I LEFT MY HEART IN YORK

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I’ve left my heart in more places than one.

It’s an inevitable side-effect of incessant wanderlust. I no longer feel like I have a “home” in Australia – simply a base to come back to and recharge. The idea of staying put in one place is incomprehensible to me. I can’t imagine a life without exploration and freedom.

I fall in love with some places more than others. There are some places I never want to leave; some places I feel innately drawn to. York has become one of these places.

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It’s simply magical. There’s something in the air, a feeling that I can’t describe in words. It’s something that you have to experience first-hand. There’s an energy of complete peace.

York is the quintessential English country town. It’s not small – it was the largest city in northern England for centuries – but it’s certainly not on the mass scale of London. I like this – rather than feeling lost in a sea of busyness and commotion, you are able to soak up the atmosphere. Rather than feeling like an observer, you feel like an active participant in the city’s life and history.

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And what a history! Walking around the streets feels like you’ve stepped back in time. It’s another world. The city actively restores and promotes it’s historical roots – museums take you back to the Roman and Viking settlements, and the current town still retains its medieval charm. It was so refreshing to see a city preserving its history rather than building upon it.

Perhaps my favourite thing about York (or at least on par with its historical charm) were the people! I’m not exaggerating when I say that York is home to the friendliest, kindest people that I’ve ever met in my life. Everyone from the bed & breakfast lady who made me vegetarian breakfasts and did my laundry, to the waitress and chef who spent a great deal of their work time chatting to me instead of serving and cooking… I met some of the loveliest people in the world in York. Like, over-and-above kindness. Bless them.

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I said earlier that I couldn’t see myself staying put in one place. While this is true, if one day I were to retire my tired old bones, I would retire in York. I would get a small farm just outside town, so I could keep my horses and dogs and 214 cats. I would go into town everyday and eat lunch at the vegan cafe I found. I would exchange small-talk with my fellow Yorkers on the street. I would meet my grandma friends for tea and scones at the tea houses. After a life of exploration and adventure, I would live out my days enjoying the peace and friendliness that is inherent in York.

Who knows? It’s a nice idea, but I have no clue what the future holds. For now, I know that I left a piece of myself in York. I know that I will return one day. Because when you leave a part of yourself somewhere, you will inevitably go back to it.

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MY TOP 5: ROME EDITION

Ah, Rome. The Eternal City. Romanticised in art, literature, music and film. And I know why. In Rome you are able to appreciate just how small you are, as you stand amongst centuries of history. It really is eternal; the time and space we occupy is but a fraction in the life of this city.

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Roman Ruins

No where else in the world can you experience and appreciate Roman history as in its birthplace. The city is scattered with remnants from its glorious past, but the most well-known (and deservedly so) are the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Seeing these ruins for the first time is awe-inspiring. You are face-to-face with the great Roman Empire. You don’t need to have studied Roman history to appreciate that this era was one of incredible innovation. But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

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Piazza Navona

One word: carnival. Piazza Navona is one of the liveliest, most colourful places in the entire city. From the occasional ferris wheel, to street artists, to those carnival games that are impossible to win – you will wander around in awe and amazement. Or maybe I’m just a child at heart.

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Vatican City

Rome has been the centre of Christendom since 323 when Emperor Constantine made it not-illegal to practice Christianity in his empire. Sure, there have been a few ups and downs, but historically the head of the Catholic Church has had his seat in St Peters, the heart of Vatican City. This is the epitomisation of Renaissance Rome. The highlight of the Vatican for me was the museums. Every historical and contemporary piece of artwork that the Papacy has ever stolen is contained here, now so graciously put on display for us laymen to admire. Everything from Greek to Roman to Medieval to Renaissance, even with some modern art thrown in. It’s art history Mecca. Except that it’s Christian.

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Castel Sant’Angelo

Originally the mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian (yes, he built things other than the wall), Castel Sant’Angelo became a papal fortress and prison during the early Renaissance. It captured my attention long ago after hearing the stories of torture and death that occurred within its walls, but it’s bloody history is a stark contrast to the lavish papal apartments contained in the upper storeys. It’s a comfortable hiding place when the plebs decide to riot.

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Piazza del Popolo

This spot made the list for two reasons. First of all, the piazza itself is always bustling with activity. At night it turns into an amazing spectacle of insanely-talented street musicians and people wandering around with gelati. Secondly, if you hike up the hill right beside it, you will get one of the best views over the city. And you know how I love climbing.

POMPEII: WHERE PAST MEETS PRESENT

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men… People bewailed their own fate… and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore… I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.

– Pliny the Younger

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It’s a strange feeling walking around the streets of a city that was literally buried in time. Pompeii was lost in 79 AD, and it lay preserved underground until it was rediscovered hundreds of years later. Nothing had changed; time had just stopped.

Due to the 4+ metre layer of ash, the city is almost perfectly preserved. You can wander around the ancient city on the very streets that the people used to try and escape. You can explore their houses, their temples, their bakeries, and their public spaces. You can discover how they lived, right up until their last moments. You can walk in their final footsteps.

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And the really eerie thing is, they literally were their final moments. The plaster casts of people and animals as they lay dying take on a whole new meaning when you see them in their context rather than in a museum. The contorted postures reveal just how unbearable the heat and suffocation must have been. It’s a very strange thing looking at someone as they died in perhaps the most horrific way imaginable.

We can only imagine how horrific it must have been for them. They lived in a completely different world. Volcanoes only erupt like this once every thousands of years. It was certainly something the likes of which had never been seen by anyone remotely close to their generation. As terrifying as the situation would be today, it must have been a hundred times worse for them because they had no idea what was happening, Their whole world was ending.

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Looking up from the ruins you see a looming reminder of the events of 79 AD in Mount Vesuvius. Despite there being not a cloud in the sky, an eerie shadow remained over the mountain all day. There was a point where I was looking at the volcano from the remnants of the forum and I realised that I was looking at the very same entity that they had been observing, in entirely different circumstances.

Pompeii has been on my bucket-list for a long time – well before I studied it as part of my archaeology major. It’s always held a certain fascination for me, purely for the fact that it literally disappeared overnight. Everything that defined the city – buildings, arenas, forums, people – was buried along with it, frozen in time only to be discovered hundreds of years later. It’s one of very few places in the world where the past has remained untouched by subsequent developments and cultures.

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The fact that the site has become a major tourist destination is both good and bad. I think that history plays such an important part in crafting who we are as a society that people should be interested and want to learn about the cultures that preceded them. I think it’s amazing that we all share this fascination about the city that was buried alive.

However, hoards of tourists meandering through the ruins every year means that conservation is impossible. The city is falling apart. The respect for the site and for its people is, for the most part, non-existent. It’s a tough debate, but maybe there comes a time when, after we’ve discovered all there is to discover, we should rebury these sites and leave them as we found them. Maybe there comes a time when we should let the city and its inhabitants rest in peace.

MY TOP 10: FLORENCE EDITION

Florence will forever be my favourite city in the world. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve studied here twice, or maybe it’s just that amazing, but every time I come back it feels like I’m returning home. So this list was especially hard, because trying to narrow down a city as diverse and fantastic as Florence into a “Top 10” just can’t be done. This just scratches the surface of centuries worth of history, culture, art, architecture and food.

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Piazza del Duomo

Comprised of the Duomo, Campanile, and Baptistery, the Piazza del Duomo is probably the most iconic site in Florence. For centuries, this has been the centre of Florence’s religious life, and the iconic image of Brunelleschi’s dome is what distinguishes the Florentine skyline. Climbing the Duomo and/or Giotto’s Campanile will give you a fantastic view of the city and it’s immediate layout – just maybe don’t plan to do them both on the same day like we did, unless you relish that lactic acid!

Fratellini

If there’s only one place you go in Florence, make it Fratellini’s. Best. Panini. Ever. Seriously, these guys make the best sandwiches I’ve ever tasted in my life. Just go there, it will be worth it, I promise.

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Ponte Vecchio

Another iconic Florentine symbol, the Ponte Vecchio or “Old Bridge” is another must-see tourist destination. It’s the oldest bridge in Florence, and was the only bridge along the Arno that wasn’t destroyed in WWII. Historically, it has always been home to merchants trying to sell their wares; however now the expensive gold jewellery is a little out of my price range.

The Uffizi 

One of my favourite galleries in the world. For someone who studied Renaissance art, this is Mecca. Probably the most well-known pieces to marvel at are Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and La Primavera, and my personal favourite, da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi… Which I still haven’t seen in person because for the last 3 years its been under restoration. One day…

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The Oltrarno

Many people forget that there is another side to Florence. Literally, the city continues on the opposite banks of the Arno river. Historically, this was the poorer side of town, and perhaps this is why many people skip it today. However, it’s home to some must-see sites, including Palazzo Pitti and the enormous Boboli Gardens, Piazzale Michelangelo, and my personal favourite, San Miniato al Monte.

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Santa Croce

If you’re a history nerd like myself, this will fast become one of your favourite churches. This is where anyone who was anyone in Florentine society was buried. From the likes of Michelangelo to Raphael, and Galileo to Machiavelli, this Franciscan cathedral contains all your favourite Florentines in one convenient place. No really, the fact that all these historical figures are metres away is really mind-blowing. Eerily fascinating.

The Accademia

If you only go here to see Michelangelo’s David, it will be worth it. The man is freaking perfect. Seriously, I’ve never seen such perfection in my life. It’s possible to spend hours sitting in awe of this one sculpture. The rest of the gallery isn’t bad either.

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Piazza della Repubblica 

Florentine nightlife comes alive in the Piazza della Repubblica. Ferris wheels, temporary displays and workshops, Champagne tasting, and people trying to sell you weird light-up flying mechanisms… This place has it all. It’s bright, it’s bustling, and its the gateway to some amazing restaurants.

La Spada

So I’ve eaten here each time I’ve been in Florence because the food is so delicious, and this time was no different. La Spada is home to the best waiter in the world, Ivan, who will go above and beyond to make sure you have the best culinary experience ever. And we did. So we went back twice more! Best service I’ve ever had. However much Ivan is being paid, it isn’t enough! I seriously cannot recommend this place highly enough.

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San Miniato al Monte

This spot is on the list not so much for the 11th-century church, but for its panoramic views over the city. However, if you’ve made the trek, you might as well see the Romanesque church too – it’s beautiful. Hike up here at sunset, the lighting is perfect. And if you feel like braving the cold, staying after the sun goes down and the lights come out is definitely worth it. This will forever be one of my favourite spots in the world.

IN FAIR VERONA

I’ve had a love affair with Verona from about the age of 11, when I first discovered the glorious specimen that is Leonardo DiCaprio. Though I didn’t understand a word of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation at that time, the appeal of the star-crossed lovers was enough to romanticise fair Verona.

Fast-forward three years and I was studying Shakespeare’s tragedy at school. I still question the judgement of whoever thought it was a good idea to give 14-year-olds a story about kids falling in love after an hour, getting married the next day, and killing themselves after a series of extremely frustrating twists of fate. Not to mention our school’s attempted censorship of the sex scene in Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation starring Olivia Hussey and the Zac Efron lookalike.

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If I had to pick one word to describe Verona it would be magical. The city still carries it’s Shakespearian charm, and tributes to Romeo and Juliet are everywhere. The old city walls bear a plaque famously quoting that “There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself”. And busts of Shakespeare. Everywhere.

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Although I’m about as far away from the lovelorn tourist as you can get, you absolutely cannot go to Verona and not go to Juliet’s house, Casa di Giulietta. Let me preface this by saying that Juliet probably didn’t live here; yes, the Shakespearian tragedy is fictional. However, the house did belong to the Cappelletti family, whom the story is likely to have been based upon. Despite the extremely distant connections, tourists flock here to post their letters to Juliet on the walls in the courtyard, and to stand on her balcony and await their Romeo. So we did. When in Verona, right?

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But Verona isn’t just a pilgrimage site for romantics. Any history nerd will feel right at home, with remnants dating back to the Roman Empire. The Veronese Arena is at the centre of the city, and still hosts entertainment for its citizens. Sure, it’s not the bloodbaths of ancient Rome, but if you don’t mind more sedated events like live music… If not, you can tour around the arena by day like we did, all the way from being spectator in the top tier to walking through the archway to begin a glorious and bloody fight to the death.

And just a side note on why Verona will forever by one of my favourite cities: vegetarian heaven. I’ve never seen so much vegetarian and vegan food in my life! As a vegetarian in Italy, I’m usually limited to pastas and pizzas (not complaining), but it to have vegan food that was based solely on vegetables and legumes… Freaking amazing. And you know how everything tastes better in Italy? Vegan food does too.

MY TOP 5: VENICE EDITION

Venice has always held a magical allure for me, and my second visit to the city was just as incredible as the first. There is no place like it. It’s the place where east meets west, and where the land meets the sea. It’s an amazing little piece of Byzantium in Italy. I hate choosing favourites, and my list was endless, but I’ve managed to narrow a busy itinerary down to my five top picks.

(These are all fairly touristy, and to get a real feel for the city you actually need to get lost in it’s maze of alleyways, but this will inevitably happen anyway!)

Piazza San Marco

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No visit to Venice would be complete without a visit to the tourist destination of Piazza San Marco. The square itself is the ideal place to sit and eat and people-watch. San Marco would have to be my favourite Italian church, possibly because it’s unlike any other Italian basilica I’ve ever seen. Inside it is a golden mosaic masterpiece, more Byzantine than Italian. Next door is Palazzo Ducale, the palace of the Doge. If you enjoy art, or if you simply want to step into the shoes of the uppermost echelon of Venetian society, the Palazzo is not to be missed.

Ponte Rialto

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The Rialto bridge is a Venetian icon. It’s the main causeway connecting the two islands that comprise the city, and has arguably the best vantage point from which to view the Canale Grande in it’s romantic glory. Although the boutique shops along the bridge are a tad pricey, wandering the streets around it you will find some incredible examples of Venetian craftsmanship – from iconic Murino glass, to eccentric Venetian masks.

Ice Skating

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When people ask me why I travel to Europe in winter, I usually cite the reduced prices and smaller number of tourists. But perhaps the best part of Europe in winter are the outdoor ice skating rinks! There’s something magical about ice skating in winter. Maybe it’s because we have nothing like it in Australia. At any rate, when we stumbled across the rink in Campo San Polo, we knew we had to go for it. Despite being double the age of everyone else there, this was definitely one of my highlights in Venice.

Gondolas

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What epitomises Venice better than the gondola? The romanticism of the city surely lies in the icon of the long boat, commandeered by a serenading gondolier. It’s something you have to do at least once in your life. Seeing the city from the canals gives you a completely different perspective, and watching the gondoliers expertly navigate the narrow causeways is captivating. It’s a side of Venice that you’re unable to see from the land.

The Ghetto

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Venice is home to the first ever Ghetto. It dates to 1516, when the Doge of Venice so graciously allowed the Jews to continue living in Venice, so long as they were quarantined in their own tiny enclave. Wandering through the ghetto, which is still home to some of the Venetian Jewish population, it is the only place that actually feels lived-in. In a city that feels extremely touristy, it’s a welcome escape.

4 REASONS TO PACK YOUR BAGS AND TRAVEL

I’m 21. I’m two exams away from completing my Bachelor degree (yes, it’s in Arts; it’s still a degree!!). I’m about to embark on my fifth overseas adventure in the space of five years. I’m at a place in my life where many friends are graduating, getting their dream jobs, or getting into their Honours or Masters courses to get their dream jobs. I decided a long time ago that this was not for me. I often get asked, “Why do you want to travel?”. So, rather than giving my stock “Why not travel?” answer, I sat down and listed all the benefits that travelling has given me, and the reasons you should pack your bags and travel too! 

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You gain independence

I used to think of myself as a pretty independent person. I was wrong. Travelling will reveal some harsh realities about yourself, perhaps the most confronting one being that you’re not nearly as self-sufficient as you’d like to believe. Not yet, anyway. A prime example came about while sharing an apartment with a group of university students in Italy. The time came when we had to wash our clothes by ourselves, for what I’m ashamed to say was the first time in my life. Apparently mixing colours and whites on a 90-degree cycle is a bad idea. Long story short, I looked like a multi-coloured tie-dyed hippie for the duration of my stay. I’m pleased to report that this was a few years ago now, and I’ve since learned how to operate a washing machine. Although this is a really trivial example, it is one of a long list of things you will learn to accomplish on your own – from trying to order food in a foreign language, to lugging a 30-kilo suitcase up the subway stairs (I’m a notorious art book collector), to navigating an unfamiliar city in search of your tiny and seemingly nonexistent hotel. Having successfully overcome all these challenges by myself, I now consider myself a fairly independent and self-sufficient 21-year-old.

(I’m embarrassed to admit that, having just spotted a gigantic spider on my bedroom wall, I’ve had to call my mum to come and kill it for me. Some things will never change.)

You are forced out of your comfort zone

Travelling is messy, unpredictable, and scary. But it’s also exciting, rewarding, and freeing. Unpredictability used to scare me. Four years ago, I would have dreaded the thought of not knowing how I was getting from A to B, or not even knowing where B was going to be. I’ve always been adventurous, but more in the form of planned adventure – I loved exploring, but I wanted to know what I was exploring and where I was going to end up. This just doesn’t happen when you travel. And it’s been the greatest gift to me. Now I love the idea of wandering city streets, getting lost in the maze of unfamiliar creativity. I love the idea of hopping on a train and riding it to the end of the line. Of climbing a mountain to its peak and taking in the view, not worrying about how I will get back down to earth. Travel has forced me out of my comfort zone, and taught me how to embrace the unfamiliar and unpredictable. It’s a much more fulfilling way to live. Life doesn’t alter to fit your plans. Let go and enjoy the journey.

You grow up

I realise that I’m only 21 and that I’ve still got a hell of a lot of maturing to do, but in all honesty, I feel like a bit of an old soul. Travelling, and especially solo travel, has forced me to grow up at a faster rate than I think I otherwise would have. When I look back on the person I was a few years ago, she is an entirely different person to who I am now. And I’m sure that when I’m 30 and looking back on who I am now, I’ll be a completely different person again. Evolution is important – experiences and decisions will change you, and this is a good thing! How boring life would be if we remained the same forever. I think travelling has accelerated this process for me. This is not to say that I’ll reach my ‘peak’ maturity by the time I’m 25 – far from it. I don’t think there is such a thing as an end to growth – it’s a constant and fluctuating process. But the things I’ve seen, learned, and experienced because of travel have changed me, and will continue to do so. When you broaden your horizons, and open yourself up to new ideas and experiences, growth and evolution is inevitable.

You become a world citizen

I’ve been travelling for my whole life – my mum travelled all the time for work, and my dad is European, so I was always jetting off to exciting places throughout my childhood and teenage years. I’ve seen five continents (all but Africa, where I am dying to go and I’m 100% positive that I will one day in the not-too-distant future!). Being exposed to so many cultures and so much diversity has made me appreciate that the world is much bigger than some people realise. In Australia, we are so incredibly sheltered and removed from everything. Sure, we have the internet, and we have the news, and we’re actually an extremely multi-cultural and diverse nation, but we really are isolated from the rest of the world. And I think that this leads some people to believe that Australia is the world. And nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve seen so many things that I would never have been exposed to at home: from extreme poverty in India and South America, to the extremely long and rich history of Europe. The world is so much bigger than my world, and the problems we face in Australia seem so trivial compared to children dying of starvation in an Indian slum. But the more places I travel, and the more diversity I encounter, the more I realise that we are all the same. People are people, and our similarities far outweigh our differences.

SEIZE THE DAY

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It’s nearing midnight and I’m physically and mentally exhausted, but I need to get this down while it’s still impacting me the way it is right now.

Many of you may have watched the Brittany Maynard video that’s currently taking over the internet (if you haven’t, go and do it right now). Having just watched it only a matter of minutes ago, I still have tears streaming down my cheeks. To summarise (doing her story the greatest injustice – seriously, go and watch the video), Brittany was diagnosed with brain cancer in January this year, and given only months to live. Rather than suffer through an extremely painful death, Brittany and her family moved to Oregon where their laws permit her to die with dignity, and she will pass away without pain when and where she chooses. Being a strong supporter of voluntary euthanasia, I don’t want to get into a debate on the topic here. I believe that people have the right to end their suffering when they choose to, and that no one should be forced to endure the type of death that comes with a painful terminal illness. You can read more about the Death with Dignity campaign here.

What really impacted me was Brittany’s outlook on the limited life that she has remaining. She challenges everyone to seize the day, to forget the unimportant and pursue what makes you happy. Terminally ill or not, life is short and life is fragile. You don’t get enough time to waste it. Everyone gets one life, and each day is a gift. Each day could be your last. So why are you not doing everything you wish to do?

Watching Brittany’s story, I couldn’t help wondering what it would feel like to have a timer on your life. To know the exact day you were going to die. In some morbid way, I think it would force me to make the most of the time that I have left. And then I realised – we all have a limit on life. Each day, each hour brings you closer to the end, and that’s one less day or one less hour you have to live. You don’t have to know when time will run out – you just have to be aware that it will. It might be 50 years from now, or it might be tomorrow. And knowing this, how could you not make the most of every moment?

Life’s too short to waste time on things that don’t make you happy. Chase your dreams, explore your wanderlust, and don’t let anyone stop you from living the life you wish to live.

Seize the day.

21 AND …

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This month I turn 21. Only a few short weeks after that, I’ll have completed my Bachelor Degree. There’s something extremely daunting about the prospect of officially entering adulthood, and a level of responsibility that I don’t feel entirely ready for.

What is it about turning 21? Suddenly, people begin to ask you what you’re going to be, and they become extremely worried when you tell them that your Arts Degree qualifies you to do absolutely nothing. People expect you to have your life completely figured out. You’re expected to make plans about your career, think about settling down, buy a house, and be married with three kids all before you’re 30. And some people can do this – some people know exactly what they want, and they have a 5-year, 12-step plan on how to get there. But the truth is, I feel incredibly lost. And I’m completely okay with it.

I don’t have my life figured out. I have no idea what I want to do. I have absolutely no desire to settle down. Marriage and children aren’t even on my radar. I don’t see myself working a nine-to-five office job, living in a neat little middle-class suburb with a white picket fence and a husband and 2.5 kids and our pet dog Barkley. So where do I see myself?

The honest truth is, I don’t. I have a very clear idea about what I don’t want out of my life, but I’m far hazier on what I do want. I think this is partly because I want to achieve so much – I just don’t know what yet. I never saw myself as living in one place and doing the same thing for the rest of my life. I have an unquenchable lust for adventure. And I think that no matter what I make of my life, it’s sure going to be one hell of an adventure.

It’s okay not to have a plan. It’s okay to enjoy the journey without being completely sure of the destination. Because life is a journey, and if you’re too focused on the destination then you’ll miss out on actually living. I love experiencing the highs and the lows, making it up as I go. I don’t believe that becoming an adult means you have to give up the adventure and uncertainty of youth.

Conforming to society’s expectations is not the only option. Some people are genuinely worried when I tell them that I have no plans. But having a plan scares the hell out of me. If life is all about the journey, then I never want the journey to end. Because the truth is, I have no idea what to do at the destination.

I really struggled to come up with a title to this post. I floated a few ideas – 21 and Free, 21 and Travelling, 21 and Living… But I couldn’t find one that truly encapsulated what I wanted to convey. And, after writing it, I’ve realised why. I don’t want my life to be defined by one word. So I’m leaving it unwritten…