Published in Huffington Post 07 02 13
Three months ago I decided to quit my London job and move to Venice for the winter to look after a 15 year old girl and a dog.
It was my quarter-life crisis. Though my job was rewarding I spent every evening on a crowded train on the way home dreaming of escaping the office routine.
Added to that, almost every night for the past few months, my sleep had been plagued by dreams of water. The thing is, a Venetian mother and daughter that I’d met on holiday in summer had said they needed an au-pair for the winter. I told them it was a lovely idea, but – I’d only just got my foot on the career ladder. I couldn’t afford to leave. I wouldn’t find another job if I left. It wasn’t the sort of thing I could do.
Fast-forward a few months and I was still on that train, but by now my cat had died, I was plagued daily by sometimes crippling anxiety (hence, erm, this piece), I kept getting ill. I wasn’t happy. If I felt like this at 24, how would I feel in five years?
I gave notice at work.
I’d never planned to have a mid-life crisis so early. I’d always imagined being 40 and roaring down Route 101 on a motorcycle, dressed all in red, the wind in my dreadlocks. I’m one of those people who marched obediently through the school system, jumping through the hoops from reception to university, before eventually managing to hunt down a respectable job. I’d always done what I thought I should do, what was expected of me, without ever really having time to work out what I wanted.
So what did I want? I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wouldn’t find out sitting in front of a computer for 40 hours a week. I also knew that I had been offered an opportunity that wouldn’t come around again – a chance to live in a beautiful city, to soak up the culture and the atmosphere, a chance to move out of my comfort zone.
I arrived at my new canalside home on a misty night in November, where I was met by my two new charges – a sweet teenager and a sneezing dog. I wrote about my experiences on my travel blog, but in short, my time in Venice was spent walking, sometimes for hours every day, exploring galleries, getting lost in side streets, taking Italian lessons, sitting in churches, reading, cooking and taking photographs. Things I’d never really had much time to do were suddenly the only ways to fill my long afternoons.
It wasn’t all gelato and gondoliers, of course. The first month was up and down, as my mind took time to settle and acclimatise to the alien decision I’d made. And there were times when, alone in a foreign place with only my own thoughts and a dog for company, I craved the comfort of home and familiar faces. But working through those times on my own made me realise that we are strong enough to deal with things when we have to. And when I got back to London a few days ago, I felt calmer and happier than I have in ages.
Taking time away from routine gave me the chance to get some perspective on life, and on what I wanted to do. I learned to speak basic Italian; I learned how to make risotto; I learned how to relax a bit. The crumbling facades of Venice made me realise the impermanence of things, the pointlessness of worry, and of doing anything other than what makes you happy.
So I say: if it comes a-knocking, embrace the quarter-life crisis. If your gut feeling and/or weird dreams are telling you that things aren’t quite right, consider a change of scenery and take some time to figure out your next steps.
A British Council survey revealed that a third of young people regret not spending some time working or studying abroad. Don’t be part of that statistic, because travelling is life-enriching – something I learned from hanging out with a dog with a cold.