A Traveler’s Return: Suburban Connecticut And The Meaning Of Home
Sunday, September 27, 2009
A traveler’s thoughts on the strangest and most unfamiliar part of any trip: coming home.
A Traveler’s Guise
Outside my hometown, Connecticut was a dirty word. I never wanted to tell anyone I was from Westport, Connecticut, the original location of the “Martha Stewart Show,” of the original film “The Stepford Wives,” the stuff of headbands and sailboats. To me, telling a New Yorker of my Connecticut origins was like stamping a “spoiled” sign on my forehead and trying to explain to foreigners where Connecticut was usually boiled down to a brief “it’s near New York.” Admitting the truth conjured images of pastels and cold blondes, not of a welcoming home.
It’s important to note that despite my connotations, I always knew Connecticut was not exactly Dante’s “Inferno.” The contradiction, whether I admitted it or not, was that I resented having so much to appreciate as a rambunctious adventurer. Connecticut may be lovely, but my great fear was of getting too comfortable, without ever seeing the world.
A Traveler’s Eyes
Like many angst-ridden suburban youths eager to renounce a Lexus-packed hometown, I went to Europe for a year. The exercise of fleeing to a more cultured continent is an age-old ritual. Before I left, every PTA mom and college student was spilling stories of their big trips, recollecting everything from a few weeks in Spain or a questionable fling with some Swedish girls in a tent. Every story, every “Europe will change your life” comment, all felt just as false as my disillusionment with Connecticut. I had the idea that if I went to Europe, I could sincerely define myself and escape the mundane clichés for good.
I stayed with a very kind host family in Paris for a year, and with a traditionally light French academic schedule — fraught with university strikes — I traveled extensively, profiting from all that Europe had to offer. I ate baguettes and fancy cheese, I took long walks along the Seine, I went to museums for free. Basically, I lived the glamor I’d always aspired to. It was wonderful.
A year is a long time. I did not go home. The memory of bland suburban living was fading fast, replaced every day by European adventures: the roar of SUVs was replaced with the hum of Bateaux Mouches, Hersheys was replaced with Lindt Swiss chocolate, and I traded in my sneakers for some now well-worn sparkly high heels. Can you believe it almost got old? I could only see so many cathedrals, galleries, and suspiciously friendly foreigners before I started to wonder what I was missing back in North America. My heart would flutter if I heard a native English speaker on the street. An American speaker basically sent me into cardiac arrest. As I inched closer, listening intently. After nine months, I was finally homesick.
A Traveler’s Wise
Nine months older than when I first set off, I returned home to the same familiar faces, houses, and Starbucks. All the things I disliked about Connecticut before I left were still there, but somehow they made me smile. At first, coming back to the United States felt like an Anthropological study. “Wow,” I’d think, “Look at those men in suits. Look at those mothers in their matching silver cars. Everyone has a Blackberry.” Instead of readjusting to home, I was adjusting to some weird, foreign culture.
Extensive travel over the last year had me hopping from country to country on whirlwind vacations, which forced me to make friends and adjust to a new place within a maximum of two weeks. Back in the United States, I used the same skills I’d learned abroad to get to know the unfamiliar, with the trademark positivity that led me to love so many new cities. Tricks of the trade, like social spontaneity, researching culture and history of a place, and enjoying local foods made my town open up as a cultural bastion worth learning about, rather than the barricade of hostility I’d imagined it to be.
Instead of going to Starbucks and the mall, I went to my favorite local restaurant and the beach, allowing history and the landscape of the region take on their own life. I didn’t call old acquaintances for the sake of it, but I made day-to-day connections and learned about different people’s lives. Without the pressure of permanence I’d felt growing up, I felt like learning rather than leaving. I’m not trapped here in Westport, Connecticut; I love my hometown for what makes it unique.
Thus, I combined travel savvy and pent-up homesickness into appreciation. Although the anthropology of seeing my town with new eyes is exciting, the value of enduring connections is also newly meaningful. Seeing my family and friends has never been so significant, because I’d never been away from home that long. My year of travel taught me to always keep moving, but it also taught me the value of staying in one place. As I continue to see the world, I know it will continue to teach me the corny but worthwhile meaning of Dorothy’s words in “The Wizard of Oz”: There really is no place like home.