Bowling party

The strange thing about comfort zones

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Comfort zones.

They’re funny old things.

Usually when travellers write about breaking out of a comfort zone, we’re talking about leaving behind the 9-5.  Throwing our old life in the trash and hitting the world, armed with only a backpack and some hope.

Suddenly everything is new.  Strange.  Difficult.

Finding somewhere to stay.  Asking directions.  Living with your life on your back.

Cultures wildly different from your own.  Physical hardship.  Loneliness.

Hell, in some places even crossing the street can be a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Like anything, though, when you do it for long enough it starts getting easier.  Practice makes perfect, and all of a sudden you’re sleepwalking your way to yet another hostel, eating fried cockroaches for breakfast and vaguely trying to remember the last time that you had a shower.

It takes a lot to phase me when it comes to travel these days.  I’ve been lost, sick, bored, broke, hungry, confused and lonely on the road, and dealt with it all, one way or another.  The stuff that freaks most people out doesn’t really bother me at all any more.

You could say that this life has become my comfort zone.

Of course, the reverse is also true.  The stuff that everybody else seems to take in their stride completely freaks the shit out of me.

This was bought home to me a couple of days ago like a smack between the eyeballs when I had to do something that scared me senseless.

I took my nephew to a five year old’s birthday party. At a bowling arcade.

Air hockey

The questions started in my head before I even left the house.  Do I need to take any food?  How about a drink?  What clothes should he wear?

It didn’t get any better once we walked inside.

The other kids were bringing in presents for the birthday girl.  I hadn’t been given one.  Why not?  Shouldn’t I have one?  Are the rest of the parents judging me?

Crap, I’d screwed this up before I even started.

I bumbled my way through a round of bowling, making sure my nephew mostly sent the ball towards the pins and not flying into the nearby crowd.  We seemed to get through that ok, high-fiving when he knocked all the pins down and neither of us laughing (much) when one of the other kids nearly dropped a bowling ball on his foot.

Then it was time for lunch.

While the kids quietly ate, I made small talk with the rest of the people more than 4 feet tall.  They talked about their jobs, their houses, their kids.  Mostly the kids.  I started to talk about my last six months in Thailand and plans for the rest of the year, but the conversation didn’t usually last long.

They were lovely people – they genuinely were – but we just didn’t really have much in common.  I went back to hanging out with the five year olds.  We seemed to have a bit more to talk about.

I did enjoy myself in the end, spending a few hours with both my nephew and a whole bunch of new people.  They were all friendly and welcoming to the awkward uncle trying to work out what the hell was going on in an environment that he just didn’t understand.  But wow, did I struggle.

On the way home, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.  I’ve travelled overland through Africa.  I’ve backpacked for months around South East Asia.  I’ve sailed in the Med, road-tripped around the USA and scuba-dived in three countries.  I’ve slept in hostels barely fit for human habitation, bumped my way through dozens of overnight bus journeys and failed to communicate in more languages than I can possibly remember.

I’ll do those any day of the week.

Take a kid to a birthday party again, however?

You’ve got to be joking.

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  1. Loved the part about going back to talking with the kids, I suppose travelers keep alive a lot of aspects from childhood–in ways both good and bad.

    Who knows, maybe the little guy will be inspired by you!

    1. I would really love to take him travelling a few years from now … I’ve sown the seeds already with his mother. 🙂

  2. Well, it sounds like you did connect with the five year olds just fine. It’s the grown-ups that are hard to understand 😉

  3. Unfortunately I find that more and more these days, non-travellers don’t want to hear travellers’ tales. On a recent trip home, only one person asked about my recent South America trip, he was the husband of a friend and I had never met him before, but he had been to Guatemala so had a bit of the travel bug about him. Nobody else asked anything about our trip! They all wanted me to know about how their kids had started walking/talking etc… though 🙂

    1. I’ve kinda got used to the glazed expressions and polite disinterest when I talk about my travels to people who aren’t that interested in travel themselves – understandable though, I guess. If someone talked to me for 10 minutes about advanced macrame techniques or something else I didn’t really care about, I’d probably be the same!

      Totally agree about the walking/talking/whatever thing! Unless the kid is related to me, I’m really not interested. Every kid does those things – it’s not unique. 😉

  4. I travel the world with my kids, and we have got this one down. But I totally know someone in our close circle that feels the same way.
    Great post, I feel for you. No one really like kids b-day parties, it is just one of the tribulations brought on by parenthood

  5. Hi Dave, I’m new here. But I’ve been following you on LinkedIn. Too bad no one was interested in talking to you about Thailand; I, on the contrary, would gladly listen to you thoughts and make you som tum afterwards.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a long time—the comfort zone thing. I’ve spent years in the United States living on my own. Now it’s about time to go back to Thailand and I’m afraid. Will I be able to have a conversation with Thai people? Will I understand their idioms and slangs? Will I fit in? Will be a foreigner in my own country? Bizarre, you know, how the world changes us.

    1. Perceptive comment, Sam. Oh, and thanks for stopping by!

      To be honest I didn’t expect that too many people would be very interested in my story – it’s just a bit too far outside the frame of reference, I think. I know that I don’t feel like I really quite fit in anywhere after being away a few years – even when the culture of where I return to is very similar to wherever I’ve just been. I can imagine that returning to Thailand from the US would be an even bigger shock – the two cultures are so very different. Good luck! 🙂

  6. I’m starting to have that too. I wouldn’t call it comfort zones, but I start feeling weird about some of the things that are normal in Europe (I’m from Switzerland). Caught in between cultures I would say. 🙂 Transitioning to a state I don’t know yet or maybe the persistent feeling of change is my normality.

    1. “the persistent feeling of change is my normality”. I couldn’t agree more – that’s a great way of putting it!

  7. Yuk 5-year-old birthday party – no thanks! Its not just that parents don’t want to talk about Thailand, hell I’d settle for a conversation on art, politics, work affairs, or the quality of TV today. But instead all you get is stuff about kids – WTH – surely adults want to talk about adult stuff when they have the option?

    Sadly not in my experience. Most parents appear totally obsessed about their kids milestones.

    1. I totally agree … I’ve never understood why talking about kids seems to be the only available option when I hang out with my friends who happen to be parents. Although I guess parenthood does seem to be such an all-consuming thing (for some folks, at least) that perhaps there just isn’t that much other stuff going on worth talking about…

  8. After witnessing the Egyptian Revolution, crossing uncountable deserts, flying across the world on my own, moving to New York without even knowing the place, and more… Still… When I go home I instantly become dumb… I don’t know what to wear, I have to ask for directions (in my city) and I never know what is appropriate or not. I am with you! High five. 🙂

  9. I’ve been to a lot of kid’s birthday parties. A lot. Every year, when I have to plan my daughter’s birthday party, I start stressing about it months before.

    They are scary, especially when in enclosed spaces with shiny walls that allow the sound to bounce around. It’s not just you. 🙂