Neither Here Nor There
It is interesting to watch those television programs that deal with people passing through customs as they return from holidays or family visits abroad. In spite of very clear information regarding what is allowed to bring back from holidays and visits to family abroad, it is surprising how many people return with prohibited foodstuffs. Customs officials on questioning such people having asked their baggage to be opened are taken aback by what they find, particularly food either fresh or cooked. On ascertaining that the traveller was aware of what was allowed and prohibited, usually the official is curious to find out why this person took the risk knowing that the fine is substantial.
Usually, the answer is that this food is unavailable in local markets. In one instance a passenger replied that his granny was homesick for fried chicken from the Philippines. Others give similar answers relating to a deepseated desire for the taste of one kind of other of ethnic food that makes homesick people, immigrants, feel in contact with home. Nowadays, it is thought that with the death of distance, homesickness and nostalgia are things of the past, signs of immaturity. This immaturity is usually directed at immigrants from developing countries that shop at markets selling products from their homelands. Yet, look at the enclaves of Europeans and Americans living or resident abroad. Military bases are small towns in which all the home luxuries are stocked. Housing areas in which foreigners from developed nations live have their imported goods and chattels. They stock the products that make the people using them feel at home and ease homesickness, that longing for home.
In every journey there are two landscapes. The external by plane, boat, train, coach or car has departure, journey and arrival. The internal journey begins when a decision is made to leave the familiar for the unknown.
In every journey there are two landscapes. The external by plane, boat, train, coach or car has departure, journey and arrival. The internal journey begins when a decision is made to leave the familiar for the unknown. Internal journeys imply a break in primary relationships with people and place. That experience of departure continues long after arrival. It implies leaving something familiar behind, confronting the uncertainty, the unfamiliar and the discomfort of the new. The loss of what was home leaves one in liminality, a temporary nowhere zone, neither there nor yet here.
Caught between the idealization of what was lost and the excitement and uncertainty of the new, there is a tendency to cope with that uncertainty by reverting to nostalgic images lost in transition and unrecoverable, but momentarily soothing. It is as if remembering the familiar gives impetus to push out into the unfamiliar. Of course this has the risk of becoming imprisoned in the past and recreating it in the present as if it was the present. It is akin to working in New York, or London, or Sydney and living where one has left behind.
Caught between the idealization of what was lost and the excitement and uncertainty of the new, there is a tendency to cope with that uncertainty by reverting to nostalgic images lost in transition and unrecoverable, but momentarily soothing.
In the past immigrants and others did so by letter writing, getting the local newspaper from home, listening to particular music, cooking familiar food, generally creating an atmosphere from the past. Ultimately, it was coping with homesickness until one got to the point of realizing that one cannot hang between home and away, suspended between two cultures. In today's world of instant communication, home is much more accessible. However, while homesickness is eased, is this instant communication empowering one to break with the past and begin to feel at home in new surroundings? Also, is this instant communication with home giving immigrants and others an unreal hope of return? Is it delaying settlement and integration? This was and seemingly still is common in immigrant communities delaying integration and participation in the networks of life.
These are issues that are being discussed as much today as ever. There is an impression given in the media, celebrity driven, that one can take off and land anywhere, that travel, departure, arrival and settlement are routine. Essentially, the celebrity message is that nostalgia and homesickness are signs of immaturity. Of course, in the age of self-creation and individualism this would be expected, implying that just as one can be successful alone, rich alone, that one can become a person alone. However, homesickness and nostalgia cannot be managed in isolation and cannot be effectively dealt with long distance even in an age of instant communication.
It would be beneficial to keep in mind that travel is rooted in the word travail. This is obvious at points of departure and arrival as people part, meet and greet. Travel makes us porous. And, not everyone is a celebrity or tourist on holiday.
Despite the new inventions and economic connections, homesickness has not disappeared from the panoply of human emotions.
Columban Fr. Bobby Gilmore lives and works in Ireland.