The night before I travel long distances, I tend to feel anxious and even slightly ill. I’m filled with a vague, unsettling nausea and a sense of impending disorientation. I’m nervous and shaky; I sleep poorly and eat little. As soon as I start moving, however, I usually feel better. On a travel day, I wake up knowing that I’m going somewhere, and that I don’t have to wait any longer for the journey to start. I eat breakfast and brush my teeth one final time before packing away all my liquids and gels and maneuvering my luggage into the nearest cab, bus or metro. Once I get to the airport, my nervousness usually goes away. Something about the impersonality of airports and the people in them calms me down. “I’ve started,” I think to myself. “I’m going somewhere, and so is everyone around me, each gate, a doorway to a different destination, each traveler hurrying to one place or another, carrying their own baggage, their own agendas, worries and desires.”
Strangely enough, I actually find going home more difficult than leaving home. Today I’ve realized that maybe I become so anxious right before going home because the older I get, and the more I travel, the less I know where home really is. Perhaps this is why the idea of coming home fascinates me: because I always find it so hard to do.
After going on a group cruise in Alaska last summer, I wrote a short story imagining all the people from the trip—people I’d only known for a week—arriving home. I imagined their houses and apartments, and their reactions on entering them: the couple walking into their Boston brownstone in double silence, hers tense, his relieved; the family arriving in their Pennsylvania farm house, dumping their luggage in the entry and then gathering in the kitchen to look at photos from the trip; two old friends returning to their separate apartments in Seattle, switching on lights in empty living rooms, and tuning their radios to the same, favorite, local station.
Sitting in Terminal 2E at Charles-de-Gaulle, waiting for my delayed flight to depart, I try to imagine myself arriving home, 12 hours in the future, but I cannot see it clearly. Instead I picture myself as a GPS dot hovering on the surface of the globe, and I wonder, at what point, exactly, does my dot qualify as being “home?”
When I enter American airspace? Or when I arrive at Logan airport, and a Customs Agent whose voice sounds as tired as I feel stamps my passport and offers me a tepid “Welcome Home?” When I drive across the border into Rhode Island and start to recognize landmarks: the Providence skyline, the bridges of Aquidneck Island lit up against the dark sky? Or is it when, nearly a day after leaving Paris, I open the door to my bedroom, lug my suitcase inside and fall face first onto my very own bed?
I wake the next morning, horribly early, to light from the sunrise breaking through a familiar window. “Is this home?,” I ask myself, as if trying to remember a once familiar feeling I’ve somehow forgotten. Certainly my things are here: my books, my clothes, photos of my family, most of whom are still thousands of miles away. The evidence points to this being home, but is evidence what really makes a place home?
A few days later, I still don’t know, but I find I’m leaving already, heading to the Adirondack mountains of New York, my childhood home, to celebrate a friend’s graduation. As my sister and I near the end of the six hour drive across Rhode Island and Massachusetts into the northern reaches of New York, I feel that unsettling, anxious tug at my stomach. We wind through mountains, past trail heads and lakes. Thinking as I drive, I remember a memoir I wrote in college called “The Geography of Home,” in which I wrote about my deep affinity for places, for this place. And it’s true, when I’m surrounded again by the forests and mountains in which I grew up, something in my soul vibrates, as if awakened by an almost forgotten frequency, but “this vibration”, I think to myself, “it doesn’t feel quite like home, does it?”
The feeling in my stomach is so akin to the disorientation of knowing that in 24 hours, I’ll be on a different continent, surrounded by a different language—that I’ll have flown thousands of miles, changed time zones, traversed an ocean—so, I ask myself, “is this uneasiness the disorientation of coming home from having been away, or of coming to a place that once was home, and realizing, that it isn’t really home anymore?”
After a year’s worth of wandering, all this travel has left me wondering—when your parents start referring to you as a “citizen of the world,” when you build temporary homes in other places, when you become a traveler, an adventurer, a GoGirl, do you have to pay a certain—and an unexpected—price? Not of losing
your home, certainly, but of having to think a bit more about what your home is, about what it’s built out of: the memories, the people, the places, and what it’s missing: the people and places you’ve left behind, elsewhere.
I built a temporary home in Paris—a group of friends, a favorite boulangerie, an uncanny knowledge of the metro map, an apartment I thought of as “chez moi”— and in less than a day I left it, and arrived at another place, a place with greater claims, and deeper stores of memories.
Maybe it’s just a disorientation hangover, this feeling that I have—a week after arriving here—of not really being home yet. Or maybe it’s just proof of the fact that traveling changes you, sometimes in ways you don’t expect, altering your ideas about the places you return to, as well as your ideas about the places that you’ve been.