Building Home Away from Home

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  • Life

I lived near Austin, Texas for most of my life. Not in Austin, but only twenty miles north, and often visiting. Before university, the most time I’d spent there were two years of middle school near the downtown—a fifteen-minute walk from my house of the later two years of my undergraduate. The following four years of high school saw a turnaround, driving 50 miles in the opposite direction to Temple while still living only twenty miles from the Capitol. I lived in Austin during the four years of my undergraduate, taking only a semester’s intermission to study in Lyon. Despite Austin not having been home by the strictest of definition—rather, a landmark amidst the Central Texas suburban sprawl—the city became home.

My family has been fortunate enough to be able to travel almost yearly, mostly together. In the early 2000s, my parents happened upon an abandoned former blacksmith’s shop and stable while visiting a rural French town. To them, as architects, it was a dream—a skeleton around which to build an idyllic, small home, where they would bring their then-young family, as finances allowed. We visited as close to yearly as we could, often with detours—for their twentieth anniversary in 2010, we visited Stresa, where they were married, and continued through Italy. Every visit, we would visit as much of the surrounding Auvergne as we could, and often further—visiting the Millau Viaduct, and Perpignan. While studying in Lyon, I returned multiple times to escape the concrete, and fill my lungs with fresh air. This, too, became home, but of another kind.

This way, my parents instilled in me a love for travel at an early age, and a degree of Francophilia. It surely informed my bachelor’s degree. I studied French, and took the semester in Lyon, where I discovered a liminality: I lacked the time to make myself at home, but was too occupied to maintain the temporary and change-seeking mindset of travel. I existed permanently, but somewhere between arrival and departure, where the only change was the passing of time. While now fondly remembering my time there, I remember the discomfort of being unable to invest myself in a space, as well as the impermanence around me—my friends found themselves in a similar transience, as seemingly did most of the city’s younger, international crowd. The specter of upcoming departure influenced behavior in a way that removed one from reality. Academics in Lyon mattered less at home, new friends would return to their countries of origin and communication would lapse, and why invest for comfort when somewhere so briefly? Impermanence begat detachment.

Given that experience of impermanence, I felt better prepared when moving back to Europe in February. Despite being in Leuven for only a year and a half, small comforts mattered. Particularly, working from home, I needed a livable and enjoyable space. I like to think that our lifestyle here is neither spartan nor exorbitant, but my standard of living is far improved from Lyon. I work from a desk as opposed to a futon-bed, the apartment is wired for more than two concurrent burners, and we have space for a desk, coffee table, and couch. I love to cook, particularly to break up the potential work-from-home monotony, and that heavily contributed to the search for a more livable space. I was afraid that returning to the States quarterly for work would detract from meaningful time here, but that hasn’t been the case. Regular stints in France haven’t competed with the time I spend here, but instead have offset the ever-present, passive restlessness.

With the foundation of a consistent and more livable space, the rest took shape. I’m not a student, and working from home inherently creates an insular lifestyle. Luckily, this city’s infrastructure allows for high speed internet at its variety of cafes, most of which welcome laptop-workers. My partner is a Master’s student at the university here, and through that network, I’ve found a small but burgeoning photography circle, a welcoming international community, and as a part of that, a group of politically passionate and involved American expats. There’s a life to be made here, for the time being, and I love it.

Living in Lyon, I wanted to better understand my discomfort, but couldn’t. I couldn’t call a six-month stay “travel”, but it wasn’t enough to take root—even temporarily. And on departure for Austin, despite living there for only a year and a half before moving again, it wasn’t so much of a move as it was a homecoming. At what point does longer-term travel supplant home? In which timeframe does travel prompt nesting?

How comfortable I find myself here only dawned on me a few weeks ago, when the Saturday after American Thanksgiving, some thirty friends arrived at our apartment over the day for a Thanksgiving-inspired potluck. An Erasmus friend from Lyon attended while taking a brief respite from Paris to Brussels, and Paige was visiting from Wednesday through Sunday to spend the holiday with us. As much as I appreciate having made a livable home, it only truly came together with these friends under our roof, spending the day—and well into the night—cooking and enjoying each others’ company. Home is more than nesting; it’s a focal point between a livable space and those with whom one surrounds themselves. It’s been a project, but it means much to call this home.

Returning to Austin in seven months, I find myself with a distinctly different mindset than I did when returning three summers before. I’m glad to have made this home abroad, and I look forward to visiting, returning to the fond memories made here. This time, the return to Austin will be an undertaking, and more a move, even an uprooting, than a homecoming.