The Stories that Homes Tell, Real or Imagined

When I was 20 and living in New York City, I dated a man whose mother was a very wealthy art dealer. She owned a vacation home in Long Island, a nineteenth century, wrap around porch house that, more than the short-lived relationship, sticks with me — its slate colored floors, its high ceilings, its antique finishing, its spare, elegant, protestant charm.

We visited it most in autumn, and what I remember vividly about each visit are the bike rides, the shafts of lights coming through all those leaves, the big, old houses moving slowly past us like film stills. And the conversations that ensued:

“It’s quiet here.”

“I know. I like it.”

“Maybe we could leave the city.”

“You think?”

“What about this yellow one?”

“Yeah, I like it.” And I’d smile, knowing that, for me, it was a fantasy. He was older, wanted to settle down, buy a house. I was 20, and imagining –perhaps irresponsibly—what that would be like.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is look at houses, to walk aimlessly through an anonymous neighborhood, surveying not so much the people in their homes, but the spaces themselves. In my head, I empty them out, ready for fantasy’s taking. Then I arrange a life for myself there.

I admit, it’s a strange activity for a traveler — especially for one who believes that she’ll probably never own a home, who shies away from domestic nesting rituals, and who has never lived in one apartment or house longer than two years.

Or maybe not. I wonder if, in all my travels and moving, that’s what I’m secretly hoping to hit upon — the right house, in the right place, at the right time. Or maybe it is just one aspect of a long-term traveler’s deepest impulse, the impulse to understand what it would be to live in a place, to know its underbelly, its routine, its annoyances, its quirks of character. Part of that, for sure, is about the fantasy — the need to imagine yourself out of the tedium of your own life, the thirst I felt at 20 for the space and freedom my broke, cramped lived in New York couldn’t give me.

But aside from the fantasy is the actual story. What I love about neighborhoods is the quiet histories they tell. I spent a good deal of my recent trip to Newport Beach, CA just walking through neighborhoods, guided by my friend who has spent most of her life there.

There’s an odd, disembodied feeling to being in Southern California — the wide, perfectly paved expressways, the empty sidewalks, the weather’s sameness. Like you’re floating, with eerie ease, atop a mirage of a world.

What makes that feeling even more intense is the strange way the new houses and developments there are trying to trump the unique landscape, trying, with their three-lot-five-house-wide-stucco-imitation-ranch-style-BRIGHT-color -choices to say: Land? What land? Don’t look at those silly palm trees and crystal water. Don’t smell the gardenias that waft through the air everywhere you go. Look at me. Me is what Southern California is all about.

As Nouveau Riche as this all is, this typically Californian in-with-the-new, out-with-the-tasteful tells us more about the history of place than it means to. As it always does. There, sitting next to a modest, pale blue one story, that lot-swallowing monstrosity tells us a lot. Tells us about the way the beach town used to be, and where it’s going. Tells us how the people’s lives, values, and desires have changed. And that little beach house, just built in the 70s actually inspires nostalgia, a hankering for a quieter, more nuanced time that maybe never existed. But it at least creates the vision of history, and the sense of loss that goes along with it.

Maybe it’s just this impulse towards story. The strange need to take details and make them into a narrative, imagined or real. A kind of travel of its own.


7 Responses to “The Stories that Homes Tell, Real or Imagined”

  1. 1 Candice March 4, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Pretty sure I could have written this entry! Haha. I’m always unsure whether I want to settle down or not, my mood fluctuates. But I’m also secretly waiting to find the “that’s it, I want this” moment. Feel like it should all fit together nicely.

  2. 2 Lola March 5, 2010 at 1:04 am

    Lovely post!

    I certainly come from the school of thought that life does require balance, and when one tries to evade it, life does find a way to balance it out for you, whether one likes it or not.

    Call it the various stages of life. One can still remain a perpetual traveler, but then, priorities in life naturally shift towards a focus on people, loved ones, family as one gets older.

    As it should.

  3. 3 papertrail23 March 5, 2010 at 5:52 am

    I do the same when I’m traveling (actually, I do the same everywhere)- especially in Latin America, as so many homes have their doors or windows open, or both. I love imagining the space and myself within it, the people who live there and how they inhabit it, and who has lived there before… all the stories we’ll never know. I’m so glad someone else does this.

  4. 4 neha March 5, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Beautiful post!

    I so relate with this post. In parts you were writing about me. I love looking at homes, especially homes with open windows, the ones that allow you to peek in as you walk by, stealing a glimpse of life inside.

  5. 5 laurenquinn March 7, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Totally relate to the duality of wanderlust versus rootedness.

    Lovely words. And nice capturing of SoCal.

  6. 6 simonemarie March 11, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for reading! I love that fact that it resonated with so many of you.

    And I totally agree, Lola, life always does find a way of balancing you out, or at least moving your towards it. Perfect balance itself is perhaps an impossible destination, but I think it’s always the natural direction.

    Julie, I always imagine Latin America with open windows and doors — I think I get this image not just from photos, but from the Latin neighborhoods I lived in in NYC. I love it. Heading to Panama this summer, and cannot wait. This whole next year’s goal is to explore Central and South America — a lifelong dream.

  7. 7 papertrail23 March 11, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    SO excited for you. If you need/want CA/SA advice, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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About Simone Gorrindo

Simone Gorrindo is a freelance journalist, poet, and travel writer who can't stay put.


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