Does Travelling Define Me?

by Brenna Holeman
most beautiful spots for photography in Namibia

I used to think that travelling was what defined me. 

When I was a teenager – and let’s be honest, way into my 20s – I thought that the things I liked defined me just as much as the person I was. I recently watched the first episode of the TV series High Fidelity, and there’s a scene where Rob (played by Zoe Kravitz) is having a conversation about musical tastes with a new romantic interest in her life.

“What a person likes is even more important than who they are,” they surmise.

Once a bit of a music geek myself, I used to think the same thing. I remember writing down a list of dating dealbreakers with a friend, and so many of them said things like, ‘They can’t like pop music,” and “They have to make amazing mix tapes”.

For a very long time, it was very important to me that others knew I had good taste, that the books I was reading made me seem smart, that the music I was listening to made me seem cool, that the food I was eating made me seem cultured.

And then I went travelling.

I had wanted to travel my entire life, for as long as I could remember. And after working full time alongside a full time bachelor’s degree, I had finally saved up enough – around $10,000 CAD – to spend a few months tripping around Europe.

It only took me a few days into that trip to realize that I wanted to do this for ever. It only took me a few days to realize that I wanted to see as much of the world as I could, to meet as many people as possible.

Over a lifetime? Sure, that’s a great goal to have. But in my mind, I wanted to see it all immediately. I wanted people to know that I’d been to Morocco, that I’d spent a summer backpacking, that I had been to more than 20 countries.

Forget wanting to have great musical taste, I wanted to be known as the one who travelled. That even if the people back home were starting lucrative careers or getting married, travelling was the thing that set me apart. And by the time I was in my mid-20s, now living abroad and travelling as often as possible, that was the first thing people said to me or about me: that I travelled all the time.

In time, travelling was not only my passion, it became my job. After living on savings in Edinburgh and then teaching English in Japan, I backpacked the world for two years. When I moved to London in 2013, I very quickly landed a job at a major travel company.

There, I edited their travel blog, pitched new SEO and PR travel ideas, and led lectures about working with travel bloggers. On top of that, they started sending me around Europe on campaigns.

travelling between Dubrovnik and Kotor

This Battered Suitcase also started to pick up steam, and soon I was getting paid to travel to destinations around the world: Antigua and Barbuda, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Turkey. And when I wasn’t being paid to travel, I was travelling on my own dime any chance I got, to Bhutan and Portugal, Thailand and Botswana.

Travel was my whole world. But it was not just my passion, not just my job… it was my personality. Looking back, I see just how addicted I was to travelling, but also with the notion that I was a traveller above all else. Nothing else mattered much. It was the thing I wanted people to know about me more than anything.

When my UK visa expired and I moved back to Canada in 2018, I vowed to keep up with travelling. If you read old blog posts you can see I envisioned six months in Canada and six months abroad, with London continuing to be a major presence in my life. I told people I might move to Rwanda, Indonesia, Argentina. I planned months-long trips where I’d live out of a backpack and a laptop.

I felt the need to always keep going, always keep living up to that persona I had created. I was on a flight back to London within six weeks.

But there was no way I could continue to ignore just how unhappy I was, and unhealthy, too. I turned to food and alcohol to minimize the loneliness and anxiety my “dream life” had bestowed on me. So I cancelled one of those big trips. I cancelled my plans to live abroad again. 

I remember being in a little Airbnb room when I came to this decision – my sixth or seventh in London in as many months – eating crackers in bed, hearing the jovial nightlife of a Saturday night outside my window.

I just wanted to go home. I just wanted to feel like I had a home.

Back in Winnipeg, I got a dog. And then I renovated my house. And then I discovered my love of the gym, and then connected with some amazing friends. I grew closer to my family. I started going to therapy to manage my anxiety.

And gradually, I felt like I had a personality that didn’t involve travelling. Gradually, I started to feel as though I belonged, without all of the worries about what people thought of me.

It was if I could finally allow myself to just be me, a person who lives in her hometown and likes to read and garden and make earrings and never ended up going back to London or Rwanda or Thailand after all (not yet, anyway). Travelling had made me feel that way, at first, but over the years, it started to feel more like an obsession than a love.

I started to feel like I was taking it for granted, not appreciating it with the same fervour I once had. I felt like I had forgotten just how privileged I was to be able to travel at all, so obsessive about where I was going next that I was starting to forget to acknowledge what was right in front of me. I feared that I was turning into the travel snob I never wanted to be, the condescending jerk who felt it was more important that people knew I went to Uganda than if I was a nice person or not.

Don’t get me wrong: I love travelling. I am forever grateful for the 12 years I spent travelling and living abroad. And it took me those 12 years to want to find a home; it wasn’t an overnight switch. Read any blog post from 2010 to 2013 on this blog, the years I was backpacking around the world, and you’ll see that settling down was the farthest thing on my mind. Read from 2014 to 2017 and you’d believe I had finally found my home in London.

That’s the beauty of life, isn’t it? That it changes, it shifts. WE change, we shift. Our new priorities can surprise us; it certainly surprises me that I value this life in one place so much.

The past three years in Canada have shown me there’s so much more to be than just a traveller; I’m a friend, a sister, a daughter, an aunt. I’m a writer, a homeowner, a dog owner, a gardener, a reader, a maker, a cook, a weightlifter. I get to lean into those roles, I get to be present in them.

It was a frightening thought at first: who am I without travel? I struggled knowing that I was disconnecting from my main passion – my ONLY passion – for over a decade. But this allowed me to focus on what I was connecting with, and what was making me feel healthier and happier than ever.

This has been exacerbated, of course, by the fact that travel was indeed impossible over the last year, making me connect even deeper to the other things in my life that bring joy.

Giraffe Manor Nairobi Kenya

Travelling still defines me, but it’s not the only thing anymore… I finally realized it was ok to see what else I could be, too. And even better? I finally don’t care if people don’t know that I used to travel a lot. Now I focus on the other things: being generous, being a good listener, being patient and kind.

Travel is just one side of me, just one part of the whole. It has been so liberating to realize that I can be all of these things, no longer pigeonholing myself into one role. As a reader recently commented on my Instagram (hi, Kirsta!), “Travel will always be a thread in my fabric, but it’s not the entire cloth.”

With that in mind, of course I still dream of adventure. I want to go back to Europe when it’s safe to do so, revisit where I lived in London and my favourite spots in Italy. I want to save up and travel to Antarctica, Madagascar, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan. I want to revisit the places I’ve loved so much over the years. I want to go to a beach resort and do nothing but read and drink cocktails.

I still want to see as much of the world as I can; it’s just that now, I’m OK with knowing it might not be until next year, or the year after that. I still dream of trying new-to-me meals in cities that teem with excitement. I still dream of climbing mountains across the world, of swimming in oceans on the other side of the globe. I still dream of shopping in markets for spices, for necklaces, for trinkets that will feel like treasure in my hands. I still dream of train rides through countrysides so beautiful I have to keep reminding myself that it’s real, that I’m here, that this exists and I exist in it.

My wanderlust remains steadfast, a flame that still flickers inside me. The other parts of me do not put the fire out; in fact, I believe they stoke it, make me appreciate it all the more.

Can you relate? Have you ever felt that travelling defined who you are?

You may also like


Caitlin March 19, 2021 - 3:36 pm

What resonated most with me is how you wanted to be known as the one who travelled. I’ve manifested that in the most problematic, annoying way.

While I’ve evolved, I’m sometimes still guilty of meeting new people- especially on dates!- and scheming to casually slip into conversation that I’ve been to (insert country here). I avoid blatant humble-bragging, but I’m probably not as subtle as I think. Yet I’ll throw shade at country counters, which makes me a total hypocrite! I digress.

First, it’s problematic if I exoticize the destinations. Second, it’s annoying if I condescend the listener. It’s like I’m erasing from my stories every similarity between my culture and the ones I’ve encountered in an attempt to preserve their foreign-ness, and erase every similarity between me and the person I’m speaking with in an attempt to highlight their domestic-ness, all to make myself seem more worldly by comparison.

Seeing it written out like that just screams “self esteem issues!!!”

I’m not implying that you’ve done this too, Brenna! But your story reminds me that I have more reflecting and growing to do when it comes to defining myself. As always, thank you for your inspiring introspection!

Brenna Holeman April 13, 2021 - 11:01 am

I agree with your comment 100%, Caitlin. I, too, have schemed to casually slip my travels into conversations, although I used to do that a lot more when I lived in London! I’ve thankfully grown out of that habit in Canada, ha ha. And I totally agree that in doing that, I used to both eroticize the destinations (a huge problem) and also act condescending. Thanks for your awesome insight!

Lola March 19, 2021 - 3:44 pm

Love this, as always! This reminds me of your old posts… I don’t mean that in a negative way, in fact I enjoyed this style of writing very much! Keep it up x

Brenna Holeman April 13, 2021 - 10:44 am

Aw, thanks a lot, Lola! I will certainly try 🙂

Katie March 20, 2021 - 1:52 am

A quote that once stopped me in my tracks: “Death is the stripping away of all that is not you.” It blew me away. And I found it difficult to worry about what other people think ever since. (Worrying about what I think is yet another hurdle…)

Katie March 21, 2021 - 1:23 am

It occurred to me that I *may* have written this quote somewhere in your comments before. If so I swear I’m not morbid and crazy. I just find it really liberating. ?

Brenna Holeman April 13, 2021 - 10:42 am

Ha ha, even if you have written it before, it’s a great quote and it deserves multiple reads! I think that’s a great sentiment… to find it difficult to worry about what other people think ever since. Thanks for sharing, Katie!

Lyra March 20, 2021 - 10:17 am

This post resonates with me so much Brenna! I used to live in Prague, Czech Republic as an international teacher but returned to the States in 2018 to pursue a Master of Education. I had plans to move back last year but then COVID hit. However your posts about finding your love for Canada again has made me take another look around at my hometown in Northern California. I get to go to the beach every weekend and hike in the mountains and I feel pretty lucky! But also quite lost since I was the “traveler” in my friend group and I resisted the idea of “settling down”. The world is too large to turn it into a checklist of travel destinations. I am glad you are posting more, I really enjoy the “why” behind your stories!

Brenna Holeman April 13, 2021 - 11:06 am

Thank you so much, Lyra! I love that line, “The world is too large to turn it into a checklist of travel destinations.” Hiking and beaches sounds pretty amazing, and I agree that discovering a love for local travel has been a game changer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here! 😀

veena March 20, 2021 - 8:51 pm

This resonates so much with me right now because I am planning to move cities this year and I keep thinking how exciting it is to have the freedom to start over somewhere new and get to know present-day me and present that to a new place and new people. What are the new things that define me v what are old definitions that no longer ring true. I’ve had so many conversations in recent years about how we constantly grow and evolve and change and how fun it is to lean into new aspects of our personality that emerge. You will always love travel, it will always speak to your soul, but it’s not the only thing you do or the only thing you are. Here’s to becoming more self-aware as the years pass!

Brenna Holeman April 13, 2021 - 11:03 am

Oh, totally! I have often thought that in a new place… I get to be whoever I want to be. I’m just glad that here in Canada I’m finally “me”, and that I no longer worry about impressing people with travel stories. Here’s to becoming more self-aware indeed! Thank you so much for your great comment, Veena 😀

Harini March 23, 2021 - 1:14 am

This post resonates with me so much. When my husband and I got married we considered packing up our bags and travelling around the world. Both of us work as contractors, so all we need are laptops and good internet. But the more we thought, we realized that though both of us love travel, travel isn’t the only thing we love. We like having a home, we love hanging out with family and friends, we have our own individual passions which we wanted to pursue. Though travel is a shared passion, it isn’t the only thing and hence we decided that travel lifestyle wasn’t for us. We would stay put, do a couple of trips every year to quench our thirst for travel. We are slowly (very slowly by standards of a lot of people) making our way through the world and this makes me happy. For travel we haven’t had to sacrifice on other things.

Brenna Holeman April 13, 2021 - 10:43 am

Yes!! Totally. I completely understand what you’re saying, as I feel the same way. My boyfriend and I love travelling, too, but to do it full-time just doesn’t make sense for us. It sounds like you have a really amazing balance. Thank you for sharing, Harini!

Travelling pixie April 13, 2021 - 1:31 pm

Love following your journey Brenna ???? you did pack in lots of intense back to back travel over the course of several years and it was incredible to watch and read about. I also love your current lifestyle as it’s relatable for where I’m also at in my life. I’ve been following you for years and enjoyed the packed travel years alongside you often doing the same myself. However, staying at home and investing in yourself, your health and your relationships is also wonderful too!

ANUKRATI DOSI June 13, 2021 - 11:04 pm

That was a beautiful post, Brenna. Loved every word of it.

Graham Mcmillan July 6, 2021 - 3:08 am

Lovely post, Brenna. It’s wonderful you have learned to fully embrace life back in Canada, at least for now. My wife and I moved from Winnipeg to Sydney Australia in the mid-80’s and stayed 5 years. It was exhilarating. Due to our accent, simply chatting invariably raised questions, made for easy conversations, and made us feel slightly exotic.

And then we returned home. Suddenly we were so… ORDINARY. We were full of amazing adventures and experiences that were irrelevant to most people, and nobody wanted to hear about. Aunt Mabel picked us up from the airport, and on the way home, remarked, “Where were you, Australia? That must have been fun. And do you know, last week I bought a new Chevrolet”. Our five years had been dismissed as peripheral in just a few sentences.

It took us some years to embrace life back in “The Old Country”. Reverse culture shock is a very real thing. Kudos to you for embracing it again.

Bell KS October 2, 2022 - 4:28 pm

Hi Brenna,

What a great, heartfelt article! I’m still fairly at the beginning of my travel journey but I really resonate with the things you talked about, defining yourself with travel vs living beyond what travel means to oneself. Excited to see the next part of your journey 🙂


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.