Hello Thoughtful Life Readers –
I came across this essay from a wonderful writer, Phyllis Florin. I emailed her after reading because I simply can’t believe there is somebody else on this planet who feels the same as I – a true kindred spirit. I asked her permission to post and she agreed. Does anyone else see themselves in this essay? I love her incredible honesty. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do. – Debbie
My husband is planning our summer vacation, and my stomach is in knots. I know this year it is our turn to visit his family in Europe. Oh why did I have to marry a French man and give birth to a son whose relatives live halfway across the globe?
I do not come from an adventuresome family. If we had our way, we’d never go anywhere, ever. It’s in our blood. While we might have the desire to explore, to venture out into the world and see what there is to see, we don’t want it badly enough to leave home. My older brother, whose job included traveling all over the world, never got used to it. He said that for days before a trip he could never brush his inside upper molars because of the gagging.
Anytime my family gets together we tell at least one story from our stock of lonesome tales; like the time Uncle Glen had to carry my sister Linda home in the middle of the night in a snow storm because she got too homesick at Gramma’s. “I was fine during the day,” she says, “but then it got dark.” The night always does us in.
We try to figure out why we don’t have a speck of adventure in us. Aren’t we descended from Vikings, for God’s sake? “It’s like swimming,” my brother Andy says, musing on one of his theories, “if you never learned how, you can’t just jump in the ocean…” We nod thoughtfully. “It’s because we grew up on the prairie, the space,” I say and trail off, not knowing where to go with that. “It’s because we were always told to sit still,” my sister says, “to quit milling around.” We even think it might have something to do with our grandparents immigrating from Scandinavia. Maybe it’s in our genes, maybe it was whispered in our baby ears, that the old ones who had crossed the ocean had done all the traveling necessary for one family, the rest of us should just stay put.
I was 14 before I went anywhere. My sister Margie, who was a year younger than me, and I went to Lansing, Michigan to visit my sister Doreen who had just moved there with her new husband. We went with Mrs. Lundgren, Doreen’s mother-in-law. We were not sure how we felt about it. On the one hand, we were excited about getting to see Lake Michigan and the Mackinac Bridge and a big city, and we would get to eat in restaurants and sleep in a motel and use those little soaps, but, on the other hand, we were going to be far away from home and our mother for two whole weeks.
Neither of us will ever forget the crossing of the Mackinac Bridge. As soon as we saw it, we decided a picture of it would have been just fine. Mrs. Lundgren, in high spirits that day, singing along to a church station in her high wobbly voice, careened across it as though she were on a six-lane freeway. Margie and I stared straight ahead, afraid to make the slightest movement or even look sideways in case it would tip the car. “Look girls,” Mrs. Lundgren said, taking her eyes off the road and one hand off the steering wheel to gesture towards the lake, “look at all that water.”
We are not programmed to think that something like that could in any way be fun. We thought then what I think now: if only we’d stayed home, none of this would be happening.
We were homesick the whole time we were there although neither of us dared admit it. When night set in, we’d lie side by side in our bed and my sister would whisper, “are you lonesome?” And I’d say very very casually, “no, are you?” “No,” she said, “I just wanted to see if you were.” Then we’d roll over and cry ourselves to sleep.
Nothing stopped the ache. Not the badminton game set up just for us in the backyard, not being with our favorite sister who let us wear her clothes, not our first McDonald’s hamburger with fries and a chocolate shake. Not even the two really cute neighbor boys, although it wasn’t as bad when they were around. Even though we were in a big city seeing things we had never seen before and doing things we had never done before, we counted the minutes until we could go back home.
At that time I didn’t know I had the cursed stay-at-homeness bred in my family. I thought it was perfectly natural to be homesick your first time away from home. But I would find out.
When my future husband invited me to go to Paris for the first time, I couldn’t wait. I fantasized about us maybe even moving there, living the artist’s life, like Gertrude Stein or Henry Miller. On our second morning there, while having breakfast at a sidewalk café on the Champs d’Elysees, I felt something. It was a warm June morning, perfect weather, pale blue sky with happy French clouds. We dunked huge croissants in bowls of cafe au lait, the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower off in the distance. There was a feeling in my stomach, around my eyes. It was that feeling. “Are you lonesome?” I heard my sister whisper.
I want so badly to be a traveler. I want to be the type of person who can throw a couple of things in a backpack and just take off, who can sleep under the stars in the Himalayas and drink yak tea with the natives. I try, I really try, but it’s one of those things you can’t change, no matter what you do, it’s too ingrained. Even when I’m having a really wonderful time, like paddling in a canoe past fairy tale castles on a river in France, or walking through the ruins of the Roman Forum, or having a picnic high in the Alps, it is there, like low thunder on a summer day. I think soon this will be over and then we will eat dinner and then we’ll go to bed and then we’ll be one day closer to going home.
Home. It calls out to me like a mother with outstretched arms. To be home on my comfy sofa, my feet up on the ottoman, a book in my hand, my geraniums in their little redwood box, my quilt, my marigolds.
Fourteen years and six trips to Europe later, it has not changed. Two summers ago we met my husband’s parents in the Loire Valley. I swore I wasn’t going to be that way anymore, I was going to appreciate every moment. But on the third day there, after supper in a local bistro, I excused myself and went to the bathroom where I leaned against the wall, breathed deeply, and thought, only 12 more days to go.
There are people who love to travel and people who don’t, but why does it seem as though there is something wrong with you if you don’t? The airplanes are full of people who would just as soon stay home and mend the fence but they go because someone said to them: Don’t you want to see the Eiffel Tower? I say the people who want to travel should go ahead and go and then come home and tell the rest of us all about it.
It’s fear, I know. I read about a Himalaya trek once where they were hiking on a treacherous mountain path which was narrow, icy and very dangerous. The writer said that while he and other members of his party tended to stay close to the side and inch their way up, the sherpas strode along as though they were on a country road, with no fear whatsoever. They were in less danger, he said. That’s how I travel, I thought, close to the mountain, inching my way forward, always fearful I’m going to fall.
It does not escape me that even though I go kicking and screaming, my life has been enriched by my experiences. I know I have seen some things worth seeing: like the skyline of Rome at dusk, its ancient domes and basilicas dark against a soft pink sky; prehistoric etchings 17,000 years old on a cold cave wall in France; the green mountains and turquoise sea of Kauai. I have walked where Julius Caesar walked and climbed stairs Joan of Arc climbed. I have stood in the Gothic cathedral atop Mont St. Michel where pilgrims used to come from around the world to find their way to heaven. I have watched my son and his cousins play leap-frog in the pasture next to it. I have sailed in a gondola to the top of the Mont Blanc, picked raspberries in the Alps and put flowers on Oscar Wilde’s grave.
That is what I bring home with me. That is what I think about when at last I’m on my sofa, my quilt on my lap, looking out at my geraniums and marigolds, my feet up on the ottoman. Then I can’t imagine why I was homesick. I vow never to be that way again. I give myself a small lecture about how fortunate I am to be able to travel at all. This time, I tell myself, I will embrace the trip. I will not be afraid. I will go joyfully. I swear.
“Staying Put”in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 11, 1995
Phyllis Uppman Florin lives in Marin County, California, in a little bungalow in Tam Valley, with her husband Fabrice.