Confronting My Ghost Life in New York

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I’m in a midtown nail salon, watching as my toenails are layered in iridescent fuchsia.  It’s been a while — since leaving Southeast Asia, I can’t justify paying more than $5 for a mani-pedi.  And it shows.  For most girls, a pedicure is just for decoration; for me, this time it was more like reconstrutive surgery.

I’m the only customer in the salon until we move onto my fingernails — then three girls around my age walk in, chattering away.  I smile.  They seem to be coworkers, complaining lightly about a particular client.

But then one girl starts talking about San Fermines, the legendary festival of Pamplona, Spain.  Her friends haven’t heard of the it beyond the Running of the Bulls, so she explains the daily runnings, the all-night parties, the white outfits with red sashes, the final day when people run from the bus.  No, she’s never been, but she’s read a lot about it.

The moment hits me like a ton of bricks.

This is my New York ghost.

If you’re a longtime reader, you may recall that after my life in Boston imploded, I wasn’t planning to travel — instead, I decided to move to New York with my sister.  We’d get a Brooklyn apartment, I’d transfer to my company’s New York office, and I’d keep saving up for that round the world trip that would happen “someday.”

Obviously, that didn’t happen!  I had a breakdown at work that led to a revelation.  Living in New York would be so much fun, but it wasn’t my dream — traveling the world was.  I couldn’t afford to take my dream RTW trip, but I COULD afford to travel Southeast Asia for six months.

That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I’m here now, still traveling — but my ghost life is alive and well and living in New York City.

And she’s not the only ghost.  While there’s New York Kate, still working in the same industry and hating it and burning through her cash, but there’s also the divorced-at-27 Kate who never ended things with that guy.  There’s the debt-free Kate who got a free college education because she didn’t immaturely turn her nose up at UMass.  I’m sure there’s one in San Francisco, too.

And if I hadn’t woken up and said “Enough!” after two weeks in Vang Vieng, booking a bus ticket for the very next day, getting strep throat from the bus and ending up spending much longer in Hanoi than planned — there would have been a Kate who never met a certain British boy.

I have no clue what that ghost would be up to.  Maybe teaching abroad.

Loving New York

I spent a few days in New York after flying back from Germany.  This time, I had more fun than I have EVER had there.  There is NOTHING like New York in the summertime (smells notwithstanding).  So much to DO.  So many ACTIVITIES.  So easy to MEET NEW PEOPLE.

And most importantly, TONS UPON TONS OF ETHNIC FOOD TO EAT.  I’ve missed that!  Other cities do ethnic food well, but New York cranks it up to 11.  Rather than three or four Korean restaurants, there’s an entire neighborhood of everything from traditional barbecue to Korean street snacks.  For the first time since I was in Southeast Asia, I bought dragonfruit (albeit for twelve times what I paid in Vietnam) and drank fresh coconuts.

READ MORE: Solo Female Travel in New York City

I felt so free.  When I’m abroad, and particularly when I’m in England, I feel like I have to be on my best behavior.  Americans don’t have the greatest reputation abroad, and I feel like it’s my duty to change people’s mind about us — we’re not all loud and brash and geographically challenged and morbidly obese.

So when in England, I’m always working to be very quiet, exceedingly polite, and not personal at all with strangers, lest I confirm an unattractive stereotype.

In New York, no longer the token American, I walked down the street and talked loudly on my phone.  I can’t remember the last time I felt comfortable doing that.

This could so easily be my life, I thought.  I could live in Brooklyn, like I originally planned.  I could go out to cool bars with friends and drink tequila-honey-lemon-spice cocktails.  My sister’s here, so many of my friends are here, and so many more pass through frequently.  And New York flies to everywhere — I could still travel, and easily.

And, as much as this thought scares me, having a traditional job would mean a break from the constant uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

Then again, I reminded myself, living in New York means living in New York in the winter.

And I watched a New York-based House Hunters episode.  A couple with a budget of $500,000 were shown a studio apartment.

Making Peace

Back in Boston this past weekend, I spent time with two good friends whom I hadn’t seen in a long time.  After gabbing at lightning speed nearly nonstop for 24 hours, we came to a conclusion — everything we’ve gone through, from the very good to the very, very bad, has led us to be better people today.

Are we sitting back, admiring the fact that we have everything we ever wanted?  No way.  Not even close.  But we’re content with our lives.  We have more confidence in ourselves than ever before.  And even before hitting 30, we’ve acquired a devastating amount of wisdom that guides us daily.

My life could have been the tiniest bit better in so many ways.  But I don’t need it to be.  What I have right now is an extraordinary gift.

As my ghost lives swirl around me, as New York pulls me closer, that’s what I will always remember.  This life is the right one.

We all have ghost lives.  Where’s yours?

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88 thoughts on “Confronting My Ghost Life in New York”

  1. I see my ghost everywhere in Ottawa, saw him yesterday biking from downtown as I was driving to go fishing. The ghost is usually less enthused about life, 30lbs heavier and the list goes on…

    I’m glad not to be my ghost, cool concept.

  2. Wow, thanks for that! Sometimes we forget what could have been and forget to appreciate where we are. I could have been not happy AT ALL. Thank you!

  3. It always scares me when I think about how many chances I had to end up on a different path than the one I’m on today. If I hadn’t chosen the college I did, I wouldn’t have met the friend who’d convince me to move to Singapore after graduation, then I wouldn’t have met my fiance (the horror!), nor would I have met my sports contacts — and I wouldn’t currently be working right now as a journalist at the Olympics! I don’t think any ghost life could be better than this one.

    I’m glad you chose the path you did, Kate. And I hope that girl in the salon goes to San Fermin one day soon!

    1. Edna, you are one of the people whom I couldn’t imagine in a typical office job in America. Congrats for making that leap!

      I hope that girl gets there someday, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I’ve been reading for a long time (and used your blog as a resource when I went to Thailand) and I think this was one of the more powerful posts I’ve read from you. A good reminder that there are always a million choices and “what ifs” but ultimately, whatever ones we choose, we can make the best of.

  5. LOVED this blog, and it totally got me thinking…where are my ghosts? What are they doing? Would you mind if I copied this idea for a blog of my own, of course giving credit back to where the idea came from?

  6. My best friend is my ghost. Our paths diverged years ago.

    As I am, he’s happily married with kids.

    But he unhappily sits in an office all day and has never left the country. I quit my office job nearly 10 years ago and take a few hundred people to Europe each year.

  7. Ahh Kate I know exactly how you feel. I often wonder what I’d be doing if I’d just continued in my office job in the UK. I was good at it, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do with my life…so, I just quit and wound up in Korea, and will be RTW next year.

    Also, $500,000 for a studio apartment in NYC?! Don’t think I’ll be moving there anytime soon. Maybe my money could go further in Yonkers?

    Oh, and I totally don’t have $500,000.

    p.s. do you like dragonfruit? I’ve had it only once but found it to be totally bland and disappointing given its gorgeously exotic appearance.

  8. ….and the Betti who didn’t get shipwrecked with you Kate didn’t go to Flores again a year later and never met a certain guy.
    now I know why it “had to” happen, and have been able to think about it without rage.

    Tom: personally, white dragonfruit is nothing to write home about, but the purple ones are in a class of their own.

  9. Love, love, love this post!

    In my ghost life I am a socially awkward particle physicist, so pale from spending every waking second underground that you’d lose me in the snow I’d be surrounded by every winter. Oooh, I’d literally be like a ghost – ha! I’d be working at CERN and spending all day sitting in front of a computer coding particle accelerator simulations. I’d quite likely be miserable.

    SO glad I decided to travel and leave that life behind! Especially when I see all my physics friends’ miserable “I hate my life” updates every day.


    OR. Had I never broken up with an awful, abusive boyfriend, I would have just completed the year-long RTW trip that we had been planning together. He had no money and I was going to use my savings to help pay for him too. What was I thinking?! I would definitely be miserable with so many regrets. So so so many regrets. Hopefully, we would have broken up after a few weeks and I’d be off partying in Southeast Asia ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Now THAT’s a contrast, Lauren.

      I had no idea you had an abusive boyfriend. But I can definitely relate to you on the “WHAT WAS I THINKING?!” part. Really happy that you made the leap and decided to travel (and eat new and exotic food like eggs!), especially when it’s been so out of your comfort zone! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I am my ghost right now but I’m working on changing that. I set up an interview to find a job teaching English in Korea and I’m working on some other travel plans as well. After a while of the same thing day in and day out I realized that if I didn’t start taking steps towards making a change, I would have a lot of regrets later in life. Following along as you broke free from your ghost life is an inspiration to all of us.

  11. I couldn’t agree more! I only left home 2 weeks ago to travel the world as long as possible and I am thrilled at home I feel about it. As you mention on your blog it comes with down sides and difficulties but nothing like having never left at all! I am looking forward to meeting you at TBEX in September!

  12. What a great post. It’s funny thinking about what could have happened had we made different choices. Unlike a lot of your other commenters, I never had big dreams of traveling around the world. I wanted to travel, but I figured it would be secondary to whatever career/life I had. Then I met my husband, and I took a big leap of faith. I ended up moving all over the US, and now I’m living abroad and traveling and a whole new world has opened up for me. Anyway, I hate to think what my ghost would be doing…or where she’d be doing it!

  13. How true it is that we all have those ghost lives. NY was one of mine as well. Although each visit there is filled with reminiscing and hating to leave, once it’s over I am so happy I chose to move on from there so many years ago. I was not a world traveler like you but took off in an RV full time and traveled the states, ending up here in San Antonio, TX several years ago. Although I still love NY and I’m sure a life in NY would have been fulfilling too, I am so glad to have escaped it’s trappings.
    Really put me through a mind exercise meditating on the what ifs and could have beens. Great post Kate. Won’t soon forget it.

  14. Love this way of looking at your life choices! But it brings up a question- when you’re ‘in that moment’ of making a decision about what to do next, where to go next, and you try out this or that (Oh, I could totally live in Brooklyn), what if there is no dead-ringer-neon-sign pointing the way? I can’t move to 3 places at once! …

    1. You know, the only time I was ABSOLUTELY sure of something was when I knew it was time to leave Boston. From there, I never had the bright neon sign. Looking back, though, in retrospect, it seems like it was always there and I just had no idea.

  15. I’ve been encountering my ghost life a lot this week as I just returned home on Monday for the first time in a long time. It’s weird to think about who I would have become if I’d stayed in the States, rather than moving to Japan… and then SE Asia… and then China. I don’t feel like I’m entirely put together and know what I’m doing with my life at the moment, but at the same time I’m glad I’ve made the choices I have.

  16. It has always been amazing to me how one choice could change the entire direction of your life. My ghost lives in Arizona and is the Director of Training for a large restaurant group. With a dozen restaurants to oversee, she spends her days always on call, never secure that a “day off” will truly be just that. There are endless promises of promotions, but four years later her position would be eliminated due to employee shortages and she would end up going back to being the General Manager of just one restaurant in the group. This is the life of the girl who took my position when I left 4 years ago to own my own restaurant. It was the BEST choice, especially since the business has now been set up to allow much more time to travel ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Hey, SOMEONE has to stick up for all the people who live in New York and have office jobs. ๐Ÿ™‚ I live and work in Manhattan. Yes, you won’t be occupying palatial digs here if you’re not wealthy. But with the energy, the culture, and so many interesting people, I am very happy to be living here. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, really. And just because I work in an office doesn’t mean that I had to defer world travel to the twelfth of never; I prioritize saving up for international trips over just about all other competing objects of discretionary spending, and I use my vacation time to actually take vacations. As a result, I’ve not only traveled to, but sung karaoke on, six continents plus Easter Island. And I look forward to seeing a lot more of the world in the coming years (and as you pointed out, it’s pretty easy to fly to just about anywhere from NYC’).. At the same time, I always enjoy coming back to the Big Apple at the end of one of my trips

    1. I feel similarly to this. I save up for travel more than I save up for anything else (like, should probably save more money for food at some point?) but I love my apartment in Chicago, I love living in Chicago, and I love having a home to come back to over and over again. But I am still amazed that I am even in Chicago in the first place and I think about all of the other places I could have ended up had I not met a few certain people along the way. Maybe in some other dimension all of our ghost selves are hanging out right now, commenting on each other’s ghost blogs?

  18. My Ghost Greg is eating that sandwich next to you in NYC, still bitching about how he hates his online advertising ad, gaining weight by the day, shoving his way through the crowed F-line subway and hating the world around him.

    I’m from NYC. I love NYC. I’ve spent my life wanting to make a life there. Yet every time I’m there, it’s just too much. San Francisco Greg, however, that’s a happy guy ๐Ÿ™‚ Then again, so is the current Chiang Mai Greg (sorry Kate, I know how you feel about this place). So is the traveler Greg.

    1. Greg, it’s all good! I like Chiang Mai…I just don’t like the “zomgChiangMaiAMAZING!” myth that gets perpetuated.

      Really glad you haven’t forgotten your ghost. (And it was a delicious sandwich.)

  19. Very honest and insightful post, Kate! It is a powerful thing to think about what your life would be like if certain things had been different.. and it’s absolutely wonderful to come to the conclusion that you are happy where you are!

  20. Oh, my gosh, Kate….I never really thought of it this way, but you are so right. Even before I made the decision last year to sell my business in the states and travel indefinitely, there were plenty of decisions made prior to that one..each yielding their own “ghost”…needless to say, I’ve developed quite a collection.. It’s so interesting to see how your able to reflect back on all of them, picture yourself living each particular life, and know wholeheartedly you chose the right path for you…the universe has a way of rewarding those who are brave enough to pursue their dreams ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Thanks for this! I felt this way last time I was back in Seattle, and it was my starting to get back into the life of the ghost I thought I left behind that made me take the next opportunity to leave again… and there are many moments during this last year where I’ve been so thankful that I decided to let just my ghost keep living in Seattle while the real me got my act together in Tokyo ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. What a wonderful post idea! I often think about the other paths my life would have taken – and I love the idea of calling them your ghost lives. It seems like I at least two of my ghost lives whenever I visit Washington DC – the one that went on to get a Ph.D. and probably works in one of the think tanks and the one that joined a three letter agency (sometimes I like to pretend I’m watching that life on a certain USA TV show).

  23. My ghost is conducting scientific experiments in a windowless lab, watching the clock tick slowly to 5pm! Luckily, I was able to quit my job and travel for 6 months – and believe it or not, I’m feeling refreshed and ready to go back to the working world!

  24. Ghost lives…a scary thought. I’m not sure I want to know what my ghosts are up to lol
    i do love your blog though. Your the life I’m currently dreaming of…being able to sustain myself while still indulging my need for travel. I just started my own travel blog at with the hopes of being able to do what you have done one day. Thanks for the inspiration and letting me know it can be done!

  25. great post! very inspirational too. I recently graduated from school and plan on leaving soon/travelling around for as long as I could as well..

  26. I really love this. I think a lot about my ghost-selves as well and what they would be up to, and I also feel the tempting pull of stability and normal twenty-something life. Luckily most days I’m happy to be where I am, but it’s so curious to see the flip side.

  27. A part of me is feeling as though Iโ€™m living a ghost life now. I am happiest when Iโ€™m travelling, anywhere! But I can only do this 5 weeks out of the year and, although Iโ€™m thankful for that, it just doesnโ€™t seem to be enough. I just got back from a trip to Turkey and Greece and I miss the me that was there. The me that felt completely at peace with myself. I tried to find that โ€œmeโ€ here where I live and where I work, but sheโ€™s nowhere to be found.

    After reading this post, Iโ€™ve decided to look more into what I can do to lead the life that I want to lead. Thanks so much Kate for this post!


  28. My ghost life is the girl living in Cambodia after deciding not to come home after my last trip there. Instead I am stuck in an office in London trying to work out when to join her.

    I have enjoyed your blog and Facebook posts today. Very inspiring x

  29. My ghost is back in Australia working ridiculously long hours, 7 days a week, saving for that trip that never gets taken because some family illness or fear holds me back. And even though it never gets taken, continues to convince myself i don’t need a social life or sleep because that amazing trip is just around the corner.

    Thankfully I left that ghost behind and relocated to the UK for the next 2 years to travel and re learn how to be inspired.

  30. I think this is my favorite entry of yours. I think about my “ghost lives” all the time. Like…what would have happened if I didn’t go to grad school for teaching and instead actually tried to make it as a writer? Or if I had studied abroad in college? I totally wonder about the student loan thing, too–what if I had gone to Temple U, graduated without loans, and didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars of debt pulling me down like an anchor?

    But mostly I’m thankful that I made the decisions that I have and that my life is on the path it is today…I’m not sure that I would have discovered my love of travel, or my love of teaching otherwise. Still, it’s fun to think about it.

  31. After teaching English in Korea, I moved to NYC to be with my (at the time) girlfriend. I was actually pretty hesitant to the move initially for all the reasons anyone is.. too crowded.. too expensive.. mean people. But immediately after settling in Manhattan i fell in love with NYC! There is truly no place in the world like it and if I didnt have such an itch to travel the world, I would no question settle in NYC. However, my current budget will take me a lot farther travelling abroad than living in NYC. And I tell myself that NYC isnt going anywhere, and I can come back and enjoy it later in life.

    I didnt mean for this comment to turn into a short bio but I guess I have similar sentiments about a ‘ghost life’ living in NYC. I am incredibly happy with where I am now/what I am doing not living in NYC, but NYC will forever have a most special place in my heart. ๐Ÿ™‚

  32. Wow, good one! My ghost would still be in smalltown Germany with her parents, dreaming of a world out there and somehow being vaguely frustrated, but not knowing what to miss because she wouldnยดt know, ever.
    Good post! Itยดs fun just fantasizing of what could have been right…and also to appreciate what you have and what a long way youยดve already come!

  33. I love this post so, so much! Last time I went home to California it was really easy to see my ‘ghost life’ there that I would have had if I hadn’t decided to move abroad for a while.

    I think I probably would have gotten bored and wanted to travel sometime, but then there’s always that little voice saying “What if..” and listing all the good things about life there. It makes choosing a more uncertain life really sting sometimes.

  34. Isn’t amazing how these moments – some big, some small, some consciously chosen and some out of our control – can make such a huge difference in where our life goes? It’s both overwhelming (what if I choose wrong!) and freeing. The ghost I can picture the best is the one who didn’t get broken up with in college, who stayed with a dead-end boyfriend, had kids way too young, and never got to fulfill the dream of joining the Peace Corps or traveling the world. But who knows what decisions that ghost could have made down the line that would have led to a similar place, or somewhere equally happy.

  35. Oh, so powerful! Finally someone put into beautiful words the feelings I have had for so long. The ghost that haunts me the most is the 29-year old me who did not divorce. Cannot even bare to think about it compared to the love i’m living now.
    Also, the version of me who didnt’t dare to quit her corporate job, to sell everything, to start a business and leave.
    Kate, you are an inspiration! Today I wake up in Bali (instead of Finland), today I am happy, and in May we go on as newly joined members of the digitsl nomads to the Philippines where we shall live … for now.
    Bless You.

  36. This is a fascinating concept! I feel as though I know exactly what my potential ghost would be like, whilst at the same time feeling like I know nothing about the person I could have been – worse yet, I feel like we’d have nothing to talk about and have little in common.

    When I was 13, I moved to Austria – a new culture, a new country, a new language, the works. Had I not, I might still be living in a small town in Eastern Europe and putting up posters of faraway places on a room in my parent’s apartment.

  37. I have a very similar ghost life, but in Toronto, Canada working for a PR agency. She’s a girl that is unhappy and a slave to her work. She has lost her spark for life and instead plays a “role”. She has no self-love.

    I had a breakthrough when I quit my job and decided to travel the world with the love of my life. It was hands down the best decision. I woke up from misery and I’m thankful for it. But I know there are so many ghost versions of myself, sitting, working at a job they hate, living in pain. I want to tell them all, it doesn’t have to be this way, I promise. Just let go.

  38. Hi Kate

    I have only recently found your travel blog and i’ve fallen in love with it! Me and 3 girlfriends are interrailling around Europe this August and we are actually doing the busabobut croatia sail trip! So I was so pleased to find your blog about your experience :).

    I have two future ghosts in my head at the mo which I’m desperately trying to choose between. I am graduating as a childrens nurse in September and my two options are to move back home to Coventry, commute every day to Birmingham and save more money for travel. Or, I can move to London which I’ve recently had a big interest in, save much slower and enjoy London life while still on a tight budget so that i can still travel ‘someday’ also.

    My mind hurts from thinking about these two options over and over!

    Wish I could choose which Lori will be ghost Lori and which will be real Lori

  39. This post really made me think… I have an awful lot of ghosts, and I’m glad none of them won out. I’m blissfully happy where I am right now.

  40. I have a few ghosts – one in my hometown, one in London and one I have yet to see in Berlin. A part of me is still that ghost just in another place, but the chance to see something different and meet different people also makes up for that.

  41. Hi Kate, I just found your blog and am amazed by the flood of responses you get. However, this isn’t really a surprise due to the amazing work you did on this post. You got all of us thinking- just wanted to tell you that you’re doing a GREAT job and just continue to do what you do, all of us support you!

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