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Who I am in the beds of strangers | Remote Swap

I have stayed in a lot of different homes. I spent three years subletting apartments in Prospect and Crown Heights, Brooklyn in an era before AirBnB. I have stayed in well over 100 homes through CouchSurfing and the personal networks that have sprouted up through the people I met on the site, from text message introductions to Facebook groups like Host a Sister. I have traded my homes in Brooklyn and downtown Toronto for the chance to stay in homes in North America and Europe. I traded free accommodation for house and pet sitting, often spending weeks in each home. 

Staying in someone’s home through the gift or sharing economy is different from staying in a home through AirBnB or a traditional bed and breakfast. I am not staying in carefully curated versions of a home, I am staying in a real home. More often then not we cook dinner together, we run errands, we pass each other in the halls. They explain the quirks of their home, the routines they have with their pets. It’s rare to share these intimate activities with a complete stranger, which creates a safe space to be open and honest. We have met in an air of implicit trust and a blank slate.

Living in someone’s home, even when they are not there, provides me with a hazy view of them that even their closest friends may not know. I don’t touch anything that might be private and never come across the salacious things many people envision, but I am sleeping in their beds, flossing in their bathroom, cooking in their kitchen, dusting their bookshelves, walking their dogs, carrying laundry down basement steps or into garages or to the nearest laundromat.

In a world where self-report is notoriously unreliable, I am seeing things that, while they may not paint an entirely accurate picture, do not lie. The home where there are no spices, not even salt or oil. The home where there is no rhyme or reason for where things are and the same few ingredients (pork seasoning, hot cocoa powder) are contained in every cabinet. I try to fold towels and sheets the way they do; leave things so they can return to a home where everything is in its proper place.

Plenty of us have lived in different homes, but most often these moves are accompanied by major life changes. We are a different version of ourselves in each place after we get a promotion or our spouse dies, even if we only move down the street. When friends give me recommendations for their college town or where they lived as young parents I am able to catch glimpses of these ghost selves.

For the past two years I have had the unique opportunity to live in dozens of places while being as personally consistent as any human can be. I have the same job with the same boss and the same salary. There have been no dramatic shifts in my personal life — there have been plenty of changes, of course, but none of the sort that leave us reeling. I have not taken up any new hobbies or changed the way I eat.

People love to tell me that I cannot escape myself. After a while I realized that the people I meet who are content in their lives never say this or, really, pass any judgement on my itinerant lifestyle. It is simply one more thing about me, which may or may not catch their interest. The people who jump to caution me about the futility of running as soon as they realize I live out of this bookbag on my shoulder are confessing their own desire to run and the fear that keeps them rooted.

They’re wrong, though.

Before I left, I had gone through more renovations than probably anyone my age who wasn’t a professional house flipper. A not-insignificant amount of my brain was dedicated to knowledge of the various options you have for kitchen cabinet pulls. I can still price out the various finishings in any home I walk into, which used to emerge from my brain, unbidden. During home swaps my ex and I would discuss how we would renovate a place and, in historic homes, guess at the timeline of upgrades. Once, when it was over 100 degrees and there was no air conditioning, my ex-wife and I once got into an argument over which section of a home in Albany was original.

Then I went away for a trip and, more or less, never came home. I walked out on those counter tops that I had finally gotten right on my fourth try. And I realized that I don’t actually care about counter tops. Or drawer pulls. Or any of it. While that painting of a personified martini over the fireplace (not hypothetical) wouldn’t have been my first choice, I stop noticing decor within 36 hours. What I do notice is the lack of a cozy spot to read, the lack of sunlight and fresh air, and my sore legs after standing on a bare kitchen floor. Anything else is irrelevant.

While I may be the same person in each home, each home is welcoming to different aspects of that self. Homes that lack a comfortable space to work push me out into the world. A lovely place to walk or enticing third spaces pull me into exploring a city. The selection and pricing of each grocery store is very different, be it on a different continent or the next neighborhood over.

In some places I am on a first-name basis with a dozen neighbors by the close of the first week; in others three months has not gotten us past a cursory nod when we meet at the mailboxes. Sometimes I work my way through every bar and coffee shop I can access on foot and transit. Sometimes I am drawn to the same spot day after day. In others I become acquainted only with my backyard patio and the grocery store. It’s the city that creates these conditions, I am simply responding to them.

It is surprisingly hard to anticipate which places will feel best to inhabit. A home that is lovely in pictures may feel cold or cluttered in person. A charming main street may be full of expensive boutiques and tourists. The dive bar on the corner may be full of creepy drunks waiting for an excuse to ‘accidentally’ brush against me. A gorgeous forest preserve may be cluttered with irresponsible parents, of both the human and canine variety. The community organization I am so eager to join may be more of a private club.

Other times, stays inspired by a need to be in a certain location for work turn out to be lovely. I did not expect to enjoy staying in a gated golf course development, but I fell in love with the manicured trails, the community at the clubhouse, and the invitations I got as a consequence of standing out (for being a quarter of a century younger than everyone else).

Each place feels different and that shapes my behavior. Do I make sure to be out the door by a certain hour to meet up with neighbors at the park or do I enjoy long solitary walks based on the weather? Do I spend hours exploring or does walking feel like simply a way to get from one place to another? Do I fall into a streak of enthusiastic baking because of the offerings of the farmers market or am I cooking whatever is on sale at the grocery store? Do I end up cooking to have something to bring to the potlucks I’ve been invited to or am I turning the same ingredients into different things? Do I abandon my work reading in favor of the library in someone’s living room or am I reading my holds as they arrive in my Overdrive account? Do I dig into local history and try to identify mushrooms I spot on my walks or does the bland architecture of the place fail to capture my attention? Do I spend day after day in long conversations with new friends or do I fall into a blissful binge of caffeine-fueled productivity? Do I feel restless in a home that never feels quite comfortable or do I find myself absorbed in my work?

I am not a different person than when I left. I didn’t leave to “find myself” and I don’t think you need to leave home to figure out who you are. But we are different people in each place. I am a different version of myself in Brooklyn than I am in Toronto than I am in Rotterdam. I am a different version of myself in each home I stay in.

Part of who we are is the situation we find ourselves in. We morph to fit the boundaries of the world we live in. I am the same person in each place, but who I am is a small piece of how each of my days feels. The tone of my life is colored by the space I inhabit, the way people respond to me, the things I have access to.

The idea that you cannot outrun your life is incredibly ahistorical. My ability to walk down a street safely is dictated by so many things, most of which have nothing to do with me and everything to do with the patriarchy and colonialism. My ability to be welcomed into the homes of strangers is based on my age, gender, class, and abilities. I can strive all I want, but I cannot change the essential facts about myself that dictate the way the world responds to me. Each day I make choices from a range of opportunities, but I cannot decide what options I am given.

Those options are very much dictated by place. Each city, each neighborhood is its own world. To suggest that someone living in a mansion in Los Angels would be the same person living in a trailer park in Kentucky is laughable. Even for two weeks, I am a different person when I am drinking in a parking lot with street kids then when I am living in a home that comes with a rotating cast of support staff.

To suggest I can’t change my life by sleeping in a different bed tomorrow is to ignore the realities of the world.