything. I just needed to slow down. I needed to get in touch with myself. I spent more time in that tiny boxed-up apartment in Japan self-reflecting, drinking shitty 711 wine, cooking Japanese yams and enoki mushrooms with rice and soba noodles, than I did exploring Japan. I needed Japan but not for the reasons I thought I did. I remember the day I finally left Japan; I felt ready to move on, but I felt inner shifts that could only be described as the way you’d blame an ex-lover for something; “Fucking Japan did this to me!” I felt like a new stronger version of me. I felt raw, maybe even heartbroken in a way, but I finally felt like I was on my way to recovery. You can only heal by facing your shit in the mirror, getting real and gritty and pouring salt in the wound and truly feeling your pain. You will never heal by avoiding your pain and jumping onward to the next best thing.
“You’ve got your passion, you’ve got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true.”
After Japan, I was thrown into another worldly universe: India. India was a totally different type of challenge: being a woman traveling alone throughout the golden triangle is not for the faint of heart, to say the least. But the timing couldn’t have been better; because I finally felt like I had nothing to prove, so I had no problem accepting that I could not handle India, and to get the hell out of there. Stubborn, dream-chaser, aggressive little me, pre-Japan, would have never admitted this. I would’ve stuck it out despite not even wanting to, simply to prove a point.
The remainder of my round-the-world trip became a total wing-it-as-we-go journey from that point on. I stopped worrying about seeing every damn tourist attraction in the world (sorry to say, but in my opinion, Europe is redundant; how many statues of a person I don’t know am I supposed to walk by and how many “central squares” do I need to see?), people at hostels would say, “How long are you in Budapest for?” and I’d say, “I have no idea.” I finally did climb Kilimanjaro, disconnected from Instagram and Facebook for a whole six days (a miracle for a girl in this current world).
I tried to check into a flight to Cairo, Egypt from Nairobi, Kenya, to find out it was cancelled. While there was an understandable level of frustration, I thought, “Oh well,” and just booked the next best flight out.
I am not saying to not set goals for yourself. Setting goals for yourself is not only motivational, it’s necessary. But if traveling has taught me anything, it’s to stop putting deadlines on things, and to stop romanticizing things that may never happen. I stopped saying things like, “I want to see all seven continents by age thirty,” to just saying, “I want to see all seven continents.” I stopped pretending I have space for certain people in my life when I truly had lost the capacity to fit them in, which has little to do with them and much more to do with a new level of respect for myself. Traveling doesn’t only change your perspective on the world, but maybe more importantly, your own world.
“You know that when the truth be told,
You can get what you want or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you.”
It has now become a yearly tradition to listen to “Vienna” every year on July 19th, the day before my birthday. Perhaps this has all been derived of the fear of getting old. Age is just a societal pressure to “have children before 35,” “be married by 30,” “enjoy your 20’s,” or any other bullshit standard that blatantly puts subliminal pressure on us, females in particular. It’s just a number, after all. I may be coming back from this long-term backpacking adventure with less belongings and cash I’ve ever had in my life, but I have a newfound outlook, acceptance, and respect for the world around me. And most importantly, I finally like myself again.
Kaitlyn spent six months traveling around the world.