In uncertain times, revisiting familiar places provides a special kind of comfort

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I’ve never tallied the number of countries I’ve visited since I first traveled 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 mazelike 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 odor 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 harbor 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 favorite 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 someplace 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, N.Y. “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 favorite campsite or beach can revive the feelings of calm and/or excitement you experienced in the past there 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 reestablish travel as a safe and manageable emotional outlet.”

Paul Weiner, 28, a visual artist from Denver who traveled to places such as Vietnam, Turkey and Senegal before the pandemic, said the past two years have changed the way he thinks about freedom. “It used to feel like a long trip to somewhere I had never seen before would give me an escape from my life,” he said. And although he’s in Germany for an artist residency, Weiner said he’s longing to travel back to the places closer to home in Colorado that he routinely visited during the pandemic.

“Now I feel extremely free in familiar places where I know how to get everything that I need, stay in touch with loved ones and build lasting friendships,” he said. “It’s very satisfying to visit a place repeatedly and become a regular in the community instead of just a passerby.”

“Aspen [in Colorado] will definitely be my next trip,” Weiner said.

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.

​​Siobhan Maher, 36, a jewelry copywriter in West Midlands, England, said that, before the pandemic, the lure of traveling to destinations that were new to her, such as India and Iran, won out over revisiting places she had already been. But during the days of lockdown, she said that she found herself living vicariously through her travel photos and feeling nostalgic for old trips.

“The longing to return to old haunts was real,” she said. And paired with world politics, the coronavirus and the climate crisis, she said, those earlier travel days took on an “air of blissful happiness.”

This summer, Maher plans to spend a month traveling by train to some of her favorite places in Europe with her husband and their daughter, who is almost 5. “My daughter’s also just the age I can start to share my love of travel with her, too, which I think plays into it,” she said. “I want to see my special places through her eyes.”

For parents who can relate, it’s not surprising. “The pandemic heightened anxiety about our mortality and contributed to making the desire for legacy more salient and important,” Batcho said. “We hope that [our kids] will carry on a bit of ourselves as they are affected by the places that influenced us.”

And nostalgia, she said, is “enjoyed best when it strengthens our bonds with people we love.”

The return to tried-and-true travel destinations appears to be a trend, according to some travel agents. Tania Swasbrook, vice president at Travelworld International Group in Coronado, Calif., said her agency has seen a huge return to Western European destinations such as Greece and Italy. She likens it to “the Starbucks effect.”

“You know what you are going to get when you get there,” she said. “People are interested in places they know. It makes them feel a little bit more comfortable.”

Jack Ezon, founder of the Embark Beyond travel agency, said 72.5 percent 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 percent, he said.)

Bookings to Western Europe are dominating over interest in more recently reopened 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 traveling based on aspiration.”

And if you’re one of those people, then you might already know where you’ll be returning to next.

Ward is a writer based in Tampa. Her website is Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @TerryWardWriter.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.