‘Home’ – A loaded word in any vocabulary. For a traveler it adds additional meanings of local home where you are staying for several months versus the place far away where you plan eventually upon returning to. For an expat the word almost gains another life of its own. I have a home here and plan on staying, but I still talk about things happening “back home”.
Travel adds the complexity of making home different when you do go back. You are changed, you see things in different ways, sometimes you even question what ‘home’ is. Coming to grips with the concept of home is something that is a part of the development of a traveler. Can you really go home again?
Home Sweet Home
Most of us have a concept of home. It is different for everyone of us and changes based on context. As an expat I find using the word home can be confusing, even for me. It has so many meanings.
- If I left my book at home, I mean my local apartment.
- If I talk about books I left in a box at home, I mean the shed in my parent’s backyard across the ocean with a lot of my books.
- When I go traveling in Europe and talk about going home, I mean my home in Germany.
- When I talk to friends back home, I mean people in the US.
Of all of the meanings, what I think they have in common is somewhere where you feel secure and things are familiar, usually where you keep the stuff you value and where you have friends. If that is the basic definition, then it makes sense why there are so many different meanings. Anywhere we feel this sense is a home. So there is not just one home or one sense of home. It changes based on need and location.
Home vs. Away?
In sports the teams are the home team and the away team. I think there is often a similar conflict in the minds of travelers and expats. Last week Keith of Traveling Savage wrote about the motivations of travel. In the comments there were several comments about when you travel being upset when you see things that are too familiar (i.e. things from home like McDonald’s and Starbucks). If a place isn’t different enough from home, then it feels less like traveling somehow. This implies that things need to be unfamiliar and different to make you feel like you are really traveling. So perhaps home is the familiar and away is the unfamiliar.
Even sight-seeing falls into this. “You live in a town forever and never do the touristy things until others come to visit.” I know well enough living in Freiburg that the old stuff doesn’t phase me as much as it used to. The town is beautiful (and highly recommended, but that is a different post), but when you walk the cobbled streets every day, then it becomes familiar and less foreign. It becomes more like home. But when people come to visit, you can see your home in a new light through them. The wonder of the differentness shows up and the sights are interesting again. So maybe home is more about perspective, seeing the same things in a new light can give the feeling of traveling in your own backyard.
As a traveler, moving steadily through the world for weeks or months at a time, you can keep up that feeling of the ‘foreign’ easily just by moving. When a town becomes too familiar, then you move on to get back to the newness. There are varying degrees of this. A tour group in a different hotel every night means you don’t settle in anywhere and nothing is ever familiar. This can be quite stressful. On the other hand going very slow by staying in places 3 months at a time means you can develop a home-type relationship with a place, but have to work more on seeing the newness. A sense of home provides support and a way to reduce the stress of the always-new. It gives a respite without needing to be a specific place.
In the end, it seems more like a struggle for balance between home and away rather than a conflict in which one wins out over the other.
At home in your own head.
Home is really just a mental construct. When you see someone sitting in the front of a sailing ship reading a book among the ropes and say “she looks at home there,” then you get a glimpse of what home is for her. One of the qualities of home for me is that ability to feel comfortable. One of the traits I really admire in some of my fellow travelers is that ability to be comfortable in any situation, at home in it. They have cultivated a sense of home in their own head, so that a place itself isn’t bound to that sense. This to me seems like a key trait for long term travel, to have a feeling of home as support that you carry around with you. To be able to enjoy the moment without yearning to ‘go home’ because it is with you.
Home is where you feel it is. When you go back to the town you left from when traveling and it doesn’t feel like home again, then maybe your definition of exactly what you need to feel at home has changed. The concept of home is one that distinguishes between long-term expats and travelers. While I still think of places across the sea as home, when I think of where I want to be and come home to, it is here.
I expect I will end up writing more about home in the coming months. It is a key point in understanding the reasons for travel and being an expat. It is often a point of conflict as well. I had a hard time finding pictures that seemed to capture the idea of home, further highlighting how difficult it is to pin down. The idea of Home is as important to travel as the travel experiences themselves.
So what does home mean to you? Do you feel at home while traveling? Leave a comment, I’d like to know.