‘When are you going home again?’
‘Well, we are leaving on Thursday for Samaipata and then, next week Monday, I will fly to Amsterdam.’
‘OK, so you will be home on Tuesday’.
‘Well, I guess so, Tuesday, Amsterdam will be home’.
‘But till then,’ I think for myself, ‘home is here, the place where I am.’
Now that my departure from Cochabamba is approaching, I frequently have these kinds of conversations. Not only with people here, but also with my friends and family in the Netherlands. And somehow, I still find it a difficult conversation, because it always make me wonder, what is home for me, and for all those others who live away from their home country or town? What does home feel like, and what does it mean? And can you have more than one home? Or is it just that you can feel at home wherever you are, but never really be at home anywhere, since most of the time you are only passing through?
Of course there is the cheesy option, ‘Home is where the heart is’. But that wouldn’t work for me. Because that could change from hour to hour, from here, where I am right now, to half way between here and Portugal (when talking with Jim, hoping he reaches out half way as well), or Italy (when exchanging What’s apps with my friend Peet) or the Netherlands (when talking via Skype with my family or friends there). In that case, home would depend on what I am doing, with whom I am talking or trying to interact with, and could be anywhere at any time (sounds a bit too omnipotent don’t you think?). Of course, my heart is here with me the whole time. But metaphorically, while doing something, or communicating with someone else, I try, for that moment to connect, and be with my heart, together with the thing I’m doing, or the person I interact with. (I still have to work out how that works with mindfulness, and the idea of being in the here and now. But that one is for another time. Suggestions are welcome…)
So for a long time already, I decided to stick with the idea that home is the place where I stay and sleep. And for the last couple of months, I consider the room in Marlies’s house (my friend in Bolivia), which Jim and I have been using, as home. But does that also mean I feel at home, here in the house, the neighbourhood, in Cochabamba, or in Bolivia? And there the complication starts. Because, yes, I do feel at home in the Marlies’s house, and somehow I do feel as if the neighbourhood is home, but I only feel partially at home in Cochabamba, and if I’m honest, I don’t really feel at home in Bolivia.
When discussing this with Marlies (who has lived for more than 10 years in Bolivia), she described, to my mind, quite aptly, the different degrees you can feel at home, and pointed out rightly how much this has to do with the connection you feel with the people around you, the opportunities to participate in society and the issues at stake.
Like most (at least I guess so), Marlies feels most at home in her own house. It is the place where she can be who she wants, and do what she wants. The place, where the rooms are familiar, where she happily lives with Abad, and is surrounded by her garden and animals.
Also, in the neighbourhood, she experiences a feeling of being at home. Through the connection with her neighbours and the ladies in the shops, who know where she lives, when she has been away, who know her dogs, say hello when she passes and when they have time, exchange small talk. And, of course, there is the familiarity with the streets, there is this sense of coming home when driving and approaching your own house.
But when you get to a larger scale, this feeling disappears. When she attends meetings where neighbours discuss the progress of the public works, set priorities and request contributions, she doesn’t feel comfortable with the tone nor recognise the issues discussed as those that matter. She misses a sense of connection, a sense of being part of the community and somehow feels like a spectator instead of having the opportunity to fully participate.
Also, at a larger scale, both city and countrywise, she experiences this duality. In one way she feels connected, through friends and family who are spread throughout Bolivia, through her detailed knowledge of the city and the country. And clearly, she considers Bolivia as her home country, at least for now.
On the other hand, she is aware that she will never be able to disappear in the crowd, because she is clearly European. That, how well she adapts and adopts some of the habits from here, she will always be considered as a stranger. And, as a foreigner, she will never, at least not for the moment, be able to meet all the requirements for most of the jobs and therefore will be in a less favourable position to find one. And she realises that no matter how long she will live here, she will always be considered a foreigner. She also knows, that it will be very difficult for her to settle back in the Netherlands and feel at home there the way she did before.
And I guess this somehow sums it up for me as well. Like Marlies, I feel at home here. Especially in my room and the house, to a certain degree in the neighbourhood and a little in the city and not really in country. And I have the same experience in so many places, almost all the places where I stay for a little longer than a week or two. As long as I feel comfortable in a place, feel a connection with the people, feel there is room for regular interaction, and when the bartender in the cafe or pub around the corner recognises me and knows what I want to order, I quickly feel at home. Like I felt at home in Punto de Diablo in Uruguay (where we stayed for 10 days), when we were in Argentina and the various places we visited in the United States. Or in the flats we rented in Caiscais (Portugal) or Viterbo (Italy) in 2014.
But, although I don’t seem to have a problem feeling at home, I do have a constant feeling of being displaced. Not so much because I miss a place that I permanently (want to) call home. But more because, quite often, I miss a connection with the larger scale of things, at a regional, country and world scale. I miss the connection with politics and politicians, the connection with and influence on current developments, and the powers that be. I often feel that the contribution I would like give, other than at the local level, has no or just a very limited impact. Even if I joined a political party or a pressure group, I know this feeling will not change significantly. It is a sense of exclusion and powerlessness, a kind of uncanny feeling to have. And which I think, for the moment at least, it is much more important to focus on the people around me. It is there I can make a difference and it is them I can support, and it is there I feel at home, wherever I am.