In my last post I said that Mandalay is home to me, and I promised that in my next post I’d muse on what “home” means to me. Well, I tend to keep my promises. My idea of “home” is not like most people’s because of my life circumstances. I should begin, however, with parsing the word “home” because without that we’ll get nowhere.
We use “home” in many different ways in English. In some of the languages I speak, notably Italian and Spanish, you can differentiate between “house” and “home,” but the distinction is generally blurred and the common word for “house” (casa) is commonly used to mean “home” as well. “Vado a casa” or “me voy a casa” should be translated as “I am going home” not “I am going to a house.” Here is a significant stepping off point. Is the house where you live right now your home? I think for most people that’s a minimally acceptable assertion. If I ask you, “Where are you going?” and you reply, “I’m going home,” I take no more from that statement than the simple understanding that you are going to the place where you live – now. You need much more context to change the idea to something deeper. For example, the old hymn, “Lord, I’m Coming Home” (title of one of my books), means that when I die I’m going to heaven: my true (spiritual) home. Likewise, if I ask, “Where is home for you?” I’m not asking where you live right now, but where you consider to be your place of belonging – sometimes phrased, “Where are you from?”
I imagine that for most people the answer to the question “Where are you from?” is very simple. A few of my friends have lived all of their lives in or near the place where they were born, and in some cases their parents were born there too. For them the answer to the question is easy. For others it’s slightly more complicated, but not much more so. Many people I know were born and raised in one place, but then moved to another as adults and settled there. Their answer to the question can be a little more hedged, therefore: for example, “I was born in Atlanta but I’ve lived in New York most of my life.” In this case Georgia is probably home in a deep sense, but New York is home for all current intents and purposes.
So . . . where am I from? There things get sticky. People seem determined to place me somewhere, but they are misguided. I am not from anywhere. I was born in Buenos Aires to a Scottish father and an English mother. My elder sister was born in England, and the middle sister of the family was born in Buenos Aires. I am the youngest. When I was 2 years old the family moved from Argentina to Eastbourne in England, my mother’s home, where we lived with her aunt for almost 5 years, and then emigrated to South Australia. Therefore, by the age of 6 I had lived on three continents. We lived in South Australia in several locations for 8 years, then moved back to England, eventually landing in Burnham in south Buckinghamshire. I lived there for 5 years, then moved to Oxford for 4. After that I was a bit adrift for a while but landed in Leamington Spa for a year. Then I emigrated to the United States.
I went to North Carolina where I was married and attended graduate school for the Ph.D. I lived in Chapel Hill for 4 years, and spent 1 year doing fieldwork in a fishing village in the Tidewater region. Then I moved to Long Island, New York, for 1 year, got divorced, and settled on the campus of the university, where I was an assistant professor, for 3 years. Then it was up to the Catskills where I married again, bought a house, had a son, and all of that “normal” stuff for 27 years (with a year’s sabbatical in Santa Fe, New Mexico). When my wife died and my son went off to college I retired and moved to Buenos Aires. I’ll get to that part in a minute. After 4 years there I moved to China for 2, Italy for 2, and now I live in Myanmar.
So . . . where is home? Where am I from? The deeply truthful answer is nowhere, but I’ve had different answers throughout my life. If you want a general answer to those questions it is “Not here.” For a while Buenos Aires was a strong contender, and my location there is certainly deeper than any other place I have lived. It’s impossible for me to describe fully the feelings I had when I landed there at age 58 after a 56-year absence. The minute I stepped into the terminal at Ezeiza airport and got a taxi into the city I knew I was HOME – finally. It’s impossible to explain. It just felt RIGHT. Some deeply embedded memories must have been stirred. The sounds, sights, smells, feelings of the city resonated with me completely.
The food brought back memories of my father’s and mother’s cooking when I was a boy. Milanesa and spaghetti with tuco were mainstays for dinner and El Libro De Doña Petrona was the only cookbook we had besides our battered version of Mrs Beeton. I had made sure I had milanesa as my first meal when I arrived. I also got some yerba mate and a mate gourd and bombilla early on because the smell of mate is the smell of my boyhood. Drinking yerba replaced tea and coffee in Buenos Aires, and still does. I carry my thermos and all the accouterments all over the world with me. Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge getting yerba, but I’m never without a supply. I brought 2 kilos with me in my very limited luggage when I flew to Myanmar. I’ll do without a suit and dress shoes, but not yerba.
Tango music will make me cry in a heartbeat, and the dance in the milongas and in the streets generally captivates me. If you have not seen tango in the streets of Buenos Aires you have not seen tango. Show tango in the theaters, and ballroom tango are not tango. The tango of the people of the streets is the real deal, as the music of an orquesta tipica with a front line of bandoneons – if you can ever find one. Traditional tango is a dying art.
Everyone called me Juan the minute I arrived even though for 56 years I had been called John. Juan is on my birth certificate but my mother always hated the fact that I had to have a Spanish name when I was born and changed it to John the minute we arrived in England. She registered me as John at my first school, and for some reason I’ve never had any trouble getting a UK passport, and such, as John even though my birth certificate says Juan. Back in Buenos Aires I got an Argentine DNI (identity card) and passport as Juan Alejandro, and since then I’ve insisted on being called Juan.
It was an enormous wrench leaving Buenos Aires 4 years ago, but I knew I had to leave for several reasons, even though my friends begged me to stay, and have sent me heartfelt messages periodically ever since. The main reason I wanted to leave was that it’s very difficult to get anywhere from Buenos Aires. My son was intent on traveling in Asia after college and I wanted to catch up with him. But flying to Hong Kong or Tokyo is a 3-day affair from Buenos Aires. It made a lot more sense for me to move to Asia for a while. After that I figured I would spend 2 years on a different continent, travel around, then move on. So far, so good – with a few bumps in the road. It’s been China for 2, Italy for 2, and now Myanmar. In the process Argentina is fading more and more from my consciousness. Argentina is still bedrock, but it’s not as deep as I thought it was. In Mandalay when people ask, “Where are you from?” I respond “Argentina” automatically. It makes sense to say that, and I feel it. But, in reality, Argentina is no more home to me now in a profound sense than anywhere else. I have no home. In truth I never have had, and never will have, a home. In some ways that gives me the kind of freedom that few people have. For one thing, you can’t be homesick when you have no home. There’s nowhere I yearn to be.
Of course, there are plenty of platitudes like, “Home is where the heart is” and the like, but they are just platitudes with no real meaning for me.
The big question for me at the moment is, “Where next?” In truth, I have not the slightest idea, and that’s a bit troubling if I set my mind to it. Usually I don’t. The larger question will come at some point, “Where will I choose to settle for the long haul?” I’m healthy, and my body keeps up with me. But that will change at some point. For now I am just being pragmatic and thinking only about the present. I’ll let the future take care of itself. Wherever I land it won’t be HOME, but I’ll manage.