I have recently returned from a big holiday treat, crossing Canada by train. So wrapped up was I in what I would see and how it would feel to have traversed such a huge landmass, I did not really think about what it would be like to spend four days on a train, with just little gasps of fresh air at remote stations and only a very small amount of personal space (even in the relative luxury of a private cabin!).
On arriving in a hotel room (as I also did on many occasions on this same holiday), I am one of those people who has to fight – or indulge – the urge to immediately unpack, regardless of time, jet lag and the need to find somewhere to eat in an unfamiliar place. I attribute some of this to having lived abroad and been fortunate in travelling to many places.
Some would say that moving or travelling regularly makes people less observant of these practices; that they are not needed because mobile people are equally at home wherever they are – or indeed more at home in the neutrality of a hotel room than anywhere else. These same mobile people, though, are also skilled packers: they know what they will or will not want in such spaces, how to unpack quickly, and how to negotiate hotel services. In these situations, I at least am an avid homemaker and will begin referring to a hotel as ‘home’ after two days away.
Stepping into my train cabin, however, the narrow space between the bed and wall momentarily took my breath away. My homemaking faculties vanished in the face of such constraint, a feeling perhaps more strongly experienced by people moving to new accommodation so vastly different from that they have left behind that they do not know where to start.
Even then, my need to order and imprint slowly overcame my uncertainty as to how to maintain any such regulation or creativity with almost no storage space and no room to manoeuvre – perhaps it became even more important to succeed given the relatively unhomely surroundings. I used cubby holes, hooks, shelves and continually unpacked and repacked, an endeavour rewarded by having somewhere private and slightly personalised to which I could retreat from other passengers wanting to share their trip and travelling tales; and by neither falling over, nor being hit by, any misplaced objects. Two days later, I had adjusted to the train’s impact on my temporary ‘home’-making and begun to change my habits, such that the little cabin and I met somewhere in the middle in a compromise of comfort and practicality.
This is a very small example (in more ways than one) of how people and the spaces they live in work together to create homely – and indeed unhomely – places. The framework of our homes and other everyday places is part and parcel of how we live in them, but so too are the things we bring into them and the ways in which we and those we share them with adapt both our surroundings and ourselves. It is also a reminder that our immediate environment is important whether travelling, setting up a new home or staying put: whatever the view from the window, what’s inside is still very important and worthy of our time and energy.