I watched a man die on the streets of New York City. He was out jogging ahead of me in the bright summer sunshine of midtown Manhattan, when suddenly and without warning he fell over, quite plainly dead. If you’ve ever seen a real corpse before – as opposed to one on television – quite a few differences are immediately apparent. For starters, the skin takes on a waxy inhuman sheen, gauntly stretched across the skull. There’s a noticeable lack of inner fire, as if the embers of the human spirit have been perceivably extinguished to leave nothing but an uncanny husk. It’s like watching an early CGI movie; something is disturbingly wrong and you want to look away.
When most people talk about travel they paint a rosy picture of the exotic, of discovering amazing new sights, tastes and experiences. This is all true. But rather than just telling you something you already know, I want to explore some of the psychological impacts of travelling to a new country to work in advertising.
Around a year ago, I was not the same person I am today. When I first moved to New York, it scared me. I saw the city as violent, overwhelming, brutish, and loud. It was a pressure cooker where everything and everyone was slowly being condensed down into a single charred and angry exclamation point. While the job was going well, I began to withdraw into my own company while my Art Director partner found it seemingly easy to have an exiting and enviable social life.
During my second month in the country I felt quite depressed and alone. I did not have friends, and I did not really know how to make new ones. New York had defeated me, and threw myself into my work as the other aspects that make up a life were ignored. I was not happy.
My next move took me to Copenhagen over winter. There I found a city which I really enjoyed being part of. I loved the cycling, and the absurdity of bicycle traffic jams. I loved the smallness of the place, and how I could walk from the office to anywhere in the city centre in about 20 minutes. I loved the Torvhallerne food market, the steaming mugs of glühwein, the sausages carts on ever street corner (in retrospect most of my happy memories involve eating).
Surrendering to the Danish way, I immediately bought a bike on arrival. I was confident that this could be called ‘the worst bike in Copenhagen’, and rode it in the constant rain, the silent snowfalls, and combinations thereof. Before leaving, I even founded the ‘Copenhagen Run Club’, organised a Valentines Day promotion and learned to appreciate good furniture design. I worked out how to buy a monthly bus pass on a Danish language app, using Google translate. And if I’d had the talent or capacity to learn the language, I’d might still be there now.
When the Danish office closed down to relocate to Milan, I ended up back in New York but this time I decided to throw myself into the city. It was a conscious decision to become more involved with the world around me. And it transformed my perception of New York from the one I wrote about earlier into one of my favourite places in the world.
Bringing with me the Scandinavian love of cycling, I bought a second-hand ‘fixie’ bicycle. This turned out to be one of my best purchases of all time, as it unlocked the city for me. Not tied down to public transport, I started cycling everywhere – to visit new friends in Brooklyn, to picnics in Central Park, to museums 80 blocks away. It was the perfect way to experience NYC – at street level – whizzing between yellow taxis and enormous black SUVs.
I started going to couchsurfing meetings. I made great new friends and spent a birthday with them on a hotel rooftop bar overlooking Manhattan. I finally visited Coney Island, basking in the sun before being introduced to Brighton Beach and some of the best Russian food outside Moscow. None of these things would have happened if I’d stayed in my room and watched another series on Netflix.
Travel is great for breaking up routines. That’s exactly what it does, as an antidote to the commonplace and everyday. Most people – and I don’t class myself as any different – are happy to get into a routine and act it out again and again. Think about your own life… it’s only natural to become a creature of habit. We wake up at the same time, go into work, have the same conversations with the same people, and generally speaking do the same things. Sameness and repetition creep into all aspects of the human existence.
When we travel we shake up that routine and replace it with something new and different. I’m not saying we don’t establish new routines, but that’s the important part; they are new, and they offer a fresh perspective on the world.
When I first moved to Copenhagen I was sick for a week, and I could barely eat or think straight. I was breathlessly fearful that I would not fit in, that no one spoke English (everyone spoke English), that I would be friendless and alone. But once I managed to get over my fear I discovered smørrebrød and the Danish National Gallery, and coffee culture, and buses that ran every three and a half minutes. There was so much out there to love, and new routines waiting to be uncovered and immersed within.
So no, travel isn’t a carousel of happiness and sunset Instagram selfies. I got my debit card cloned and stolen in Manhattan, and it took me two weeks to find a launderette in Copenhagen (and then about 2 hours to figure out how it worked).
But there the thing – when you compare the stress, discovery and sensory assault of travel to the difficulties of being a jobbing creative, there’s really no juxtaposition to be made. How hard is it coming up with a digital campaign for a fabric softener when compared to transposing your life to a whole new world? It’s not. The hardest thing won’t be the job, it’ll be everything else. And maybe all those new perspectives, conversations, sights and cultures you’ll see along the way will help you in your creative thinking.
Life is short and fleeting. One moment you’re jogging down the road and the next you’re dead. So why not travel if you’re given the opportunity? The only thing holding you back is fear. And if it doesn’t work out? Just come home. You’ve always got that. And when you do, home might feel fresh and unique – as if your eyes have been opened, and you’re finally seeing it for the first time.
David is a Creative Copywriter currently in London. He tweets at @doritosyndrome.