Discover more from People + Bodies
Hi, loves. 🌿
On making new homes
This is the weekly free edition of People + Bodies. If you’ve been reading and enjoying these letters for some time, please consider becoming a paid subscriber below. It really helps! x
This weekend I finally baked something, after, oh, three months? There’s really no need here: cake is served everywhere and our kitchen is minuscule and we have no equipment and I’m trying to keep my focus on writing and reading and resting — and and and. Anyway, sometime over the last few days it struck me that those were ridiculous reasons and I should try anyway.
Let’s just say one needs measuring equipment of some kind to bake, and even after making my aunt’s famous (in our family, at least) chocolate chip cookies one million times I was not particularly good at approximating volume and they turned out sort of odd: raw in the middle and charred on the edges. But this isn’t really a story about baking. It’s about the fact that in order to bake at all, I needed to borrow a bigger bowl and a hand mixer from another mom in the building, and then later, when I realized I actually did need measuring cups and spoons, she brought those over, too, her three-year-old trailing behind her.
When I had finally made a decent batch, I brought them back over to her and we stood in the doorway of our shared building talking about our lives: where we were from, where we’d last lived, how scary it was to try to seek medical care in a country where you didn’t speak the language (not here, of course, but other places we’ve lived), the joys and difficulty of moving your kids across the world, of following your husband on his scholarly pursuits. We don’t know each other at all, but already spoke a shared language, that of the trailing academic spouse, of the person whose home isn’t so set in stone anymore.
When we first moved to Vienna, I felt so alone, so far from everyone and everything I’d known before. My real life seemed to be back in New York, and that lasted for some time, probably years. But eventually it faded: the experiences I was having abroad, in my new home, overlapped much more immediately with the other new moms I was meeting who’d come from far reaches of the world. We all struggled with feeding and sleeping and speaking good enough German and being away from old friends and our own cultures, from what we’d once thought of as home. And also, we were making a new home, right there, with each other.
Life here has taken on more of a commune feel lately: new friends in our college offering butter and childcare and movies and measuring cups and bikes and links to spring camps for the kids. We have less space to ourselves (have I mentioned how tiny the flat is?) but more space to roam at large: the lodge, the gym, the pool, the grounds, the dining hall. It does feel like what I’d imagine a kind of commune might feel like; people readily accessible, kids able to run free, help at the ready if you just knock on someone’s door.
But there is also, of course, the umbrella of the university itself, which lends a kind of order and decidedly un-hippiness to it all. An academic we met recently, an American from Southern California who has been here for ages, said that LA had always felt sort of foreign to her because it was, in essence, a company town (the movies!). This town, she said, is also a company town — it’s just her company, which makes her feel at home.
This was it, we realized: there’s something easy and familiar about it for my husband (lectures every day, concerts down the road, anyone to discuss complex scholarly topics with at lunch, a place that prizes academic pursuit above all else), and while I am not a scholar, I am seeing how familiar the world of the roaming academic, the roaming family, has become to me. How used to going into any old café I am: making friends with the baristas and then sitting down to write in the same spot every morning. How accustomed I’ve become to meeting new mothers. How ready I am to just plop down on some random new friend’s couch and swap stories.
The beginning is always so hard. It all feels so sticky. How could we have left what we know? What, to some extent, works? The ending is impossibly sad. But here we are in the middle, where we are in a groove, in a pocket of relative ease, of familiarity but also revelation. This is the cycle, the adventure loop. I’ve come to know it. This is the part where we start to panic about leaving, even as it’s far off.
“How would you feel if we decided to stay here forever?” I asked the kid the other day. (We aren’t. It was a thought experiment.) “Happy and sad,” she said. And that feels about right.
Happy and sad. Most days, most things, are like that.
People + Bodies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.