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Homesickness: A holiday primer

By Joe Queenan, for CNN
December 23, 2013 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Whatever you do, don't tell this man to cheer up.
Whatever you do, don't tell this man to cheer up.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Homesickness afflicts almost all travelers at one time or another
  • It sometimes isn't so much about pining for home as it is disliking the present situation
  • Prior to a trip, some people get homesick before they actually leave home

(CNN) -- When I was a young boy growing up on the mean streets of Philadelphia, I was convinced that it was the most ghastly place a person could possibly live.

It was bellicosely proletarian, it was dull, it was hard to get around in, and all our professional sports teams were horrible.

It had little glitz; it was short on panache; it was sadly lacking in brio.

On a less abstract note, it had no skyline, and even then I realized that to be a real city, you had to have a skyline. (Sorry, Raleigh-Durham; better luck next time, Edmonton.)

As for entertainment, years before I had any idea what the term "nightlife" actually meant, I knew that the City of Brotherly Love didn't have any.

Determined to lead a flamboyant life elsewhere, I spent most of my youth devising ingenious stratagems -- circus boy, carnie, French Foreign Legion early admission intern, traveling saleschild -- that would enable me to escape from the city of my birth.

None of them worked.

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Finally, at the age of 13, I entered the Maryknoll Junior Seminary and began studying to be a Roman Catholic priest.

At long last I would be leaving provincial, conservative Philadelphia forever, outward bound for such exotic ports of call as Nairobi, Manila and Peking. At long last, I was finally going places.

No matter how bad things are back home, they can still get a whole lot worse out on the road.
No matter how bad things are back home, they can still get a whole lot worse out on the road.

First stop, Scranton, Pa.

To be jesuitically accurate, the Maryknoll Junior Seminary was not located in Scranton, a complete dump whose heyday lay buried in the rubble of the Speakeasy Era, but in Clark's Summit, a tiny suburb of Scranton.

No sooner had I arrived in this moribund, coal-country backwater than I began yearning for all the things I had left behind in my newly beloved Delaware Valley. Cheesesteaks. Soft pretzels. Billy Penn's hat. The Liberty Bell. Professional baseball. Professional football. Professional anything. Most of all, working sidewalks.

For the next 10 months I lived a life of pure hell, despising my present, regretting my past.

In this period, I learned two valuable lessons:

1. Be careful what you wish for, especially in rural Pennsylvania.

2. Given that one never misses one's water till one's well runs dry, one must take steps to ensure that one's well does not run dry.

My well ran dry on September 8, 1964, 8.6 miles outside Scranton.

Pining for the past? Or disdaining the present?

Since that inexpungable youthful experience, I have had many other occasions to experience homesickness of one sort or another.

Yet over the years, my definition of "home" has changed dramatically.

Because I have spent the last 38 years of my life in New York City or its suburbs, "home" now encompasses the tri-state area defined by New York, Pennsylvania and, grudgingly, the connective tissue of New Jersey.

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Although all of these places are quite different from each other, all are in some sense the same, in that they resemble each other much more than any of them resembles the Yucatan, Belize or the Lower Sudan.

Is she missing London? Or hating it?
Is she missing London? Or hating it?

Thus, when I speak of being homesick, I refer to a regional, rather than a municipal or narrowly localized nostalgia.

What triggers the worst bouts of homesickness? Places like Branson, Missouri.

A few years ago, while researching a book about the deepest abysses of American pop culture, I spent several days trapped in this cultural Hades.

Plunked smack-dab in the northern reaches of the Ozarks, Branson started out as a congenial retirement home for aging but noble country and western singers (Roy Clark, Ferlin Huskie), but quickly devolved into an elephant's graveyard for washed-up lounge lizards, burnt-out comedy acts and has-beens of all descriptions -- Barbara Mandrell, Jim Stafford, Tony Orlando, Yakov Schmirnoff.

If you want to see fozzilized old nobodies who used to be somebody (or, in the case of the Osmond Brothers, fossilized old nobodies who have a brother and sister who used to be somebody), Branson is your place.

Branson, having no indigenous ethnic community, no people of color, no hipsters and no single living organism under the age of 80, made me deeply homesick for the East Coast, which, whatever its other failings, can effortlessly lay claim to all of the above.

In fact, Branson was so dreadful it made me homesick for Springfield, Missouri, 40 miles to the north, where I'd spent a couple of hours in the world's largest sporting goods store.

This is a phenomenon that psychologists describe as the Helsinki Syndrome, a situation where a person visiting Scandinavia from Utah hates Norway so much that he wishes he was back in Finland.

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Often when we experience homesickness, it is not so much a case of longing for things that can only be found back home (good bagels, good subs, good films, good conversation) as yearning for a place that does not have what seems to be overstocked in our present locale (guns, cows, drug dealers, the Osmonds.)

It is not so much that we miss the familiarity of the place we have left as that we dread the strangeness of the place we have entered.

Thus, when I visit the hinterland of this great nation and learn that the best eatery in town is an Olive Garden or a Red Lobster, I not only feel homesick for New York and Philadelphia -- I actually start pining for Scranton.

This is also the case when I overstay my visit in foreign countries.

Overseas, it is not places or people that we miss so much as the jarring rupture with our normal daily routine.

In Spain people like to eat late. In France people start talking about what they're going to eat at lunch on Thursday before they've finished eating breakfast on Tuesday. And in England, it rains all the time.

When I stay in these countries for more than a few weeks, my homesickness is not a desire to go anywhere so much as a desire to leave here.

Lighten up, kid, you\'re building character.
Lighten up, kid, you're building character.

The value of homesickness

One emotion that has not received the attention it deserves is preemptive homesickness. This is the bittersweet aching for hearth and home that a traveler experiences before he has actually set out on his journey.

The Highland stand-up comic Billy Connelly says that all great Scottish songs are about going back home to places the singer has never actually left.

I have no trouble identifying with this feeling.

I am never as nostalgic for the crimson and gold leaves of the Hudson Valley as the day before I desert them for Los Angeles.

I never rhapsodize about the winsome charms of the Sleepy Hollow district quite as much as I do in the weeks before I actually take leave of them for a three-week vacation. Especially if I know I'm going somewhere grim and gritty like Detroit.

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Painful though it is, homesickness has an indisputable psychological value as a character-building emotion. More than anything else, homesickness teaches us to stop taking things for granted.

When I find myself far away from home, what I miss most are the woods I rarely visit, the bike paths I infrequently navigate, the rivers and lakes I barely notice in the normal course of my life.

When I am far away from New York City, what I miss most are the Statue of Liberty, the Bronx Botanical Gardens and the ramshackle restaurants of City Island. In fact, I have lived in New York half my life and have never visited the Statue of Liberty, Rockaway Beach or the ramshackle restaurants of City Island.

But every time I travel to Sydney, Aberdeen or Lyons, I tell myself: You have got to get your priorities straight back home. You have got to eat in one of those ramshackle restaurants.

Primal, tertiary and transitory homesickness

Though many people live where they live because they were born there, and either love or hate these places accordingly, a huge number of people choose a place to live because they have reason to believe they will be happier there.

People looking for culture and excitement are going to be a lot happier in San Francisco than in Sacramento. People who want to be closer to the rhythms of life will fare better in Nebraska and Iowa than in Chicago. And people who want to spend the rest of their life crafting pottery and making the world a better place are definitely going to fit in much better in Burlington, Vermont, than in Youngstown, Ohio.

Yet in the end, all of these transplanted individuals will one day find themselves experiencing homesickness for the home they ultimately deserted.

The house I grew up in will never be in Tokyo or Tuscany.

Neither will my high school.

Or the stadium where I saw my first football game.

In the end, all of us realize, for better or worse, that the people we most resemble are the people we grew up with.

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In my own case, I will never be able to think of myself as a New Yorker not because I am incapable of being surly and narcissistic and acquisitive and rude -- I am actually quite good at all these things -- but because nobody in New York was scarred for life by the epic collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, the event that turned me into the vicious miscreant I am today.

Don\'t worry about her -- she\'ll be Skyping in a few minutes.
Don't worry about her -- she'll be Skyping in a few minutes.

Viewed in this fashion, homesickness often embodies a deeply rooted desire to return to the site of one's greatest misfortune.

This sentiment is best described as primal homesickness, a disjointed emotional attachment to the people and places you hated so much while you were growing up that you had to move away.

Unlike transitory homesickness, the fleeting yearning for the familiar that is regularly experienced by the traveler or the temporary transplant, primal homesickness is an enduring psychological condition. It is the overpowering desire to return to a place one moved heaven and earth to escape from in the first place.

In the grand scheme of things, it is irrational and self-defeating.

Yet, it exists. In fact, most people could not live without it.

Another emotion that deserves some attention is tertiary homesickness. This is the feeling an individual experiences when he temporarily moves from Point A to Point B, and then makes a trip to a Point C so repugnant it makes him homesick for Point B.

For example, much as I like to make fun of the French, I only need to spend 20 minutes in Holland or northern Spain before I become desperately homesick for gay Paree.

Much as I loathe the arid, one-trick-pony quality of Washington, D.C., I only need to spend an hour in a snake pit like South Bend, Indiana, before I yearn for the cool, gleaming sterility of our nation's capital.

The bland, interchangeable highways of New Jersey never seem as magical as when I've just spent 12 hours navigating the serpentine, kudzu-festooned highways and byways of northeast Arkansas.

Tertiary homesickness is a valuable reminder that no matter how bad things are back home, they can still get a whole lot worse out on the road.

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Homesickness just isn't the same these days

As people grow older, they inevitably come to believe that their youth was a Periclean Age.

Although, as a general principle, I am suspicious of this theory, I do believe that the Golden Age of Homesickness has already come to an end.

With a McDonald's on every Parisian street corner, Lady Gaga on every billboard and battalions of buffoons yammering away on TV screens in hotel rooms everywhere, it is much harder to feel completely estranged from one's homeland.

In fact, the sight of highly placed pinheads running their mouths while I am visiting rural Scotland actually has the opposite effect, making me reluctant to return to a country that generously rewards such high-powered idiocy.

More than anything else, the electronic revolution has made it harder to experience good, old-fashioned homesickness.

When I went to France for the first time in 1972, I survived on a budget of $4.40 a day.

Back then, to make a phone call to the folks back home you had to drop by the local post office, reserve a phone booth and fork over the equivalent of one day's rent to have a five-minute chat on a crummy transatlantic line where you could barely hear what anyone was saying. That's why I never did it.

For $4.40, I could buy 10 liters of wine, which would alleviate even the worst pangs of homesickness.

Today, such problems no longer not exist. Today, we have the Internet, Skype, messaging, Twitter, Instagram and phones in European countries that actually work.

Today, when visiting the great nations of Europe, it is a lot harder to be desperately homesick. You have to work at it.

When discussing homesickness, it is all but impossible to pinpoint precisely what it is that one most misses when away from home. Friends? Food? Customs? The legal system? Movies?

Or is it a combination of them all?

I suspect the latter.

As is so often the case, it is Elvis who delivered the most insightful pronouncement on this subject.

Upon his return to Memphis after two years of military service in Germany, Elvis was asked what he most missed about being away from home.

"Everything," said Elvis.

I agree.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joe Queenan.

Joe Queenan is the author of 12 books and a longtime cultural critic whose work appears in The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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