Itchy feet for home

By Mathias Maurer, October 2017

We’re sitting on our suitcases. The flight is delayed. A mass of people is passing through the terminals and security. The children watch the crowds.

Rolling advertising for travel to distant places on wall panels. Lena addresses me: “Why does wanting to see distant places make your feet itch?” She must have read the saying about having “itchy feet” somewhere. “Is it the same funny feeling when you have your teeth cleaned at the dentist?”

“What itches at the dentist?” her little brother chimes in. “What it means is that you have such a longing for distant countries that it gives you a funny feeling, almost painful, rather like being homesick when you’re far away from home, only the other way round,” I answer.

But that explanation won’t do: “Can you also have an itch for something that is nearby?” – “Yes, if you long for something or someone.” – “Funny, why do you always want to do what itches?” is the prompt reply.

I consider this for a moment, then elaborate: “It’s just that some people always want what they can’t have or do at that moment.”

Today everybody travels, either privately or on business. Travel is an expression of cosmopolitanism. As different as the countries may be, the places where travellers commonly stop and the accommodation are as similar as the international chain stores. We are at home everywhere in the global village. It is only when we move beyond that and away from the tourist routes and sightseeing tours that individual access and encounters occur.

We can travel anywhere. After all, it just means setting ourselves in motion: outwardly, by foot into the immediate surroundings, by bike, car or aeroplane. Or inwardly into ourselves – perhaps the most adventurous form of travel because it reflects all the journeys which take us to precipitous mountain peaks or bone dry deserts and to the knowledge: “This journey is nothing other than my dream” (André Gide).

A crucial part of the quality of travel is its speed because this determines the mode of perception: the faster and further, the more superficial and selective; the slower and closer, the deeper and more continuous – the latter is quite clearly more in tune with children but it can also help a stressed adult to regain a foothold and slow down when they intimately encounter a country and its people with their stories and culture.

The poet and journalist Matthias Claudius in his poem “Urian’s journey round the world” describes how such a journey might well end: “And found that everywhere was just like here, found just the same eccentrics, the people just the same as us, and just as much demented!” If that is true, then feeling an itch for what is close by might not be such a bad idea.

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