Home Thoughts From Abroad

Travel is largely a matter of enjoying differences, but this is seldom a permanent pleasure 

There goes a swallow to Venice
  the stout seafarer!
Seeing those birds fly, makes one wish
  for wings.

So wrote old Browning, sitting in his English garden one spring morning, and O! I know too well that delicious pull of distant parts, foreign places, and different ways of living. I have watched the birds fly off too, as the drizzle falls out of a gray Welsh sky, the sheep in the field next door stand there hangdog and reproachful, and whenever the telephone rings it seems to be somebody getting the wrong number—oh, yes, I've wished for the wings of a 747 often enough, when the opposite of homesickness sets in.

And I know well, too, the exquisite thrill of moving into a new house somewhere altogether else, in somebody else's country, where the climate is different, the food is different, the light is different, where the mundane preoccupations of life at home don't seem to apply and it is even fun to go shopping. Travel itself, after all, is largely a matter of enjoying differences—why else would those swallows migrate? Transferring one's whole being—family, possessions, bank accounts, blankets, mixers, and all—gives us the same pleasure in less restless form.

It is seldom a permanent pleasure. Most people I know who move to a foreign part do not stay there forever, just as people who succumb to the allure of isolated islands generally seem to creep back sheepishly, sooner or later, to the conveniences of suburbia. All my own excursions into the expatriate condition have been temporary, but that has not made them any the less exciting. When we find our dream retreat far away, most of us know well enough that its first foreign delights are presently going to wear off, until they hardly seem foreign at all; we put that out of our minds, though, and glory in our exotic new garden, poke happily around our smoke-stained antique kitchen, peer dreamily from our leaded casement window, as though it is all going to be fresh and strange forever.

I have had many such moments of delightful self-delusion. I remember as if it were yesterday the moment I first stepped aboard the superannuated river steamer Saphir, moored on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, where my family and I were to spend some of the happiest years of our lives. The Egyptian sun was blazing that day, but canvas awnings cast an exotic shade over the poop, which was littered with divans and cushions like a sultan's seraglio. In our living quarters the light streamed brazenly through the shutters in almost tangible rays. My workplace was the wheelhouse on the upper deck, all glass and blistered white paint, and here and there around the ship servants in spotless djellabas and turbans smilingly awaited our every pleasure.

The Saphir sank in the end, but we were long gone by then, and had moved into some other fascinatingly alien home. Was it the top-floor flat in the Venetian palace that came next, with the majestic view over the Grand Canal and the soft swish of oars outside our windows that orchestrated the night hours? Or was it the apartment in the antebellum mansion in Vicksburg, Mississippi, with its high white balcony that Jefferson Davis had spoken from and its heady scents of tobacco plant and jasmine drifting past the kitchen window? Or the house above the water in Hong Kong, the sampans clustered below the bluff, the great container ships offshore, the clink of wind chimes and the clank of cooking pots?

I forget now which came when: what about the apartment in Sydney, looking below the Harbour Bridge to the flying white wings of the Opera House beyond, or the sweet little clapboard house in Cranbury, New Jersey, or that apartment on Forty-ninth Street in Manhattan, where the fire engines triumphantly rode by, or—yes, when did we live in that adorable chalet in the Haute-Savoie, where we skied in our own back yard in the winter, and in the spring welcomed the itinerant distillery to the apple orchards. They were foreign places every one—alien, exotic places—and they have blurred in my memory into a glorious mosaic of new experiences and new delights.

W hy is it, then, that I have never felt entirely comfortable, entirely natural, in those delectable foreign homes? Other people evidently have no such trouble. Americans in particular, who come from restless stock by the nature of things, seem to find themselves altogether at ease putting down roots, however transient, in foreign parts. It is part of their heritage, I suppose. They are settlers by inheritance, and they are still especially accomplished at making themselves homes away from home.

It is different for me. I am a traveler by profession but not by instinct. My people have not lived outside the British Isles since the dawn of time—my English maternal forebears for at least a thousand years, my Welsh paternal ancestors probably never. In my white wheelhouse on the Saphir, among the magnolias of Vicksburg, watching the ships sail by in Hong Kong, wine-bibbing on my Venetian balcony, sociable in Manhattan, or tobogganing in our alpine garden in France—in none of our adopted homes, though I was always deliriously happy, was I ever entirely settled.

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