My laptop broke a few days ago. I haven’t been able to write a single line the last couple of months, but somehow, the minute it broke, I felt the desperate need to write, and so now that I have it back, and with an unexpected two hours of peace and quiet due to a cancelled appointment, I’m sitting down to honour that inner procrastinator/writer. Well, the first thing I did was look through blog drafts from the last twelve months. Maybe there was something I wanted to repurpose, or at least use as a prompt? Of course there was, and it blew me away how acutely relevant it still feels reading it now, over a year later. What makes home “home”? I started writing this in June of 2020, right at the first peak of the pandemic, in the midst of despair, after a bout of horrendous police violence in this country, and facing a summer of not getting on a plane.
Here are my musings from June 2020:
“I don’t have to point out how horrendous these last couple of weeks have been (I’m not talking about how horrendous it’s been for many people for many years, but rather, the escalation of police violence). My brain just won’t let go of the images that are flooding our screens on a daily basis. It’s so indescribably sad and horrible, and nothing makes sense any more. One day you think this is it, it can’t get any worse, the Coronavirus infection rates are going up, up, up (Austin had the highest number of infections just two days ago); we’ve all lost our minds dealing with lockdown, and then re-opening, and people being stupid, and then: Things get even worse. So much is rising to the surface now, which I guess is a good thing, but for someone who’s struggling with the complexities of life in general, it can be truly overwhelming. It’s almost like our vulnerability as humans has been completely exposed through COVID-19, and now there’s no stopping all of our repressed, incomplete and ignored emotions from following suit. We can’t keep our eyes closed any longer. I know this doesn’t just apply to what’s going on in this country (racism and police violence exist everywhere), but the way all this is being handled in this country makes me feel sick to my stomach. And it’s making me question why I live here. I really don’t want to be there right now. Yes, I have chosen to live here, at least for the time being. I know I can’t run away and hide, and I feel that is my duty and my hope that I can contribute to this country’s wellbeing while I live here.
But is it home? Has it ever felt like home to me? Maybe it’s an age thing, but I have a hunch that it’s to do with this current situation, that we’ve all been thinking about what’s important in life, and how we should live, in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. We are all reassessing our lives, our privileges, and what it is we want.
I’ve written about the topic of “home” several times over the years, I know, but a couple of weeks ago, several things happened within the space of a couple of days that made me think I should try again (this is the result of at least five attempts at writing about this, but eveyr time I had finished a draft, something else happened and steered me in a different direction). Having spent so much time at home/in my house over the last few weeks and months, I guess it’s hardly surprising that there are a lot of other people who have done the same and are thinking about things home-related right now.
It all started with a podcast interview with Shaun, from The Germany Experience, a South African living in my old neck of the woods, Southern Germany. Naturally, we talked about where home is for us, and how long it takes to feel at home in a place you weren’t born in. So that stirred a little nostalgia in me about my home country, but also made me think about all the homes I’ve made over the last 20+ years.
This was followed by an expat group coaching session the following day (we meet once a month on Zoom), where our topic was….. “Home”! Our host had brought in an expert on making a home and personal space work for us, including feng shui elements, and we discussed our current homes – what we like and dislike, and how to change things, even in a temporary space. We had to describe our least favourite part of our current living spaces, and then look at how the description compared to our own selves. This was extremely accurate and thought-provoking, and spooked me out, but also made a few things crystal clear. I know I have to make some real changes in my life, although I’m not sure now is the best time to tackle that. But then again, maybe this is exactly the right time to tackle it. We’re all feeling vulnerable, our anxieties, insecurities and worries laid bare. The pandemic has cruelly peeled back quite a few protective layers, and maybe our true selves are coming closer to the surface.
When I took the dog out for a walk later that day, I opened my podcast app, and it automatically jumped to the next episode on an expat podcast I was listening to the previous day, The Expat Cast. The topic: “Creating Home”. At that point, I knew I was onto something.
So, yes, let’s dive right in and ask: where is home for me? What makes a home “home”? Having moved so many times in my life, to various new houses and countries, and with my husband and kids, I feel that the term “home” has evolved somewhat; it is not longer a clearly defined place. I can make a home anywhere, at least on the surface. I’m pretty good at packing and unpacking, and creating a space that feels homely and cosy and “us” in a relatively short period of time. Practice makes perfect.
But yes, it takes practice; you have to create a home, it doesn’t just happen. Familiarity helps, which is why we usually drag most of our stuff with us, rather than selling/donating and buying new things for our new place. Baking moulds, faded favourite bed sheets, dog eared cookery books and so on. I can’t give my kids that forever home, but I can damn well keep items that make them feel at home, and that they’ll remember having in each of our homes over the years. Yes, this makes moving more difficult at times, but it helps create that sense of familiarity in new surroundings. I still remember the joy we all felt when our container arrived in the US after two months, and we were able to fill our new house with our own things. Often, seeing your favourite painting on the wall can provide more comfort than a brandnew sofa.
But what happens when, no matter how many times you change the colour of the walls or rearrange the furniture, the space you’re in just doesn’t work. Okay, sometimes it’s just not a great house or apartment, you know it’s only a temporary solution, and you’ll choose something else next time, or maybe the location is not ideal in the town you’re in. But other times, you know there’s more to it, and you need to be really honest with yourself.”
So that is where I stopped writing, and where I’m picking up writing again. I’ve had a year to reflect on this, and I’m happy to say that this past year has helped me gain a much clearer perspective. I survived a summer of not going “home” to Europe, but instead focusing on what was going on closer around me. We went on a spectacular road trip, probably the last time for a while that the four of us spent three weeks together as a family, saw some awe-inspiring scenery and explored places we’d never been to before. And while I really noticed how much energy I was missing from seeing friends and family, it showed me that I was strong enough to not need it, and in fact how much I had used those visits as a crutch before. And that’s the – I’m sorry to have to insert a German word here, but English just doesn’t cut it – Knackpunkt. The crux of the matter, the issue at heart. In order to fully embrace my expat life, and the transience of my physical homes, I need to stop using other places as crutches. This is something that happens to us expats, an issue we have that people who don’t leave their country or just don’t move as much, probably don’t even think about. As transient people, we automatically link places to degrees of happiness. And as we all know, happiness is a fragile thing. It’s so easy to dismiss a past place because we have bad memories from our time there. Of course, some events are so intrinsically linked to a physical place that that makes total sense, just as the opposite experience can let us perceive a place or even a whole country through rose-tinted spectacles.
I’d like to look at the places I’ve lived in as mere decorative pillars of my life, some maybe a little bit more sturdy than others, but what I mustn’t do is rely on them to bear the full weight of my experience. I have to do the bloody lifting myself. Part of that is embracing where I am, in the moment, and enjoying the ride, however hard it gets at times. I’ve been preaching this enough. Love where you live. But I don’t mean that as love at all cost, no matter what. Sometimes, love is not enough, and you need to move on, physically, in order to move on mentally. Some places just don’t work for us; there might be a multitude of reasons for it. Give it your best shot, but accept, surrender, when it’s time. And love the next place you’re in.
So on we move. Let’s see where we’ll put up our next Christmas tree!