What is home? A conversation with my father.

In honour of the most recent Father’s Day, I wanted to write about a very important conversation I had with my dad about what “home” means, and how to find it.

I called him mid-crisis last year when living in Aberdeen, Scotland. I couldn’t seem to center myself there, I didn’t feel like I was at home. Granted I was in uni and not really supposed to be settled into a home, since most new uni students still consider home to be where they grew up, but I haven’t really considered that to be home in several years. My idea of how I should be feeling “at home” was based on my assumption that something was missing from that experience. I wasn’t as happy as I could have been. I felt at home and happy when I was living in Ecuador and Madagascar for only a few months, and I could not figure out what might have changed.

Life in Aberdeen was not making me happy, not in the way I wanted. Perhaps I was looking for something irrational, too idealistic, but I was getting more and more drained as the months passed. Even now when I go back something changes and my energy disappears quicker than it usually does. Don’t get me wrong, I love all my friends and I don’t regret choosing to live there, I just didn’t feel like I had found my home.

All this is what I told my dad. I thought he would be upset or offended that I didn’t feel at home under my parents’ roof. I was expecting him to tell me I was crazy or that I should give it more time and try to establish my life more. He didn’t. He told me that sometimes it takes a long time to find what home means to you, to figure out what things make you feel safe and happy. He said that home might not be a house, a city, or a country, but that it might also be a person, or a job, or a family. He said it could be none of those things at all, that there is an instinct we have in us that makes us feel welcome, safe, and happy, and this is what tells you that you are home. Maybe that changes over time, perhaps you feel at home in your new apartment or city, but in a few months time you will feel at home when a certain someone is around, or when you finally get a career in which you thrive.

This unspecific answer actually made me feel so much better. Whatever it may be, home is not something simple and steadfast, it is something different for everyone, and one single place might not be home. You are home when you feel happy and secure, and whether it’s because of a place, a house, a person, or a job, you will find home. It may take a long time, and it may be somewhere temporary, but if you feel like something is missing, trust that feeling. Maybe you don’t need to search for a home right now, maybe you should just search for somewhere you feel happy, no matter the cause.


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Coming Home Hurts: Reverse Culture Shock and Reintegration

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Coming home hurts. My heart sinks for a few seconds the moment landing gear hits home soil, and I always have to take a breath with my eyes closed, to place myself back into American shoes (and that’s not as simple as one might expect). This feeling is a symptom of feeling foreign in a place you know as home. This might not be the case for everyone, but for me it’s damn hard to come back into a cultural sphere I didn’t realise I had lost familiarity with. Re-adapting to your own culture is incredibly difficult, because you expect to feel comfortable, and people expect that of you, but you can’t help noticing all the minute differences in your own culture - something you thought you understood so well. On top of that, if you’re away for long enough, sometimes your mother tongue can be the enemy. These things create a damp haze that haunts a homecoming, but they don’t have to.


With tear-stained cheeks and the bittersweet taste of memories on my tongue, I came home for the first time. I mean, truly came home. I made my way from the gate to baggage claim in a total daze, reality was not meshing with my brain and all I wanted was to sleep in my bed. My bed which was now almost ten thousand miles away. My feet carried me along with everyone else through the sliding doors to American soil. With a grin on his face, my dad came up and took my bag from me, giving me a hug. I felt an overwhelming gratitude that he was alone, that my mother couldn’t see my exhaustion because I knew that to see the look on my face would hurt her. It was very clear that I did not want to be home. I wasn’t ready. But that gratitude came crashing down around me as I heard my name called by voices I hadn’t heard in almost a year. In a moment, I was surrounded by excitement and joy and the energetic hugs of my old friends, as if nothing had changed. Echoes of sharp, loud accents rang in my ears, and my old world came spinning at me in a blur. I was of course happy to feel loved, and to know that my friends and family missed me enough to be there in that moment, and I was terrified to hurt them with my panic and exhaustion. The roads we drove home on were wider, and stores I’d forgotten about lined the streets. Travelling on the right side of the road again surprised me, road signs were a different colour now. This is the shock of new places, those immediate details you don’t quite notice usually - but it’s a strange thing when the details you took for granted are now the things you are discovering. It’s almost like a sensory overload.

Culture shock is a delicate thing. Not only does it apply to the intense discovery of details, but (because culture includes a myriad of elements) it applies to how you fit into that culture. Our identity is a product of our environment (perhaps you disagree, but you must admit that I’m at least a little bit right), and this means that when we change our environment, we must adapt. This challenge is a welcome one in my opinion, to adapt is to grow and learn, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. This article isn’t really to help you adjust to the places you visit, but to adjust to your old home. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I want you to know that you aren’t alone, that you will find your place again.

I was living in South Africa for a year, on high school foreign exchange (this is an experience from my youth, so bear that in mind as you judge my stories). Some of you, as you’ve lived away from home have stayed in regular contact with those from your old life, but I was too caught up in my new life and I loved it. I sent my mother a selfie every week or so just so she knew I was still alive, and other than the occasional parental credit card swipe that was all they got from me. Not all of you will be quite so extreme, and that will make your mother happy. But when you fully embrace a new place you embrace not only the language and the experience, but the people too, and that can make it hard to keep up with everything. Whatever your case, or your degree of reverse culture shock, I’m here for you. So, without further ado, these are some things I have compiled that might help you re-integrate.

  1. Treat everything you do as if it were a new experience.

  2. Bring elements of the life you’ve grown used to into your old world.

  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things, branch out, and meet new people.

  4. Let yourself feel things.

  5. Embrace your new life, and loosen your grip on memory.

Treating everything as if it is a new experience

The novelty of your hometown loses its lustre very quickly, and seeing things differently is perhaps the most challenging thing you can do for yourself. It is too easy to fall into the trap of comfort. It’s too easy to think negatively when those thoughts come easiest to us. There is some strange perverse comfort in sadness, like the caress of a gentle night breeze, but we should be careful not to fall victim to it. Go, explore your city, this is no different from a small town in some other faraway country. Just because you grew up here does not mean that there is nothing to see or do. There are nuances of culture no matter where we are, especially in those places we have become accustomed to - and having these new understandings of the world is your superpower now. You are able to look for these nuances, these small gems that your family is blind to, that your friends can’t ever notice. Embrace that. I know it’s hard, but half the effort is changing your approach, and that’s one step in the right direction.

Bring your favourite customs into your new-old life

Maybe the food is different - scratch that, I know the food is different - and you may not have the space to practise your newfound yogi skills, but you can damn well try. The world is tiny, and you should know that by now. The only limit you have is the one you put on yourself, think about it: if no one made any effort to spread culture, Adele would be out of a job. Be like Adele, spread the beauty of culture - you have it in you, I know you do. Embrace globalisation and don’t be afraid to bring your favourite cultural artefacts into the lives of your childhood pals.

Try new things, spread your wings, make new friend(lings)

Okay, I started the rhyming and had to keep going. Point is: who the hell cares if you are exactly like your old self - anyone who does, shouldn’t. When you live in a new place you make an effort to try things you never have before, you talk to people you may not normally, and you make connections you don’t expect, so do the same thing when you get home. If you approach everything like a new experience, you will make new discoveries every day, and that makes reintegration less hellish. One of my very best friends is someone I met because I made the choice to branch out and away from friends who I felt no longer very connected with. I do not regret doing so, but something I do wish I had done differently was make more of an effort to communicate with my old friends. I suppose the most important thing to remember here is that the people in your life who love you may be willing to help you and give you support, but you have to make an effort to understand where they are also coming from. In their minds, you have not changed, and to deal with your newness is a feat in itself; try to imagine where they may be coming from and be open: communication is a pretty damn solid solution to most things. No one is a mind reader, especially when they haven’t seen you in some time - cut a pal some slack. That said though, do not be afraid to talk to new people.

Let those emotions flow

Too often we suppress ourselves. It’s truly a tragedy, and not just because ‘bottling it up’ means emotional constipation. Refusing to give your emotions space to exist is the opposite of productive: you are sad, you are uncomfortable, and you feel limited, so why compound those things? Healing is a process, don’t tell me you haven’t heard that. What you feel is valid - I don’t care how cheesy that sounds, it’s true - and you shouldn’t ignore your new reaction to the world around you. You would not ignore these feelings if you were in a new place, and you should embrace home as a new place, because in some way it is. My point is, if you feel like crying because you miss your far-away life, then you have every right to do so, and you should. Feeling like you aren’t in the right place is okay, and you are allowed to feel like an outsider, even if no one else understands why you might. (Honestly, this is the same no matter where you are.. If you are sitting in a hostel and feel homesick or upset, then take the day off and have a good cry - no one will remember and no one will judge you).

Let the memories live in memory

This, for me, was the hardest thing to really move on from. The past is the past, and no matter how golden it is, you are not there and you can’t go back. Living in memories is the most wasteful thing, but it’s damn near impossible. Living in the moment is all fine and dandy until the moment you live in feels thick and suffocating, but you have to focus on the good. It’s like that old saying: don’t cry because it’s over (though the ‘smile because it happened’ is not so helpful here). Experiences always have an end, but that does not mean they no longer have an impact. Embrace that impact, and approach where you are now as a new experience: you are home, but you are home with new eyes, a new sense of adventure, and new information, make the most of it! Explore like you never have, hold onto that spark of discovery hovering in your soul, I know you have it, so use it.

So yes, coming home does hurt. It hurts a lot. But you don’t have to let it get to you too much. You have seen a multiplicity of cultures, and you are a child of your parents as much as you are the child of the wind that carried you away in the first place. Don’t let yourself fall too far into the haze of reverse culture shock, but no matter what happens, you will make it out. Adapting is what you do best, it got you into this mess and it will get you out - just give yourself a little understanding.


The In-between World

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Perhaps the most unfortunate element to travel is airports, and yet they somehow still make me feel at home. Truly, I have a very intense love/hate relationship with airlines in general.

As I write this I am en route to Amsterdam, and, while there have been a few hiccups along the way, I am content. A very large part of me lives for the strange comfort that can be found in the endless flow of passengers and attendants, each and every person has a different experience. Some are on family vacations, some are beginning a solo travel trip, some are headed to uni or headed home from uni, and more still are going to visit family, friends, lovers, or strangers they met on the internet (hey, it's 2018.. you never know). Each person is in limbo, neither here nor there - most people do not accept your "visiting a country" if you've only been in the airport, it only really counts in times where pity is required. Thus, all those wandering souls around you might be headed on a completely different path, but they are there, in that moment, with you. Airports are a collective transitional phase that anyone who is travelling, be it close to home or on the other side of the globe, exists in. Like phases of the moon, we cycle through check-in, security, duty-free shops, gates, jetways, aisles, and eventually that soaring above the clouds - and even then everyone on that air-bound-machine with you is at an in-between. From the moment you enter the airport until the moment you get through passport control, pick up your luggage, and hope into whatever your preferred (or in my case, whatever my not-so-deep pockets allow for) transport is, you are in the same weird space as the millions of others you've encountered in the past hours (or days, if you include stopovers). It's a time where you exist almost outside of reality, a strange time when you are stuck with limited options and are forced to embrace the enclosed space. Those numerous coffee shops, sandwich places, the convenience store-esque places that sell magazines, books, sweets, and souveniers advertising the city (that you may not have even been to) for those tourists who have forgotten a gift for their dearly beloved family member, they are places that feel different than shops in the real world. At least, they do to me. Even when the product or service is exactly the same, it has an aura of difference.

That strange limbo, is a sort of comfort to me. It's a time where my mind is at ease (unless I'm pressed to make a flight, or customs is being particularly difficult ..), and where I can give myself a mental space to both accept leaving one place, and to prepare for arrival in another. That is the beauty of the in-between, and it's not always in airports alone, I often find this feeling the first day or two in a hostel, a new city, or at any point of travel. It is an odd and splendid thing, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Sustainable Travel: going green is more than just recycling

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You’ve heard of phenomena like zero-waste, eco-tourism, and the world-wide fight against plastic waste. It seems as though climate change is finally getting a real prime-time spot on the global stage. News coverage of Trash Island, green movements, and global environmental policy grows with every month. National Geographic’s almost infamous ‘Planet or Plastic’ cover story validated a growing concern over the over-dependence upon plastic in the modern world. It’s a real problem, and you should do everything you can do reduce your impact on the planet - honestly, it’s not that hard. As for travel, sustainability is far more achievable than you might imagine.

To give you an outline of why sustainable tourism is important let’s look at the impact international tourism has on the world. The World Bank has projected, based on analysis of growing rates, that international tourism will surpass 1.8 billion visitors by 2030, and that most travel is actually directed at ‘developing’ countries, rather than ‘developed’ countries. Why does this matter? Well, tourism industries in these destination countries impact the local economy, local people, government, and resources. The BBC, in an episode of Costing the Earth, covered the impact of large waves of temporary visitors on Barcelona, Amsterdam, and the Orkney Islands. Travel which focuses on sightseeing and top attractions fails to integrate positive growth for the communities in these destinations. With such staggering numbers, visitors can hinder community development in many ways. Floods of seasonal tourists in destinations like Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, cause terminal employment and a lack of true economic development. More often than not, that keychain you bought wasn’t made locally, but imported from China at a lower cost, and money spent by cruise-goers doesn’t ever permeate the local economy. Municipalities in ‘developing’ countries are not equipped to deal with the heavy refuse that follows a high-season for tourists. Overcrowding has become a huge problem. The cost of living in popular destinations has skyrocketed, making it difficult for locals to afford living there, and overcrowding has led to a limitation on resources as well as a rise in crime, organised and petty. UK National Parks attribute traffic congestion, and subsequent air pollution, as well as landscape damage, price hikes, and poor seasonal wages to the demands of the tourism industry. We should share our world, but we should be doing it in a way that is positive for everyone.

The easiest way to do that is to be conscious of how you travel. Are you making an effort to involve yourself in the local community? Are you choosing to buy local foods, products, and services? More than that, are you going somewhere just because everyone else is? Simple choices like these are a shift in the right direction, but more than that we can all do a little better when choosing how we go about our travels. If you are keen on staying in hotels, there is a really cool option through Kind Travel: if you choose to donate at least $10 per night to local or global charities, you’ll get a discount on your stay and sometimes other deals, too! Kind Traveler is, as of right now, available for destinations in North and Central America. When you book tours or activities, research the company you book through, and try to choose one that’s locally owned and operated, or - even better! - one that gives back to its community.

Speaking of giving back, voluntourism is on the rise. While it’s certainly appealing as a cheaper means of travel, research your commitment. The more you pay, the less likely you’re actually helping the community. I myself, have done some voluntourism, and my advise is this: pay attention to your organisation. Is their operation sustainable? Does it focus on empowering the community or target project to survive on its own? Are operations formatted in a way that educates and engages locals? If so, then these are the better options. You may be benefiting greatly from volunteering your time, but volunteering isn’t about you, it’s about who you’re helping. Organisations like Giving Way are applauded for compiling organisations seeking help from volunteers for little to no cost, but remember: do your research.

Green Global Travel has assembled a list of green travel tips. My favourites are: ‘slow travel’ when you can (ie. take a bus, boat, or train to your destination wherever possible), looks for hotels with sustainable or environmentally conscious initiatives, buying locally made products (that includes eating at locally owned restaurants, which are often better anyway), and ALWAYS avoid exploiting wildlife - there will never be a time when this is sustainable, or good for said wildlife.

The biggest thing is to engage in the local community in every way that you can. Dig deeper. If you make an effort to do this, you’ll see results and be better off for it.