A Vagabonding Expat's Thoughts on the Qualities of a Home, Wherever He May Be
In Loving Memory of Bobby Fisher, The Not Goldfish
Every now and again, when people question my wife Emma about being homesick or missing this or that due to our vagabonding, she likes to point to my armpit and tell them that’s home. We call it the Engel-nook, a name inspired by a vintage of wine we once saw in Korea—Inglenook—and a moment of snuggling before bed. While it’s silly, the Engel-nook also explains a lot about “home”.
I’ve never been a person particularly prone to feeling homesick. As far back as I can recall, and though it did take me a while to expand my horizons, adventuring was always something I longed for. Emma was much the same, and lo and behold, we met in our respective first years of expat life and have remained together and on the go ever since.
What I never expected was just how “at home” I would become in just about any location, places where I can’t speak the language and have to learn how to do routine things like buy groceries. But, in Korea, it was a park that I walked through on my route to school, tofu and spicy noodles for lunch nearly every day, and wild nights at noribangs (private karaoke rooms). In Guatemala City, it was the 101 bus into Parque Central on Sundays, watching sports at a Cheers (the bar) knock-off, and Earth Lodge at least once a month.
And, on it goes: Each place with distinct memories and features that made them home. Food—olives for breakfast in the Middle East, pickles & rye bread at lunch in Russia. Landscapes—that Earth Lodge view, the hills of Istanbul rising over the Golden Horn. Smoking a hookah. Drinking teardrop glasses of tea, tankards of beer. Bowling on Tuesday nights. Found furniture. Get-togethers/friends. Apartment layouts and elevators and walks home and public transportation and…
…strange bathrooms, including one with a fiery electric and shock-delivering showerhead, one which was simply a wet room in which the shower snaked from the sink and soaked the entire bathroom, the one in Palestine with no hot water on freezing nights in a house with no heater, the one we have now where we have to wash our dishes next to the toilet, the ones at Earth Lodge with their myriad of insects to discover and views to behold while…sitting.
I’ve come to learn that home is inevitable, the acceptance of where you are whether you can’t wait to get out—as I remember Baton Rouge, the place I was born and I still envision first as “home”—or you can’t seem to leave: We are about to finally embark on our third departure from Guatemala, over a year late. I’ve learned it’s not where you were born or where you have a storage unit or where you’ve lived the longest or where you know the most people. For an expat, I think for anyone, home always follows you if you let it.
Also, if you let it be, home is variable, beyond “driving distance” or right next door, three bedrooms largely void of furniture or a tiny staff room stuffed with all your belongings and tucked behind a hotel. It might have a TV, or not, or a kitchen sink, or an oven, or a sofa. Refrigerators can be tiny or giant. The view might suck—Guatemala City, Korea, the first half of Turkey—or be incredible, like in Moscow, at Earth Lodge, the second half of Turkey. Home is not a set square footage or obliged to meet expectations. It is what we make of it.
This year, for me, home has been a struggle, mental breakdowns from cold showers when the gas ran out on Friday afternoon and was replaced Monday evening, laundry getting rained on then having to hang it all over the apartment to fester into dryness, having a draining board full of pots and coffee cups on a stool in the shower most of the time because there was no kitchen sink, mosquitoes and wood louse, the 20-minute walk from the market with massive bags of fruit and veg, walking on cobblestones, running into window ledges that take up half the sidewalk, worrying about money. At times, I’ve made home far worse than it is.
But, it’s also been a street with a beautiful volcano to the right and colonial Antigua to the left, fruit trees in the gardens around our complex, five-minute walks to our favorite restaurants and bars, our friends crashing on the sofa couch and the ridiculous heavy room divider we used for privacy, basketball afternoons and evenings with the boys, Earth Lodge at our beck and call, fall freaking football at normal time of day, incredibly delicious fruit and veg, making it work on a two-burner stove with a dorm refrigerator and shotty surge protector, happy hour Fridays, having to wash our dishes next to the toilet, having a draining board in the shower…
…in retrospect, don’t many of those bads turn into fond memories. I remember the good and I laugh at the bad, thankful that it’s over and just as much that I got to live it, wearing the experience something like badge of honor, showing off pictures like certificates of accomplishment. Home is and has always been a survival story.
Home, for me, gratefully, has transformed and continues to do so. As a travel-happy expat, it’s become something far less permanent and luxurious than I envisioned as a college student in the US while, at the same time, every bit as cozy and comfortable as I ever wanted. Home has become fluid and transferable, something in which I welcome change rather than fear it, as I may have done on those first slow steps into life abroad. Home, too, is wherever my wife decides to burrow into Engle-nook and say it’s so because home is more about life than any place or appliance.
So, I suppose it is in this vain, with pleasure and pain, that I bid Guatemala goodbye once more, safe in the knowledge that home is again somewhere out there and that I know this one will always welcome me back.