It’s amazing how landscape, the physical appearance and feel of one’s surroundings, can convey such a sense of place, of home or of foreignness. I’ve been reflecting on it recently, particularly after our time in L.A., where our environment seemed to play such a significant role in the fact that our spaces there just never felt like home.
Mike and I have lived in five states in the almost ten years that we’ve been married, so we’ve talked about “home” a lot. For us, the test of “home” always comes after a trip (and our families live far from us and each other, so the test comes often): you’re gone for a week and then you pull up into the driveway; you unlock the door and turn on the lights and dump your bags and suitcases on the floor—and there it is, you’re home.
We lived at the same place in Kentucky for four years, so that sense of home was definitely strongest there. We moved away about six months before I finished my Master’s program, and when we went back for graduation, we were surprised to still feel that sense of home so strongly as we drove down Main Street, as if we were just going to continue up the hill to the blinking red light, turn right and wind our way back to the house, as we had so many times in the past.
We lived in Pasadena for two years, and yet even at the end, the feeling of foreignness never wore off. On the one hand, I loved the familiarity of mountains in the horizon, and it reminded me of life in Idaho, where the mountains were a perpetual presence in the distance, a marker of home like a parent wrapping an arm around a child. On the other hand, the place as a whole had a strong sense of otherness, from the palm trees and bright desert plants to the sprawling topography of buildings and concrete, buttressed for hundreds of miles with only small parks and sports fields to break up the urban landscape with green dots.
The first time I left Pasadena for a trip was for a friend’s wedding about four months after we had moved in. As I returned to our apartment from the Metro station, rolling my suitcase behind me, I felt like I was on vacation, heading back to a place we were staying. Of course it always takes time for any place to feel like home, but the foreignness of L.A. never wore off. We visited Italy for the first time just prior to moving to SoCal, and the similarities in landscape between the two came as a surprise to me. I had never been to the Mediterranean before that trip, and our stay in Pasadena carried that same element of being on a trip.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that the landscape of Southern California had so much to do with its foreignness. I had never lived in a Mediterranean climate or such a densely populated area; in my experience, large cities—New York, DC, Paris, London, Rome—these were places to visit. Places that had been home to me were places with rolling hills or mountains, places where the skyscrapers were evergreen conifers and deciduous trees that taught you the seasons.
One of my dear friends who grew up in Southern California moved to Austin right around the time that Mike and I moved to KC, and I’m sure she’s felt the same effect, conversely, in leaving that familiarity and entering the foreignness of the humid subtropical climate of her new place. It’s an interesting experience, the influence of landscape. Sure, when you move, so many things are different: the stores and restaurants, the roadways, the people. But I’ve always found that you can pretty quickly discover a market like your old one, a favorite place to meet up for drinks, even people you can connect with and appreciate, especially in our culture of transplants.
But you can’t replace landscape. The mountains are the mountains and the ocean is the ocean and pines and palm trees aren’t interchangeable. I suppose even the landscape, like everything else, is something you get used to after a while. And yet there is something about the familiarity of landscape that makes a place feel like home. Perhaps that why, the first week we were in Missouri, we were welcomed by a classic Midwest summer thunderstorm, the wind whipping branches of a chestnut tree against the dark sky, illuminated by bursts of lightening… and already we felt that we were moving towards home.