Quo vadimus?

Travel has become something we take for granted. Author Charles Lewinsky asks if the destination is the real reason we travel.

If we take world literature to be a reflection of reality and look at classical stories that involve mobility, then the purpose of the journeys described always seems to be only a distant goal. A closer look reveals it to be the other way around: the protagonists only set off for unknown places in order to be able to come home again. Even the great poets of classical antiquity knew this: Homer had Odysseus experience his adventures in unknown lands for ten turbulent years, only to bring him back home to his wife Penelope in Ithaca. Jason and his Argonauts also undertook their expedition to the Golden Fleece only so they could bring their trophy home after countless heroic acts. Jumping ahead a few millennia, one finds that not much has changed: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe have adventures in the world’s most remote regions, only to recount them to the folks back home in the end. Even children’s literature follows this pattern: Heidi only finds happiness after she returns to Almöhi, and Pippi Longstocking leaves the South Seas to return to her familiar Villa Villekulla.

All these stories – and there are hundreds more like them – are based on the idea that the journey’s last destination is the return to its beginning. Or to put it another way:

In order to enjoy the diversity and excitement of mobility, we need the reassurance that – if we want to – we can end it at any time. As long as we don’t forget where we came from and have the inner certainty that the way home is not closed to us for all time, we are free to explore the world.

When this security is taken away from us – whereby the impossibility of returning to where we began our journey enters our imagination – we come down with “morbus helveticus”, as it was called in the 18th century. In other words, we get homesick. Swiss soldiers abroad are said to have been so susceptible to homesickness that hearing “Ranz des Vaches” would impel them to desert even when not all that far from home. Even Alsace was deemed too far from the beloved homeland, as described in the folk song about a homesick deserter: “At Strasbourg on the ramparts, my troubles began.”

However, the fact that one can come down with homesickness as if it were a virus doesn’t make mobility, i.e. the state of travelling or being elsewhere, a double affliction. If wanderlust and the joy of discovery were not solidly anchored in our genes, humans would never have left the African savannah, no one would try to reinvent their lives in a new country, and the holiday flights to the Maldives wouldn’t be so full. But then again, we have the certainty that there will always be a plane to whisk us back home if the need arises.

And there’s something else that ensures that our yearning for home sweet home no longer comes on as a virulent illness, but at most as a harmless and psychological case of the sniffles: the world’s diverse corners are becoming more similar. Naturally, the Australians will always be more friendly than the Swiss, the Israelis more impolite and the Italians more chaotic. But across the globe, the same Starbucks serve the same venti vanilla latte with soy and the only variety amongst shops is the order in which they appear, no matter which shopping mile we stroll through or which shopping centre we visit. We have the feeling of being tremendously mobile, but we keep finding ways to make there look increasingly just like here.

If Circe had sung the same songs that were topping the charts in Ithaca, Odysseus, instead of plugging his ears, may have dropped anchor and rocked his boat along to the beat. Gulliver would have stayed with the Lilliputians if they’d had a supermarket with his favourite muesli, although the size of the package might have irritated him. And Pippi Longstocking would still be in the South Seas if the local television station aired the same children’s shows that she liked to watch at home in Villa Villekulla.

The easier it is for us to be globally mobile, the harder it is to really experience mobility. Because the term may not simply denote a change of location if it is to have a meaning: it must also involve a willingness to engage in a different environment. If everything were the same everywhere, we’d no longer have a reason to come back. When home is everywhere, at some point it ceases to be home.