This holiday season was the first in a couple of years that I spent at home, with my actual family instead of an on-the-road family, eating the traditional turkey and pickled herring instead of kangaroo steaks and midnight kebabs. The tree, trimmed and twinkling, looked right against the window with the outside world draped in snow, unlike the absurdity of christmas trees when the mercury is high.
And I got to thinking about homesickness.
When people ask me about travel and how I deal with the minutiae of life on the road, homesickness is a common theme. Navigating the emotions that travel stirs up can be just as challenging as border crossings and visas. Especially around holidays, unless you are thrilled to be away from your family, nostalgia is likely to seep into your thoughts and pull you away from the present; a riptide of the soul. Your grandmother’s ginger snap cookies never taste better than from within the warm gauze of memory.
Homesickness swallows me up in unlikely places. A song transports me back to my last year of University while I’m getting a foot massage somewhere in Asia. A stranger quotes a favourite movie from my childhood, and then isn’t a stranger anymore. Sometimes it’s fleeting — the song ends and the sharp pang fades and my day continues; happier, perhaps — and sometimes it lingers. However and whenever it comes, I indulge it like a spoiled child.
Last year in Australia, I hitched a ride from Adelaide to Melbourne with a young Australian bloke who turned out to be an avid Jack Kerouac fan. We spent the eight-hour drive quoting On The Road, talking about hitch hiking and traveling and writing and Kerouac; becoming drunk on shared passions. The conversation conjured up a friend of mine back home, who also loves Kerouac and writing. I missed her suddenly, intensely. I missed how she seems to know everything worth knowing, and just the right thing to say. Her absence was palpable; the conversation wasn’t whole with her a world away from me.
So I imagined her there with me in the car, sitting in the back seat next to the sleeping drifter. Maybe she’d let him stretch his legs across her lap; maybe not. I studied her reflection in the rearview mirror while she rhapsodized on spontaneous prose, and Burroughs and Ginsberg – our rascally heroes from an era dripping with nostalgia. Does she still wear her hair that way, I wondered, does she still have that skeleton sweatshirt; does she think of me when she reads the Subterraneans for the nth time?
We arrived in Melbourne as twilight settled on the coast. The sea and the city lights sparkled. The drifter stirred and unfolded himself from the back seat, shaking off sleep like a bird preening. Her apparition disappeared into the hipster streets. A couple of days later, my new friend and I went to see On The Road in the cinema. Later, when Kerouac comes up in conversation, I’ll think of him and of Melbourne, the glittering city of electronic music and backyard hippies.
Because that’s another tragic/beautiful thing about travel — wherever you go, now, you’ll miss some one and some place.
* “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” – Peter De Vries