What it means to be home

The New York City skyline at dusk, captured from the Hudson River in April 2013.

The New York City skyline at dusk, captured from the Hudson River in April 2013.

Yesterday, my friend Fany and I were trying to make plans to hang out, and I told her I’d be in Mexico for the next two weeks. “Again?” she said. “You know, you haven’t arrived.”

She was right: I hadn’t arrived. I’d moved to New York at the end of January, but I’d been gone in Mexico twice already (more than a month in Mexico, if you counted up the days), in San Diego once, and in Portland and San Francisco. Being in New York still felt like an extended business trip. I didn’t feel yet like I was here to stay.

I kept repeating that little sentence in my head — I haven’t arrived — and it made me feel better about this anxiousness I’d been feeling lately, this need to establish myself right away, to do something big and important now. Arriving in Mexico City, I’m sure I’d felt the same way, but my freshest memories were of how routine and comfortable everything was.

I’m curious: when you moved to a new city for the first time, what little things made you feel like you’d truly arrived? How long did it take you to really feel like you were home?

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17 Responses to “What it means to be home”
  1. Didi

    I’ve moved to two countries (the 2nd one fairly recent) and I still can’t seem to get my footing in both and call it “home” per se. With an expat life where location is never permanent, it is quite difficult to arrive.

    In my last city, when I started to settle in: established a routine, started to see the light, met real friends, it was then that we received news that we needed to leave. I guess that’s when you know that you’ve arrived, when you’ve found your little family in an alien city.

    • Lesley

      Didi: Thanks for your comment. It really helps that I have real family in New York — they’ve made us feel welcomed and settled. Still making my way in the friends department. It doesn’t help that I’m gone so much.

  2. Greg

    At some point it is about the people and the relationships you build in your new city. I once challenged my staff to define “home” for me. You always here people go “home” and I asked if that means where you used to live, where your parents live, where you currently live, or ??? The definition they found which work for me is:

    Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

    Doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I thought you might benefit from this anyway.


    • Lesley

      Thanks, Greg. Seems like the definition is a place where you have an emotional connection, that has a connection to you back. I’m still a stranger here. Guess that comes with time.

  3. Daphne

    Hi Lesley,

    I found it harder to move back home to Toronto, than to move to Mexico City. In 1983 I sold the house that I’d bought as a single woman, quit my job and moved. For true love. Easy.
    In the spring of 1989, I bought my little family back to Toronto.
    I won’t talk about them in this email – but I will tell you that it took me 2 years to stop feeling like an immigrant myself. Me! My maiden name is MacRae and I’m blonde, green-eyed and fair. Still, there were days when I had to look at myself in the mirror and say firmly, “This is your country. You are one of them.”
    In the 6 years I’d been away, technology had changed; WASPs were no longer the majority here; things I’d criticized in Mexico (littering, coughing, sneezing, yawning without covering your mouth)we were doing.
    And the waste!!! And the technological upgrades every year – that everyone had to have. The instant gratification.
    People that I’d looked up to and felt great affection for, suddenly seemed…one dimensional and shallow.
    It’s really hard to come home, Lesley. It changes so much when you weren’t looking. That old saying, “You can never go home”?…is true. Because ‘home’ has shifted. And even though New York, in your case, is crowded, doesn’t it seem just a bit sterile somehow?

    • Lesley

      Hi Daphne: Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. New York actually seemed sterile to me before I moved here — one of the reasons we picked Queens was specifically because of its diversity, and how you could experience a dozen other cultures all mingling together at once. (And actually, I love my neighborhood. That part has worked out great.)

      But, yeah — this shift toward *more*, and this attitude of how important we all are has taken some getting used to. I find myself thinking a lot more about my appearance here than I did in Mexico. My wardrobe seems all wrong for New York. (It’s too casual!) I don’t wear enough makeup. (Maybe I should try some concealer? Do something different with my hair?)

      I don’t know. I’m just trying to be patient with myself and not make any impulsive decisions as this all plays out. At some point (maybe two years from now), it will all seem normal again.

  4. Ami


    I’ve loved following your blog, it reminds me so much of all the things I love about Mexico. And now, it’s exciting to watch you start to settle into life NYC! I’ve lived here in New York for 7 years, and I think it took almost 2 to start to feel like this was home. Home to me is the place that you come to and end up feeling like your truest, most relaxed self, you come home and you can breathe.

    Small NYC victories that made it feel a bit more like home: finding a great local neighborhood bodega where the owners start to know you. Building a group of friends big enough to be able to grab an impromptu drink/coffee with someone in your neighborhood at the end of the day. Knowing which way to walk when coming out of my neighborhood subway station. NY’s a big place, but little by little it gets to be smaller and then suddenly it’s yours. Suerte!

    • Ami

      Forgive the misspelling. Lesley, not Leslie!

    • Lesley

      Ami: All great points, thank you for sharing! I love the neighborhood bodega image — so far I think the only people who might recognize me are the surly Chinese men who hang out outside my local Cantonese place. But that’s a start. (I also need to go there for breakfast more.) Knowing which way to walk out of the subway is HUGE. So far that’s only happened to me once. The rest of the time I have to get out of everyone’s way, pull out my phone and check Google Maps. I think this city must’ve been super interesting 15 years ago, when no one had a smart phone and everyone was wandering around lost. :-)

      And really great point on home being a place where you can come home and breathe. I definitely feel that way about New York already, largely because my husband is here. I’ve had a few flashes of feeling like my truest, most relaxed self (love how you put that) — hoping that will come with time.

  5. Joe

    Mexico, so unforgettable! Part of you (your soul, I guess) was left there. At least, I feel that way myself. The memory is so strong, so vivid, I love this place so much that I miss her every day. But I am home, and I know that I am.

  6. Lesley

    Hi Lesley,

    My name is Lesley! And my bf is chicano! I’m so happy I stumbled onto your blog. We are constantly on the prowl for good tacos in DC (where we live), though you’d be surprised how hard that is to find, and there’s always mole paste in our fridge. On your topic of “home” in this post, I can identify completely with your discomfort and awkwardness. Since moving to DC, I have lived in Virginia, DC & Maryland, making my adjustment period really long in each neighborhood. It may seem like these are all the same regional area, but as you know one neighborhood in a borough of NYC can be radically different from the next. Since I also travel a fair amount (nationally & internationally) I am constantly comparing my feeling of home in DC with other places. Unfortunately, one of my best comforts is to be near to the city center, or at least an active part of the city, and so where I live now (at little into the burbs) took a lot longer to get used to. Though, I will contradict myself to say that there is some peace of mind that comes with space inside your home and around it. To me, NYC has always been a place that tends to seed more discomfort in people because it is difficult to feel ‘at home’. I wish I could pinpoint why that is, but I can’t, it’s just a gut feeling I get when I visit there. Comparing it my recent trip to Paris, maybe it’s because NYC always feels like a purpose-driven city, whereas many other cities know that leisure, pleasure, and space are important so people try to incorporate that. In many ways, NYC still has so many slum-like qualities to how close together things are and the disrepair of infrastructure (for people and things). But this is just a guess – I have never lived in NY. I’m dying to go to Mexico! I can’t wait until we can spend a least a month seeing all of the beautiful architecture, beaches, and DF.

    • Lesley

      Hi Lesley! Welcome, and I’m glad you found me. You’re totally right about the purpose-driven aspect of NY — it’s actually one of the things I like about the city, that people are insanely ambitious. But it doesn’t leave a lot of time for relaxing and spur-of-the-moment pleasures, which is part of what I loved about Mexico. If you go to Mexico, let me know, I’m happy to pass some recommendations your way. And I may be in DC sometime this year… if I do, I may ask you for taco recommendations. Thanks again for commenting!

  7. Norma Hawthorne

    I make my home in two places — North Carolina, USA, and Oaxaca, Mexico. Whenever I arrive in either place I am happy. Whenever I leave one place for the other, I am never ready to go. Home is the familiar, comforting, nurturing, a place of belonging, the longing to return and stay and be. These days, I spend more time in Oaxaca. In both places, I create home surrounded by people and things I love, and of course, the food that fills my soul. If I don’t have this, then it’s time to create it. Enjoy the dilemma, the enigma, the challenge. Ultimately, we belong wherever we are.

    • Lesley

      Beautifully said. Thanks, Norma.

  8. Girelle

    Hey Lesley,

    I have moved many times in my life: from Puerto Plata to Santo Domingo, to San Juan, to NYC, to Boston, to Beirut and back to NYC. Each time I made a commitment (unconsciously) to get to know the city I lived in. I am a walker by nature, so that’s what I did naturally. I enjoyed the adventure, but no amount of walking ever made me feel at home. In the end finding a supportive network of caring friends did the trick.

    Hope you are well!

  9. Adriana

    For me it was when I got my life under control, when I found my favorite butcher shop, the areas in the city I felt more comfortable, my dry cleaners, when people started to say hello and recognizing my face, when I could go to places and node at the people at the flower shop, en fin!, when I started t merge with my surroundings, and most important when I met friends to hang out with and did not feel alone anymore, that is when I really felt at home.

    • Lesley

      Thanks, Adriana. I think I’m getting there.

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