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Her World

Traveler's Heart Has Ached Not Just for Home but All Places Well Loved

July 07, 2002|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My passport is precious to me, from the mug shot on the first page to the Egyptian visa stamped on the last. It places me in Morocco in 1996, Hong Kong in 1998, New Zealand in 2000 and the Seychelles in 2001. Some years ago I had to send it back to the passport agency to have more pages added so I could continue to travel and keep my job.

Being widely traveled means I am a serial houseplant killer. It also means I can't get too attached to home because I don't want to pine for it when I'm on the road.

Homesickness is a powerful feeling that can intrude on a trip, no matter how much you want to go. I remember being filled with excitement about going to camp in the Missouri Ozarks when I was about 10. I was so miserable there that I called my parents and moaned into the phone, "I want to come home." They didn't let me. When I was a girl, travel was as much about learning I loved my home as about getting away from it.

I rarely feel homesick now, except on extended trips to exotic places, including a monthlong visit in 1996 to China and in 1997 to India. In both cases I was fine for the first three weeks, invigorated by new sights and stimuli. By the last week, I was counting the days until I could come home.

I wonder whether I could even do a long trip around the world, though the global wayfarers I know speak of eventually crossing a threshold after which homesickness abates and they start feeling rootless, like citizens of the world.

I tend to feel homesick on shorter trips when I'm not thrilled with the place I'm visiting or have landed in a hotel I don't like. For this reason, hotel selection is important to me. It doesn't have to be luxurious, but it must be nice. When I get to stay in fancy hotels, I never feel homesick. In fact, after I leave them, I miss the king-size beds, whirlpool tubs and room service I don't have at home.

I've found antidotes for the kind of homesickness engendered by unlovely hotels. I make my room feel more familiar by draping a favorite scarf over a chair, putting a picture of my family on a bedside table and buying flowers because I always have them at home. My well-traveled sister feels homesick only when she's ill or not having fun on the road. Her prescription: Have a stiff drink and go to bed.

Homesickness is triggered by different things for different people. My friend Penny Kaganoff has a sensitive nose. Whenever she passes a lilac bush, it transports her back to Chicago, where she grew up. To her, homesickness isn't a malady but nostalgia for a place that may or may not be home. I have little desire to go back to suburban St. Louis, my birthplace, yet occasionally I find myself feeling pangs that are like homesickness for places I've only visited--the English Lake District, the Colorado Rockies or the historic heart of Naples. But then, looking for a new place to call home is always in the back of my mind when I travel.

The pull of homesickness can be mysterious, as children's book author and illustrator Allen Say suggests in "Grandfather's Journey" (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993). It is a beautiful picture book about Say's grandfather, who was born in Japan but lived for a time in California before moving back to his homeland, because he missed it. He raised a family and told his grandson stories about America. When Say grew up, he settled in the U.S., where he raised a family of his own. But he still gets nostalgic for Japan and goes back to visit. At the end of "Grandfather's Journey," he says, "The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other."

Recently I asked Say what homesickness is and whether children are especially prone to it. "Homesickness is a hunger of the heart, which gets hungry every time it leaves home," he says. "It affects children more intensely than it does adults because children's hearts have yet to be calloused by grown-up appetites."

This year I've spent more time away than usual, for personal and professional reasons, so I've thought about what it means to have a home you yearn for. I've missed the comforter on my bed and my flower-lined balcony. But I've also missed my friends, family and neighborhood, where my mail carrier and the owner of a cafe I often walk to know me.

Mostly, though, I've just felt road weary, which is different from homesick. It has to do with hating the clothes I packed and the need to get up at 4 a.m. to make yet another plane. Fortunately, I completely forget road weariness by the time I have to leave on another trip.

I have wondered if there's something aberrant about my general immunity to homesickness. In fact, if I have to stay home for more than two weeks I usually start getting sick of it. Sometimes, driving around L.A., I'm tempted to check into a hotel instead of going home.

Above all, I have decided that homesickness is a good thing. It's not just that it teaches us there's no place like home, as Dorothy discovers in "The Wizard of Oz"--if so, why should I feel homesick for the English Lakes? When I'm homesick, it reminds me that there's such as thing as love of place, distinct from love of country, family or home. It arises when I find places that suit me in some fundamental, soul-stirring way.

So I often leaf through my passport, just to get homesick all over again for the places I love.

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