“At home, however, I only feel in the van.”* A Story about the Possibilities that a Change of Perspective Entails
„Home is where you feel secure and connected to something. That can be people, but also the landscape or mentality of a country.”*
When I first met Nina, who was just about to stay with her parents for a while after traveling for a year, as part of my field research about the Van Life Community, the topic of home came up immediately. Nina, who left her home for traveling with her converted van at the early age of 19, had a variety of ideas to share that differ greatly from mine or, in the case of her understanding of the category home, didn´t even cross my mind before.
“After all, the feeling of home is a haven for me, but not in the geographical, local sense. (…) Because of that, the question of whether home is bound to a place, I now can clearly answer with ‘no'(…).“ Nina told me as a response to my question of whether she feels bound to a place or not. A simple statement I almost ignored in our talk, but that happened to play an important role in my research after me opening up to it.
Although living on the road with your car is often labelled with stigma around being vagabond or homeless, in general none of my informants do label themselves that way. Even though they do not conform to the generalized idea of home and locality, they don´t feel homeless. Nevertheless, their attitude towards the concept of home clearly changed in their time traveling. In the life context of my interviewees, home does not seem necessarily connected with place but depends on a feeling.
Finding home in unexpected places
After talking to Nina, I was intrigued about the concept of home regarding the Van Life Community – after all a very popular slogan used in the field is “Home is where you park it”! Suddenly the importance of the concept of home caught my eye wherever I looked.
On another day I got the opportunity to talk to Sandra, a woman in her 30s. At the time we met, she was in the midst of changing her life and dissolving her residence to move into her van. Sandra shared her feelings about home and how the importance of having a place dissolved for her since traveling too:
“In the meantime, my flat is just too big for me and I often sleep in Balu (her recreated van). Although I’m legally ‘at home’ in my apartment, I just feel much more comfortable in Balu rather than in the apartment. So, I’ll give up the flat and just have one room in the future and focus on living in Balu.”
Not only it seems that locality is losing its importance for my interviewees, but it seems that the van as a personal home space, which I previously just understood as a means for the purpose of traveling for cheap, plays a major role for them.
Nina shared similar thoughts with me, concerning the role her van plays for her:
“When I returned to my home country after eight months, I did not feel at home anymore. The place and our house will always play an important role in my life, but after the time of travel something has changed. Back in the van I realized: Here you feel at home! This realization was very surprising for me. Finally, I can say that I now feel at home in my van in many places in Europe. Nevertheless, I still refer to the region where I used to live as my home country. At home, however, I only feel in the van.”
Learning from different perspectives
So, what can I learn, as an ethnographic researcher, from these seemingly fun facts? What can I learn for my future research, I asked myself?
Especially travelers can give us insights into areas that have remained unquestioned for a long time or that we as researchers just don´t dare to overthink sometimes. Seemingly obvious facts and events are given a new meaning in the lives of travelers. For that reason, the cultural anthropologist Ina Merkel describes the way of life of the so-called modern nomads as a pioneering work of culture in which new possibilities of life can be tested in infinite forms (cf. Merkel 2002: 235-236).
I think the answer is quite simple but nevertheless important: always remember to open your vision and read between the lines. You never know what you might find out there and how it might change your outlook on your research. A simple category like home, that one normally would not tend to overthink, might turn out to be the important one.
* Interview with Nina.
Merkel, Ina: Außerhalb von Mittendrin. Individuum und Kultur in der zweiten Moderne. In: Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 98 (2002) 2, pp. 229–256, here pp. 235–236.
Photo by Johanna Nußbaumer.
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