When I think of how much more world lies beyond my doorstep, it’s a comfort.
Though I find myself quite at home in Berkeley--I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since I was four--do I consider myself from here? Not exactly. The beach with its brisk surf is a hop, skip, and a jump away. In winter, it’s only a few hours drive to the snow. I can walk to work year-round without risking frostbite. I can eat the cuisine of just about any country at a nearby restaurant, though I tend to fall back on my favorite Indian place most often.
I’m very much a creature of habit, but I start to feel a little trapped by the creases worn in the map of my daily routine. Leaving town brings back my optimism. It reminds me how much I appreciate the comforts waiting for me back home, the people and things I love, but it also encourages me to take risks and learn from new experiences. Once again, as I start to plan my next trip abroad, I find myself thinking about how I became this person enthralled by the unfamiliar, who is most at peace in the act of discovery.
I prefer to think of myself as being from my experiences. I am me because of where I come from and the choices I’ve made―the joining of all the remnant branches and scraps of my life. Instead of boiling it down to a person simply being from this city or that town, that state or that country, I like to consider how a person ends up where she does. Who is she in the context of her history, her experiences? I am interested in personal geography, a map drawn from the peaks and valleys of my path through life. Everything I’ve encountered, along with the family lore from before I was born, does not necessarily define who I am, but it has undeniably influenced me; it is part of the map of Marissa.
My map began to be filled in before I was born, with lands I know of through my parents’ stories and photographs: their house on stilts in the Central African Republic; the New Jersey lake where my mom spent her childhood; my dad’s early years in Lahore, Pakistan. As my parents’ stories merged and moved forward, they became part of my own. When my parents returned to Africa, to Luanda, Angola just after I finished college, their new home felt as comfortable to me as our home in California. Visiting my sister when she lived in Bordeaux, France for a few months, vacations spent in my grandparents’ homes, living on a boat for a week in Croatia with my husband―these trips, stories, and memories remind me how different events have shaped my family. Looking through photo albums from those times causes me to consider about how I fit into the picture. What have I brought home, what have I left behind?
From an early age, I realized that I didn’t have to live my whole life tethered to one place, after all I had my parents as examples, but I never really wanted nor imagined what could make me want to leave home. When I was eighteen, my family went on vacation to France. It was my first trip outside the United States. Somewhere between struggling to communicate with my Franglais and savoring a daily pain au chocolat, I discovered how freeing it was to lift out of my own life and briefly slip into a new one. Being in a place far from home simultaneously took me out of myself, let me shed some inhibitions, and made me less afraid to look myself in the eye. The magic of that experience was more evident when I returned home, unpacked my bags, and realized I could still summon the feeling of weightlessness I had discovered abroad by drinking a café au lait and lingering with a croissant.
When I travel, I’m not much of a shopper but I always keep an eye out for some sort of souvenir. I often look for jewelry since it’s easy to carry―nothing fancy; I like simple lines of silver best. So, I’ve collected bracelets from Italy, a ring from Ireland, necklaces from Scotland and South Africa, and other accessories to remind me of Belgium, Cambodia, Greece, Mexico, Spain, and Wales, but it seems I’ve also been packing and cultivating ideas and habits like pins on my map. I recognize a little bit of each place I’ve been in my habits and passing thoughts.
Before sitting down to write today, I shuffled over to the kitchen in a pair of house slippers from Thailand, where I learned to hoist my baggage over my head and wade through water to get where I wanted to go, and brewed myself a cup of chai, the blend my Grannybird got me hooked on over the years. In the afternoon, I usually make rooibos, which I picked up a liking for on my first visit to South Africa. When I drink those teas, I can think back to when and where I was first introduced to that flavor, over a decade ago, and appreciate that now it’s a comfort and a staple in my weekly routine.
From Morocco, my husband and I brought back cumin to liven up our kitchen, and pinched some Saharan sand. When I glance at the vial of desert on my way out the front door each day, I remember how blissfully small I felt in the expansive, surprisingly empty sands a few days before Christmas―how triumphant it felt to hike to the top of a dune, watch the wind erase my tracks, and start fresh on the descent. I also remember how trapped I felt as a tourist fighting the current in the crowded lanes of the Marrakesh medina after returning from the desert.
In Angola, I picked up on the tendency to begin conversations with people about things that really matter to them, not just pleasantries. When I listen to the samba and kizomba music I brought back from Luanda, I think of all the people who welcomed my parents into their homes and hearts when my parents lived there, and by extension, me, my husband, and my sister also became part of a new family.
Last year, outside Amsterdam, I logged ten unexpected miles during what was supposed to only be a fifteen-mile ride on a bicycle that weighed so much it could have been a battleship’s anchor. I’d run out of water and had no place to rehydrate and rest before dark. The experience reminded me I have reserves of strength I underestimate. I push myself harder now.
You get the idea, reader, for you have your own map with your own pins dotting its countries, your experiences and history to describe where you’re from. Berkeley makes a fine home base, what with my sister a mile away, and my parents and most of my lifelong friends within twenty miles, but those first steps in unfamiliar territory way back when opened a door and unlocked part of my personality. I began to appreciate things I’d taken for granted while growing up. Where I was from became more interesting. It mattered because it had led me away, up and out of myself.
If you really know me, you know I am a worrier and a scaredy-cat, often timid and shy. Leaving behind everything that is familiar and comfortable has meant getting lost a few times in strange places, but those zigzags have forced me to take a closer look at what is important to me. It reassures me to see how other people live, to be reminded that there isn’t only one way to go about something. I know how to find my way home, I know where I’m from, and that makes it easy to be brave in this one small way and keep going.
These days I am ever eager for an excuse to leave home, always wondering, how far away and for how long can I go? I’m looking for a spot where a traveler may rest her wandering feet, watch the people pass, sway with their rhythm, languish in the hum of an unfamiliar language in the evening air, and wait to see what bit of herself will be revealed with this corner of the map. Ciao, ciao.
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