Each morning, the indolent sun pushes an obedient flock of dust across our bedroom floor. The air conditioner shuts off with a plaintive wheeze. Outside the bedroom, the metal grill opens with a rasp. The other set of keys jangles in my pocket as I approach the front door to let the puppies out. I say good morning to our guard, François, and feel the squeaky, swelling mob of grass and weed underfoot.
These are the sounds of my morning.
Outside our walls, the security guards unfurl like drowsy cats. Crows, so much larger than the ones back home, watch a scribble of smoke ascend from burnt garbage. A woman walks by, crowned by a tray of baguettes in ballooning plastic.
Two blocks up, the market takes root. Women brush the front of their maquis with plaited branches. The scent of fried plantains floats overhead; a rooster with a ragged coxcomb pecks at the splattered, sweetened oil in the dirt.
Every day, I watch the neighbourhood wake up while the house witnesses the beginnings of my routine.
And as this house — the slant of its roof, its sloping yard — becomes more familiar, it starts to feel a bit more like home.
* * *
In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton asked: “If one room can alter how we feel, if our happiness can hang on the colour of the walls or the shape of a door, what will happen to us in most of the places we are forced to look at and inhabit?”
In this house, I am never far removed from the cracks in the walls or the centipedes slithering across pink-marbled tile. Then there are the yellowing cupboards with their colonies of ants and the way the house is tugged by the imperatives of weather — its damp doors too thick to open, the bloom of condensation on the windows.
Upstairs, boxes overflow; elsewhere the house is so empty of furniture, it appears austere.
Such eyesores used to make me melancholy — they seemed to represent all of the “undone” things, the unraveling of good intentions. But in the end, they’re minor. With a baby on the way, equating happiness with a pristine house seems like a fallacy. By all means, aspire to cleanliness, but make room for mess, exuberance — they also have their place.
* * *
When I visited my father in Toronto this summer, I had only been in Abidjan for five months; it made sense that I felt like I was coming home rather than leaving it.
As soon as I arrived, I felt the need to reclaim this place I had lived in for more than 12 years. I wondered if it was possible to feel ownership over pieces of a city — its park benches, streetcars, cafés. Each place seemed to trigger a memory.
Of course, places reside in people — that’s nothing new. But I was surprised how nostalgic I felt for my former life.
When I returned from my vacation, my boyfriend had moved us into our new house. It was a lovely surprise, but I was overwhelmed; it felt like we were starting from scratch again.
One of the first things he had done was unpack my bookcases so that I could fill them with books. He knew that seeing the books on the shelves would help me feel at home here, that they might emit the scent of happier, less solitary moments. But could personal objects really make me feel at home in the psychological sense?
It reminded me of something my friend Natasha had said when I was in Toronto. After the birth of her first child, she told me she knew exactly where home was: Wherever she and her husband and the baby were — one unit under one roof.
* * *
When you are drawing a map of home, it’s a different kind of cartography. It changes every day as you shepherd belongings into a new space and hammer out the cadences of a new routine. You disassemble one life and try to assemble another.
And when you draw that map in another country, the reference points become even more muddled.
If the goal of a map is to condense the world to a flat surface, then a map of home is simply the pop-up version, but one that combines the real world with the hoped-for world — the house you live in with the home you dream of.
When I moved, I never thought that this life would include a baby — not here, not yet. But this baby — for whom there is no map — has given me a sense of direction.
How do you define home?