[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]
What Home Means to Me: A Nomad Unrolls Her Carpets and Unties Her Shoes
After ten years of traveling to more than 90 countries, covering war, famine, and refugee movements as a reporter and film maker, I began to dream of a white bed. The bed would be nothing like the beds that I had become accustomed to: grubby, mismatched sheets in cheap hotels. The bed would be crisp, and clean, and smell of fabric softener. Most importantly it would be a stable and constant. The bed was a sign that it was a time to stop. That the life that I had chosen was no longer the life that I wanted. Some might call this period in life a crisis, but I knew it an acute form of homesickness. I was unsure whether I was capable of finding the cure, which had to be building a home.
Since I had left my childhood home at 18, my entire adult had been one of movement, living out of suitcases, and ready to pack them for the next country that promised adventure. As a journalist, I was always preparing for the next story and a new country.
The sparsely furnished apartments that I lived in were not considered ‘home’ but a ‘base.’ I had little experience in standing still. I kept wondering: Who was I without traveling? When in fact the question should have been: Who could I be?
My family had long since moved from my childhood home, which was just a memory. For a long time, I had felt unjustly deprived of something that was my right: a home that I could always go back to. But actually aside from feelings of nostalgia, the reality is that space was never mine, and not a true reflection of me. ‘Home’ as adult had the potential to be both. I began with basics. ‘Home’ had to be a place where I had friends and a smattering of family ties. London, with its grey light and sky-high rent was not a place I necessarily would choose, but it had ties that would keep me grounded.
I found a tiny one-bedroom apartment, in a neighborhood that combined London grittiness with sweet cafes and trendy clothing shops. After moving in, I felt overwhelmed by white walls and a sense of commitment. How did people commit to one place? How did they get over a heartbreak or disappointment without fleeing to a different country and immersing themselves in an emergency, literally an earthquake or a tsunami? But along with the fears and worries of creating a completely new life, I also was excited by the potential of the white walls. My parent’s basement was a ignored treasure trove of things that I had purchased with an eye to the future when some day I would be a real grown up. That day hadn’t quite come in the way I envisaged, but then does it for any of us? I did have some satisfaction of finally unrolling a fiery orange, red, and grey kilim rug bought in Afghanistan in the quick half hour that security permitted foreign aid workers to remain in one place in a market. I unwrapped a treasured black and white photograph by the wonderful Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, and framed a white beaded milk jug cover made by my grandmother for another time when milk did not come in cartons. I unpacked a suitcase of printed textiles from our former home in Zimbabwe. And finally my books! I was able to put on shelves books that felt like a physical part of myself. I realized that having prided myself on having lived out of two suitcases for so long, I am no minimalist. I love that objects also hold the traces of our history, show our personalities and reflect our desires. I feel that our homes are our personal museums of memory that anchor us to not only places, but also to people and our pasts. The small one bedroom apartment is an extension of myself as much as the clothes I wear.
One of the things that I searched for found was my white bed. It was curved and slightly decadent with an upholstered linen headboard. I made it up with Portuguese linen collected by my mum at various Lisbon fairs and plump down pillows. I felt a sense of relief when it was set up, and translated from a dream to reality. It represented not only commitment but also shelter. It was something new, but also stable. It was a space that I was beginning to define as mine.
One of the secrets for the cure for homesickness is that a home is also a community. For so long I had never been a part of my friend’s lives. I dropped in for a couple of days, met in restaurants for dinners where I tried to cram in a years worth of connection and catching up. Being at home in a place, made me a better friend. I have a space to host dinner parties, where my friends can discover that I am a fantastic cook. They can also come over, and catch up on drizzly, uneventful days with cups of tea. When I get invited to birthday parties, it means that I can show up, with cake! The act of standing still and committing to a place meant investing in much more: an extended community. Both deep and meaningful, and every day, my neighborhood includes the guys at the amazing fishmongers, who showed me how to clean calamari. I often say hello to the wonderful sisters who run the pharmacy down the road, and I make the occasional promotional film for the indie theatre company that plays in the back of the local pub. Travel carries with it both a sense of anonymity, but also the sense that you are always the other, the stranger. Now I am part of a community, something that I didn’t even know I had missed.
But of course things are never straight forward. I’m telling the story as if there is a tidy end, when of course there is only change. The act of transformation is not linear, but I imagine it more in waves with peaks and troughs. Of course, I still travel. I can’t imagine my life staying in one place. I’m told that I still travel more than most people will in three lifetimes. But having somewhere to come back to has given my travel a different quality. It is temporary. I am not always looking for the next country or story, but looking behind. When I miss something, when I am feeling homesick, it is not overwhelmingly sad, because I feel it with the comfort of knowing that I have a bed to go back to.