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Home Away From Home

Opinion | February 22, 2016

“Well, I’m a bit of a nomad.”

That was my 22-year-old cousin’s response the last time I heard someone ask where she was from. If they had asked me, I would have told them she was from Sydney, Australia, but as she knew, that isn’t the whole story. Like much of my family, she was born in South Africa. She moved to Sydney at a young age, but almost as soon as she finished high school she set off traveling in several month long increments all around Europe, and later the United States.

Within her story lies a thread very common among my family. Many people view the process of moving as disruptive. But for us, mobility, travel, and changes in residency have (somewhat ironically) always been our constant. My great and great-great grandparents immigrated to South Africa from Eastern Europe, fleeing anti-Semitic persecution. Years later, my dad spent his childhood moving around for family business, living for extended periods in Johannesburg, London, Tel Aviv, and Hong Kong, then returned to South Africa again for university. Eventually, the unrest of apartheid in the 1980s sent him (and my mom) to New York City. Meanwhile, the rest of my extended family experienced similarly frequent lifestyle changes—with the tumultuous climate of South Africa dispersing them to locations around the world ranging from Sydney to Atlanta, Georgia.

A lot of that came before me. I was born in the US, and the closest I ever got to really being a South African was mimicking my parents vernacular as a child to ask for “biscuits” instead of cookies. I’ve always recognized and valued the South African part of my heritage, but really, I am an American. What I have been influenced by, however, and what has become one of the most important components of my identity, is a connection with mobility and travel.

I’ve been told that I was less than six weeks old when I boarded my first plane—a flight to Cape Town—to be shown off to all my faraway relatives. As I grew up, trips like this became so common that I can’t even remember a time when I was frightened of flying, or had to be told more than once to buckle my seatbelt for takeoff. My parents insisted on showing me every corner of the world, sometimes to see family, but sometimes just to see.

My home life too was relatively mobile, though in another sense. For years I lived in California, but after selling our first home, my family had trouble re-settling. We never lived in the same house for more than a year or two. I didn’t really mind moving, but the houses I lived in never really felt like “homes.” In fact, it reached a point when my parents and I referred to the places we’d lived in just by the names of our landlords. It was always “Valerie’s house” or “Robert’s house,” and only rarely “our house.” My family was a tight-knit group, but never in a way that was contingent on our physical location. In fact, I developed such an indifference to relocating that at age eight I felt hardly any apprehension when my parents announced we were heading across the country to Connecticut.

In my new suburban town, I was shocked by the sizes of the houses on every street, the fact that they all had enormous yards and basements, but most of all, by the fact that almost everyone I met had lived in the same house their whole lives. There was something about the houses and the attitudes towards them that was completely foreign to me. It was everything out of a suburban cliché—right down to the white picket fences—that seemed to embody the American ideal of picturesque family living that I had never quite known. I was almost suspicious of it, but couldn’t help be drawn into the idea that three stories and immaculately trimmed grass somehow would ensure my happiness. Despite this and my parents’ repeated explanations that they had bought this house and we were staying put, I couldn’t imagine it lasting very long.

But it did. Slowly, that house became home. I was allowed to paint my walls a glaring Pepto-Bismol pink during my girly-girl phase, and seafoam green when I hit middle school and was way too cool to like pink anymore. We redesigned the kitchen, hosted holiday parties, tied rope swings to the trees in our backyard, and took a different picture of the cherry tree outside in every season. My friends and I signed our names on a tiny corner of my basement wall in permanent marker. Although my family still traveled frequently, the house in Connecticut felt like a stable home base rather than just another place to be for the moment.

It stayed that way for eight years, until my parents got divorced. They immediately decided that neither of them should keep the house, and at first I too wanted to be out of it as quickly as possible—there were too many memories and missing pieces of furniture when my dad moved out. But when moving day came, I couldn’t understand why I was so devastated. It was only after I left that I realized how much I had begun to rely on this physical location as my home. Sure enough, that long-instilled fantasy of family stability in a picket-fence house had become my reality. For a long time, I was bitter. There was nothing wrong with my parents’ new houses, but they felt unfamiliar, and I felt out of place. Piling my dog, my younger brother, and a haphazard assembly of my worldly belongings into my Jeep to switch houses on alternating weekends made me feel like some disheveled, directionless vagrant in a way that I could never quite get used to. I was permanently in limbo, with no real place to just be.

This uneasiness didn’t change until I first came home from college. Suddenly, both my houses smelled like my houses, and sitting down to dinner with family felt like coming home. At first, I couldn’t quite explain the change to myself, except in that I had been away long enough to miss it. But then I thought about what it had been like moving around when I was younger, and about my “nomadic” family who had always been—and still were—constantly flitting around the world. What was home to them? It wasn’t a static environment, and it was anything but a perfectly composed Martha Stewart-style lifestyle in the suburbs. My dad’s sister had grown up eating white rice with ketchup for breakfast every day when she lived in Hong Kong, and learned to use chopsticks before a fork. My grandma is over 70 years old and still divides her time between London, Israel, Cape Town, and Sydney, simply for the pleasure of traveling and seeing family members. So why had I been so bothered by not having a singular notion of “place?”

I realized that my attachment to my most permanent childhood house was not to the types of trees in my yard or the shape of my bedroom. It was the stability, family memories—a sense of being together, something which, I finally realized, had existed long before the Connecticut house had. But when that changed, it was difficult to imagine rediscovering the same sense of comfort without a physical dwelling to attach it to.

I had done it before, though, and I should have known that a home will never be just walls and a roof. And I don’t think I want it to be. I’ve seen a lot of the world, but there’s plenty left, and I don’t intend to stop where I am. My international upbringing and my parents’ insistence on traveling has pushed me to see the world and learn all I can about unfamiliar places and cultures. This means—by definition—being mobile, being in transit, being frequently displaced. I can’t predict what changes will come in my future, but I do know that my surroundings won’t always stay the same, and I wouldn’t want them to. I know, now, that this doesn’t mean I will never have a home. We refer to physical locations as homes because it makes sense to be attached to somewhere tangible, but what they really are is a symbol—one that has become engrained in our culture in an unrealistically uniform way. We associate home with family, comfort, reliability, but somehow that has become synonymous with tasteful living room décor. And while it’s not unusual for our material possessions and sentimental attachments to be intertwined, it’s important to know where one begins and the other ends. It’s wonderful for a home to feel like a place of refuge and comfort, but only if we recognize why. In order to do so, we need to remember that it’s not positions, but people and feelings that created those associations in the first place. That means that home is a place where family and love exist, no matter where it may be.