Safer At Home: Questioning Place During Quarantine

As countries keep borders closed and cities go on lockdown, thousands around the world are sheltering in place, trying to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders are common, but what constitutes “home” can vary.

Some people are between homes or self-described nomads, depending on couch surfing, friends or other temporary lodging for their next night. Others live full-time in RVs, but campgrounds are closing, leaving them stranded. And about 2% of the global population is homeless, somewhere around 150 million people, experiencing what many of us can only imagine.

I’ve not spent much time thinking about what home means, possibly because I’ve been fortunate. I’ve always had a reliable place to depend on. But to some degree, I imagine we’re all thinking about it now — our homes, cluttered or clean, full of family or not, a place to relax or get bored or escape. We’re spending almost 24/7 here. “Home” won’t be ignored.

When I sold my house in December with plans to travel, I had every intention of getting another permanent place to live. First, I’d try a few Airbnbs across Europe. But when France announced its lockdown, I decided to cut and run. I booked a flight home for the next day.

The only problem? Home was just the country on my passport. There was no city, no address, no furniture or pleasant knickknacks accumulated through the years. I found myself missing my former home and its familiarity — something I hadn’t thought of my whole time in France, but now, during crisis, suddenly lacked. I began reaching out to others who might be displaced during quarantine.

I talked with Erinn, a full-time housesitter from Australia. “Where I am at that moment is home to me,” she told me. She was in Mexico for two months, planning to stay till June, when the owners had to cancel. Her advice? Use this opportunity to reflect on the bigger picture and be thankful for your health and support networks — “it could all be taken away in an instant.”

I asked Javier, a digital nomad from Spain, what home means to him. He said the emotional side of it doesn’t matter as much, though he admits having your things around you can help. He’s currently stuck in an Airbnb in Peru, while the army is patrolling the streets outside with long-range firearms. He remains positive: “I am spending time on creative stuff — trying to write, make videos. Who knows if I will have a change of career at the end?”

What surprised me the most about everyone I spoke with was their ability to look on the bright side. Talking with them helped me look at my idea of home differently. If you’re stuck at home right now (and you probably are), perhaps it will help you, too.

Lucie Grace, PhD student and freelance writer

“I’m two months into my 12-month trip and find myself marooned in Jaipur through India’s strict lockdown,” said Lucie, who took a sabbatical from her studies to write about her experiences while traveling. “I sublet my apartment in London for a year, so when the news of border closures and curfews broke, the thought of running back to the UK did not cross my mind. I currently don’t have a home to go to.”

Instead, Lucie found a hostel with a friend. A local doctor, sent from the government, visits regularly to check for symptoms. For her, home has taken on a legal meaning of a place she has civil rights because of her passport, but that doesn’t define her sense of security. She’s settled into her temporary home for now, grateful for the little things.

“It is undeniably strange being quarantined on the other side of the world, where I have no rights, no family and generally no idea what will happen one day to the next,” she said. “Every day is a rollercoaster of tensions, news, fake news and uneasiness. But I’m determined to make the best of each day. I’m grateful for my hosts … for the sun coming out and for India taking decisive steps to squash their curve.”

Olivia Balsinger, travel editor

An American temporarily living in her adopted home of Denmark, Olivia found herself in a hotel room in Thailand when COVID-19 hit. As an extrovert, she confessed she’s finding social distancing away from home even more isolating.

“I am incredibly homesick, and I yearn for human touch,” she said. “I find myself craving to chat with the few other guests stuck here but know it may make them uncomfortable … so I refrain. I set alarms on my phone to FaceTime my parents, half a world away.”

She shared with me about what she sees as the coziness of home, or as the Danish call it, “hygge.” It’s one of the things she’s looking forward to when this is over.

“Home is where your loved ones are, where you feel safe and accepted,” Olivia said. “As long as we can all get through this, safe and healthy on the other side, I am going to get back to both Denmark and the United States and give both my family and my adopted family the biggest hug in the world. And that keeps me going when anxiety kicks in.”

Libby Chapman, backpacker

When the border closed before her planned return to Australia, Libby found a place to stay thanks to a job picking kiwi on the North Island.

“It’s exhausting and very hard work,” she admits, “but it gets me out of the house and seeing other people (always two meters apart though!) and I’m grateful for being able to work while so many people are stuck at home.”

She can’t go to England, where her family is, either since both her parents have pre-existing conditions that would put them at risk for contracting the coronavirus. So for now, she’s concentrating on the task at hand: picking fruit.

“In the last few days, I’ve definitely found more peace and belonging here,” she said. “It was hard to come to terms with everything at first, but once I met other people going through the same thing … it gets easier. It’s definitely brought us closer together, and we really are a new family.”

I have to agree with her. Talking with other people does make it easier. And sure, it’s been said before, but it bears repeating: place matters, things matter, but people matter most.

“Home can be anywhere in the world and is what you make of it,” Libby explained. “It’s really cheesy, I know. But two weeks ago, I felt so lost and upset and had no idea what to do or where to go as I couldn’t fly back to Australia or England, and I had no home in New Zealand. But with the help of some amazing people, they gave me a job and a room and invited me into their family for as long as I need, and now this is home for a while. It’s all about the people you find who are willing to help, and thankfully, there are lots around in times like this.”

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