Where do I even begin? 10 years is a long time. How do I even start a conversation? “Hey! It’s nice to see you! Long time no see! How is everything?”
10 years is enough for the world to visibly change. From the last time I’ve been here, we’ve gone from paper maps, big cameras, and day-ahead bus ticket purchases at the booths to the ubiquitous, always-connected smartphone. From the last time I’ve really talked to these friends, we’ve gone from Facebook to Instagram to an opaque, increasingly toxic algorithm pushing away any sort of personal content and whittling away already-tenuous connections literally separated by oceans. It’s made keeping up even on a circumstantial level more difficult, and time has worn the initiative it takes to keep in touch.
From the last time I saw these friends, many now have children. I’ve only ever known them while travelling, and now our lives have taken very different directions. And for the most part, I admit I haven’t really been great at keeping in touch either. So it’s with a bit of trepidation that I proposed this trip — am I imposing on them, am I being a burden? Am I merely a reminder of a past life? Aside from the good times we’ve shared, what drew us to become friends in the first place, and do we continue to share anything in common 10 years later? It’s with immense gratitude and a little bit of surprise that I’ve been so welcomed with open arms.
Thun and Interlaken, Switzerland
I had barely even one day in Switzerland: the fact that I even had that was fortuitous, the cheapest layover option. Landing in Zurich (a city I’ve still never visited) and immediately taking a train from the airport 2.5 hours straight to Thun, jet lagged and lacking sleep, it was utterly surreal to surface from the station to another continent, another language… And Flo, coming around the corner with a big hug. Then, a short car ride to his new home with Marlies and their two rambunctious young children, Paula and Lukas, swept up in their Sunday morning routine, just about ready to sweep me up with them to a surprise little outing!
The last time I saw Flo and Marlies was at my own home in Vancouver 7 years ago, just before heading to Ethiopia. Before that, Amsterdam for a few hours on a layover back to Boston from Ghana, and before that, 10 years ago in Thun, Marlies’ hometown that they’ve only just moved back weeks ago to after years in Germany. It’s funny — looking from the surface, and looking rather ageless themselves, it’s like nothing’s changed in 10 years, aside from two tiny human beings running around next to them. Squint a little, ask a few questions, and the many years that have gone by turn out to be quite a ride.
How do you possibly catch up in 12 hours?! (I had to take a train back to Zurich before the night, in time for my next flight.) Conversations feel as immediate and natural as the last time we had a proper one. We’ve met members of each others’ families, we can catch each other up on how everyone’s doing. We’ve travelled to many of the same places in the past 10 years. We can share our opinions and experiences, see the changes in those places over the years, and reflect on our privilege. And of course, we can all share in our lack of sleep — them from childcare, me from a transcontinental flight.
What an incredible setting to catch up in though — I had expected a simple day at home with them, but before a lovely homecooked dinner, we had a gorgeous drive and train ride up to Schynige Platte, home to possibly the world’s most scenic restaurant and kids’ playground, overlooking the Jungfrau, the two lakes below, impossibly green scenery, and an endless parade of paragliders. At least in my mind it has to be. (Marlies disagrees!)
Having children hasn’t dimmed the spirit of adventure my friends have — one that’s greater than mine, having biked and camped for a year across Central Asia when I could only muster public transport and local accommodation. If anything, they’re only determined to share it with their kids, and this outing alone included a hike. It’s a whole lot of extra work, but I have so much admiration for not just how they do it, but their determination and optimism for how they will in the future.
Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain
Óscar and Silvia haven’t aged at all, either. It’s almost exactly 10 years since I last saw them, down to the week, and a little more than that since the five of us were travelling together in Peru after meeting them in a hostel in Chile. They, too, have a life revolving around two children, Marc and Paula; one that’s taken them off the road for the last few years but one that’s not stopped them from dreaming.
They’ve got a wonderful home in the suburbs, Silvia’s got one dream career objective achieved and another one in the works, Óscar’s on his way to a career change he envisioned 20 years ago, and the kids have everything they need within a 5 minute distance. It’s heartwarming to see the lives my friends have made for themselves, full of optimism for the future.
But as with all reunions, and ones that have taken as long as these ones, that just hides the true rollercoaster of ups and downs over the years, including children’s health issues that don’t even take the pandemic into account. As a friend, the knowledge that I wasn’t there to support them or to check in over the years, that I should have put more effort into staying in touch, or that I realistically can’t be more than a fleeting, transient presence in their lives, is a tough pill to swallow.
We share wonderful memories, but ones whose details have begun to fade with time. And without much communication over the years, it’s natural for me to even forget what drew us together and started the friendships in the first place, or to wonder whether our personalities still mesh years later, no longer travelling, in the rhythm of daily life: routines, work schedules, child care, traffic, errands, the frustrations and exhaustion that come with them, but also the many little moments of joy that come from it.
There’s also the language issue. Silvia and Óscar are the first people I’ve ever become friends with while travelling, and also the first friendship I’ve ever made in a different language. The last time we met, conversations were stilted and more shallow by necessity. They were the reason I learned Spanish so quickly, albeit haphazardly, in the first place, a means to reciprocate the kindness, resourcefulness, and humour they showed me.
And so things are definitely different now! Years of travel have forced me to improve my Spanish, and with a whole week staying at their home in Mallorca, I’m so glad to have the chance to chat and really get to know them better, hanging out on their balcony in the evenings after the kids go to bed. We can make new memories too — outings to the beach, walks around old town Palma or coastal Portixol, and dinners together with their social circle who know them as different people and share different perspectives. We can talk openly about families, relationships, coping mechanisms, pasts, social issues, politics, opinions… everything, warts and all. The memories of who exactly we all were 10 years ago may be blurring, but this trip has only been reassurance and confirmation that I met wonderful, considerate, and deeply multifaceted people who are far more than merely fun travel mates.
Then again, the circumstances in which we met are not something everyone does, and we have that peculiar trait in common: drastic enough to drop everything — our jobs, our social groups, our families — and travel across the world for lengthy periods alone! I see my friends channel that energy and adaptability into a different direction, something else productive and fulfilling for them. While I may have stayed my course instead, it makes me want to be better myself, and to simply just try harder.
10 years is a long time. 10 years is a short time: both sets of friends look the same as ever, plus two tots. A week is a long time to spend at someone’s house. A week is a short time when you don’t know the next time you’ll see each other. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years, and I don’t want it to be another 10, and I can’t fathom what their kids will all look like whenever it is I see them next.
By sheer coincidence, I’ve found myself in Mallorca at the same time as yet another friend, my name-twin Ivan, here on vacation with his partner, Boris, at a resort hotel on virtually the same days as my stay. On the days Óscar and Silvia were busy and I wasn’t working remotely, I had the good fortune to have a buddy road trip adventure with Ivan and Boris. One of those once-in-a-lifetime movie things, you know!
It’s been 12 years since Ivan and I first/last travelled together, back in Southeast Asia before this blog began. Now, 10 years since seeing him at his sister’s home in the French Riviera, 6 years since I stayed at his home in Serbia, and basically weeks since our last video chat as we’ve been better at staying in touch over the years, it’s like we haven’t skipped a beat. Following the advice of Óscar and Silvia, we made several day trips mixing together cobblestoned old towns fill of beautiful historic homes and plazas (Valldemossa, Sóller, Fornalutx, Alcúdia), twisty mountain roads in the Tramuntana, small cafes, capes and coves (Sa Calobra, Formentor) and jaw dropping scenery — almost all places I didn’t get to visit 10 years ago. There’s far, far more to Mallorca than just resorts, English and German enclaves, and overcrowded beaches.
Whereas my time with Marlies, Flo, Silvia, and Óscar has been based primarily around their homes and families, an epilogue of sorts post-long travel, my time with Ivan and Boris felt like a revival of the time we met, with new unknowns and adventures, route planning, spontaneous moments, an ease of enjoyment, and in Boris’ case, getting to know each other and forming a new friendship. It’s a complete contrast, yet equally fulfilling.
It’s been an overwhelming week (even with more reunions to come), and I’ve found myself at the verge of tears on many moments alone, but my heart feels so full in having this opportunity in the first place. By contrast, every day also brought the existential dread of whether I’d ever be able to spend such quality time and experiences with these friends again. There’s always keeping in touch, there’s always the possibility to meet again — and with my comparatively more flexible lifestyle, I can certainly make the effort — but the nature of whatever memories we may make in the future, whenever that may be, will continue to change just as life does.
I have no choice but to look forward to it.