First, a confession. I have never read Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s multi-million selling memoir of self-discovery, which is ten years old this month. I have a copy lying somewhere in a storage unit (we’ll come to that) and I’ve seen half of the film on Netflix. But you don’t have to be one of the 10 million readers to understand the impact of Gilbert’s book – which charts how, in her early thirties and recently divorced, she spent a year travelling the world to ‘find herself’. To mark the anniversary, Gilbert has published a collection of essays by 47 women whose lives were changed by her book (you’ve got to love her modesty), called Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. Gilbert’s memoir inspired devotion and derision in equal measure. Cynics noted that she had a pretty strong incentive to find herself on her trip – she’d secured a $200,000 advance to write a book about it. Still, it spent over 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was translated into 30 languages, and is loved by Oprah and Hillary Clinton. It also spawned a multi-million pound merchandising industry, with everything from pasta dishes to prayer beads trading off the name. Then there were the holidays. Type ‘Eat, Pray, Love trips’ into Google and you’ll get dozens of companies offering themed excursions where you can “experience a piece of Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-discovery” – even ten years on. Because that’s the book’s biggest legacy – the idea that, if you’re going through a crappy time in your life, a big trip can fix it all. Doing an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has become shorthand for using a plane ticket to turn life dissatisfaction into enlightenment. The idea isn’t a new one. Back in the '80s, Shirley Valentine was the original Liz Gilbert, leaving behind a controlling husband and life of drudgery for Tom Conti on a boat in Greece. More recently, Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of the 1100 mile hike she went on after losing her mother, became an Oscar nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon. The idea of using a journey to fix your problems is romantic and powerful, and one I bought into for a long time. It just never seemed to work for me. There was the time when, after a difficult few weeks, I booked a flight to New York leaving three days later. I couldn’t seem to work out the answers at home, so hoped I might 3,500 miles away. A week later, I had no answers, just several hundreds pounds less in my bank account. In Greece I didn’t gain perspective (or Tom Conti), just the worst mosquito bites of my life. But each plane ride brought a new shot at my own ‘life changing’ trip.
So last year, unhappy with work and where I was living, and generally feeling a bit lost, I handed in notice on my flat, put all my stuff in storage (including the unread copy of Eat, Pray, Love), and went to America for a few weeks, travelling around upstate New York. "What are you going to do when you come back?" asked friends. I didn’t have a plan. But I was pretty sure I’d have one by the time I returned. Booking into a cabin in the Catskill mountains, I figured this was going to be my version of Wild. There weren't coyotes or bears, but there were chipmunks. I thought time alone, a break from my routine, and distance from my problems would somehow combine to give me a fresh perspective. Finding a buff husband, like Gilbert did on her travels, would be an added bonus. But, in my cosy cabin in the woods, I didn’t figure life out. Instead, I drank Maker’s Mark and watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I went for a hike (if you can call it that when you’re wearing converse and a sundress) through the woods to channel my inner Cheryl Strayed. I saw Bob Dylan’s old house but had no epiphanies. I got drunk with strangers, hoping one would offer a piece of life changing advice, but nothing.
The signposts you’re looking for in life might come on a beach in Malaysia, but they’re just as likely to hit you when you’re tucking into half a chicken in Nandos
In New York on the last night of my trip, when I should have been soaking up every last drop of the city, I went to bed early, feeling deflated and a bit of a failure that I was going home as clueless about my life as when I’d left the tarmac at Heathrow. Which was a shame. Because the trip wasn’t a failure – no holiday where you discover fried chicken and donut sandwiches can ever be (the ‘Eat’ part of Gilbert’s journey I actually emulated quite well.)
I’ve finally realised that going away rarely changes anything. You can’t force clarity on a situation. The signposts you’re looking for in life might come on a beach in Malaysia, but they’re just as likely to hit you when you’re tucking into half a chicken in Nandos, or listening to Drake and staring through the grease-smeared window of the number 73 bus on your way home from work. You might get lucky like Liz and meet the love of your life in Bali. But stories like that are the anomalies – that’s why they’re turned into books. Julia Roberts has only got time to play so many spiritually awakened women. Even Gilbert herself recognises that travelling the world isn’t the answer for everyone. “I get more excited when people find their own truth than when they imitate my journey,” she said recently of the people who obsessively track down the exact pizza place she went to in Naples. That’s not to say that going away by yourself isn’t a worthwhile thing. Earlier this year, when the deaths of two backpackers in South America provoked some victim blaming comments about them travelling alone, women took to social media to share their positive stories of travelling solo with the hashtag #viajasola (‘I travel alone’.) Being on your own on the other side of the world forces you out of your comfort zone and your shell. You become bolder and have more adventures. You don’t have to compromise on what you want to do, or share your food. I’m already planning my next solo trip. But this time, if all I come home with is a suitcase of naff souvenirs, then I’m fine with that.