The geography of home

For those who have lived abroad, the sense of belonging to one place is elusive.

Whenever I am living abroad, people always say the same thing, insisting that I am très Américain. Sometimes it's the words I use, or the way I talk. Sometimes it's my insistence on "things working," my annoyance that, after 5 p.m. on Sunday, the grocery stores are closed.

But back in America, a strange thing happens. People say I have a British accent; they insist I have a European quality. When my hair was blond, men would stop me in the streets and speak Russian to me. I am not Russian.

It's hard to pinpoint when I lost my "belongingness," my ability to be seen as a reflection of one particular culture or place. Perhaps it was during that first solo trip abroad, when, at 18, I traveled to Italy to learn Italian for my soon-to-be-abandoned opera career. Four months later, my parents came to pick me up. Standing at the tiny airport on the outskirts of Florence, I welcomed them, my American jeans traded for snakeskin cigarette capri pants, high-heeled sandals, and red lipstick.

Or maybe my transformation took place in Brazil. Rather than seek the safety of my American peers, I dated a Brazilian man, inserting myself into the mess of race and class relations in the northeast. Together, we traveled to the faraway beach of Jericoacoara, arriving in the inky dark at a gas station where a ragtag group of men insisted we climb into their jeep for a ride across the dunes to the seaside town.

The truth is, I don't mind being American in Europe, or European in America. It quite suits me, tinting my life with the glow of a remembered past, a history to relive.

But I do indeed have a cultural home. Like that of many Americans, it is a combination of where I grew up (Maine) and where my family came from generations ago (Sweden). The Swedish heritage is on my mother's side, and manifested itself in Swedish pancakes on Sundays, Swedish phrases hurrying me to school on cold mornings in Maine, and memorabilia festooning our otherwise New England home with the sights and smells of Stockholm.

For my mother, Sweden was a place of eternal goodness. Each time I ended another romance she sang a familiar refrain, suggesting that I find a "nice Swedish boy." I had no idea what meeting a nice Swedish boy would be like, or how it would be any different or more familiar than the American, Brazilian, Indian, or Italian men I had dated. And then I met and fell in love with a Swedish man and realized why my mother had been right to suggest such a pairing.

Sometimes the most exciting things can be those that awake in us a sense of nostalgia realized. For me, my husband is a constant reminder of my cultural home, offering the excitement of the different alongside the comfort of the deeply familiar. Many of my mother's preferences are mirrored in my husband: the affinity for "plain food," the lilting pattern of speech.

For my husband, I, too, embody a tantalizing memory of home. His father harbored a deep nostalgia for an America he had never known but nevertheless trusted. As a child in the twilight of World War II, he met an American GI for the first time. He'd cried, before the soldier reached out to him with one of his rations: a chocolate bar. As an adult, my father-in-law was so enamored of the glamour and grit of American cowboy movies that he installed saloon doors at the entrance to the living room in their house on the outskirts of Stockholm.

The geography of home brought my husband and me together. We now live in New York, and despite all of its opulence and opportunity, we miss the company of other wanderers, the conversations with those who have traveled the world. For them, as for us, the concept of home is elusive, and the feeling sometimes fleeting. But the deeper sense of where we have been does not. For my new husband and me, we are each other's cultural landmarks, a wished-for geography brought to life.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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