Psychology

What Does Home Mean When You Travel Long-Term?

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.

Exploring the streets of Krakow

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).

middle east adventure: last day in Tel Aviv

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.

long term definition of home

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.”

wanderlusting update Madurai

a photo of my recent stay in an Ashram in South India – a time that left deep imprints on me

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.


References

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.

What does home mean when you travel long-term?

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32 Comments

  • Reply
    عطلات
    April 18, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    Interesting post I loved your writing way it’s so wonderful thanks for sharing this

  • Reply
    aham pathak
    April 2, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    The post is very inspiring Christina. I loved the way you wrote this post. I will surely share this. cheers !!

  • Reply
    Lauren
    January 26, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    I don’t know why, but one of my favorite poems from my youth has been Robert Frost’s, The Death of the Hired Man, with the memorable lines:

    Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
    They have to take you in.

    That being said, I sat off to travel Europe for six months, last year, and when that didn’t kill me, I spent two months in my putative home town, (although I had to rent a room to have a place to stay even there), then took off again on 1/1/2018, with a one-way ticket to Europe.

    I’m 68-years-old, living completely off US Social Security. I speak only English, but I’m signed up for 3-months studying German at a very fine institute this spring. The natives know in an instant that I’m not at home, and most of their dogs don’t even want to talk to me. And, even with .20/minute phone charges, (did I say I’m too old to figure out technology?), I’m more connected now with friends and relatives “back home,” than I’ve ever been in my adult life.

    I’m -this close- to completing the purchase of a 32 sq meter condominium in a lovely, small village in Germany. I’m doing this partly because I fell in love with the place last summer, but mostly because my brain-damaged cognitive powers can’t deal with dragging ALL of my worldly possessions with me every time I go to a new place.

    I thought that, by responding to your post, I might find an answer. But it’s just rambling.

  • Reply
    Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    January 21, 2018 at 11:11 pm

    What a great post! I’ve been thinking about this too – I moved to England 10 years ago, I moved back to Scotland 18 months ago, and I lived in Australia and travelled long-term in between. Whenever I visit where I lived in England, it doesn’t feel like it was ever home. Now that I’m back in my home town, that doesn’t feel like home either. Without a doubt Scotland feels like my home, but no particular place yet. As much as I love travel, I would like to feel like I have a home one day! Or maybe I’ll just learn to define it differently. 🙂

  • Reply
    Katie MacLeod
    January 19, 2018 at 4:08 pm

    I came to this post (and your blog) via Beverley at Pack Your Passport’s newsletter… it’s so beautifully written, and absolutely fascinating. As a traveller, and now an expat/immigrant – I moved from the islands of Scotland to the USA three years ago – the concept of home is something I think about a lot, so this post really resonated with me. I’m going to dive into some of these academic papers, too!

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 1:02 pm

      So happy you can relate Katie, thanks! That sounds like quite a big move. Long-term travel like I currently experience it is one thing, and I get to know new places, but I never stay longer than a few months. Really settling in a new place and country, with all the paper work and finding a house and a job and friends and stuff to do is surely a whole different chapter. Good for you, and keep that journey going! 🙂

  • Reply
    Samah
    January 17, 2018 at 9:20 pm

    This is a fantastic post. I also agree that a feeling of coming home can be anywhere – I would describe home as a sanctuary as well, because for some people, that actual place where they live may not actually be welcoming or they may associate it with trouble. As someone who travels a lot, a can recall quite a few places I would like to go back and stay simply because I looked forward to going there after a long day of exploring or travel.

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:54 pm

      That’s indeed an aspect I haven’t included – it would have made the post a lot longer and more complicated – what if you’re initial home is not a safe place. No matter whether due to family issues, political prosecution, shortage of food or water, or many other things. However again, that’s when the concept of home transcends into something beyond the materialistic image of a house and a full fridge, and yes, becomes a sanctuary, somewhere to let go of worries. I like the image of somewhere to return to after a full exhausting day 🙂

  • Reply
    Agness
    January 17, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Such a great post and awesome read, Christina! I think that home is where your heart is, especially when you are a long-term traveler.

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:52 pm

      Thanks Agness! Yes that’s definitely a part of it, and all what you can associate by that. Family, friends, feelings, comfort, your favorite pizza place… 😉

  • Reply
    Ella
    January 16, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    What a super thoughtful piece! Really enjoyed the development of your multi-dimensional approach – you’re right, there’s some serious societal catchup to be done here. I don’t know anyone in my circle who lives like me (a regular medium term venturer) which sadly adds to the freak factor. Nonetheless I resist judgement and savour the leaving and finding of all my homes. I’d also pitch into the pot the ‘home within’ – not sure I’d have found that woo woo sense without taking as many ventures. Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts – all power to your pen!

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 1:00 pm

      Wow Ella thanks so much for your feedback haha! I can totally relate to your experience of being the “weird one” in your circle of friends. Same for me, from my days where I grew up, where I went to highschool, where I studied and worked – there is not one friend of those times who lives like I do. The whole, not being in my residence country anymore, not owning a closet or a bed, and spending most of my time with a big backpack. But that’s okay, and today many of my close friends, who do live like me, are from all over the world. And somehow, this makes the whole world a bit more like home, and I really like that idea 🙂

  • Reply
    Joanna
    January 15, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    This is a very good question because for me, home was my grandma’s house, where I grew up. Ever since she died and the new owners have taken it down, I never felt like I have a proper home anymore. Maybe this is why I travel so much as well and I find that different cities, different places, could be my home. But then I go away again to discover other corners of the world and other potential homes. Sure, I have a house, with my own bed and my own cosy corners. But I don’t think I can call it home.

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      Thanks for sharing Joanna! I can relate in a way… As a kid, I used to spend a lot of times at my grandparent’s house. Since they moved somewhere else, I still see that house, but other people are living in it, which is very hard for me to imagine, considering all the memories I have there. And these experiences, even if in less significant ways, have repeated, as I have moved a lot over the past 5 years, and have experienced many connections to specific places. But also I discovered that even for a short term, certain things can make me feel really comfortable and safe, as well as certain people and infrastructure. A lot comes together, and there surely is no perfect formula, but in end I believe home always consists of many different, not necessarily visible things 🙂

  • Reply
    Katie
    January 15, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    A really nice trail of thought. I had always thought of home as where my family love in the UK. Recently we moved to China for work and after visiting family during the Christmas holidays, I kept thinking of China as our home; it is strange how perspectives change whilst you travel.

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:47 pm

      That must be quite an intense experience of change, the different cultures and foods and such. And thus really challenging the concept of home, compared if you had only moved within Europe for example… but I guess it’s also just natural and kind of evolutionary necessary, to adapt to these changes and find comfort wherever we are.

  • Reply
    Medha Verma
    January 15, 2018 at 11:37 am

    I can only imagine how tough it is to define where your home is, when you’re constantly on the move! Travelling for me has always happened in short breaks, time off from work to explore a new place. I haven’t and cannot imagine travelling long term, even though I love travelling. There is a certain comfort in having a ‘home’ to come back to! A familiar place, so to say. I love how you’ve gone through certain emotions while writing this post and come to a clearer definition for what ‘home’ means to you 🙂

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks Medha! 🙂 Haha yes I really enjoy writing these kinds of articles and kind of going on a little journey and development while doing so myself. They definitely leave me with clearer views as well. Not all of us are wired for this life of travel – what would the world be like if we were! – and that’s cool. But I guess even then, home can be quite a diverse concept, and moving for a job or studies or family happens to pretty much everyone, so I’m really intrigued by what those changes mean for different people 🙂

  • Reply
    Stefanie
    January 15, 2018 at 9:25 am

    Hi Christina! Your post really resonated with me! Because of my dad’s job, I moved every two years growing up, and we lived in quite a few countries, so my idea of home became a very fluid one! Like you, home turns out to be wherever I am! (“Home is where my pajamas are,” is what I sometimes think!) 🙂 I loved the definition of hospitality you included, and how through these processes, a stranger becomes a friend! Also, there were so many beautiful quotes here. I especially love the Marcel Proust one: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:45 pm

      Yay, thanks so much for your feedback Stefanie 🙂 Really happy the text resonated with you. I totally love the PJ kind of definition. Since I also work from anywhere, it happens every now and then that I just spend a day with my laptop in bed not changing once 😀

  • Reply
    Abigail Sinsona
    January 15, 2018 at 2:27 am

    I have the same question too, for those who do long term travel. But I guess the definition of home has blurred at this point, especially for those who travel for 3 months or more at a time. I am so amazed yet inspired by those who do that. It can be difficult to adjust to new cultures and environment all the time.

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:44 pm

      Very true! It’s a very different lifestyle from what is the norm, from what we’re used to when most of us grow up – with that safe home base, a family, a house or an apartment, not much to worry about. That all gets quite challenged once we leave this behind, and the question becomes, if and how we need to nourish this feeling of home, how we can maybe replace it, or redefine it for ourselves. For me I discovered, travel acts like speed life lessons – it’s harder but also lets my views and attitudes mature more quickly.

  • Reply
    tracy collins
    January 14, 2018 at 11:53 pm

    The place i call home has changed so many times over the years. I have travelled and lived in 7 countries over 50 years – I adapt and make a new home wherever I am. Also hoping to shed possessions and housesit around the world in retirement will be interesting – is home where my things are or can home be where someone else’s possessions belong? Can their home be my home however temporary it is?

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:41 pm

      Thanks for your comment Tracy, those are interesting thoughts too. I really find more relief in letting go of possessions than the feeling of missing something. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a pretty dress and some art pieces on my wall, wherever that wall happens to be. Thus, at least for me, someone else’s home can feel homey to me too, I experienced that. But it’s even harder to put into words what exactly it needs for this, compared to people’s places that don’t feel anything like home for me…

  • Reply
    Abhinav Singh
    January 14, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    At most, I have traveled for 4 months at a stretch. Though it was my fantasy to travel this long but when I finally made it happen, I felt tired. I know what you mean when you say home is difficult to define in modern times. Those 258.000.000. migrants will vouch for it!

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 12:38 pm

      Traveling long-term, and letting go of the promising stability of a home base really can get exhausting. It requires being quite aware of what’s going on for you personally, and how you want to deal with certain situations, like being sick or even just having a movie night with a friend… but it just equally comes with many rewards 🙂

  • Reply
    Hendrik
    January 14, 2018 at 11:44 am

    These are some very interesting thoughts about an important topic. Especially when it comes to long term travelling. I for myself also don’t live in my home country, where I was born. And somehow my impression is, that this will be the new normality for most people in the future.
    And with traveling its even more crazy. I agree to this, you need to redefine and I assume most important thing is how comfy you feel in a certain place, which affects a lot on your well being, safety and last but not least also feeling home. Also by the new possibility to travel, in future even faster, all that needs to be redefined, I am sure about that.

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 21, 2018 at 1:06 pm

      You make some really important points, thanks Hendrik. There are many things that need to be redefined, both within ourselves, personally, but also in a larger sense in the ideas of residence and such, as I agree we will travel even more and faster in the future. And again I believe, with all this in mind, the actual feeling of home comes more to a formula, to a mix of a lot of things, than just a geographical place and a materialistic idea of a house and a full fridge. I’m really curious about what this is for different people, and what is necessary to make them “feel home” 🙂

  • Reply
    Lizzie
    January 13, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    This is the most wonderful piece of writing I have read about travelling and home! Your paragraph: “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” is absolutely how I feel about the term “home”, and it’s so special to see it put into words!

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 14, 2018 at 9:04 am

      Wow Lizzie, your comment feels like the best morning coffee after a long night out – thank you! Seeing how my thoughts and feelings can resonate with other in such way is what keeps me going to write in the end. And well, knowing there is people out there who feel the same – that’s part of “home” as well, isn’t it? 🙂

  • Reply
    Josia
    January 13, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Christina, LOVE your article (as always)! But you cannot end like that: “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.”

    Please elaborate, enlighten me, what in the world do you mean by this last sentence? Too much for me! 🙂

    • Reply
      Christina
      January 14, 2018 at 9:09 am

      Hahaha 🙂 Well, after this whole post, after researching so many different meanings of home and of travel, after talking to people… I concluded, there is not just one meaning of home. Among people, it differs greatly. But also within one person, it can differ over time. Home for me as a child meant something different compared to when I studied in Hamburg or Sweden, compared to when I lived abroad, compared to this lifestyle of constant travel. It always holds some steady components, but in the end, home evolves, develops, and is ever-changing over time. At least that’s what I feel!

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