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Why Feeling “at Home” Is Overrated


Home, as in the place where I grew up and where my parents still live, is southern California. I’m from a wealthy, mostly white, ridiculously pleasant, master-planned community called Laguna Niguel.

Home, as in the place where I have put down my adult roots and to which I feel the strongest allegiance, is the Bay Area. As of this year, I’ve lived in San Francisco longer than I’ve lived anywhere else.

But I don’t live there anymore.

My son was born six months ago. The pandemic lockdown began two weeks later, at which point our clan immediately and permanently outgrew our pocket-sized condo in San Francisco. We moved in with my in-laws in the sort-of-hippie, kind-of-pastoral town of Sebastopol, about an hour north.

It’s nice. There’s a garden, chickens, a pond, and plenty of green grass for my three-year-old daughter to patrol. (My youngest child still depends on the legs of others for transportation.) I’ve commandeered a spare bedroom as my office. We cook at home every night. I alternate dinner duties with my mother-in-law, and we’ve built up a good kitchen rapport. We’ve moved beyond formalities like, “May I use some of the potatoes you bought?” Mise en place is now communal.

I cook with less salt and chile to accommodate the tastes—and blood pressure—of various house members, but overall I feel comfortable cooking here. Everyone’s been game to eat whatever I put down. I’ve adapted to where my mother-in-law keeps things in the pantry and the drawers, and I know where to source ingredients in town. There’s a tiny Lao market about 20 minutes away, where I pick up tofu, fish sauce, shrimp paste, dumpling skins, garlic chives, long eggplants, peeled garlic, nori sheets, Kewpie mayo, and other essentials.

But for people like me—and I’ll assume for you, Food52 reader—whose lives revolve around the kitchen, there is an irreplaceable satisfaction baked in to the familiarity of one’s own cupboards. Once a week during the first few months of lockdown, my wife and kids and I would visit our home in San Francisco, just to give the in-laws some space and to let down our own hair for a day or two.

Then, four months after moving to Sebastopol, we sold our place in SF. Given that we were leaving our home of more than a decade—the place where my wife and I started our married life and brought our children home from the hospital—it was as gentle a transition as one could hope for. With the exception of the occasional visits, we weren’t really living there anymore. It was feeling less like our home, even before we sold it.


The fact is, my editor emailed to ask me to write a piece about ‘home’ at the exact moment I began having trouble pointing to where that was, exactly.

That being said, immediately upon closing escrow, I was overcome with longing for San Francisco. The biggest selling point of our modest home was its ridiculous panoramic view of the city. I could see the Bay Bridge, downtown, Bernal Hill, the shores of Oakland, and the tip of the peninsula with one twist of the head. Not many people are afforded a daily visual reminder of the city they live in. SF was our home and our roommate.

Zuni roast chickens began to haunt my dreams, as did the meat sauce at Cordon Bleu, the birria from El Patron, and a thousand other tastes that now felt completely out of reach. Even a quick excursion to the city seemed harder than before. Where would we put the kids down for a nap? Where would we go to the bathroom and change diapers? Where could we sit down?

The fact is, my editor emailed to ask me to write a piece about “home” at the exact moment I began having trouble pointing to where that was, exactly. This week, we’re moving to Oakland—just the four of us. I feel some degree of confidence restored now that I’m putting a roof over my family and no longer mooching off my in-laws, but I don’t know shit about Oakland. Friends have been sending local recommendations, and I’m excited to be within walking distance of a promising Ethiopian spot, a great birria truck, a well-stocked Korean market, and three natural wine shops, but this doesn’t feel like home. Not yet, at least.

For those who move more often than once a decade—military brats, pro athletes, corporate consultants, Berbers, and most people in their twenties—none of this will be especially illuminating. But it’s an unfamiliar sensation to me. I also get the sense that uprooting and abandoning your comfort zone runs counterintuitive to what the current climate—and I mean that in every sense of the word—dictates.

“Now more than ever…” is a phrase I hear being employed to sell everything from cable internet and car insurance to public policy. Now more than ever, your home means everything. Now more than ever, people are looking for peace of mind. The prevailing message is one of retreat: As the world is going stark raving mad, what you need is nostalgia, comfort, security, chocolate.

While I agree that this is a monumentally unsettling moment in our history, I’m suggesting that if you’re feeling nervous or angry or completely unhinged about it all, do not withdraw inward. Keep pushing to know more than what’s around you. And I mean that regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum. While it’d be an overstatement to say that my family’s recent residential itinerancy is directly inspired by a desire to stay open and engaged, we have made a conscious effort not to let politics or pandemics drive us deeper into what we already know. I’m getting tired of eating at home, and I’m growing more and more suspicious of feeling at home.

How has the meaning of “home” changed for you this year? Tell us in the comments.

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