Airplane Conversations and the Geography of Heart

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.

Lake Wobegon-esque

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.”IMG_0491

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?

16 thoughts on “Airplane Conversations and the Geography of Heart

  1. I can certainly relate to moving away from home. Relocating to the midwest as a newlywed, I was thrust in the middle of a totally different culture. My California upbringing apparently was at total odds with the conservative midwest. If I said or did anything someone didn’t understand, a nod of the head with “Oh, that’s right, you’re from California” would explain my (to them) odd behavior.
    But as to the question of meeting someone on a plane, it was several years back when I sat next to a young lady who had recently become a lawyer that sticks most in my memory. We came from two different worlds: hers was hip and new and full of encounters that could have been handled better if only she had experience under her belt…mine was being a mother of two young children still trying to figure out my role other than mother. It was a particularly intimate conversation, and I have often wondered how she is doing.


    • Lisa,
      You hit another moment right on the head– the encounters that leave such an impression, we’d like to revisit the person and see how things turned out for them given who they were or what they were going through at the time.


  2. I grew up in a city, and loved the ability to choose anonymity whenever it suited me. I’ll never be “from” where I live now, but that’s the way I like it. What you and many other people find comforting, I find stifling. Go figure.


  3. I keep thinking about this idea of where I’m from. I mean…I grew up in central, industrialized-suburb New Jersey, and I do suppose those sensibilities inform a lot of my approach and perspective. But I was happy to leave and don’t feel emotionally tethered to that state. I lived right outside Boston, and in San Antonio, and now in a distinctly non-industrialized small town Pennsylvania and in a lot of ways grew up (or maybe I should say, more into my adulthood) in these places. They represent more of me, and home, now, than the place where I was a kid. I’ve come to consider “home” and “where I’m from” as more of an internal state.


    • This is really quite profound. The idea of emotional tethers, perspective, and growing into adulthood. Perhaps it hits me because I’m just finishing a memoir about those concepts- so coming and going and being and insider and outsider are concepts that strike pretty deep. And like choosing a spouse -we often have some control over where we live as adults. There is a choice… and the geography does indeed inform / mold who were are in ourselves and in that place. As well as who we are when we return to our childhood home. I love the idea of HOme as an internal state. Well put. Thank you for joining in!


  4. I have trouble defining “home” in my life. Maybe it is here in Phoenix, but maybe not. I don’t think I’ll be able to label one plot of earth as home until I can look back on another few decades of living. I love that you made me think today, Renee!


    • Windy, I wonder if our cultural definition of home needs to be changed? It’s problematic given our newly transient, global lives this past generation… and a new definition would relieve us of some old baggage, give us a way to be comfortable with what we “choose” to call home. I know, I don’t feel at home where I live, but I don’t feel as home where I grew up anymore either. I love that you stopped by today Windy!


  5. In these days of travel, internet and a global village, I think home is where you lay down your head at night. My daughter and I were having this conversation just a couple of nights ago before she headed back to her job on a cruise ship sailing on the other side of the world. She commented that at the moment she is homeless, but I said to her, home is where you sleep at night, and also where we are.


    • Carol,

      I think you’re on to something here. In an increasingly global world, this may be the healthiest way to look at this. My children will probably subscribe to this attitude quicker than I can. I was raised with the dirt of my ancestors under my fingernails and I walked their paths and fished their ponds and was told at every turn to keep and guard that place no matter what… so it’s hard to undue that sense of homelessness after leaving there. But my children probably feel freer and less guilty and entrenched than I. It is good to have place where you’re known and understood and have memories linked to a place… but yes, it has to all be in balance and proportion. I like what you told your daughter about where home is. I like even more that she understood to make that comment.


      • She is determined to be a nomad for a few more years yet so she has the right attitude. My only worry is that when she meets her true love he won’t be Australian! I guess if she lives somewhere else we can go and visit and have great holidays!


      • The nomad life is awesome. Especially at that age. Though I do have to say, I’ve gotten soft and comfortable in my middle age nest! Yes, as my teenager prepares for leaving home, I wonder if her future will be with someone overseas as mine took me for a while!


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