This is the fifth post of a guest series. We ask friends and colleagues to share with us what the expression to “feel at home” means to them. We believe that to truly enjoy a place, you need to really experience it, to make yourself at home. This means different things for different people, but it is an essential part of our lives, both as travelers and travel professionals. The idea came from a post I published in March and that you can read here.
Itchy feet and the call of home
Ever since I first travelled, a need for home has fought against an insatiable burning desire for something new, my thoughts swinging like a pendulum from one to the other. When I’ve been on the road too long, the lure of home is incredibly strong, whilst at home – boredom and lack of inspiration drive an insatiable urge to head away. Along the way I feel I’ve learnt about how to balance the desire for home and travel – but are the two needs simply irreconcilable?
Travelling at length for the first time, after 4 or 5 consecutive weeks on the road, I began to crave home, to crave the familiar, English pubs, friends, nesting. At its worst it could get to the state where mustering enthusiasm for even the greatest sites, places and cultures became a chore. I strongly remember sitting in a lovely hostel in Queenstown, unable to generate excitement at the prospect of sky diving the next day. After this experience, all future travels would combine time on the road with time settled in one place.
One of my life ambitions is to retire early and live abroad and my wife and I often talk about how it can be done. Ideally we wouldn’t be stuck to one place for all time. We could spend a year or two here, a year or two there, feel at home in many places. Is this possible though? Does the impulse to travel, to experience the new, an addiction to change dash all hopes of ever calling a place home?
My first experience abroad was as a student studying on exchange in Australia – Despite being miles away from girlfriend and family for the first time, I felt instantly at home. I belonged to a community. I lived in a tight-nit college, played loads of sport, made good friends and explored Australia in our free time with fellow exchange students, unwilling to waste a single second of the experience. Undoubtedly being part of a community meant I felt more at home, but having a fixed time limit felt like I still had permanent bonds to my real home, and also meant I was motivated to make the most of my time.
Many years later my wife and I took a career break and travelled around the world for the best part of a year. We deliberately planned in 3 months staying put in Sydney. On paper it was perfect, we had a small flat in Manly, we surfed every day and I taught sailing in the harbour. The opportunity was there to live like a Sydney local. But ultimately we didn’t enjoy it that much, we didn’t feel at home – and I think it was because we didn’t become part of a community, we were isolated within what is essentially a very international city. I’ve always thought in hind-site we would have been better working on an outback farm. The experience would have been newer, and we would have become part, however fleetingly, of a small community of sorts. Ironically we had felt more at home when months earlier in Sri Lanka we were welcomed into the home and life of a Sri Lankan family for all of a day or two.
Surprisingly, ever since we had children we have found feeling at home when away so much easier. The crazy, mad rush of colour, stuff, mess and noise that is our travelling family of three girls under 5 means that wherever we go it is pretty easy to feel at home. Of course, we have found coping mechanisms, the girls have their teddy-bears and we always have some little travel speakers and an ipod stocked with our favorites, but ultimately the secret is that we have less time to feel home-sick and to our delight other people, be they travellers or locals, stop more and want to talk to us – children are a great introducer!
Our last trip abroad was a house swap to Savannah, Georgia USA. We swapped with a family with two small girls of similar age to ours for 6 weeks. It was perhaps the perfect expression of feeling at home away from home. For 6 weeks we benefited from a real house stocked full of the normal accompaniments to home life – toys, books, films, a garden, an office to work from when necessary even a large family van to get us around. We had the benefit of our swappers tips on where to eat and more importantly which beaches to visit, and most incredibly we pretty much dropped right into our hosting families’ circle of friends. We were invited to dinner parties, bbqs and play dates. We managed to satisfy all our homing instincts whilst exploring what is a fantastically different place – arguably the most strikingly different anglo culture I have encountered. We even established favourite haunts – revelling in the crass Americana of the wonderful creek-side Crab Shack where we dined on seafood before the kids insisted we go check out the alligator pool again…
So when we are lucky enough to be able to abandon work and live at leisure where will we stand, what have we learnt so far?
- We should stay in places for at least a year or two. Unless we have hit lucky, then 2-3 months hasn’t been long enough to feel a part of a community. On the other hand, having some kind of fixed time limit does mean we feel less itchy footed and make more of our time.
- We should make sure the places we visit are compellingly different to home – after all the excitement of the new keeps us going.
- We should plan on working or joining-in in some way, maybe teach English abroad, who knows.
- We should intersperse spells abroad with time at home. We need to feed the homing instinct so it doesn’t become a monster and over-rule our better judgement.
Will this be enough? I suspect that in reality unless we go suburban and attempt to live happily in one place for eternity (which trust me, will never, ever happen) we won’t ever feel completely at home in any community – we will always be temporary visitors. I guess this is the price we have to pay for loving travel, loving change and having exceedingly itchy feet!