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December 07, 2006

I'm Home

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In an email exchange, Friedrich von Blowhard and I found ourselves comparing notes about places where we've felt really at home. Not just comfy, but physically / spiritually in synch with the place and, via the place, with Larger Things more generally. FvB volunteered Venice, California, which he enjoys (and perhaps identifies with) partly for its tattiness -- Friedrich's a funky man!

The soul of FvB

He added this too:

I enjoyed living in London, although that was largely because I wasn't "at home" in any sense. It was like being Caspar the Friendly Ghost, just passin' through other people's serious lives. I feel quite "at home" for no reason I can cite in Florence. I love the food, people seem nice enough, the physical environment is pretty much perfect. The sense of the past pervading everything is quite groovy. (Although I can imagine that kids raised there might find it oppressive.) Italy generally is pretty cool. The real exception is Venice, oddly enough; the inhabitants are like carnies, and to them outsiders are all pretty much marks. Actually, what's funny is you know deep down that there are people who would just hate anyplace you really like. And they wouldn't be kidding, or superficial. There isn't one world, there are millions of them, stacked side-by-side.

I put on my thinking cap and came up with this far-wordier, far-shallower response:

Although I live here, I certainly don't feel "at home" in New York City. But where then? Not even Western NY either, though it's certainly home in fact -- or maybe it's more like "me" in fact. Though, come to think of it, the Finger Lakes always feel right somehow.

One of the few times I ever had that click! experience -- "this is for me!" -- was during a couple of weeks I spent in the south of France back in '71. I loved the glitz and the ritzy frou-frou, to be sure. But my bliss really came from a combo of elements: the weather (I was there in May, and the air was spring/summer gorgeous, and since I hadn't yet been to California the whole Mediterranean-clime thing was brand-new to me); the Cannes and Monte Carlo classy / tacky glamor (it was still the era of Vadim and Bardot); and the way the glitz contrasted with the old Pagnol / Renoir towns inland, with the aqueducts and Roman ruins and the bread stores and the old men playing boules. Or did they call it petanque?

Anyway, the food was a revelation too. It was the first time I'd eaten regularly from that Mediterranean menu of fish and tomatoes and capers and olive oil and all that. Never felt better or more at home in my life. Why I didn't quit school on the spot and find a way to make a life there, I don't know. OK, I do know: lack of resourcefulness, and plain ol' cowardice.

Where MB left a piece of his heart

I haven't been back since, but I still love-love-love seeing Provence in movies and on tv. Spending time in the south of France was a big part of what I loved about the movie "Swimming Pool." That film could have gone on for a few hours longer as far as I was concerned, just taking walks through the village, lolling by the pool, enjoying the rustic stone house, shopping for groceries. Friends tell me that Provence has changed beyond belief since my few weeks there. Evidently I wasn't the only person to be struck by what a cool, timeless, sexy place it is, dangnab it.

I'd be curious to know if visitors have ever experienced that "I'm home!" feeling. When? Where?



UPDATE: It occurs to me that I had similar "I could settle here and never leave" experiences in St. Barth's, in Nelson, British Columbia, and in parts of New Zealand. Hey, a New Zealand joke? "What do Kiwis do for entertainment?" "What?" "They watch an Australian." I fully expect to feel that I've arrived home when I visit Ticino, Switzerland, but alas I haven't made it there yet.

posted by Michael at December 7, 2006


I've always been comfortable in Southeast Wisconsin. Yes, the taxes are high and we're not the most sophisticated people around. But we're friendly, enterprising, and full of common sense. It also really helps to be around fellow Green Bay Packers fans and good beer.

A city I've loved the times I've been there is Washington, D.C. Being a political junkie I love walking around there knowing so much is happening. I get a buzz from all that energy.

Posted by: Sean Hackbarth on December 7, 2006 10:27 PM

I moved to Long Island nine years ago after having lived in Connecticut all my life. For the first few years it would have been hard to say which place really felt like home: I was a permanent resident of Long Island and highly unlikely to move back to Connecticut, but years of living in Connecticut created a bond that was hard to break. I gradually began thinking of myself more and more as a Long Islander. The change did not become final, however, until my last two significant ties with Connecticut ended: my mother moved from Connecticut to Florida in the fall of 2004, thereby ending my regular visits to the state, and then I sold some Connecticut property in the summer of 2005, thereby ending my financial ties to the state. I actually haven't been to Connecticut since the closing almost a year and a half ago, though my next day off I just might mosey up there for curiosity's sake.

As for places I've visited, the only one that felt "home like," at least in the sense that I could easily and happily see myself living there, was Phoenix, which we visited in 2002. For reasons I can't explain I really took to that city. I mean, Phoenix is extremely hot much of the year, traffic seemed perpetually congested, and I was surprised at how run down much of the city is (literally right behind the Arizona State Capitol is an ugly dreary commercial/industrial district). But I just loved the place.

Posted by: Peter on December 7, 2006 10:49 PM

"..Why I didn't quit school on the spot and find a way to make a life there, I don't know. OK, I do know: lack of resourcefulness, and plain ol' cowardice.."

[Not] to change the subject, but I'd find interesting the comments of your readers to any thread you'd start on "Cowardice And Its Impact On One's Life." Limit responses to those over 50 years of age and older. Guarantee anonymity and Witness Protection Program relocation if needed. A real world 'Defending Your Life.'

I'll start: "It's always been the fear, dammit. Believe me, you will only regret the things you didn't do."

Posted by: Don McArthur on December 7, 2006 10:59 PM

It was lack of cowardice (which can be interpreted as stupidity) that marked my life forever. In 1961 on the way home from college I got out of the car in Browning, Montana, and said, "This is home. I'm going to stay." That crippled me financially and emotionally for the rest of my life -- from one point of view -- but has also made my life worth living. But also, because that first decade on the Blackfeet Reservation was so powerful, everything else has been a bit hollow. So now I've gotten back here in retirement. I'm remembered, I'm valued, I'm so glad to be back, but what was it I did? Or didn't.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 7, 2006 11:13 PM

'At home' places would make an excellent TV series - like Glenn Gould's documentary on Toronto.

I am very familiar with the phenomenon, indeed I keep a mental list of such places.

Some of the less obvious ones are Berne, Switzerland; Girona, Spain; and Freiburg, Germany - historic university towns/ small cities, good cafes and bookshops, feel safe. In all of them, I stepped out of the car/ train and felt 'at home'.

Of course, having an unstructured vacation somewhere is not at all the same is living and working there with timetables and hassles - so I don't feel that I have missed my 'real' vocation. Or, probably not, anyways...

Posted by: Bruce G Charlton on December 8, 2006 1:37 AM

I'm making an assumption here that what one would consider "home" would be a place that you've lived in for at least a year, i.e., it's not a place you visited for a week or so and based on all of the fantastic things (and limited amount of mundane things) that happened to you htat you decide this was "home".....and then you promptly went to a place where you lived for years.
So, with that in mind, for myself, Montreal would be "home". It combines (getting clichese here) good things European, good things North American, snow, and great things Canada into one lovely, lovely place. Having lived, for an extensive time, in Croatia, North Carolina, Delaware, upstate NY, New Jersey, and Montreal, the latter is the place I daydream about the most. The daily happenings were the most enjoyable of the bunch and the out-of-the-ordinary events were spectacular. multiple visits to Pittsburgh lately have been quiet hits to the soul...

Posted by: DarkoV on December 8, 2006 10:11 AM

Marfa or Alpine in the Big Bend region, definitely.

Posted by: zacattack on December 8, 2006 10:22 AM

Texas .... Texas ... Reminds me that Austin, TX, also suited me to a T when I spent a week there. That combo of redneck and bohemian is a lot of fun and seems most livable. The music scene ... Tex-Mex food ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2006 11:02 AM

"Home" is ephemeral for me, and not always location-related. Often much more people-related. Although--this will strike people as odd---my college campus has always felt like "home" to me. Not the town---the campus. And certainly people I went to college with always feel like "home" when I'm with them.

But speaking of Provence: I spent a semester abroad in Vienna in college, and during our fall break three of us went to Paris, Aix-en-Provence and Nice. Paris was of course thrilling, and then we wanted to go to Aix (where several other classmates of ours were on their own separate study-abraod program). But the Parisians also took advantage of our lack of language skills, and so when we asked at the train station for which train we should take to Aix they sent us on the most "local" of "local" trains imaginable, where we stopped at every cowtown crossroads in France and it took all day long to get there. We were also a bit, ahem, hung over, making this a very long day.

Then we got off the train in Aix and were walking from the train station to the apartment of our friend...and it was like magic! A light mist was falling, tiny little white Christmas lights twinkled from everywhere, and there are an endless number of fountains--all working---which dot their way through Aix. It was truly beautiful. It was so worth the long trip! And, to top it off, we walked past a sidewalk cafe, and ran into a classmate from home (but NOT the one we intended to visit) but instead one of the best-looking blond gods I've still ever known in my life--his name is Bill. He was at this cafe with two super-model types draped all over him, and when he saw me---simply a familiar face from home--he jumped up and nearly knocked the super-models onto their asses running over to say hi. Bill was very homesick, and begged us to stay and have a drink and visit with him. Remember---I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and had been on a train all day and was standing there wet from the rain! And the super-models looked as if a spaceship had just landed in front of them---why was he blowing them off for this scraggly wet girl??

It was a lovely evening! Aix is a beautiful spot.

Posted by: annette on December 8, 2006 11:13 AM

What a lot of fascinating, provocative, thoughtful, etc comments, btw! The "feeling at home" topic seems like an interesting way to get to know people ... Maybe it's a good new party or over-dinner game ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2006 11:28 AM

It might surprise you that the first time I ever felt the sense you describe of being "at home" was in — are you ready for this? — Berkeley, California.

That, mark you, was quite a long time ago, 1967 to be precise.

Why Berkeley? First, just the natural setting: the hills, the Bay, the exotic plants (I was told you can grow just about anything from anywhere in the world in that climate). For a young man, scarcely more than a kid, really, who had spent most of his life previously on the East Coast and midwest, it was a revelation.

The manmade environment had a lot going for it, too: beautiful Beaux Arts buildings on the UC campus (not even the hideous modern architecture school building could spoil it), lots of Victorian houses, quality materials like redwood.

And, needless to say, it was culturally and intellectually stimulating, with Telegraph Avenue lined with bookstores and record (remember those?) stores, lots of free rock concerts.

Ah, but what about the politics, you ask? Well, Berkeley in 1967 hadn't yet become totally submerged in the radical left (and besides, being young and ignorant, I believed in most of the leftist rubbish); it was more of a hippie haven. Certainly it changed drastically in the next few years, with the atmosphere becoming angry and ugly. Although I stayed there until 1971, I was ready to leave when opportunity elesewhere called. But when I first knew Berkeley, it seemed like my soul's true home.

I've only been back once in recent times, and while there's enough of the natural beauty and attractive built environment to remind me of better days, the place is obviously Crackpot Central. Having nearly ruined a once-delightful city is yet another charge in my indictment of the loony left.

Posted by: Rick Darby on December 8, 2006 11:49 AM

There's another side to these impressions - going to a place that you seem to fit into, whether you feel at home there or not. For me, it was my first visit up to Cambridge, MA. I remember thinking "Man, there sure are a lot of other bearded guys here with glasses wearing button-down shirts and khaki trousers, and walking along with abstracted looks on their faces. . ."

Whether or not I'd be able to enjoy living or working there, I don't know - although depending on how my job search goes, perhaps I'll be finding out. But I do know that Cambridge would have no trouble with me.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 8, 2006 12:09 PM

This post/topic has more layers than a wedding cake, conceptually.

There's the matter of "home" as experienced when growing up. For me, that was Seattle. And in most respects still is -- because of family, familiarity with the locale, old friends and similar important things. It would be interesting to compare notes with someone with a geographically-detached childhood such as an Army Brat.

Another theme seems to be a "fantasy home" possibly based on wishful thinking along with the romanticism. NYC filled that bill for me in my early 20s though today I'd have to be worth millons before considering actually moving there.

For many, many years (1955-1995 roughly) I wanted to live in California. Well, now I spend part of the year in California. It's okay, not fantastic. The town itself sucks, though the countryside is classic Cisco Kid. And one has to drive an hour to get to any interesting stuff such as the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority alumna Christmas party tonight in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

I'm staring to think that I really should have lived in California back in the late 50s and early 60s when I was young and CA was a different place than it is now. But even that thought is a form of fantasy.

Then there are places that (however briefly) fascinate, where you think "Wow! I'd love to live here!" Like Annette, I really dig Aix -- the old part near the Cours Mirabeau anyway. Ditto Paris. And Vienna, London and Florence and perhaps Munich and some others.

But that's still part fantasy that focuses on non-quotidian activities.

And its the quotidian, the day-to-day, that's really "home" to me. I've lived on both coasts and visited much of the rest of the USA. Truth is, I could probably settle into almost any metro area with half a million or more population. And enough educated, interesting people can be found in places as small as 25,000 to make one's life richer and provide a feeling of comfort.

"Home" for me? As I said, the Seattle area wins, hands down. It satisfies both my fantasy and my reality.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 8, 2006 12:47 PM

Brooklyn. The first place I knew I loved as a child. Riding the el to my grandmother's shotgun apartment, looking into people's windows, seeing the clothes out on the lines -- I never lived there, but I knew that was my ancestral home.

San Francisco. Been here 32 years, and it has never failed to amaze and delight me. The sheer beauty of the place, the wonderful mix of cultures and people, the ocean, the clear light on certain days . . .

Juneau, Alaska. Burst into tears as the plane came down out of the clouds, seeing the mountains rising straight out of the ocean -- loved everything about the place and gladly would have stayed forever.

London. Walked around like a hayseed with my mouth open, but knew it was a place I loved and would have given anything to have had a reason to stay for a while.

Posted by: missgrundy on December 8, 2006 4:03 PM

Whoops, how could I forget. Big Sur. Been going there for 30+ years, retreated there, recently honeymooned there -- it's heaven on earth. Really.

Posted by: missgrundy on December 8, 2006 4:05 PM

When I die,instead of heaven, I want to go to Nantucket 1970. I walk its streets in my sleep.

Posted by: J. Healy on December 8, 2006 7:01 PM

I'm tempted to tell you where I feel really comfortable, but I'm afraid the rest of you will follow me there.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 8, 2006 9:46 PM

When I die,instead of heaven, I want to go to Nantucket

There once was a dead man from Nantucket ...

Posted by: Peter on December 8, 2006 11:26 PM

Michael – Here’s a bit of a twist on your topic.

An aunt and uncle of mine traveled to all 50 states and kept souvenir knickknacks from their travels in their basement. A favorite TV and radio program of mine were rebroadcasts of “Have Gun, Will Travel.” I liked how Paladin was the effete, cultured dandy hanging out in his digs in the Carlton Hotel, San Francisco, and then put on his all black cowboy clothes and traveled to wherever some butt needed kicking. This also appealed to me because I was born in a very small town, lived in a big city, but spent some pivotal months of my adolescence on a small ranch in Texas, and for whatever reason felt as much at ease in a rural as in an urban environment.

When I graduated college, some friends and I drove from the East Coast to California, stopping at as many major cities as we could. Somehow this fed a love I have for “maximum cities” (to use the phrase from Suketu Mehta’s novel). I love the energy of the biggest cities, and have wandered through the streets of New York very late at night (or early in the morning), hung out for the late sets at blues clubs in Chicago, shot the breeze and drank homemade whiskey with taxi drivers at a café in Bombay, rounded a corner on a dark street and walked into a wedding procession in New Delhi, drank some of the strongest, most flavorful coffee I’ve ever had in a café in Mexico City, listened raptly at a breakfast counter at a local hangout in San Francisco as a 90 year old woman reached even further back into the past and talked about her father’s life as a sailing ship captain and the presents he brought back from strange places to his little girl and her mother, his wife.

But even more than favorite cities, I learned that I loved traveling, and that if anything I feel most “at home” in the great terminus of a train station or an airport (I kinda dig Frankfurt for some reason), pausing a bit to watch people arriving and departing, wondering what their stories are, before I pick up my few bags (I learned to travel well and compactly) and head off on my next adventure.

Posted by: Alec on December 9, 2006 8:28 AM

For people who like London AND American music, here's an obituary:

Posted by: dearieme on December 9, 2006 9:46 AM

I tend to think of this in terms of regions. I spent a little time out east, and I found the east coast completely unappealing - gray skies, masses of people, claustrophobia inducing forests, you can have it. I was in Boston, I would say I had an anti-home feeling there. I feel at home in the west. I remember once driving from east to west, and as I got into Kansas (yes, Kansas) where the land seems to open up, get bigger, I started to feel like I was returning home.

Posted by: Pat on December 9, 2006 3:01 PM

Fascinating bunch of responses! As well as a fascinating bunch of takes on the question. Let me see if I've got a few of them:

* "I'm home" in the sense of "I feel most comfy there."
* "I'm home" in the sense of "I could settle here."
* "I'm home" in the "I love fantasizing about this place more than any other" sense.
* Which place makes you feel least at home?
* Have you ever fallen so in love with a place in an "I'm home" sense that you've actually moved there, and (as love sometimes will) it screwed your life up?
* "I'm home" but it doesn't have to do with a specific place.
* "I'm home" but it's more a state of mind.
* "I'm home" but it's more to do with an era (ie with time) than with place.
* "I'm home" in the sense that "I seem to fit in, whether I like it or not."
* I was away from home and something cool happened.
* "I'm home" because this is where an activity I enjoy following takes place.
* "Home" is the place I like daydreaming about most.
* Texas, dude.

I'd read personal essays from the bunch of you on any and all of those topics. Wait, I just did.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 9, 2006 5:25 PM

...and now, MB, you can choose your x">visuals for every story.
Hey, might be a great Xmas gift book!
If I were a publisher..

Posted by: Tatyana on December 9, 2006 7:05 PM

ooops, sorry. The tags, the tags!

Here's the correct link.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 10, 2006 11:55 AM

Hey, maybe I met the wrong Blowhard. I've lived in London and Florence, and was very comfortable in each.

As an undergrad, I left Berkeley for Cambridge, because despite many interesting things about it, Northern California was never going to be home. There and only there I often had a distinct mental image as I walked around: I was a little speck on a big globe, a long way from home. When I went back 30 years laters the same image cropped up almost instantly.

In Boston, I said that to a friend from San Francisco. He said he felt the same way in Boston.

Posted by: john on December 12, 2006 1:23 PM

Here's another category: places for which you are grateful.

I grew up in Cleveland's old eastern suburbs, and I will always love and long for them. Returning from college to spend six years as a favored son of my beloved hometown brought me much happiness, but little tangible success. The four years I later spent pursuing a dream in new and unfamiliar Palo Alto brought me wealth & fame and the beginnings of a family of my own.

I've since left Palo Alto, and besides, the Palo Alto I knew doesn't exist anymore. But in my brief time there I felt that I embraced it and it embraced me in a way that home never did.

It's been said that every city asks you a question: that NYC, for instance, asks, "How much money do you make?" LA asks, "How pretty are you?" Palo Alto asks, "How smart are you?"

(Now I live in Marin County. It's beautiful and wealthy and as close to paradise as I'll ever get, but I feel little connection with the people here. They're outdoorsy biking & hiking types. And they're all liberals!)

Posted by: Go West on December 13, 2006 4:27 PM

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