Voluntary Nomads, Unwilling Exiles


That's the sentiment echoing through condominiums and mobile-home parks in Florida these days as snowbirds pack up to go home. One by one, owners and renters are loading cars with suitcases, briefcases, boxes, and clothes, shoehorning a winter's worth of possessions into trunks and back seats.

After closing hurricane shutters, turning off the water, locking doors, and saying goodbye to neighbors, they fasten seatbelts and head out of the parking lot to begin the two- or three-day trip that will take them back home, where there will be screens to put up, lawns to fertilize, refrigerators to restock, and old friends to call.

So great is this exodus of seasonal migrants in late April and early May that traffic on interstates heading north to the Midwest and the East can resemble rush hour in a big city.

Already some departing visitors are making plans to return next year. A notice on a condominium bulletin board reads: ``Wanted to rent Dec. 15, 1994 - Apr. 15, 1995: 2BR, 2BA furnished apt. Call....''

Not all travelers leaving the state are snowbirds who arrived in December or January to escape winter. Some cars contain Florida residents who are heading to the mountains of North Carolina or the coast of Maine to seek refuge from steamy summer days.

Whatever the individual reasons for departure, this periodic migration represents a late-20th-century phenomenon. To have two homes was once a sign of great affluence. Now even people with modest incomes can often afford to buy, or at least to rent, a seasonal place in the sun, however humble it might be. Yet for all the advantages these privileged homeowners enjoy as they shuttle between two states and two climates - armed with two area codes, two ZIP codes, and a ready supply of change-of-address cards - they may occasionally find themselves wondering: Where is home - here or there?

It is a question many people in a mobile society - even those with only one address - must confront. Retirees may have the luxury of choosing to follow the sun, but people still in the labor force must often uproot to follow jobs, creating a transient culture that prompts the practical-minded to write address-book entries in pencil.

These nomads by choice stand in stark contrast to those who are nomads by necessity - exiles forced by war, political oppression, or hunger to flee their homes and even their homelands. From Rwanda to Bosnia to Somalia and beyond, never have more people around the world been displaced from everything familiar and safe and loved. Often, in fact, those to whom home is most central and most ancestral are the ones sent packing on the road with only a bag over their shoulders.

One Ukrainian woman, a long-time New York resident who was forced to flee her native land during World War II, has explained the power of the hearth this way: ``In Ukraine, home is something very sacred,'' she told a New York Times reporter. ``It's a kind of holy place. Someone who did not have a home - that was the most tragic thing that could happen.''

The voluntary nomads in the Sunbelt go from one home to another, refreshed by the change. The unwilling exiles abroad, many with no permanent roof over their heads, could not understand this restlessness of the affluent and the not-so-affluent. But beneath their differences, both, like all human beings since cave men and women, need a focal point, a hearth, a flame to leave and return to.

Where is home? The question goes well beyond physical terms, particularly in an age when the cross-stitched sentiment, ``Home Sweet Home,'' seems harder to achieve, and not just for those with no place to call their own. For the nomads by choice, along with everyone else who enjoys the secure haven of a permanent address, the ideal is clear: that no one, anywhere, should be denied this simple but essential domestic sanctuary.

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