Why does one place feel like home and another place, while beautiful or lovely in many ways, does not?
To put it simply (very simply), places become imprinted on us when our experiences there are significant and good.
Typically, these imprints happen when we are young. When we are discovering our environment in the context of discovering ourselves.
The streets and special places we played as kids, away from our mother’s watchful eyes. Or the landscape of where we went to camp or to college – completely away from home, from family, all alone, for the first time. The places where we experience a new independence, a new way of being. These experiences are inherently significant. But for the landscape to burrow into our heart and psyche, the experience must also be good.
I grew up in Chicago but spent my summers on my godmother’s farm in Michigan. Michigan was everything to me. It’s where I played with other kids. Outside. In the fields. In the barn. Picking berries, picking corn, and even picking snakes (up by their tails). It’s where we chased chickens, watched cows, and petted Peanut, my cousins’ horse. Where we ate meals around a big kitchen table. With a loving, wrinkled, strong, steady, and firm matriarch. Watching over us, always interested, always ready to respond with a jolly jiggling full-body laugh.
Chicago didn’t have the same imprint on me. Until the age of 10, I lived on the south side. Bridgeport. What was then called “the little white ghetto.” A parking lot was our playground. To venture outside of a few blocks was dangerous. My siblings were older and had their own friends. My limited attempts to socialize were, well, not very successful.
At 10, my parents divorced and I moved to the northwest side of the city. Cleaner streets lined with bungalows and garages accessed from alleys. This area was safe. For my birthday, my parents gave me a red three-speed Schwinn customized with drop handlebars, (which were THE thing in the 80’s). I loved that bike. That bike meant freedom. For three years, I rode that bike everywhere. Now I had friends, from school and in the neighborhood. But those years were also tough and challenging, for various reasons. Returning to Michigan in the summers was an escape and a going home. I longed to be at Grama’s. To hear the crickets. To smell the hay. To sleep in a creaky bed with a lumpy mattress. To feel the morning dew in the air and inhale the sweetness of the grass. To hear Grama’s laugh and the crunch of gravel under the tires of an unexpected guest. To see my extended family and enjoy the endless fields of crops and barns and trees that covered the flat landscape. To go shopping in town and have people know you. To stop for a soft-serve ice cream at the locally owned, one of its kind, Snack Shack.
I left Chicago when I was 18, only two months after graduating from high school. I chose not to attend the university to which I had been accepted. Instead, I felt called to San Francisco. This was definitely not what my parents had in mind for me, so I felt compelled to do it on my own. To not accept their financial support. An occasional check for $100 was a wonderful surprise which I welcomed, but finding my way in the world was entirely up to me. I worked three jobs and took classes at the community college. I found a church where the associate pastor had gone to school with my dad. I fell in love. Twice. I met people who became friends, who are still friends today. Roger died. My first friend, of what would be many, to succumb to AIDS.
I lived all over the city with various roommates. The first one was proudly Jewish and a self-described wanna-be witch (she said the coven wouldn’t accept her), who received financial support from the government for being mentally unstable. (Seriously.) The second was a dominatrix, whose clients came mostly from City Hall where her ex-husband worked. (Again, Seriously.) After that, artists and students (a welcome relief and real comradery). Then anarchists – brilliant, creative, activists – from whom I learned much and with whom I got arrested. (One of which is still, blessedly, a very dear friend.)
In San Francisco, I owned my first car. A hand-me down Toyota Tercel manual shift. Yes, a 5-speed stick on those famous steep hills. Damn proud of that. When gas was only $0.87 a gallon. That car, like my red Schwinn, was freedom. I would drive up to Twin Peaks and look down on the city during the day. At night, I’d cruise along the coast, windows down and music up loud. I knew the winding streets of the city better than my own hands. And better than the realtors I met many years later.
In those first six years in California, I lived in San Francisco (in eight different apartments in eight different neighborhoods), in Petaluma (over the Golden Gate Bridge), and in San Diego. I camped along the coast, in the Yosemite mountains, in the forests, and at the Russian River. This varied landscape of mountains, water, and trees became imprinted on me. My time there was hugely significant and very, very, good. I was discovering who I was. I was creating a new way of being.
Years later, I moved to Hailey in Blaine County, Idaho. Hailey was great because it is a small town with a weekly newspaper (reminding me of my hometown in Michigan) but it took me a long time to love the landscape. Yes, there are trees: it sits inside the Sawtooth National Forest. But those trees are largely spruce, fir, and pine, with cottonwoods along the river. Essentially, it’s an elevated desert covered in sagebrush. Not exactly the lush green of the other places I had called home. Yet when my sister came to visit, she remarked, “It looks just like Michigan, but with mountains.”
Within three years, I bought a house in Picabo. A town of 65 residents and 6 streets, surrounded by fields of hay and barley, the beautiful winding Silver Creek, and twenty miles from “town.” This was home. This was my Lakeview West, as I called it. A landscape dotted with cows and sheep, barns, hay bales, and hills. And an endless mountain range in two directions. It combined all the elements (sans a large body of water) that had been imprinted on me from earlier times in Michigan and California. I loved this place. I still do. Yet after 14 years, I knew I needed to leave.
My journey since then has been in search of a new home. I travelled through the southern states for two months visiting towns, making new friends, always aware of all that I had learned in my years of doctoral research, trying to find the place that “fit.” I needed to feel the imprints so deeply embedded in me. Eventually I landed in Tulsa. Tulsa works for me. The landscape is green, lush, and humid. There are rivers. And as cities go, it is largely “Mayberry” – a small town feel. There is music and art and parks, diversity and good food. And I have friends.
Then in March 2020, I traveled to Italy. Planned as a 6-week holiday, I’ve been here for four months due to the Covid19 pandemic. A historical and unprecedented time. Quarantined for eleven weeks in Balestrate, Sicily. Alone. Looking out at the sea. I felt so fortunate for this lodging, the view, and the safety it afforded me. But the landscape, I kept saying, was not mine. Not my imprint. I needed green. I needed trees. So, when restrictions lifted and I could move about more freely, I drove into the heart of the country. Through the fields and the mountains, into the small towns sitting on hilltops. I felt at home in this landscape. My spirit was soothed and comforted. I made friends. I considered staying indefinitely.
It’s not surprising that Sicily feels like home to me. It has everything I love, everything I came to love, from earlier times. Imprints. Significant and good. Sicily offered me shelter in the midst of danger. It welcomed me. People were kind. And I made friends. Relationships significant all on their own, strengthened by the shared experience in a shared location during a worldwide pandemic. My time there was good. Really good. Even in the midst of so much uncertainty.
Since returning to the mainland, I’ve been uneasy. Too many people, too many cars, too much chaos. Florence is a city. And I’m not particularly fond of cities. While I can appreciate what it offers, its treasures and its history, the beauty largely escapes me. The famous Tuscan hills? Meh. Pretty, yes, but they don’t speak to me.
Before leaving the area entirely, I visited Fiesole. A small town just north of Florence. Etruscan roots. Historically home to so many famous people. And… I was disappointed. Nothing I saw compared to the rich complex beauty of Sicily. I called my Sicilian friends and told them I was truly linked to the south, to their land surrounded by water, to them. The imprint is deep. Someday, I promised, I would return.
In the afternoon, new friends (American, living in Florence) came to meet me. We were introduced during this pandemic and had spoken by phone, but now we shared an embrace. Five hours passed like minutes. We drank Aperol spritz, nibbled on cheese and meats, laughed, lamented, dreamed, and told stories. More hugs. Whatever happens next, we are connected.
When they left, the light in Fiesole had changed. It was evening. Suddenly, the town was pretty to me. It was softer, more pleasant. Even charming. I enjoyed a gelato while sitting on a bench, noticing the buildings as the light continued to change. I watched the locals socializing in the outdoor cafes.
I will always remember this. My research proves true once again.
Sicily is inside me. Imprints from earlier times are reflected in its landscape. In the crop fields, the rolling hills, and the cows. The small towns, and relaxed way of living. The sea. All amplified by my experience during this unprecedented time in history. In Sicily, at my ripe age in my 50’s, I once again discovered myself. A new way of being. Perhaps always known, but forgotten. In Sicily, I am home.
As for the rest of Italy, Fiesole may be the only truly special spot in my mainland journey. A place I will remember fondly. A testament to the power of belonging, the acceptance of friends. I couldn’t live there – there are no imprints of home there for me to be happy. But an indelible memory nonetheless.