Travel Stories: Some struggle to separate love and lust. Elisabeth Eaves has had a harder time distinguishing love from wanderlust.
02.12.09 | 9:47 AM ET
I met the first person I fell in love with on an airplane. He was 17 and off to England with his rugby team, a posse of blond boys in blue-striped jerseys sitting near the back of our jet. I was 16, on a school trip to Europe, and we talked sitting shoulder to shoulder on the floor, feigning a more sophisticated knowledge of our upcoming itineraries than we actually possessed. He called a couple of weeks after I returned home and, a few months after that, took me to his graduation ball.
As I entered my senior year of high school, he scrimped and saved, working two jobs while living with his dad, and bought himself a ticket to see the world. It wasn’t until after he left, and began sending me notes from afar, that I began to really fall for him. There was no email back then, and I sometimes wonder how my life might have been different if there had been. Would emails have been as alluring as his regular light-as-dust aerograms, written in a dense ballpoint scrawl? Once he mailed a photograph of himself, now with longer hair and darker skin, accompanied by a letter saying he was living in a trailer and picking fruit. Later he mailed a small bag of pebbles collected on a Grecian beach, with instructions to put them in water so that they would shine like they had when he found them. From my circumscribed life of homework and curfews and college applications, I was so captivated by his voyage—by the fact that you could just do that, go off into the world and let it carry you along—that after awhile I couldn’t be sure where wanting him stopped and wanting to be him began.
Our paths long ago diverged. But two decades on, the most recurrent features of my love life remain airplanes and letters. I’ve met people who can’t separate love and lust; for me the tricky distinction is between love and wanderlust. They’re both about wanting and seeking and hoping to be swept away, so lost in the moment that the rest of the world recedes from view.
Some people spend their lives looking for anchors. For years, I cut ties as fast as I formed them, always struggling to be free. I had known for a long time that I was inordinately peripatetic, but it wasn’t until I was in my hometown, Vancouver, a couple of years ago, trying to get to know a friend of a friend, that I realized how unusual my path had become. I asked Jen to tell me about her work and her fiancé, the two compass points, I figured, of her existence. She told me a little—she worked for her family’s engineering firm, she would get married in Hawaii—and then asked me where I had been living all these years. I started to answer, but I had lived a lot of different places, and the whole circuitous route was too convoluted to explain. What period of time counted as “living” somewhere, anyway? What about extended periods on the road? I did a quick calculation.
“I haven’t lived in Vancouver for more than 16 years,” I said. As the words came out of my mouth, the figure struck me as stark, made all the more so by my utter lack of a concrete life.
Then Jen asked, “Don’t you like it here?”
Her question made me realize how wide the gulf was between us. As someone with wanderlust and someone without, we were foreigners to each other. “No, it’s lovely, it’s beautiful,” I said. And on some level I meant it. If Vancouver’s residents are a touch smug, it’s because they feel lucky to have ended up in a Shangri-La of dramatic scenery and socialized medicine. To me, though, those qualities are beside the point, because wanderlust, like adultery, is not about that which is being left. It’s about the person doing the leaving. I felt like Jen was my pretty, perfect spouse asking me, “How could you?” And I was the cad telling her I just couldn’t say no to my urges.
“Wanderlust,” the very strong or irresistible impulse to travel, is a perfect word, adopted untouched from the German, presumably because it couldn’t be improved upon. Workarounds like the French “passion du voyage” don’t quite capture the same meaning. Wanderlust is not a passion for travel exactly, it’s something more animal and more fickle—more like lust. We don’t lust after very many things in life. We don’t need words like “worklust” or “homemakinglust.” But travel? The essayist Anatole Broyard put it perfectly: “Travel is like adultery: one is always tempted to be unfaithful to one’s own country. To have imagination is inevitably to be dissatisfied with where you live ... in our wanderlust, we are lovers looking for consummation.”
In my chronic chasing of that consummation, wanderlust has taken me both into romantic entanglements and out of them.
I met Stu when I was a senior in college in Seattle. That romance, too, started on an itinerant note. We bonded talking about the time we had spent abroad—in my case studying in Egypt, in his, learning sculpture in Bali. I was planning to spend the summer in Pakistan; shortly after I left he volunteered to join me, and did. Someone who could regard this as so natural a course of action was surely someone for me. I was so taken with this man that not long after we returned to Seattle, I embroiled myself in the heavy weight of domesticity. We moved in together, became engaged, and bought the mother of all fixer-uppers.
Overwhelmed by love, my wanderlust had gone into abeyance like a briefly dormant volcano. But there was so much of the world I hadn’t seen yet. There were lives—so many—that I hadn’t experimented with. What if I was meant to be a spy or an aid worker or a scuba-diving instructor? What if I was meant to be a writer in New York? And forget even what I was meant to be. What would it feel like to just wander the world, knowing I could stand on my own two feet? The idea of roaming intoxicated me to the point that I couldn’t look at the glossy cover of a travel magazine, or browse the travel section of a bookstore, without getting a lump in my throat.
I began to resent the person I loved for keeping me from all those other possible lives. And so I left. I would come back, I said. I just had to get away for a few months.