Why I Lied About My Age & How I Finally Stopped

Designed by Elliot Salazar.
"Here's to not being 30!" my new 23-year-old Australian friend Georgia proclaimed, tipsily clinking her drink against mine.
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"Yup!" I downed my drink quickly, so she couldn’t see the look on my face. I was six weeks shy of my 32nd birthday.
I was also single, unemployed, and 10 weeks into a four-month-long backpacking adventure. A year prior, I'd been working in a corporate high-rise, dating men I thought were "marriage material," and attending weddings and baby showers on weekends. When I went on vacation, I stayed in hotels, brought a suitcase, and spent afternoons buying heavy tchotchkes to display in my sunny one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment.
But, then, I'd lost my job, ended my relationship, and realized that I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity staring me down. No more cramming my travel into just two weeks a year. I had cash socked away, plenty of free time, and a bucket list of places to go.
So, last May, I booked a flight to Croatia, settling in at a surfer-owned hostel in the party island of Hvar.
"Hello, mate!" A fellow traveler called to me, inviting me to sit down and join him in sharing a bottle of Karlovacka, the cheap local brew. We began swapping our biographies, which is when I suddenly realized that my new friend had just celebrated his 20th birthday.
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"How old are you?" he asked me in return.
"31." He wrinkled his nose.
"And, you're backpacking — by yourself?" The way he said it made it sound more like I'd just announced I enjoyed spending my weekends clubbing baby seals.
"Yeah. I never did it when I was your age, so..." I trailed off, wincing. When I was your age? I was 31, not 91!
It was too late. He gulped his beer, mumbled a see ya later, and maneuvered his way to a table of 19-year-olds talking about their respective universities.
After that, I began lying about my age, getting younger as my clothes got dirtier, my sunburn got redder, and my tolerance for rakia, the 40% proof local Croatian liquor, got higher. I was 28 in Bosnia, 27 in Montenegro and now, on a booze cruise in Budapest, I was a 24-year-old, cheers-ing my (not-quite) youth.
Designed by Elliot Salazar.
Despite a few close calls (I could never remember my fake year of birth) nobody questioned my lie. From swapping travel tips to talking about craziest stories from the road, the conversation never ran dry with my new twentysomething (and, gah, teenage) friends.
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But, I did feel a twinge of guilt when I met fellow 30- and 40-year-old backpackers. They didn't apologize for their age, and I couldn’t help but notice how they often were the center of attention in hostel lounges, sharing stories of their hard-won experiences with an eager audience. I wanted to be like that, able to share my own wisdom when conversations got philosophical between the twentysomethings: I wanted to tell them that finding a job was scary but not impossible, that adulthood wasn't the end of fun and adventure, that it would all be okay.
And then, I ended up in Lahinch, a tiny seaside town on the West Coast of Ireland. It was a dismally rainy Sunday and a dearth of waves had made my surfing plans impossible. So, I found myself bored and drinking a cup of tea in the hostel kitchen.
"Can I join you?" A gravelly voice asked. I looked up to see a man with wiry gray hair and formidable, caterpillar-like eyebrows hovering over me. He was soaked. I could see the drops of water dripping off his face and forming constellation-like patterns on the linoleum table.
His name was Karl, he was 75, single, and had just spent the past five hours biking in the driving rain.
"Tea? Ugh. Let's have a pint!" he said cheerfully, mentioning the bar next door.
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I shrugged. I wasn't thrilled about spending my evening with a senior citizen, but the hostel was nearly empty and I hadn't seen anyone close to my age during my first lap around town. Hanging out with someone was better than no one.
One pint turned into five, which turned into Karl regaling me with fascinating stories of a long, rich life. He had spent a summer in the '70s hitchhiking between Dead shows; at one point Jerry Garcia knew him by name. He spent the '80s cultivating an organic farm in Germany. Now, divorced with grown children, he spent summers biking wherever he could. He'd already crossed Canada, and this trip — "just a small one" — had taken him from his German hometown across Europe, and now, to one of the western-most points of Ireland.
Clearly, Karl didn't deserve to be dismissed a senior citizen. Karl was awesome. His stories were wilder than any I'd heard so far on my trip, and he didn't care what he "should" be doing with his life.
The next day, Karl headed up to Northern Ireland, and I moved on to a new hostel in Lisbon, Portugal. I knew our paths would never cross again, but I'm thankful for the life lessons he imparted — specifically, that there's no such thing as "acting your age," but there's also no discounting the power of owning up to your age. And, I haven't fibbed about my age since.
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