I just returned to Budapest from a trip to the United States. On my outbound journey, I transited through London. As I walked from my arrival gate towards the terminal, there were a series of advertising messages posted on the wall of the corridor. I couldn’t help reading them, because I’m a compulsive reader. The words on one literally stopped me in my tracks, and I took the picture above.
Is home where you’re from or where you’re going?
It was like the sign was calling to me—singling me out of the flow of people rushing past—to pose this arresting question. This billboard suddenly laid bare the essence of the problem that had been plaguing me ever since the day I took my children and fled Ukraine in February 2022.
After resettling in Hungary, when people would ask where I was from, I would pause to think, and then I would usually say I was American, but I was from Ukraine. I ached to go back, because it was home. It was where I was from. For months and months I couldn’t conceive that it could be possible to feel any other way. But that ad in the airport forced me to confront the truth that I hadn’t always been from Ukraine, and I hadn’t always called it home. When I had moved there almost 21 years ago, I was from the United States, and I had felt like that was home. But even way back then, I was consciously and deliberately moving toward the time when Ukraine would become home.
There was a tectonic shift between my outlook when I moved to Ukraine versus when I moved to Hungary. Twenty-one years ago, my parents dropped my husband George and me off at the curb at Los Angeles International Airport and hugged us goodbye. I had distilled my life down to what would fit in the four 50-pound suitcases we were allowed between the two of us. We were newlyweds, and I was headed to Ukraine to join George in a life that he already had well established. I knew where I was going, and I had chosen it. I was focused on the destination, and I was excited about what the future held. I even started to call Ukraine home years before it began to feel like home. Back then, I definitely would have said that home was where you’re going, not where you’re from.
But somewhere between fleeing Kyiv by train and spending a sleepless night in a basement in Western Ukraine with my kids because of air raid sirens, I lost this sense of adventure. When I got in the van that evacuated us to Hungary, I was hardly focused on the destination. My only thought was to get my kids to safety. Unlike that day in 2003 when my parents dropped me off at the LA Airport, I didn’t know where I was going (we had planned to go to Poland but decided to go to Hungary instead after we were already en route), and I felt like I had no choice in the matter.
I’ve spent so much of the last 22 months mourning the fact that we had to leave home. I’ve been focused on where we’re from. I knew I needed to move forward, but it was hard to stop looking backwards. The pull of home was so strong. I was missing it too much to turn my face away. And it’s hard to make forward progress when you’re looking backwards all the time. It can be dangerous, it will definitely slow you down, and at the very least, it will give you a really bad crick in the neck.
But little by little, my focus changed. Unexpectedly, I started to enjoy Budapest. I began to form new friendships in this foreign place. I started to put down roots, despite myself. One day I woke up and realized I had a life here. I wasn’t merely existing anymore, waiting for the day the war was over so we could return to our real lives in Ukraine. I was active and invested in things going on around me. I wasn’t looking backwards nearly as much. My focus was on the present and the future.
I am recovering my sense of adventure. For a while it felt like the experience of being displaced had eviscerated that brave young woman who moved to Ukraine without a backwards glance. Why was it so hard this time? I felt like a different person, as if that woman was no longer a part of me. But now I sense that she’s still there. She’s been bloodied and traumatized, but she’s still breathing, and her pulse is stable again. In fact, it’s gaining strength.
Today I can say once again that home is where I’m going, not where I’m from. Given the uncertainty of current events, I can’t say I know for sure where I’m going, but I know I’m on my way.
While I’m on the topic of home, I am excited to share that I just finished the first draft of my memoir. The working title is Finding Home Again. It’s 89,000 words (or 278 double-spaced pages). Writing it has been emotionally exhausting and profoundly healing. I can’t wait to share it. I will start editing it after the new year, and I’ll need beta readers, people who will read the manuscript with a critical eye for what is working and what isn’t, which scenes move the story forward and which are unnecessary, etc. Thank you to those of you who already volunteered! Please contact me through the comments if you’re interested in helping in this way. And if you already contacted me, please refresh my memory by doing so again. I seem to remember several people reaching out, but with the exception of one person, I can’t recall who all of you were, and I didn’t think you write your names down the first time!
Merry Christmas! I hope each of you is able to celebrate the miracle of the incarnation of God as a human while surrounded by loved ones in a place where you feel at home.
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I would be honored to have you along on this journey!