I once went to a psychologist whose website listed “family of origin” issues as among her specializations.
“What’s a family of origin?” I asked at our first meeting.
“You know, the family you’re born into rather than the family you choose.”
She said it like it was obvious, but it was new to me and the idea stuck. Some things we’re born into, and some things we choose, and both have deep emotional reality, the chosen no less than the ones we happen into at birth.
This thought occurs to me every time someone asks me where I’m from. “Where are you from” means different things to different people. When an academic asks me, it means what university I teach at or where I got my PhD. When a stranger asks me, it means the last place I lived long enough to hold a job and put down roots. But that’s a northern stranger, to be sure. A southerner once asked me while we were waiting at US customs after returning from abroad.
“I never know how to answer that question,” I waffled. “I move around a lot. I was teaching in Buffalo last year, but I also work in Sardinia…”
“Where were you born, honey?”
“I was born in Ohio.”
“Then you’ll always be from Ohio.”
Okay, yes, I guess that’s true: Ohio is my home of origin. But the other homes I get to choose.
Yesterday, I came home to Sardinia. Stepping off the airplane felt like putting on a good pair of running shoes or a favorite dress that still looks hot: simultaneously comfortable and ready for action. I picked up my rental car, slipped into the muscle memory of driving a manual transmission (which I never do in the states), and took off for the town of Siddi where I’ve been doing archaeology for the past eight years. There are hiccups, to be sure – my Italian isn’t as fluent as it will be after a few weeks of speaking – but it comes back quickly, enough so that the waiter serving my lunch started out in English but joined me in Italian after a few short exchanges.
I’m at Caffè Libarium Nostrum on the castello of Cagliari, high up in the center of the old city. Libarium Nostrum is a longtime favorite. The food is good, but what draws me here is the view: the tiled domes and elaborate facades of Cagliari’s many churches, the Torre dell’Elefante to my left, the Via Santa Croce winding away to my right with its panorama over the city’s medieval walls. In among the elegant structures are the clotheslines and crumbling brick of a very living city. An Italian colleague from the mainland once claimed that Cagliari is ugly. Given that I think Cagliari is one of the most charming cities I know, I can only imagine he meant that – unlike Venice or Florence or Rome – Cagliari doesn’t look like a museum. And it doesn’t. Cagliari’s historic corners are full of modern grit. But that’s what I love about it. I love finding some of my favorite street art across the piazza from the cathedral. I love drinking cocktails in an underground room that was once a medieval cistern. I love that there’s a windfarm in the middle distance between the port and the mountains. Cagliari isn’t trying to be anything particular – it just is.
And that’s how it feels to be back in Sardinia. Here, I don’t try to be anything. I just am what I am: a slightly crazy American girl who keeps coming back to do archaeology in one of the coolest places she’s ever been. I’m weird, but still welcome. Foreign, but a member of the community. I leave a friend’s house in Siddi where I’m staying while I do my research, and people on the street welcome me back and ask me how long I’ll be around. I order a cappuccino in the piazza bar, where I’ve returned every summer since 2008, and another friend insists on paying. He asks me where my students are; I explain that this year I’ve come alone. We talk about the difficulty of finding funding for cultural projects and the importance of video in bringing archaeological results to a broader audience. I promise to do more, not only in English but also in Italian, and he says he’ll introduce me to his brother, a film editor.
I have until October 16 to complete my zooarchaeological study and get sufficient footage for a couple of videos. But right now, I’m coming off an intense five weeks doing the project in Akko. I’m giving myself until Friday just to enjoy being home.