I’ve lived at six different addresses, four different cities, and two different countries since my eighteenth birthday (nine years ago). The first was my parents’ house, a property at the end of Melbourne’s stretch of suburbs adorned with dry grass, lizards, and the smell of eucalyptus. The second and third were at a residential hall affiliated with my university in Canberra. One room I took there for two years was a tiny box in super-utilitarian block which overlooked other tiny boxes and a barbeque area. Then I lived in a share flat on the College premises with four other people and oh, the stories I could tell about that year (I will never forget the experience of opening a freezer and finding a dead pig’s head staring back at me). When we were kicked out of there I lived in another, smaller share flat conveniently located just off-campus where the sun could never convincingly shine through the poorly situated windows. The fifth address was in a hip, inner-city part of Sydney in a townhouse that had been subdivided on a very busy street. The floor boards were a deep brown, the ceilings were high, and technically we had a garden though nothing stayed alive in it for very long (we put it down to pollution, though it may have been a matter of poor gardening).
Now I live on the other side of the world with my partner, in a one bedroom flat in Oxford with double-glazed windows and a bathroom that doesn’t have power points (I’m told this is the British way).
I have a certain fondness for all these places – both for their desired aspects and their (in some cases, multitudinous) flaws. All tingle with familiarity – I can remember where we stored the cutlery and the parts that were hard to reach and how the floor felt on my bare toes – but none are definitively my home.
I have been having this conversation with myself and people with a similar track record of housing to me for most of this past decade: Where is home? What is home? Being an expat adds on another level of confusion because by living somewhere so far away you increase the scope of the potential answer to the entire globe.
But this experience of constant flux and travel has helped me find some answer. While I can’t point to a map and say, “here it is, here is my home”, I do often experience a sense of homeliness, some peace, some ownership of the spaces I inhabit. Ultimately, I don’t see home as a static place at all, but as a set of feelings.
Home is where you feel grounded. It’s like a baseline. You’re used to your surroundings so you don’t feel startled/frightened/unsure/in awe of them. It’s easy to carry out your daily life because you aren’t distracted by unfamiliarity. It takes time to build this sense.
Home is where you can be yourself. Nobody is watching you at home, or if they are they do so kindly. Home is where you can sing your favourite songs dreadfully or fruitlessly yell at your malfunctioning computer without self-consciousness or judgement. In this sense, if you live with others, home requires that they make you feel accepted and understood (at least more often than not).
Home is cosy. It is tricky to see a place as home if you never want to be there. Home is where your slippers are in winter, or where you keep your cold juice and ice cubes in the summer. Home is in soft cushions and warm showers and your favourite mug. You might not want to spend all your time there, but it’s forever offering a nice place to go.
Home is where you can decide what goes where. Draconian rental laws might mean that you can’t change the layout of your dwelling or even put up posters, but there’s always some sense of agency at home. You decide where to put your bookcase or what shelf you’ll use for your tin tray. You decide what goes in that space on top of the fridge or whether you’d prefer to install the blue-toned light globes or the yellow kind.
Home is where fondness lives. The place may be far from ideal, but home is a place you like. Despite the fact that you keep catching your knitwear on the bedroom doorframe or (in our case in Sydney) despite the draft under the windows or the leaky ceiling. But you don’t always need to live with those shortcomings. Home is a place you like enough to try and improve.
Even when you want or need to move out, leaving home is always sad. But in the absence of the place itself, the feeling can be found again.