I don’t have a home any more. I’m a rule-abiding outlaw, a stationary wanderer, glamorously slumming it as a resident of nowhere. People find this hard to accept; of course you have a home, Bella, everyone has a home. It’s true, though. This isn’t to make some sort of political statement, renouncing my affiliation with any particular nation to declare myself a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, and neither am I trying to sound edgy to align myself with the hipster digital nomad crew so I can sit with them at lunch. I actually think having a home is severely underrated, as I will shortly explain.
‘Refugee’ is probably a better description of my current supranational existence, although that sounds more sad and desperate than I’m willing to feel. In fact, if you were to disguise yourself behind a newspaper with eye holes and follow me around for an afternoon you’d find me mostly cheery, discussing my life in this domicile-related limbo with people in a jovial manner, and not at all suspicious about someone conspicuously reading the newspaper only two or three metres away apparently everywhere I go. People are surprised at my positivity. The thing is, I don’t particularly want to spend life feeling miserable, which leaves me no choice but to find reasons to be cheery. Staying afloat on a raft of peacefulness among the rapids of life is essential for survival in uncertainty, and made possible in no small measure by carefully nurturing a habit of gratitude, bottle-feeding it once every four hours day and night for many months, intentionally moulding my outlook to one of knowing everything is going to work out just fine.
However, just to keep things real for a minute I should add that this type of involuntary homelessness has regularly been really quite stressful. I’ve had many moments of total panic and frustration burst in the door like a serial killer in a slasher movie, flipping over tables and emptying cutlery drawers and messing up all the bed sheets before abruptly leaping out a ground-floor window and disappearing again into the bushes. I’m entirely under the influence of forces beyond my control, have almost no options or agency in the direction of my life, and constantly have to rely on the kindness of others. But lingering in this despair for long is not an option. I sometimes think of ‘real’ refugees displaced by war and persecution, and what an unbelievable scenario it is to have nothing, nowhere to go, and no one to help you. Pessimism and doubt is a luxury for those refugees, because hope is all they have.
I actually haven’t had a home for some time – technically almost a year but I’ve been really, seriously without a home for the last four months with not even a rented room in which to drum my fingertips together, draw blueprints by candle light, laugh manically under bolts of lightning, and do all the other things I normally do. Professional couch surfer is my occupation now, as I can’t even earn money in this country any more due to the continuous bane of my life: visas. I say technically almost a year because that is when my last remaining relative residing in the UK, my darling mother, who isn’t even British, left to live permanently overseas. The rest of the relatives are clustered in Germany and flung out across Australasia in a total of three countries – two continents, if you prefer continents. Such an international family is certainly novel in that I have places all over the world I can stay for free, at least for a short period of time. But none of those countries are ‘home’ and, anyway, I am barred from residing permanently or working in any of them due to the, well, continuous bane of my life: visas.
Since I haven’t even dipped a toe in the UK for two-and-a-half years, all my ties to the motherland have blackened and shrivelled up like a banana peel abandoned in the bushes. I have nothing there any more; no job, no place to stay, no physical belongings in storage. I do still have a collection of old friends who would gladly have me back, but I’ve learned the hard way that people get sick of you staying with them after a week and, anyway, after so much time and personal transformation I can’t help but feel a loss of connection with the town I grew up in.
You see, the concept of home exists on two levels – the physical and the abstract. Home is no doubt tied to a geographic location, whether that’s a town, city or a region, and definitely confined to a country. Home is the building we go back to at the end of the day to eat, shower, sleep and put all our possessions so we can forget about them until it’s time to move to a different building and wonder how we ended up with so much stuff (a topic I mulled over last year).
But home goes deeper than a physical place. Home is a picnic basket of personal history – memories from those formative years of childhood and adolescence. Home provides a sense of self, because it is linked to this collection of memories that fundamentally shapes who we are. Identity is the backbone of not only how we view ourselves, but how we process and understand the world around us. Home provides belonging; an intimate understanding of a place and a tribe of people (family, friends) we identify with. Home has a reliable eternalness as something that will always be there if things go tits up out here on the log flume of life. It has a sense of safety, or, at least, comforting familiarity. And that was the major thing I learned about home when it dawned on me that my safety net, my belonging to somewhere, my place to go if all else fails, wasn’t there any more as I was suddenly left standing at the side of the dusty road alone in the midday sun with no Plan B.
Of course, the concept of home is deeply personal, complicated by a globalised world as many people have multifaceted, cross-cultural identities or choose to migrate hundreds or thousands of kilometres from where they grew up. There’s nothing unusual about being away from one’s hometown for many years or feeling a disconnect with the place that shaped us as youths. But people normally leave home to establish a new home elsewhere. They find another tribe to identify with, take their lifelong collection of stuff with them, and establish a routine and connection with the chosen destination. It’s less common to move from place to place for long periods of time with all your belongings stuffed into a couple of bulging, absurdly heavy suitcases. While I may have chosen this life for myself initially, I didn’t anticipate it careening out of control like a balloon liberated of its knot, as it has on more than one occasion, now so more than ever.
I think we take ‘home’ completely for granted, or at least I did until I didn’t have one any more. It isn’t cool and fashionable to celebrate home, and it’s that old thing of not appreciating what you have until it’s gone. It’s actually very grounding for the soul and important in a practical sense for situations like becoming trapped by a global pandemic as borders slam shut harder than a parentally oppressed teenager’s bedroom door. When I finish explaining my current position, people react with a long pause, before concluding, “Wow, that’s tricky.” They wish me good luck, and they mean it. But I really am grateful for everything I have. It’s easy to be grateful when you have nothing, because what you do have is so much more important to you. I am so thankful for this roof over my head. I am so happy I have food to eat and friends around me who care about my wellbeing.
Now that I’ve done it for 930 days I can testify that living out of a suitcase is wildly overrated. Being completely sick of visas led me to conclude that in 2020 I would immigrate to my home country, all alone, wide-eyed and disorientated by culture shock. I would start a new life, far away from suitcases and ostracising bureaucracy and the incredible inconvenience of not having an address. But now that plan is about as relevant today as Top of the Pops (RIP). Such is the life of a rule-abiding outlaw, living day by day with no plans, no expectations, poised to pack my belongings again and voyage to the next refuge, glamorously slumming it as a resident of nowhere.