As I approach my 32nd birthday, I find myself struggling with this concept of “home.”
They say, “Home is where the heart is.” But what if your heart is in more than one place?
They also say, “Home is where you hang your hat.” But what if you prefer to hang your hat in the same place every day?
These two old sayings seem to be at odds with one another. The former offers comfort by implying that wherever your heart longs to be is home, while the latter aims for embracing life, saying home is wherever you currently are. I have found both of these to be no comfort, and in fact, total crap.
I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and that city will probably always feel like a home to me. My parents still live there, as do many of my friends. I’m not sure if I consider it to be “Home with a capital H,” though. When I’m Rhode Island-bound, I say I’m going to my parents, and when someone in Rhode Island says, “welcome home,” I want to remind them that I don’t live there anymore and, in fact, haven’t lived there since 1999.
“So then, smart-ass,” I ask myself, “where’s home?”
I went to college in New Jersey, then moved to Washington, DC for four years. Maybe it’s the haze of happy memories, but I felt at home there. I never felt like I was in a strange place. It was my native country, my native language, my native football. In Washington, I was surrounded by friends and colleagues from my university (there appears to be some sort of relocation program in place), so I never really felt like I had ventured out on my own. I took small steps, growing into a young professional, surrounded by people in the same life stage as me.
And then, I moved to Germany. I enrolled in a Master program at the University of Kassel, 5,000 miles from “home” and unsure of when I’d return. At first, I planned to complete all the classes in one year and return to the US to continue my life just as it was before. Instead, I fell in love, both with a fellow student from Chile and with my life in Germany. I extended my stay for a second year, and then a third, working, traveling, learning a new life.
When the time finally came to leave Germany, my partner Erick and I opted to move to his native Chile. My family had mixed feelings, their happiness for me sometimes outweighed by their missing me. They wanted to know when I would come “home,” but this time, I had no return ticket. I was moving to Santiago, and I didn’t know for how long.
Every time I’ve gone abroad — to vacation, to study, to live — I have had the feeling of an elastic cord tethering me to the US, always knowing I’d be snapped back sometime. But recently, I’ve stretched the cord more and more. At this point, I wonder if I should just cut it. I question if the US is really the place that I want to call “home.” I’ve felt at home in other places, so I am quick to point out the shortcomings of the US.
Yet, none of the places I have lived are 100% great or 100% awful. Chile is challenging, but I do enjoy my daily life. I love that I can go mountain biking on any afternoon. I love that the land and climate and culture are so different, and I love that my Spanish skills are improving every day. Yet, I am frustrated that it’s so hard to recycle and that everyone drives everywhere. And I am endlessly frustrated with the social and economic disparity and the machismo society.
During those moments, I miss elements of life in Germany: the widespread movement of sustainability, the parks, public swimming pools, trains, and beer gardens. Yet, I don’t miss the bureaucracy and the “arm’s-length culture”. Some people have the idea that Germans are cold; they aren’t, but they do keep their distance as a way to respect each others’ space. However, this isn’t always comforting to an outsider.
And that’s when I miss the US: the unabashed friendliness and a language that doesn’t leave me behind.
Every place has wonderful things and not-so-wonderful things, which is normal. The issue is that I compare and over-think.
Still, there’s something about all of these places that makes me not quite want to leave. Family and friends, of course, but there’s more to it than that. I think that the feeling of home starts to creep in when my surroundings become familiar and effortless. When I have a routine, a job, a favorite bookstore. When I run into friends on the street, and I can make lunch plans with someone other than Erick.
I feel at home when I make plans based on the assumption that I’ll be staying for a while. As much as I love adventure, sometimes I just want to paint a wall, put my books on the shelves and get a dog.
So maybe — just maybe — home isn’t one place. Perhaps it’s a feeling of contentment and relaxation, and an acceptance that no matter where I live, I will be far from places and people I love. For so long, this was irreconcilable for me. I needed to find one place that felt perfect. That search has stressed me out, but maybe I’ve been looking at it in the wrong way. Home is not just the attributes of a place, but how I feel there. I can think peripherally about climate and language and public transportation, but none of that matters if I feel like an outsider. Belonging is built from the small moments that make you happy to be where you are, and a knowledge that you want to be there a little longer.
You can’t force the feeling of home, it happens organically. Maybe I won’t find a new place that’s home. Perhaps the “homeness” will reveal itself in the place I already am, like a sneaky ninja. Now that I’ve started to let go of the search, I’ve started to feel more at peace.
Those two quips, “home is where the heart is” and “home is where you hang your hat,” no longer feel at odds. My heart is with me, and so is my hat. I’ll choose where my hat-wearing heart goes, and hopefully it will feel like home.