Five of the last seven weeks I've been in and around the US. Literally, ALL around it. I've been in Honolulu, Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, Washington DC, New York, and Boston.
Throughout my visit, people have been asking me, "How does it feel to be home? It's been so long!"
Yet, "home" is such a heavy word. It can mean a physical place, an ineffable feeling or a calming memory. Sometimes you don't know you're home until it creeps up. You suddenly realize your comfort, the way the word has entered your heart, it alters your surroundings that are seen now through the rose colored glasses that are worn.
Other times you're told you're home with a "Welcome home!", but the space you occupy feels foreign, shifted, damaged. Home can come and go and can't be forced. As much as we talk of "making a house a home" or "feeling at home," and prescribe to the actions we think will catalyze that, it’s truly a unique set of personal circumstances that create "home."
Most often, "home" starts with a house but, it's not requisite to maintain a house in order to maintain a home. I don't have a house anywhere. Even in my parents' house, "my" room has been turned into a green golf-themed office. My dresser is shoved into the closet and now floor to ceiling packed of stuff that mattered once but not anymore.
Yet, even without a single house or even a room, I have many homes and it hasn't "been so long." I've been home a lot this past year. Let me introduce you to my homes:
This summer will mark the 10 year anniversary that I left my childhood home in Indiana. Since then it's been a decreasingly powerful magnet around holidays or whenever I'm due for a parental embrace.
Though it's the most distant of my homes, it was also the first and is the most enduring. The things that mean home to me in Indiana are the view of the woods, my mother playing the piano and my father laughing at a sitcom. Also, the now too-rarely-opened closet full of well-worn board games and the ease within the tight-knit neighborhood where everyone, always, waves.
Furthermore, it's the nervous excitement of going out and thinking you'll see someone you recognize but don't quite remember. It’s the happiness when you do and you connect in new ways. It’s also the ability to say to others, "remember when we did that 15 (or even 20) years ago!" and having people who really know who I am without knowing all that I've done.
For me, these things can only happen in that small city in Indiana- and that's why it is home.
My relationship to New York is best defined as the cliché love-hate type. I endearingly call New York the "Center of the Universe" Why? 1. Because it's true 2. As an obscure Rent reference.
Growing up in Indiana, I always wanted to live in New York. My father grew-up in its suburbs and we would visit occasionally to see his family or to go to Giant's games where we still held season tickets. So when picking colleges, I saw my opportunity, and decided on NYU, later spending the next few years there.
Someone recently told me that they like to live in New York because "everyone who is the best at what they do, comes to New York to do it." And I think that's mostly true as it's an incredible place full of endlessly fascinating people and the most surprising of opportunities. That makes New York addicting. However, you can too easily get lost in speed of this place.
If you ask someone who has lived in the city, "Did you have a good time living there?" They'll almost always say, "It was amazing, I did more than I would have ever expected!" But if you ask them, "were you a good person while there?" The answer will be much less clear. New York doesn't allow for introspection, there's no time to think and ask yourself "Is this the path I want to be on?" Things just happen, and they happen fast.
For a long time I said, aggressively, that I wouldn't want to move back to New York. But, this past year, after spending more time there, I realize how exciting the action and opportunity can be. It's also comforting to feel connected to that, to know my way around and to have my favorite spots. New York is the home that can swallow me up. But I think I'm ready for another ride.
Five and a half years ago when I first arrived in the small farming town of Mangula, Tanzania I never thought that it would become one of the most important places in my life. I was there to do the first project of an NGO that I had founded, but the meaning of my time there was so much more. I truly fell in love with the place. Everything, including the people, the culture, the language, the food and the dancing felt so right. Now I return every year for as much time as I can. It has become "my place".
It's hard to explain my love for Mangula. Even those that I've shown, the friends I've brought with me to visit, can only get a glimpse at the value it has in my life. They understand the facts: it's a place I return to annually, life there is incredibly different to anywhere else I spend so much time, I have a close group of friends who I spend every day with, I've bought a farm as a way to help and connect more, it's where I converted to Islam, and I enjoy learning and speaking Swahili, eating the food and dancing their dances. It's my place to get away from life and the world. But between these lines is a meaning, an indescribable sense of why I go and why it's so important. I guess the best way to describe it is simply, "it feels like home."
More than anywhere else in the world, Abu Dhabi feels like home. Since January 2012, I've been based mostly out of the UAE and to me, it's the most incredible place in the world.
Abu Dhabi is special because it's both dynamic and traditional. It is always changing. For instance, constantly people from all nationalities are coming and going, new buildings are being built and new parts of town are booming. Also, there has been a palpable development in societal views. Yet there is an essence that is maintained in Abu Dhabi much more than in neighboring Dubai or Doha. Abu Dhabi feels Arab. It feels Gulfi. The local population integrates more with the foreigners and the vision of our late Shiekh Zayed and his sons, Khalifa and Mohamed, powerfully pushes the country forward while always remembering the past.
I've been fortunate in Abu Dhabi to be surrounded by others who love the city and know it well. Since it's in a constant state of change, there is always something new to understand and discuss. There are also always new lifestyles to examine with such a diverse population in somewhat strict social segments. Yet the truth of Abu Dhabi lies somewhere in the intersection of all of these stories and in many ways, by trying to understand Abu Dhabi, you are trying to understand the world.
When I first moved to the city as a student, I said it was because I studied Identity and Economic Development and that there's no better place to examine race, class, gender, and religion. I still find this true, I'm endlessly fascinated by Abu Dhabi and know that I'll never really know it and it will never really be mine.
Yet Abu Dhabi is what feels familiar and comfortable. It's where I know all the grocery stores, restaurants, and nightclubs. It’s where I run into people everywhere I go and where I feel a sense of self tied to a location. In a lot of ways, that is exactly what home is. A place that makes you feel like you, a place that defines you and who you've become.
Special mentions: Nairobi and Berlin: where the heart is
A couple of other places in the world combine a lot of the aspects of "home" but in a more subtle way.
First, outside of the US and UAE, the country in which I've spent the most amount of time is Kenya. After a handful of visits over the years, I moved to Nairobi for five months and quickly made friends and became familiar with the city. I was working there on a project intimately devoted to the community and so that also built a sense of connection with the place. Of course there was also the East African, Swahili speaking aspect that reminded me of Tanzania. Yet Kenya also reminds me of a time where I felt stressed and separate from myself, and that internal disconnect resulted in a lack of planting any sort of real roots into the city. Now when I return to the city, I feel a rush of memories and familiarity, but the sense of "home" teters only on the edge.
Next, the first place I’ve ever lived outside of the US was Berlin, where I spent the summer between boarding school and university. I worked and lived with my uncle and explored the city on my own and with my cousin. Berlin has a pulse like New York and is dynamic like Abu Dhabi and I feel like it’s a part of me as a German. When I'm there I feel a calm familiarity and a heightened sense of fascination. Yet, I don't think I've spent enough time in Berlin. Though I go every 18-months or so, it's never for a long enough time and so in most ways, it doesn't feel entirely like it is "mine."
Ultimately, the cliche, "home is where the heart is" might be the truest way to define "home". One main reason that I've been able to travel the world and feel so comfortable doing so, is because of how spread out my friends and family are. Any couch to have a long talk with a friend, any dining table set for a family dinner, any bed to share with a love- those have all been home to me.
So that was my story. Tell me below in the comments where you call home, and why.