Is it the house in which you live? The city in which you live? The town in which you grew up? A country in which you spent your formative years? Where your friends are, or your work? Could it be a country that you have never lived in? And just what does 'feeling at home' mean anyway?
I've been wrestling with this whole idea for at least two years; I had always kind of wondered about it, argued about it with friends and family, but in truth, I have never really felt fully at home in the UK, despite my upbringing there. It isn't a conscious, nationalist thing whereby I have a forced, manufactured connection to the country of my parents' birth (Italy) but is more a visceral, emotional sympathy with all things associated with the place. 'At home' is literally how I feel when I arrive there. In fact, the whole matter is becoming obsessive and I have even written a couple of chapters of a potential book.
Right now I am in Sicily, an island that even Italians deem separate in so many ways to their own cultural identity. But Sicily is as feral-Italian as my own family experiences have always taught me to consider the country; growling, effusive and earthy is my version of Italy. Brexit has made this worse of course, has shone a bright, revealing light on quite how contrary to my instincts and world view the British can often feel, but which I'd just set aside. The Brexit light is coruscating, unflattering, and it is why I find myself wistfully wondering what might become of my life in the UK.
Where do I feel at home?
Part of my turmoil is caused by an awareness that this could simply be nostalgia. I am staying at the house of a friend in a beautiful Baroque town in southern Sicily. The house is in a narrow street on the fringe of the town and it reminds me of the homes in which I spent summers as a child, with family, in Montecorvino. It doesn't matter that this house has gorgeous furniture, plumbing and air conditioning. The echo of feet on stone steps, the shuttered light, the proximity to neighbours and its centuries old history have the smack of authenticity. The front step is a stone block like an ottoman chest, perfect for sitting on, listening to family arguments from the houses along the street, and just like that, in a flash of melancholia, I recall my mother sitting on similar steps, in a similar street, and it is overwhelming.
But I romanticise. I am sure I do. I know Italy's problems and heaven knows I appreciate the Italian propensity to infuriate, but I wonder if that gets to me because I have grown up in England, with English rules and traditions. Truth is, I get why the bus driver is a miserable, cynical sod as he picks people up for the beach run, but I wouldn't stand for it in London. And is it possible that I can instinctively identify with the things that are done in such unique ways - the food, the way a shrug of the shoulders is delivered, the withering manner of a toot of the horn, the way a coffee is presented to the counter, or a receipt torn from the slit of a till and flourished along with the change into a scalloped, branded dish? I can list countless tiny mannerisms that you'll find in no other country and that would identify an Italian to me from a thousand, silent paces. In a recent poll, European nationals were asked to rate which other countries they considered number one in a series of different criteria such as hardworking, trustworthy etc. Italians consider Italians to be the most untrustworthy, which I fully understand, and, moreover, I think I love it, too.
The problem is, I think I am too far gone. I am not sure I could now adapt fully to a life in Italy, the place I feel most at home. I am institutionalised, and I fear I may remain in an emotional no-man's land forever, destined to bitterness (and now brexit recriminations) and a perpetual feeling of not quite fitting in, never being quite at home...
Do I just lack courage? Perhaps, but I may just have to stop coming, because it becomes ever more difficult to reconcile myself to the almost unbearable memories of my complicated family history here that are evoked by the ephemeral - yet somehow profoundly tangible - atmosphere of the place. I can almost hear you groan as you read that but it is nothing when compared to my own doleful dislocation. And I swear to you, that as I wrote that last sentence in the half light of dawn, dogs all along the gorge in which this town sits have begun to howl in unison.