…a collection of meanings.
With Where Is Your Toothbrush? we aim to re-imagine home as the place where you keep your toothbrush. Clearly, we use the notion as a metaphor: home is more than just a physical location or the place to store possessions. Home is a collection of meanings.
Home is your origin
I was born and raised in Košice, Slovakia—it will forever be home. Lindsay was born in Inglewood, California, but grew up in Sonoma County and in Placerville, both of which she calls home in various contexts.
Home is where you became a person. In addition to visiting family or friends, the return there entails revisiting who you were when you lived there. Get a little psychoanalytical and home is the womb whence you emerged; there’s only one and it’s forever.
Home is the “shadow partner” of the destination
As Andre Aciman has pointed out in False Papers, home is also the starting point of every journey. Home is “what sets the course to our travels. Home is what we leave behind, knowing we’ll recover it at the end of the journey. Home is also what makes going away safe.” Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “The end is where we start from.”
Home is where you are
Just as, “Wherever you go, there you are,” we believe that, “Wherever you call home, is home.” Home is where you say it is. You can consciously decide to make a place your home and root it in memories and routines.
Home is memories
Space (a house, a city, a country) begins to feel like place and then like home when it acquires substance: the mass of memories. The more you experience there, the more it becomes the anchor cast into the sea of existence. If an effect of travel is to collect memories, you can be home anywhere.
Home is routine
Hand in hand with memories in transforming place into home comes routine. Do something enough times—navigate the apartment in the middle of the night, go to the same coffeeshop, take the same bus—and it becomes familiar and safe. That is why we plan on staying in one place for 3-4 weeks and use it as a base camp for exploring.
Home is you
George Monbiot has remarked that “identity is rooted in place.” By definition, existence is physical. Geographic space thus helps define who you are; a part of who you are depends on where you are. It remains to be seen whether creating home in many places around the globe makes for a shallower or stronger me.
Featured image by Google Maps Street View. This is where I grew up. It looked different then, grayer than the building in the background.
…things you carry with you
“Home is where your toothbrush is” is just another way of saying home can be anywhere, as long as your most essential portable item anchors you. For us the location of our toothbrushes determines what we call home: home is my parents’ apartment, a friends’ house we’re housesitting while they’re on vacation, a mountain chalet, a hotel. Of course, this is only one of the possible definitions of home.
Home to go
József Tamás Balázs aka Bajóta, a Hungarian artist born in the Romanian region of Transylvania, recently presented his idea of home at the exhibition Utopiatrap, which culminated his residency at the K.A.I.R. Košice Artist in Residence program.
Bajóta has long been fascinated with the search for home. He told me, “Even as a child I wanted to leave home. I feel the need to move around.”
He now lives in Budapest where they speak his mother tongue but which is the capital of a foreign country. Or is his birthplace Romania the foreign country since they speak a strange language there?
How can you be home in two, or even more, different countries? Does it mean home is anywhere you are? And, consequently, is it possible to ever leave home?
Bajóta’s work reflects these dilemmas. The three installations he introduced at Utopiatrap focus on the symbols of home that are both mobile, i.e. they can be disassembled, transported, and reassembled, and utilitarian. In addition, the objects refer to folk architecture in his region of birth. In other words, you can take home with you not only in your heart but with any useful objects.
- The Kraal represents a fence system for sheep used in mountain pastures where it is constantly moved to areas with fresh grass. You can be home anywhere you find sustenance, anywhere you’re trapped, anywhere walls enclose you, moveable as they may be. The used oil, poured around the kraal, points at the common wood preservation technique in Transylvania—call it an olfactory reminder of home.
- The Jump is a skateboarding jump made out of pine shingles, the kind used in traditional countryside roofs. Here Bajóta makes an obscure play with the Hungarian word “szöktető”, which means both a jump and desertion or flight. You can jump off the roof of your home to fly out into the world. But the smell of pine wood and the oil sticks with you.
- The Bird Trap. Another portable object, this time a cube made out of short beams interlaced using the ‘wolf-tooth joint’ technique, which holds the trap together with the help of gravity yet teeters in the air ready to capture its prey.
- The Tree. The young pine tree standing in a mound of dirt points at the wastefulness of wood use in the countryside, Bajóta told me. He wants to plant the tree somewhere in Košice, perhaps in order to put his roots down here, too.
Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Bajóta can calmly declare, “I have never felt homesick.” The question is, whether he will feel homesick for Košice. The exhibition completed his residency here. The next day he left for Budapest. Then he’s headed for the mountains. There, too, he feels at home.
Home as an object
My home is anywhere my toothbrush is, no matter what the toothbrush (I do get a new one every now and then), no matter what the place. Some people carry soil from their homeland with them, others a rock or a photograph, all of which can be used in productive ways. Kristina ‘Kika’ Forbat, another K.A.I.R. artist working as my hometown Košice’s city writer (or blogger-chronicler), hangs onto a small espresso maker. She got it as a present when she moved out of her parents’ house, she writes on her blog. For 8 years now, the pot has been with her in her backpack. You can carry your home in a suitcase, she says.
Home is not just within you but also with you. Whatever the object, you can carry your home anywhere you go. The only difference is to what you attach its meaning.
- This post is an expanded translation of my article for the Leto v parku/Summer in the Park festival blog (I volunteered for the festival).
- Sources for the piece included an interview with Bajóta; the Utopiatrap leaflet and webpage; and Kika’s blog.
- The post is the second in the occasional series “What is home?” Read Part I, “A collection of meanings.”
Home emerges through routines. As I wrote in the introduction to the “What is home?” series, “Do something enough times—navigate the apartment in the middle of the night, go to the same coffeeshop, take the same bus—and it becomes familiar and safe.”
On this last visit to my hometown, Košice, eighteen years since moving away and two years since the last visit, I found many details and memories gone from my mental map of the place. I couldn’t recall names of major streets or picture where they are when reminded, for example (true, many things had changed during my absences: busses changed routes; new bars, cafes, art spaces, or stores cropped up; and buildings sprouted graffiti). When you visit a place, you are just a visitor, even if it’s your hometown and you’re staying with your parents.
So in the spirit of toothbrushism, i.e. making a home anywhere, I established three routines that helped me make Košice into a home again. The fun part: all three were completely new to me.
What is home? Swimming at the Municipal Pool
Following my third-grade compulsory swimming course, I helped teach newbies how to swim. Since the third year of high school, when I thought I’d drown in a pond during an English-language summer camp, I hated swimming, or even entering any large bodies of water. So when Lindsay suggested we take up swimming as our exercise on the trip, naturally I said yes.
On the first visit to the Municipal Pool, I was petrified. Lindsay helped me establish an exercise routine and gave me tips for improving my swimming skills. We went to the pool together several times, on most days we were in town. It became a routine after three or four times. I even went by myself when Lindsay was studying Slovak in Bratislava.
Swimming at Košice’s Municipal Pool helped me reconnect with my hometown, the way any exploration of new places does (I had never even set foot at the Pool before July 2013). It helped me feel more at home there: repetition breeds familiarity, which, in turn, generates the sense of being at home in a place. Finally, swimming was not only great exercise, it forced me to overcome my fear of water.
What is home? Sitting at the Kávy sveta café
Whenever I found myself in Košice’s historic downtown, including after taking a swim at the Municipal Pool, I stopped at the Kávy sveta/A Világ Kávei/Coffee World cafe. Great coffee (including a selection of specialty brews), cold beer, and Lindsay’s and my favorite white wine, Cserszegi Fűszeres. A prime people-watching location on the historic Main Street and live music on Friday nights made for a wonderful place to make myself at home. I went there so often the staff started recognizing me after only a few weeks.
One of the best ways to feel at home anywhere is to frequent a favorite coffee shop (bar, pub, restaurant). Being recognized as a regular; becoming familiar with a long menu; and simply going to the same place again and again creates the right kind of comfortability with a place.
What is home? Reading the local newspaper
Though I tend to get my news online, whenever I’m in Slovakia I enjoy reading newspapers and magazines in print. Staying with my parents, I often walked to the newsstand up the street to get my SME daily, Korzár thrice-weekly, and Týždeň weekly papers. Thanks to my regular readership, I even got a couple of my pieces published in the weekly.
Once again, the routine of walking to the newsstand, of reading the physical publications, and of daily learning of the news gets you closer to the place, makes you more rooted there.
…a familiar spot
When Peter and I visited Trogir, Croatia, in 2008, we desperately searched for better coffee than the hotel buffet. Every day, we ended up drinking espresso at the same spot before the crowds of vacationers showed up on the beach to swim. The beach-side cafe was just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, and it was nothing special in appearance. Local retired men occupied a few tables and sat chatting and smoking long after emptying their cups. After several visits and increasingly friendly grunts from the waitress, the locals stopped staring at us and we grew to love the cafe’s plastic furniture, astro-turf, Hajduk Split logo under the counter, and cheesy name: Fast Food Atlantis.
Since then, Fast Food Atlantis has become an inside joke referring to a familiar spot we return to develop a sense of home. We’ve come to find that each Fast Food Atlantis, be it a gyros stand, pub, or coffee house, helps us feel a little more at ease with our surroundings, especially once the staff begin to recognize us and wave back when we walk by and the regulars nod when we sit down.
Like Peter’s routine of visiting Kávy Sveta/Coffee World in Košice, finding a special spot creates intimacy with an environment. It’s even more important in countries where neither of us speaks the language; we may not be able to converse, but everyone understands a nod of recognition. Home means belonging somewhere and being recognized as belonging. For us, home is finding Fast Food Atlantis wherever we go.
…a neighborhood park
I do love a good, crowded city, but after too long having to share my sidewalks, cafes, museums, and public toilets with millions of other people, I begin to crave my own private patch of nature. While traveling in major cities, we’ve discovered respite in a few neighborhood parks, islands of green tucked among the nooks of the concrete jungle. These little doses of nature have helped the country girl make a home in the caffeinated clamor of the big city.
National Garden, Athens
Athens’ intensity hits you from many different angles all at once: crowds, traffic, heat, restaurant touts, and, lately, the looming riot police presence. We discovered the National Garden one afternoon after we’d had enough of it all and found ourselves in great need of a quiet spot to rest our feet.
We sat for a while under the wisteria grove and snacked on koulouri, round chewy bread coated in sesame seeds. The shade and breeze cooled us as we followed paths along the historic fountains, aviaries, and postcard-worthy ponds.
Maçka Park, Istanbul
We lived for a month in Istanbul, just a few hundred meters from Taksim Square, which made headlines this summer during the violent protests, and steps away from Istiklal Avenue, a shopping street which can host up to three million pedestrians in a single weekend. At Maçka Park, a green patch of hills and trees in the sea of shoppers, taxis, and skyscrapers, we could forget for a while that we were living in the world’s second most populated city.
Fall leaves dotted the park with yellow and brown, but green was the popular color, and stray cats the popular wildlife, which we found apropos since mačka means cat in Slovak.
The steep paths made it a perfect spot for a daily dose of exercise, but in case we overdosed on nature and fresh air, there was a gondola ferrying people from one end to the other.
Kralingse Plas, Rotterdam
While we flew into Amsterdam, the Netherlands, during one of their biggest storms in decades, by the time we arrived to Rotterdam, the weather was calm, crispy cold, and sunny. Kralingse Plas was the perfect place for an afternoon stroll with Peter’s sister Katka and her family.
Bombed by the Nazis in 1940, Rotterdam’s downtown is lined with mostly modern buildings and lacks the old-world charm of other Dutch city centers. None of that mattered as we watched the winter sun set at Kralingse Plas, so large you can stroll along the lake, or through the forest, or stop for a coffee or beer at one of a few cafes. Don’t worry, there’s even some windmills, in case you do lose track of time and forget where you are.
Lumphini Park, Bangkok
My first 24 hours in Bangkok’s hit me so hard with sights, smells, and sounds, there was barely enough room in my brain to process it all. There is so much to take in: kilometers of sidewalk lined with stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, and questionable generic Viagra, not to mention the food stands, which fill the streets with exotic smells every other step. After a day or so, as great as it all is, it’s incredibly exhausting, especially when you’re still convalescing from a little jet lag.
Lumphini Park is the antidote to all of it, but we weren’t allowed to forget we were still in in Bangkok. We strolled by Buddhist shrines, watched couples and even a few solos paddle by in swan boats, and caught a session of public aerobics.
Around six o’clock, while we slowly made our way to the exit, the walkers and runners on our path suddenly stopped in their tracks. We followed suit, and could hear a faint song playing in the distance. When the Thai National Anthem plays in a public place, everyone, even the tourists, stops and shows their respect.
Finding a neighborhood park has become an essential part of making a home in a big city abroad.