International travel offers many things: adventure, exposure to new cultures, once-in-a lifetime experiences, and plenty of stories to tell your grandkids. But sometimes international travel offers us something even more surprising: a reconnection with home.
I am not one of those travelers who lands in a new country itching to explore. In fact, my first hours in a new place are often afflicted with something that surprised me when I first started to travel: homesickness. I am always struck with the sudden urge to go home. When this first happened, I thought it meant I wasn’t cut out to be a traveler. Why pay so much money to go somewhere just to wish you were home?
As I got older, I started thinking differently about homesickness. Maybe that inevitable pull I feel when I’ve put substantial distance between myself and home could be recast in a new light. Maybe homesickness is actually a perk of international travel, not just a plight. For those who plan to travel far someday, this is both a warning and an encouragement. Don’t be surprised if you have similar feelings. But don’t let them discourage you from exploring the world.
Homesickness when traveling abroad is often linked to culture shock, the feelings of discomfort that come when you enter a new culture. You may be surprised to find how different things are elsewhere (I know I was). Not knowing how to do simple things can be stressful. One of my first trips abroad to Italy revealed my inadequacy in using foreign toilets. There were no standard toilets and I always found myself rooting around for a button, pull, level, or other device that might be used to flush. Once, I guessed horribly wrong. In the absence of a clear toilet flusher, I pulled a long string setting off an alarm system. I slinked out of the bathroom under flashing lights and piercing sounds...to some seriously disgruntled older Italian women who ran in to undo my mistake. I can assure you, feeling out of place in a new culture has benefits - it teaches you to be resilient, makes you more empathetic to newcomers in your own culture - but it also makes you homesick for the place where you can easily flush a toilet. I did title this post “one gift of international travel” however...so here is my argument for why homesickness is a gift and how it can arrive weeks before travel.
Homesickness can be recast as appreciation for home. Sometimes, we need to step outside our daily life to see what we appreciate about it. Nowadays, I anticipate the feelings of missing home weeks before I leave. I am feeling them now. In the weeks before travel, I notice things I might long for when I’m gone. I am currently appreciating mundane moments with my kids, the nighttime toddler baths and dinner clean-up less tiresome than usual. Each conversation with my husband, each night in my own bed, each morning with my coffee maker is appreciated a bit more knowing I will miss them in the weeks I’m gone. Knowing you will miss something helps you appreciate it in the here and now.
For many, we’ve been stuck at home for a long time. We’ve lost the luster of appreciating it. We’ve even grown apart from the people we’ve been stuck at home with, as the quantity of time spent with family or roommates does not necessarily translate into quality. To temporarily leave it all behind can help you regain perspective. While many reading this cannot (or do not want to) travel far right now, if the time comes when you do, you might be surprised at feelings of homesickness. But don't let them hold you back. Still explore new places. Still push yourself outside your comfort zone to connect with new cultures. Still embarrass yourself trying to learn. Go ahead, pull that string in hopes of triumphing over confusing foreign plumbing. Find a way to leave your daily grind behind for a bit in pursuit of something great. You might just come home with a new outlook on your own life if you do. And the next time you decide to travel again (and you will), that appreciation for home can make life sweeter long before you leave.
For those reading who have traveled, in the comments please share your own experiences with culture shock, homesickness, or funny mistakes you've made!
There is still time to take Wednesday's survey and see what you know about Greenland! I am hoping to get a few more answers and then share overall trends of knowledge and details on the answers next week.
I am an anthropology professor, writer, researcher and global traveler. This fall, I will be recording a research trip to Greenland as a virtual field trip for my students (and anyone else interested). Join us as we travel to the Arctic and learn about life in the far north.