Wherever you go, there you are. And wherever you are, there is someone who wants to be somewhere else. After living in the United States, Denmark, Peru, Spain, South Korea and now Turkey, I have often been asked the question with which anyone who has spent any time living abroad has been repeatedly faced: Why (insert name of city or country)? The tone and the way in which it is asked is telling. The question is posed not with mere curiosity, but genuine bewilderment. As someone from a so-called western and affluent country, someone who presumably has the luxury to select their place of residence, why would you willingly choose to live here?
Whenever I’m asked, I first mentally scroll through the potential reasons. They include: the thrill of taking a leap into the unknown; a desire to explore a new geographical region and learn about a new culture through its language, food, music and literature; to meet new people from different social, economic and religious backgrounds; to get a new stamp on my passport; to see the world ‘out there’ first hand rather than just learning about it through the education system; because someone in a hostel once said I hadn’t really lived until I’d been there; because living in the basement of my childhood home and working at the local mall was just too depressing; because if I focused now only on getting a job with a high salary I’d probably be too sad and tired by the time I retired to want to leave the comfort of my house and my well-earned swimming pool; and because I could get hit by a car and die any day and so I’d better do what I want to do now. The list could go on, but I generally then settle on the cliched yet true saying: The grass is always greener on the other side.
In addition to neatly summing up the central sentiment of this piece, it’s a nice opportunity for a quick English lesson to those unacquainted with the phrase. The grass is always greener on the other side. The image is simple and clear and the truth to which it points is pervasive. The allure of elsewhere always trumps the known reality of the present. No matter how rich and rewarding our current life may be, some deeply human drive within us always yearns for something else, something more, something that someone else, somewhere else, embodies. The paradox, of course, is that if everyone wants what someone else seems to have then no one is content with what they themselves possess. Americans and English dream of Istanbul and Barcelona, while Turks and Spaniards dream of New York City and London. Businessmen want to be artists and artists desire financial stability. Single people desire intimacy and married people long for independence. These examples are over-simplified but the essential point remains: we want what we don’t have. The grass is greener on the other side. Everywhere I’ve lived I’ve encountered people who dream of living somewhere else, doing something else and, perhaps most importantly, being someone else. And I have succumbed to this mentality just as much as, if not more than, most. Those who have traveled long enough know that wanderlust only gets worse.
But I’ve found yet another cliche to be true–that traveling, paradoxically, enlightens us as to our similarities just as much as it exposes our differences. Everywhere, people criticize the government, complain about the traffic, lament the lost character of their neighborhoods and agree that today’s youth are degenerate. And everywhere people want to have decent jobs, good friends, family and relationships and they want their children to flourish and to have rewarding, full lives. And so when a local asks me, ‘why here?’ and I reply, ‘why not? The grass is always greener on the other side,’ I mean to say that all the things they dislike about their country may in fact be the very aspects which drew me and other foreigners there in the first place (just as they may be enticed to my home country for the same reasons that I left it). Every place has its imperfections and no place can live up to the expectations we conjure in our own imaginations. Everywhere is the same and different. So it’s worth it, to pick a place, go there, and see for yourself.
I always respected my Aunt Elizabeth, whose biggest journey in life was to her university’s campus, a few hours away from her hometown. She never flew on a plane, never visited another country and never owned a smart phone, let alone a computer. I loved stopping by her modest home at the end of a quiet, residential street, where she’d lived for most of her life. It was simply furnished and she had a small TV on which she watched the nightly news. I’d visit her every time I was back home, in between travels. We’d eat dinner at the table in her kitchen and would then sit in her living room and chat. Inevitably, the conversation would reach a point at which she’d say how amazed she was by my ability to travel and live abroad. ‘Are you eating ok? What’s the weather like over there? Do you have warm enough clothes? Are the people nice?’ she’d ask with a look of true puzzlement, concern and awe. The thing I most respected about her was that, as curious as she was about my adventures, she never had any desire to live such a life herself. She was happiest at home, in her community, making an impact on the lives of those immediately around her. She had carved out her contented place in the world. And though I was captivated by travel and movement and didn’t have any interest in a sedentary life, I was always happy to see her there in her little house at the end of the street. This was the rare instance, I suppose, of the grass being equally green on both sides.
All photos courtesy of Ryan Brennan.