On a cool night long ago, in Venice, if you couldn't guess, my friends and I met a man who would soon be forgotten until a few years later...
I don't remember his name, nor do I remember the spot. I don't remember the exact alley tucked away between the quiet canals, nor do I remember why we picked this exact spot to check out.
What I do remember is the evening and the circumstance of our visit. We were in northern Italy for a little over a week at that point and that night was the final night of our adventures before we hop on a plane back to New York.
All I have from that evening is a couple blurry photos and a video of what appeared to be a group of British bridesmaids singing karaoke with this man...
This was a place that didn't show up on Google Maps, and to be fair, that wasn't unusual in Venice. We wanted somewhere cozy to sit a bit and not too touristy, especially since we had just eaten gnocchi at a very busy restaurant by our Airbnb. We came across it while exploring the alleys and canals at night.
Side note: the canals flood. I'm sure your hotel will let you know WAY in advance should you decide to visit. I'm sure our host mentioned it to us....in Italian for that was all he spoke. Suffice to say it wasn't in our itinerary to wake up to a foot and a half of lagoon water right outside our doorstep with no waterproof bags for our feet.
When in Venice...
Like I mentioned before, after this evening, I had all but forgotten it. Until very recently, the only things I took with me from that trip were pictures, souvenirs, and fond memories of food, museums, palaces, people, etc.
What I didn't expect was to remember an encounter I had in Venice during a conversation with my good friend Koby about....well, life in general I guess. Things we wanted to do and things we wanted to see. Things we love right now and things we would love to see improved.
This isn't uncommon, we typically see something that reminds us of some other thing and one thing leads to another...two hour-long conversations.
We started by asking ourselves, and each other, what we considered to be "home?" Even something as simple as answering someone when they ask you where you are from.
In my case, I was born in Secaucus, New Jersey. After that, I was raised in New Jersey for the first half of my life, and the second half in Pennsylvania before returning to New Jersey for school.
When I travel abroad I get asked where my home is every day, to which I typically answer "Hoboken."
...Let me be honest, it's "New York" or "the New York City Area." How else do I explain Hoboken to someone who hasn't visited the US? Or in this case, to a drunk Venetian bartender.
It's not a difficult question at first, but when you begin to ask yourself the same question, I'm willing to bet you question yourself a couple of times. Especially if you identify with your current environment more than the one (or two) you grew up in.
Koby and I thought about it for a while and landed on an even more difficult question. Which "home" has impacted you the most? Positively or negatively, which environment would you say has made you the most "you?" Incredibly difficult question because you are shaped by every moment you live, therefore I would say it's up to you.
We asked ourselves an interesting question...would we be ok with picking up and leaving for anywhere? If someone picked us up now and dropped us in, let's say, Berlin or something...How long would it be before we can call it home?
I brought up my father in this case. He left his home country of Morocco at 17 years old to live in Paris. After a couple of years, he moved to Madrid and from there, found his way to the United States where, as of this year, he would have called this place home for 50 years. This is not the only home he's known but this is undoubtedly "home" for him.
After much thought, we realized that even though we loved Hoboken, we can make ourselves at home elsewhere too. It's not one of those situations where I can't see myself living anywhere else and if I do, I highly doubt that I would be perpetually homesick for Hoboken.
Do I have a place that will always be "home?" Personally I think home is where you make yourself feel at home and currently, my home is wherever I am. As cheesy as that sounds, as long as I can assimilate and thrive where I am, I can easily make that my home. At least for the time being...
Cue the man from Venice. Bartender by night, (something something) by day. (As I said, this was a while ago and I haven't given it much thought until my conversation with Koby)
Despite all my efforts to blend in, it is futile to try and fool a native. The man saw through the flat cap that I bought from a hat salesman in Santa Croce and asked me (us) where we were traveling from. (Over the loud cheering coming from the table of bridesmaids)
Following "New York City,"
"WOW, New York City is the best city on the planet! Well, almost the best city..."
"Oh yeah? What's the best city?"
"There is no place like Venezia, New York is number two to Venezia."
It was hard to disagree with him at the moment. Canals on the lagoon vs. the harsh mid-March cold reminding you that the next winter is but a few months away...
"Venezia is my home, I love her so much."
The man personified his home as if it were a dear friend. I'm sure the intoxication helped and for all we knew, he likely forgot the interaction an hour later. Still, as the night went on I noticed how much fun he was having talking about Venice.
Every once in a while he would jump in on my conversation with my friends and talk to us for a bit. Usually it was to ask us about our time in Venice.
Was it fun? Best city in Italy? Did we enjoy the food? Isn't the water beautiful? When are we coming back?
This man loved Venice. This man breathed Venice. I wish I remembered more from that night but I vividly remember thinking, damn, if this is what it is to feel like/love my home, I don't think I can relate.
Not that I didn't love my current, or past, homes, but I can't help but think that I have the same feeling for most cities I visit. A more "this is fine" feeling rather than "I don't see myself living anywhere else."
Am I missing a sense of permanency? Do I even want to feel spiritually attached to a place?
This isn't new to me. I've noticed this in Mediterranean cultures more than anywhere. My family and friends overseas tend to identify with their home more than anyone I know here in the States. Is it a culture thing? Maybe we're just so accustomed to moving away early here (for school, work, what have you) that we lose that sense of "home?"
If you ask me, I don't think we're losing our sense of home, but rather we are defining what home is by our own terms. Especially in the US most of us don't have roots anchored by generations of our ancestors. At this point it's practically foreign to me if someone lives, studies, and works in the same town they grew up in here in the US.
The man spoke of Venice with such intimacy that I can only imagine someone who has grown up and loved the city would have the ability to do so convincingly.
I've seen this in my own family too. Maybe not to such degree, but that kind of identification with one's home is common. For some, it's simply a love for their home. It's the food, language, traditions, what have you that has been passed down for many generations. It becomes so ingrained in who you are that anything different would feel unpleasant at first.
In my family, it even extends to love for one's region/city. And not in a New York vs. Boston rivalry type way, but rather an attachment so strong that it would feel impossible to be at home anywhere else...even within the same country. The predominantly Portuguese and French-inspired ports and bazaars of Casablanca would feel like home to my father while the overwhelmingly Spanish-inspired casbahs and medinas of Tanger would feel like home to my mother. The two feel like aliens in each other's home city, despite them being only about 300km apart. Same king, same country, different colonizers? Maybe that's it...
Both of their families have called their respective cities home for at least 2 generations which might be more than enough time to settle that sense of permanency that I can't seem to find in the US. Not unlike the man in Venice, it must have been one hell of a detachment to leave when they did in order to start fresh somewhere else. I wonder if it's simply the difference in culture? The US is one big (and rather recent) immigrant success story where it is commonplace to move where the action takes you.
Obviously I can't be the only person who has these thoughts, here or overseas. The world is modernizing and we are becoming more and more connected to the point that no amount of distance is too far.
As this is happening, are we identifying with our homes less and less? Is it becoming less prominent to our identities than it was for our parents, grandparents, or even ancestors? Or are we just modernizing the idea and accepting that life takes us more places these days and home is what you make of it?
Maybe my return to Jersey makes me a Born-Again Jerseyan and that's the end of it?
I can only conclude that I don't actually have the answer to why I don't relate to those with such an affinity to their "home." I can only admire those with that deep connection as their roots were planted many, many years ago. And through generations and generations of love and respect for one's home, the bond grows stronger each day until you...well...drunkenly profess your love to your hometown to a few 20-something Americans on vacation.
Thanks, Mr. Man from Venice.