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Make yourself at home: lessons from a decade of travel

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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Albuquerque to Phoenix: July 30, 2012

Albuquerque to Phoenix: July 30, 2012

I travel a lot. I once calculated that between 2001, when I moved back to New Zealand from Gaza, and 2008, when I moved back to New Zealand again – this time from Afghanistan – the longest consecutive time I slept in the same bed was 11 nights. In those seven years I lived and worked in New Zealand, Timor-Leste and Afghanistan and traveled to at least nine other countries (those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head).

Even once I got back from Afghanistan I was on the move. Between my friend Gemma’s apartment, my boyfriend’s flat, my little writing haven by the sea, house-sitting for friends, yoga teacher training in Bali and Australia and an eight-week trip through the US – I’m not sure I managed more than a week in the same bed that year either. Or since then, for that matter.

Since April this year I’ve spent a grand total of two weeks at ‘home’.

Last week someone asked me whether I ever get tired of all the travel, if I miss home.

I heard myself answer: ‘I do get tired. Both when I’m traveling and when I’m at home. But I don’t get homesick. Not really. I miss people, but I think I make my home wherever I am.’

And that’s what I do, I realise. I travel a lot, but I make my home wherever I go. And these are some of the ways I do it.

1. Walk.

I walk a lot. It helps me get to know the area where I’m staying, and helps my body adjust to the new environment and timezone. There’s no better way to get to know a neighbourhood than by walking around it, as much as possible, and paying attention to what you see.

2. Sit still.

In her wonderful book Love at the Speed of Email, Lisa McKay wrote:

The word home comes from a root meaning “the place where one lies.” The phrase refers to our physical place of residence and rest, our bed, but it also prompts me to consider where the core of the “one” that is me – who I am, my soul – lies.

This is the true sense of home, the core of the “one” that is me, the home that I carry with me no matter where I am. And the most reliable way to reconnect with that inner home, for me, is by sitting still and paying attention, also known as meditating. Yoga also helps, which is why I think having a yoga room at the San Francisco airport is pure genius.

3. Carry (or find) touchstones.

What are your touchstones? The things that bring you home to yourself, or that bring you a sense of being at home, no matter where you are? Mine are tea, yoga and music. So I carry those with me wherever I go. A mug of rooibos chai, a sun salute, a Fat Freddy’s Drop song – any (or even better, all) of these will help me feel at home no matter where in the world I am.

4. Travel light.

Luckily for me, my touchstones don’t take up much room. Because one of my tactics for feeling at home wherever I go is – paradoxically – traveling light. The lighter my load, the easier it is to move freely from place to place. On this trip I brought one big suitcase from New Zealand filled with books and gifts, but my clothes, toiletries, shoes and daily essentials for a three months all fit in a carry-on bag. Traveling light takes a lot of the pain out of constant travel.

5. Learn the language.

It is always worth the effort to learn some of the local language. It’s very difficult to feel at home if you can’t speak to the person serving your coffee, or coming out of the elevator in your rented apartment. Luckily, when I’m traveling in the USA this is less of a challenge.

6. Use public transport.

I’m kind of fanatical about public transport (Is it possible to be ‘kind of fanatical’? I suspect William Zinsser would disapprove of that sentence.) When I’m at home in New Zealand it’s a way to get around when the whether is too awful, or the distance to great, for walking. When I’m traveling it’s my measure of just how ‘at home’ I really am. I love learning how the trains or buses work, and finding my way across and around a city.

7. Make friends.

Last, but certainly not least.

Someone commented recently that I seem to have friends in every city in the US. And that’s probably almost true. I also have friends in Amsterdam, Paris, London, Oslo, Tel Aviv, Islamabad, Kabul, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Cairo, Amman, Cape Town and Bangkok.

I used to laugh at my father because no matter where we went in the world he knew someone. Between his childhood at an American school in Nigeria and his role at an international charity that works all over the world, there wasn’t a place I could go where Dad wouldn’t say ‘You must catch up with so-and-so’. At least once in my travels, when I found myself at a hostel-that-turned-out-to-be-a-brothel in Harare, I’ve been very grateful for my father’s global contacts.

These days I’ve turned into him.

When you meet people, allow yourself to consider the possibility that they might become your friend. Even if they live on the other side of the world. With email, Facebook and free internet-based calling, it’s easier than ever to make and maintain friends wherever you go. And if you have friends in a town, it’s that much easier to make yourself at home.





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6 Responses to "Make yourself at home: lessons from a decade of travel"

  1. Valerie says:

    This was absolutely lovely to read! I love the concept of making your home wherever you go. So simple, and yet so profound.

  2. Roxanne says:

    Great tips, Marianne. I’m in Mexico City, traveling light and feeling light. Speaking Spanish, riding buses, and smiling. The tips came at such a beautiful time.

  3. Tiff says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been living in China for almost 3 years now, but was home for times in between. I’m shortly returning home to NZ just for a visit then back to Australia to continue study. Technically kinda ‘homeless’ in all my wandering and staying in hotels and things. A friend commented recently that perhaps it’ll be a bit of a search for some kind of home when I get back. And my internal reaction to that was quite clear. Home was wherever I was, and as long as I travelled light, and had my ‘touchstones’ as you describe, it didn’t really matter where I was. Lovely post.

  4. Prime says:

    Traveling light – and I’m not just talk8ing of physical but emotional/merntal baggage as well – is perhaps the greatest way to feel at home anywhere. You remain open to anything that will come your way.

  5. Sue Kearney says:

    Lovely post! I’m awed…a carry on for all your clothes and toiletries for a long trip? How do you do it? Please share!

  6. Marianne, lovely to read your post. Roxanne shared it on Twitter, and it was a joy to click over and discovering your online home. I’m traveling around the world for a year, making friends, sipping tea, learning about life as I go. Your words ring so very true.

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