As I write this in the middle of March 2020, the world is gripped by the spread of coronavirus COVID19. Countries are shutting their borders, people are asked to stay indoors, shelter in place and self-quarantine inside. Restaurants, bars, gyms, schools, and other public places are closing. Airlines are on the verge of going bust or re-nationalized, the economy is struggling, and citizens are being asked to travel home.
And that’s what I want to talk about today. The concept of home and what it means, especially in difficult times. Because this is the Books and Travel Podcast, but travel may be gone from our lives for a time — and home has become the most important thing.
The dictionary definition of home is ‘the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household,’ but in this article, I ponder the aspects of an emotional home, a physical dwelling, and the country we belong to.
(1) “Home is where the heart is.” Pliny The Elder
This is what it comes down to when crisis hits. We want to know that we and our loved ones are safe at home. Anxiety rises when people we love are trapped overseas with no travel options, or quarantined somewhere far from home. As I write this my brother is on his way home from the Caribbean, my brother-in-law is sick in the middle east, and a friend of mine is stuck in Peru, unable to get a flight out.
I am home with my husband, Jonathan. My immediate family are mostly in their homes here in the UK, but his are in New Zealand and Australia. My sister-in-law is Canadian, my other sister-in-law is Nigerian, and they are far from their families too. We don’t know what will happen with flights over the coming months, but if there is a health issue with someone we love, we don’t know if we will be able to get there to help.
This global diaspora is how we live now and in good times, it is a wonderful rainbow culture. But in difficult times, how do we even know where home is? Many have chosen a new country to call home, somewhere that resonates in an emotional way beyond the place they were born. My husband Jonathan has chosen the UK as his home but his heart is split over hemispheres right now, and if he has to go, then I go too, even if it means leaving my family behind.
In the end, my home is my love, not the physical place I dwell in.
(2) Sanctuary. Refuge. Home is where you feel safe.“A home is a kingdom of its own in the midst of the world, a stronghold amid life’s storms and stresses, a refuge, even a sanctuary.” – Dietrich BonhoefferClick To Tweet
I’m very lucky to own a modest little house in Bath in the south-west of England. Well, we own a piece of it, the bank owns the rest until we pay it off, but it is home. We bought it in May 2019, after almost a decade of renting, because we were ready to settle down again.
I find it hard to commit to a place because, for most of my life, I have moved on after a couple of years — between countries and between cities. I was born in Somerset where I now live and spent most of my school life in Bristol, the city closest to where I live now, so I have come full circle in a way. But I went to school for a while in Malawi, Africa, and worked out in Israel in my year out, before I went to the University of Oxford, which I talked about in episode 12. I worked in London, then in Belgium, Finland and Holland, before traveling to Australia (episode 20) and then New Zealand, where I became a citizen and found a new home – I’ll be doing a separate episode on that at some point.
We moved back to the UK in 2011 because we missed Europe so much and I have always felt European — then with Brexit, we questioned whether this was the place we wanted to stay. But I have traveled so much that I can see how wonderful my country is, despite its problems. Nowhere is perfect and so we decided to stay, first in London and then moving to the west country. Now we have our little house high up on the ridgeline above Bath, and we walk the canal and we have our local community life. We leave to travel and then return and I do feel safe here. I’m not sure that I have roots yet, but perhaps I am beginning to put them down. Some part of me thinks I will up and leave again, but for now, it is my physical home.'To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.' Simone WeilClick To Tweet
At times of difficulty, the illusion that you can control anything is shattered by the way the world is going. But at least, in your home, you can have your coffee the way you like it. You can close the curtains and sit in your favorite reading chair with a stack of books and make your favorite food for dinner. There is at least an illusion of control and that makes us feel safe.
On a more practical level, you know where to find food in your area. You have friends in the neighborhood and a way to find people if you need them. You know where the pharmacy is and the hospital, the quickest route to the park. That familiarity helps when things are hard.
I travel because I want to experience things that are different from my everyday life, see and taste and touch the variety that is out there in the world. When we travel, we expect to sleep badly in a new place, maybe get sick, have difficult times in small ways — but we don’t expect to really suffer. When trouble threatens, travel seems far too dangerous and we head for the safety and familiarity of home.
(3) Home is tribal“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” – Robert FrostClick To Tweet
Home can also be defined as ‘a place where something originates’ and ‘a person’s own country or native land.’ Some cultures have an idea of ancestors dwelling in specific places, so their links to the land are deep-rooted.
In the Maori culture of New Zealand, a person might recite their whakapapa, their identity as it relates to the whanau (extended family) and also the land itself, for example, which mountain, lake or river you are affiliated to, as well as which iwi (tribe). Even white New Zealanders will talk of their whakapapa, so it’s clearly a deeply emotional concept.
But in these times of migration for work and lifestyle reasons, how many people truly feel that connection anymore? I certainly feel more untethered than anything else. When I’m traveling, I will say ‘let’s go home,’ and I mean, go back to the hotel or the hostel or tent or wherever I am staying. Home is wherever I am sleeping that night.
But England as home for me has come into sharp focus in recent weeks. When the coronavirus spread to north Italy, an area I have visited a number of times, I started to take things very seriously. It’s a wealthy region and yet the hospitals were quickly overwhelmed. Most of us who get COVID19 are likely to have mild symptoms and should just stay home and self-quarantine, but where do you want to be quarantined? That was the thought going through my mind as I looked at my calendar and saw international travel ahead.
When things are difficult and changing all the time, you want to be somewhere you know, where you speak the language, where the government’s job is to look after you. I am truly grateful to live in a country where we have a healthcare system, that although flawed, is still free at the point of use and that is designed to help everyone. I canceled my travel to the USA several weeks before things became serious there because I did not want to get sick in a country where healthcare does not seem to be for all.
You are born into a country and that is your default home. It’s the luck of the draw and I absolutely acknowledge my privilege at being born British. No matter how much we like to think that we are open-minded and that everyone should be treated the same way, when crisis strikes, a home country looks after its own. A citizen of a country has certain rights, and those who don’t belong can easily be cast aside in times of disaster. Which is why it’s an even greater tragedy when a country does not look after its own, when it casts out those whom it should protect.
One of the things I value most about travel is the greater perspective on life, and the chance to see that people are people wherever they are in the world. They love, have children, want the best for their lives. They want an education, to be healthy and happy, and they want to make a home. But when things are difficult, when resources become scarce, that’s when the veneer of civilization crumbles.
There have been racist attacks already, both verbally [BBC] and physically [The New Yorker] against those blamed for the current situation, and people are fighting over resources — whether that be trading blows over toilet paper in a supermarket [BBC], or trying to buy up a pharmaceutical company so a possible vaccine goes only to one country. [The Guardian]
Part of me is appalled by this, and the other part hopes that I would defend my home if it came to it — and by that, I mean my loved ones, my physical house, and my country. I understand why people are scared and why it makes them behave as they do. I’m scared too and I can only hope that I don’t find myself in that situation.
It also makes me think of those who don’t have a home — those who are homeless in their own country, but also those who are refugees, who have fled a place that can no longer be their home, those forced out by violence and war. The creeping dread that has arisen in the last few weeks is nothing compared to those who have had to leave their home behind or had it forcibly taken from them. And that reflection makes me circle back to feeling grateful for my situation and I hope that it helps you, too. Gratitude and helping others is sometimes the best thing to do when times are tough.
I hope you and your loved ones are safe tonight — in your home.
Books about home … and losing it
Home: A Very Short Introduction – Michael Allen Fox. Thoughts and feelings about home traditionally provided people of all cultures with a firm sense of where they belonged, and why. But with the world rapidly changing, many of our basic notions are becoming problematic. Both internationally and within countries, populations are constantly on the move, seeking better opportunities and living conditions, or an escape from violence and war. In spite of, or perhaps even because of these trends, ideas about home continue to shape the way people everywhere frame an understanding of their lives.
The Salt Path – Raynor Winn. Just days after Raynor Winn learns that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, is terminally ill, their house and farm are taken away, along with their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall. Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea, and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter, and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable and life-affirming journey. Powerfully written and unflinchingly honest, The Salt Path is ultimately a portrayal of home—how it can be lost, rebuilt, and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.
Home: A Short History of an Idea – Witold Rybczynski. Walk through five centuries of homes both great and small—from the smoke-filled manor halls of the Middle Ages to today’s Ralph Lauren-designed environments—on a house tour like no other, one that delightfully explicates the very idea of “home.”
Homesick: Why I Live In a Shed – Catrina Davies. Aged thirty-one, Catrina Davies was renting a box-room in a house in Bristol, which she shared with four other adults and a child. Working several jobs and never knowing if she could make the rent, she felt like she was breaking apart. Homesick for the landscape of her childhood, in the far west of Cornwall, Catrina decides to give up the box-room and face her demons. This is the story of a personal housing crisis and a country-wide one, grappling with class, economics, mental health, and nature. It shows how housing can trap us or set us free, and what it means to feel at home.
Refugee Tales – Ali Smith. These are not fictions. Nor are they testimonies from some distant, brutal past, but the frighteningly common experiences of Europe’s new underclass – its refugees. While those with ‘citizenship’ enjoy basic human rights (like the right not to be detained without charge for more than 14 days), people seeking asylum can be suspended for years in Kafka-esque uncertainty. Here, poets and novelists retell the stories of individuals who have direct experience of Britain’s policy of indefinite immigration detention. Presenting their accounts anonymously, as modern-day counterparts to the pilgrims’ stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, this book offers rare, intimate glimpses into otherwise untold suffering.
The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You – Dina Nayeri. Aged eight, Dina Nayeri fled Iran along with her mother and brother and lived in the crumbling shell of an Italian hotel–turned–refugee camp. Eventually, she was granted asylum in America. She settled in Oklahoma, then made her way to Princeton University. In this book, Nayeri weaves together her own vivid story with the stories of other refugees and asylum seekers in recent years, bringing us inside their daily lives and taking us through the different stages of their journeys, from escape to asylum to resettlement.