Open windows on scenarios that are always the same. Same street, same lampposts, same deserted pavement. Horizons that do not change, are distant and unreachable. A door that does not open, which becomes the seal of a new normality, limited and restrained. But also shelter, a sense of protection, and a safe nest while outside everything collapses or changes.
Never before have we been forced to confront the idea of ‘home’ and rethink our relationship with what defines the place where we live. We found we had houses that were too small or too big, too crowded or too quiet. We may have realised that ‘home’ is not just a physical place where we wait for the storm to pass, but a place of the soul, a way of life that makes itself home in movement. We realised that home could mean loss or finding, abandonment or comfort.
“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, and no person is alone in the place he inhabits, whether it be a micro-apartment in a large post-pandemic city or a village in the heart of the African savannah, whether it be a shaky border of childhood or a decadent neighbourhood that shelters and protects multiple solitudes.
And so in recent months, we have found ourselves forced – perhaps for the first time – to ask ourselves a question that goes beyond the private dimension and takes on the colour of a collective question: what does ‘home’ mean today? What is the sense of home for distant people? For neighbourhoods that are micro-worlds or for communities that see what has always defined them crumbling? Are we what we inhabit, or does what we experience to become ‘home’ the moment it becomes memory and narrative? Home as a sense of rootedness in a place, in a community, in a present or past time?
Thus begins our journey in search of what it means, today, to call a place ‘home’. Whether it is a fixed point made of bricks, wooden planks or mud. Whether it is a feeling, a memory, a lack or a place in the soul on a perpetual journey.
In his 87 years of life, Luigi Lanteri has always called only one place home: the tiny village of Realdo, an eagle’s nest suspended between rock and sky in the heart of the Ligurian Alps, on the border with France and Piedmont. A land of wolves and shepherds, of cross-border paths that trace different histories from those written on atlases: it was the Paris Agreements of 1947 that drew the current borders – which changed what used to be Piedmont into Liguria and France – and the entire community once belonging to Briga Marittima was dismembered. Brigaschi, the inhabitants of these valleys are called, united by the pivot of Monte Saccarello and divided by politics: they were breeders, farmers, wool merchants. Today, only a few remain up here, echoing through the paths the ancient Brigasque language, descended from the Provençal Langue d’Oc.
Luigi is one of those few and witnesses a slow haemorrhage, people leaving and never returning, houses that are only opened in the summer, empty streets and fountains that gurgle only for passing foxes. “Do you ever think of leaving?” people who pass by to visit him ask, trying to understand the meaning of his staying in his stone house overlooking the valley. But he shrugs his shoulders and smiles: “Go away? Why? This has always been my home, where do you want me to go?».
“Luigi’s house looks like something out of a history book. A bare, shadowy room serves as the kitchen, living room and dining room; an old wood-burning cooker coughs in one corner, a few chipped cups stand on a crooked shelf, and a few shepherd’s tools – a worn cowbell and an old, rusty shearing shears – hang on a hook, halfway between remembrance and forgetfulness.
No trinkets, no frills: in other places, this room would be called ‘minimal’, but no Anglicisms are needed to recount the dignity, the intimate geography of a humble life, accustomed to possessing only the essentials and borrowing the rest from the mountains. What will be left of these lives, one wonders, when the last witnesses are gone?”
Then perhaps home is a place to stay despite everything else.
Despite a world that does not know or understand you,
and despite a world that wants to change you.
Stillness and change: a constant flow.
In between, the search for an island for oneself, for one’s community, for one’s children.
For their past and future history.
They are called the ‘nomads of the sea’. The Moken of the Mergui archipelago in Thailand’s Andaman Sea has made water their home. Theirs is a life at the water’s edge, punctuated by the winds, the waves and the moon: a life that today, however, is under threat from the Burmese and Thai authorities, who see the Moken lifestyle as an obstacle to tourism. They tried to make them settled, to eradicate their cultural identity, to change their home to make it similar and assimilable to what is known and ‘normal’.
Some people have bent over. But some resist, groups who continue to sail the Andaman Sea as their ancestors did, still in symbiosis with the water and nature. A house that flows, a dwelling that is eternally mobile but remains for them a fixed point in the wooden planks of the kabang.
“[…] It is those who continue to navigate the waters of the Andaman Sea aboard ‘kabangs’. Boats that, depending on the situation, are home, refuge, or working tools. These are mostly men, almost absent in the villages. Women, on the other hand, work for them on land, weaving or repairing the nets needed for fishing. Raising and caring for children, taking care of household matters.
The Moken live in symbiosis with the sea, they have no ties to any particular land. Roads or bridges of hard concrete may break, but never will the cord that binds them to the waters. All you have to do is get on a raft and cling to this ‘rope’ to be pulled back into this world, left afloat between land and sea.”
“…years ago I found myself documenting a story, the Moken – A Life at the Water’s Edge.
I remember that there was an unusual silence compared to the previous day, there were no children’s cries, no pounding, and I could only hear the insects and dampness that clung to me. This silence, however, was familiar to me, comforting. It didn’t make me uncomfortable, it didn’t make me anxious.
Simply, the Moken were sleeping and there was a quietness typical of mornings or, at least, of those mornings I prefer.
So I wandered around very quietly also trying to make little noise, also because I was always at other people’s houses.
And I remember that I met, instead, a woman who was gathering herbs and, as I would have done had I been at home early in the morning, I greeted her in what can be considered a universal gesture: by joining hands and hinting at a smile. After a few moments of hesitation, the woman smiled at me and that gesture put me strongly at ease it is the same feeling I felt the whole time I was there. I did not feel too much. So I felt free to stay and where my heart feels, today, free to return.
So, basically, from this, I can understand that a house can be two pieces of wood joined together to form a hut, it can be concrete or bricks, and it can still be a ‘base x’ whether it is a place, or whether it is a circumstance, whether it is a temporal space, but at the same time, it is also a horizon, a perspective. A base from which one starts and then returns, simply because one has had a good time there. One returns physically, one returns only with the thought, as one can return with the heart. Because in that place in that circumstance at that time, we felt comfortable, we felt good; we felt at home.
The feeling of home is a sense of well-being, where one is comfortable. It is the condition where one is well. The place where we can come back.
In the Maasai village of Rombo Manyatta, the 37 houses that make up the settlement are built of earth and mud, mellow red tones along dusty streets and meagre little trees. These are the huts of nomadic and semi-nomadic people, savannah herders living in seemingly meagre, crumbling houses, easy to be washed away by the rains or to crumble in the drought. We are in the district of Loitokitok, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, in the southern part of the Rift Valley, home to the largest number of Maasai in Africa: Rombo is the largest of the four ‘Manyatta’ – i.e. settlements – in the area and is home to just under forty dwellings. Andrea Calandra spent two weeks in the village of Rombo Manyatta, hosted by a mama in her tiny mud house, trying to understand “what it was like to live on the savannah in those huts. I wanted to get to know its daily life».
That of the Maasai today is a life that runs on the fine line between tradition and modernity. It is an identity in the balance, rooted in the past and fascinated by the future, the new generations seduced by mobile phones and mopeds and yet still rooted in the place that defines their belonging, that Africa of wilderness, of humanity devoid of infrastructure that can still be found outside the big cities. What will become, one wonders, of this foundation of earth and mud if everything changes? Perhaps only time will provide an answer.
“[…] I immediately contacted her and she was immediately enthusiastic about my project and told me that she was planning to return to the Maasai community in Kenya and that she would then act as my liaison.
I didn’t think twice and between logistical arrangements, postponements and other obstacles I managed in May 2016 to go to Kenya, where I met Catarina and the Maasai community of Rombo Manyatta who welcomed me into the village for a fortnight, hosted by one of the mama of the village, in a tiny mud hut.
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to experience this.
“…I made the work Journey to Masai Land, at the Masai community of Rombo Magnata in Kenya.
The concept of home that I discovered by spending time with them, and having the opportunity to live with them, to sleep where they sleep, in their home, was that of an idea of home somewhat enlarged in space.
We, as home, mean an enclosed place while their life is more about the environment, the outdoors. The day starts very early and the house remains an open place; you go out in the morning to collect water, and you take the animals out. Home is a place to rest, a place to spend the night, and a place to store one’s belongings. The houses are mud huts that deteriorate over time; they are gradually repaired with the mud outside. When one got together in the evening to go to sleep, the time when one went to sleep was when night came, when one could no longer see anything; the night was so dense and enveloping that one was not used to it. There was this small candle lit inside the hut that was extinguished and people went to sleep on very small beds even though the Maasai are very tall. I was hosted in a small hut by a woman and her niece also named Seneu, this was in 2016
My concept of home is something related to people, and this is probably something that unites us all a bit. A home is certainly a physical place that provides shelter but, above all, it is a place where the people we love gather. In my case, I could certainly say that I feel at home anywhere, with my family. I certainly feel connected to the place where I was born, and where I live. But surely the thing that makes me feel at home is not ‘home’ where I am, within a physical structure, but rather surrounding myself with people I love. Certainly, in my case, my family represents my feeling at home and this would be true in Italy, in Rome where I live, as well as any other new in the world
“Home is where one starts from” wrote Ferlinghetti quoting Eliot.
For me, it is two.
A physical idea: at 20 you run away from home, at 30 you consider the world your home, at 40 you build a house to grow old in it.
And then an intimate idea, linked to being not having: the language I use.
Without sounding like a monk, I am by nature a loner, a farmer’s son who grew up in the Apennines, immersed in a balance between the hand of man and nature.
Now that I live in the city I need to at least recreate that harmony within myself.
“It might be lonelier / without the loneliness” wrote Dickinson.
It’s the crumpled sheets after making love, the radio in the bathroom with my wife singing, the steam of boiling milk rising from the cups when I make her breakfast while it’s raining outside and the clouds are rushing by… and an open book full of notes waiting for me on my desk.
Or perhaps the passage of time will simply destroy what was there before, changing the concept of home. With the power of bulldozers and modernity, if necessary, to create new residential complexes: skyscrapers rise in Shanghai, the Business District casts shimmering shadows from the left bank of the Huangpu, and cranes draw a skyline very different from the one of a few decades ago. There will be no more room for the old houses and their inhabitants, who here, unlike in the godforsaken and man-forsaken Alpine villages, see their town changing day by day. Forever.
One can also feel ‘at home’ in memories, and in those objects that a loved one leaves us when they go away forever. This is what happened to Marco Barbieri.
By ordering his father’s tools, he started the HoMe project.
«It has been a little over two years since my father’s death and I am only now beginning to put things in order, inside and outside myself. When such a person passes away, it is often said that they have left a great void. Instead, my father managed to fill it all, he left no space between his teachings, his failings, his spirit, and his example. […]»
A house as eternal as a memory that passes from generation to generation. A city within a city. The silent and majestic residence of the dead within one of the most dynamic and lively barrio in Buenos Aires. The Cemetery of the Recoleta is a place suspended in time, divided into blocks and pedestrian alleys. Its more than 54,000 square metres house 4,800 burials, including elegant marble mausoleums and more basic burial niches. Here, bodies are not given to the earth or placed in urns – as happens in other burial sites in the city – but are preserved to live forever, through the technique of taxidermy.
There are no photographs in memory of the deceased, not one: there are statues and bas-reliefs with the features of those who are no longer with us. A stone image born to stand still despite the flow of time, without fading year after year under the weight of the weather. The Recoleta statues – including the angels – have their eyes open and are always busy doing something. Most of them observe those who enter, those who move through the alleys of their homes, and those who browse through piles of stratified memories.
The dead of Recoleta continue to live as long as there is someone who remembers them and takes care of their home. When this memory disappears, either by fate or by choice, they too slowly sink into the oblivion of an eternal home they can no longer call home.
“But the greatest fascination does not lie in the majestic art of the luxurious tombs but rather in the shattered graves,
uncovered coffins covered in cobwebs and left to total neglect, dust, rubble broken vases, dried flowers, and weakened and tired fabrics. The
whole thing is an amalgam of colours that immerse themselves in a pastel atmosphere, becoming true antique paintings.”
And then there are places where one feels at home for no real apparent reason. You were not born there, you have no roots to share, yet they flow in your veins, pulsating to the rhythm of your being. And when they miss them for a while, their breath becomes short and their pace tired. It would help if you had those places to find your footing because you are a wandering being. A globetrotter by the necessity of soul, you have the privilege of calling home even a van in which you lived for two months travelling the roads of South America, or a bungalow in which you spent a night in the forest in the company of a tarantula.
«There is something mysterious about how the avid traveller – the one who is fleeing or searching, or the one who moves to the overexposed rhythm of both emotional motivations – remains bound for a few hours to the place he passes through and makes it his home, a sort of temporary placenta that however ephemeral envelops him for the necessary time.»
Taken from “Amor América. Un viaje sentimental por América Latina“, by Maruja Torres
“I have travelled because I have always considered it a fundamental condition of my being. My private place is sometimes shared. Sometimes private.
The journey – without being a traveller – as
condition to clean oneself and face free the stories that I will be able to grasp at that moment.
The journey that forces the construction of a place. A place that is within us.”
A house on the border. Or, perhaps, a border that is home: with its rules, written or unwritten, with its trail of stories and ghosts, with its fragmented belongings.
In “CONFINE. VIAGGIO AL TERMINE DELL’EUROPA” (EDT edizioni, 2017), the Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova plunges her heart and pen into a tormented, dreamlike place, deeply marked by its being a boundary between worlds: we are on the border separating Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, in the area that at the time of the Cold War was considered an ‘easier’ escape route from the Warsaw bloc than the Berlin Wall, an iron curtain only apparently softer, and that even today – forty years later – continues to be a crossroads of escaping destinies. In the past it was Germans, Bulgarians, and Czechs who tried to leave; today it is Kurds, Syrians, and Afghans hunting for a future in Europe who want to enter. But there is no rhetoric or didacticism in Kassabova’s lines: she experienced the tension of the border first-hand, she spent summers on the Black Sea just a stone’s throw from the Strandža mountains, where the barbed wire ran, she managed to escape with her family and only managed to return 20 years later, to see the ‘I wanted to see the forbidden places of my childhood, the once militarised border towns and cities, the rivers and forests to which access was forbidden for two generations’. Above all, she returned to try to decipher the scars of her land and of the people – remote villages, minorities, solitudes – who have lived and still live on that painful border.
It is therefore a journey back to her roots, the one undertaken by the author between the plains of Thrace and the Rhodope Mountains, between the Bulgarian Strandža and the Turkish Strandža, between rivers and cities that have changed their names several times but not their souls: lands of millenary forests, ancient tombs, pagan rites disguised as orthodoxy, but also lands of treasure hunters and smugglers, refugees and the last guardians of ghost villages. “Where is your memleket? What are you doing here?” young Ahmed asks her on one of his trips, using the Turkish word for the homeland. Kassabova does not have an answer, hers is a journey of research before that of narration: and so, when reading, one cannot help but follow her in her uprooting, meet those she meets, and immerse oneself in the stories she brings back. Feeling at home where stories manifest themselves, where ‘home’ means, quite simply, encounter. In spite of all borders.
A key is a home to come back to.
When you leave the house, you close the door knowing that
that place will be waiting for you when you get back.
When this does not happen when you do not know whether you will return
or the time when this will happen,
the key becomes a symbol of protest,
a shared fight, a right to life.
An (ideal) place to continue existing.