I am an Urban Nomad. Yes, that’s a thing.
The Urban Dictionary defines it thus: “A small but diverse section of society that lives and works in an urban area, yet does not rent, own or otherwise reside permanently in any one location. “Nomad” suggests a chosen lifestyle, as opposed to “refugee,” and it also suggests that nomads feel they have a home, as opposed to the “homeless”.
I chose this “lifestyle” 1½ years ago when I moved out of my marital home after my 22-year marriage broke down. I had spent a year living in the basement while looking for affordable housing. With my tiny part-time nutritionist’s income, however, I couldn’t afford local rents and I knew my husband wouldn’t help. There seemed to be no way out.
Then, out of the blue, Bryan, a friend and neighbor who knew of my predicament, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. As he was about to move to California for a two-year Master’s program, he suggested I live in his house (five minutes’ walk from my old home, greatly facilitating joint parenting of our two teenage children) and pay modest rent – just enough to cover his costs. In exchange, I would move out for a week or two whenever he returned to visit his children and cook him a “welcome-home” dinner.
Overcome with gratitude, I immediately accepted his generous offer. And so began my vagabond lifestyle.
After five decades spent living in rambling houses filled with antiques, paintings and oriental rugs, silver cutlery and delicate china, and bookcases brimming with hundreds (thousands?) of books, movies and CDs (my previous home in France even featured a swimming pool, chicken coop and giant trampoline!), I left everything behind. All I took were clothes, a few personal effects, my favorite cooking implements, some sheets and towels, and a few books. My belongings easily fit into the back of my little Mazda 3.
When Bryan returned for Thanksgiving two months later, I stayed for five days at the apartment of my friend Stewart, who had left town for the holiday. As families all over America gathered around roasted turkey and pumpkin pie, I sat alone in Stewart’s apartment watching movies, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and feeling sorry for myself.
A few weeks later, Laura, an acquaintance from Quaker Meeting (we’ll come back to that later), invited me to stay at her beautiful house over Christmas to look after her cats while she was traveling. Armed with a small plastic Christmas tree and my Mazda-load of personal effects, I moved in. Once I had set up the tree, baked my grandmother’s Silesian gingerbread, lit a cheerful fire and prepared a round of hot chocolate, my children and I felt warm, safe and at home.
And so it has continued for the past 16 months. On average, I move every eight to ten weeks – sometimes to house/pet-sit, sometimes as a guest, sometimes with my two younger children and sometimes on my own.
When living in my main residence – Bryan’s beautiful home – I lovingly tend to house and garden as though they were my own. During my guest stints in other homes, I try to make myself useful by cooking for my hosts and volunteering for household chores. Occasionally they let me help in some small way, but most of the time they treat me like a valued guest, not a destitute squatter.
One morning, as I was repeatedly thanking one of my hosts for her hospitality, she looked at me with a pained expression and said: “You can stop thanking me now. We enjoy having you here. Our house is usually very quiet, but you and your children bring joy and life to our home.” We hugged.
Whenever another move looms, I am racked with anxiety: Will I find something suitable? Will my children be able to stay with me? Will my abode be near their school? Might I have to sleep in my car? But each time, the perfect solution appears.
Thus, I spent spring break 2017 in the beautiful garden annex of my dear friends Maria and Mary. We drank endless cups of tea together, shared many cheerful meals and bonded over a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle.
In July, I house-sat the home of Carol and Steve, a kind couple I met hiking. They took me in out of the goodness of their hearts, even though they had never met me before.
In September, Sukmi and Pascal, the parents of my oldest son’s girlfriend, invited me (and, for a week, my two boisterous teenagers) to stay with them for 3½ weeks as their guest. They, too, barely knew me, but as we cooked, ate and lived together, we developed a deep and precious friendship.
This was followed at Thanksgiving by a week of house- and dog-sitting for my dear friends Vicky and John.
And now I am spending my second Christmas “on the road” – complete with last year’s plastic tree – in Amy’s warm and cozy house, kept company by her adorable dog Izzy. Amy, the friend of a friend, had never met me before but offered me her home without a moment’s hesitation when she heard of my struggles.
After so many warm welcomes, I have come to believe that I will always find shelter. And while the frequent house moves are tiring, I no longer feel as anxious as I used to about my fluid living situation. Occasionally, I even experience a slight frisson of excitement about the sheer adventurousness of it all!
Most of all, I feel deeply humbled by the trust and kindness my hosts have shown me. Even though they could have disapproved of the (admittedly, unconventional) choices I have made, they gave me the benefit of the doubt. Many of them have themselves been refugees or immigrants and know what it’s like not to have a home. Others have felt trapped in unhappy relationships and remember how hard it was to leave. Others, again, were penniless at some point in their lives and want to share their material blessings with me.
Despite their different personalities, faiths and political orientations, all my benefactors share a deep sense of responsibility and justice, and have gigantic hearts from which spring seemingly limitless supplies of love and kindness.
Thank you, my friends, from the bottom of my heart. One day, I hope to repay you for your kindness – or to pay it forward to others who need it.