Homesickness –

the path to self-discovery

By AURORA HOTTI | March 13, 2020

The feeling of missing home has always caught people’s attention, from 17th century doctors to Roald Dahl. Before the 18th century, this feeling was treated like a disease – contagious but curable. In 1688, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia to describe what widely affected Swiss mercenaries at the time; anxiety, as well as lack of sleep and appetite, which would lead to heart palpitations and, in some cases, even death. The most effective cure: sending the soldiers back home.

By the 18th century, it was no longer considered a disease but a mental disorder instead- one that started to take a great toll on the people displaced by the era of modernity. Now, we have given the word nostalgia a different connotation and introduced the concept of homesickness as a replacement for its original meaning. 

Though everyone has experienced this at some point, homesickness is more than just our need to taste our mom’s food or fall asleep in our own beds, it’s the insecurity that comes with feeling incapable of coping with an unfamiliar setting alone. 

Homesickness kicks in once you find yourself in a tough situation. It could mean getting sick, but it could also just be someone struggling with household chores like the laundry and cooking, or an international student not understanding Dutch bureaucracy. Once you find yourself having to deal with the first obstacle, a domino effect kicks in and you start questioning your capabilities of handling life as a whole. 

The glass goes from being half full to half empty because you burnt your ramen and the fire alarm is now giving you a headache, or you mixed your laundry and no longer own any white clothes. Nothing has changed per se – except your mindset. New people become strangers, the thrilling becomes daunting. 

For some, it’s a feeling of annoyance that goes away over time once they learn from their mistakes. For others, it’s a downward spiral that ends up jeopardizing their studies. The more you isolate yourself, the more you lose touch with the very reason you decided to “leave the nest.”

A friend of mine was living, what some would call, “the student’s dream”; she had a social life and was excelling in school. However, she didn’t know how to cook and refused to try, so she resorted to eating out or ordering UberEATS for all meals of the day. When her money ran out, she found herself having to face reality, and with this, came a certain pessimism. Suddenly, she was expressing how much she missed everything about home, when just a few weeks ago she was giving me a long list of reasons why Amsterdam was better. As an intervention, we started to do our grocery shopping and cooking together, after which she slowly got back on her feet. Who would have guessed that she can now make a decent plate of chicken and vegetables?

Homesickness is such a difficult obstacle to overcome because, as the old saying goes, home is where the heart is. As we fall in love with different cities and get close to different people, we find ourselves scattering pieces of our hearts around along the way. It is fair to say that a big chunk is left in the place where we were raised, and the less scattered your heart is the stronger the homesickness might be. 

So, what could be the cure? There isn’t one. The only way to overcome homesickness is to proactively attempt to overcome one’s insecurities, no matter how many tries it takes, and to actually make an effort to reach out to people. We were brave enough to leave home so why not be brave enough to give ourselves a chance to build a new one?

Whether it’s volunteering for an animal shelter, picking up an old hobby or buying fairy lights and finally sticking them around your bed without your mom saying you’ll get electrocuted; you’re in a new country and have the ability to reinvent yourself and do every little thing that makes you feel even a little bit better. This is the reason you left home in the first place. Homesickness represents the start to a new path of self-discovery; we learn to appreciate everything we once didn’t, and we gain a greater understanding of who we were and who we would like to be.

Humans’ primal instinct to settle, which involves staying close to what appears familiar to us, can still be noticed today. However, in our times of moving wherever the wind blows us, we have returned to a nomadic lifestyle. With it, comes homesickness, unavoidably so.

Aurora Hotti is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.