Defining Home

There's no place like home, says Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There are countless songs and poems about home, about what home is and how to find it, about the need to come back to it and the need to leave it. Home is where the heart is, claim some, while the others counter - home is where the hurt is.

I think about home a lot. I think about all the places I call home now, and so many more I called home in the past. In my life so far, I have lived in ten different cities, five different states and two different countries on two different continents. I have lived in two very different regimes. Most of my life I have lived in places with four clearly defined seasons and now I am in a place where summer is endless. Along with the travel I can count 33 states I have visited or passed through. Some of them were brief encounters, others got deep under my skin. Some of them I still daydream about and others I would rather not return to again. All of those places stole a little part of my heart and inserted a fragment of their own. We are corresponding mosaics of many scents, colors, tastes, perceptions and emotions.

Once you have lived in very different places, you find yourself constantly shifting between "I can't believe I am so lucky to see all of this" and "I can't believe I've left all of the places and people behind". It's a non stop back and forth, never ending quarrel. Visiting new countries, traveling, learning about new customs and meeting new people is exciting and exhilarating when it is for a limited time. When one is going to stay, all of those feelings have a company of others - loss, absence, void, doubt and ignorance.You can't take all of your loved ones with you.

I grew up in a communistic country. I learned that our country was almost as good as Soviet Union. We had stores, not supermarkets, and there was a choice of one in them. I had no idea about brands. I thought Mr. Lenin was my long lost uncle. I grew up in fear of somebody yelling at me - my teachers, post office clerks, store clerks, neighbors, canteen workers, doctors and dentists. I remember clearly being yelled at by at least one in each category, more or less on a daily basis. I recently went to Prague with an American friend. We met with some of my Slovak friends and reminisced about our childhood. We each had a story about peeing or pooping our pants because our daycare/school teacher would not let us go to the bathroom. There was a designated time for emptying your bowels and it did not matter that you were three or four years old, you should have known better. If you asked to go during nap time, you simply would not be allowed to go and later you would be publicly shamed and humiliated and forced to walk around in wet pants. We talked about our lunches that were prepared in canteens. The same meal was offered to all of the kids. We talked about being forced to eat whatever was served to us, even foods that would make us throw up. We each had a throwing up story as well. My Slovak friend then asked my American friend to describe her school lunch routine. "Well", my American friend said, "my Mom would make me lunch that I would bring to school with me." My Slovak friend, eyes wide open, exhaled in disbelief: "You could eat for lunch whatever you wanted?"

I miss the collective experience. Living in the cradle of democracy now, I miss the understanding of how I grew up, of what we all used to experience in schools, in everyday life, of what normal meant to us. I miss the collective experience of watching the same movies and shows on one state network that was also the only one available. I miss the ability to say two words that are a part of a joke that everyone knows and then explode in laughter with everybody else. I mind being left out of these collective jokes where I live now. I think about my childhood, about how little we had, and about how I never knew that what we had was little by today's criteria. I remember with kindness my birthday parties that would be held in our small apartment with a handful of best friends, eating home made sandwiches served by my Mom and drinking soda that was only bought for special occasions. I think of my son who receives invitations to parties that match the wedding ones, with a party just as elaborate, complete with favors and official thank you notes. I wonder if it's good or bad that he can get whatever he needs or wants and does not have to wait until Christmas to see if maybe, just maybe he was lucky enough to get what his heart desired. I wonder how often he will hear "you can't have that, because we don't have money for it", even if it's something as little and cheap as a bar of chocolate.

And in a perfect contradiction, I am just as happy not to be a part of the collective experience. I was ten years old when communism fell apart. I was there to see the democracy take over (pun intended). I saw the kind of hope and unity that only happens under extreme conditions, that turns common people in heroes. I witnessed that some of those heroes only last for a day, that hope doesn't always stick and that it takes a lot of work and effort to handle sudden availability of options, choices and responsibilities that come hand in hand with it. It's like a baggage from your previous unhappy marriage that you just can't completely leave behind. It's worse than that, because the new union is not necessarily so much more understanding and supportive. I feel relieved that I can raise my family in a place where hard work still pays off and people dare to dream big. There are many cliches about America. For many of them I am thankful. I love the smiles of strangers and I welcome the "how are you?" "just great, thank you" exchanges. I am happy not to be a part of the collective experience of my past where "how are you?" question is almost always followed by "don't even ask" or "well, I suppose it could be worse" answer.

I don't know if the place I live in right now is going to last for the rest of my life. I don't know if maybe after another 20-30 years here I could possibly start taking Christmases with Santa in board shorts and palm trees seriously, or if I will always ache for the peacefulness that only white snow cover can bring, for the Christmas markets with hot spiced wine, for the same old Czech and Slovak movies that are replayed every year and watched by all generations over and over. I don't think I will ever get used to the concept of American strip malls. I will forever miss the old town squares that have been there since the 10th century or longer and the stories they tell to whomever is willing to listen. I think I will always remain a prisoner of nostalgia, as I was not forced to leave my home and I was not saving my life, I was just given an option and I made a choice.

Looking outside of my bedroom window today, I see Pacific ocean, glistening waves and dive bombing prehistoric creatures also known as pelicans. The view is a definition of beauty. Yet I found myself saying more than once that in my past, I had better views than this one. I think that sentence is the best proof of how wonderfully lucky I am.

PS: "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." Vaclav Havel


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