There’s a danger that comes with returning to the places you’ve fallen for.
There’s always an underlying fear that on second visit, it doesn’t feel the same; that either you’ve changed or it’s changed, and I’m not sure which of those feels strangest.
I’m a firm believer in change being a Good Thing, but it’s always kind of heartbreaking to return to a place you once adored only to discover it no longer holds a place in your heart.
As I write this, I’m travelling across the Not-So-United States, and I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to my favourite places while I’ve been here. Mostly because I just spent a full two weeks doing exactly that. Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland are three of my favourite destinations in the U.S., and I try to return to all of them as often as possible. On this specific trip, I had just two weeks to reconnect with these cities and enjoy being back in a part of the world that never fails to make me happy.
Long-term readers of Never Ending Footsteps will know that of my west coast loves, Portland is my clear favourite. I adore the city, and its food scene is easily the best I’ve ever delved into. From the moment I first stepped foot in Portland, I was obsessed, and I’ve returned to visit on a near-yearly basis ever since.
Dave and I have even been known to book flights to Portland purely because we wanted to eat at its incredible restaurants.
It’s with a slight tinge of horror that I announce to you that I’m not actually enjoying my time in Portland this time around.
Before, Portland was all about the food. I would eat out for three meals a day there, declare each and every meal to be the best version of the dish I’ve ever had (they really were), and — of course — gain a shit ton of weight. Eating there was one of my greatest joys in life.
Then, it turns out, I changed.
A couple of years ago, I suffered from a fairly intense mental breakdown, and one of the main things to drag me out of the darkness was overhauling my diet. I cut out dairy. Gluten. Sugar. Caffeine. Alcohol. And I felt the best I’ve ever felt in my life. My anxiety and panic attacks disappeared. I stopped getting motion sickness. My hayfever faded away. I no longer found myself on eight courses of antibiotics a year. I was happy, healthy, strong, and in control of my life. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, and I was the best possible version of myself.
There’s no doubt that experimenting with my diet was life-changing, but there’s one huge downside that comes from cutting out the food that makes you unwell: adding it back in to your diet makes you want to kill yourself.
Often, when I eat dairy now, I end up hunched over for days, suffering from cramps are so strong I can barely stand. I start having panic attacks. I get anxious and begin withdrawing from life; staying inside and cancelling hanging out with friends. I feel nauseated. I want to cry all the time. Gluten, sugar, and alcohol also make me feel this way, but are thankfully nowhere near as severe.
Let’s be honest, though: sticking to a diet that involves eating nothing but fresh, organic foods with no additives or preservatives, no sugar, no sauces, nothing but extra virgin olive oil, and no alcohol is damn near impossible to stick to while travelling. Especially when I don’t like to stay in Airbnb apartments that would give me access to my own kitchen.
And plus, diving mouth first into the local food scenes when I travel is one of my favourite aspects of my life on the move. Having to stick to an extreme elimination diet wouldn’t just be impractical, but would take away from my enjoyment of travel, too.
Dave and I came to Portland to eat, but this time we had his parents in tow.
Back in 2013, I led my parents around the city on an eating extravaganza that they still gush about to this day, so Dave and I were determined to show his family just how delicious the Pacific Northwest can be.
Of course, that involved pretty much nothing but eating, and, for both me and Dave, a lot of nausea.
And sure, we could have not eaten at all of our favourite restaurants and instead dragged his parents around the paleo hotspots of the city, but we’re not dicks and that would feel like a dick move. Because as much as I value my health, I’m not going to start forcing my diet on other people, especially when I’d pitched Portland’s amazing food as the main reason to visit.
And so I sucked it up and I felt dreadful.
And by the end of my time in Portland? I no longer thought of it as my favourite city in the U.S.
To me, Portland was incredible because of its food, and now that I can no longer eat that food, I no longer feel an urge to keep returning. And don’t get me wrong — the food still is incredible, and my favourite restaurants there are still full of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. I still want to write the ultimate restaurant guide to the city. The problem is, whenever I eat those delicious dishes, the after-effects aren’t worth it for me.
I kind of feel heartbroken about it, like I’m going through a breakup. Like I need to grieve losing Portland, and process the realisation that what we once had is unlikely to ever be a part of my life again.
I don’t know if I’ll ever return.
And this leads me to the rest of my west coast trip.
Fun fact: back when I first started this blog, I wrote in an early post, “Santa Monica will always be my favourite place in the world and that will never change.”
I first visited Los Angeles back when I was 19, when my first serious boyfriend stumbled upon some cheap flights and whisked me away for a week of summer sunshine. And despite me having panic attacks over the fear I had DVT for five of the seven days we spent in town, I fell hard for Santa Monica.
Here’s another fun-but-weird fact: I used to kind-of-sort-of be allergic to the sea. For almost all of my childhood, dipping into the ocean would result in a head-to-toe rash and itchy skin over the next several days.
But in Los Angeles, for whatever reason, I was finally able to splash in the sea without having to tear my skin to shreds afterwards. And weirdly, I’ve never had that reaction to saltwater ever again.
Part of the reason why I loved Santa Monica was because it was the first time I was able to be carefree in the water. Part of it was that it marked my first time heading outside of Europe without my family. And part of it was that I liked really touristy places.
I loved Santa Monica pier. I loved eating funnel cake. I loved shopping at Ed Hardy (lol, the 2000’s were ridic.) I loved cruising around Hollywood in a convertible. I loved desperately scouring the streets in search of celebrities. I loved paying far too many visits to the Hard Rock Cafe. I loved eating crisps for most of my other meals. I loved spending most of my time on the beach and doing anything that didn’t involve walking.
I always say that I had essentially no travel experience when I first set off on my never-ending journey in 2011, and part of that is because my previous trips overseas were usually spent having panic attacks inside fancy resorts and doing anything that didn’t involve diving into the local culture.
Once again, it’s me who has changed.
With an additional 70-odd countries now under my belt, I think it’s safe to say that Santa Monica is no longer my favourite place on the planet. That’s likely not a surprise to anyone, because damn, I’ve been to some incredible spots over the past six years.
The destinations that speak to me have changed — I think I’ve stayed in just three or four resorts over the years I’ve been travelling long-term. I don’t like to shop when I’m on the move because I don’t have space in my backpack, and hordes of tourists are rarely what gets me going.
But I still like Santa Monica for what it is. I like getting to relax on the beach, wandering the length of the boardwalk, people-watching in Venice, eating healthy foods for much of my meals and tacos for the rest. I’m sure I could base myself there and be happy and content, with a good quality of life. I’m sure I will return in the future.
But it’s nowhere near my favourite place in the world.
Despite me saying that would never be the case.
I’ve spent several months basing myself in Seattle over the past few years, and I’ve always felt as though I could take it or leave it. I mean, I liked the city, but it had always paled in comparison to Portland. It felt a little too big. A little less weird. A little more damp. A little less affordable. A little less life-changing when it came to food.
But on this visit, I couldn’t stop talking about how liveable the city felt. I loved it.
It turns out that when Portland’s food scene is no longer as accessible to me, Seattle wins on practically everything. It feels like a city I would be so happy to live in.
And I could sit here and list the many logical reasons why Seattle would make a fantastic home for me, but most of the time, I come to that decision based on a feeling I get as I explore a city on foot. I can’t explain it, but there are several cities in the world that just seem to fit. Where I turn up, spend an hour walking the streets, and immediately declare that I want to move there.
I got that same feeling in Seattle on this visit, and I’m already plotting my return.
So, back to my original question and the point of this post: should you return to the places you love?
Wow! What a ground-breaking conclusion, Lauren!
There are some spots on the planet I know I don’t ever want to return to.
Maafushi, in the Maldives, is one that immediately springs to mind. Back when I first visited the island, I was only of the first independent travellers to do so, and it quickly became one of my favourite places in the world. But the Maldives have quickly become a budget travel hotspot and Maafushi is now paradise ruined. Friends who have visited recently have labeled it awful. Told me it’s now overrun with tourists. That they’ve dug up the beautiful beach, leaving behind something that vaguely resembles a concrete slab in the ocean that’s covered in plastic waste. That it’s packed with so many Chinese vacationers that even the road signs and menus are in Chinese, which hints at a sad erasure of Maldivian culture. I know it’s now unrecognisable from the island I fell in love with, so I know I don’t want to return and taint my memories of it.
On the flip side, when I first visited Taipei, I fell hard for the city to the point where I was nervous about returning. I didn’t know if Taipei had meant so much to me because it had been the first Asian city I ever visited, so on second visit I was concerned it would bore me to tears. I was worried that flying back would mean having to find a new favourite country. Instead, on my return, I fell even deeper in love. I discovered the city’s incredible food scene, which had passed me by in a terrifying blur on first visit. I appreciated the order and somewhat-serenity that’s often hard to find in East Asian cities. I experienced kindness on a whole new level that has yet to be replicated in any other countries. I have to confess that the one city I find myself dreaming of on a weekly basis is Taipei, Taipei, Taipei.
So here’s what I think: return to the places you love but keep your expectations in check. Do your research, so you can prepare yourself for any negative developments to the destination you adore. Stay aware of how you’ve changed and ponder whether you think it’ll affect your return visit. Don’t go if you think you’ll hate it on your return and don’t want to ruin the wonderful memories you have of it. Or do, because it’s your life and you can do what you want.
I guess this was a long-winded way of saying Portland’s out, Seattle’s in, and I am bad at coming up with neat conclusions for my blog posts.