Tim Patterson’s post on BNT today got me thinking about the idea of “home.” For about 5 months of last year, and at least a month of the year for several years before that, I was on the road, sleeping on bunk beds in comunal dorm rooms with shared washing facilities with unknown souls, occasionally crashing with friends or relatives, but otherwise seeking out the temporary company of strangers in a similar situation as myself before we’d each go our separate ways.
For the most part, I’ve relished my constant change of environments, rarely staying in the same place for more than 3 nights at a time. Sure, it gets tiring after a while, packing up my rucksack every few days and wearing the same set of clothes for weeks. But the world is a fascinating place, and I’d like to see as much of it as possible before my time on earth is up.
For my entire childhood, Berkeley was the only home I ever knew. My family traveled often, but there was never a doubt that we would return to our house, with our white Jetta sitting in the driveway, to my friends who I’d grown up with, and most of my extended family within an hour’s drive away.
But when I thought about where I’d go for college, I couldn’t see myself attending UC Berkeley, just a 10-minute drive from my house. It just felt… well, too much like home. Some of my relatives thought it was only natural that I would go there, since my parents had, and hey, I could just live at home and save my parents the cost of room and board.
I had other ideas. My first impression of college, which I’d developed when I was in elementary school, was that it was a faraway boarding school for big kids. I’d come to believe that because at the time, my oldest cousin was attending Princeton, far away from her family in Pittsburgh, meaning she had to live at school. My next cousin to go off to college also lived at school, though he went home practically every weekend because his college was only about an hour away from his parents. I’d assumed that I would one day be in a similar situation. Boston sounded like a good place to go to school. Didn’t it seem like everyone was going to school there? A cross-country move seemed daunting, though, and I didn’t end up applying to any schools out of state, though I did check out some college campuses there prior to my senior year of high school. Whenever I imagined myself in college, I’d always seem to get a picture of me in a warm climate with plenty of sunshine and palm trees. After I got my college acceptances and rejections, I settled on UC San Diego, which seemed to fit the bill in almost every way. I was a bit nervous moving 500 miles from home (it was, in fact, the longest distance from home of all the schools to which I’d applied) but relished in the excitement of leaving home for the first time.
I may not have left the state, but I quickly realized that there were divisions between Northern and Southern California that I had not anticipated. Even the boundaries between those two geographic entities were loosely defined. One of the most obvious differences I noticed was that San Diego was conservative-leaning, meaning that in the fall of 2000, I was seeing Bush-Cheney election posters and bumper stickers for the first time. In the run-up to the Iraq war two years later, anti-war propaganda was quickly trashed, and when I left in the spring of 2004, it looked once again as if the county would be leaning right once again. All of this was a shock to my system, coming from ultra-liberal Berkeley.
I couldn’t complain about my digs, though. While friends at Berkeley wailed about their dingy yet expensive apartments, I lived in a newly-developed apartment complex complete with a fitness center, swimming pool, and hot tub. But yet it didn’t feel like home. Though Trader Joe’s was just a few blocks away, it took at least 20 minutes to walk there because the blocks were so massive, and in fact I had to walk over I-5 to get there. Car-less in auto-centric Southern California, public transportation was functional yet patience-testing. And while I met wonderful people and enjoyed my classes and professors, and enjoyed visits to the beach, I felt that my heart had remained in Berkeley.
The summer after my junior year, I made my first foray into city living when I went to London for an academic internship. For the first time, I was living in the center of a major city, with historic sites and big-city life just a subway or bus ride away. My flat was next to the Dutch Embassy, and across the street from Kensington Palace. I could walk to the shops on High Street Kensington, and when there was a subway blackout, a flatmate and I walked all the way from Oxford Circus back to Kensington. Continental Europe – where I would encounter new laguages and cultures – were just a few hours away by train. Why couldn’t I have grown up here? I wondered. I felt gypped. But as much as I wanted to stay, I missed my friends and family too much. By the end of the summer, I knew it was time to go. The same was true a year later when I returned to Europe, this time to Madrid and Paris, then Eurailing around the continent. I couldn’t get enough of travel, or of Europe, yet I knew it would be impossible to stay. What would I do? I didn’t have EU citizenship, nor a hunk of money I could live off of without working. I wasn’t sure if I could handle another real winter of freezing temperatures (I never knew what seasons were until living in Paris). And while I did have friends there, none of them were as familiar or reliable as those I’d left behind.
I went home to Berkeley, living at my parents’ house, the last place I’d hoped to be after college. I tried applying to publishing jobs in New York, but without success. Some of my childhood friends were still around, which helped with my transition. But I was discouraged. What was I supposed to do now, after 4 years of college, a year of study abroad and travel? With little choice, I wound up taking a series of temporary jobs, which allowed me to save up some money and travel some more. I’ve repeated this routine for the past 4 years. And each year, I’ve returned home. This is how Tim described that place today:
Home is a community. Home is a refuge. Home is wherever our loved ones live.
It’s now been close to 10 years since I first left this place, the familiar environment that in many ways I didn’t get to know or fully appreciate until I returned in 2005. It’s been the one place I can come back to and feel secure, safe, and know that there are people looking out for me. Many of my childhood and high school friends left home for college, but many returned or are planning on returning. I went back to Southern California briefly, this time to Los Angeles, but couldn’t make that move permanent even though I found some things to like. I still entertain the idea of living on the East Coast or overseas again, but in the end, I may find myself back in the Bay in the end.