Turning 35, Alone and Abroad: What Comes Next

I celebrated my 35th birthday in a leisurely, solitary way. Alone in Split, Croatia, in a tiny apartment within the walls of an ancient Roman emperor’s palace, drinking Prosecco a friend had bought me via Venmo in my bed in my tiny studio apartment – not what I would have planned a few years ago. 

It might sound exotic and strange and maybe a little bit sad.

But anyone who’s had a birthday since February has probably felt this same mix of extreme gratitude for being alive through a year filled with death and suffering and the fear and loneliness of living through a worldwide plague, no end in sight. All the milestones we missed this year, the plans we canceled, the dreams we deferred, weigh on us even as we realize it could all be so much worse so suddenly. 

Reflecting on the past year

Turning 35 – a landmark birthday of sorts, I think – in the year 2020 is… so many things. Unusually for a writer, I don’t have the words to describe the surreal experience of this anniversary, but that’s true for too many experiences this year. 

I spent a full month – 28 days – of this year so far in complete self-isolated quarantine, without physical human contact or even being near another person except the one night I ate dinner on a staircase while my sister curled up on the couch below it to join me.

I’ve probably spent at least a full month of 2020 crying in rage and despair and sadness and hopelessness.

I’ve spent more hours than I’d like pondering all the things that have been put on hold indefinitely thanks to the coronavirus – holding my newest nephew, hugging my brother in Ireland and my sister-in-law and their kids, having a single event to look forward to without preparing myself for the fact that it probably won’t happen. 

sun setting over the River in Split, Croatia with the sea and palm trees
Sunsets on the sea in Croatia are truly a gift, birthday or not.

But this past year has also been one of incredible luck and joy and happiness for me. I turned 34 in Boston after a year of travel and headed back overseas to write and live in Greece and find a new life. I met lifelong friends and new lovers and too many cats to count. I found a new rhythym for my life.

Creating a whole new life

Changing the direction of your life completely is never easy. It means contending with the weight of other people’s expectations that you should “grow up” and “settle down” and do the things you’re supposed to do in the order you’re supposed to do them. 

There’s a strong strain of thinking in our culture today that tells us we should always have a plan – and that plan should look a very specific way. If there’s anything the chaos and disruption and pain of the last six months have taught us, it’s that we all live on the edge of uncertainty, that our best-laid plans are just a wisp of a hope, that we are not even guaranteed tomorrow. 

Fruit Square in Split through a doorway in Diocletian's Palace in Croatia.
The little alleys and ancient doorways of Split.

My 34th year on this planet was going to be my year of exploration – seeing what my life could look like once I broke completely with the bounds of my old existence and the expectations and judgements that went with it. And I managed to do so much of it: live in foreign cities as a digital nomad, forge a freelance career, learn by making mistakes in everything I did. I even managed to visit a new country, which I then had to escape a week later as the world was shutting down. 

But my biggest explorations were within. I’ve learned more about what I’m capable of withstanding, what I truly value, and what I’m avoiding or holding back from out of fear. Sometimes in a crisis, things become startling clear if we’re willing to see what is in front of us. 

For me, six month back in Boston confirmed that my life isn’t there anymore. It’s a lovely city, as my morning jogs along the Charles River or my evening swims in the sea on the South Shore reminded me. And many of my friends are there, and much of my family, and a full decade of memories. It’s not that it will never be home again (I’m now too old and wise to make definitive statements like that). It’s just that it’s not home anymore. And I’m enjoying the freedom of freelancing life too much to go back to corporate life, even if that job is now at home. 

I chose what I did last September for a reason – it’s what I want to do, in this moment and for the foreseeable future. And the brutal clarity of the world shutting down and lives being cut short too soon made those choices all too clear. 

Seeing what 35 holds for me

“I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Albert Camus

So here’s to my 35th year on this sickly, burning, dying planet spinning in a vast and indifferent universe. Does that sound depressing? I find it freeing, actually – a reminder that life is short and precious and all we have is what we make of our uncertain and limited time here. 

Who knows what this next year will bring? I’m too allergic to plans right now to even guess what country I’ll be living in next month.

Plans seem like a short straight road to disappointment. What’s left is the present day, this exact moment: walking down to the soft sulfurous sea in Split harbor at sunset, savoring a strong macchiato in the humid summery sunshine at a cafe this afternoon, the pleasure I feel writing these words alone in my big bed in this tiny room. 

I’m looking forward to moving closer towards my goals for my new life – a sustainable writing career, a little apartment in Athens that’s all my own, an ability to worry less about being good and more about being brave and kind and open to the world. But we’ll see what actually ends up happening. I can’t wait either wya.

I’m giddy with gratefulness for life right now, and for all the support and love I got during those difficult and crazy months, and for the unknown life ahead of me yet to come. 

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