Saturday, November 10, 2012

Homesickness, Farsickness, and The Odyssey In Between

I realize I have utterly failed at writing the rest of my travel tales. For what it's worth, be it better or worse, I have also failed in my ongoing efforts on other writing projects. At this point, I am not even going to pretend to promise that those travel tales will ever materialize, but we'll see. I'd like them to, but perhaps it's too late now anyway.

In any case, lately I have been reading two poems about Ithaka over and over again. (This one and this one.) Ithaka was the home of Odysseus, the destination of his ten-year journey described in the Odyssey. Both of those poems end on the idea of needing the journey in order to fully appreciate the destination. They suggest that the journey, not the end goal, is the real purpose, that achieving the destination would be meaningless without everything that happened along the way.

My Ithaka is symbolic. My Ithaka and my El Dorado are one and the same—“home” is a mysterious place of wealth and wonder, one I'm setting my course for without really knowing where to find it, or if it even truly exists.

It's something of a trope that the Germans have a word for everything, but it's also kind of true. “Wanderlust” is originally a German word, and it's a fabulous one. Another fabulous German word, which I learned while I was in France last year, is “Fernweh.” As I understand it, it means something like, “a yearning to be somewhere else,” and what makes it so fabulous is that that somewhere else can be anywhere. It's not the same thing as homesickness (I've seen it translated as "farsickness," sort of the opposite), nor is it quite the same thing as Wanderlust, which I think of as being a kind of restlessness. Wanderlust is a longing to move, to travel, rather than a longing to be somewhere in particular.

The concept of Fernweh was a small revolution for me. After wondering for so long if it's possible to feel homesick for a place that isn't home, strictly speaking, to find this other word for something that's the same but different made everything make sense. It's like a sick person receiving a diagnosis—you feel a special kind of relief just knowing what to call it, just knowing that enough other people have experienced what you're experiencing that it has a name.

I told you all that to tell you this: I miss Ireland. A little less intensely than I missed it while I was in France, which either a) supports my suspicion that having something in proximity but not in reach intensified my pain last year or b) is a sign that I've slowly and involuntarily accepted the fact that it would be incredibly difficult for me to ever find my way back as anything more than a tourist. But I miss it a lot. I also miss Belize. Once in a while I miss France, too, though I think what I miss is the friend-family I had found there, more than anything. I also miss my hometown, and I miss the town where I lived last summer before moving to France. Which one is on my mind the most changes from day to day, but at least one is always there. They all cause me Fernweh.

And that brings me to this: My own journey stalled a bit after I got back from France. (Which is a little ironic considering that part of the reason it stalled is that I got a job, which was originally supposed to be temporary but has stretched into the present, that has me traveling back and forth and all over the state every week, working in several different places and going home [or to visit friends] on the weekends.) But I am currently in the process of trying to make some very big decisions about both the near future and the big-picture plan for the next couple of years. And first on the agenda is finding a place to live for the next while.

The biggest decision facing me, assuming nothing else presents itself in the meantime, is whether to move back to my hometown or back to where I was last summer (for two of the happiest months of my life). That decision may come down to employment opportunities—or it may not. I'm not sure. But meanwhile, I am also applying for a teaching job in Guatemala that would start in January and put off plans to move to either of the above places. And I need to make a decision very soon about whether to reapply to TAPIF in hopes of being re-accepted for a second year under the tricolore and hopefully assigned to Guyane (or another overseas department; Guyane was the dream, but I don't think I'd quibble).

All of these possibilities feel a bit like mutually exclusive yes-or-no questions, and yet they're all interconnected and rely on so many other questions, like what I really want to do with my life and when and where (and if) I want to go back to school. And a big part of what it comes down to is the question of what's most important, because the issue of where is all tangled up with issues of jobs and hobbies and friends and romantic prospects. I'm pulled in so many different directions geographically and in terms of a career path, but also in terms of reconciling my ongoing wanderlust with my desire for community and stability. I don't know how to choose there, either. And then, should I make my decision based on where I can get the coolest job? Should I let people determine the direction I take, and go where I can be sure of being near loved ones? Should I just pick somewhere I like and go and work it out from there, hoping for the best? I think there's an argument to be made for each. I think I've tried each in the past, and not found any one approach to life to be “right,” at least not yet. So I don't know. And it may be that I will have to just see where the wind takes me, and trust that the gods do, indeed, know what they're doing.

This I do know: All of these places that give me Fernweh, both the places I've lived and loved and the places I haven't been to yet, matter. Perhaps one of them will turn out to be my El Dorado, my Ithaka, and I won't know it until I've traveled far and come back to it again. Or perhaps they are all my equivalent of the many islands Odysseus found before finding his way home, each with its own trials and temptations to be overcome before the end of the journey is finally in sight. Either way, it's the journey that makes us who we are. And I just try to remember, each time I look out over the months or years of uncertainty ahead and wish for “home” (Can you be homesick for a home you don't have yet?), that it's the adventures along the way that make it all worth it, and that give us our stories to tell when we finally end up where we're going.

"Ride, boldly ride,"/ The Shade replied--/ "If you seek for Eldorado!"

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