Leaving it to find it.
“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” ~ Carson McCullers
I am writing this in an Italian computer room filled with chubby angel-babies on the pastel frescoed ceiling. They fly above me with their pink and plump cheeks and wandering eyes, as if they’re trying to peek at what I’m typing but not going to admit it. I am writing this in a squeaky blue chair that rolls. I have changed my chair three times because the other chairs won’t stop groaning, and I don’t want to disturb the only other girl in the room. The small window behind me sings of street life, a woman belting her lungs in operatic tones (a voice I originally thought was a man’s) and the beat of boots and dog leashes being clipped into collars. There are fewer car sounds than America: more steps, more walking, more human voices. The water bottle to my right is from my trip to Paris a week ago, Evian water now becoming my Poland Springs. The women on the water bottle’s label look so traveled, so posh, so worldly, so in control. They casually chat with their cappuccinos in front of the Big Ben on one side and the Eiffel Tower on the other. The blonde woman with long curly hair and gigantic sunglasses looks as if she is about to lean across the table and spill her life story, saying, “Living abroad has changed me. It is so much better over here. It has been the experience of a lifetime!”
I will never be that woman.
“This semester has been the hardest semester of my life. In the best and worst ways. It has challenged me to my breaking point. It has pushed my fears and weaknesses. I had to become afraid to be less afraid, to leave what I know to know who I want to become.”
This is what I will tell people when I return back home. Of course abroad has changed me. Of course abroad has been the experience of a lifetime. But I cannot say it with arrogance or gushing positivity like most of the girls back home have said it with. I cannot say that going abroad has made me better than anyone else, or more cultured or less naïve. No matter how many places I travel to, no matter how many times I leave home, I will now do it loving my home. I will be “worldly” because I am proud of where I come from.
“Ughh! You’re not getting it, Mom. I just need to leave! I just need to go abroad NOW.”
These were my exact words a couple weeks before I was supposed to have my bags packed for my four month stay in Florence. I had had enough. My summer had been so mundane. I had worked at a sandwich shop many hours a week, and that was pretty much it. Add the mustard and mayo, fold the sub without making a mess, ring up the customer, on to the next. Day after day. There was nothing exciting to look forward too. I knew soon there would be no more washing BBQ sauce stains out of my pants every night or cleaning my shoes with paper towels from all the pickle juice spilled. I was ready for a change, a big one, from hot and sticky months back home and a job that never fulfilled me.
I specifically remember the look my mom gave me when I said these words. Hurt. I can never take back that moment. She said, “When you come back, don’t be saying that everything was better over there. You better not be saying that you hate it back home.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, I won’t” as I rolled my eyes. I thought abroad would be the best place on earth. Every olive oil was going to change my palate. Every cathedral would connect me closer to God. But last night I called my mom and said, “Remember when you thought I would say everything is better here? Well, it’s actually the opposite for me. I miss home.”
I just want you to know this isn’t an article on being homesick. I can honestly say I have never been homesick in my life. I don’t believe that there is such a thing as homesickness. But going abroad has made me realize that there is this thing called “appreciation” of home and family. It’s a word that I have heard my whole life but never grasped until now.
Some people find home in structures like a house. In monuments, buildings, or museums. I tried building home in these places abroad, to connect myself to something familiar that could surround me with walls or a foundation I could physically touch. Take the Eiffel Tower, for example.
I’m standing underneath. For a solid hour and a half I walk around the Eiffel Tower’s premises. I wander with my neck outstretched to look up its massive metal stomach, all the way to its tiny pointed head. I dance around its silver feet. I say “No, I don’t want any champagne or keychains” to the men coming up to me every five minutes selling souvenirs. I take about a hundred pictures. I record a video to remember the Eiffel Tower’s glittering lights at the start of every hour, the lights that look like a Christmas tree on fancy French steroids. I partially eat an overly-sweet strawberry macaroon sitting on an uncomfortable rock as I observe the tower one more time.
And I say, “Let’s go” to my friends about every five minutes.
Many people would say, “You are at the Eiffel Tower. Something that was once the tallest structure in the world. Why not enjoy it? It took you long enough to get here.” Structures and monuments are interesting for a moment for me, for a sliver of time. I attempted to find home in them but it never worked. The magic always faded. Instead, the experiences that stick out in my mind going abroad are the people—the interactions where we realize how similar we are despite how far from home we may be.
I’m in some airport in Greece, about two hours early because my friends and I still believe it is better to be early than late. We can’t go through security yet because our gate isn’t even assigned for a sketchy airline we’ve never heard of. A husband and wife stand next to us in their late fifties, him scratching his graying beard and her fixing her messy but beautiful brown bun. They look at my Marist College sweatshirt, the one now smelling of salty Greek ocean from a private beach we found after renting ATVs for 24 hours. “Do you go to Marist?” she asks, turning toward us.
“Yeah, we all go to Marist in Poughkeepsie,” I reply, suddenly smiling because a stranger in the middle of the airport is about to sound like my neighbor.
“We pass Marist all the time! We’re from Westchester in New York, close to you guys.”
“No way! My grandparents live in Westchester. They’re about an hour from Marist too. That’s so funny.” We talk for some time to pass the time. We laugh about getting around in taxis and crowded buses not knowing the Greek language which looks almost Egyptian hieroglyphics. They tell their horror story of buying flights for an extra $2000 after their ferry was canceled due to rain around the islands. My friends, the couple, and I are all exhausted. We all need coffee, especially me since I’ve suddenly become hooked on cappuccinos abroad. But I feel home in this moment. The tug of the familiar in a foreign place, like putting on a sweater you’ve owned for many years and smelling your old perfume that still sticks between the threads.
I have met so many people abroad who are from my state of Maine or who have visited the East Coast. Our Paris taxi-driver visited New York and thought the food was terrible and that Americans have ridiculously huge portions to fatten us up. Our Greek taxi-driver visited Manhattan and loved every minute of it. I have had many connections with people who have been in the same places as I have. But some of my favorite instances of that feeling of “home” have nothing to do with sharing similar places. They are instead sharing times of celebration with strangers.
It’s about the second week here in Florence. I’m crossing one of the bridges similar to the Ponte Vecchio with a bunch of friends, most of us, including myself, who have taken advantage of the restaurant Danté’s free and unlimited wine. They automatically give you red but we know how to ask for the nice and cold white with our paper loyalty member cards that already have bended marks. We had all just said goodbye to our favorite waiter at the restaurant, an older man with a “Build Bridges, Not Walls” T-shirt who gives us free limoncello shots. So we’re wobbling around and laughing hysterically late at night under Florence’s dim streetlights, holding hands half the time but pushing each other over on the crumbling sidewalk. All the marble statues of saints stare at us with scorn as if they could snap their fingers and lightning would strike us in two. Then suddenly, two men about thirty years old stop us, asking what all the fun is about.
I immediately try to have a straight face. The men don’t move out of our way.
“What have you guys been up to?” they ask. But then I realize they’re joking. They take their hands out of their pockets and laugh aloud with all of us as we tell them where we’ve been and what we’ve drank. “What are you guys doing tonight?” we ask while trying to keep our balance on the cobblestones in order to remain semi-normal.
“We’re actually on our honeymoon. We’re going to a restaurant tonight for our anniversary.”
I’m shocked. To be this open to a bunch of random kids in the middle of nowhere is a hidden blessing. My heart feels so full. I give these two men huge hugs, and we all yell, “Congratulations!” after talking for some time. They keep laughing at us and all our crazy antics as they walk away, but everybody in our group just feels so grateful two amazing people get to spend the rest of their life together. And it feels like home.
To describe home for me is to connect to unmistakable and unapologetic joy. Joy does not always mean happiness, but a kind of transportation to the past. Okay, I bet you’re confused now because I am too. I guess it’s hard for me to describe home when I’m still figuring out its definition. Home is: a feeling of remembrance. A person, a place, or a food that takes you back to childhood, that takes you back to your roots. It is a feeling like being in the sandbox in your backyard. You can fling the sand any which way you want but you are in a place that you know and love. You can travel as far north or south as your passport and plane and shoes can take you, but you will always find that little square of home wherever you go.
The Anne Frank House. I’m navigating steep wooden stairs up to the attic and trying not to breathe too loudly in the quiet. It is so quiet. I hear the silence of generations of feet trying to un-shuffle on the moaning floorboards and the explosion of memory at the same time. There is orangey-flowered wallpaper in every room and each fireplace seems to have just been extinguished.
I see Anne, or Anna, the face of a girl who could have been my childhood friend. Her hair with barrettes seems to dance with her curled ends. Even in the black-and-white photographs, everything about Anne is yellow—she shouts color, not a shadowed world. She holds a twinkle in her eye, a person so young knowing so much.
I stare at her diary at the very end in the glass case. Her notebook overflowing with the loopiest cursive I’ve ever seen, perfectly stopping at each margin with imperfectly-beautiful human writing. Her journal with fiction stories, imagination so wide in such a small room without windows. Such hope.
I lose it. My eyes lose it. And my fingers gently tap on the glass case holding her actual written words inside. I say in my head, “Thank you Anne for changing the world. For changing my world.” And then I have to leave.
I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. –Anne Frank
Writing feels like home. Especially when I write about dreams in poems and stories. I feel limitless. Anne said writing expands her whole world, like mistakenly peeking through her window in hiding and seeing the sun again. It is a different kind of escape. It is an escape from time, a chance to wipe our feet and ring the doorbell on a home without walls—the home we build ourselves with each scratch of the pencil. Home is building our own sanctuary, even if it’s upstairs in our mind.
* * *
There are these underwater paintings in Florence on the brick city walls by an anonymous artist. One foot by one foot of pure bubbly art. You can find them on your way to the Duomo, Santa Croce, and pretty much in any alley. They are everywhere and at the same time nowhere to the average passerby who fails to spot them. Every street with shops has them. You’ll be walking along the sidewalk and right before you enter a store, that little square of underwater sea foam blue pops up on the brick wall.
These paintings often take a classical work of art or a famous person and paint the main subject underwater. Mona Lisa wears a scuba mask. Salvador Dali blows some bubbles. A Muslim couple kisses each other deep in the ocean’s depths. By doing so each famous painting seems closer to us. They are not these perfect art pieces or classical figures anymore but humans being completely vulnerable, floating in the ocean’s depths seeming to breathe in sync with us. There is no “stand-back” tape or glass case for these pieces. We can touch each blue painted brick wall with our fingers. And the art touches us back.
One of these paintings is on an alley wall entering the outdoor center square of the Uffizi, adding whimsicality in bubbles next to what some would call an outdoor marble statue world of men. It’s the portrait of Bia de’Medici, her snorkel mask giving her much more personality than the stoic five-year-old we typically see inside the Uffizi gallery. Such juxtaposition. What we usually see—a regal girl stuffed into a stiff dress with an air of indifference—is now thrown under the sea, becoming a little girl who is learning to paddle the waves with a soft smile. She breathes innocence now. No longer tied to the Medicis and their wall of portraits in the Uffizi, she stands alone outside on the brick wall with the sun overhead and the pairs of feet shuffling by. She becomes herself again—a child. While all the Uffizi outdoor statues stare coldly not many feet away, Bia beams across from them in the alley. Her pearl necklace has found its home again: underwater.
A quote from an interview with the anonymous artist reads, “So, even though it seems like we are all underwater it is time to learn how to swim.”
I think about this very often while I’m here. I see these underwater faces stare back at me every day as I walk to class or am about to board the train. It is like they are trapped in Florence’s brick walls, the blueness of the painting drowning them. But they are also so alive. They are singing underwater. They are kissing underwater. They are loving and learning and breathing without oxygen. They don’t need oxygen anymore because joy fills them better than air. They become innocent once again like Bia, and we remember what it feels like to have the curiosity of a child swimming in the sea.
I am jealous of the people in these paintings. They seem to have it all figured out. A lot of the time it’s hard for me to breathe on land. There’s a lot of anxiety here I’ve dealt with. A lot of unknown. A lot of new new new and “try this, try that” every single minute. A lot of helping other people and being the “caretaker” most of the time which I have never been.
So I think about these people swimming through brick, bubbles fizzing through time and space and strangers coloring in the cracks in the paintings when it rains. There is tape, gum, and colorful stickers that cover up the artist’s work now, but all these things are helping to preserve the original paintings. I know that the gum is there to mend and seal, not to destroy. Because anybody who views these paintings knows they feel at home.
We must remember to breathe in new territory, especially when we don’t feel like it. To write loudly in a quiet space. To hug strangers. To find kisses in walls. To know we are and will always be imperfect. To never stop discovering water in stone.
If I really try, I can almost taste the painted saltwater on brick, savoring every flavor of home down my throat.