For my first ever blog post I wanted to talk about something simple, something that would allow me to dip my toes in the water of this new medium without the risk of drowning in the depths of complicated introspection. But, let’s be honest, I am not very good at avoiding complicated. So, instead I am going to just dive right in. Inspired by my recent trip to California, I want to talk about what makes a place home.
In the expatriate community here in Milan we frequently refer to visits home. The literal meaning conveyed is straightforward: home is our country of origin, in contrast to Italy which is just our current place of residence. The emotional consequences of this usage are quite profound, however, because it reflects an unchallenged assumption that we are not at home here. If not an overt rejection of the residence we share in common, the exclusion of Milan from the category of home at least makes it more difficult to feel settled here. There is always a shadow of impermanence over the events and relationships that make up our daily lives. Yet, paradoxically, the longing for home and the vague sense of alienation in our current environment are a unique bond that draws us together. So that those with whom we might have little contact or little in common if we were back “home” become allies who support us in our life lived away from home.
This contrast between residence and home struck me in a new way on my recent trip to California with my two children, but without my husband. It was on the 20+ hour trip from Milan to Southern California that I made a passing comment to 5 year-old daughter about going home. She gave me a quizzical look and asked when we were really going to go home, to New Jersey. You see, while California is where both my husband and I were born and raised, and is also the place that we have habitually referred to as home, Princess Imagination has never lived there. Before moving to Milan we had lived in New Jersey for 10 years, so our children both have birth certificates issued by the Garden State. Princess Imagination’s first confident steps were taken on the stone path running along the side of our Belle Mead home, her first best friends were from her toddler class at KinderCare, and she still frequently talks about her “flower room”, whose walls I painted to match her first big-girl bed spread. Much as she loves to visit our family in California (I promise Nanna & Gra’ma – she adores it!), for her, New Jersey is still the place that offers her the sense of belonging and security that our exciting expatriate experience lacks.
This realization that my home-compass and my daughter’s do not point in the same direction made me think a little more carefully about what really makes someplace home. Place of residence is not necessarily the defining characteristic. In a sense of legal residence, I am caught in a vague indeterminate status between Milan (where my legal residency has a specific end-date printed on my permesso di soggiorno) and New Jersey (where we still own a home, which allows me to maintain the legal residency required to access important rights and privileges like voting and driving). The bureaucratic hoop-jumping related to maintaining this dual-residency, if anything, alienates me further from both of these places. But more than that, the time I have spent living in both of these places has been overshadowed by that sense of alienation that I described above. Despite residing in both places for extended periods of time, I have never quite felt like I belonged. And this sense of belonging is, perhaps, part of what sets apart a given place as one’s home. This may be one of the few instances I have encountered so far of English offering a more emotional vocabulary than Italian. As far as I have been able to gather (although I can claim absolutely no mastery of the Italian tongue), the same word – casa – is used in Italian to cover the two English words house and home. But these two words carry vastly different meanings. The common attraction of home among expatriates involves less the physical characteristics of a given place (since these places are different for all of us), and more this sentimental sense of belonging. The understanding of home is grounded, at least for the lucky ones like me, in nostalgic memories of comfort and security, where you know how life works and where you will always be accepted.
Not long into my California trip, and frequently throughout its duration, my two year-old son (the Gigglemonster), further complicated my musings about home by getting very un-giggly in response to home-sickness. It was no reflection on the loving family members that welcomed us so warmly on our trip. Instead I discovered that my extroverted, adventurous, happy little guy is really a homebody, and for him, that means Milano. In large part, no doubt, the absence of Daddy on our travels contributed to the Gigglemonster’s uncharacteristic anxiety, but he was also verbal enough about his distress to identify “my bed” and “my house” as a big part of the “home” he was longing for. If memories of comfort and security really are essential to our identification with a given place as home, then the Gigglemonter’s home is inevitably Milan, because he cannot remember living anywhere else. But for me, there are so many places that hold life-changing memories. My memories of childhood and college are all located in California, but my adult life has been lived elsewhere. And the experiences and learning I have had in New Jersey and Milano are just as formative to my sense-of-self as were my early years. It would be impossible to develop any scale that could even measure memories of getting delightfully lost in Venetian back-alleys, and of pledging to love Tyler for the rest of my life, and of holding my children for the first time, and of making homemade ice cream with my Grandparents in their summer home in Mendocino. Much less could any formula then calculate the relative weight or importance of these memories in defining who I am and where I really belong.
Each of these memories does, however, include members of my family, and perhaps here the Italian language does help. When I looked up the Italian translation for home in double-checking the use of the word casa, one alternativenoun offered was famiglia: family. At least for me, it is impossible to imagine any definition of home that does not require the presence of my family. Of course, I am one of the lucky ones. My own nuclear family, my husband and our two precious children, are a source of daily joy, and they daily tell me in words and deeds that I belong with them. But I have a much larger “family” as well – by blood, marriage, faith and friendship, and these connections also give me a sense of belonging, of being where I am supposed to be when I am with the people who are in some way or another members of my family.
This diffuse family perhaps finally shines a clear light on why it is that I feel rather torn in defining one particular place as my true home. My trip “home” to California reunited me with many members of my family, but my husband was “back home” in Milan. Even when we travel together to California for Christmas, and we gather with many members of our families for holiday celebrations, there are still missing elements: family members who are only part of past Christmas memories, or loved ones with their own families. And there are memories of other places, snow in our backyard in Belle Mead, the lights of Rockefeller Center, the folktales of Baba Natale, that are now part of me but not part of a California Christmas.
The three weeks in California have made me long for an envisioned future when Tyler and I may finally call California home again in the residential sense – when I imagine I will feel more centered and less lacking in a home that feels permanent. But, on reflection, I don’t know if that will ever be true. An expat friend of mine has commented on her blog about how she has “left a piece of her heart” in a number of places she has visited while living in Italy. This breaking apart of one’s heart sounds a bit painful, especially if “home is where the heart is.” For someone like me, who longs for security, and grounded-ness, and belonging, it is a bit painful. There is always an element of longing for the piece of home that lives somewhere else, with a person or a memory that is physically located far away. In my faith I have hope in a future where all this longing will be fulfilled, and all those sources of love and belonging united in the One Source. That is comforting. But in the here and now, it is also comforting to realize that there is a benefit to the pain of being torn. If it is true that home is where the heart is, and if a piece of my heart remains in so many places and with so many people, then I am the furthest thing from home-less. I am blessed with many diverse and welcoming homes.