The summer before my junior year of college, I entered an art history–centered study-abroad program that was based in Florence, Italy. It was eight weeks long, and classes were held Tuesday through Thursday morning, allowing us four and a half–day weekends to travel. Though I’ll be the first to point out I wasn’t technically backpacking through Europe for two months, given that we had a home base in Florence, the experience was shaping up to be a thrilling one, putting me in a different city, surrounded by interesting people from a variety of backgrounds, every few days. Inspired by an essay I had read on the merits of keeping a diary while traveling, I decided to do just that. On my first day in Florence, I walked over to the open-air market, bought a pink suede journal, and penned my first entry. What I thought would be a running list of daily activities and play-by-play account of my experiences turned out to be an epic journey of self-discovery and one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done purely for myself.
Armed with a Eurail pass, which would enable me to travel on Europe’s extensive train system with ease, and a loose idea of what I wanted to see during my time abroad, I, along with some of my fellow art historians, got right down to it and set off on our first weekend adventure to Venice. Now, I’d never been someone who kept a diary at home to pour my heart into or wax poetic about the nice thing my crush-of-the-moment had done for me that day. But while in Venice, I couldn’t wait to document all that I had seen, done, and experienced. It fed a hunger I didn’t know I had to express my thoughts, offer up my observations on relationships and experiences, and pen whatever else came to mind. I wrote down song lyrics, drew funny doodles, and generally expressed myself in a way I hadn’t before, suddenly liberated by my surroundings and separated from the people, places, and things that defined and characterized me when I was home.
As the weeks went on, journaling on train rides, at cafés, and on the steps of monuments also somehow made me feel like a part of a larger community of travelers. I was soon able to spot the seasoned wanderers taking a break in their day to document their experiences and often found myself sitting across from them on long train rides between cities. On one occasion, I connected with a young woman who had saved a ton and taken a break from her job in America to travel the world—she had been at it for more than six months. Her journal was bursting as the seams and stuffed with tiny scraps of paper accumulated throughout her journey, as well as drawings done while on her own in Cambodia or at the airport in Istanbul. She asked if I wanted to trade for a while, and we both wrote entries in each other’s diaries. To share that with someone I never saw again was an amazing and heartwarming thing. To think that this seasoned adventurer, who had accumulated more worldly experience in the last six months than some do in their entire lives, cared what I had to say and gave me precious space in her personal journal was simply invigorating. It was a small action that made me feel valued and important at the hands of a stranger on a train.
At times, traveling for an extended period can be lonely. Sure, you’re surrounded by people and are constantly meeting fellow travelers, but you’re also completely removed from the people, sights, and sounds of your “normal” life, which can feel incredibly isolating. My journal became a companion of sorts in those moments of homesickness. It was during the journeys between destinations, on long train rides, that I would, without planning, begin to reflect on my life at home and the relationships waiting for me back in the States. I poured my thoughts and feelings onto the pages (in great detail, as I recall) yet never read those particular pages again. It was therapeutic, liberating, and wonderful, and it gave me a feeling of control and clarity even from thousands of miles away. It was also sad at times, and so while I appreciate that those words are still there on the pages, I have yet to go back to reread and relive them.
I love that my journey and experiences that summer are all documented for me, in my own words, and that this little treasure trove of personal growth is there for me to reexamine whenever the mood strikes. But again, I rarely reread large portions of my journal. Unless I’m looking for the name of the bar we would visit in Florence to see a surprisingly good Beatles cover band (Be-bop) or what the bonfire area was called at our hostel in Interlaken (Space Camp), I like to leave those thoughts and emotions tied up tight in that pink suede notebook. Perhaps one day I’ll go back and reread it cover to cover, but for now I like to appreciate it for what it is—the most intense and effective vehicle toward self-discovery I’ve ever known.
If you’re embarking on a journey soon, I encourage you to journal your experience. Shop some stylish journal options below and get started on your first flight.
Have you kept a diary while traveling? I’d love to hear about how it may or may not have enhanced your experience. Share in the comments!