Everywhere I travel, I remember the smell of it, each destination serving a sensory mix of local flora, cuisine, and the people. When I close my eyes and think of places I’ve traveled, sometimes the smell comes back to me with the memory.
At some point in our lives, we tend to move and take up space in a place we weren’t born, if even for a short period of time. For me, the concept of being home didn’t mean returning to the place I was born or where I grew up. Home became a place I felt at peace, a place I was eager to find and keep safe. There are a handful of moments in my life where I felt at home, and some transient moments where a sense of home was felt, but it didn’t seem to stay and take root.
Visiting Greece was always a place that felt like home in a traditional sense because it was the closest thing to a “normal” family life that I experienced. When we were there, we ate as a family, played with our cousins, talked to our aunts and uncles, and were unplugged from all the bustle of life in the U.S., which usually detached us in the day-to-day. We traveled in the same car, listened to the same music, and experienced the same activities. Having this normalcy, if only for a few weeks out of the year, was a breath of fresh air. While I didn’t always like having so many people around me, being the independent youth that I was, it felt like home.
While in Greece in August, we would travel to the mountains and stay at the house my Papou (Grandfather in Greek) built. He expanded it over many years, and then subsequently, my Uncle took on the challenge to ensure it could accommodate our growing families. As a young child, I remember spending time there with my relatives, running around the hillsides, and playing backgammon at the local cafes with my Papou to help me learn to count. Even now, as an adult, when I travel to the mountains and visit our home, I can feel the presence of all the people no longer with us. They become a part of the landscape and are resurrected when we revisit the places that meant so much to you and them. It’s such a familiar feeling that it’s impossible to feel anything but a sense of home.
Some places don’t feel like home until you are far away from them. When we are busy focusing on all that isn’t important, we forget to appreciate what we had, where we were when we had it, and how it made us feel. Walking through an airport or a city street, I would get a whiff of a scent that transports me to another place, bringing a feeling of home. It most often happened with food since it is the cornerstone of life at home. If I walked by an Italian or Greek restaurant, I was easily transported to my summer trips and the sensations of eating big plates of pasta or watching a rotisserie of chicken or lamb while sitting at a big table with family. If I walked by a West African store or restaurant, it would never fail to transport me to the summer I spent in Sierra Leone and the smell of the cassava leaf stews. Oddly enough, the scent of plain white rice also transported me to Sierra Leone even when I was in an Asian restaurant or cooking it at home, but more on that story at another time. I would remember sitting near the outdoor kitchen with my classmates talking about our day, seeing the local kids running around playing football (American soccer), and feeling I was fulfilling my purpose in life. While I never felt entirely at ease in those environments while in them, when the memory is triggered, I am reminded of an easier time, when I had few worries, and it brings me closer to that feeling of being at peace.
That feeling of home also comes from the smell of people and fragrances that mirror the scent of someone we cared for, even if that feeling is long gone. It never fails that fuel and oil make me think of my Grandpa and his Hudson. I’m reminded of watching him tinker around under the hood from a distance, so I didn’t hurt myself. I remember the smell of my Grandma’s closet with the scent of a faint perfume or hair spray she would use. The smell of green beans always reminds me of my Yiayia (Grandmother in Greek) because, as a child, I would help her clean them at the kitchen table before she cooked dinner. I don’t have a memory associated with a smell for my Papou, but to this day, if I hear the clicking of worry beads, I always feel his presence.
I always felt home on the road, driving to a new destination. My Grandparents were into family road trips and taking the whole family along. It was their pass time. Some of my fondest memories are of us driving across rural American, singing to old show tunes or country songs, stopping at the Native American reservations, or historical sites to experience new cultures and learn something about American history. As kids, we were able to travel back in time and imagine what it was like in these places that looked so different from where we lived. We saw the national parks, looked into the Grand Canyon, drove through the mountains, and back again.
These were all life-changing experiences that shaped my mindset around travel and feeling at home on the road. The feeling of home has always been something I could have anywhere. I never felt stuck to a particular place, as long as I was happy, I could call it home. I’m still seeking to find a place to call home physically, but I am actively working on feeling at home in my skin. I think once I get that part down, the rest will fall into place.