I am strangely at home navigating unfamiliar places. Especially those beneath the earth – the metro in Paris or DC, the London tube, the convoluted network of U-bahn and S-bahn lines that crisscross Berlin like a twisted mesh net. Ever since New York, I’ve learned to love the reliably unreliable rush of trains hurtling to a stop, the stiff speech of the recorded station announcers, the always incomprehensible intercom crackling that the rest of the line is out. Change trains now.
But I digress. Every place has its own rhythm, a tattoo that makes it unique. Yet here and there, in this city and that, patterns repeat, like a subtle three-bar refrain the ear can’t hear but the feet feel. So the unfamiliar, or new, can have an inexplicable echo of what is familiar, or what is old.
Right now, I’m sitting in Tegel, whisking the foam from an overpriced cappuccino as the baristas gossip about their bosses in the repercussion-free feel of the 5 am airport. I’m on my way home for the holidays.
Home. A word that is so easily used and so fascinatingly felt. “Let’s go home,” I say, if we’ve been walking all day in Vienna and I want a rest on the hotel bed. “I’ll see you at home,” I say, when I tell David I’m leaving work. “I’m going home for the holidays,” I say, when I’m sitting in the airport. And I feel no conflict in the label.
It seems that home can be not just the place you live, but the place you’re from, or the place you’re sleeping. Is home just a bed? Or the most immediate safe place in which to take off your meet-the-world coat and put your feet up on the coffee table?
Yet when someone asks me, “Where’s home?,” I find it hard to answer. I was born in California, I grew up in Pennsylvania, I live in Berlin, and the place which has my heart is still New York. New York, the place in which I’ve lived the least amount of time.
How long does it take for the familiar to become unfamiliar? I already can’t recite the litany of stops along the L, don’t know which color the walls of the hallway are, can’t remember the name of that seven dollar eggplant sandwich from the cart near work I used to treat myself to sometimes. And when I go back, I am homesick for the city I used to know.
So no, home is not just a location, not just a bed or a city fraught with nostalgia. There’s too much echo in between. More than a pinprick on the map, home is a feeling, a gut-punch of recognition. It is a single apartment inside a town you despise, it is the Museum of Natural History, the bar down the street, the park, it is a language, a whole city, it is simply the place where there are people you love. Home is a multitude. Home is one.