Displaced, But at Home

It’s always an interesting feeling to come home when you’ve been gone for several months, and one I’m not all too unfamiliar with. I’ve come home from five months in Austria, five months in Argentina and eighteen months in South Korea and while each homecoming was not quite the same, they all had one factor in common: I had a place that was my own, no matter how much time had passed.

But this time, coming back from five months of travel in Europe, even I was caught off-guard by how un-homey it felt.

Times are hard.

It all started a few months ago when my parents moved to Germany. As part of that arrangement, they didn’t sell our home in Pittsburgh, but they cleaned out several rooms for rental. My (now former) room, being the fantastic, spacious and bright room that it is, was obviously prime real estate to someone wanting to move in. My belongings were packed up into several boxes and put into another room for storage. The house’s Internet was shut off and the kitchen cabinets were cleaned out. On one hand, I’m extremely impressed with my parents; that must have been a ton of work, because those cabinets were packed to the brim. On the other, I wish I could still rifle through there for some oatmeal every once in a while. None of these developments were unexpected, in fact I knew exactly what I would encounter walking through my old childhood home. But it’s still weird. Thank goodness my bookshelf is still largely intact and as it was, though moved, because I don’t know if I could handle missing books on top of missing oatmeal.

So each morning, now, I instead wake up in my Aunt’s spare bedroom in the house next door. The first few days, I used to wake up and look over to see a giant collage of my cousin’s face all over the wall. And the room isn’t completely empty, in fact there’s quite a few things held in storage in what’s now “my” room. But once I reorganized some drawers, claiming one as my own and unpacking my suitcase from the floor, and also moved my cousin’s (beautiful, lovely, marvelous!) face and senior pictures over to her bedroom, the space felt a little better. It feels slightly more like my own. (That’s probably also because I put some books on top of the drawers; I’m instantaneously at ease.)

How to make any room instantly become Sally's room: lots of books.
How to make any room instantly become Sally’s room: lots of books.

There’s one factor, though, that has me totally disoriented, but has been a complete non-issue for the past five months of travel: I don’t have a car. Or a motorcycle or a scooter. I have a bicycle and my feet. In Europe, I had no issues with this as the public transportation was fantastic. I would have been thrilled to have a bicycle in Spain or in Austria; I loved biking in Germany during my last week there. Walking aimlessly through new towns was one of my top five activities. But now that I’ve moved back home, into my neighborhood which is quite descriptively called “Mission Hills”, I’m finding that I’m not so enchanted with the idea of riding my bicycle around town. Even just walking the serious hills in my area has been an adjustment both for me and my poor calf muscles.

It was particularly hard during my first week back; I had a dentist appointment, bachelorette party and a wedding to go to, which were all completely inaccessible via public transportation in the area. Between asking for rides from my cousin, two friends, and my grandmother, I’ve never felt like such a useless, ride-begging invalid. Even visiting my friends in the city is complicated; the nearby streetcar only takes me into the downtown area, where my friends often have to pick me up to get to their neighborhood. As much as I’d like to see car-less life in the city suburbs as a cool challenge I should take on, it’s just not so. I’m becoming more disenchanted with Pittsburgh’s public transit system daily.

One of a million of Pittsburgh's beautiful overlooks... because it's full of giant hills. Womp womp.
One of a million of Pittsburgh’s beautiful overlooks… because it’s full of giant hills. Womp womp.

But it’s definitely not all bad.

I didn’t write that article, 13 Reasons Why Pittsburgh is the Best, on a whim; I truly do love this city and am glad to be back. And among the dizzying spin of trying to become settled, there are bright and shining moments during which I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I love being back in my favorite coffee shop culture. Sitting with a coffee and a book, or laptop or just a notebook and pen are all perfectly accepted and encouraged behaviors, and if you sit for hours, no one will look twice. Refills on black coffee are half-priced. And heavy ceramic “For Here” cups feel at home in my hand. It’s great to be back in a place where I can really sit back and relax again, outside of my home.

Of course coffee sometimes comes with great reunions. Since I’ve been back, quite a few old friends have come out of the woodwork to meet me, and it’s been nothing but a pleasure. While I definitely don’t have a good answer for them when they ask, “What are you doing now?” (A post on that is coming soon!), it’s still great to catch up. I love seeing familiar faces again and spending time with some of the wonderful people I’ve been privileged enough to call my friends. Being away so long has really made those relationships that much more meaningful and I’m really excited to be seeing them not just once or twice, but regularly in the next months to come.

There’s also a cultural quirk of the United States that I’ve really learned to appreciate since the last time I lived here. People here live out loud. Maybe it’s the sheer time away or maybe I’ve grown older in the last few months and years, but where I once scorned other Stateys abroad when they were loud and obnoxious, I recently started looking at them with smiles. Those are my loud, obnoxious and overwhelmingly alive people. That’s my culture that will crack jokes in line, even though you’ve never met any of them. People from the USA are generally friendly to all kinds of strangers and aren’t afraid to laugh loudly anywhere they go. And for some reason, even when it’s obnoxious, I kind of love it.

So while I’m still settling in for the long haul, here, things are progressing. It may be the strangest transition I’ve ever had to go through, which is unexpected, considering that I’m at “home”. But I’m learning that even home can be another world, and maybe it’s one I’ve just begun to really discover.

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What’s the hardest or strangest transition you’ve ever gone through? Have your parents ever abandoned you for Germany and sold all their cars? Have any advice for me, if you’ve gone through a similar thing?

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13 thoughts on “Displaced, But at Home”

  1. Oh, it sucks when your childhood home changes. My old bedroom at my parent’s house is now the sleepover room for my nieces. It’s super weird when I spend weekends there in a Hello Kitty bed. And Pittsburgh’s public transportation system drives me nuts. It’s so expensive after $0.30-1 bus rides in Asia. Haha, I know EXACTLY what you mean about people. I’d feel so contemptuous when I could pinpoint the groups of Americans in an international crowd, but it’s so nice to be back with people who can talk to strangers easily and laugh – no one does small talk like Americans. Subway rides in Korea were always so silent and creepy. The weirdest transition I’m going through now is. . .not moving. I’ll be living in the same place for more than a year for the first time in almost ten years. I’m restless and wanting to leave, but I’m trying to appreciate where I am.

    1. That must be REAL weird to sleep in Hello Kitty sheets! I wouldn’t like that either.

      The public transit in Pittsburgh is sucking my money away slowly but surely. The other day I went home from Zone 2 and it was almost 4 dollars! I still have a hard time believing that was real. I’m thinking it might actually be worth it to buy a monthly pass, or even one for the year, but once I (eventually) get a car, I probably won’t use it that much. I wish they would just make it more affordable!

      & it’s really hard to stay in one place when you’re not used to it. I’ll be in the same restless spot as you, I’m sure, within the month, if not sooner and I know tons of travelers or former expats have the same issue. But I think if I can settle in at home and learn to enjoy staying put for a bit, I could do it anywhere; it’s always hardest where you grow up. Fingers crossed we both learn to appreciate what’s around us for the next couple months!

  2. Oh girl, I am right there with you. I mean, not literally in Pittsburgh, but figuratively here in Toronto where I’m kind of going through the exact same thing. We’ve been back from our world travels for about 3 weeks now and although we were coping really well at first, the longer we’re here, in some ways the more challenging it gets, perhaps because it gives me more time for all the weird stuff about our situation to sink in and for me to really process that we’re not traveling anymore. We are also without a car and find that frustrating at times (but will hopefully have that rectified by the end of the month) and it’s hard to feel the same sense of freedom we did while on the road. That said, there are certainly comforts in coming home, and I try to focus on those more—whether it’s cuddle time with our dogs or not having to worry about where our next meal is coming from—to keep my spirits high. It’s not always easy and expect there will be more struggles in the weeks and months to come, but I just have to remind myself that this stage will eventually pass, I just have to be patient. And if traveling teaches us anything, I think that it is this!

    1. It’s incredible how difficult being car-less can make an otherwise just fine life; hopefully both of us have that rectified by the end of the month! You’re right about patience being the number one thing we learn while traveling, and it’s just funny that at least I usually forget that lesson as soon as I’m dealing with myself. But I’m also learning to just let go and remember that when a little more time passes, things will be better. Those gratitude projects like 100 Happy Days seem to make a little more sense to me now; I think that’s what you’re doing unofficially by concentrating on the positives in Toronto.

      And when you’re ready to hit the road for a short road trip anytime soon, I’ll be waiting for you guys in Pittsburgh! 🙂

  3. That must be so hard, to not have your childhood home to go back to. I have a feeling that once my brothers move out, my parents are going to sell the house too (it’s just too big for only 2 people) so visiting them will be really weird … in a new place.

    I’m seem to be adjusting well to it though. You’re so brave. I’m definitely nowhere near even thinking about going anywhere near the UK for a long, long time. I am excited to see what’s on the horizon for you though, hun. 🙂

    1. Haha well sometimes your bank account forces your hand and you just have to deal with it! I’m sure you know what that’s like. I hope Korea sets you up financially so you can stay away from the UK for as long as you need. A bit of space is always fantastic.

      I’ll let you and everyone else know what’s on the horizon as soon as I can see more than a few inches in front of my face. 😀

  4. Great post, Sally.

    I totally relate. I’ve been nomadic for twenty years now, and in those two decades, every single time I went ‘home,’ I felt more and more disenfranchised and alienated, not so much by friends and family…they will always be friends and family…but perhaps by the town itself. I no longer know any faces when I walk down the high street or step into the local for a pint. My favorite stores are gone, and the patches of grass that I grew up playing football on are now crappy track houses or ground simply laid to waste. The town still has part of my heart, but sadly that’s more by default than choice. My solution is simple; stay away, for life is almost always better when I’m somewhere else. Oh, and that old saying about the grass being greener? For me it is, always!

    1. Things always change when you’re gone and it can be disorienting to find that all your memories of home aren’t present in the reality anymore. But that’s what you’ll slowly create in Mexico, now that you’ve bought a home; you make the familiar faces over time and anywhere can be home if you want it to. I’m glad that you’ve found your patches of green grass, though! And having Leslie there probably makes it that much more home-y. 😀

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