My 28th Year: On the Places I Once Called Home

Solo traveling through Sydney, Australia in 2013 - The Atlas Heart

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place. // Miriam Adeney

I’m currently on a train in Scotland, rolling through the lush green countryside. There are deep blue-grey lochs on my left and clean white light filtering through the many windows in my car. 

This is my life, or at least it has been for the past 5 years. I somehow find myself in the most beautiful places, usually by myself, or all to myself, if you frame it that way. 

It’s my 28th birthday this Saturday. The past years have been a whirlwind of travel memories, some of my strongest friendships, losses, and countless new beginnings. 

In my 28 years, I’ve learned how to travel solo like a pro, start over in any new city without knowing anyone, navigate the journey of starting and growing my own business, and have felt more happiness, much more, than sadness or discontent. 

I’ve created a custom life that, even with the usual ups and downs of any life, is one that I love fully, like a dear friend and confidant. 

Because the thing is, all I ever wanted was to be free. And I’ve found that freedom through adventure, creativity, and never taking no for an answer. 

My upcoming birthday is simply a reminder of the passing of time. As my birthday usually has a way of doing, it has given me a chance to reflect on my past years of travel, memories, and stories.  

I don’t think my 18 year-old self would’ve imagined my life to have turned out how it has so far, but I think that girl would’ve been proud of all the places I’ve managed to see and who I’ve become in the process. 

To commemorate my birthday this year, I want to share my love for the 9 places I’ve lived in the past 28 years – from the US to the South Pacific, to Asia and Europe.

These are the places where I’ve left splinters of my heart throughout the last few decades. They are the atlas to my life, and a nod to the impact new cultures and experiences have had on it.

Santa Cruz, California, USA (May 1990-July 2008)

Santa Cruz, California - Best Moments of 2015, The Atlas Heart

I grow up in a small beach town on the coast of California. It’s a city that is renowned for surfing, hiking, and anything involving the outdoors. It’s also a sleepy city that closes up by 9pm on the dot, but I love it because it’s home. It’s all I’ve ever known. 

I play overlapping sports throughout the years, split my time growing up at my mom’s and my dad’s houses on opposite sides of town, shoot hoops with my brother before dinner, and go hiking in redwood forests on Father’s Days. Every week I go to my Nana’s house to sit on her plush purple couch, sip guava juice, and catch up about life, music, and books.   

In high school I’m known as part jock, part busybody, part nerd. I’m nominated for prom queen. I fall in love for the first time. I maintain friendships with most groups because I’ve always been a gregarious introvert. 

My friends and I spend our nights in late coffee shops talking about life and school. My boyfriend and I spend them near the ocean, sitting on top of his car, looking up at the stars with the sound of the ocean crashing below, and the pressing realization that we’ll be heading off to different schools soon.  

I feel equally excited and terrified about starting over for the first time with my upcoming move to San Diego. Santa Cruz is a place where you grow up with the same people from kindergarten, and I know it will never be the same once I leave. 

I know how much is ahead of me though, and I already have a craving for adventure, although I don’t recognize what that is yet. So I pack my bags and leave the street I lived on for the past 18 years to enter into a new chapter, a new life in San Diego.

San Diego, California, USA (August 2008-March 2013)

Flower Fields in Carlsbad, San Diego, USA Travel

My first year here is a rough one. I’ve never started over in a new place before, and instead of putting myself out there as I imagined I would do, I close up in my shy introverted nature, in my long-distance relationship, in the face of uncertainty. 

The only thing that stays consistent are my good grades that I carry through until graduation. 

By second year, things get better. I find myself living in an on-campus apartment with two women who end up being my closest friends. 

I start going to more parties, navigate through different majors until I rest on psychology and international studies. I start noticing the overwhelming beauty of San Diego, how the turquoise water sparkles from the bus window on my way to downtown La Jolla or Bird Rock most weekends. 

Eventually, I pick up a job making coffee for students and faculty, then one serving beer at the on-campus pub, mainly to grad students. I join a sorority, I go to class eager to learn and discuss topics that mean something to me. I study things like behavioral psychology and international politics and economy. I often read my textbooks like a novel, from front to back, as if I’m worried about not soaking up every detail of my education. 

I go to gigs every chance I get, throw parties on campus and off, stay up late with my housemates talking about the latest hilarious anecdote from the weekend, or just about life in general, classes, feminism, and sexuality. 

My friends and I drink tequila, grow our palate for craft beer, explore hidden campus canyons at night, dance at frat parties and LBGT dances. We study at the beach or our favorite local coffee shops around San Diego. The best beach weather is in the middle of winter, life feels full and overflowing with possibility.

I almost never want it to end, these college years. It’s that in between stage where I don’t have too many responsibilities yet, but I’m treated as an adult. I get to sit in a lecture hall all day studying things I love, and partying all night with friends who mean the world to me. 

But by my last year, I get antsy in lectures. I feel constricted and realize how ready I am to take on the world, to apply the knowledge from my studies to life, and to see where it takes me outside of my university walls. 

I walk across the stage at my graduation with the words, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” on my cap, and I really believe it. 

Melbourne, Australia (April 2013-September 2013)

Melbourne, Australia - Places I've Lived in the Past 28 Years

I arrive in Melbourne in a surreal daze, not quite believing that I moved across the world by myself, knowing only one person in the city. During the day, I get lost in alleyways, find myself constantly impressed by street art, fill myself up with the best coffee I’ve tasted, and explore the free museums on the blustery cold days of winter. 

At night, I hangout with my two Aussie housemates, watching The Voice Australia and drinking beers that I’ve never heard of.

I work a mix of jobs throughout this time, serving craft beer to lawyers who have just come from court, waitressing on the other side of town to a posh clientele at a steak restaurant, and even picking up an early-morning coffee shop shift at a hipster cafe in the trendy neighborhood of Melbourne, doing double shifts on the weekends and hardly getting any sleep. 

Halfway through my time in Melbourne, I move across town to Carlton North from Port Melbourne, and find myself living with an Australian girl who immediately becomes my best friend in the city. She’s like a long lost sister and we stay up late watching movies, drinking wine, and talking about life and the differences between Australia and the US.

On my nights off, we go out to nondescript clubs that all have different themes, flirt with and date boys from a range of countries, and have late night dumplings in Chinatown’s maze-like restaurants. 

Melbourne becomes one of the many places where I find a new level of independence. I get to know its streets like the back of my hand, it leaves its mark on me. I think of it like a first love when I finally leave it. 

Sydney, Australia (November 2013-March 2014) 

Places I've Lived in 28 Years - The Atlas Heart

Broke after having just backpacked through Southeast Asia for the past two months, I’m desperate for an income and a fixed-life again when I arrive in Sydney on a perfectly calm sunny day. My wish is granted when I secure a job my first day in the city, working at another craft beer bar in a popular neighborhood outside of downtown. 

Most of my nights are spent running up and down flights of stairs at the three-level bar where I work, laughing with my coworkers, and serving a large range of customers – from suits, to beer snobs, to everything in between. I pick up a second job on the weekends at a cookie cafe in the artsy neighborhood of Sydney, start a bookclub, and spend my days going on solo hikes and exploring the eastern beaches. 

My Canadian friend who also works at the bar quickly becomes my closest friend in Sydney. We’re the token North Americans who work there, and we bask in the attention and the good-hearted jokes that are always directed our way. We go out with our coworkers, drink after work, find ourselves at karaoke bars, and running movie nights. 

One night we end up dancing until the clubs close with our fellow bartenders, and stumble out just in time to watch the sunrise over the ocean, before our tired bodies find a place to sleep for the rest of the day. 

I spend the summer volunteering at every music festival I can get into, hitchhiking to the middle of the Australian bush for one, reconnecting with my Melbourne housemate at another, and, for my last festival of the season, celebrating New Year’s with a charming Aussie who kisses me as the sun goes down over London Grammar’s set.

It feels like an endless summer, that it will go on forever, some days I wish it would.

I’m not quite ready to leave Australia once my visa ends. It was my first experience moving abroad by myself and it’s a country I’ve grown to love over the past year, but I relax in the knowledge that I can always find my way back to its shores if I want to.

Wellington, New Zealand (April 2014-April 2015) 

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington

I arrive in Wellington on a dark rainy day. After the endless sunshine of Australia for the past few months, I’m not sure what to think of my new home. I spend the next couple of weeks in a listless manner, handing out resumes with a mustered enthusiasm at bars, and try not to miss Australia. 

Then one day I walk into a bar from the pouring rain, and meet him. I’m a mess with my frizzy windswept hair, my cheeks pink from the cold. He takes my resume with a smile and gives me a job. We become coworkers, then really good friends, and then something more. 

We grab milkshakes after work, go up to Mt. Vic at night to watch the twinkling lights of the cityscape below. He takes me to secret spots, one above a train tunnel, where we talk about past relationships and how we never want to repeat the same mistakes.

Wellington is the windiest city I’ve ever lived in, and I regularly struggle against the wind on my daily walks to work in the morning, not dissimilar to my inner struggle of trying to fit into New Zealand culture, which has been harder than I thought it would be.  

I’m living with a group of Kiwi women in a flat just outside the city. I connect with most of my housemates, except one who makes it abundantly clear how much she hates Americans. I pick up the ukulele, get back into cooking, and make all of my coworkers dress up for Halloween as 1920s zombie bartenders.

And yet, even though I try to stay busy, I often feel stuck and discontent. I start to think about going home earlier than planned, not sure if I can stave off the unfamiliar homesickness that keeps creeping in.  

But then, only a few months into my life in New Zealand my coworker turned fling tells me he loves me, and I feel the same about him. We spend our days off work going to new craft breweries and beer events around town, house parties, and exploring new parts of the North Island with the car I just bought. 

I finally start to feel like I’m fitting into the local culture, like I finally have a place in where I’ve chosen to live. When my visa ends, my boyfriend decides to come to the US to be with me and start a new life together in North America. 

Portland, Oregon, USA  (June 2015-August 2016) 

The Surprising Reason Why I Didn't Like Portland, Oregon - USA Travel

After living in a van for the past two months traveling up the California coast, I let out a big sigh of relief when I make it to Portland. I’m ready to unpack, start a new life in the US, at least for a year. 

Life back in my home country hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be yet. I’m navigating the intense reverse culture shock of being back in the place that raised me after being away for two years, and my boyfriend hasn’t seemed to like it here as much as I thought he would.

But, we’re young and in love. It’s a state that covers up the red flags that we refuse to see yet.

I’m hopeful that things will get better in Portland. It’s a place that we chose due to our joint love of craft beer, its artsy culture, and big city small town feel. My dad is also living in Oregon now, so I’m looking forward to only being a two hour drive from him and my stepmom for the next year. 

I get a bar job when I first arrive in the city, but quit before my first day because I realize how much I want to work for myself and my blog. I start freelancing, finding clients that pay me low wages and pile on a lot of work. 

I take online courses, solidify my skills, go to conferences, and I start to make a proper living working remotely. 

At the end of summer, we sign a one year lease and move into our own little one-bedroom apartment in downtown Portland. It’s the first time I’ve ever signed a lease with a boyfriend and I feel adult and grown up, and like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. That this is my future.

I work best in the mornings for my creative work, my boyfriend works nights, closing up a bar and not getting home until I’m fast asleep at 2 or 3 in the morning. We continue like this for months, neither one of us loving Portland, the weather, or the lack of time we spend with each other. 

I start working 12 hour days and really start growing my blog, my boyfriend hates his and the pretentious American clientele he has to deal with every day. He gets depressed and moody. He doesn’t say it, but I know he blames me for putting him in this position, for bringing him to this city, this country that he doesn’t feel he fits into. 

We take trips often to get away from Portland anyway we can – going up to Seattle for a weekend, flying to Florida for a conference, taking road trips around the mountain states. 

By the time our one year in the city comes around, we still have a few months left on our lease but we can’t stand the idea of living in the city for a whole summer, so we sublet it and take off on a road trip around the US. We hammock camp around national lands that are free to use, see Yellowstone, spend our time outdoors and, most importantly, get to know each other again. 

Thailand (January 2017-April 2017)

The Places I've Lived in 28 Years | The Atlas Heart

Still getting over a serious bout of sickness from Myanmar, I arrive in Thailand on a bumpy road with more than a couple of close calls with death. I spend the first week in Bangkok, working, and itching to get out of the city and to island life. 

By the next week I find myself on a tiny island called Koh Mak where my boyfriend finds a job as a scuba instructor. We move into a white-walled bungalow, with lizards that make weird sounds into the night, and cockroaches that sometimes poke their heads out of the cracks. 

The days run into each other, but they’re good days. I bask in the sunshine, work on my laptop with a view of the ocean most days, ride my bike all over the island, volunteer at the dive shop, and buy delicious local ice cream down the street from the little market. 

I feel like we are finally in a good place again. There are newborn kittens at the dive shop, and I ride my bike to see them every day even when I’m not working. 

One day I get the news from home that my Nana passed away, and I feel more alone and far away from everyone I love than I have ever felt before. I go meet one of my best friends in Vietnam soon after for a trip we had planned months ago. 

Once I’m back in Thailand, I spend a day traveling to the tiny island where I’ve made a home, looking forward to unpacking my bags for the next couple of months, but life has other plans and my boyfriend breaks up with me the next day. 

Although I don’t admit it, I feel raw, broken, untethered. I’ve lost two people that were important to me within a month. I fill my days with things that I enjoy. I eat dinner at sunset on the beach most nights, hike through jungles, volunteer at animal shelters and feel fearless, like nothing will ever phase me again.

I move to the other side of the country, to another island called Koh Lanta and have the best month of my time abroad. I meet a Canadian girl who I immediately feel like I’ve known my whole life, and who helps me feel whole again with her humor, her kindness, her friendship. 

I meet a guy on the same island who reminds me that my heart isn’t closed forever, and that maybe someday I might give a piece of it away again. 

I go to beach parties, dance to chill electronic beats with the sand between my toes, find myself in day-glo more than I’d like to admit, and remember how friggin’ amazing it can be to be single again. 

When my visa ends, I leave Thailand feeling maybe not 100%, but strong, healthy, and grounded again. I leave feeling happy and hopeful. 

Crete, Greece (July 2017-September 2017) 

Girls weekend in Crete, Greece - Europe Travel

I arrive in Greece on a whim. I realize how exhausted I am from living in Asia for the past 8.5 months and that I want a change of pace, of scenery. I want a place that is all my own and that I don’t have to share with so many memories anymore.

I choose Greece because I find a cheap flight from Singapore to Athens, it’s a relatively inexpensive place to live in Europe, and I’ve never been before. I buy my ticket to Europe from my hotel room on a rainy afternoon in Vientiane, Laos, and look forward to the new beginnings that await. 

From my first metro ride into Athens, I know I’ve made the right choice. 

Life in Greece seems easier than it has been in months. I settle down in Heraklion on the island of Crete and start building a daily routine for myself. 

I work in cafes on my laptop during the day, eat Nutella croissants for breakfast, and walk home at sunset near the ocean to reflect and be mindful. I spend most nights out on my balcony, drinking white wine, feeling the salty breeze, and listening to the waves while watching the flickering lights wind up the hill in the distance. 

Other nights I sit by the pool of my guesthouse, chatting with the manager Fragiskos about life in Greece and the places I’ve traveled. 

I go wine tasting one weekend with a group of women from my guesthouse. We get lost on donkey trails, find hidden beaches, and belt out TLC. I remember just how much I love having a group of girlfriends to have these kind of adventures with. 

Shop owners and servers start to recognize me when I walk into places. They smile and know my name, I feel like I belong. But as soon this place becomes a home, I have to leave again. 

So, I pack my bags and head down to the ferry port. On my last bus ride through the city, I take in each street, local, and familiar building that have become a part of me and my Greek summer, and promise myself that I’ll come back one day.

San Francisco, California, USA (October 2017 – May 2018) 

The Places I've Lived in 28 Years | The Atlas Heart

There’s nothing quite like coming into San Francisco airport from above. Seeing the city’s maze laid out, its famous bridges, and landmarks that I know so well. As soon as the plane lands, I feel a pure sense of happiness, that heady feeling of finally being home. 

It has been just over a year since I left California. My sister meets me at the airport and we excitedly talk about all of the things we have missed in each other’s lives over the past year. 

The next couple of months I split my time between my hometown of Santa Cruz and the City, catching up with friends whose faces I haven’t seen in years. I automatically have a community and groups of friends to hang out with on a weekly basis. 

I start dating, a lot. I meet people from all walks of life. I get to know San Francisco better through them, and through my own wanderings around the city on weekends. Every weekend is packed to the brim with friend hangouts, romance, and family time. 

When December comes, I don’t head to Edinburgh like I originally planned, or Hogmanay. Instead, I make plans to visit other close friends the following month in North America, in Chicago and Montreal. 

I say I’ll leave in February or March to go back to Europe, but I instead go to India for two weeks and push my departure date from California further back. I can’t shake off how good it feels to be home, and I’m not quite ready to let go of that feeling. 

Finally, I book my tickets to Iceland, the UK, and Portugal – where I plan to have a base this summer. I know I want to give Europe one more chance, to see if it’s a place I could live for real, there’s so much I love about the continent and its centrality. 

But even though I’m excited for new adventures in foreign lands, I feel a tug at my heart when my payment goes through on the screen, knowing that I’ll be leaving the warm embrace of California again soon. 

Last call for boarding, a safety announcement, and I feel the wheels on the tarmac, faster and faster they go, until they’re airborne. 

I look down at San Francisco and realize that no matter where I end up basing myself for the next few years, it’s a place that will always have a part of me. Maybe the biggest part of me. 

It will always be home. 

————————————–

Read my past birthday posts here: my 27th in Laos; my 26th in Chicago; my 25th in Oregon.

On the Places I Once Called Home | The Atlas Heart

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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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2 comments

  1. I found your blog Mimi by accident and Wow! I have enjoyed your clarity, sensitivity and honesty.
    Thank you for reminding me of the fun, adventure and life experience in travel. I take off the end of July to Copenhagen, Stuttgart and Zurich for some long overdue visits and freedom breathing. Cheers to your future travels and writing! Stefan

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