By Terry Ward
I have never tallied the number of countries I've visited since I first travelled outside the United States with my parents as a kid in the 1980s – a 10-year-old girl glued to the window of the inaugural Pan Am flight from Dulles International Airport to Frankfurt, Germany, where a new world of cola-shaped gummy bears and castles that weren't inside theme parks awaited.
But as a travel writer with the convenient excuse that travel is work – and a nagging let's-see-if-the-grass-is-greener-in-that-country inner voice – clocking far-flung countries and new destinations when I got the chance was how I operated before the pandemic.
So I was surprised, when restrictions began to ease and the option to travel was once again legally and logistically back on the table, that the places I longed to see were the ones I already knew. France, Norway and Morocco were among the destinations I flashed back to during the two months I spent self-quarantined in the Virginia countryside with my parents, husband and young kids in 2020.
Physically, I was safe and healthy in that Victorian house on the Rappahannock River, surrounded by people I love, keeping each other safe from marauding respiratory droplets and germs on groceries. But when I missed the outside world a little too much, I'd go back in my mind to the lands I loved and the people I missed.
I didn't have to close my eyes to be able to picture the maze-like streets of the medina in Morocco, where I studied Arabic in my 20s and have returned many times since to spend time with the wonderful Muslim family who hosted me in their home. Wondering whether my senses were heightened by the pandemic monotony, I could smell the bundles of mint piled atop passing donkeys and the pungent odour of animal hides drying in the sun just by thinking of Fes.
Intellectually, of course, I knew that Morocco – not to mention the entire world – was not at all how I remembered it. My friends in Fes told me how they'd shuttered their souvenir shop and that the streets outside their home, which were always packed with people, donkeys and tourists, had been left to the cats.
But I took comfort in the postcards in my mind.
I could picture the golden glow of crispbread baking in a Norwegian friend's kitchen, overlooking a harbour in a cod-fishing village in Lofoten. I still knew how it felt to banter in that very Gallic way on a French market day, exchanging flirtatious pleasantries with a vendor while unhurriedly filling a paper bag with fruit. I remembered the feeling of wearing a different kind of mask, too, and my eyes widening underwater at a favourite scuba-diving site off a remote atoll in French Polynesia. It felt reassuring to know the sharks, humphead wrasse and manta rays were all still there, doing what they'd always done.
Just keep swimming, I thought.
When the world started opening up again, France, Portugal and French Polynesia were among the places I happily hurried back to. They were as good as I remembered them, maybe even better. I expected as much, but it came as a great relief to know it to be true. And most of the future trips I'm planning now are to places I've visited before, loved a whole lot and sometimes moved on from, when I got distracted by some place shinier and newer, but eventually longed for again.
If you can relate to nostalgia inspiring your trip-planning, there's a good reason for it, said Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
"Familiar places offer opportunities to be comforted by their familiarity and by the positive feelings associated with them in the past," she said.
Returning to a favourite campsite or beach can revive the feelings of calm and/or excitement you experienced there in the past and help to return some degree of normalcy from your pre-pandemic life, she said. Even if travel offers only a temporary escape from the stress of the pandemic, Batcho said, "a change in location is a concrete way of marking the return to better times in the past, before the pandemic".
Travel serves as an emotional outlet for some people, said Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist in Philadelphia, and it's one from which most of us have been cut off during the pandemic.
"People were faced with finding new outlets that felt safe and comfortable as a way of handling some of the psychological impacts of life," she said. (See: making sourdough and camping in the backyard with the kids.)
Now that travel beyond our backyards is back, establishing it again as something we feel safe doing, both physically and emotionally, might take some time.
"Typically, when we are adjusting to new changes, we seek to have some aspect of control when there's uncertainty or a foreign nature to something," Boateng said. "I believe that people have an adjustment period that's required to re-establish travel as a safe and manageable emotional outlet."
Nostalgia is a psychological recourse that has the capacity to restore self-continuity – a sense of connection between one's past and one's present – said Wing Yee "VerBon" Cheung, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester in England.
"The reason nostalgia can heighten the level of self-continuity is that it brings back the feelings and memories of being close to other people (a sense of belongingness and acceptance)," she wrote in an email.
And although a common refrain is that it's better to move forward in life than to dwell in the past, Cheung said research shows that nostalgia-induced self-continuity can enhance "eudaimonic well-being" – a sense of achievement of meaning and purpose defined by a feeling of aliveness and energy.
Jack Ezon, founder of the Embark Beyond travel agency, said 72.5% of the trips his firm is booking outside of the United States this summer are for clients returning to places they've already been. (Pre-pandemic, that number was roughly 45%, he said.)
Bookings to Western Europe are dominating over interest in more recently re-opened destinations in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Ezon said.
"People want to go back to something that's amazing where they have great memories and can just relive them," he said. "We're seeing less of the bucket list. It's not, 'Let's go check off the Eiffel Tower,' ," he said.
"There are different drivers. People are travelling based on aspiration."
And if you're one of those people, then you might already know where you'll be returning to next.
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