On Cities and Settling In

The other day I was WhatsApping (text via wifi, the best app ever) my mom. I was telling her about my day and mentioned that I was going to go read in the park then head home. She replied that it nice to hear me calling my homestay “home.”

I hadn’t noticed my casual use of the term, but her comment made me think. Does Madrid feel like home? Does my tiny, shared bedroom on the 9th floor feel like home? What about the park, where I sit and read or go running almost every day? The café where I’ve consumed too many café-con-leches to count?

I’m not sure. Certainly I’m more comfortable here than I was three months ago when I first arrived. I can get on the metro almost anywhere and have faith that I can get myself home without a map (the Madrid metro is the best public transit system I’ve ever seen). I can take friends who come to visit to my favorite haunts, casually throwing out that see that corner over there? That’s where I first got up the nerve to talk to a Spaniard in Spanish!

Do having those memories of life in this city make it my home?

I’m not sure how to answer that at this point. And of course, my answer also depends on how to define home, which is a bigger issue than I can tackle in a blog post. But still, even without a clear definition of home, I’d say that people can feel it when they’re there.

When I came back from my two-week Spring Break adventure, I felt a definite sense of returning to my place. I was no longer on the road, had a familiar bed to sleep in. As I got off the metro and walked the path back to the apartment, I relished the familiarity of the graffitied alley, the black cat that always watches through the gate. Hearing the familiar click of the keys turning in the lock made me glad to be returning to someplace I could call my own.

Some people say that you’re finally not a tourist when someone mistakes you for a local and asks you for directions (it’s happened to me, but the strangers realized their mistake as soon as I opened my mouth). Other’s say that it’s when you can navigate the metro system without trouble (success there!). But there’s an interim place between tourist and local, or even tourist and resident.

I keep discovering new things in this city that remind me I’ve barely brushed its surface. I’ll walk back from lunch in Malasana, take a different street than I usually do, and uncover a new row of cafes and cute stores that I’ve never seen before. I’ll take a different running path and find myself circling a new park complete with duck pond and waterfall. These moments remind me that it’s impossible to truly know a city in three or four months.

Sometimes I’m reminded that I’m not fully home in other, more uncomfortable ways. I’ll get out of class one day and realize that, while there are always museums to see or neighborhoods to visit, I’d really just like to slip into the familiarity of a dorm tea time. In those moments, I wish I could walk into Val and find friends, enjoy a leisurely Val-Sit full of good conversation and less-good food (seriously, who thought I’d be missing Val?). I wish I could walk into Arms and settle into Women’s Chorus rehearsal.

And of course then, I begin thinking of my other home-away-from-home, Amherst. I tried to think back to exactly when Amherst became my home. I was lucky enough to settle into Amherst pretty quickly. My Freshman roommate and I were inseparable (she became my Sophomore roommate and soon to be Senior roommate), and my floor was pretty close as well. I made friends, got involved in clubs, joined Women’s Chorus. But thinking back, it wasn’t until I returned from a Spring Break road trip that year that I truly realized that Amherst had become my home. I walked into my room on that cold spring day, flopped on my bed, and realized just how excited I was to be back in this environment that I loved, with people I loved. I realized I had roots there. But that was only after I’d been at Amherst for seven months! I’ve only been in Madrid for three at this point, and plenty of that time has been spent traveling. It’s no wonder I don’t have the same roots, the same security.

Yet, in talking to my mom, I casually called Madrid home. It may not be my only home, or my primary home, but I know at least a few of these streets now. I have memories here, have lived here. The city won’t remember me when I leave in a few weeks, but I’ll remember my time suspended between places, traveling while staying put, looking for roots in a new city.

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