Home for the Holidays

The Arrival Scene is a trope of classic anthropological literature. In invoking the beginning of the anthropologist’s journey among a specific people, a specific landscape is invariably described. Doing so is more than an attempt to hook the reader—writing these scenes also hooks the anthropologist back into the field experience. That moment, conjured in narrative, when the anthropologist is confronted with the people and place they have decided to make familiar, is also when the anthropologist begins their attempt to feel at home in an unfamiliar place.

That sense of home is often invoked in fiction as well. Narrators return home after long journeys away. Narrators flee home, vowing never to return. Home can have positive or negative connotations, but the intuitive feel of the landscape called “home” saturates our imaginings and actual experiences. The smell of the air in a particular season, the intimate knowledge of a street’s history, both architectural and personal, the layers of personal experience all contribute to an intuitive feel for a place, an instant rapport between an individual and a landscape. One can look at a lake, a street, a building, a very old tree, and see alongside them the experiences of one’s lifetime, and the lifetimes of others. In addition, one can know without even walking further what lies beyond that lake, inside that building, up in that tree, because that knowledge, too, came from living in that landscape.

Anthropologists traditionally equated the land with a people, a tradition since much complicated by the attention paid to migration and globalization, among other processes. To understand the people meant taking on the meanings embedded in landscape. Even nomadic people had seasonal rounds in consistent places each year. When one grows up in one place, one acquires effortlessly the layers of meaning that anthropologists work so hard to incompletely comprehend.

People who grow up in one particular home can speak of a place being “in their blood,” using a somatic metaphor for how completely they associate their personal history with a place. Home saturates their senses, so that they do not have to think consciously about how to get around, for instance—and it is occasionally difficult to describe how to get from one place to another to an outsider, so taken-for-granted is their knowledge of place. The insider, at home, simply does, knows, feels—this is not a mystical process, or a genetic phenomenon, but is a by-product of all of those years of practice.

I did not have that experience of growing up in one place. My intimate, sensory associations are scattered across the southern and western United States, thanks to my father’s career in the US Air Force. I have, therefore, felt distanced from the experiences that many of my friends have of a nostalgia for “home.” Home, for me, was people. It was not a place.

But now I get it. I lived, through a conspiracy of circumstances, in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. My recent move to the Southeastern US was a welcome move to new opportunities, but I left a network of friends and experiences behind. How much I left behind was recently brought home (ha) to me in October. I was back in the Bay Area for less than a week, and as soon as I got off the plane in Oakland, all was familiar. I knew exactly where I was going. I did not have to consult any maps. The air smelt “right” for October. All of the things that I have to check and double-check in my new home, the places that I’m not sure of yet because I haven’t been there, all of the references to Yahoo maps, none of that was necessary. The landscape was saturated with all that I had done there for 15 years. It was stunning.

I love my new home. I look forward to getting the opportunity to layer this landscape with new experiences, so that my presence in the landscape becomes intuitive and intimate, just as it was in the Bay Area. What is nice for me is that I realize that it can be done. The Bay Area was not the “home” I grew up in—it became home because I was there for so long.

I plan to be where I am for a long, long time. And the day that it feels completely like home is somewhere, not too far off, in my future.