After I have been travelling for three months at the beginning of this year – to Java, Bali and Australia – coming home was like a shock. This really caught me by surprise, as I was born and raised in Berlin, call myself a true Berliner and up until now could never understand people who claimed to be overwhelmed by the city. Little did I know …
What hit me has a name. I call it the „emotional jetlag”. This specific type of jetlag doesn’t mess with your sleeping rhythm but has you feeling completely out of tune with everything. You don’t feel right where you are, not in the city, not in your apartment. The meanest part of it is that you don’t understand what’s wrong with you.
In my case, this weird feeling lasted two weeks and I was really suffering, as I didn’t understand what was happening to me. From the outside, everything seemed to be just fine: I was awake during the day, even got up relatively early and went outside every morning to get some fresh air, to run, to cycle or to go inline skating. At night I slept like a baby. All good then? Not really.
If you don’t have such problems, you can really consider yourself lucky. You seem to be blessed with extraordinary flexibility!
If you do know this phenomenon and have some magic tricks of your own on how to deal with it, please do share them in the commentaries. For everybody else: this article is for you! In it, I will share how I managed to survive these two weeks and let you know what still helps me to arrive even more.
There are also a few tips for friends and family who have stayed at home and who might also need help in dealing with the confused homecomers.
At the beginning of this year, I allowed myself the first long timeout of my life and went travelling for three months. I sat through a 10 days silent meditation vipassana camp in Java, had a fairly serious accident with a scooter on Bali (of course!) which left me with a few small scars and a better understanding of the engine, practised a bit of yoga, danced my ass off at some ecstatic dances, wondered around open-mouthed between the giant super trees in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, went to my very first black metal yoga class, tried some capoeira and body percussion, visited a dome house in the pouring rain in the rain forest in Nimbin, Australia, along with the sweetest hippie family ever, as well as decadent model houses in Gold Coast, with walk-in wardrobes that I will never be able to afford …
For three months I had only worn flip-flops. Insects were part of my world, as well as temples, incense and offerings. I had lived in the jungle, at the beach, surrounded by lush green and blue. And by all colours of the rainbow that seemed to grow right into my mouth in the form of the most delicious tropical fruit – dragon fruit, mangosteen, mango, snakeskin fruit, papaya …
Most of all though, I was touched by the many unusually intense human encounters. I may have boarded my plane alone, but really I wasn’t really alone after that.
I have been met with unbelievable hospitality and a stunning openness from many sides, and that has definitely changed me.
And it’s true what the people say: in Bali, strangers smile at you for no apparent reason and even if you’re not part of their community as a westerner, you are still carried and held by the energy that radiates from this society which is organized as a community. And of course, you’re also part of the travellers’ community, especially in Bali. Most of those who come here are looking for connection and authentic relating. Many are looking for the „Eat, Pray, Love feeling” of connection. With themselves, with Mother Nature, with the source with a bigger whole.
But also in Australia people were incredibly open towards me: a charming apple vendor at Queen Victoria Market was open enough to make a three days romance happen which continues till today as a genuine friendship (including plans for a reunion in the desert of Nevada this summer) and in Gold Coast, I was welcomed by my email-pen pal who I had met only a year ago on a flight from Berlin to Paris and with whom I had up until then only exchanged emails. He let me stay in his home and now we are friends for life. In Nimbin, my new friend Steve, whom I had met in Bali, showed us the dome house he is building close to the house of his friend Gito von Schlippe, a German artist who lives in the rainforest with his family. They served us homemade chai tea and I still use the hand-formed blue and grey clay pot that Gito made, when I drink my first coffee in the morning.
And then I was home again. After my sister picked me up at the airport and dropped me home, I was: Home Alone. In Berlin. Neukölln. My house, my keys, my apartment. Oh Lord, the apartment! Objectively seen my apartment is a real beauty: Pre-WWII, by the canal, two rooms with balcony, fourth floor, bright, light wooden board floor. But empty. Cold. Deserted. And as my subtenant had moved out already a while ago, a thin layer of dust was covering everything. The air was standing. I opened the window and took some deep breaths.
In the first days, I felt like an intruder when I opened my very own drawers to take out clothes. It felt as though I was going through somebody else’s things. Maybe there was some truth to the idea … I wondered: was I still the same person I was when I left?
I felt lonely in my apartment. It was too big and too quiet. All of a sudden I realised that I had almost always had company in the last three months. I feel too old to sleep in hostel dorms, and so I always had my own room, but I had always been part of a community. Usually, I would wake up and wander outside to the terrace where I would find my changing neighbours/friends, with which I chatted before the landlady came by with breakfast.
I have always enjoyed living alone and sharing a flat was never what I wanted. Yet now, after my trip, for the first time in my life, I get an idea of what people talk about when they talk about the dangers of increased isolation in big cities.
Putting yourself out there.
In order to escape the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere in my apartment, I went out as much as I could. Preferably right after waking up, so as not to fall victim to lethargy. Go for a walk, get some exercise or take your laptop, a book or your notebook/diary with you and sit down in the sun at your favourite coffee shop.
Still, as much as I tried and as much as Berlin tried – cherry blossoms by the canal! – the weird feeling persisted. Maybe it had to do with the people …
The human factor.
Wherever I looked: people looked stone-faced. Nobody looked or smiled at me or seemed to even notice that I existed. Generally speaking, the energy was very different. There was more tension and I could feel a certain pressure. It seemed as if all that people cared about was the job, the career, their appearance, mobile phones, cars, apartments … What about the person behind all that?
On a human level, I think I simply missed my travel friends. Which seems normal after all this time.
To all my friends and family: I love you dearly from the bottom of my heart! But shared adventures in foreign countries have the effect of bringing people close in a very special way.
With my travel friends, the conversations revolved primarily around self-realization and, of course, travel. Topics that I am passionate about.
Many of my friends at home are currently most interested in children, weddings, real estate …
That’s probably not so unusual with people my age and it’s my decision that I don’t want that. However, when I came back, it felt extra weird.
Lost in translation.
Even if some will be eager to hear of your adventures – while some will not even ask – it is simply hard to put into words all the crazy and exciting things that you experienced on your journey, without turning the account into a chronological recital or a sober kind of condensed summary of the „highlights”, that don’t do it justice. What’s more is, that you probably already sent a bunch of pictures through some messenger, so that your people at home justifiably feel like they were there with you and that they already know the story. Which doesn’t prevent you from wanting to tell your story. And you want to be asked. The bottom line is that it’s probably a little difficult for all involved to strike the right note.
Talk is cheap.
In order to help run the conversation a little smoother, here are some conversation tips:
Tips for those who stayed at home:
Signal your interest and look for points to relate to. You can start by referring to moments already shared in a message or through a sent picture, and ask for more details about it. Ask questions that don’t only relate to the activity itself, but ask about how that made the person feel or what was so special about it. Try also to be a little more specific than just asking: „So, how was it?”. I personally like questions about what struck or surprised me most. If you ask me this, I really get going.
Tips for the returning traveller:
Try and put yourself into the position of the others, too. Of course, they want to know about your adventures, but just as you don’t know where to start telling, maybe they don’t know where to start asking. Plus: It was YOUR trip and YOUR experience. Life went on for the others as well and they have had adventures, too. Maybe they don’t sound as exotic as yours at first glance, but they are what’s most important to them. Remember to also ask them about what happened in their worlds. And if somebody really doesn’t ask, but you really want to tell them: Say so. Be brave and say it. Tell them, you really would like to tell them and ask for a moment of their time. It’s not so hard, you’ll see.
How to get through the crisis
Things that won’t help you to handle the emotional jetlag in a healthy way, but are fine – for a limited time:
Completely overwhelmed with everything I fell into a weird mood in which I did the exact opposite of what would probably have done me good. Instead of practising yoga and meditation and eating clean and healthy, I surrendered and binge-watched Game of Thrones, season 1 to 4 in 2 weeks. My TV meals consisted of Easter chocolate. Where had my self-love gone?! In hindsight I think, it was stuck somewhere with my soul, somewhere on their long way back, and simply hadn’t made it back home yet. It seems that there is some truth to the old saying that the soul always walks. It doesn’t take the plane, so it needs a little longer to arrive.
I knew that something was wrong, I just couldn’t exactly say what and why. And I didn’t know when it would be over. Even though I never gave up hope that some fine day, it would be over.
I observed my own misery and was, in a rather strange way, both conscious and at the same time completely unmindful. I was watching myself without being able to stop or change anything about how I felt and behaved. So I just went on binge-watching and stuffing myself with chocolate. At least, I left the house every day! And I practised on my new ukulele, that my Australian friend Austin bought for me as a gift.
And then, this „one fine day” finally came and it was all over. All of a sudden I understood the true nature of this emotional jetlag, understood how it works and saw it through.
A veil is lifted.
It was on my birthday. Being too overwhelmed with everything I hadn’t announced it to many people but had convinced a dear friend to take his boat and go for a „ride” on the canal. It was a beautiful day with clear skies and as I lay back in the boat and looked into this blue sky and the fresh green of the trees, it struck me: With a bang, I suddenly saw all the beauty around me and realised that I was living a beautiful moment. A „moment to remember” with someone very dear to me. It was as if a veil had suddenly been lifted.
All of a sudden I could see everything in a much clearer light, feel everything more intensely again and let life touch me. My soul had arrived. I had gained 21 grams but felt so much lighter.
And so the emotional jetlag disappeared. As unsuspected as it had appeared. I waved good-bye and then it was gone. A slight aftertaste lingered on my tongue for a short while, and then it was gone for good.
With fresh eyes and a new found grounding, I understood: Every place on this planet has its own beauty. And you can find as much beauty at home as when you travel. You just have to open your eyes. And your heart. And be in touch with your soul.
Little tricks that can make the landing easier:
To be honest: I knew some of these tricks all the time, but still didn’t follow them. Because sometimes it just doesn’t work as the way from the head to the heart and the gut can be quite long sometimes. Or blocked. Of others, I only thought much later and would have wished to know them earlier. Although … even if I had known them, I might not have put them into practice …
- Try to plan your trip so that you come back in spring when it’s starting to be warmer again and new beginnings lie in the air.
- Be prepared that it won’t be easy. At best, you’ll have a positive surprise.
- Don’t start working straight away if you can.
- Give your city the same chance you give any travel destination. Walk through it as if you were a tourist: open and curious.
- Try to keep an open mind (a beginner’s mind) and try to wonder lightly about things instead of letting yourself be stressed by them.
- If you ride your bike a lot, you can use an app, which helps you find alternative routes from a to b and transform the way to work into a discovery tour.
- Get enough sleep but don’t fall into lethargy.
- Keep in touch with your travel friends, even though the intensity of your exchange will change over time. Exchange with other travellers, who might have made similar experiences.
- Did you bring back spices, a special coffee or tea? Some local delicacy? Music, clothes, incense or perfume? By using these, you can make the holiday feeling come alive again in your own home. (As previously mentioned, I use Gito’s clay pot every morning for my bali kopi, and when I want something salty, I make myself a sandwich with cucumber and Australian concentrated veggie spread).
Vegetable breakfast spread from Australia.
- Practice self-love: be gentle with yourself, allow yourself to be slower and less active than usual, sit with and feel the sadness and irritation, but be aware also of what your body needs right now: go outside, practice yoga, meditate …
- Try to listen to as little music as possible via headphones when you’re outside. What may at first feel like a cosy retreat into your safe music space, does actually cut you off the outside world even more, which reinforces the feeling of isolation.
- Generally, avoid spending too much time on your mobile phone and social media channels. Instead, concentrate on the here and now. My newest trick is to disable all notifications on my phone. This way I can decide for myself when and if I want to communicate. This really helps me to be much more present.
- Tidy out your home. Whilst travelling you will have noticed that you actually don’t need much and how pleasant it is to be independent of material things. Clearing out also mostly brings about a mental cleansing and chances are that you will feel much lighter with everything you get rid of. If you don’t want to throw away your belongings: donate them, give them away or sell them. This way, you know that somebody else will take pleasure in them.
- But most of all: Give yourself time! If you feel weird: Trust that this too shall pass 🙂 and don’t stress yourself even more by trying to function smoothly from day one.
So. That’s it from my side. Almost three weeks have passed since my return and the emotional jetlag is still nowhere to be seen. So far I have not suffered a relapse but can find more and more beauty in my city every day. I feel good and am making plans for my life, for the next trip … while I enjoy being where I am right now: in the here and now.
Much love, your Noémie