Here comes another piece of travel psychology! In this series, I answer your questions about the psychology of travel with a proper scientific background. It’s been a while since the last article, folks, I know. Between all the India madness and flying around half the globe, psychology and blogging have stepped back a little. At least on the surface. But then we all change and evolve constantly, and I believe this to be especially true while traveling. So today I’m talking about – what does home mean when you travel long-term?
Got a topic you want covered? Let me know in the comments!
What does “Home” mean anyway?
Home. Feeling home. A sanctuary. That’s what I think of first.
Too much artwork for too little wall. Indian take-away in the fridge. A good couch, a good wine. A place you can be naked, both physically and emotionally. Somewhere you don’t have to be perfect.
Doucet (2013) found that structure is essential, and that feeling at home results from a feeling of affiliation and peace amid potential adversity. For most people, the home is an important and meaningful place, where ultimate goals can be cultivated, sheltered from the intrusions of public life (Tamm, 1999).
Or maybe you prefer an overly rational answer. Anthropologist Stefana Broadbent simply says in this BBC podcast, “For many people, home is where the internet is. Literally the computer is where the home is.” She had a case of students who don’t bring their computer to work – because they said they don’t want work to become associated with home.
But for people moving around a lot, who’ve been in more place than one; for a job or university or with a partner?
Research showed that different types of home exist, and different meanings of home co-exist: the personal, social, and the physical home (Sixsmith, 1986).
Then home maybe is somewhere around your favorite shops, where the girl behind the counter knows how you drink your coffee. Somewhere you run into your friends by accident. Having friends and family close-by, anyway. Somewhere that makes you feel comfortable, happy, safe. A place that lets memories flash up. Memories of a kiss with that special person, of that one night you’ve been really drunk, of where you walked your dog as a child.
Or maybe it’s where your work is? Where you pay taxes. Where you see your dentist.
But getting even more specific, what about the freelancers, the remote workers, the expats? After this past year of constant travel, I am wondering… if my work is everywhere, if I have visited a dentist in three countries and nowadays speak more English than my mother tongue, then what is home for me?
To answer this question, let’s see where travel comes in.
And what does “Travel” mean?
For me, travel was always the “getting out there”. I come from a very shy, introverted, dependent background. While I somehow always knew, I wanted to grow beyond my horizon, I wanted to expand and try and discover. Travel was my solution. I am just wired this way.
It’s the complete opposite to what I was used to. It’s being independent, having to figure all the shit out yourself. Where laundry is not too expensive and the IPA is poured freshly and the coffee comes without sugar. Exploring new cultures. Making connections. Broadening my mind. Leaving that infinitely debated comfort zone. Or maybe just expanding it – because eventually, I feel comfort in many places.
I meet friendly people, I encounter hospitality of strangers. Telfer (2001) defines hospitality has the giving of food, drink, and sometimes accommodation to people who are not regular members of a household. And that, by meeting the needs of a stranger and living in reciprocity, a bond of trust and interdependency is established. Giving and exchanging are the base of community, of establishing relationships. And then, a stranger turns into a friend (Andrew, 2001).
Strangers becoming friends. There’s a different science to how we meet people while traveling, compared to home. And then, well, then I eventually feel like I found a new piece of home.
In that regard, what are the differences between short-term and long-term travel?
If you’re a traveler – which I assume you are by reading this – you know this difference. Between a holiday and actually traveling.
Holidays are a break from home. For a short time, you get a little distance between yourself and the daily life back there. A break to breathe, to shut off your mind, to shuffle away your worries for a bit. But in the end, you know that home is still a safe base, where you’ll return to eventually.
Meanwhile, traveling is really living in a new place for a while. It’s long-term, or even without a time limit, and it goes beyond navigating foreign transport systems – it goes down to social life, some sort of income, accommodation, budget, sustainability, language, food, a lot more interaction and immersion. The foreign around you that slaps right in the face, because you can’t take anything for granted. Like Marcel Proust famously said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” And well, with new eyes, also old sights, also your home, become something different. Traveling means letting go of (a) home.
So, what does home mean when you travel long-term?
Maybe, home needs to be redefined. That was my initial thought when starting to write this article. But as I progressed, I realized – there is no real definition of home. No universal way of describing home, and many people associating many different things with it.
Home in the age of movement
According to a 2017 UN report, there are an estimated 258.000.000 people living in a country not their own. 258.000.000. That’s the combined population of Germany, France, UK and the Netherlands. The population of half the European Union. Many of those are refugees who never wanted to leave, longing to go back. But for the fortunate among us, the age of movement brings exciting possibilities. There’s an increasing amount of us digital nomads. There must be a way that also these people define, and feel at, home.
On a rational level for me, home right now is something that society, law, infrastructure still need to catch up on. Regarding things like tax-paying, residence, citizenship, insurance. But the constant changing of home brings along new realizations.
Writer Pico Iyer says, “Movement is only as good as the sense of stillness that you could bring to it to put it into perspective. […] It’s only by stopping movement that you can see where to go. And it’s only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about and find a home.”
Home is the place that goes deepest inside you, where you try to spend most of your time, you feel most connected to.
See his full amazing TED talk here:
So, maybe home is rather a trajectory. It is where you began, and then it is where the journey takes you. Like migrating birds whose home is both Europe and Africa. After all, movement and migration are a part of being human, part of our biological process. Spreading is the beginning of life, in every way.
Home as part of our identity
And also a part of our identity, something to set us apart. I’m currently spending my 7th month in Jerusalem – and when people ask where I am from, I say “Home is here now.” Which is technically correct. But more importantly, it sure makes for more conversation material than being one of what feels like 95% of all travelers here: “From Germany”. Julie Beck wrote about Susan Clayton, an environmental psychologist at the College of Wooster, who confirms that “defining yourself as someone who once lived somewhere more interesting than the suburbs of Michigan is one way to [be more special]. You might choose to identify as a person who used to live somewhere else, because it makes you distinctive”.
Admittedly, I’ve always been liberal in the use of the word “home”. And home turns out to be wherever I am. If I’m visiting my parents, I’m going home, and if I’m returning to Jerusalem or Örebro or Auckland, I’m also going home. So it becomes true… Home is where your heart is. The physical location of my body does affect who I am. The differences of places may seem trivial (new friends, new spaces, new culture), but they can lead to significant lifestyle changes – as they have certainly done for me. For example, I became more minimalistic and more appreciative. William S. Sax said:
People and the places where they reside are engaged in a continuing set of exchanges; they have determinate, mutual effects upon each other because they are part of a single, interactive system.
And also Kimberly Dovey (1985) found that “although a house is an object, a part of the environment, home is best conceived of as a kind of relationship between people and their environment. It is an emotionally based and meaningful relationship between dwellers and their dwelling places.”
I believe that the feeling of coming home can be anywhere. Home is something I carry inside me. Because everything else, I can lose. It is not defined by our geographical and biological origin, but by something else that connects us, something more human, and more global.
I immerse. I combine my definitions of home and travel, and create something new. Letting go of home can simultaneously mean creating a home. It’s making sacrifices and gaining something really valuable at the same time. Home is a project on which I constantly add upgrades, improvements, adjustments, corrections. It is, like Pico Iyer also says, less a piece of soil, more a piece of soul.
So, home is – multi-dimensional.
And you can have many homes. And where you come from, where you are, where you will go – home is, if you want to put a finger on it, just a transition at different points in time.
Andrew, H. (2001). Consuming Hospitality on Holiday. In Lashley, C., & Morrison, A. (Eds.), In Search of Hospitality: Theoretical perpectives and debates. Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Doucet, T. J. (2013). “Feeling at home: a humanbecoming living experience”. Nursing Science Quarterly, 26 (3), 247 – 256.
Dovey, K. (1985). Home and Homelessness. In Altman, I., & Werner, C. M., Home Environments, 33-64. Springer US.
Sixsmith, J. (1986). The meaning of home: An exploratory study of environmental experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 6(4), 281-298.
Tamm, M. (1999). What does a home mean and when does it cease to be a home? Home as a setting for rehabilitation and care. Disability and Rehabilitation, 21(2), 49-55.
Telfer, E. (2001) The philosophy of hospitableness. In Lashley, C., & Morrison, A. (Eds.), In Search of Hospitality: Theoretical perpectives and debates. Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann.