Since graduating, I have spent the last two years travelling. Hardly original I know, but when you are faced with the doom-and-gloom economic forecasts that my generation of graduates has been faced with, the 'fight or flight' instinct kicks in. The lure of grizzlies in the Rockies and killers off the coast of Vancouver sounded more enticing than the drudgery of job seeker meetings and endless internet job applications, and so off I flew. As it happens, I spotted neither a bear nor a whale, but that hardly detracted from the year in Canada.
You live your whole life in one place, and you start to think that's all there is. Travelling across Canada, roughly 36 times the size of England, highlighted just how small England is, and helped put things in perspective.
I checked the UK's pulse again at the start of this year, but things still didn't sound too healthy, so off I went to Berlin, swapping size and scale for intense multiculturalism and political activity. Within the first few hours, I had my suspicions confirmed: all those English stereotypes about how everyone from France eats frogs and how everyone in Italy eats pasta and pizza aren't funny, they aren't big and they aren't clever. So why do the British come back to them time and time again?
Such small-mindedness would not fly in Berlin, a city that thrives on being open and accepting. Everybody I met there spoke English as a second language, and had another language or two in their repertoire. 'Wow', I managed to think. People knew about what was happening in every corner of the globe, and were hungry for more international news. It was vital for them that they saw themselves in a greater international framework. 'Wow' I probably uttered a second time. In truth, I was stunned. Lamenting the fact that as a nation we can't be bothered to learn other languages has become a bit of a broken record in the UK, but I believe this is a fundamental flaw in our national outlook. One of many.
On countless occasions in Berlin I saw people of all ages protesting together for a common cause. This was not like back home, where far too often protesting is a thing young people do, but the expectation is that one day they will 'get it out of their systems'. (Here I remember a passage in Mrs Dalloway, the quintessential book about being British and how every man is an island, in which it is suggested that politics is a young man's game). I imagined people back home keeping their heads down, "getting on with it", and living their own lives.
Eventually the careerist urge, which had lain dormant within me for two years, awoke, and so back to Blighty I came. As I flew home, I read Homage to Catalonia, which, rather ominously for what I was to experience on my return, finishes with the image of the English as "all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs." This Orwellian sentiment was echoing in my head as I got on the Gatwick Express and saw all the businessmen and women in their strict suits, each with their face obscured by a newspaper or a smart phone held inches from their face. Everybody was separate, deep in their own world. They might as well have posted a 'Do not disturb' about their person.
It seems that certain politicians, suspicious of those economies across the Channel, want to leave the EU. After all I have seen and learned living abroad, I can't think of a worse step back we could take as a country. I have seen "how the other half lives" and have experienced the fresh opportunities and outlooks that can be developed organically through discussion and community. Coming back to England, I see no signs of a move towards the Big Society that was all the rage when I left nearly two years ago. I realise that, like the ready meals we greedily consume as a nation, our nation's island mentality is still vacuum-packed and artificial.
Low on money and still jobless, I have now moved back in with my parents. Every day, it becomes a little harder to remember what the Rocky Mountains looked like, and the friendliness of each and every Canadian I met. Every time I go to the village pub and hear another discussion about the match last night and what happened to whom on which reality TV show, I find it harder to recall the dynamic political and artistic ideals that were at the forefront of life in Berlin. Now, as I am reintroduced to all things British, I find myself taking on that island mentality again. The muscles of liberalism (verging on socialism) that I developed living and travelling abroad are, unexercised, becoming slack and flaccid once again.
The rat race in London beckons, and if I'm going to succeed, it seems, I need to keep my head down and get on with it. There's no rest for the wicked.
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