This essay first appeared on The Listserve.
Neither of us can remember how we came up with the idea to travel around the world for a year. We do know that the journey of making that dream come true required us to redefine home. “Identifying home is in essence an act of ongoing imagination,” writes Michael Dorris. “When we’re home, we don’t pine to be anywhere else, we don’t feel out of place or a stranger.” We pined to be somewhere else very much.
Travel brought me, a Slovak, and her, an Californian, together in the Netherlands ten years prior; we decided home was anywhere we were together. As we watched our house sell, our budget tighten, and our belongings dwindle, tongues in cheek we also decided that the only object we absolutely needed on our travels, aside from clothes, money, and passports, was a toothbrush. And so we concluded: Home is where your toothbrush is.
Flipping Thoreau’s exhortation to live at home like a traveler on its head, we set out to live in the world like at home. Wherever we went, we made a point of visiting temples, cemeteries, and markets. We ate street food and at restaurants, went to museums and corner shops, strolled the streets of villages and cities, hiked through forests and parks, rode public transportation. Everywhere could be home if we felt it was home.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Sometimes I’d wake up and spend an eternity figuring out where I was. No wonder: in the 13 months of traveling I slept in 73 different beds. But because I am my only constant, wherever and whenever I was my habits and routines and rituals were always with me—they’re what makes a place familiar and safe. Visiting the same kinds of places in every destination became a routine in and of itself. Repetition breeds familiarity, which, in turn, generates a sense of being at home.
Once you leave the original home, you make every home yourself. A location begins to feel like place and eventually like home when it acquires substance: the mass of memories. Where routines lay the foundation of home by creating a sense of regularity and comfort, memories build home up into a distinct place on your mental world map. Like every traveler I have a million stories from the road, which stitch together quilts of memories that I associate with each place. Those memories are the place. If an effect of travel is to create memories, you can be home anywhere, even on the road itself.
When place becomes a part of you, it turns into home. The distinction between where you live and who you are becomes blurred; if, as Robert Frost predicted, the day ever comes who you are, you may know better where you are. I felt I became one with many places: Bariloche, Havana, Penang, Sarajevo… We set out to live at home out in the world and in the process we discovered, nay, redefined ourselves, as individuals and as partners in life.
Home is also where your travels begin and end. We began our round-the-world trip in our adopted home town, Portland, Oregon. In the end we decided to go back to where we started—we realized Portland is home. We discovered, like T.S. Eliot before us, that “the end is where we start from.”
My toothbrush is in Portland, Oregon, where I advocate for a good cause, make beer, and write. Where is your toothbrush?