Thursday, June 3, 2010

The smell of home...

A while back, maybe a few months ago now, I bought a bag of barley.  I bought it for no other reason than the fact that it looked nice in the packaging.  When I first picked it up in the store I don't even think I knew what it was.  The grains sold at the Moroccan market usually come in plain bags marked only with the name, and I'll admit that my Dutch vocabulary doesn't always extend very far when it comes to agricultural goods.  Lucky for me, our house guest at the time is a historian working on the correspondence of a sixteenth-century merchant family, and he has been forced by necessity to learn the words for bulk-trade goods of the early-modern period.  Not me, though.  I work on overseas trade routes, so I can only tell you the Dutch words for luxury goods like pepper or nutmeg, or obscure medicinal plants.  Last time I checked the weren't selling Dragon's Blood at my local grocery store, so learning that word hasn't really helped me out in my daily life.

That package of barley has sat in the back of my cupboard all this time until yesterday.  Cooking has felt more like a chore lately than a joy, so I have done very little of it, and it's been pretty uninspired.  I think I'm just tired of pasta and rice, so tonight out came the barley.  When I opened the bag, I was struck by the smell.  It was wonderfully sweet and deep, and it reminded me of something.  It kind of smells like the steel cut oatmeal I like, but that wasn't really what it reminded me of.  Maybe beer?  There's a lot of barley in beer, but that wasn't the smell.  What was it?  Then it came to smells just like a barn.  That's right, the food I made for myself last night reminds me of hay and manure, but totally in a good way.  In fact, the smell reminds me of my childhood. My hometown is tiny and located at the corner of pig farms and soybean fields, so suffice it to say, I know what the inside of a barn smells like.  I think I've mentioned that fact before, but I felt the need to mention it again, since it seems to have had such a profound impact on my sense of self. 

The sensory experience got me thinking about what I can define as my home.   Should I have really asked myself that last night.  Maybe it would have been easier to just enjoy my dinner, but then what would I write about on this blog?  The Midwest hasn't been my home for some time, although I've got a huge collection of childhood memories that will always tie me to it.  L.A. never felt very permanent, such is the transient nature of graduate school, although I always look forward to the visits that take me back to friends and good food.  Does that make Amsterdam my home now?  I mean home not just in the sense that it is the city where I live.  I also don't mean it in the sense that Niek and I have made a home out of our house.  I'm talking about feeling comfortable and at home in the culture.  Is Amsterdam my home because the experiences I have here and the relationships I build give me a sense of place and belonging? Furthermore, if you settle in a place as an adult and don't have all of those memories from your childhood to give you cues and references to the culture in which you are living, can you really feel like you belong?

I occasionally need to remind myself that I'm not just visiting Amsterdam anymore; I actually live here.  I speak the language, have a bank account and Dutch health insurance.  I read the Dutch newspapers and ride my bike to run my errands.  Dutch culture can be confusing to me (one of the reasons Regan and I started the blog was to explore some of our encounters with our new surroundings), but the Netherlands doesn't feel like a completely foreign place anymore.  Unfortunately it hasn't completely lost its edge of foreignness, either.  It does make me wonder if I will ever feel like I belong, or if I should even strive to feel that way.  Is a feeling of belonging required to create a sense of home? It's not the worst thing in the world to feel like an observor if you also love the place where you live.  I do love it, even if my oldest memories don't bring me back here.

I'm pretty sure these kinds of questions and ideas are pretty common for expats, and they're nothing new.  I like the adventure of living in a foreign country, frustrating situations included.  I also love my husband very much, and I gladly stayed here to be with him.  There are times, like last night, that I wish just for a second that I had never had the desire to leave the place where I was raised.  It would be so easy to have my family and friends close by.  I could know the place I live in a way you only can once you've lived there forever.  I did wish that for a second, because I liked the smell of barley so much and the wonderful associations it created.  That feeling passed, because I am who I am, and I never wanted to stay in a small town in the Midwest, even when I was living there.  I like being here in Europe with my husband and my dog.  I like the canals and the cheese the beautiful Dutch sky.  Maybe the next time I'm back in the States I'll smell something that reminds me of Amsterdam, and I will comment without thinking, "oh that smell like home."  I don't know what that smell would be, but I'll let you know if it happens.


  1. One day walking between two labs at a university, I was overwhelmed by homesickness and it was the smell in the air. One lab was growing yeast, one algae; I grew up between a lake and a bakery.

    Surprising you didn't recognize barley, though. There's a Japanese variety I saw once that was hard to identify (Japanese packaging) and I thought it was Job's Tears. I paid a lot for that barley!

  2. Steve,
    Are you making that story about the labs up? It seems too fortuitous to be true. I will believe you for now, because I am trusting like that.
    I admit, I was a little embarrassed not to have recognized the grain in the package right away. I hope your Japanese barley was good. I just looked up Job's Tears, and it looks so beautiful. I'll have to snatch some up if I come across it.