Meaning “away from home”, “abroad” appears in English in 1450. Being at large outside your own house was the sense. Thus, from the beginning, the word has carried the sense of freedoms to be enjoyed while away from the suffocating constraints of home.
Being stuck at home can be claustrophobic. In the First World War, the Defence of the Realm Acts made international private travel almost impossible. And the result was to stimulate a ravenous appetite for what Auden later called a “sunburnt otherwhere”. E.M. Forster found himself thinking “There are times when one longs to sprawl over continents, as before.”
As soon as they were able, writers began to sprawl. Gerald Brenan went to Andalucia, Robert Graves to Mallorca, Norman Douglas to Capri, Laurence Durrell to Corfu, Julian Bell to Wuhan and W.H. Auden to New York. People wondered if there were any writers actually left in this country after 1918.
Of course, in the last century, the new mechanics of travel facilitated means of escape. One of the defining books of the modern era was 1957’s On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s hymn to transience and mobility experienced with the help of an automobile (in this case, a Hudson). “Climb that goddam mountain!” was Kerouac’s advice. You can’t mountaineer while working from home.
The longing for elsewhere, the need to return somewhere, is surely so profound that it’s tempting to describe it as instinctive. In this sense, homesickness is actually related to the Wanderlust. The Babylonian Captivity, when the people of Judah were exiled, is the locus classicus of homesickness: an intense yearning to be elsewhere.
We have recently had our own dreams of Zion. In 2020, by the River Thames, we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Mediterranean weather and going out to restaurants. Has the appetite for “abroad” ever been keener than it is today? Have we ever wanted to escape with more energy and commitment?
But “abroad” is a concept of real meaning only to islanders. Depending on which departement he lives in, a Frenchie can walk into Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy or Spain. But the islander’s borders exist in the mind as much as on the map: to an islander, everything is abroad.
Arriving in Calais and rolling off the car ferry, there was always a sense of infinite possibilities not available at home. Vistas were limitless, destinations unbounded. In a few hours, you could be anywhere. In my case, as a young adult travelling alone, when French air was perfumed by disques bleues and the petrol smelt different, my wheezing and rattling Citroen took me often to Burgundy.
I can recall now the profound sense of freedom found in a little auberge in, say, Savigny-les-Beaune. A corner table, a book, a mid-range bottle and a dream of being somewhere else tomorrow. And if that freedom was tinged with a little sadness about people left behind, then that simply made it more intense.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt knew a great deal about displacement: “Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no-one knows you and you hold life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” Quite so. Isn’t this exactly what “abroad” offers?
But there are economic arguments too. Never mind the psychological freedom, abroad has often been cheaper than home. When Alec Waugh made his first round-the-world tour in 1926 he discovered that living on an ocean liner for an entire year was cheaper than living in his London flat. There really is nothing new under the sun: in 2020, the more adventurous WFH generation, frustrated by the privations of home, found they could live in Fuertaventura not Earl’s Court. The home office can be a beach. Where you can sprawl.
But in any case, the concept of “home”, in design terms, is changing. The autonomous car we are promised will replace my creaking Citroen. Here is a place you can eat and sleep. And work. Restless and intelligent, the autonomous car will always be on the move. And when it acquires a WC and a shower, your need for a static home with bedrooms and kitchen and bathroom will be diminished. The term “digital nomads” will acquire new meanings. And suddenly a three-bedroom semi seems a very quaint version of “home”.
Thinking of a dire upbringing in the Gothic South, the novelist Carson McCullers wrote: “I go home often to refresh my sense of outrage”. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a sense of outrage that’s refreshed. If you were more fortunate in your upbringing than McCullers, going home often might refresh your sense of history and charm. That’s the perspective being away offers.
But be it ever so humble, there’s no place like abroad.