I spent way too many years of my life looking for a tribe to call my own.
I deeply love my homeland, New Zealand, but I never quite felt like it was my place in the world. Then, after finishing University, I tried my luck in Melbourne, Australia. Even though the city fascinated me – its way of life and the vibrant cafes with their amazing variety of food – I never felt truly at home there, either. For some reason I wasn’t able to find enough of ‘my people’ to sustain me. When I was thirty I lost a great love to suicide and it left me feeling completely devastated and alone. It was like the air had been sucked out of my life, and with it, any hope of finding new love and some meaning in the murkiness.
After struggling for years against this suffocating sadness, I got up one day and packed a backpack and went in search of ‘something’ to fill the hole that I felt hovering inside me. It was the start of a long and restless journey that took me through Peru, Bolivia, Panamá, Ecuador and finally to Argentina. It was in the mountains of Peru that I fell, crazily and completely, for a very handsome and much younger Argentine surfer called Paco! After travelling together up the coast of Peru for three intense weeks, I had to return to Australia (uncertain if I would see him again but with a strong hope of returning some day to South America). It was during the stop-over in Buenos Aires that Paco’s father, Pepe, gave me the first glimpse of that ‘something’ which would eventually persuade me to make my home in Argentina.
It was very early on a Saturday morning when three good friends of Paco picked me up from the airport and then delivered me safely to Pepe’s home. I was nervous when I arrived at his gate, until I saw him standing there, smiling at me from two cheeky brown eyes.
‘Jessica,’ he said.
‘Hola Pepe,’ I said, squinting because I saw something so familiar in his crocked smile.
He pushed open the rusted iron-gate and then instantly wrapped me in a warm, smothering hug that threatened to burst the dam of tears. It was a father’s hug, there’s no other way to explain it. When I looked into his eyes, they were shinning with tears and a heartfelt welcome. Strangely, I felt loved and connected somehow. It was as if Paco’s words about me and the ties of family had connected us by a thread, stretched over a long distance, before we had even met.
The wonderful time spent with Pepe and Paco’s friends warmed my weary heart and gave me hope that I would find my way in the world. I vowed to return to Buenos Aires.
Some six months later I did just that, and in a matter of days the city claimed a place in my heart. I won’t lie, it wasn’t an easy love affair, but the bumps were soon smoothed over by new and old friends. With a small tribe around me I slowly started to eke out a home in a tiny corner of the jungle.
I have called Argentina home for eleven years now. It has become my place in the world despite its complications. I will forever be grateful to the city and its people because they gave me something I had been craving my whole life – a sense of belonging.
This feeling of belonging came in part because of some internal changes I made. I let go of sadness and anger and found out who I really was along the way. But it was also due to that ‘special something’ I felt when I met Pepe. Family is very important to Argentines and most weekends are still spent with the extended family and friends. Homemade pastas are prepared lovingly by sprightly grandmothers, or the men-folk undertake the slow grilling of the asado (BBQ) for everyone. Getting together for an asado with family or friends is one of the things they most look forward to. Argentines even have a national friend’s day, which causes havoc with traffic and overflows every single restaurant in the country.
They also touch, a lot! One of the things I have grown to love the most about Argentine life is the kissing. Argentines kiss every single hello and goodbye. Here I can guarantee I will be kissed and hugged more than twenty times a day, every day. It’s impossible not to feel connected here to something bigger and to a net of other humans. In part it’s a cultural thing but I think, too, it’s a natural consequence of living in a complicated country. To navigate the waves and storms people have to pull closely together. I think that in some other places people can drift apart more easily, without meaning to, and many end up with tribes that are too small to protect them from the harsh edges of life. Now that I’m married to a lovely Argentine and have a little boy I realise even more the importance of having many, connected people around us. It is true: it does take a tribe to raise children, and keep parents sane!
What I’m trying to say – based on my experiences living in three different ‘homes’– is that we all need to work hard to build and maintain our own, very unique tribe. It isn’t easy, and it takes time in a world that is increasingly filled with things that rob us of our quality time together. What’s vitally important is remembering to nurture and, at times, heal the connections we have and to make new ones whenever we can. I believe there are a great number of people who feel the same kind of loneliness I felt when I jumped on the plane, destination Peru. The need to feel ‘at home’ wherever we find ourselves is vital to the human psyche. For me, home is a complex and necessary feeling not a place, and for most of us it’s about people. I believe we feel home when we are comfortable about who we are and when we have enough good people around us – who love us and are ‘present’ and able to sail beside us through the wild seas of life.
Note: A version of this article was first published in IAMWOMAN magazine (Print version, Issue 2, Australia, ‘We all need a tribe’.)