Normally, when flying back to Abu Dhabi, where because of my husband’s job we’ve been living for the past two years, we break up the trip by stopping off in either London or Paris. This is probably not a good idea. But it seems I am a sucker for punishment and so I willingly steep myself in the rich, rank atmosphere of some old French café before throwing myself back into months and months of having my coffee in a corporate French knock-off, in a mall, in a desert, in a city that’s younger than I am.
This year, however, we flew straight back. I’m home having just left home. This isn’t a story about the woes and worries of managing two places; this is trying to figure out what makes a home.
When I was growing up, we lived on the top floor of a triplex in Montreal. My mother, rather than buying furniture, just seemed to conjure it up. There were amazing decorating phases she went through, like the time she dragged me to see a film about the British Raj and rather than using that moment to school me in the horrors of colonialism, she was in raptures about the hanging couches and walls covered in printed fabric depicted on the screen. No sooner had she said “Shazam!” than our couches were swinging from ropes, making us all a bit seasick when we sat down to watch telly. The walls too were now festooned with Indian bedspreads, most stolen, and none too clean, directly off our beds. My father was no better. He fancied himself a bit of a master. Of what was never quite determined. But he strode forth once deciding the kitchen should resemble a Lego concoction with all the components interlocking. The only trouble with that was that if one part of his shoddy construction failed, the whole kitchen -- tables, shelves, with all the crockery and glasses, pots and pans -- came crashing down. I think my bum right ear is the direct result of being close at hand for one of those spectacular implosions.
Home was jerry-built and jury-rigged. But for kids it was great. No worries about leaving water rings on the table or breaking some family heirloom.
Then I left that home, as one does, and moved to New York. More importantly, I came to America. Questions of home arose in the years that I lived there, not so much centered on the place, but my place in America. The whole ethos of “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “Love it or leave it,” and “Greatest country on earth” left me feeling a bit rattled. For a country that worships independence and manifest destiny, I must admit I felt a little bullied by it all. Those days seem quite innocent now.
But I married a Yank, and his home became my home. Again, the furniture seemed to find us, not vice versa. People die, their end tables have to go somewhere. Why it had to be to our apartment I could never figure out. I don’t even have any memory of hauling the damn things in and then standing back to assess whether the gold-leaf paneling looked urban chic now that it was in Brooklyn or if it still managed to hang onto its long pedigree of tacky suburban. After years of the slow drip of dead people’s furniture, I found myself looking around and asking, “Is this my home?”
For all this doubt, I have been accused of being a domestic goddess. True, I am fanatical about my sheets and have been known to rouse both sleeping spouse and dogs so I can shake out the sheets if, god forbid, I feel even the hint of grit. I move about my kitchen with the obsessive enthusiasm of someone whose first thought in the morning is, “What am I going to make for dinner?” In fact, the best days are when I wake having dreamed my way through making some dish like homemade spiced lamb ravioli. I say my kitchen, but I live in a pre-war building, which means it has a history; it’s not just the smells from my vats of bone broth or the grease from my roast chickens that have sunk into those porous walls. None of this I mind; actually I love it. But I am aware of the ghosts of Christmas past, not to mention Easter, Thanksgiving and the thousands of ordinary meals cooked up long before me.
When we moved to Abu Dhabi, needing to hang on to our Brooklyn place, we arrived with just some clothes and a few precious books. We only had one night to sleep off the jet lag before a realtor showed up at our door. Deeply efficient, she gave us three hours to find a place to live, a home. We immediately nixed high-rises. And if you’ve seen the news out of Dubai lately, wise choice. Apparently, those things are wrapped in flammable material. Most apartments we were shown were brand new, no grease in the rafters, nor the possibility of a murder in the guest room or even an illicit affair raging between neighbors. At least not yet.
Hour three found us on Saadiyat Island, which we were told means Happy Island. All I could think of was that scene in "Jaws" when the mayor reminds a reporter that Amity Island means “Friendship.” I do have a view of the Persian Gulf, so I presume the shark can’t be far off.
My husband took one look at the place and said, “I’ll take it.” Note the “I’ll.” For the first time in nearly 30 years of marriage, I thought, “Uh oh.” What if he wields this “I’ll take it” through the whole daunting process of filling the damn place up with stuff, stuff that apparently makes a home?
I need not have worried. It was just jet lag and the need to pee that had him being so brusque.
There we were in a brand new, completely empty apartment. Nothing, not even a worker’s forgotten tool or bottle of water. At moments like this, you can’t help but ask. “Who am I?” Then I looked at my husband and thought, “And, who the fuck is he?”
I can be pretty adamant. For instance, on the long flight to our new life every time my husband wasn’t reading or actively ignoring me, I’d issue another edict. “There is no fucking way,” I told him, “we are going to Ikea. Not one Ikea box will cross our threshold!”
“We don’t have a threshold.”
“But we will.”
Now we did. Two bedrooms, four bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a bizarre windowless box that the realtor had called a maid’s quarter’s -- and, of course, a kitchen. All empty. Want to know the first thing I bought, mostly out of nerves? A salad dryer. Not so good for sleeping on. Hence the next few nights in a hotel.
Every morning before we headed out to furnish our home I’d asked: “What if we have no taste?”
It turns out we do have taste. Damn impractical, expensive taste. Who knew? To be fair, it was mostly a timing thing. We had bedside tables before we had a bed. A beautiful inlaid Indian cabinet, perfect for storing our booze before we had wine glasses or even knives and forks. Bookshelves and rugs before a couch and some chairs. As each thing was delivered, unwrapped, assembled, there was this sinking feeling. “This stuff is far too good for the likes of me.”
Finally, the considered buying of fancy-pants pieces had to stop; we just needed shit, and lots of it. There was just no avoiding Ikea. But before we dove in, I demanded we visit just one more store, a kitchen store, a good one. Oh boy. For the first time since we had arrived, I was in my element. And pity the poor girl who helped us. “Which knife do you think is better balanced? This one? This one? How about . . . What’s the heat conduction of this pan? As opposed to this one?"
As I write I am in our home at our heavy wooden table that seats six. For the last two years, I’ve treated the thing like it was a Ming vase. I hate it. I need to rough the place up. There, I just did it. Put my sweating glass of water directly on the table. There’s a ring, a huge ring! Thank god. Do I feel more at home now? A bit. At least, home enough to head into the kitchen and attempt to make that spiced lamb ravioli I dreamt of back in New York.