What does ‘home’ mean? This question has been weighing on me for quite some time; but this week it matured into a centrifugal force and raced around my head until I could find the time to write this blog. I blame it partly on the fact that it was Mother’s Day weekend, partly on the nostalgic visit from a Canadian friend (Sally), and partly on my mood (which seems rather pensive lately). Whatever the ratio of reason to thought, these past seven days I have seriously contemplated what the idea of ‘home’ means to me and attempted to pinpoint exactly where my ‘home’ is located.
The first obvious answer would be that ‘home’ is where one is physically living. Is Amsterdam – with its acceptance of all things international (Amsterdam is home to people from 179 different nationalities), liberal attitude towards all things different (aka Dutch Tolerance), and pea soup (which warms any belly regardless of colour or creed) – my home? I often wonder – especially living as an expat on another continent and in possession of a strong intention to return to Canada one day – can my Amsterdam flat actually act as a home? My particular disorientation is due to the fact that I am a habitual student and have continued, to a certain degree, to treat the house that I grew up in (my parent’s house) as my home. When I left for school a little over a decade ago, I adopted a nomadic life that is excited by the unknown but demands the absence of firm anchors. The routine was axiomatic, following the school year I would return to my parents’ blue house to live and work during the summer’s vacation. I would then find a new place to live and new (educational) adventure to conquer by the next fall. The trade-off is my life, my world, became constantly in a state of flux. At some point along the way my home (the blue house) stopped being my home of physical location but I’m not sure where that leaves me. I certainly haven’t been homeless but I also don’t feel like my home has joined me along my whole journey. Perhaps if I had found a traditional job when I finished law school (five years ago) and bought a white picket fenced house with the aim towards achieving the story book spouse, 2.5 children and 1.3 dogs, I wouldn’t be having these inner dialogues. If only I had done the traditional thing, would my quest for a home have been easier?
It is almost midnight now and as I look out the window into one of Amsterdam’s tranquil canals, the question resurfaces: Is my apartment – an apartment that I truly love and never want to leave – my home? In fairness, Amsterdam is the city that is raising my adorable two-year-old son. With his half-Canadian, half-Dutch accent, I can’t help but wonder whether home is the place you raise your kids? Amsterdam is after all the only city Toddler X knows. Our canal house offers Toddler X the perfect vantage point to view bicyclists, boats, horse buggies and the hustle-bustle of the city. Our bike adventures have led us through tiny alleys and a maze of criss-crossing canals. We have spotted windmills and coasted over picturesque bridges. Amsterdam’s distinctive architecture with the buildings narrow frontage and steeply pitched gables has become our landscape. Toddler X attends a Dutch crèche, plays with Dutch children, eats Dutch cuisine (mostly cheese), and speaks the Dutch language. Is ‘home’ therefore classified as such according to a child’s perspective (as it is the only home he has ever known and even if I feel I have a different home)?
Maybe I place too much emphasis on the city? Perhaps it is much easier? Home may not be so much the place of your dwelling but where you spend your days (and do the things you love). Maybe home is where you walk your dogs, or where you or your partner works, or at your favourite place to run or hula-hoop, or where you choose to create memories. Does the city really matter so much? If ‘home’ is where you live your life, home can be anywhere. All of one’s prized possessions (i.e. Alice in Wonderland books or Toddler X’s baby memorabilia) can be put in a suitcase and travel the world with you. Then is ‘home’ made wherever one decides to live? Could Amsterdam, New York, Toronto, or even Mexico City be our new ‘home’? As long as I have my husband, Toddler X, our two little dogs – Stella and Georgia – my running shoes, and my hula-hoop, we technically could create a ‘home’ in any city we decide to live. Or could we? Or are our moves, our relocations, just a series of extended vacations?
I have lived in South Slocan, British Columbia, Brooks, Alberta, Victoria, British Columbia, Fredericton, New Brunswick, London, Ontario, Tucson, Arizona, Heidelberg, Germany and Amsterdam, The Netherlands and yet I still feel compelled to refer to the blue house in South Slocan, British Columbia as ‘home’. Is ‘home’ therefore the place you grow up? Being Mother’s Day, I first thought perhaps home is where your mother lives. I mean isn’t she the one that builds this idea of home? Our house growing up always smelled of a combination of homemade peanut butter cookies, apple pies and some seasonal fruit muffins. My mom worked tirelessly and yet still found the time to make comfort food. I used to trade my mom’s cookies on the school barter system – one homemade cookie equalled 2-3 Oreos. I still can’t believe I traded her delicious cookies for processed cardboard. I remember when we were selling our first family home and moving into a larger one and my mom spent a lot of time ensuring that our house felt like home to the potential buyers. She seemed to know exactly what ‘home’ smelled like. Right before a potential buyer would visit our place, she would whip up a pie or make a fresh loaf of bread. The smell of apples baking or yeast rising gave the impression of ‘home.’
But my mom did more than just bake goods and create an aroma of ‘home’. She also constructed the idea of ‘home’. In other words, she made our blue house not only smell like home but feel like home. The family dinners at 5pm, the golden retriever dog, the soothing power of freshly made soup, the butter drenched Russian food, the manicured flower beds, the freshly hung laundry, the personal lunchbox notes, the evenly spaced vegetable garden, the freshly canned dill pickles, the built in tutor and life cheerleader, and the goodnights and good mornings. Those things are what I consider ‘home.’ Happy Mother’s Day.