Souvenir Live: A Conversation with Brenna of This Battered Suitcase

Souvenir Live: A Conversation with Brenna of This Battered Suitcase

September 10, 2021

A conversation with BRENNA of the blog, This Battered Suitcase

Welcome to Souvenir, where we focus on the goods that you bring back from traveling. We're not talking about those physical items you bring home. We are  talking about those conversations, those learnings, those cultural exchanges that you've experienced and you've touched on the road that have really impacted the way that you've come home and live your life. Here, OT founder Britt is talking to Brenna Holeman, a travel writer who has been to over 100 countries and the blogger behind This Battered Suitcase. 

girl with bookshelf

Britt: We are so, excited to speak to Brenna of This Battered Suitcase. For the last 14 years, she's hit up over 100 countries, has a penchant for whiskey. According to her is always covered in dog hair, which I love because so am I. Welcome.

I understand that you're a full-time writer. Pre-COVID you were traveling around the world writing about your travels. I'll let you take it away. How did you get started and how did you end up here?

Brenna: Yeah. So I mean, it goes way back. I always dreamed of traveling ever since I was a little girl. I'm super lucky to grow up in Winnipeg, my hometown, and to grow up with two parents who were so fascinated by travel as well. And so they had all these amazing stories of traveling around Europe and living in a van for years and doing all this super cool stuff. So I was born into that. I was born into a family that already had wanderlust, which I think was just really cool.

Britt: It was in your blood.

Brenna:  Yeah. And then my mom is also a writer. So there was that aspect. So my two big loves growing up, seeing her publish books and everything. I was like, "Ah, it'd be so cool to be a writer. I want to travel." And honestly, at the time as a kid and even into my teenage years, to be a travel writer seemed so foreign in that it was like, oh, I want to be an astronaut or I want to be something that's just  so out of reach. And of course, now the job that I have didn't even exist when I was a kid. So it's interesting to see how that kind of worked out. But yeah, I just always had a fascination with traveling. I was always obsessed with maps and geography. And so I ended up leaving Winnipeg at 18. I went to university to do my undergrad in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And I was doing a full-time degree and full-time working to obviously live in Halifax, but also trying to save every last dollar that I could so that I could do a backpacking trip. And I truly believed I will go to Europe for three months, (this was back in 2006), I'll get travel out of my system, and then I'll move to Toronto, and I will get a job in publishing, and I'll go on my two-week holidays. I didn't realize that there was more. And I mean, that would have been a really awesome life as well, but just when I went traveling, of course, it was like, maybe I want to see how I can continue to do this. And yeah, that turned into living in Edinburgh, that turned into then moving to Japan.

Britt: You know, for me, I always thought that I would have this certain life path that it was all just going to play out. But for something to kind of come in your way like that and say, hey, consider this - what was it about travel that made you reconsider your path?

Brenna: I think it was because I'd never felt comfortable before. I don't know if that's the right word. But I think my entire teenage years, I was so concerned with everybody thinking I was cool and I just never felt that I had my place. And then even going into university, I was working so much and going to school, and I was just super busy. And I still had those insecurities of like, ugh, I'm still not cool enough. I worried so much about what people thought of me. And then when I went traveling, I went on my own. It was like, oh, here's this thing that nobody knows who I am. I can be whoever I want. And it's odd to say that I've never felt comfortable until I was extremely uncomfortable and that I was sleeping in hostels and on trains and all these things that I was like, okay, I feel like myself. And it took until I was 21 years old and going to Europe to feel truly like myself in doing that. 

Oh, this is how they drink coffee here, and this is this language. And it just was so fascinating to me. As somebody who loves stories and loves books, I feel very often when I meet people who travel a lot, they also have a love of reading. And I think that's because people who love traveling love learning other people's stories and love learning the story of a place, and love just seeing new things and experiencing new things and learning. So I think that was sort of that aha moment for me. I was like, oh, there's so much out there to see and I just feel so at home in other places, in these foreign lands, and feel fully like myself, you know. And then it very much felt like an addiction where I just felt like I needed to keep chasing that. Whenever I was home wherever I called home, I was consciously thinking, okay, when's my next holiday? How much money can I save? When can I do this? When can I do that? And I mean, the past year has been very different, obviously, in that regard. But yeah, I'm not sure that I'll ever really shake that wanderlust even though I'm back here and I'm settled and I've done all these travels and stuff. 

Britt: Totally. That's so cool. And I love what you said about the concept of you're never enough at home. I feel that as well, you know, you're constantly being compared to other people. And I think I'm dating myself here, but I feel like it's almost more so now, but when I was in school, we didn't really have Instagram, we had Teen Magazine and stuff. So it was enough just to be comparing myself to a girl who could never date Josh Hartnett. But there's something about this concept of getting lost, being alone, being in a place that's uncomfortable that allowed you the space and freedom to be whoever you want it to be. But in doing that, it allowed you just to be yourself.

Brenna: I think I was such a scaredy cat when I was a kid. My mom laughs when she looks back and she's like, "Wait, where did you go by yourself and doing these things?" Because I was a kid who made myself sick when I went to day camp in the summer so that I could come home to my mom. I was the one who bawled on the first day of school, because I did not want to go. I was such a homebody - very insecure, very anxious, and very introverted. So to say like, oh, okay, actually, I'm just going to get on the airplane and not have a return ticket. That was really cool, to be like, I actually can do this thing on my own and I can feel that confidence. I know you see it all the time and everything, but I truly believe traveling gave me that confidence. Traveling solo gave me that confidence that I think has taken me through to today.

Britt: That's amazing. Yeah. Because when you look at me, when I was a kid, it was like, I got lost everywhere. I was constantly wandering around Home Depot, Walmart, grocery store, Disneyland at night, you name it, I got lost. I just would always wander off. And then my mom would even describe me as having too much independence, too much confidence. I'd be that kid who'd get out after school, round up all the kids on the block, not come home till the lights came down. I think that it just speaks to the fact that even though we may have been very different kids, and we may have felt differently about our surroundings, we both kind of ended up in the same place where we just both get so much from being elsewhere, and that we get so much energy from that ability to explore. So I think that it is based on the fact that it doesn't matter the type of person you are, travel is for everybody. So what would you say is your favourite and least favourite part about being on the road? 

Brenna: I always try to do a lot of the sort of touristy things right in the beginning, kind of spend a day or two. But the favourite part for me, is really when you just kind of wander around and find those unexpected moments of like, what did I stumble into? A festival or what is this restaurant and has the best food ever? I love the unexpected that comes out of wandering aimlessly which, again, is so interesting to me, because I suffer from anxiety. And so that's an interesting thing that at home, I don't necessarily like the unexpected and the spontaneous. But when I'm traveling, it's like my alter ego comes out and I'm just willing to take any of that on. I think that to me, I love not really having a plan when I travel. And I always recommend that to people, make sure you see the museums and see the markets and do the things that the guidebooks and blogs tell you. But with that, make sure to have a couple days where it's like, let's just see what happens. Let's go out. Let's go and explore this part of the city or let's walk, do this hike, and kind of just see what happens. To me, my favourite part is the unknown. If I really go deeper into that, it would definitely be the interactions I've had with people.

And I can think back to so many meals shared, so many conversations in my broken Spanish or whatever I'm trying to speak at marketplaces or just meeting people on a train. I mean, again, it's sort of cheesy to say but I think it definitely is the people that you meet. I love trips where I've gone where it has been much more isolated, and it's more about nature. 

But I think even when I think back to my mom and I traveling for six weeks through East Africa in 2017. And we wanted to blow all of our savings on the most amazing trips of riding on safari and doing all these things. But when I think back to those trips, I still think to the people. Yes, I had amazing experiences seeing the animals, but I think back to the guys that we were with in the truck in Kenya and them taking us around and teaching us different words, and also, that's what I remember. I think that's kind of always been my favourite, favourite part. 

I think my least favourite - the act of traveling itself can be very stressful in terms of when your plane gets cancelled or your luggage lost. I get annoyed by getting on an airplane and it's packed and I'm uncomfortable and stuff like that. But again, it's really like, well, I just had to get from A to B, and then I get the good stuff, so. 

Britt: I am so transparent about my loathing for the actual travel process. I get such anxiety before I do any trip. I own a travel company for a living. I take people on adventures for a living, and I still get crazy anxiety. My boyfriend has this ritual where he knows that he has to put on the Rihanna Anti album to get me amped up, and I get so hangry and I get so comfortable, and I just get sweaty and nervous, and then I'm just terrible the whole first day of trying to adjust to a new time zone. But then you know, you get there and then you instantly forget that that happened.

But I do agree with you that the people component is just unmatched. Because on one hand, the world is so big, and while you're learning about how big the world is and how different we are, and how different our celebrations and our traditions and our views towards life, at the end of the day, the beauty of that component is also seeing how we're not that different.

Brenna: Oh yeah, we're very similar around the world.

Britt: So now you have the opportunity to explore your own backyard. And for me, Manitoba is one of those places that I'd like to explore more. It's a hidden gem in Canada, largely because when you think about Canadian travel you think about the West Coast, the Rockies, you think about sprawling forests and Muskoka or even the east coast of Halifax, with the cliffs and the oceans. But Manitoba is this quaint (large) province that is right next to Ontario.

I think domestic travel for Canadians is going to be huge this year, and hopefully into the beyond. So what can we expect from travel around Manitoba around Winnipeg?

Brenna: Yeah. I think if you know anything about travel in Manitoba, you probably know about Churchill, which has been dubbed the polar bear capital of the world. It's way up north on the Hudson Bay. So people go up there for sort of polar bear safaris or whatever you want to call them. And in the summer, it's beluga whales. I've actually never done that. I was supposed to do that last summer, and then because travel was restricted even within Manitoba, we had travel restrictions in place to try to protect much more vulnerable communities like Churchill. And so I think people know about that, that's obviously a huge draw but it's very expensive, and it is one of those once in a lifetime. 

So I would say for Manitoba, what's super cool about it is there is so much to do, and people don't realize just how much there is to do. We're flat, so we don't have the draw of the mountains. And we're not an ocean, so we don't have that draw. But we have something like 100 or 110,000 lakes in the province. So within that, there is just so much to explore. If you love camping, if you love canoeing, hiking, beaches, anything like that, we just have so many incredible opportunities for that. And I mean, my boyfriend and I, last summer, I've done a lot of camping in my life, but I'd never been back country camping, where you're portaging, you're carrying the canoe, you're setting up this camp. It was amazing, it was the best stars ever. I can see the Northern Lights, they go in certain times here. 

Britt: Last year was also my first like portaging trip.

Brenna: Yeah. We had an interesting experience last summer, because we were like -- my boyfriend and I are complete opposites in the way that when it comes to travel, I like to be at the airport, three hours ahead of time so I can actually sit there with a coffee staring at my gate, making sure nothing happens, right? He would be the person at last call, let's go. So of course, we were a little bit late on one of our camping trips last year, and the sun was starting to set. And it's bear country so you have to be a little cautious. And of course, we pull up to the first portaging stop, and he had read a line that was 200 meters, turns out it was a 1,000 meters, it's a kilometer portage. And it was setting in like half an hour -- he was carrying the canoe on his head. I was like, oh my God. We paddled so hard to get to our other side. And I just remember after we got there in the dark, paddling the dark, and setting up camp. And he was like, "I didn't know we could paddle that hard". And I was like, you gave away my secrets, if under stress, this is how hard I can actually paddle. But anyway, so yeah, we just have so many, so many incredible things like that.

girl in Manitoba

And then of course, there's Winnipeg, the capital, and there's so much to do here - we're known as having some of the best festivals in Canada. Our folk fest is incredible, always draws such cool people every year. And we have Folklorama and our Jazz Festivals. In the summer, it feels like the city comes alive, where it's just so exciting. You can feel the electricity in the air. 

And I think that it's been so cool to experience Winnipeg and see just how many small business owners are here and how many people who live here are so proud to be from Winnipeg or living in Winnipeg. I want to highlight all these incredible businesses and companies that I had no idea about, I mean, a lot of them with this newer concept of smaller pop up shops and markets and things, which generally weren't around when I was living here many years ago. And it's been so cool to see the passion for the city. And I know when people do come here, I often hear people be like, "Whoa, I didn't realize how cool the city was and how much there is to do". Because you always do hear about the Torontos and the Montreals and the Vancouvers. But here, there's always something to do, always a hike to drive to, always a new camping spot. And even all the little towns and other cities around Manitoba, it's been so incredible to be back here and to see how alive this province is, just how full of energy and full of passion for being Manitoban. I love that and I love how multicultural it is and how many people are proud to call Manitoba home.

Britt: That's so lovely and I think that that just made us all want to go. I wanted to quickly loop back to global travel with one more question, and that is, do you have any specific travel experiences that you've had or conversations that you've had that have shaped your approach to your day-to-day living?

Brenna: I think probably the biggest thing that I've taken away in that regard is, it sounds so cheesy to say like, oh, traveling to another country is eye-opening, like florals for spring. Wow. But really, it feels like it has been so eye-opening to me, because growing up in Winnipeg, I had every single possible privilege you could imagine: who I am, what I was born. I was born a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender woman, I grew up middle class with loving parents and having everything I wanted. I think going abroad and seeing different experiences and seeing how people live and the things that people value, as cheesy as it sounds, was incredibly eye-opening. And the conversations I've had that have really inspired me have been about finding joy and seeing beauty around the world, beauty in situations that maybe didn't seem so beautiful at first, or maybe just seem very ordinary, like a meal with a loved one is actually the greatest thing. And I think it's all those kind of humbling moments that I've probably taken away the most from my travels, if that makes sense.

Britt: That makes total sense. And it's that whole concept of stepping back and seeing the world from a macro lens. And it's not about, oh, I realized that I have more than this other person and I should be grateful. It's literally about how different cultures value different things. How you were raised allows you to see the world in a certain way. How they were raised allows people to see the world in a certain way. And how there's so much just privilege that's multifaceted. It doesn't have to be about money. It doesn't have to be about earnings or the size of your house, but it's the family that you have, the home that you keep, and the joy that you get from your day-to-day.

Brenna: Exactly, yeah.

Britt: So I'm going to give you a couple rapid fire questions, and then we're going to wrap it up. What is your favourite physical souvenir you've brought back from a trip?

Brenna: I think art is probably one of my favourite things to buy so I would have to say the artwork I bought or some of the collections that I found around the world. I go to flea markets and I collect vintage photographs of people, or I found playing cards around the world. You'd be surprised how many playing cards -- I know in Sex in the City, Burger actually has the same collection, one of Carrie's exes, but he finds playing cards everywhere. And I realized I was finding playing cards everywhere so I've always found them and I write on the back where I found them and the date. And now I have a massive stack of playing cards.

International art on the wall

Britt: I haven't heard that one before. What's the most memorable meal you've had?

Brenna: The first one that comes to mind, I think would be cao lầu in Vietnam. It's a type of noodle soup. But that and a cold beer on the beach in Vietnam. I was alone and I can remember that feeling so clearly of eating this delicious meal, with the noise of the city in the background. I mean, I've had so many incredible meals and been very fortunate in that way. A huge reason why I travel is to eat. But yeah, that one definitely stands out, it's just that specific memory.

Britt: And what destination or experience is on your bucket list?

Brenna: Churchill, as I mentioned earlier, in Manitoba. I've never been to Jordan, and that's a big one that I've always wanted to go to. But I would say my number one I would love to go to, Antarctica. But I think that's probably quite a few years away and a lot of saving to do for that one.

Britt: Wow, thank you so much for sharing about your life on the road and your life in your backyard and some of the experiences that you've had and things that you've learned. 

Follow Brenna on:

Instagram: This Battered Suitcase

Blog: This Battered Suitcase




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