If you were deported, or less harshly, voluntarily expatriated, what would you need to feel at home in your new place? Would you embrace the differences or create the same kind of home anywhere?
These questions entered my head as I travelled through several homes in the past month and a half with my blue wheelie suitcase in hand: my childhood home; an AirBnB just outside Cambridge Massachusetts; a room in a family home in more rural MA; an air-mattress in a Lower East Side apartment and let’s not forget the night at the Blue Moon. Each location was different, and yet all came to resemble one another through my habits and chosen town haunts.
When I arrived at my AirBnB in Cambridge in the middle of a rainy afternoon, jet-lagged and with zero phone charge, it felt completely unfamiliar. The red velvet cushions, bronze ornaments, turquoise printed wallpaper and delicate tulip-patterned crockery, made me feel like I had just stepped out of the book I was reading, Ohran Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. As though like Columbus, I had travelled in the wrong direction and ended up finding… the East. The neon signs on the local convenience store assured me I was in America; though the only appetising thing they sold was tabouleh…
The next day, before I found my workplace for the month, or even the internet, I found Karma Yoga Studio. I stepped in, thinking it would be nice to keep up my old hobby, and instantly made a habit of attending Karma’s (yes a Karma within a Karma) flow and restore classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings. The poses were slightly different, as were the names. Dragons, monkeys and dolphins expanded the menagerie beyond the domestic dog kennel. I could breathe more deeply and was more flexible, but had less balance. Still, I felt some continuity in the movement, something like home. They say home is where the heart is, and as I move, my heart is above my feet.
I wonder if it’s an option to not be at home in the place you travel to. To be like Odysseyus, stay as a tourist, taking in strange sights and cuisines, while having a firm idea of your origin as home. But if you’re elsewhere for a month, could you in your heart of hearts stay faithful to your home as you remember it? If you like drinking guinness in Irish pubs, wouldn’t you find a new local? Irish pub landlords all over the world rely upon your infidelity to home, and paradoxically, also upon your innate sense of home. I’m a fan of Irish pubs because they’re a friend to the small-bladdered as well as to those who like getting bladdered. Wherever you find an Irish pub, they’ll let you pee for free.
If you move somewhere for any length of time, I’d say over a week or so, you’ll start to have favourites and orient your life around these points. While I was in Cambridge, I accumulated the following:
A FAVOURITE CAFE: 1369 on Massachusetts Avenue. Favourite Seat: The high table with the pineapple lamp. I once heard that in the days of expeditions, returning sailors would place a pineapple in their doorway to let the townsfolk know they had returned. I’ve been drawn to them ever since.
A LITTLE JAPAN: Theolonious Monkfish also on Mass Ave. Japan is the most enchanting place I have ever visited and I look for reminders of it everywhere I go. Here they play live jazz and serve sushi as they do in Murakami novels and Japan proper. The sushi rolls, called Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstitskin though, are strictly Disney.
A LITTLE PARIS: I found Paris twice through the Landmark cinema’s weekly emissions. In Paris almost every cinema will show pictures of the city; in London too, there is always a choice of French films; but at the Landmark, there was only one at a time, so the views stretched before me in celluloid, felt like love-letters from the old world to the new.
A LIBRARY LIVING SPACE: Lamont Library, Harvard University. I like places where books are abundant and un-sacred. Where you can enjoy them with a tea, a box of paints or from a high vista wearing sunglasses. This is such a place, as are the Central Saint Martins and Senate House Libraries in London and the Bryant Park, Open-Air Library in New York City.
I arrived in Cambridge, knowing no-one, and everyone I met, whether friends of friends or random encounters, had washed up there through the job or spouse lottery, some more happily than others. They all spoke of the town as a place they hadn’t chosen for themselves; it fitted like an odd shoe. Too provincial or too Yanky; too cold but a lucky escape from Trump heartland… The place had a charm though, they admitted, once they’d found their favourite spots and began living through them.
One Friday, it was unofficially Expats night at Cafe 1369 – a refuge for the friendly friendless, amorous opportunists or anyone who wanted to be alone together. I sat by my favourite pineapple lamp and took out a book of Emerson’s essays, trying to read, trying not to listen to the Beach Boys. Soon, I found myself talking to two MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) scientists: one from Iran, the other from more prosaic Guildford, a town near where I grew up. These guys had essentially followed their research to wherever opportunities presented themselves; however far from home. If Princeton gives you a PhD scholarship, there you’ll go: though you might miss your parents and brother, not see them for whole stretches of time; though you don’t actually go to New York that often and spend most of the time out to pasture with your equations in a nice deer park; though you meet so few girls that you ask whether ‘Are you allergic to rabbits?’ is a viable chat-up line. Then, when the post-doc comes up at MIT, you can’t refuse: it’s not like there are that many jobs in this trade (wave-modelling) anyway. Waves, I found out, can be modelled directly from your laptop. But if you want to model them exquisitely, you kinda need to be in one of a handful of specialist labs, which could be anywhere and you have to be prepared to transfer between them if you’re going to be funded for your next project.
While Cambridge is lovely, it’s where these guys have chosen for their career and not for their whole selves. So it only stays half a home to them: another part of them misses where they came from; another still wonders about somewhere else entirely. When my work there is done, I too leave Cambridge half the way to creating a home. And then I get swept back into my real life in London. Some weeks later, it’s oddly vivid and unreal, like a distant experiment in living…