I sold everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to Uruguay in 2015. Ever since, the concept of home has felt rather fluid, undefined.
For a while, I wasn’t convinced that “home” existed for me anymore. I suspected that a sense of belonging was only applicable to the life I left behind. That I wouldn’t find it again.
Each space I inhabited during my life of full-time travel, whether it was the pretty studio in Buenos Aires or the tiny flat with the great view in London, was temporary. I’d unpack my capsule wardrobe (that I grew to despise on a visceral level) and try to add my own little touches to my new home base.
Home base it might be, but it was never mine; it was never home.
And yet, I never pined for Durham. Not until I moved to NYC. I felt homesick for familiarity and wished for health both physical and mental, but I never felt a pang for place.
I didn’t miss Durham, I think, because I needed to leave. I needed to find myself, fully knowing how vomit-inducing that sounds. I needed that insufferable millennial eat-pray-love shit. And so, even through the hardest parts of traveling full-time, I didn’t miss my home.
In fact, I didn’t realize how strong the pull of “home” can be.
Because I’ve always thought of “home” as a specific building.
In childhood, it was the cute little ranch on Ridgefield Road. Dean Smith’s first house in Chapel Hill, and also mine. Last time I drove past it, five years ago, the mailbox hadn’t changed. My mom painted that mailbox in the style of Mary Englebright in 1999. Mom’s purple flowers, framing the carefully painted street number, reign on.
Later, after my parents divorced, it was the run-down house that Dad and I shared on Carol St. Man, that was a completely shabby house, and man, I loved living there with my pops.
After college, it was the pretty townhouse on Grapevine Trail, covered in vines. I’d always wanted to live in a house covered in vines. My then-partner and I put our hearts into the townhouse on Grapevine and made it ours. It was full of love and full of memories. Walking into the front door would fill me with a huge sense of belonging, of comfort.
Until he broke my heart, and the building’s spell was broken.
That’s when home stopped being a building.
That’s when I started floundering.
That’s when it was clear that I had to leave Durham.
When deep roots are unceremoniously hacked apart, what else can you do? I tried to stay, to rebuild in the same city. And then I found I couldn’t, and I left in the biggest way possible. I tried to rebuild around the world.
That didn’t work, either. I felt more exhausted at the end of my 10-country stint than clarified.
I left Europe to build a life in NYC — one that proved more temporary than originally anticipated, but the challenge was formative. And informative.
Traveling, then living in one of the world’s most exciting cities taught me two important lessons about belonging:
First: that home isn’t fluid, not really, not for me. There are two places that feel like home: Durham, NC, and New York City. The former is easy and natural, the latter took a hell of a lot of effort. And I expect the sense of belonging I feel with NYC will wane as my time as a Manhattanite sinks further into the past. So, from here on out, I have but one home: Durham.
Second: home isn’t a building. It’s not an apartment with my collection of carefully curated art — but that certainly helps.
It’s not the bedroom with layered textures or the reading corner with a yellow chair and paper lantern. It’s not even the smells of my go-to dishes, pouring from the stove, or the peals of laughter coming from my friends.
It’s an entire city.
It’s the touch of grit that comes with a town built from tobacco warehouses. It’s the slight hint of a southern accent that I find myself matching without affection. It’s the smiles that are given easily, to stranger or friend.
It’s the forest that is our entire region, evident to all who fly into RDU. There are so many trees here, visitors say. Yes, we say proudly, yes there are.
Maybe it’s familiarity. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s “roots.”
Whatever it is, it’s home. Durham is home. That, perhaps, should be obvious, but it took flying around the world and building a life in the concrete jungle for me to realize the significance.
I’ve written before about how, for my generation, moving back to our hometowns feels something like failing. And perhaps it looks like that from the outside — I tried the travel life, I tried big city life, and now I’m back where I started.
Homecoming doesn’t feel like failing. It feels triumphant.
I’m back in Durham as an old friend, with a hug and a grin and a satisfied nod. Knowing we’ve both grown, both ready for a new iteration of something with each other.
My roots are right where I’ve left them, and it feels damn good to nurture them again.