Intolerable Sadness & Unbearable Gladness

This was written on Saturday, March 16, 2019. I’ve left the time tenses as they were. It was the night we were learning how horrible the shootings in New Zealand became. This isn’t about New Zealand, though.


Another joke had just fallen flat. Wrong tone, awkward word choice, ever the struggles of being a funny girl abroad. I sighed and hoisted my grocery bags, gave a deferential smile and another fudged falemenderit – “thank you” in Albanian – and stepped outside.

A cotton-candy mottled-pink sky greeted me and then, in the distance, I heard the strains of a muezzin singing the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer.

I scanned the hills and, poking out from behind a litany of buildings, spotted the two turrets of a mosque. I had no idea one was within earshot. I stood and enjoyed the mountains and bluey-pink skies as the night continued to fall under the chants of Allahu Akbar.

Because who knows how long it’ll be before I hear this wondrous call again? It was in Morocco, January 2017, that I fell in love with the adhan and the poignant, plaintive cries of muezzins singing in the night, in the morning, and throughout the day. At least five times daily one hears the call in most Islamic centers. While Albania is about 50% Muslim, in my 13 weeks of living in Albania since February 2017, this is the first I’ve heard it here.

Living in Sarajevo, Bosnia, right after Tirana, in Spring, 2017, I was kitty-corner to a mosque. I remember fondly each night, after darkness had fallen, opening all my windows to pause and listen to the longest call of the day on warm spring nights. That mosque’s singer had a gorgeous, haunting voice, which stands as my favorite adhan yet.

For me, the adhan isn’t about religion, it’s about gratitude and presence, of being in the moment and just stopping to enjoy where and when you are and why life is as beautiful as it can be hard.

Mostar, Bosnia, a predominantly Muslim town that was obliterated and rebuilt after the Bosnian War.

Needed Reprieve

And maybe that’s what I needed tonight. I have started writing for you dozens of times since that “last” New Year post in Palermo. So much has come and gone in the 10 weeks since. Rome, Ischia, Naples, and Tirana have been a whirlwind. And now I find myself with only 26 days left in Tirana and 36 days left until I’m back in Canada. [ed. note: 21 and 31 now.]

Emotionally, the only time in my life I’ve experienced a similar swirl of sadness and gladness was during the days leading to becoming a nomad. But I’m on the flipside of that now. I have no fears of whether I can do this, no terror about whether I’m tough enough for the choices ahead of me.

I did it. I was a nomad. And nearly everything that absolutely terrified me in the “what if” column of possibility eventually befell me.

Serious injuries, illness, dead parent, surgery abroad, crashed currency, and so many other courage-confronting moments arose along the way.

Yeah, I was tough enough. Yeah, I overcame it all.

I will never, ever be able to explain the life lessons and strength and self-knowledge that comes from doing this. It’s been 1,270 days as of writing this, and it’ll be just under 6 months before I have a home again. I’ll take possession of an apartment, I hope, just 24 days shy of that day I walked away from one four years ago.

For a month, this was my view as I worked everyday through an unseasonably cold January in Ischia, off Naples, Italy. The light did amazing things every day there, reminding why photographers like Ansel Adams returned to the same landscapes constantly — some forever change in daylight.

And Yet, Sadness

But as much as I’m nearly giddy at the idea of having a place I’ve created, a home that speaks of me, speaks to me, and where it’s my bed, a bed no one’s ever slept in but me… I am heart-broken by the sacrifices needed for me to embrace normalcy again.

There is a magic to the travel life. Some aspects cannot be recreated nor explained. Until you’re in it and you’re out there moving through the world as a free spirit, you can’t fathom what it’s like.

It’s not a vacation. It’s not a couple months. It’s your life.

The freedom of not having an end-date written in stone is an experience few people know. But I know it now. 

And have loved it and still do love it. There’s a part of me that knows it’ll be in my life again sometime in the not-too-distant future. Shorter trips first, but I’ll spend blocks of months abroad again, too.

One of my final adventures, this time around — Rome.

When the Well Empties

On the flipside, there is a weariness I feel today that few people ever experience. The unending fatigue of never being exactly comfortable. The constant wonder and apprehension about how travel days will go, whether the luggage will hold up, if my plans have been well-made. There’s frustration from never knowing the right words. Also, the loneliness, sometimes, of always being an outsider. And then there’s the ever-ticking clock, of arrivals just being countdowns to the ever-looming departures.

These are things that didn’t bother me much for a long time, but when they get under the skin, well, they don’t come out.

I think Robertson Davies once said to the effect of, “A writer ought not write until the thought of not writing becomes unbearable.”

For me, travel is like that right now. I’m not enjoying it like I could be. Resentment creeps in often now, and that’s not right. I will stop travelling for a while, then, until the thought of not travelling becomes unbearable again, just like it was when this audacious plan was born.

This castle has been slowly built in stages for 1300 years. “Living” in places with this kind of history is one of the great privileges of my life.

Choose Your Own Adventure

All of us nomadic travel types can tell you the same stories of people who tell us we’re “so lucky.” There’s always the “I don’t know how you do it” crowd too, and finally the folks who seem to think we’re all cruising around on trust funds and living glamorously. (Yeah, come live this life and tell me it’s glamorous. Pilling sheets, slow hot water, no elevators, constant lacks in every apartment. Such glamour.)

I’m not lucky. I work real damn hard for this. Every day. So hard. So long. I have worked like a fiend since 2013 to make this life a reality, and then to try to climb out of the crushing debt I incurred as a nomad when my currency collapsed, I lost my job, my father died, and I needed a hysterectomy, all inside of 16 months.

But I have made it happen because I chose to, because I feel the sacrifices I make and the grind I endure far outweighs the shame and sorrow I’d have felt had I continued living under a cloud of regrets and “what ifs” for the rest of my life.

Back in 2012, I watched in jealous resentment as people I knew travelled long-term, and I found myself angry and bitter. Soon, I became scared of who I’d be if I failed to realize my dream of travelling.

But starting this life meant leaving my friends behind. It meant losing any sense of security and community I enjoyed. It meant probably not dating, not having love, not enjoying the casual comfort of people who know and appreciate me. It meant being an outsider and facing fears.

But when confronted with those sacrifices versus the insane opportunity of having the world and choosing my own adventures every day, I opted in.

There was a time when I dreamed of foods abroad, and I’m so proud I’ve experienced so much, but now I long for the diverse cuisines of my nation of immigrants, Canada.

This or That: Times Change

That was then and this is now. Today, why I’m pausing for a while is partly because of that sacrifice of my people and community. I can’t do it anymore.

I need friendship and relationships in my life.

There comes a time when standing in an incredible place, looking at an amazing view, feeling so grateful and in love with life, but realizing there will be a day when I want to say, “remember when…?” and no one will have been with me, no one will remember it but me. Like the day I stood watching a purple sunset over Rome with a classical violinist playing behind me. That was… nice.

And I’ve had a traumatic brain injury. I know what it’s like to lose memories, and to not trust what the brain recalls. What a sad thought, that this incredible adventure that has covered 8% of my total lifetime could vanish into the ether because I went it alone.

People talk smack about Instagram and social media and being “present” in the moment, but if you’re the only person having that experience and one day you get to the end of your life, where it’s nothing but photos in a drawer and memories in a book, then… I don’t know.

It’s like the existential side of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Good question. If I live this amazing life and no one’s there to experience it with me, was it all just a wild dream in the end? Is it any more valuable than dreaming it, if it’s just a memory blur over a patch of my life?

I don’t believe it’s just a memory blur, because I know the smells and the sounds and the feeling of the sun on my face and the sound of wind whistling through badly-sealed Mediterranean windows.

But I do want more people in my life on a regular basis, so if there’s a way I can find a balance between having this life part of the year and that life for the rest of the year, then maybe that’s the dream. Maybe that’s what I do.

Oh, I wasn’t “present,” hey? It was about 7 degrees by this point, having fallen from about 15 degrees. The families milling on the Ponte d’Ischia had long since gone home as the sunset ended, and my hands were frozen from three hours of photography. I left from here and went to the cafe across the square behind me and I had a hot cocoa before going home to make risotto and chicken for dinner. And I was aware that Rome was only a few days away. That’s what I think of when I look at this photo.

A Foot in Both Doors

At this point, I’m not sure how my future life will unfold but I’m dreaming I can blend these together, the best of both worlds.

Like most lifestyles, I can’t have it all at the same time; the same is true for you. Your dreams always take choices and sacrifices, whatever life it is. We learn, to have that, you can’t have this, and it’s being aware of that choice’s price and choosing what you do so you can cross that divide. Doesn’t mean a part of you won’t yearn for what you left behind as that price of admission.

Luckily, I understand this.

So, while I’m back in Canada and making a new life in a new town with Canada’s most brutal winter, every day I’ll wake to memories of a lifetime on my social media timelines.

“Oh. Last year I was in Rome on this day. The year before, I was in Morocco. The year before, I was in Tirana, and the year before that, I was heading to Oaxaca, Mexico.”

Every photo, for me, brings back smells and sounds; the sun, the dusty air, the food I ate. I’m grateful I’ve told stories and posted photos on social media, I’m glad I created an ad hoc community while I was so far from home, and I’m thrilled many of you came along for the ride.

Remember when I listened to a violinist in Rome as I waited for the sunset? Of course you don’t. Because I was there alone. That’s the price paid for this lifestyle — hazy memories not fortified by companionship. But if it comes down to never seeing it at all because I waited for someone who never came along, well… I’d go alone six days a week and twice on Sundays.

Stuck in a Moment

For now, being in the moment means stopping to hear that adhan over the Albanian mountainside as the long-gone sun paints the sky pink. It means understanding all life is fleeting and my days here are limited, but that travel will come again one day. It means knowing I’ll soon be back in Canada, slipping into a lifestyle as comfortable as this hooded sweatshirt that’s keeping me warm while the night chill settles in here in Tirana.

I know exactly what I’m sacrificing this time, but I also know exactly what I’m gaining.

And I also know I’ll probably never again have that fear of the unknown that crippled me in August and September, 2015. And I’ll never again question if I’m tough enough. Not about this, not about anything.

Maybe it won’t have been five years of nomadding when I get back to Canada, but I will continue experiencing new places and new people, just not abroad – I’ll know the language and customs, I’ll have community and make friends. Ottawa will be new to me, and it’s travel-friendly for new-to-me destinations like New York and Boston, Detroit and Chicago, Quebec and Montreal, and beyond. To be honest, I’d prefer to return to Victoria, BC to live, but I’m not because I know that’s the easy choice and I’m not ready to stop having new experiences.

I’ll still be location independent. Adventuring will return in winter 2020/2021. But where? South America? Mexico and the American Southwest? Vietnam and Sri Lanka? My beloved Greece? Decisions, decisions.

Not until I’ve had a good, long dose of Canada.

But first… The end to this last chapter of Steff and Quatchi, the Wayward Canadians in Europe, v3.0. A heady, weird mix of sadness and gladness is sure to persist. I foresee much excitement, but many tears, as the end of this chapter progresses.

And yes, it was worth getting cold, enduring my sore back, listening to the violinist, and waiting for this sunset. It was more beautiful than I ever could have hoped. The next day, I was off to Tirana. Rome was everything I’d hoped it would be.

  • Avatar
    Julie H. Ferguson

    This post is one of the best pieces you’ve written that I’ve read. And I’ve read lots.

    All of life’s decisions have trade-offs. We learn to live with them, accept them, for in a backhanded way the negatives highlight the positives. The term bitter-sweet flows from this, I believe, and it’s a feeling that we experience often.

    Decades ago, my then-girlfriend who was a psychologist told me after I was devastated after many blows in life, that one day I would wake up and know with utter conviction that I could cope with anything the world could throw at me. She ended by saying, “Phone me when that happens.”
    About two years later at 2am, I phoned her. I’ve never looked back because I had finally learned that good decisions bring downsides that I must accept. You’ve arrived at that point — BRAVA!!!

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