Last night I arrived back in my apartment near Rome. As I opened the door with a key I had not used for almost three months, the familiar smells and sights engulfed me. It felt as if I had just walked out of the door for a few minutes, to buy a pack of cigarettes in the shop downstairs.
A pair of shoes stood under the small table in the hallway, with next to it some spots of volcanic sand from the previous stroll on the beach now ten weeks ago. I walked into the kitchen to unlock the backdoor, switched on the boiler, picked up a glass on the way back, hooked up my iPod to the sound system, selected Italian opera, checked messages on the answering machine, drew the curtains aside and opened the living room windows.
The smell of distant sea-silt, the fresh breeze, the trees waking up from a winter sleep, the laughter of the kids playing below in the street, the dog from the house across the street barking, and the meshed conversations from the people coming out of the ristorante on one corner, with the those sitting on the terrace of the coffee shop on the other corner.
All of it made it feel as if I only left for a few minutes. But it did not feel this was the place I missed during my travels to the Dominican and Haiti. It did not feel this was the place I dreamt of. It felt as if I wasn't really gone. A piece of me stayed here. A big piece of my heart never left. Coming back felt like two pieces of my heart were joined again, making it skip a beat for a second. I smiled when I realized my heart pounded faster. I felt happy. "Honey, I am home"..!
But what is "home" for a wandering aidworker? I will be here for four days, then off to the North for a few days, followed by another plane ride to Belgium, my other home, for a week. Then I will drive off for a week of skiing, and back. Plane back to Rome for a day, and then to my other home, in the Dominican, for a few months.
What is home really? What defines home? The pillow I lay my head on? The hands I held in thoughts? The smile of my girls?
In thoughts, I pushed my travel bags in a corner, sat down, and opened a bottle of Prosecco, realizing this life I lead is a weird life. But it is the life I conscientiously had chosen since I left for a war-torn Angola back in 1994. Sixteen years I have been on the road, and made my home in dozens of places. What? Hundreds of places! From the hotel room in Georgia where the wind would swing the electrical wires on the street until they shortened with a bang, waking me up every night. To the apartment in Tajikistan where the tap water was as black as ink. To the bed and breakfast place on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam where I had to pick the leeches off my legs each time I walked in the garden. To the underground bunker in Kabul. The humid guesthouse in Islamabad shared with cockroaches. The Out-of-Africa villa in Lilongwe and the house on the hill in Kampala, known as "the house next to the big mango tree", until the transformer next to it went up in flames, burning down the tree while it was at it, then to be known as "the house next to the big charred mango tree"...
This morning, before even taking a shower, I wanted one of the things I missed about this place: A Cafe Latte with a cornetto. As I got out of bed, I put on some clothes - realizing I forgot my jeans in my Domingo home, and went down. Laura, behind the counter as usual, said 'Ciao, Peter!", as if I'd never left. I sat on the terrace tasting the coffee as if it was my first. Looking at the blue sky lined with palm trees as if it was the first time I saw it.
I thought a shower might be a good idea, but, as I went through the last piece of the croissant, I realized I took my electric shaver with me, but forgot my charger in Santo Domingo. Strange how you realize things clearly sometimes, but at the moment where you should have remembered, you forget. I dug out the keys to my car, brushed the pine tree needles off the wind shield, and went to buy a razor. Got distracted by the early spring flowers on the way back. Conscientiously took a different turn, and drove off to the sea. Locked the car, and walked up the beach.
It was then I saw a large piece of driftwood. It was then I realized my life was as if it were driftwood. Floating from one place to the other. Each place left marks on me, in me. And as time went by, each place sculptured me bit by bit, making me who and what I am.
It was then I realized this is the life I like. Drifting from place to place. Not rooting in any, but loving all. And particularly loving this beach where I was pulled ashore, right here in Italy.