In the last few days since the fire that destroyed our Noe Valley apartment, I've been thinking more than ever before about the concept of 'home' - and trying to extract any meaning from our temporary loss. We're lucky, though, and I know that: nobody was hurt in the fire, and we were able to salvage most of our belongings.
And all I knew was that soon enough I would go to live in Hanoi. Prior to my departure I read and re-read a memoir by Dana Sachs, an American journalist who spent some time in Hanoi, and I would underline certain sentences without knowing why or when or if those words would ever be more than mere words on a page. She wrote "Staring across the rice fields toward that unknown mountain, I'd felt alone and quite terrified. My plan to come here, which had once sounded like a great adventure, now seemed foolish, like a game of pretend that I had taken too far. I had nothing except a backpack and a wavering determination to build a life for myself in this place."
Our upstairs neighbors, though, were not as fortunate. They lost many of their personal items.
We'd just begun to settle into our place, when this fire hit.
While I had never initially made a target of living in Noe Valley (not fitting into the stereotypes since I am both childless and dogless), I couldn't help but fall in love with the apartment when I first saw it - the light, the large rooms, the hardwood floors, the huge closets. The apartment had just had a fresh makeover, after twenty years' occupation by the same tenant, and it was beautiful. Our landlord was amazingly kind and trusting; she let us come over a few weeks before the apartment was finished to repaint the rooms in the color of our choice, to paint cabinets and to make small modifications for our aesthetic pleasure.
Have fun playing house, she said to us.
Having a naturally nomadic spirit (in the last ten years, I had lived in North Carolina, Hanoi, Saigon, London, San Francisco, Hanoi, Geneva, Hanoi, and San Francisco). I was more than ready to call this apartment my home. My housemates - one who'd just moved here from Boston - were equally ready to commit to the place. We befriended our upstairs neighbors and a week after we moved in, we'd already thrown our first full house party. A Halloween party, hosted by the two apartments, was already in the works.
I focused on perfecting the back rooms: the kitchen and the living room. I wanted it to be beautiful, I wanted it to be home. I found a customized reclaimed wood table for the kitchen, had shelves installed, painted tables and chairs bought from Craigslist, found vintage tins, ordered lamps from a vendor at the Alameda Flea Market, and displayed the items I'd brought from Vietnam. All of us worked to create an ambience that would reflect our three personalities: a space we could all call home. We wanted to put love into this house, to make it grow and flourish.
After about six weeks, we weren't quite finished. One of my housemates had arranged to have all his childhood belongings sent to the house. His boxes sat in the front room, waiting to be unpacked. Though it was still unfinished, the house had already started feeling like home to us. We held dinner parties, received friends visiting from other cities and countries. Always, I felt secretly delighted when friends would comment: how beautiful the house was; how warm it felt. Congratulations, one said.
For the first time in my life I relished the fact that I felt no desire to leave. I felt rooted and solid in this physical structure, certain that my San Francisco life was beginning - now that I finally had a real home. I relied on this structure to ground me in a place. I kept telling myself to consider the importance of 'home:' that for a person to really flourish, he/she needed to feel grounded in something.
We were at a barbecue on Saturday afternoon when we began receiving worried texts and calls from friends in the neighborhood . One text: I don't mean to alarm you, but I think your building is on fire. I didn't really believe that the fire was in our building. It wasn't possible. It couldn't be. In the taxi, my friend called Radio Shack, which is located on the first floor of our building: no one answered. He then called Valley Tavern, the bar across the street from our house, who confirmed that it was the Radio Shack building that had caught fire.
It didn't really hit me on Saturday night, even after I had seen for myself the damage inside our apartment. It didn't really hit me on Sunday or Monday. I was too busy thinking about what was next - where were we were going to live; trying to move what remained of our belongings out of the house. There was too much to do to really absorb the reality, let alone what it might in the long view.
Over the past few days, we've received an outpouring of support from neighbors and friends who've offered to help us in any way possible. The night of the fire Valley Tavern gave us free drinks, Patxi's brought pizzas to us, Bernie continues to offer me free coffee and kind words. One concerned neighbor left a note on the door, asking if she could host a fundraiser for us. Supervisor Wiener's office calls us almost daily (sometimes twice a day). We were amazed by the support.
Even though my housemates and I are temporarily staying in other neighborhoods, we still go back to Noe Valley to attend to business, trying to extract the rest of our belongings. The benches on 24th Street have become the new meeting place for the displaced tenants of 4051 and 4051A, as we put the pieces back together.
What I've come to realize, only a few days after the fire, is that one of the lessons that I've already gained from this ordeal is a broadened perspective of home.
Now, I see that home is not just about the physical structure, or the comfort, say, of my bedroom. A true home extends beyond the actual structure. Home to me now encompasses the upstairs neighbors, our friends in Noe Valley, and the beautiful city of San Francisco. It's so much more than I thought it was - so much bigger, so much stronger, so much more beautiful.