To Build a Home: A Traveler’s Guide to Place, Self & Sweeping

mui neI took out a broom and swept the floors of my beach bungalow in Vietnam yesterday. It was the first time I’d done any real manner of cleaning in 2+ months – the gift, I suppose, of living out of hotels and guesthouses. And yes, I’m still staying at a hotel, but as it happens, there’s also a lot of sand on the ground, and, well, a broom.

But this isn’t about my tendencies to clean – god knows I hired a cleaning service for my one-bedroom apartment at home because I so loathe the task. It’s about making a home where before there was just a hotel.

Having the opportunity to pack up my world into a backpack and hit the road virtually non-stop for 7 months is no hardship, trust. It’s a total gift. But it does do away with any sense of home when you’re never in a place longer than 4 nights, usually less, and the place is a hotel lacking personal items or sense of ownership.

When I moved to Philadelphia 4 years ago, it was after a breakup that left me gutted and apartmentless. To boot, the apartment I had shared with the ex had never felt right – a cold, dark, stiflingly small, ugly-as-sin railroad apartment in Hoboken, NJ. When I left that town and that life behind me, about the only thing that remained fully intact in my heart was the unfaltering conviction that wherever I went next it would be perfect; it would be all mine; and it would be home.

Because I didn’t own a car, apartment hunting involved my dad driving me around Philadelphia scouting out neighborhoods. We were cruising around the lovely Rittenhouse Square park on Christmas Eve 2005, when I spied the entrance to the Dorchester building, and cried out for my dad to stop the car, “Now!”

dorchesterI still cannot imagine what force yanked me out of the car that day or why I knew I HAD to get out, and most important, get inside that building. But knew it, I did. Looking back all these years later, and I’d like to believe it was some sort of power greater than me, deep down inside. Less than 4 months – and one frustrated realtor who had patiently dragged my rear to dozens of apartments – later I moved into my dream apartment.

Oh, it was glorious – floor-to-ceiling windows, an 11th floor unobstructed view of Philadelphia, a balcony (!), a doorman, a rooftop pool, a basement gym, laundry. It was heaven in a highrise.

Little by little I filled it. With photos and furniture, quirky knick-knacks from my travels, and finally, friends. Every inch of that place had my heart stamped on it. Everything and everyone that crossed my doorstep was in there because somehow or other, I loved it.

When I first moved in, I used to sit on my balcony on warm weekend nights with a glass of wine, and look down to the street below, filled with chattering friends and dates, and feel very, very alone.

During that first summer, I spent hours up at the empty pool, floating on my back, my ears submerged, listening to the pleasant, calming thrum of my heartbeat. I floated on and on, and I grew quiet and still, both literally and in my soul – and knew I was and would be ok. I healed that summer in that building and slowly but certainly began to rebuild my world.

apartmentMonths rolled by and almost without realizing it, I’d find myself sitting on my balcony after clusters of friends who’d stopped by for sunset cocktails had scattered. I’d sip my wine at last, because I hadn’t had time amidst the constant laughter and chatter as I doled out glasses of vino and cheese from DiBruno Brothers.

Alone, I’d look inside through the glass balcony doors, at the twinkling white lights strung haphazardly around my ficus tree and more carefully around the kitchen window. I’d glance at my photos and knick-knacks and think of my friends and whisper out loud – awed to believe it, “This is my home.”

So yes. Packing it all up one day because I had an unquenchable need to travel the world and admitting that I’d probably never see that space again really freaking hurt.

During my final weeks at the apartment, I did a lot of soul-searching over what it meant to be leaving it. I fretted and cried over saying goodbye to the place that I believe helped heal me, soothe me – the place I built. But then I realized that was the whole point, wasn’t it? I “built” it. And that means I can and will build it again.

Wherever I may live, however temporary or permanent it might be, I remain the one constant – me. And the “me” that insisted on love and joy in the Dorchester isn’t going anywhere, ever.

I know it might have seemed unlikely to see me sweeping sand the other day. “It’s a beach, V, there’s going to be sand,” Ayaz smiled at me.

But at that moment, I wouldn’t have cared if a sandcastle sprung up on my doorstep. I had finally found my next space to care about. The next place to call “home.”

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  1. Happy holidays, Val!

  2. So happy for you! You just made me appreciate my home just a little more. May you feel right at home this Christmas and New Year’s. Much love and merriness 🙂

  3. Beautiful post, m’lady. The picture looking in from your balcony made me cry a little. Missing you but loving that you are on this journey. Home is within. I love you!

  4. This is gorgeous.

  5. Really moving and charming story, Val. Happy holidays and hugs from NY.

    • Valerie Conners says:

      Hugs and happy holidays right back at you! And sorry I haven’t replied to your FB message – FB is blocked in Vietnam!!! But I got it, and it means alot!

  6. You made me cry a little, Val. Good for you. 🙂 Have the most beautiful Christmas ever. Hugs from the Apple

    • Valerie Conners says:

      Aw, Katharine – I cried a bit writing it! I miss you! I hope you and Paul have a wonderful, wonderful holiday.

  7. when i look at the photo of your former home, i hear raucous laughter and strains of a pained tweedy — i hate it, when you’re not here!!
    miss you!

  8. What a great perspective! Philly misses you. Merry Christmas!

  9. I love this post! Love you!!