No Direction Home
Travel Stories: During the past three years, Matt Gross hasn't spent more than six weeks in one place. This Thanksgiving, he'll be on the road again. Recently, he asked himself: What does home mean when he feels perfectly at home in a distant land?
11.18.07 | 11:39 AM ET
“Home. I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal. The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master! I will perfect my own race of people. A race of atomic supermen—which will conquer the world!”
—Bela Lugosi, Bride of the Monster
It was past midnight, and I’d just woken up. The light in the room was black-gray, tinged with yellow from the streetlights outside. The bed was soft, but unfamiliar, as was the woman slumbering next to me. I sat up and blinked my eyes; they were sticky—I must have passed out with my contact lenses in. I walked to the bathroom to pluck out my eyes, wondering how my feet knew the path without stumbling. Then the big question hit: Where was I, anyway?
Was I still in Seattle, with my sister? I remembered being in Seattle the day before, but I couldn’t fathom why Nell would be in my bed—or me in hers. I snapped my contacts into their little plastic cage and plunged it into their cleansing bath, then returned to the mysterious bedroom. Just before I fell back asleep, the answer came to me: I was home, and the woman at my side was my wife, Jean.
This sort of thing never happens. During the previous three months, I’d driven cross-country, logging 12,000 miles in an old Volvo, reporting for the New York Times as the Frugal Traveler, and not once did I question where I was—not when I woke up in that weedy public park in White River, South Dakota, or behind the church in Raleigh, North Carolina, or on the beach with the surfers in Pacific City, Oregon. In 12 weeks, I never spent more than four days in a single town, but no matter how often or how quickly I moved, I always knew exactly where I was. Oshkosh, Nebraska. Mentone, Texas. Ashford, Idaho.
In the last three years, I haven’t spent more than six weeks in one place, and only once in all that time did I lose track of my coordinates. Again, I was in bed, reading in a hotel room, and I looked up from my Zola and realized: I don’t know which country I was in. It was terrifying, my heart slammed with panic, and I imagined someone barging into the room to demand: “Where are you, Mr. Gross? Answer!” How embarrassing not to know!
Instead, I glanced around the room, hoping to glean my location from the décor: wooden four-poster bed, antique desk sticky with air-conditioning, sponge-washed peach walls, framed prints of blue, multi-armed gods. This must be—damn, what’s it called?—India! What a relief. For probably 15 seconds (though it felt like hours), I’d been utterly lost. Now I was no longer nowhere. Now I was alone in a distant land. Now this was a familiar feeling.
Now I’m home, only home isn’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, the airport taxis would ferry me across the Williamsburg Bridge to the russet housing projects and grimy tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. During nine years, in three different apartments, I had made this my neighborhood: I could remember when that Swedish restaurant moved into the former Chinese barbershop-brothel, and when the Romanian synagogue collapsed, and when there was a nightclub called Fun under one of the bridges. My friends lived nearby. I knew which fish market reliably stocked Kumamoto oysters, and even if the F-train was having issues, I could always walk home.
Then, six months after my wedding, our rent went up. So, as young, relatively upwardly mobile professionals, Jean and I decided to become homeowners—not in the ludicrously unaffordable Lower East Side, but Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, whose leafy, brownstone-lined streets lay a mere half-dozen subway stops from my old stamping grounds but whose uncanny familiarity made the neighborhood feel, paradoxically, more foreign to me than the alleyways of Lisbon or the night markets in Urumqi.
But there was no time to explore my new home. Four days after we moved in, I was off on the road trip.
Three months later, I returned to find that nothing had changed. The apartment was almost as I’d left it, filled with cardboard boxes and half-open suitcases. (Jean had been too busy at work to decorate, and besides, decorating’s really my job.) Our things were there—the computer, the half-read novels, the good knives and the dust-fuzzed wineglasses—but the more I looked around, the more the apartment felt like an Econolodge near checkout time. I could turn around, descend the stairs and fly halfway around the world without feeling like I’d left anything but my wife behind.
During the next few weeks, I tried to convince myself I was home. Every morning I made coffee, a reassuring ritual I’d been denied all summer long, and I cooked elaborate dinners with dry-aged steaks, heirloom tomatoes and fat zucchini, the bounty of August. Having been professionally thrifty for 12 weeks, I threw money away on trifles: a dozen bottles of wine, exotic cheeses I’d never finish, a tweed blazer too warm to wear till winter, and most important of all, a new skateboard. Frugal Traveler, meet Spendthrift Yuppie.
At the same time, I found myself approaching the new neighborhood just as I had each stop on the road trip. The cheese shop, I noticed, had a Monday evening “happy hour.” The case of wine came with a 15 percent discount. The skate shop-slash-organic restaurant offered a $10 smoothie-and-lunch deal. I couldn’t stop myself from composing a superfluous “Frugal Traveler: Brooklyn.”
It was this instinct that made it impossible to answer the one question I heard almost daily from friends and colleagues: How does it feel to be back home?
“No different from being on the road!” is what I wanted to say, but didn’t. (Often, I’d want to quote Bela Lugosi, above.) “Weird,” I’d say instead, or “Hard to get used to.” In part, this was typical reverse culture shock—how do you explain in a few sentences the transformative insanity of three months on the road? Almost no one understands what you’ve been through, and depression sets in.
There’s something else at work here, too. When people would ask me how I was readjusting, I felt I couldn’t disappoint them. I couldn’t tell them that it no longer mattered to me whether I was in Brooklyn or Bombay—and that perhaps it really shouldn’t. “Home” for most people is a big deal. It’s a source of comfort, immutable, the origin of their identity. For me, it’s an awkward topic, a continual source of confusion. When it comes down to it (cue Lugosi accent), I have no Home.
Since childhood, I’ve lived in Massachusetts, Virginia, England, Baltimore, Ho Chi Minh City and now New York, but for me to claim any as home feels ridiculous. (“You people,” my grandmother once told my mother. “You live like gypsies!”) I’ve left each without hesitation, and none, surely, would claim me as a native son.
Instead, I’ve tried to embrace homelessness. If I can’t be a Virginian or a Saigonnese, then I’ll be a wanderer. Who needs home? If my life is constant motion, then trains, planes and buses will be my homes. I will be a wave, not a particle.
Generally, this works well, especially considering my line of work. (Travel insurance doesn’t cover homesickness.) But every once in a while, my philosophy fails. During the summer, for example, I drove through Greensburg, a Kansas town that had been flattened weeks earlier by an F-5 tornado, and met a group of local kids who’d suffered through the disaster. In what had once been downtown, they pointed to piles of rubble and identified them: the soda fountain, the vintage clothing store, the drugstore. They’d lost everything—their houses had been wrecked, and they were now living in far flung towns—and yet still they thought of themselves as Greensburg kids.
It would be hard to find a less enviable bunch of teenagers in America, but for a moment I was intensely jealous of them. They at least knew where they were from—even if that place no longer existed.
Then I left Greensburg behind, as I had everywhere else, and continued drawing my wavy line across the country. While the kids were lamenting their past, I thought, I was leaping—blind and smiling—into the ever-shifting future.
My wife finds this insane. In September, as we were discussing a visit to a friend in Manhattan, Jean explained that in order to go, she needed to put herself in an Upper West Side frame of mind, to mentally prepare herself for the shift in geography—and that this was normal for most people. When I told her I’d never found it necessary, she said, “There’s something wrong with your brain.”
Perhaps. But at the same time that I was trying to embrace my own principles of uncertainty, I kept unintentionally tightening the ties to my new home. Never mind the unpacking, the cleaning, the buying of a new TV and activation of DirecTV and DSL. Ignore the growing collection of takeout menus from our favorite local restaurants. Forget about changing the light bulbs in the hallway and watering the ferns in the common garden.
No, what surprised me was a single moment one afternoon this fall. I was sitting (as I do most of every day when I’m not traveling) at my computer, trying to focus on a deadline, when I happened to glance to my right. There, down the hallway, past the filthy faux-Indian rug from Columbus, beyond the cardboard boxes holding Jean’s winter jackets, on the far wall, bathed in the affectionate golden light of a late afternoon, was a painting of a small Vietnamese village, its houses soft pink, yellow and white in the scene’s blue dawn.
I reached into the emergency-orange messenger bag at my feet and pulled out my camera, and as I snapped a shot of the tableau, I realized I’d done this a thousand times before, in a dozen other places I’d lived, and each image had encapsulated my life there: the dish rack on Allen Street, the flowerpots on Division, the crooked shed door on West Pomeroy, the banal but beautiful moments that surprise us with their unexpected intimacy. It’s now this image that comes to mind when I think of home—the sum total of my possessions and experiences, gathered from around the world, and waiting for more.