Less than 24 hours ago I sat on the floor of my childhood home – luggage, carry-ons, and gifts strewn about me – and, with the help of my sister Lindsay, prioritized possessions in order to make (luggage) weight for my return to trip to Mali. Every so often I would step on the scale holding one of my suitcases and Lindsay would lean over to locate the arrow teetering between dashed numbers. After unloading some lotions and body sprays, stationery, and a few other items deemed non-critical to my return, we were satisfied that we had made it close enough to the 80 pound weight limit. We zipped up my groaning suitcases and carry-ons and rolled them to the trunk of my mom's car and just like that, after four months stateside, I was ready to return to Mali.
At the Norfolk airport I was surrounded by an honest-to-goodness entourage. All my parents saw me off as well as my aunt Laurie, Uncle Frank, and my brother, Michael. Even one of our dogs, Levi, made the trip out to bid me farewell. My luggage came in a few pounds over (and when I say a few pounds I mean...more than a few pounds) but the generous check-in lady waved me on and wished me a safe return to Mali. I think this is the first time I have ever traveled abroad and not had to unload and relocate items in the airport lobby for exceeding the luggage weight limit. I liked the feeling.
After a puddle jumper flight to JFK, I sat near my gate and settled in for a four-hour layover. I talked with Marija and Kate on the phone and people watched metropolitan Europeans with asymmetrical haircuts, metal-buckle boots, and skinny jeans walk by with Cartier and FAO Shwartz bags in hand. Next to my gate was a nail salon with a billboard the size of two unfolded pizza boxes on the back wall. The sign read:
“You won't be able to say you had any regrets. Have you considered joining the Peace Corps?”
One of the last things I delicately crammed into my carry-on was a small stack of magazines. I chose three from the top of a towering pile on my dresser – two New Yorkers and a Vanity Fair. Once on the plane to Paris I pulled out the first New Yorker dated December 5, 2011 and opened it.
After reading a review of “The Artist,” which my dad says is a must-see (I watched it on the plane!), and a spotlight on one of the Occupy Wall Street protestors, I arrived to a Personal History essay entitled Mapping Home: Learning a new city, remembering the old by Alexandar Hemon. Hemon writes about his upbringing and home in Sarajevo and then his subsequent, and unexpected, transition to life in Chicago when he came to the United States with the International Visitor Program on March 14thth 1992. When war broke out in Bosnia, Hemon's family urged him to stay and so he did. He applied for political asylum and then, he says, “The rest is the rest of my life.”
Hemon talks about how Chicago was nothing like his home in Sarajevo. He did not feel connected. He did not have a local butcher nor a movie theater to frequent and so he wandered and never felt quite at home. Then, one of his best-friends from Sarajevo came to visit in 1997 and he realized he did have a home in Chicago. He showed his friend his favorite coffee shop and his first apartment. He showed him where he got breakfast on the weekend and where he canvassed as a Greenpeace volunteer. He showed him the life he had built for himself in the United States.
During my four month time stateside friends and family would often ask when I was returning home. Then they would laugh and say, well, I guess Mali is your home now! It is something I think a lot about.
I am now sitting on the plane that will take me back to Bamako. The sun has just set but the sky is not yet ready for night to fall. A blood orange strip slices the horizon while a deepening blue shades upwards to a few stars that are in a rush to make their nightly appearance.
Hemon's personal essay was powerful and, while I could never imagine what it is like to be pulled from my home because of war, he makes his experience a relevant one for people like me who have more than one place they call home. He closed his piece with this statement:
“The two places had now combined to form a complicated internal landscape, a space where I could wander and feel at home, and in which stories could be generated. When I came back from my first visit to Sarajevo, in the spring of 1997, the Chicago I came back to belonged to me. Returning from home, I returned home.”