How to make a place a home
The process is simple, but not easy
Today I bring you an essay which I wrote at the end of last year for a different publication. It didn’t get commissioned in the end, but that only means that you get to be part of its premiere now.
I arrived at Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids late in the evening on the last plane out of Chicago. I had been wide awake for the past 24 hours and now stared at the empty luggage belt in disbelief. Thinking oh no no no please no and maybe, if I just looked hard enough, the two suitcases, that my mom had helped me pack, would magically appear. While we were standing at the counter to report lost baggage, the lump in my throat growing bigger and bigger, the scope of the decision I had made a year ago started to sink in.
I was 16 years old and I was on my way to live with total strangers in a foreign country, going to a new school where I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t going to see my parents or friends for an entire year. When I applied to the exchange program, this seemed like the best idea anyone’s ever had. I wanted life to start and I wanted it to start anywhere but in the boring German small town I grew up in.
At the luggage belt I suddenly realized: I was completely on my own, for the first time ever. Dropped into a culture I didn’t understand, having to advocate for myself in a language that didn’t yet belong to me, its words constantly getting stuck somewhere between my brain and my mouth.
Never again in my life have I felt as lost, alone and terrified as I did that night when I walked out of the airport into the hot, stuffy midwestern night. And the year that followed was a lot of things, but it wasn’t the best year of my life, like the brochures had promised. Luckily. Who wants to peak at 16 anyway?
Still, it was probably the best decision of my life.
I hadn’t found friends, as you would say in German, but I had made friends. Actively. I had built a very special relationship with my host parents, who fundamentally changed the course of my life, as pathetic as that may sound. And I learned more than I thought I could ever cram into my brain. I learned that you never excuse yourself to go “to the toilet”, but “to the restroom”. That a pop is a soft drink, that everything Americans know about the holocaust comes from watching Schindler’s List in sophomore year, that sophomore year means 10th grade and that you can prepare an astonishing number of meals in a microwave.
The most important thing I learned, however, was that home isn’t a location assigned by your place of birth. At home is how you feel at a certain time in a certain space, and it’s up to you to transform any place into your home.
The process is simple, but not easy. You have to observe and listen and talk, and then listen some more. You have to fight and forgive and love; love with all you have, love the big things and love the little things even more. So that when you leave, you’ll feel that while you were doing all of the above, something inside your heart has shifted, has made space for new people and places, smells and sounds, for moments and memories. For a feeling of belonging.
Ever since I left Iowa, I have made many places my home. Some for a weekend, some for a lifetime, and I know that I can do it again, anywhere, that it’s up to me.
The French anthropologist Marc Augé would call the Eastern Iowa Airport a “nonplace”, a space of transience, which does not hold enough significance to be regarded as a proper "place". For me though, this airport is one of the most important places of my life. It is the portal through which I learned that the concept of home is anchored in your heart, not your passport. Because twelve months after staring at that luggage belt, almost paralyzed by fear, I walked back into the same place, tears streaming down my face and causing a delay because I couldn’t break away from these people who used to be strangers and now meant the world to me.
To this day, I remember the smell of the carpeted floors, the July sun blinding me when I walked towards the gate, the forgiving smile of the flight attendant when he saw my tears and gently asked, “Miss Scholz to Dusseldorf? We’re waiting for you”.
pop culture pleasures
So many of my favorite women writers have absolutely outdone themselves these past weeks. Get ready to have all of the tabs open.
Annie Lord shared her experience of living vicariously through TV during the pandemic and I, too, have laughed and cried more with fictional characters than with my actual friends over the past year. As Annie says, “I have forgotten what it is like to be screaming for my own journey, instead of willing Connell in Normal People to overcome his depression.”
Helena Fitzgerald muses on the storylines of novels and life and how none of them are ever told by a reliable narrator. Subscribe to her Griefbacon column, will you?
Jillian Anthony is on a similar beat: She writes about letting go of the “why” – because there is simply no logic to “life’s certain uncertainty” and no, not everything happens for a reason. I would even say: nothing.
Yomi Adegoke argued a strong case for letting single women be picky and I’m not accepting any counter arguments. “The concept of men “punching above their weight” is not only normalised, but celebrated; women, on the other hand, aren’t even allowed to hope for someone like them without being told to rein it in.”
You need Alison Stevenson in your life, if you ever want to attempt dating again. In her current column, she flips the script on “being the bigger person” and dismantles the “chill-/no-drama-girl” trope right with it.
This Twitter thread will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside and it can be summarized with: We’re all one cake-drop away from crying in the driveway.
I watched The One on Netflix, which I didn’t like very much (too many plot holes, not enough facial expressions in Hannah Ware’s repertoire), and the Joan Didion documentary, which I liked very much, because what a woman!
🇩🇪 Falls ihr meinen neuen Podcast “Windmacher” noch nicht gehört habt, würde ich mich freuen wenn ihr ihm eine Chance gebt. In vier Folgen erzählen wir die Geschichte des Hochstaplers Hendrik Holt, es ist quasi Catch me if you can – aber aus dem Emsland. Und True Crime ohne Albtraumgefahr!
“I’m worried that the first new person I hug post-vaccination will have to support my full weight while I fully collapse into their arms like a teenager in the ’50s who just saw Elvis dance for the first time.”
That’s it for today. If the anniversary of the pandemic has you feeling low (like me), please remember that life could be worse. You could be the person who parked a huge cargo ship sideways in the Suez canal, the blockage now costing every seafaring nation millions per day.
Anyway, thank you for spending time with my words, I truly appreciate it. If you’d like to support what I do here, you can do so by subscribing, sharing or donating a cup of coffee. Or brighten my day by sending me a picture of your pet, as long as it’s not a reptile.
Until next time,
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