Home in Transition

Jessica Brofsky discusses the sense of impermanence she finds in calling Cambridge ‘home’.

I’ve had six addresses in three years. A freshman dorm, an upperclassmen dorm, two apartments, a Cambridge hostel, and a house - not atypical for an American college student choosing to study abroad in their third year.

I’ve grown used to boxing up my life, packing and unpacking, rearranging, shifting, adding and subtracting. I have had beds on different sides of the room, my head behind windows crackling with light displaying distinct views. Usually I have the same bedspread, the same photographs and postcards on the walls, and the same tins on my desk filled with pens. Despite how quickly I seem to slip into new places, when I am settled, the space doesn’t feel so transient.

Things are different in Cambridge. The distance between me and my family is greater and my suitcase is smaller. This space is emptier and came with stock sheets and a comforter and curtains. It isn’t my design. But in every other way it feels the same. I am used to it now, the way I cross the room every morning to use the sink and then back to my drawers. I am used to the open floor and the narrow hallways that lead to the bathroom. It is home in its reprieve from the rest of the world. And it is mine. At least for now.

But I am nervous that the apparent safety and comfort of my room is preventing me from embracing the fact that I am in another country, from integrating into the university and city in a way that makes it feel homelike. I wonder if there is a rule that states creating a home means sacrificing another.

Coming to Cambridge has been like starting college all over again, as if it is a microcosm of the entire four-year experience. The very thought of completing the work of these six months deeply concerns me since it seems to represent the inevitable end of undergraduate education - something that risks breaking apart my very conception of myself.

And like the start of college, Cambridge has meant new people in a new place, a different set of rules, academics, terminology, spelling. There are magical Harry Potter-esque dinners called ‘formal halls’, a seemingly endless flowing supply of wine in the college bar, and imposing gates to which I hold a set of keys. There is a keen interest in fire safety, and doors that open in curious places.

I have a newfound sense of clumsiness and insecurity about how to dress and behave. I don’t know how to read people here...do they actually want to talk to me or are they just being polite? Is what I said interesting and new, or totally misinformed, tired, and lame?

So my room becomes a way of escaping that obstacle: a place where I don’t have to worry about feeling like I belong. I am not sure if, by ignoring where in the world it is located, this makes my room more or less of a home.

I often think about all the lives that have inhabited these spaces, who have also called them home. The rooms were constructed to house someone for a short period of time and they have seen all sorts at their most private and honest versions of themselves. They’ve heard late night conversations with friends, families, significant others. They have seen visitors, like me.

When a friend visited, she remarked on the eerie nature of these college grounds - the way they present an alternate world where things grow without messy uncontrollable entropy, but instead within a perfect mould. It is almost outside of nature, outside of the cultural rules I have grown used to and into. It seems a place independent of nationality, a place cultivated for something else. It is tucked away behind medieval walls and it does not embed itself into the city. I, too, sometimes feel like I have found a place here without necessarily feeling like a part of it, if that makes any sense at all.

It is funny how often and how loosely we seem to use that term - ‘home’. Aside from the more permanent residences in college and with my family, I’ve also called hostels, friends’ houses, hotels, and Airbnbs ‘home’. It feels almost like a mistake, like a slip of the tongue - but sometimes we can mean it, too, in whatever sense of the word we want. •

Jessica Brofsky is an English Literature student on exchange from Cornell University