What is homesick? What does it feel like? Who feels it? Why oh why do we feel it? Why is it so different for every single person?
Man! Tough questions! Do I have the answers? Well, for me…but it’s all intensely personal. Each person has a unique and original response to travel and adapting to the unfamiliar. I’d like to answer based on my feelings and understanding. Maybe you’ve felt the same, maybe there’s something common. Lets find out!
To me being homesick is a developed longing, a fear response, and an emotional coping mechanism that helps one to seek the safety and security of the familiar. Its triggers are varied and can stem from large-scale incidents to small frustrations that conjure up an intense longing for the familiar. A longing for a place where you can relax, process, understand, and cope. A place where you understand, where you know the context, the culture, language, and intricacies of what you know.
Whats being homesick feel like? Why is it debilitating for some, but hardly phases others? Whew, that one is rough. It feels overwhelming, sad, exciting, afraid, nervous… angry. That undefinable longing for the familiar, the intense desire to understand and not constantly have to work to process and comprehend the culture, language, traditions and your new daily life. A desire for a moment where you aren’t struggling, where you aren’t processing and in the dark. That’s not to say that traveling or living outside your own experience leaves you in the dark…the struggle is worth the experience. The light at the end of the tunnel grows every day and the feeling of accomplishment, the knowledge and experience you earn, is fantastic and addicting. It allows you to grow as a person and become something more.
It seems that as people travel more, and explore new places, the way they process those feelings becomes more refined. Homesickness changes. It alters and becomes something new. Each experience, each night spent longing for home and the familiar, changes the way we live… intuitive adaptation, we do it unconsciously. Does that mean that eventually, the more we travel, the less homesick we’ll be? I don’t know, because our connections to home and the familiar change as well, strengthen, become something else. So does that mean we re-experience a new kind of homesickness every time we travel? What about people who travel all the time, who never form those strong connections to one place? Do they miss out on homesickness? I don’t know if that’s preferable. Sure it’d be great not to feel homesick, but those connections are what give us strength, keep us happy, and mentally healthy as we explore and learn.
The more I travel, the better I’ve learned to cope, the easier it is for me to adapt and accept the change in culture and environment. Yet, I still feel those longings and that frustration. So why do some people feel so much more strongly about it than others? I think it plays into our connections, how we process the events, and our learned attitudes toward learning and exploring unknown environments. I’m sure someone has written a library of books on the psychology behind it but it’s nice for me to process it and write up my feelings on it… one of those coping mechanisms right?
I remember moving from Sedona to Prescott. I felt an indescribable fear and longing for home and the familiar because of the strong bonds I’d formed with Sedona after our family had returned from our second year-long exploration. During our first year-long adventure we moved to Europe and backpacked for 12 months. It was a spectacular experience that fundamentally changed the way I experience and understand cultures, traditions, travel and learning. But changing locations and cultures, languages and people every few days for a year was one hell of a learning curve. I grew very close to my parents and brother, to the feeling of learning and exploring new countries and cultures and I developed a serious longing to experience and understand different people and places as often as I could. Then we returned to the U.S. For almost two years, until we embarked on a second trip around the U.S. – another year of traveling and exploring but in a different way. The constants had changed.
The cultures were different but the change was more subtle. The language was the same, the culture had central intersections that overlapped, the mode of transportation stayed the same instead of varying from ferry, to train, to plane, to car, to bike, and to bus. A crew cab truck and a 32′ fifth wheel trailer. Our lives contained in a rolling home, a familiar bastion, a new experience. Instead of different sleeping quarters every few days, now we returned to the same place, to the familiar smells, and to the comforts of home and family… creating a stronger bond and sense of home than I’ve ever remembered. Instead of relying solely on the comfort and solidarity of family, of seeing my brother, mother and father, now I had a connection to them as comfort from the constant change, exploration, and development; I had a place; A bond created by a mobile home base.
What a trip! Two amazing life and perception altering experiences that shaped and then re-shaped how I experienced, processed, learned and developed attitudes regarding home, family, and relationships (both with the physical and the biological). As I grew travel stayed easy, as long as a few constants remained in place. As long as I nested, whether that be through a backpack containing a few familiar trinkets that I always carried with me (replaced now by two rings I wear and a necklace that never leaves my neck), or if it’s through traveling with one of my family members. That has become my security blanket, as long as I have one of those two, the rest doesn’t matter.
I noticed in college that I also nest. Since our second trip, the one around the U.S., I’ve taken to decorating and being very specific about how any longer term lodging looks. My dorm rooms and apartments get decorated and become home. It makes the space my own, and mimics that warm, safe, secure feeling I felt after a long day in a strange city in the U.S., disconcerted by the little differences as I processed and coped. Now I create that space again, giving me a safe space anywhere I am in the world. Within this ‘space’ I can process, work through fear and frustration, and conquer Homesickness.
I know it’s a strange topic to come out of the blue, but a few of the other volunteers were discussing how much they missed home; how difficult it was to be so far away and immersed in such an alien culture. They talked about their own feelings of being homesick. I’m excited to say that although I’ve felt frustrated and that characteristic longing for home, I’ve yet to feel homesick… well, in that way. I’m excited, charged, and ready to go out and face this totally alien world, because I’ve got a safe haven built into my very mind. Even if I’m stranded in the African bush with just my Goal0 solar charger, bike, and hammock, I’m alright. I have artifacts that I rely on, mental processes that I’ve developed to keep me processing and to keep me focused, on track, refreshed, and able to continue forward without being debilitated by a desire for home and the familiar… I’ve brought the familiar with me. Even if I’m standing under a foliage I don’t recognize, constellations and stars I don’t know, eating caterpillars I’ve never seen before, with smells and sights that I’ve never known before, I’ve got me, my experiences, my habits… that make it familiar, that automatically convert those experiences into the normal.
The other night I was given an awkward compliment. One of the other volunteers looked at me, and said, “ David, don’t talk like that. You talk like its all normal, like that’s how it’s supposed to be, like it’s not strange! That’s not right, it is strange! It’s not normal…” It caused me to look at the situation, and led to this post. Truth is, I normalize almost immediately and don’t feel out of place…. even when I am out of place in my environmental context.
I felt similar feelings when I was exploring Europe on my own during my 3 month walk about. My brother’s birthday, my uncle’s passing, hard, emotional, difficult moments to be away from home. Times when I wanted to be home to support my family, times when I felt homesick, that strong desire to be home, to support and be supported, to be surrounded by the comforts of the familiar. Instead of rushing home, I took stock of the situation and developed a coping strategy. Communicate, write, and make an area safe, secure, and home…
I think that’s all I’ve got for today. I’ll try and throw some other thoughts up later. Let me know what you think and how you feel about homesickness. You all know how much I value your comments!
**This post was made possible in part by Good 2 Go multi trip travel insurance.