When did I stop referring to trips back to California as going “home”? Was it when I realised my son has spent half his life outside his (first) passport country? The day we bought a house across the sea? Little by little on walk after walk over miles and kilometres of foreign roads? I think the first inkling of the feeling must have begun long before all that, when the plane touched down in Istanbul half my life ago, and I realised how much bigger the world was than I had ever imagined.
But whenever and however it happened, the truth is that the centre of my universe has shifted. The place I grew up has changed, and so have I, and we no longer belong to one another in the way we once did. Home is Amsterdam now: the place I’ve chosen, the place I’ve lived longest in my adult life, the city map I have tattooed across my back. Really.
But we still go to California sometimes. I grew up there, and it’s full of memories. Most importantly, of course, that’s where my parents and in-laws and most of the rest of my family live. And this year we decided it was high time to spend a summer catching up with everyone. Our decision was made easier by the fact that on the way home from Iceland last year our airline helpfully offered to bump us to a flight the next day, offering compensation in the form of four airline tickets to anywhere in the world. Before we knew it, we had a flight booked to California for most of the month of August.
It turned out to be a wonderful trip. We spent time with every single one of my siblings and their darling children. I am the oldest of five children and left for university at age 17. I went back to live at home for only short periods of a few months during the years after that. And then between this and that international move, whole swaths of our adult lives have gone by without me seeing my siblings. I enjoyed not only seeing them, but also seeing the people they’ve become. Benjamin, Samuel, and Hannah are all very much in the life stage of raising small children, and they are thoughtful, intentional, amazingly patient parents. Jesse, the little 7-year-old I left behind when I went to uni, is successful, grown-up professional. Also, my sister makes the most amazing pies.
My kids were charmed and a bit bemused to step into the role of the older cousins, and enjoyed how the little kids looked up to them. On Tony’s side of the family, there are quite a few more cousins their age, and at the family reunion for that side of the family they were all thick as thieves, playing an old-school paper and pencil roleplaying game and living in swimsuits and flip-flops.
One of the things I really wanted to do on this trip was go camping at Gold Bluffs Beach, the campsite up in the coastal redwoods where my family went regularly as a kid, and my dad used to go with his family when he was a kid. My parents were game for it, so we threaded our way up between California wildfires to the blessedly clear coastal air in the far north of California. We did pass a few signs welcoming us to “the state of Jefferson”, but other than that it was just as I remembered it: the unearthly green stillness of our favourite canyon,
the grey sea mirroring a grey sky on what for me is the most beautiful beach in the world,
playing games by the light of a gas lantern,
And of course the redwoods themselves, bigger than life and soft to the touch.
There was not much bittersweet about this trip for me, which I found a bit surprising in itself. California is part of my history, and a place to visit the people I love, but I don’t miss it being home. It was nice to go back, and nice to come home again with refreshed memories of beloved people and places, and a few more agates from Agate Beach to add to my collection.