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There’s No Place Like Home

On my very first trip to British Columbia, I stopped off in Vancouver to change planes for my flight to Victoria. I looked out the window in the terminal building, saw the mountains in the distance, and sighed contentedly to myself, “It’s so good to be home.”

When I first visited Israel and the plane touched down in Tel Aviv, I burst into tears, overwhelmed with a sense of relief at arriving home.

But here’s the thing: I’ve never lived in either place. I still don’t have an explanation for the strong visceral reaction I had to both places. Israel is completely exotic to me in so many ways, from landscape to language, climate to culture. As for Vancouver, I don’t even like it as much as I like Victoria — or Salt Spring Island, which was my destination on that first trip many years ago – and still, the landscape felt like home to me, right away.

Both these places feel like home in ways that Ottawa never has. Ottawa, where I’ve lived for two-thirds of my life, has in many ways felt home-like, but the truth is I never meant to stay there to live. I only moved there to go to school. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I guess I figured once I’d got my degree I’d just move on to wherever I really wanted to live next. Only I didn’t. Life happened, the degree took a lot longer than you’d think, and by the time I was done I was well and truly ensconced. Ottawa became home by default, not by choice.

In fact, this city has always felt somewhat claustrophobic to me. More than once, upon arriving somewhere else, I’ve had the sensation that I can suddenly breathe freely, as if I’d been holding my breath the whole time I was in Ottawa. You might think this has something to do with having grown up in Toronto, and Ottawa being so small in comparison. There may well be some truth in that — I think they still roll up the sidewalks on Bank St. after 9pm — but I don’t actually feel at home in Toronto either anymore. It’s changed so much that I scarcely recognize it, though, oddly, I can still find my way around downtown, where the streets are a tidy grid (except for that weirdness around Davenport and Dupont) that hasn’t changed much in over 100 years, and the water is to the SOUTH of the city, where it belongs. Still, none of that makes it feel any more like “home” anymore.

So what is “home,” really, if it’s not the place where you grew up or the place you’ve lived most of your life?

Home Is Where I Hang My Hat…

A few years ago, we packed up the house we’d rented in Ottawa for nearly 15 years and hit the road. That sounds way more romantic and adventure-packed and cool than it actually ever was. We did travel to some really great places, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. But there was a lot of hard work and massive, exhausting displacement involved too. Full disclosure, it was also rather less deliberate than it sounds. It was more like a cascade reaction, one decision leading ever-so-logically to the next, until one day all our stuff was in storage and we were on our way to B.C. for a month.

When we got back to Ottawa, we began three summers of couch-surfing, housesitting, petsitting, and travel, punctuated by winters in Florida. We traveled to France (twice) because we have a friend who let us use her apartment while she escaped Paris for the month of August, like so many other (wise) Parisians. During our second trip, we split off to Israel (me) and Bulgaria (Jack), and then stopped in Iceland for yet another unforgettable experience. I have some amazing memories of it all, and yes, we did make ourselves at home in that lovely Paris apartment.

While it was really the Florida condo that suddenly became “home” (at least partly because that’s where all our stuff was), we had to figure out how to make ourselves at home wherever we were. It didn’t take long to figure out that what made the biggest difference for me was having a kitchen kit with some of my favorite stuff. There’s something about not having to eat out all the time that makes a place feel like “home.”

I’d found that no matter how well equipped the kitchen, other people’s stuff just wasn’t my stuff, the stuff I have a particular preference for. Never mind that the equipment in the kitchen was used to turn out fabulous meals all the time, still there would always be some little thing I’d find myself reaching for that wouldn’t be there. And of course, it was a different thing in every house. So in the end, we found ourselves travelling from house to house with a blue storage bin containing my favorite chopping board, wooden spoon, parchment paper, can opener, knife sharpener, a couple of favorite knives, etc. And of course, our favorite coffee, grinder, filters and funnel, because I’m super picky about my coffee. When we arrived somewhere, we’d get the kitchen set up for the morning so we’d have a decent breakfast and a very decent mug of coffee, and then I’d feel pretty much all set.

Much to my surprise, this turned out to be more important to me than the things I’d thought were responsible for my sense of feeling “at home” when I lived in my house, things like my books, photographs, art on the walls, and collections of shells, stones, sand, goddesses — all the objects that used to be so important (and will be again), but were now packed away in the storage locker. We ended up travelling with a small brass Buddha from Nepal, a tiny goddess and a few semi precious stones, which we’d set up as a little altar somewhere in the house. Then it would be just a matter of finding my toothbrush and pj’s and a spot to set up my computer, and I’d be “home.”

I became more flexible than I’d thought possible (except for transition days, which were pure unmitigated brutal hell and always will be). And yet, over time, I began to experience a peculiar kind of dislocation.

… Or Not

Sometimes in the morning before I opened my eyes, I’d find myself unsure of where I was, which bed I was sleeping in. It became a bit of a game to lie in bed visualizing all the various places I could think of, feeling what it felt like to wake up in each one, and see if my body could figure it out before my mind did.

Another manifestation of this was back in the kitchen. I’d find myself reaching for a spoon from the utensil drawer only to remember that this house didn’t have the utensils in a drawer, they were on the counter in a pot, right in front of me. I’d go looking for a salad spinner in the cupboard over the fridge only to remember that this house didn’t have a cupboard over the fridge nor indeed a salad spinner. I’d open the cupboard to throw something in the garbage only to find that the garbage can wasn’t in the cupboard but in the corner, behind me. Or I’d be standing in the middle of the room staring at the drawers trying to remember what was in them before I opened all of them to look for the potato peeler.

Remember the game “Concentration”? The object of the game is to clear the board by turning over matching pairs of cards (or tiles). When you get a matching pair, you take them off the board. If you get two cards that don’t match, you have to turn them both facedown again, and then you have to remember where each of them was.

Right. That was me in the kitchen. In all the kitchens.

Perhaps the most peculiar dislocation was that the map in my head started getting messed up. By the third summer, when we stayed in different parts of town in rapid succession, I began to find myself effectively lost, in a city I’ve known like the back of my hand for nearly forty years. The map in my head was completely turned around. Before all this started, I always knew exactly where I was in relation to home and I’d have half a dozen routes in my head to get there. I’d just automatically orient myself and the car always seemed to know where to go. Now all of a sudden I was constantly recalibrating. I’d be sitting in the car after a doctor’s appointment with no homing instinct and only a vague recollection of where “home” was today. I’d have to take a moment to reorient myself in space before I could decide whether to turn left or right at Somerset St.

This was profoundly disconcerting, to say the least.

Now that we’ve been living in the same place for two summers, my homing instinct has pretty much repaired itself, though when I visit friends in my old neighbourhood I do still have a moment of confusion, a moment of wanting to turn left instead of right when I get to a certain corner, still homing in on my old house even though it hasn’t been mine for over 5 years.

There’s something that still tugs, that still says home. It’s not the city, and it’s not even the specific house, which didn’t really feel like home anymore by the time we left it.

So what else is there? What is it that tugs? Is it just the muscle memory, the autopilot in the navigation system that doesn’t understand we don’t live there anymore? Is it true that you can never go home again?

Next week: Home Is Where The Heart Is


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