This essay is my introduction to the book Home Is Where Your Toothbrush Is, which may see the light of day some time in the future.
Lindsay and I met in the spring of 2002 far away from home. I was living in a shared student house in Leiden, the Netherlands, where I was attending graduate school in the Political Science Department. She was in between homes, spending the period before moving to Eugene, Oregon, for her bachelor’s studies in journalism visiting a childhood friend, who happened to be one of my housemates, and backpacking around Western Europe. Our first dates, chaperoned by the matchmaking friend, took place in Amsterdam and Delft, the latter just as Slovakia’s ice hockey team won the country’s first world championship. In the next year, we kept in touch with email and phone, and visited each other in our respective home countries. Then, on my last visit, I stayed so that we could stay together.
Before Lindsay and I met, I lived for a year in Budapest, five years in Bratislava, and 18 years with my parents in Košice in two different apartments; I’d visited 25 European and North American countries as a traveler. My immigration to the U.S. represented the ultimate displacement for me, for I found myself away from home-home, as I came to call Slovakia, and not quite settled in my new home country, living with one foot in each culture, on each continent, neither here nor there. Lindsay moved around a lot and lived in nearly a dozen different places around Northern California. Together we lived in four different apartments in as many years in Eugene and Portland before we bought a house.
Travel both is second nature to each of us and constitutes the fabric of our relationship. Perhaps, it is fitting, then, that neither of us remembers who came up with the idea to take a round-the-world trip for a year, or when that happened. What we do know is that the journey of making that dream come true started with redefining home.
Home as a Concept
The etymological origin of the word “home” is in the Germanic words kei, meaning lying down, a bed, or something beloved, and ksema, meaning a safe dwelling, and in the related Greek word koiman, to put to sleep, which is the root for koimeterion, a sleeping place or a cemetery. The Anglo-Saxon word for home ham, the Norse heimr, the Lithuanian kemas, all came to mean a village, a town, or other collection of dwellings. Home is a place, Lisa Knopp writes, to lay down your living body for the night or your dead body for eternity (this explains why we sought to visit a cemetery wherever we went).
In the U.S., home has also acquired a real-estate meaning of a building that constitutes a private residence. When we were shopping for a house to live in, in common parlance we were out to buy a home, as if home is something that can emerge from a financial transaction. Home ownership rate is an important economic indicator in America and when we bought the house we became part of that statistic. (We also can’t agree on another aspect of our trip: whereas I maintain we bought the 2-bedroom/1-bath fixer-upper in Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood in 2006 in order to sell it 5 years later and use the proceeds to travel, Lindsay opines we conjured the trip after we bought the house and decided to sell it to generate the needed funds.)
In short order, we made the new house our own, painting, fixing things up, gardening. We also became burdened by the debt we took on to buy the house and the expenses needed to prepare it for the eventual sale; for five years we poured the limited funds we had—we both worked for nonprofits—into the mortgage payment, building materials, and furnishings. And as the economic crisis caused the house value to plunge like a roller coaster car, we saw our dream go with it.
Before this moment the trip was simply something to do, to continue exploring the world together and to celebrate our relationship. But when we saw our dream fade away, it took more than sitting down to make a plan, which included finalizing preparations for the house sale, making a budget, scaling down our expenses, shedding possessions, and for me also getting a higher paying job. First and foremost, it meant getting out of the mindset that home is a particular dwelling, a physical space with a fixed address.
It was during the writing of this book that I found a passage affirming our nascent conviction that we could be at home anywhere:
The sad truth is that when home is deemed synonymous with permanence, it is always illusionary. Identifying home is then in essence an act of ongoing imagination. Home is not necessarily on the range or where the heart is but it is clearly a mental state that bespeaks relative contentment. When we’re home, we don’t pine to be anywhere else, we don’t feel out of place or a stranger. Michael Dorris
As soon as we, the home owners, began to pine to be somewhere else, the house ceased to be a home and became a burden. “Among the great struggles of man there is this mighty conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots and the mirage of the journey,” Salman Rushdie writes. We felt the pull in a very visceral way. What motivated us to get up and pursue our dream was a shift in attitude: because travel brought us together, because we wanted to travel together, and because we came up with the world-trip idea together, we decided home was anywhere we were together.
Toward the trip’s conclusion, two years later, we launched an interview series on our blog asking fellow traveling and blogging couples about their experiences. In dozens of Two Tootbhrushes interviews the definition of home in terms of being with the significant other emerged as the largest cluster of definitions.
Similarly, most responses in a Real Simple magazine reader survey answering the question, “What does home mean to you?”, revolved around loved ones (husband, since most respondents were women).
At the same time we decided that home can be anywhere in the world for us, we watched in excitement as our belongings dwindled, through sale, donation, or giveaway. We took the process to its logical conclusion and 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 our toothbrushes are. Home is where your toothbrush is.
Home as Place
However you define home, it cannot be divorced from place. “We are tied to place undetachably and without reprieve,” posits Edward S. Casey. I wasn’t the first traveler to experience profound disorientation on the road. Sometimes I’d wake up and spend what seemed like an interminable moment figuring out where I was. No wonder: in the 13 months of traveling I slept in 73 different beds, which averages to a different bed, room, and dwelling roughly every five or six days.
Not every place becomes home, but finding my bearings in place went a long way. In the Southern Hemisphere, I felt the world stood upside down, with the noon sun due north. In locations where traffic drove on the left, I saw not just the vestiges of the British Empire but a total incongruence with the way things are supposed to be.
How does place come into existence? “When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place,” Yi-Fu Tuan writes. The longer you live somewhere, the more familiar it becomes. Your existence as a human and as a traveler unfolds through experiences in place: the more you experience there, the more familiar it becomes. Life consists of experiences and memories: The more memories attach to a place, the more familiar it becomes. Place emerges when space acquires meaning.
It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it. It perseveres in bring us back to earth when we fly too high. It never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. Eudora Welty
At the same time that place extends and deepens space and time, it also extends beyond simple spatial-temporal dimensions. For all societies throughout human history, home meant the center of the world both in a geographical and, even more so, in a spiritual sense. Home, according to John Berger, stood at the intersection of a vertical line that connected the underworld with the heavens and the horizontal one representing the traffic of the world (this puts our visits to cemeteries, temples, and markets into further context).
When place becomes a part of us, it turns into home; home defines you. When Julie Beck, writing in The Atlantic, comes to the conclusion that “a home is a home because it blurs the line between the self and the surroundings,” she echoes Lisa Knopp who realized that at home, “the distinction between where I live and who I am becomes blurred,” who, in turn, expresses what Robert Frost concluded in “A Cabin in the Clearing”:
If the day ever comes when they know who
They are, they may know better where they are.
I sense that on our trip we did it the other way. Redefining home as any place we find ourselves on our trip had profound implications on our self-definition as a couple and individually. For who you are depends, in part, on where you are. “Place is a protean and fundamental aspect of what it is to be human, [it] is the fabric of our lives,” Alastair Bonnett writes. “Memory and identity are stitched to it.” Or, as George Monbiot has remarked, “Identity is rooted in place.” This is why when you travel you consider yourself a traveler: the very core of your being alters its self-definition to match the reality of traveling. We set out to live at home out in the world and in the process rediscovered our roots and amended, if not redefined, our respective identities.
Home in the Mind, Home on the Road
There exists for everyone an original home, the one you do not choose, the one where you were born and became a human being. For me, it is Košice, Slovakia—I will always call it home (though nowadays I get emphasize its primordial importance by calling it home-home). Lindsay grew up in Sonoma County and Placerville, California, both of which she calls home in different contexts. There’s only one place place you emerged into the world, where you grew up, where you became a person, and it’s forever home.
Once you leave the original home, you make every home yourself. “Wherever you go, there you are,” goes the famous adage. Wherever you call home is home, goes our corollary. Rather than some externally imposed location, home is where you say it is. “When are you coming home?” people ‘back home’ will say. For them, when you travel you are ‘there’ somewhere, out in the world while, of course, you, one with your self and your body, are always ‘here.’ “My home is inside myself,” writes Sholeh Wolpe. “As long as home is here, no one else can define where home is not.”
Yet even on the road, you can consciously decide to make a place your home, or at least try. Tongue in cheek aside, what we really mean when we say we can be at home wherever our toothbrushes are, that is, anywhere, is that home is more than just a physical location for storing our dental implements, it is a mental concept. Home is in the mind where it emerges out of a collection of meanings.
Home where significant events or activities of life take place. Because you are the only constant, wherever and whenever you are, your habits and routines and rituals are always with you and wherever you perform them is, or can be, home. A morning shave, a shared meal, pillow talk, the writing of a book. A jog, reading a book at a cafe, a grocery run. Routines are what make a place familiar and safe.
There are two types of travelers: those who seek difference and those who seek similarity. In the first group are travelers who leave home seeking to experience local customs around the world and immerse themselves in various cultures—to see how other places are different from theirs. The second type of traveler seeks to discover the particular cultural expressions of the same universal concepts—to see how other places are similar, or even the same, from theirs. 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, We strolled through the streets of villages and cities, hiked through forests and parks, and rode public transportation (or what passed for it). We did what we normally do but elsewhere. This not only allowed us to see how people in various places around the world do the same thing differently, thus providing a valuable window on the local cultures we visited, it allowed us to feel at home. We flipped Thoreau exhortation to live at home like a traveler on its head: we set out to live in the world like at home.
Home Is Routines
You can develop new routines to make yourself feel at home anywhere, as well. After all, repetition breeds familiarity, which, in turn, generates a sense of being at home. On the trip we visited my hometown, Košice, for a few weeks. Eighteen years after I moved away and two since the last visit—I visit every two or three years—I found many details wiped from my mental map of the place. I struggled to recall street names or picture some of the landmarks; busses changed routes; new bars, art spaces, and graffiti had cropped up. To make myself feel less like a visitor and more at home again and to reconnect with the city of my childhood and youth, I established three completely new routines: I went to the Municipal Swimming Pool, where I conquered my fear of water; I drank a glass of Cserszegi Füszeres, a Hungarian white wine, at the downtown Kávy sveta/A világ kávei/Coffee World café, where I watched people walk by on the Main Street and where soon staff recognized me as a regular; and I walked to the kiosk in the mornings to buy local newspapers (a daily, a thrice-weekly, and a weekly, in which I also got a few pieces published), which I read with my morning coffee and breakfast while chatting with my parents.
Routines attach to particular places. On a previous trip to Trogir, Croatia, in 2008, we desperately searched for better coffee than the hotel buffet. We found it at a beachside cafe a few minutes’ walk down the road where we drank espressos every day before vacationers crowded the beach for the day. It was nothing special: a few tables with white plastic chairs and cheap table clothes where local elders sat chatting and smoking over empty cups under the logo of Hajduk Split, a popular soccer team, a roof that looked decidedly makeshift, and a sign that said Fast Food Atlantis while, unlike other beachside joints where Euro dance boomed all day long, mostly Croatian music played from a rickety stereo. Since then, Fast Food Atlantis has become an inside-joke term for us referring to a special, familiar spot we return to: it’s the Lucky Souvlaki hole-in-the-wall gyros join in Fira, Santorini, Greece; it’s the Terminal 21 Mall food court in Bangkok, Thailand; it’s the Manoush microbrewery in Bariloche, Argentina. Such a special place creates intimacy with an environment and a sense of belonging there, helping to develop a sense of home anywhere.
Visiting the same kinds of places in every destination became a routine in and of itself. At markets, we wanted to observe exchanges between people; at temples, between people and their deity; in cemeteries, between the live and the dead. In addition to these places, all of which contributed to our feeling at home, particularly in larger cities we sought respite in neighborhood parks, islands of trees and grass tucked into the seas of concrete, little patches of green where residents acknowledged the need for intercourse with nature. In the hilly Macka Park in Istanbul where children played, lovers strolled, and stray cats hunted, we could forget we were living in the world’s second most populated city, near Istiklal Avenue, a shopping street which can see up to three million pedestrians in a weekend. In Athens’ traffic, heat, tourist crowds, and falangs of police, the shade and solitude of the National Garden offered us a quiet wisteria grove to rest and stroll under the green canopy among aviaries, fountains, ponds. In Bangkok, which greeted us with a frontal assault on our senses, with sights, smells, sounds, and flavors, exhausting our attention while we were recovering from jetlag, Lumpini Park provided a perfect antidote: strollers like us, couples paddling in swan boats, runners, and a public aerobics session all came to a halt at six, standing like the nearby Buddhist shrines while the national anthem played from the loudspeakers. Though neither Lindsay nor I are fans of huge cities, visiting parks, a decidedly Western invention, brought these and others we visited closer to our hearts, helping us feel at home.
Home Is Memories
In addition to routines, meaning emerges from memories. A space begins to feel like place and eventually like home when it acquires substance: the mass of memories. Typically, the more you experience at a place, be it a room or a neighborhood or a city, the more memories you amass there and the higher the likelihood it becomes home. But the length of time spent somewhere does not equate feeling at home. Holland never became home for me though I lived there for more than a year, and neither had the two apartments in Eugene and the first one in Portland—they were just places where we lived for a few months at a time. Your experiences must be of the memorable kind, anchoring you in the sea of existence. If an effect of travel is to create and collect memories, you can be home anywhere, even on the road itself.
You may live in a place for months, even years, and it does not touch you, but a weekend or a night in another, and you feel as if your whole being has been sprayed with an equivalent of a cosmic wind. Dorris Lessing
Every traveler has a million stories from the road. I do, too, about the people we met, about the little adventures and misfortunes we experienced, about our favorite spots. I did not set out to collect these memories on purpose. Certain things just stick out in my mind, each associated with certain places, which, even so many months later, make them feel like home.
- Santorini, Greece: watching the sunset over a seafood dinner and white wine at a bay waterfront restaurant; hiking up the Profitis Ilias mountain to the ruins of the ancient city of Thira; a fabulous late-night dinner at a seafront restaurant while the locals dance to live rebetiko music…
- Ao Nang, Thailand: celebrating New Year’s with the locals on the beach, the night market, and a concert; long-tail boating to Railay Beach; conversations with Nui, the bungalow hostel owner…
- Bariloche, Argentina: hiking the many paths threading through the Nahuel Huapi National Park; drinking tea and munching on alfajores with the lake stretching far below beneath a roiling sky; drinking microbrews with new friends after Spanish classes…
The little moments stitch together quilts of memories that I associate with each place; the memories are the place. Some led to my feeling at home there, others less so, the rest not at all. The second largest cluster of responses in the Real Simple reader survey defined home in terms of experiences and 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.
Home to Go
Lisa Knopp means all this when she writes, “home is belonging.” All travelers we know would agree she doesn’t say belongings for a reason. Like many other tales of long-term travel, ours begins with “we quit our jobs and sold our stuff.” As we shed the possessions accumulated through a decade of settled life, including six years of home ownership, we found it’s not belongings that define home. The status quo bias / endowment effect leads to people overvaluing objects they own, as demonstrated in a notorious experiment, in which subjects asked to price various mugs put higher price tags on the ones that were theirs over identical ones that belonged to someone else. Some things were easier to let go of than others but once they were gone, I hardly missed them. When I returned from the trip and inventoried the few boxes that I did keep, I kept wondering, “Why did I keep this stuff?”
At the same time, when we designate home by the location of a physical object—a toothbrush—we recognize there are some things even travelers need: toiletries, clothing, a backpack… Such necessities, of course, do not constitute home; they’re easily replaceable and inspire little attachment. It is the things that represent the home you left that help establish home on the road.
In Košice, I met Bajóta, a Hungarian artist born in Transylvania, now in Romania but formerly part of Hungary. He had struggled to establish a constant definition of home: he lived in Budapest, the capital of a foreign country where they speak his language; in Romania, the country of his birth, they speak a foreign language. He reflected his dilemma—Is home anywhere you are? Can you ever leave home or it you?—in his installation, consisting of utilitarian, mobile, and symbolic objects inspired by Transylvanian rural life. For example, the Kraal represented a portable fence system for sheep, used in mountain pastures where it is constantly moved to areas with fresh grass.
Like Bajóta, I am not one for sentimentality: the objects that reminded me of life in Portland—laptop, rain jacket, Keen shoes—were all utilitarian and held no sentimental value; I carry no photographs or mementos of people or places I love. The tiny plastic ram named Eam a friend gave me to bring along and photograph against famous landmarks ran away a few days into the trip. By contrast, Lindsay carries on every trip a diminutive rag doll I’d given her early in our relationship.
Another artist I met in Košice, Kristina Forbat, has been carrying, for 8 years now, a small espresso maker in her backpack, a present from her parents when she moved out. She told me, “You can carry your home in a suitcase.” On your back, like a snail.
Alas, home is not just within you but also with you. Whatever the object, you can carry your original home with you anywhere you go. Inasmuch traveling uproots you from your original home, the thing that reminds you of it helps root you back into it, maintaining it close in your mind even when you are at a distance, and keeping homesickness at bay.
Home Is the Beginning Is the End
In his essay collection, False Papers, André Aciman points out that home is the starting point of every journey. Home is “what set 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.” Home is where your travels begin and end. In addition to being a point of departure, home is also the destination of your return.
We began our round-the-world trip in our adopted home town, Portland, Oregon, with an open-ended scenario, planning to pick a place to live after the return during the trip. In the end we decided to go back to where we started; we realized Portland is home. Returning to the place we knew made the transition back to ‘normal’ life easier. On the trip itself, too, we discovered, like T.S. Eliot before us, that “the end is where we start from.” The places that felt like home were easy to leave for the day and we looked forward to returning there for the night. The wine-cellar apartment at Caveland Hostel on Santorini island, the Universal Traveller’s Hostel in Bariloche, Argentina, or our friends Danny and Alan’s now-disbanded AirBnB apartment in Mexico City were all places where we felt safe, comfortable, and put—in other words, at home. Where living quarters were subpar, home became the place outside their walls. The loud, dilapidated apartment in Istanbul forced us to spend more time outdoors and we ended up falling in love with that city. The hotels, apartment rentals, and guest houses in Bangkok, Thailand, and George Town, Malaysia, felt decidedly transitory but we remember those cities with fondness and will keep returning there on future trips. It isn’t any particular accommodations but Havana, Sarajevo, or Buenos Aires as the cities that feel like home. Similarly, when I think of my primal, iconic home, it’s the country, Slovakia, that I consider home (though for many reasons I also identify with the region where it’s located, Central Europe). Once I crossed its borders, it’s my hometown Košice; and once I’m there, my parents’ apartment or their cabin out of town. Home in this context is like a Russian nested doll: you uncover or conceal them until you find the one that’s right.
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. Hugo St. Victor
- André Aciman. False Papers. New York: Picador, 2001
- Julie Beck. “The Psychology of Home: Why Where You Live Means So Much.” The Atlantic, December 30, 2011
- John Berger. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. New York: Vintage, 1992.
- Alastair Bonnett. Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014
- Edward S. Casey. Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. Second Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009
- Michael Dorris. Paper Trail: Essays. New York: Harper Collins, 1994
- Pico Iyer. Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. New York: Vintage, 2001
- Lisa Knopp. The Nature of Home: A Lexicon of Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002
- Salman Rushdie. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. New York: Picador, 2000
- “What Does Home Mean to You?” Real Simple. Publication date unknown. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1C39jlb on February 5, 2015.
- Yi-Fu Tuan. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. 5th Edition. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2001 (originally published in 1977)
- Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction,” In: Stories, Essay & Memoir. New York: The Library of America, 1998