My view about the concept of ‘home’ drastically changed when I saw my neighbour’s house being destroyed in Jerusalem in 2013.
By that stage, I had lived in eight countries, left a dozen homes behind, and despite having loved all of them, the two homes I most longed for during my wanderings were both in Italy, my birth country. The first house belonged to my childhood. It was the place I went when I was just ten days old and where I spent all my summer, Christmas and Easter holidays until I was 17, which was when my parents decided to sell the house. Back then I did not know that life would soon take me across continents, and that I’d have to build a home from scratch every time I settled in a new place.
The more my nomadic life took shape, the more I went back to that first home in my memories. No other place on earth conjured up such a vivid recollection of feelings, sounds, smells and images. Every detail of that house is still so clear in my mind. If I close my eyes, I can still see myself as a child jumping out of the car when we finally arrived at the house after the three-hour journey, and running through the green and black gate.
It was always cold when we got there, but I rushed from one room to another with uncontrollable frenzy. I started from the kitchen. I opened the cupboard where my mom kept biscuits and goodies, to see if something had been left behind from the previous visit. The pungent and humid smell that assaulted my nostrils when I opened the wooden white cupboard door was a promise of days to come, of bread, butter and sugar and chocolate eaten with friends and cousins after playing for hours in what seemed to me the most magical of gardens. I then moved to the bedrooms, touching the beds and deciding where I would sleep – in summer I was allowed to choose, in winter we would all squeeze into one room to be warmer. The furthest room opened onto the garden, and I was back outside, to the tree I so loved to climb and the three pine trees at the back, whose trunks were covered in sticky resin, and forced us to go back inside and wash our hands with icy water if we touched them.
I know the magic of these memories lies in the fact that that they go back to a time when we were all together as a family, spending the happiest moments of the year. It’s a feeling I hope my children are building up with my second special home from Italy:
Our house in Tuscany.
We bought the house in Tuscany many years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child and we were young and had no money – just enough to buy a ruin engulfed by brambles. It took us many years to restore it. We went to see it every summer, during our home leave from expat assignments in Honduras, and then Peru. We would bring the children there, and tell them one day they’d be able to make their bedroom in it, sleep there and enjoy the surrounding woods and fields. We worked hard to save enough money to start the renovations and having it rebuilt at a distance was one of the biggest challenges of our mobile life.
Eventually we got there, and it became our home, in the widest sense of the term. Year after year we would go back to the stone walls that kept us cool in hot summers, to the gentleness of the landscape, to the warmth of the people around it and the beauty of the villages nearby. We started a tradition of throwing a big international party every three years, an occasion to invite friends from all over the world. Little by little we built our rituals around it, and it became our stable, loving point in a life made up of changes and movement. Rebuilding it took us so long that when we were finally able to properly use it, we felt like the sweetest of dreams had come true, and we put all of our love into it.
I once lived in Jerusalem.
I had neighbours there who also loved their house deeply. The patriarch of the family, a sweet octogenarian whom we used to take to his workplace at the Garden of Gethsemane on our way to our offices, had built it well before the Six-Day War broke the borders between Israel and Jordan, and had lived there ever since. As years went by and the family grew, he needed more space, and dutifully applied for a building permit to the occupying Israeli authorities, but it was always denied. He tried every year for ten years, and eventually decided to go ahead and build an annex – after all, it was his land, his house, and he had patiently followed the imposed rule to no avail.
His sons went to live in it, and for another eleven years life was good. Then one day the Israeli authorities came along with a mandate to destroy the annex. He was at work that morning, so by the time he was informed about what was going on and reached the house, men in orange fluorescent jackets had already emptied it and put all their belongings outside. From my window I had observed them while they took out a cradle, the washing machine, the sofa, a painting … each piece of furniture told of the intimate life of this family, their history, growth, love. I tried to picture the same scene in my house in Tuscany: How would I feel if I saw strangers taking out my books, pans, and beds to destroy my house?
Little by little the bulldozers tore down the balcony, the windows, the doors. With every blow they destroyed a piece of the history of that family. Every blow built bitterness, rage and injustice. And changed something within myself.
That same summer, I went back to the house of my childhood.
I had heard that its second floor, which had once belonged to my aunt, was for sale. I pretended to be interested in buying it, and made an appointment with the agency to visit it.
I can hardly describe the emotion I felt when the gate (still the same one from my childhood) was opened and I was able to enter. The estate agent took me straight to see the second floor, and then I asked permission to visit the garden. I saw the stone benches where we used to sit with my mom, the upper side where we played hide-and-seek, the windows from which we jumped outside. Some trees had been cut, but the place was still the same, and while wandering around it, I felt an immense sense of relief and re-connection. All those years I had dreamt about, longed for, and missed the house, and there I was, inside it, and able to touch the spots connected to my memories.
My mind drifted back to my neighbours in Jerusalem, and I understood the privilege of being able to return to the homes of your past, enter the gardens that once were yours, and physically be in the place of your most cherished memories. I realized that in the end it’s all there: the difference between those whose houses are pulverized, whose access to their country is denied, whose past has been crumbled by wars and occupations, and those, like me, who can knock at the doors of houses that once saw them happy, who can return to a place and freely breathe its atmosphere, and who will always have a home to go back to.
In this place that was so much a part of my earliest childhood memories, reflecting on the unspeakable loss my neighbours had suffered, I reeled inwardly at the bittersweet contrast, and understood for the first time what it really meant to come home.