At Home Abroad
Traveling and working from the road, the sights always change, but the work is always the same.
The little ritual starts as I find myself in front of a little square or a circle or the blob of space left over between elbows and bags. It is my table, or my little part of one. Citizenship in this kingdom for one came easy; all I did was walk up to it and place one object down in that free space. A water bottle planted like an outpost on an abandoned but inviting coastline.
First I get the coffee. Always coffee, unless it is evening, in which case I put down a beer glass, it’s glistening condensation leaving a history of little rings every time I lift it for a sip.
If it is a cafe, I put down the tiny plate with a pastry on it. It may be a stoic white circle, or a whimsical swash of porcelain … the dished front half of a wave frozen in time and painted abstractly and just the size for a croissant or a pain au chocolate.
I check my phone and put it face down next to the coffee. Then I open my bag. Out comes the laptop, and I open it up while I wrestle with headphone cords. They will have balled themselves like a Christmas ornament, even though I put them in the bag in a tidy loop wound to just the size of four fingers held together.
Inevitably, I need to get up to find a power outlet … I hunt up and down, ducking to look under chairs and behind tables like a blue heron in the shallows, careful steps and then a bow, more careful steps until I find my prey, an open outlet. Hopefully I have the right plug adapter. How could humans have come up with this many different ways to arrange two or three little pins?
I string back the wiggling cord, the power brick in the middle holding it down like an overly-ambitious, half-digested meal it its little snake belly.
My laptop wakes like a teenager on a Saturday, a disheveled mess of the remnants of its last state of consciousness. Nothing had been put away. It had dropped into sleep the second I slapped the screen shut, passing out like a kid dropping into a half-made bed still wearing the day’s clothes, shoes and all.
I give my computer a minute to find its place in the world, to reach out and ask sleepily “where am I?” of the countless available but unfriendly wifi networks. It tries every one while I take a bite of pastry, wiggling every digital door handle until one pops open. The cafe wifi … portal to the entire world.
Soon the coffee cup and saucer are stacked on the empty plate and I find the right music for whatever work I am doing. Tycho or classical for design work and editing photos, 70s funk for dispatching unwanted emails into oblivion.
This is the ritual of nesting down in a place I have never been and making it home. It could be my first day in town, or on the continent. I might not even have known how to order, or when to pay, or whether I needed to ask to sit down a few moments ago. Open my bag, though, pull out a few friendly and familiar items, and I at home here as much as anywhere I have ever been.
Halfway through the coffee, I look up over the top of my screen and sigh. The subliminal nervousness of being out of place, that anthropologically determined hesitancy of being away from my tribe, has fallen away.
Back where I came from, making a home is only something you do occasionally, intermittently, and with great suffering. You move boxes upon boxes, pay friends with pizza and lukewarm beer to lift your heaviest possessions awkwardly up stairs. You sleep a first night with un-curtained windows, and eat takeout again because you couldn’t possibly sort through one more box to find plates or bowls at this hour of the night.
In the western world, this is how we make our homes, hoping each time that the very next time we do this will certainly be the last. Or at least the last until we build THE home … the one that we will really never leave. But this dream has a hole in it, for we will always leave at last.
On the road, building a place of belonging takes minutes. Drop a bag by a hotel room door and hear it close solidly on the whole world and the work is done. It happens when you throw your backpack in the bin and fall into seat when the number of your train, the car and the seat all align like tumblers to unlock a little rest. All it takes is to get your blankets sorted and a good movie queued up after dinner as the cabin lights go blue on a long flight teleporting you across the widest oceans of the world. Come back to the same cafe two days in a row and you can catch the owner’s smile change from polite tolerance to warm recognition. This is all it takes to make a little home that only needs to last for now.
Some elusive realizations become easier to understand when you have made a place for yourself over and over like this. Out of the repetition of arriving and departing, claiming and leaving little spaces, you begin to understand larger truths.
This ritual, after all, is a little picture of how life itself goes. You arrive and claim a space, move a few little objects around, smile at those around you, and later leave as quietly as you came, the place behind you standing open until someone else steps in to claim it. The more you practice this ritual, the louder the voice in the back of your mind whispers “All things are this way.”
At first this voice is alarming with its insistence on the brevity of life. One day, though, when you are ready to hear it, the voice says something else. “Leaving here is the beginning of the next adventure.”
You cannot hold a café table forever. Eventually needs press in on you, whether they are biological or social. The effects of the coffee or the disgruntled glances of new patrons without a place to sit eventually drive you on. You cannot hold a life forever either. The flow moves on and you cannot resist it.
But why would you? Wait to drink the coffee and it will be cold. The croissant is always reduced to a few estranged flakes of shattered, buttery crust. But little pleasures, no matter how captivating, should not last forever or they would keep us from larger ones. Out on the road, you start to wonder if this life is just such a tiny pleasure in a wider, joyous exploration.
To have adventures, you must be uprooted. Italy is more than the inside of a café. All of Tokyo cannot be seen from a solitary stool in the tiny stall in a basement ramen restaurant, the shutters at your sides and bamboo screen separating you from the unseen kitchen staff, visible only at the waist when they roll up the screen, pass you a steaming bowl of broth and bow before vanishing again. Carry home lightly, and the world is always open to you.
Eventually my coffee is gone. I run out of emails to answer, or the excel spreadsheet gets too big or the PDF has finally been proofread enough that whatever mistakes it still hides won’t possibly be found until someone else prints it.
If I time it right, this pause in the work happens at just the moment I have had enough belonging, enough rootedness, for the weariness of constant adventure and strangeness to wear off. The bewildering traffic or confusing trains or the raucous market that seemed overwhelming an hour ago now looks inviting again.
Down goes the screen of my laptop, sending my computer back to bed in its clothes again, no dinner, no goodnight ritual. I trace back the power cord with my heron steps, trying to apologize to other patrons in a mix of English and whatever local words I know, and probably a little half-bow, since those are a kind of currency accepted nearly everywhere on earth.
One by one, all my little possessions go back in their cases, or just pile into the bag on top of each other like sleepy animals in a cozy den. The tidy space in front of me is clear, which is the sign I will not have abandoned a battery bank or a hard drive or a power cord halfway across the earth. Later I might look endlessly for something in my bag, but I must have it SOMEWHERE … it wasn’t on the table when I left.
As I stand to leave, I look around the cafe to see whether I should leave my dishes here or put them in a black bin by the door. I try not to be obvious as I look to see what other people have done with theirs. No one is leaving just now, so I guess.
As I walk to the door, the faintest aura, a little sense of home and belonging is left behind to evaporate off my tiny table when I walk into the street. I turn on the sidewalk and take a picture of the sign above the doorway. This picture will be meaningless to everyone else, but it will transport me back instantly to this moment when I find it accidentally in my phone years from now.
I will never sit here again. It is my last day in town, and tomorrow I will be far enough away that I couldn’t return if I tried. And I wouldn’t want to.
Home is back in my bag now, ready to be unfolded again the next time I can’t take all the new sights and sounds for another minute. As it all becomes too much, I will duck out of the relentless sun and line my little life up next to a drink sweating the promise of rebirth down it’s cool glass sides.