I sit on a deck, overlooking a lush, green yard. Blue jays and Chickadees flit in and out of the tall trees. Kids splash in a wading pool. I chew on a bratwurst, and sip on a Spotted Cow. I’m surrounded by family. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. The conversation revolves around the gardening, baseball, how the weather was this past winter, the prospects for a pleasant summer, and on and on. It’s the same conversation that has been carried on a thousand times, by us and by those who came before us, with the same understated Midwestern humor, hospitality, and warmth. It’s familiar. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. I’m home.
A few hours later I find myself sitting on an airplane, on the tarmac, awaiting takeoff. I travel with only a carry on. The ten thousand concerns that fill my 21st century brain have narrowed to the simple focus of getting from here to there. Gate numbers and arrival times. I settle into my seat, review some Arabic flashcards, and then start writing a little bit. The jet engines fire up. The plane accelerates, I am pressed into my seat, the vibration of the tires on the runway disappears as physics takes over and we rest on the air. An unmistakable sense of anticipation wells up in my chest. It’s that feeling you get at the beginning of a journey, sensing that an adventure is about to begin. No matter how many times I fly, and no matter how short or boring the trip, there is always that sense of possibility and anticipation when taking to the air. It’s exciting. It’s familiar. I’m home.
My plane lands in DC after midnight, and I find my way to my car in the parking garage. This Toyota RAV4, far from new, that was purchased to handle the icy roads of Northern Wisconsin, has carried our family for many miles. It’s been from the far North, to South of the border. It’s seen the Grand Canyon, the Louisiana Bayou, the Great Lakes, and everything in between. I drove both of my kids home from the hospital in this car after they were born. It isn’t perfect. It smells like the stale cheerios that J has sprinkled all over it, and that I still haven’t found. There is a deep groove in the rug under the gas peddle, where my heal has rested for thousands of miles. The exterior has been dinged by hail, dust storms, pebbles, and tree branches. But still it’s perfect. This car has been a part of the story. It’s home.
I drive onto the parkway and catch a glimpse of the Washington Monument, illuminated in the night. I think about the following day, when I will put on my badge and lanyard (the mark of our tribe: Government Employees), board the metro, and join the river of people on their way to various offices and conference rooms of the DC region. I will talk with colleagues about the news, politics, travel, Arabic grammar. The conversation will be fast, laced with acronyms, and powered by Starbucks and sushi. The topics will change from hour to hour, as late breaking news gives us new fuel for the fire. The rhythm here is different from that of the back deck where I had lunch. And that’s okay. This too is familiar, and it has it’s beauty. I’m home.
I pull into another parking garage, get out, and ride an elevator up to a darkened apartment. I stumble as my foot comes down on a jagged piece of lego nestled in the carpet, and I almost break my neck when I trip over a bassinet. Toys and baby paraphernalia are strewn from one side of the apartment to the other, just as they were when we departed two days ago. But the owners of those toys, as well as their saint of a mother who works day and night to pick up those toys, are not here. They are staying at that house with the deck for a few more weeks, and I have come home. Though without them it is not quite home. The location is the same, but it seems to have been robbed of the life it had before. I feel a little bit lost. Home, but not at home.
Anthony Bourdain,* Patron Saint and poet laureate of 21st century global wanderers, says it well. “Where is home? Most of us are born with the answer—others have to sift through the pieces.” For those of us who have chosen a life of travel, or had it chosen for us, the notion of home can be at the very least confusing. We feel comfortable in a million different places and bask in the joy of frequent homecomings. Every city and airport that we’ve known welcomes us with sights and sounds and smells that evoke clouds of memory. And yet, none of these places feels as though it is truly ours. We are always far away from people and places that we love. We are always saying goodbye. Just as our roots start to connect with the soil we feel them ripped away. Sure, we can talk knowledgeably about the weather but we know we won’t be around to see the next winter, so our discussion rings hollow. And visits to familiar places are tinged with the melancholy of knowing we can’t stay, and with the missing of the people who shared that place with us and have now moved on to their own new chapters. Where are we from? Where do we belong? Many of us never really figure it out. We feel our hearts have been smashed and scattered to all the places we have loved. It’s confusing, and often painful.
Anthony Bourdain recently lost his earthly battle with the demons he was fighting. It’s a tremendous loss first for his immediate friends and family, but also for those of us who were encouraged by his work. He showed us, through the lenses of travel, food, and conversation, that people are people, regardless of where they live. He found hospitality in places you would expect, like Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but also in places where (based on what we see on the news) an American might be shy to go, like Russia, Cuba, and Iran. He illustrated that a humble and generous view of the world can open doors to amazing meals and relationships. He showed us that we can find home in a million places by staying curious and trying new things.
Maybe he showed us some of what we need to ease the pain of our frequent departures. Maybe, by being willing to share a bratwurst, a beer, a taco, or some sushi anywhere and with anyone, we will keep finding a little bit of home everywhere. Because a meal leads to a conversation, which leads to relationship. And relationships are the bricks that homes are built out of. At the end of it all home is about the people. Those we have loved, those we now love, and those we will love. They turn any house into a home, and they make any country feel like our native land. Yes, the people are what keep us going, even when they are far away, and even when they throw lego on the floor for us to step on.
*for those who may not be familiar with him, Anthony Bourdain was a chef and traveler who visited every corner of the world you can think of, and made documentaries about it for CNN. His latest show is called “Parts Unknown,” and you can find it on Netflix. It’s awesome.