It’s not just that building with 4 walls and a ceiling. It’s that place – the place where you feel at home, where you feel loved, where the memories of your childhood are, that place where you grew up. For some, it has another meaning entirely, that’s not so easy to describe.
Hiraeth is a Welsh word for which there is no direct English translation. The best definition is this:
(n.) a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
For me, hiraeth is a foreign country, along with those good friends that are now across the United States and oceans apart in other countries. It’s a feeling, where memories have been created with people who share a similar bond. I grew up in Naples, Italy. That place is home, my hiraeth, although I haven’t lived there in 29 years. That is where my story of nostalgia begins…
I moved to Italy when I was a kid, at only 10 years of age. My father was in the Navy, and I had already pulled up stakes from different places and schools at least 3 times before this big relocation to another country. I wasn’t afraid of it, but nervously excited. Unlike some American children, I never did have a difficult time adjusting to the changes. Being in another country had a huge learning curve in becoming accustomed to the culture. It was a different way of life there – even the air seemed different – but that learning curve came to be an easy adaptation to a normal life for me.
The slow-paced days. They all felt like summer to me.
Drinking Fanta or Coke while walking around the city, taking every sight in. The beach, the cobblestone streets, the dirt roads, learning to cross the streets with the crazy drivers who didn’t abide by traffic rules.
The food. Every morsel was an extraordinary experience. The mozzarella, the pizza, the pasta, the seafood. Nothing compares anywhere else.
The homes we lived in. I resided in 3 different homes, each with their own character. They all felt like mansions, with enormous rooms, but not one of the houses ever had the appropriate amount of water pressure and hot water, or there was well-water to deal with. Who cared? We always made the best of it.
Listening to the neighbors having arguments and yelling (I’m sure that was normal conversation), or singing at the top of their lungs (some of them thought they were Caruso).
Watching the buffalo in the field right next to your house, and petting their noses when they approached your house, which was separated from the field by a wall.
Visiting places like Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, with other trips to Rome, Florence and Venice. So much history and culture to soak in, and it was all right there in your neighborhood.
I always made friends easily where I’ve been, but kept a smaller circle. Since all of us were encountering the same type of acculturations in Italy, the friends we made became lasting ones. In the States, the friends we meet seem to come and go a little more swiftly; we may keep in contact with some, but there isn’t as thick a bond. I did have a really good friend prior to moving to Italy. We wrote letters to each other during the time that I was thousands of miles away, but I’m very saddened to say that I don’t know my friend any longer. I can’t say for sure of the reason, but we ceased to write, and I lost contact with her. I did find her once again via social media approximately 7 years ago, but by some means, we’ve lost that bond. I’ve come to realize that my friendship with her is not the same kind of bond that I have with the friends I gained from my time spent in Italy. It’s regrettable that I don’t have one friend to speak of from the days prior to my living in Italy.
Since returning to the States 29 years ago, I’ve remained in contact with all of my friends from Italy. I had lost contact with some after I graduated from high school and life got busy, but the world of social media has reconnected me with many of them, and we always pick up right where we left off without a beat missed. I have also made new friendships with those that I didn’t have the opportunity to make acquaintances with when we were in Italy – those new friendships have been amazing, and we all wonder why we never did become friends all those years ago. It matters not, as the bond we have now is unbreakable.
It’s no easy task to describe this bond to those who have not had this unique opportunity of growing up as an American in Europe. It is unspoken yet completely understood amongst us. It is only part of what can be described as our hiraeth.
We all long to go back there to that time and place. Our feet may leave that beloved country we have all called home, but our hearts will stay a lifetime.