What is it about air travel that strips you of something of yourself? That allows you to open up with a passing stranger that otherwise wouldn’t happen? What is it?
On a recent flight, I sat next to another woman about my age, a doctor who also taught at a university. With almond-shaped eyes and round lips, she passed for vaguely Mediterranean. But, it was her accent that baffled me.
So, I had to ask.
She was from Turkey.
I asked her what she thought of Western New York. She said that she found the people lovely and warm and thoughtful, but she wondered if she’d ever be fully at home. Because she and her husband didn’t have family in the area, she found it especially difficult when her child became sick. They often took him to work because they had no family support system.
Not From Here
Her son didn’t lack for popularity and spent lots of time with local kids. And although he’d known no other home and wasn’t especially close to his Turkish cousins, he told his mother, “I love my friends and our life here, but I’ll never fit in. I’ll never be from here. No matter what I do. Never in 400-years.”
I knew what she meant. I grew up in a village not far from Buffalo, where we’d departed. Everyone knows everyone. Even if they don’t know you, you’ll get a friendly wave when you walk down the street. People know who’s from there and who isn’t. Even if your great grandparents were the first to immigrate to the community.
Where I grew up, people leave their keys in their cars. Their doors unlocked during the day. You know which kids are in trouble, which ones are on the honor roll, which ones need remedial help, which ones you can count on for babysitting or winning sports trophies—and your family knows this, and more, about their family tree. For generations.
But try leaving. It’s a trade-off. Try circumventing generations of local knowledge in trying to build a support network when you have your first baby—thousands of miles from home. I knew what my flightmate meant. I’d moved 5,000 miles across the country when my immigrant husband and I finished grad school and he found work. And as far as building a family network, our move might have almost been overseas.
First Home, Not Home
Our first home sat on a tiny city street where Greek, Pashtun, Polish, Spanish and German, among other languages, were spoken. While I struggled less with feeling accepted, I never felt at home, but our gregarious and warm Greek neighbors tried. Adopting us before we were pregnant.
We spent hours at each other’s tables learning each other’s foods, wines, and stories. Spending time in Tom and Rose’s garden was both heart-warming and heart breaking. At home, I loved being in the garden with my grandmother, but her Northern latitude garden didn’t include artichokes, oranges, figs and Swiss chard the size of a lawn mower.
I felt loved and accepted, but never fully at home on that street. And leaving my child in the loving arms of Tom and Rose ended when I sat on a potentially loaded handgun protruding from the couch cushions where my toddler played.
A decade and a half later, I still work hard to seat myself in a community, to make a sense of home. But living in a big city, I will never have that intimate sense of knowing a place and its people—and their warts and gifts—and them mine—for generations.
My flightmate’s son’s words ring still in my ears: “I’ll never be from here. No matter what I do. Never in 400-years.”
Visiting My Father’s Home
Almost every spring when I was growing up, my dad would hitch the trailer to the truck and we’d visit the South of his youth. We’d tromp through cotton fields to the ruins of a shack, or the banks of a particular creek, or the porch of a stately great Aunt, and my dad and his sibling would share stories of their youth.
As preteens my sister and I would compare noses and foods we liked and disliked with cousins to prove we were related. I understood what it meant to be from there—for my dad, and I got an appreciation of where he came from. But I understood that my Northern upbringing and sensibilities meant I’d never be from there.
At Home At Heart
When my children were toddlers, I resolved that the best I could do was seat them in the world as citizens of the world—so that they felt comfortable being afoot in the world without feeling adrift from home. So that no matter where they were, they could carry their home in their heart in case they could never return to what they considered home.
Because, you can’t change where you came from or where you consider home, but you can change the geography of your heart.
What travel or airplane conversations have stirred the geography of your heart?