Defining Home


There's no place like home, says Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There are countless songs and poems about home, about what home is and how to find it, about the need to come back to it and the need to leave it. Home is where the heart is, claim some, while the others counter - home is where the hurt is.

I think about home a lot. I think about all the places I call home now, and so many more I called home in the past. In my life so far, I have lived in ten different cities, five different states and two different countries on two different continents. I have lived in two very different regimes. Most of my life I have lived in places with four clearly defined seasons and now I am in a place where summer is endless. Along with the travel, I can count 33 states I have visited or passed through. Some of them were brief encounters, others got deep under my skin. Some of them, I still daydream about and others, I would rather not return to again. All of those places stole a little part of my heart and inserted a fragment of their own. We are corresponding mosaics of many scents, colors, tastes, perceptions, and emotions.

Once you have lived in very different places, you find yourself constantly shifting between "I can't believe I am so lucky to see all of this" and "I can't believe I've left all of the places and people behind". It's a non stop back and forth, never ending quarrel. Visiting new countries, traveling, learning about new customs and meeting new people is exciting and exhilarating when it is for a limited time. When one is going to stay, all of those feelings have a company of others - loss, absence, void, doubt and ignorance. You can't take all of your loved ones with you.

I grew up in a communistic country. I learned that our country was almost as good as Soviet Union. We had stores, not supermarkets, and there was a choice of one in them. I had no idea about brands. I thought Mr. Lenin was my long lost uncle. I grew up in fear of somebody yelling at me - my teachers, post office clerks, store clerks, neighbors, canteen workers, doctors and dentists. I remember clearly being yelled at by at least one in each category, more or less on a daily basis. I recently went to Prague with an American friend. We met with some of my Slovak friends and reminisced about our childhood. We each had a story about peeing or pooping our pants because our daycare/school teacher would not let us go to the bathroom. There was a designated time for emptying your bowels and it did not matter that you were three or four years old, you should have known better. If you asked to go during nap time, you simply would not be allowed to go and later you would be publicly shamed and humiliated and forced to walk around in wet pants. We talked about our lunches that were prepared in canteens. The same meal was offered to all of the kids. We talked about being forced to eat whatever was served to us, even foods that would make us throw up. We each had a throwing up story as well. My Slovak friend then asked my American friend to describe her school lunch routine. "Well", my American friend said, "my Mom would make me lunch that I would bring to school with me." My Slovak friend, eyes wide open, exhaled in disbelief: "You mean...you could eat for lunch whatever you wanted?"

I miss the collective experience. Living in the cradle of democracy now, I miss the understanding of how I grew up, of what we all used to experience in schools, in everyday life, of what normal meant to us. I miss the collective experience of watching the same movies and shows on one state network that was also the only one available. I miss the ability to say two words that are a part of a joke that everyone knows and then explode in laughter with everybody else. I mind being left out of these collective jokes where I live now. I think about my childhood, about how little we had, and about how I never knew that what we had was little by today's criteria. I remember with kindness my birthday parties that would be held in our small apartment with a handful of best friends, eating home made sandwiches served by my Mom and drinking soda that was only bought for special occasions. I think of my son who receives invitations to parties that match the wedding ones, with a party just as elaborate, complete with favors and official thank you notes. I wonder if it's good or bad that he can get whatever he needs or wants and does not have to wait until Christmas to see if maybe, just maybe he was lucky enough to get what his heart desired. I wonder how often he will hear, "you can't have that, because we don't have money for it", even if it's something as little and cheap as a bar of chocolate.

And in a perfect contradiction, I am just as happy not to be a part of the collective experience. I was ten years old when communism fell apart. I was there to see democracy take over (pun intended). I saw the kind of hope and unity that only happens under extreme conditions, that turns common people into heroes. I witnessed that some of those heroes only last for a day, that hope doesn't always stick and that it takes a lot of work and effort to handle sudden availability of options, choices and responsibilities that come hand in hand with it. It's like baggage from your previous unhappy marriage that you just can't completely leave behind. It's worse than that, because the new union is not necessarily so much more understanding and supportive. I feel relieved that I can raise my family in a place where hard work still pays off and people dare to dream big. There are many cliches about America. For many of them I am thankful. I love the smiles of strangers and I welcome the "how are you?" "just great, thank you" exchanges. I am happy not to be a part of the collective experience of my past where "how are you?" question is almost always followed by "don't even ask" or "well, I suppose it could be worse" answer.

I don't know if the place I live in right now is going to last for the rest of my life. I don't know if maybe after another 20-30 years here I could possibly start taking Christmases with Santa in board shorts and palm trees seriously, or if I will always ache for the peacefulness that only white snow cover can bring, for the Christmas markets with hot spiced wine, for the same old Czech and Slovak movies that are replayed every year and watched by all generations over and over. I don't think I will ever get used to the concept of American strip malls. I will forever miss the old town squares that have been there since the 10th century or longer and the stories they tell to whoever is willing to listen. I think I will always remain a prisoner of nostalgia, as I was not forced to leave my home and I was not saving my life, I was just given an option and I made a choice.

Looking outside of my bedroom window today, I see Pacific ocean, glistening waves and dive bombing prehistoric creatures also known as pelicans. The view is a definition of beauty. Yet I found myself saying more than once that in my past, I had better views than this one. I think that sentence is the best proof of how wonderfully lucky I am.


PS: "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." Vaclav Havel



12 comments:

  1. You wrote it beautifully. I used to feel/think the same way. Now I'm trying not to think about it too much. I am glad my kids have the opportunities that they have. We usually compromise on different traditions and celebrate it both ways. On Christmas, we get to have two days of presents, haha. And I miss snow on Christmas but then for the rest of the winter I am glad I don't have to deal with it on a daily basis and get up earlier just to dig out or unfreeze the car or dig the house out from underneath the snow. When the kids are a little bigger I wanna start taking them to snowy mountains to do some skiing or snowboarding though. When feeling nostalgic I have to remind myself that I'm mostly remembering the positive side of things and not really thinking about the negative side. So I'm glad I live where I live, although I do miss my old friends I have new things to look forward to and I tend to think of the positives. Such as food - I love the local food, seafood, fish, diverse food from different cultures, less fat, etc. I hope this makes sense. I'm writing it in a hurry. But I'm planning to host a Czech & Slovak party soon. If you know someone who wants to come, they can come too. They don't have to be Czech, Slovak or foreign ;) We can cook all the food we want to eat and we are gonna eat it and there will be some homemade Czech "slivovica" and all sorts of stuff :) It should be fun! Are you coming? PS: if you want a little bit of the autumn season, you can stop by my village too. The leaves get more colorful here. Also, Halloween is a good time to come. The village goes overboard that day. Last year, I could barely drive to school to take a quiz in the evening. There were zombies and what not limping all over the place :) Marta

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    1. Thank you for your response, Marta! It definitely makes sense. You are right - we tend to forget the negative and sometime we remember negative from the past nostalgically as not so bad, but interesting. I also wanted to add that I don't necessarily think of one better than the other. I gave an example of kids birthday parties. I don't think it is a necessity to go all out for them, but I also think they create beautiful memories that last a lifetime. But I feel sad at times that Kai will not share the memories that I have the way he would if I lived in Slovakia with him. And yes - I would love to come to your party and probably bring a guest or two :)

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  2. I know. I don't know how to feel about the birthday parties either. Because I didn't grow up that way. I viewed it as an over the top kind of thing. But then I asked my husband about the party favors and stuff and he says it's kind of nice for the kids who come to the party to take something home to play with because the birthday child doesn't have to have all the fun. Which makes sense. But it also doesn't make sense, because usually all the kids have fun at someone's birthday party. And in Czech we would give the guests the food and cake that was left over, haha. I say as long as the kids have fun and the parents can afford it ;) And not all the birthday parties we have been to do the party favors or elaborate invitations and some don't even accept gifts. Some suggest people donate to some place instead. So it depends. I think life in Czech and Slovakia are a bit more simpler for a child to grow up in. I'm just talking from my experience though. Where I grew up fields weren't fenced off and the kids could explore nature more freely (I didn't grow up in a city). And we did a lot of walking too. Here it's a lot of car driving and everything is fenced off.
    The question whether my kids should be using phones or not yet would pop up in both places nowadays.
    I like the school system here, because it seems to give more opportunities, choices and I was never challenged in my Czech high school to work on different projects like the kids are challenged here. I didn't like that I had to choose a specialized high school when I was 13 years old and that pretty much set what jobs I could get later. I like that here you can keep an open mind and try different things before you choose your major at a college. Speaking of colleges, I love the community college system here. I decided to go back to school and completely change my career which in Czech would be extremely hard. I think I'd have to go back to a specialized high school to do what I wanna do now. Also, my son is on the autistic spectrum and he is getting so much free specialized help here, I don't think he could ever get that in Czech. When my mom mentions to someone that he has autism, people automatically think he isn't functional or capable of doing anything and they look weird at her. Which isn't true because he is smart and can read at the age of 3, he is just behind when it comes to socializing skills.
    I am glad I can buy bananas and oranges whenever and not just at Christmas. I also don't mind not being beaten at Easter, haha.
    And maybe, if you grew up here and now moved to Slovakia, you would think the same way, only reversed. But that's hard to tell.
    I love my past experiences and my old friends and I also love my new experiences and my new friends.
    Now, what do you suggest I cook for the party? I was thinking potato pancakes, szegedin goulash, maybe halusky if I can get brynza, apple strudel, cesnekove jednohubky, maybe kolace cuz I have plum povidla (although baking Czech things out of local flour seems hard sometimes), maybe langose. Also, I could make svickova na smetane with dumplings and kapusta (savoy cabbage). I could make schnitzels too. Oh, so many possibilities, haha. What would you like? Marta

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    1. I love that in the US people have an opportunity to do what they set their minds to and are not put in a "box" from which they are never allowed to escape. I agree with what you said about the schools and I also have a great experience in my professional life in the US. I applied for Human Resources job with ski resort years ago, with a degree in Biotechnology and barely any work experience, definitely not a relevant one. I was hired and given several opportunities to progress and to be promoted, which I don't think would ever happened in Slovakia, at least not when I lived there. I also happened to learn it was what I loved to do and never thought about returning to research again.

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  3. We should get the Russian fairy tale Mrazik and watch that :) Or something else that we know.

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    1. I second Mrazik. we are watching at least once a month with my kids. my 5 year old loves to discuss and analyze fairytales - how many times did I hear the sentence: "mama, can we talk about Nastenka?" she cracks me up - I mean my kid cracks me up. but Nastenka actually does too.

      PS: Ajka, not enough time to write about all my deep feelings in terms of "home" and "home-home". maybe later.
      Milka

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    2. Milka - you always crack me up :) I can see where the kid got it from.

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  4. just one short comment: I feel very nostalgic about my childhood too, but let's not forget that Slovakia did not stay still for 20+ years. I think kids there today do not have same experience like we had - not just for obvious reasons (change of regime) but also because of different parenting styles, keeping up with Joneses attitudes and bigger expectations/oportunities. Slovakia is exposed to Western culture and it is sucking that in.
    I liked the movie "Midnight in Paris" - interesting idea there - all generations thinks that era they are live in is very uninteresting and plain and the era they've missed was the "golden" era. I try to like where I live. still missing close relatives around. but there is nothing I can do about that, so ....

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    1. That is a very good point. Several good points, as a matter of fact. It also makes me wonder how people who have never left their hometown feel - they experience the constant changes as well and the nostalgia probably isn't far from them either. I love my life and the very different experience I got to go through. At the same time, I know very well what are the things I am missing, because I was introduced to them and then left them behind. If anybody reading this is a person who stayed, I would love to hear your input.

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  5. Nicely done essay on "home" from a fairly unique perspective here in the USA. Many American novelists, playwrights and film directors/screenwriters have tackled the same issues but you offer something different.

    I've led discussion groups on contemporary Cuban literature where some of the same "pulls and tugs" appear in their novels and short stories.

    I'm glad I stumbled onto your blog; looking forward to more introspection on your part!

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    1. Thank you Jeff! There are so many emotions about this topic floating in my head and in my heart that I found it very hard to pin down to anything that would make sense. I am pleased to hear you enjoyed it.

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    2. You're welcome, Andrea. Katarina M. had posted your blog on FB and I'm happy to follow it.

      In many ways you can't understand home until you leave it for a while. Then you come to comprehend what home means to you.

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