They say everyone needs a gap year. Well, I’m nearly six months in and I couldn’t agree more. While I doubt I’ll finish my year abroad, more or less because my bank account is insisting otherwise, the past six months have taught me things about myself I’ll never learn sitting in a cubicle.
Not only did this year teach me just how much I could handle, it taught me how to take care of myself when I couldn’t physically or mentally take any more. You see, sometimes in life you have to defy the norms to free yourself. You must escape the status quo, no matter the odds, and live out your dream.
My dream was to travel through Europe, and did I ever accomplish that. My travels have led me from London to Paris to Amsterdam and beyond. My breath was taken away at the top of the Swiss Alps; I cried my eyes out in Germany looking at the beautiful landscapes; I lit up in Rome in the presence of the Trevi Fountain; and I found peace in the embrace of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
I met amazing people along the way. People that I will carry with me in my memories forever. The cultures, the languages, the traditions… they all share a special place in my heart, expanding that notion of wanderlust even more. To experience all of these wonderful revelations, I had to take a chance and trust that things will work out.
I quit my job in April. Feelings of anxiety crept in, stewing for nearly a year up to this point. I decided that while the company itself was a great place to work, I was incapable of taking another minute of feeling the unbearable stress and expectations that came with my exhausting personal life, demanding graduate school requirements, and chaotic work environment.
In July of 2015, the two people I thought I knew most in the world became like strangers when they divorced, leaving me with a broken family and a broken heart. In August of 2015, I was laid off of a job I loved. In September of 2015, someone I loved took his own life. As if this wasn’t crushing enough, my relationship was crumbling as a result of my boyfriend’s substance abuse. We lived together that year and I loved him more than anyone I ever have, but I couldn’t bear to see him that way.
I was constantly stressed, frequently having panic attacks. It felt like my whole world was falling apart, and it was all I could do to focus on my online graduate program, my full-time job, and my freelance work. As a result of the culminating stress in my personal life and the building chaos in my work, I decided that I desperately needed some time off to focus on finishing my degree. So, I broke up with my boyfriend, planned a trip to Europe, and quit my full-time job.
My best friend Megan flew down from Ohio to visit a week after my decision. Her first day, we took a trip to Universal, where we acted like kids and raced around Harry Potter World, Jurassic Park, and Seussville. We spent the rest of that week running around St. Petersburg, visiting museums, drinking wine, and talking about everything.
I was so grateful for her that week. She reassured me that everything was going to be okay. I’m beyond thankful to know that even while my family can get a little crazy, I have the best friends in the world supporting me every step of the way.
The next week, I visited family and friends in Ohio. I spent time with my dad and my grandparents, whom I love dearly. I also got to reunite with old friends, including the other two people closest to me. One friend from high school took me dinner, showed me around the newest additions to our small hometown, and laughed with me over Chinese at our favorite restaurant.
My college friends and I made our rounds through our alma mater town of Athens, Ohio. We stopped in Beads n Things to make jewelry, drank a few pints at Jackie O’s, and sang karaoke at the Skull. It was there that I remembered exactly where I came from and how far I’d come.
Back at home, I began to stress about my decision. Had I made the right choice? How would I survive? How would I make money to pay my bills? My parents were both supportive and agreed to help out any way they could. However, I couldn’t sit still. I began working on my freelance business and throwing myself into my graduate studies. I read every bit of the readings, studied copywriting blogs, and worked on my sales pitch for new clients.
My mother decided that we should go on a road trip to take my mind off of things. Her birthday was coming up and I was free to roam until my European adventure in August. It was perfect timing. She booked a one way ticket to Tampa and we hopped in a car with my dog Luna riding shotgun. We decided that we were going to see everything there was to see between Tampa and Denver. Our first stop was Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tennessee. America’s largest underground waterfall, mom and I became explorers and took an elevator down 145 feet to see the legendary attraction. It was stunning.
The next morning, we woke up and made a pit stop in Nashville. We walked around the Grand Ole Opry and took pictures outside the Country Music Hall of Fame. From there, we headed on to St. Louis, where each of us climbed 630 feet to the top of the Gateway Arch. We took turns babysitting Luna as we ventured up the “Gateway to the West” for a great view of the city. The monument actually moves. It’s a bit scary going up the pulley system that takes you to the top floor. It’s a small compartment that fits only five people and combines engineering principles of the elevator, escalator, and roller coaster. It shakes a bit going up and down, but the view is well worth the trip.
That night, we ventured on to Kansas City. In an attempt to free ourselves from the monotonous drive the next day, we stopped at a dog friendly Wizard of Oz museum in Kansas. The entire town was themed after the movie and the museum was very interesting. They had artifacts from the original film including costumes and replicas of Dorothy’s red slippers. What amused me most was the town’s urge to keep the theme alive. There was an Oz Winery, Toto’s Tacos, and even a bar themed after the wizard! We had to buy wine of course. The trunk was getting full with souvenirs from our adventures.
We stopped in Denver for two weeks or so. Mom lives there now so we could stay rate free. During our time there, we watched dogs for a bit of extra cash. I got to work on my thesis and get some hiking in. One of my favorite experiences was taking Luna to Garden of the Gods. We hiked all day, taking pictures of the beautiful rock formations and experiencing the beauty of nature on the red dirt trails.
On a free day we had in Denver, mom and I went on bar crawl. If you know me at all, you know one of my passions is craft beer. So, we went on a grand tour of the breweries downtown. My favorite by far was Denver Beer Company. They had the best selection and the best atmosphere. We stayed there for hours chit-chatting and trying different flights. As good things usually do, our time in Denver came to an end. Before I knew it, it was time to hit the road again.
Before long (that’s an expression – it took us 12 hours), we were in Dallas. There’s not much to say about that town I’m afraid. We saw the JFK memorial, took a stroll through a couple of parks, ate some delicious BBQ, and left. The one thing I can say about Texas? It’s too damn hot! That says something coming from a current Florida girl.
Our next stop was New Orleans, where we’d take a day to enjoy the city and relax. We got to The Old 77 Hotel and Chandlery late that night, but managed to find a delightful cajun restaurant still open for a lovely dinner. I ordered the crawfish jambalaya, and it was so good I remember every detail. If you’re ever in NOLA, you have to check out the Bon Ton Cafe. This was my dinner:
The next morning, we started our day at Cafe du Monde, where we ordered coffee and french beignets. Those delicious pastries were to die for. The morning was hot and humid, worse than Florida by far, but we managed to walk around the shops finding AC when we couldn’t bear the heat any longer.
We meandered around the French Quarter and Jackson’s Square, took a walk through the St. Louis Cathedral, experienced the famous hand grenade drink on Bourbon Street, and caught a bit of slow jazz on Frenchman. We dined at a local favorite, Acme, where we feasted on more crawfish, seafood etouffee, and NOLA bread pudding with whiskey sauce. By far, New Orleans proved to be my favorite American foodie destination.
At the end of the day, exhaustion set in. We still had a nine hour drive to get back to St. Petersburg, and we were just ready to be there. I started feeling reminiscent. By this time, I had been well on my way to finding myself. With every new destination came another revelation. I was in tune with my past, experiencing new futures, and daydreaming about my European adventures to come.
I was slowly letting go of my anxiety and my fears. I was beginning to reassure myself that even without the stability I once knew, I was going to find my own balance. I knew there were more steps to healing than this, but for the moment I had reached a new perspective. When I arrived at my apartment at the end of the road trip, I knew something had already changed inside of me. I was starting, very slowly, to find myself again.
Stay tuned for more on Europe in my next post!