The other day, too long on the road, I remarked to a friend that I was homesick. "For where?" she asked, and I was stumped.
Home is a simple enough concept, if you have one. Homeless also has a clear meaning, although houseless more properly describes it. People without a roof generally lay claim to a certain terrain: some familiar piece of a city, which amounts to home.
But after a lifetime of bouncing around the world with roots in the air like a hydroponic tomato, I realized that I fall into a class of people who might be known as the home-impaired. For us generic gypsies, the definition "Home is where your stuff is" provides no help at all.
Any number of pursuits can leave you home-impaired. Military people and diplomats shift from post to post, their stuff trailing behind. Oilies might hop off a rig in Angola and shuttle to Indonesia with hardly more than a carry-on. Then there are the foreign correspondents, like me.
Henry Kamm, an on-the-road legend at the New York Times, once left his family house in Normandy for turmoil in Cyprus. In an anonymous hotel room, it is reported, he unzipped his Olympia portable and said aloud, "Ah, it's good to be home." Correspondents love this story.
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and, at 22, took a job with the Associated Press in Newark, New Jersey. Having survived that culture shock, I was ready for anything. At 23, I moved to the Congo in the middle of a war. And then Nigeria, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Argentina, and France, each time with more stuff.
Every few years, I'd go on home leave to Tucson, even when the term home began to lose its meaning. Today, Tucson is still my official address, and I go back to visit a few friends and favorite taco joints. Is that home?My parents are buried there, along with their mothers, each of whom shepherded her family out of Russia. What is left of the desert still restores spirit and soul; I even own a speck of it. But I have long since emptied my last storage locker. Not much stuff in Tucson.
I have a sister on each coast, and the kitchen of each feels pretty homey whenever I visit. Does that count?Years ago, I bought a little house in Telluride, Colorado. (The terminally home-impaired don't need much persuasion that real estate is a good investment; you can't dream about retiring one day to a Swiss vault.) That place is rental property, but might it qualify as home?
My sort-of-maybe residence is now an old wooden boat in Paris. When the breeze is fresh, and red wine slops in a glass on deck, it seems like home. But the word suggests something solid; at least a foundation. I'm usually elsewhere wondering if by some nasty quirk of fate my floating abode is actually at the bottom of the Seine.
The rest of my stuff in France is in an even older stone house in Provence, surrounded by olive trees. That can feel like home, especially when I rattle up to the oil mill with burlap sacks of ripe olives in the back of a dilapidated Citroën 2CV. Then again, after 10 years in my rural neighborhood, I am known mostly as l'Américain.
Webster's definitions, which do not mention "stuff," refer to a "usual residence" and "the place in which one's domestic affections are centered." No help there. By one definition, my home is a black Tumi ballistic-nylon suitcase on wheels. And the center of my domestic affections moves as fast as I do.
The center of my domestic affections, whose name is Jeannette, grew up in Akron but fled Ohio as fast as her Mustang could get her to school in Florida. Then, after some tepee time in Montana, she settled for years in Marin County. Now she lives mostly in Provence. "Er, I guess my home is here," she said in that same tentative tone we rootless ones all use. "It's where I can cook, read a book on a rainy day, chase my cat. I guess California is a state-of-mind home."
As we pondered the issue, Hazel Young called. Born in London, raised in Washington, married in Paris, she captains a converted Dutch workboat with flowers on it. Hazel knows where she lives. "Easy," she said. "My home is the barge. Wherever it is." Sometimes it is near Dijon. Or on the Canal du Midi, or under the Eiffel Tower.
Most of our friends are, figuratively speaking, in the same boat. Some don't think about it. Christiane Amanpour of CNN is voluntarily homeless in the extreme. Flip on the TV, and she's on some new continent, hair still windblown from the last. Until recently, her base was a Paris apartment she rarely saw. Now she seldom sees a flat in London. When asked what she considers home, she is surprised. "London, of course." But her real home?"Ummm, Iran?" (She was born there.) "England?" (She grew up there.) "The United States?" (That's where she went to school.)
Chuck Barris thinks about it. He was a perfectly happy unhappy New Yorker until he invented game shows and made himself fabulously comfortable. After The Gong Show, he gonged himself out of L.A. to live happily ever after in St.-Tropez. And New York. And Paris.
Chuck, with a dozen phone numbers and more frequent-flier miles than Buzz Aldrin, is decidedly unclear. "I'd like to think of this as home," he said, sprawled on a deep white cushion among vineyards and olive trees just outside St.-Tropez. "But it isn't." He is a local fixture, the only outsider allowed a box for his pétanque balls at the Café des Boules on the Place des Lices. But he wears a Yankees cap, and the home port painted on his sleek little speedboat is South Philly.
A home does not actually have to exist. You just have to know what it is. The French understand this. Larousse translates home as chez-soi-- "one's place."
Seen in this light, the answers are clear. At one level, I'm what might pompously be called a citizen of the world. I eat crab in black-bean sauce at Yuet Lee's seafood restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District as often as Belon oysters in Montparnasse. The Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi feels as comfortable as my rolling bunk on the Seine. But wherever I go, home comes with me on my right wrist: a Navajo turquoise bracelet roots me somewhere in the Tucson Mountains.
In the end, my idea of home is as simple as anyone's. Where the heart is. If the winds blow too hard, or some Congolese jailer walks away with the key, or you just run out of road, you have to know what to wish for when you click your red shoes together to get the hell out of Oz.
MORT ROSENBLUM, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a special correspondent for the Associated Press. His book, Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), won the 1997 James Beard award for food writing.