une crise d’identité

Home. The word has a curious ring to it.

When I was in Italy, I felt as if I had come back home. The people looked like me, gestured like me, moved like me. They asked me questions in Italian, and I faked the answers as best I could. Strangers in restaurants pulled me aside like jovial uncles, “Hey, you’re pretty tall, let’s stand back to back.” I realized in Italy how easy it would be for me to become an Italian again. And I say the word “again,” even though I never was an Italian.

Or maybe I always was. In the convenience store in the East Village, the Bangladeshi cashiers refused to believe I was an American. “Where are you from, man?” “New York.” “You don’t speak like a New Yorker.” “Okay, {you got me} Long Island.” “No,” shakes head with a physician’s conviction. “You’re not from there.” “Okay, I’m Italian,” I told them if only they would be satisfied and let me leave. “Ah, yes, an Italian, that’s what you are!”

But the Estonian House on 34th Street was also home. Not even the house, or the flags, or even the people, but the sounds of the voices, the poetry of the words. Sometimes when I was traveling through the US or China, I’d have to call up Swedbank customer service, and the language would tickle me and soothe me and comfort me like the sweetest lullaby. “Tere päevast! Mida te soovite?” And I didn’t even want to respond because I was so enraptured by the audiofragrance of the meandering brook of an Estonian woman’s voice on the other end of the connection. “Please just keep on talking,” I had wanted to say, lost upon seas of American or Chinese voices. It was not my language and yet it was inside of me and had been filling me up for a very long time. It was not something that could be casually set aside with a plane trip or a change of address. But nobody from any of my other homes could know about this. It was a secret.

On most days you can see Shelter Island from the beaches nearby. To me, that is also home. One of my first memories is the clear water on the white stones and pebbles of the beach, and the fine sands on my feet. Just over there. It was 1982, or 1981 — some blurry year when I was still pulling big concepts together out of the moist and swirling chaos. Those big glistening bodies of water and familiar Algonquian names that only we can say. It pleases me that my littlest one will see those same stones and waters and feel those same sands and know those same strange words, and have in the back of her mind the same natural images that I do.

But will they be home? And when she returns to them, and people cheer and pat her on the back and say, “Welcome home! You must be so happy to be home!” will she feel in her insides that she is home and that all those other places were just other places she happened to pass through on her return?

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