I HAVE SPENT A LOT OF TIME AWAY FROM HOME. Since I was a little girl in West Virginia, I have found the utmost solace in escaping the four walls designated my own. Stillness never came naturally to my body or my mind. My mother specifically recalls the winter of 2009 — my school system canceled almost a week of classes in response to extreme weather conditions. Each morning I would dart into her bedroom, words spilling out of my mouth, questioning the day’s plan. I needed an itinerary. When stillness saturated me, I craved an escape. I wanted to transcend beyond my home.
Until I left for college, the only home I had any experience with was Wheeling, West Virginia. I knew the rolling hills of Appalachia and could always count on them to surround me. Even though I spent time dreaming of something more, West Virginia acted as my sole reference point for what constitutes a home. I knew which pine needle pockets of my backyard to avoid when walking barefoot outside. I memorized the route to the Towngate Theater downtown, and I would often purposefully take the wrong exit to have more alone time in my car, singing along to the radio. I played on a volleyball team with girls from my middle school. I knew my neighbors. If I walked into a grocery store, I made an easy beeline for the aisle where the Oreos or bananas sat waiting for me. My surroundings were unchanging.
When I was 18, I temporarily left Appalachia to attend college in New York City at Fordham University. I’d dreamt of calling New York City home since I was a little girl, and on one sunny day in September, my lifelong aspiration materialized before my eyes.
What always made New York appealing to me was how the city became home for so many millions of people. New York always accepted — it never gave away. The blurry street lights in the West Village listened to secret confessions amongst New York University third-years. The iron gates of Prospect Park watched silently as a postman lost his job of a decade. The abandoned corners of the 110th street subway station supported the habits of the addicted. New York was a home that never questioned but sat by, unabashedly, as you made your own decisions.
Like always, I’d spend each Saturday out of my home, walking up and down the streets of the city trying to absorb as many eccentricities as possible. I would pop into greasy pizza joints, outlandish crystal shops, bustling downtown parks; anything to avoid the constraint of my own bedroom.
After inhabiting six different homes within four years in New York, it came time to depart from the American, East Coast city of my dreams. I was up for a new challenge — a new home. A letter arrived informing me I had been accepted into a master’s program at the University of Amsterdam. I would be escaping 4,000 miles away from home and the United States.
August 16, 2021, was the day of my inevitable departure from America and the first home I had ever known. At 22 years old, I would be exchanging the mountains for an unestablished portion of time in an equally unknown environment. I was leaving Appalachia with only traces of myself left behind. Although I had taken on the feat of moving before, something about this move felt different. I would no longer be home for Thanksgiving; I would no longer be surrounded by people that even celebrated Thanksgiving. I was entering an arena where expectations of normal differed.
Throughout my European displacement, I detonated most of the conclusions I made about home and rebuilt from the ground up. I had a new postcode, new roommates, new transportation. Nothing was familiar. For so long, I had been keen to leave, but now I often found myself feeling guilty, contemplating why I now suddenly longed to be home again. The more time I spend so far from West Virginia, my original home, the more I find myself questioning the importance of home in the context of my own life. Is it really home I am missing? Would it ever be possible for me to call somewhere so foreign home? I fit in. I hang my laundry on my balcony just as my neighbor do, I ring my blue bike bell at teetering tourists — but something small was consistently amiss.
Upon my contemplation, a few key memories of my childhood repeatedly come to mind. When I was in second grade, my family hosted a Japanese exchange student for six months. He temporarily made Appalachia his home, and he even returned to visit two years later. He felt a certain peace when inhabiting our West Virginia home. Although his original home in Japan was halfway across the globe, there was something about the rolling hills that he felt he could connect with. Throughout my years in New York City, I brought groups of friends from college home, each telling me summer nights spent in Wheeling were some of the most memorable of their lives. My Dutch partner also feels the connection. He returns each time with pronounced excitement to see my family and friends.
Newcomers here often share the same sentiment: they feel like they have been here before. Strangers look at these foreign faces as if saying hello to an old friend, an old lover. Perhaps they were never really strangers at all. Although home and the idea of home look different for everyone, Appalachia harbors a distinct feeling that makes visitors feel like community members. The physical ideation of home still blurs in my mind. When someone asks me, “Are you going home?” I have a few options that roll around in my mind before I spit out a reply. I realize now it was never necessarily home that I needed; it was familiarity. What has always been essential in my life is the knowledge that I will always have somewhere to return to with which I’m familiar. As I traverse many thousands of miles away from Appalachia, I rest assured knowing it will always be waiting for me with arms outstretched when I return.
As I continue to wrestle with my own expansion and redefinition of home, I have decided to extend these questions beyond myself. I have spoken to other individuals from Appalachia now living abroad, and I plan to tell each of their stories in future editions of YNST. Our stories are not being told; our worries, fears and dreams deserve a united space to afford us the knowledge that home can mean a lot of things, and we are allowed to have complex feelings tied to it. We may think of Appalachia as our home, we may not think of Appalachia as our home, but Appalachia will always be familiar.
Europe is my home now. The Netherlands is my home. The northern part of Amsterdam is my home. I have spent two birthdays here surrounded by friends from all around the globe that know me well. I still yearn to escape the homes I inhabit. But, I will invariably hold my familiarity of Appalachia tenderly in my heart, and I look forward to sharing the experiences of other Appalachians who have also moved far and wide.