“Where do you consider home to be?” It’s a question I’ve been asked it often enough (not really surprising considering) and the most recent occasion set off a bout of introspection, which in turn, predictably enough has led me to these pages…
So where is home really? The glib answer I suppose, is “wherever I happen to be,” though that’s not always true. In fact, as I told Kelly when he asked, home for me is tied to people more than it is to places, though the latter naturally have their place (!) in the equation. For instance, if I think about it, I’ve always referred to visiting my parents as “going home,” regardless of where they are, Chandigarh until the mid 90’s and since then, Bangalore most of the time, but also Hawaii several times (including this summer if I make it). And when I lived in Heidelberg, going to see Sanja in Bern also felt like going home, even though the former is objectively speaking the lovelier of the two!
But even the answer “people” doesn’t quite cover it. Going to see Sanja last year in Murten for example was lovely but the ‘home’ feeling gelled only after we’d driven to Bern and visited some old haunts. So while both place and people play a role, ultimately I think, home for me is a state of mind.
Come to think of it, I’ve actually used that precise description before. In an interview of sorts three summers ago in Vienna (another ‘home’ I shall be revisiting in less than a week actually). Can’t think why it didn’t come back to me immediately when the question came, but there it is. Home as a state of mind rather than a matter of location is where it’s at for me.
When I first got here in February, Cairo was definitely home in my head. As recently as a few weeks ago, when Dad flicked on an international news channel and I heard the commentator’s voice, speaking in the heavy Egyptian accent, I sighed sentimentally, “the sounds of home.” Which gave my Mom a chuckle. Funnily enough, I had known from the get go that there was a finite-ness to my stint in Cairo, that it would never be a permanent home. I went for the 3 year-post doc to begin with, and stayed for 3-1/2, feeling miserable (as regular visitors to this blog learned at their peril perhaps) about having been forced to do so. Professionally, I think I was ready to leave Cairo midway through my second year… but on a personal front, it was entirely different. That sense of ‘belonging’ in a community, came early and never left even if the particulars of whom I belonged with changed a bit from year to year. In that case, no contest! it was the people side of the scale, hands down that won the day in setting my state of mind. Elissa, Salima, Peter, Belle, Michel & Louise, Steve & Helen, Hoath, Duncan, Yasir and Suf, Maria, the list goes on and on… But I’ve loved people before, just taken them with me after a fashion to my new home. So it really shocked me that leaving Cairo hurt as much as it did for as long.
Part of the reason was of course the intensity of everything my last days there.. sharing in the revolution experience in different ways with different people… made leaving a wrench! So much of a wrench in fact that I was quite determinedly unhappy when I first got here, despite being sure that the food was better here (and everyone who anything about me knows how important that is!), and that the landscape (once winter was done with anyhow) would be green in the way I like, and not the dusty crumbling veneer that seems to coat all things in Cairo (even some of the people) and get me depressed sort of. But arriving here, sick with the ‘flu and hacking dry cough, to sub-zero (in degrees Celsius at any rate) temperatures and being relegated to teach a distant campus did not bode well for my state of mind any time soon.
Even without that additional isolation, the international faculty size is smaller here, wa-a-ay smaller and I was part of an incoming “cohort” of 2! Compare this to Cairo where there is an average of 60 incoming folks every year. So there we had our initial community walking in, whether or not we stayed with them. Here in Seoul, people went out of their way to be nice upon my arrival but it wasn’t the same. Or I wouldn’t let it be. At least not at first. I missed my kitchen, my mealtimes, and my friends. I was the sole non-Korean female. I’d have imaginary conversations with Salima, Peter & Duncan (and when I could catch them on skype, the real articles and Belle and Helen as well) as I disconsolately wandered in my apartment (albeit with toasty toes tho thanks to the floor warming of feature in Korea that I’ve loved from the get go). So used I had become in Egypt to cooking for hordes and having left-overs that lasted no more than a few days that I gave myself a bad attack of food poisoning, having left a stew for too long in the fridge and eating it without realizing it had turned. [Lesson: spicy leftovers and anosmia do not mix. When in doubt, chuck/bin or otherwise dispose of food items].
But gradually, inevitably, things change. And bad things like good, come to an end. My first term is nearly over (hard to believe but it’s true) and I am achieving a sense of equilibrium. I cannot mark the exact turning point, though a previous blog post links it to the start of school as the beginning of the process. Springtime was beautiful and a hike in the local area with Jon and Kelly was oh-so-restorative to my spirit. Then there are the cafes. Seoul has cafes for every mood, and there’s at least one near my apartment, where I’m recognized as a r’glar. (Am discovering many more to go camp out at with papers and reads thanks to Jesse). The bumping into folks in the foyer and spontaneous gatherings for meals. Being invited to play hookie from the daily grind to share a long, Parisian-style birthday lunch (complete with lots of wine and great foie gras) All of which have contributed greatly to a growing sense that here too there is a belonging. (I still have my imaginary conversations but they are fewer and farther between, though the real ones still continue, I’m glad to say on skype etc.) Now that summer is upon us, Jon and I have taken to appropriating the central gazebo in the complex in the evenings, sipping wine and chewing the fat with friends… Jesse, Paul, Kelly, Hwa Yeon… whoever can join us really. I’m off in a week for about 2 months, and while I’m wholeheartedly looking forward to that (who couldn’t when Vienna beckons with the full force of her charms?) there is a part of me that is also looking forward to returning. Insidiously, without my quite realizing it, for now anyway, Seoul has become home.