“This is normal”, grinned my seatmate, as I hit the back of my head against the seat, let out a big sigh, and got up to exit the train. If this was normal, I’d hate to see what abnormal was. Tripping over the lip of a sidewalk or getting cupcake icing on the tip of my nose was normal, but not being stranded at the Austria/Italy border, watching in bewilderment as my train slowly pulled away to fix a technicality, leaving all of the passengers by the wayside. It was at this point that I expected one of two things: 1) Ashton Kutcher to paraglide down from the peak of the Alps holding a sign that read “You just got punk’d”, or 2) An infantry of soldiers who appear out of the dense forest to take all of our jewelry, wallets, and electronics, only to then disappear back into the woods. In a few hours I was supposed to be on a flight from Milan back home to the U.S., but never had home felt so close, yet so far away.
The idea of “home” has evolved for me over the span of my life, but never like it has the last two years. Breakups, career transitions, and two long-term trips seem to have a greater effect on my psyche then I’d like to give them credit for. 90 days ago I set out on what I was considering the bucket list trip of my life. It would take me from housesitting in Northern California wine country, to an Alaskan cruise, to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, to learning to surf off the coast of Spain in the Canary Islands. As my family dropped me off at the airport weeks ago for the Europe leg of my trip, we joked that I may end up liking Europe so much that I never come home. I laughed it off, yet knowing my history, the possibility of that wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Yet that didn’t happen – in fact it didn’t even come close to happening.
My ideas of home have always been tied to tangible things, just as I would imagine it is for many people. A house, office, bedroom, local watering hole, and the like. They are things that are familiar and typically longstanding. You would expect that that place for me would be my childhood home in Graham, North Carolina, where I spent the first 18 years of my life. As my sister recently put it when she stayed in my old room: “It’s like you never left.” Yet, I have. I haven’t even stepped foot in North Carolina in nearly two years. That’s no longer home to me. San Francisco is. But why is that? Of the 14 months that I’ve been a resident, I’ve only been there for a total of 9 months and of the things in my apartment that you could consider mine, you could probably fit it all in a walk-in closet.
“Home is where the heart is.” This may be the most overused response when people are asked about home. What does that mean? I’ve left my heart in a lot of places, of which few had any resemblance of home. I think the phrase is just a cop out. There, I said it. We so badly want to explain away and chalk up every aspect of life to a scientific explanation, yet there are some things we should just accept as they are. Two people can have the same tangible elements and experiences that are expected of home, yet it may only feel like home to one of them. So what gives?
It wasn’t until month three of my long-term trip this summer that I found myself missing home. It was toward the end of a week-long visit in Amsterdam. Based on what I knew about Amsterdam and what others had told me, I just expected to love it, and not because of the coffee shops or Red Light District, neither of which I was interested in. No, Amsterdam seemed to be one of those destinations where there was more then meets the eye, which is one of the very reasons why I had come to love San Francisco. Yet I didn’t fall head over heels for Amsterdam – not even close. In fact there’s no destination I’ve ever visited that I felt so underwhelmed. I wanted to be home; home in San Francisco. I had been a skeptic of San Francisco, refusing to call it home for months, yet here I was longing for the very place I had doubted.
More then anything, I think one’s home is synonymous with their identity. It’s their element. Our passions, love, and sense of responsibility are all enhanced when we are somewhere that feels like home. It’s like an intertwined movie or book where the place, plot, and characters all converge to make it a cohesive whole. The place being one’s city, neighborhood, and residence. The plot being their career and day-to-day life. And the characters being everyone who makes up that place, be it a loved one, friends, co-workers, or local butcher. There is familiarity, comfort, and ownership. It’s here that we’re often most in our element. For some, maybe this is a childhood home, for others where they currently live, and yet for others, maybe it’s travel. For me, that place is San Francisco, California.
When a place, like San Francisco, does in fact become home, I find myself not disgruntled by its flaws, but rather accepting of them as part of its character. I accept San Francisco’s high rent prices, knowing I may have to put a few more hours of work in to make it happen. I accept its cold and foggy days, knowing that “shorts weather” is only a short drive away. I accept that while the LCD screen reads “2 minutes”, it may actually be 45 minutes before the bus arrives at my stop. It is in San Francisco that I am most in my element, whether it’s tightening my Chuck Taylors for a walk across the city, tweeting a colleague to talk shop over drinks, attending a travel meetup, showing a visiting friend around the city, or having friends over in the backyard to grill out. These are things I can do anywhere, but only in San Francisco does it feel like home when doing them.
It was only four hours after my train was originally scheduled to arrive that it actually did. Consequently, that was one hour after the last connecting train for the night departed, causing me to miss my flight the next morning, which just so happened to be the only flight flying back to the states that day. It was only one day later that I finally did touch back down in the U.S., which was still five weeks earlier then planned. Call it a hunch or following my gut. “Chin up angel, why don’t you come on home. There’s not a problem we can’t solve together.” When those words from my colleague and friend made me tear up, I knew it was time to come home. Days and weeks from now, as I’m getting back settled at home, I’ll sit around with friends over a few drinks and I’ll laugh about being stranded in the Alps, marveling about how it and other experiences from this trip changed me. Because if it is in fact about the journey and not the destination, then what stories would we have to share about our travels if we didn’t get stranded on a train in a foreign destination or purposefully get on an unknown bus to an unknown destination? These things make travel sweet and home all the sweeter.