A homing journey: Notions of home during the COVID-19 pandemic
Image of the research project. Courtesy of the authors.
As Erasmus Mundus master students, we undergo a high mobility scheme during our programmes (as part of a joint degree between two or more universities in a lapse of one or two years), which has made us reflect on home as a dynamic concept. At the same time, we found ourselves uncomfortable with the heteronormative model of ‘home’ that has been perpetuated by society. For instance, the image of heterosexual relationships has come to be the lens that informs and moulds the experiences of home, remaining a preferred model that neglects space for differences.
On top of this, from March 2020 until today, friends, the media, and governments have bombarded us with the phrase ‘Stay at home’, the most common recommendation to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The constant uncritical use of the term ‘home’ brought up several questions and became an invitation to re-think the notion of home: What is home? How does it feel? And how is it built up? Therefore, we were curious about how notions of home among the current LGBTQI+ Erasmus Mundus master students have been shaped during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shifting from mainstream ideas of home (attached to a specific geographical place), home is a multi-faceted and multi-scalar concept open to interpretation and usages. It is a familiar word to which people usually attach meanings and emotional connotations. Home is also primarily related to everyday life experiences which involve different temporalities, spaces, and settings.
In this sense, conceptions of home are not static, but ‘dynamic processes, involving acts of imagining, creating, unmaking, changing, losing, and moving’. Therefore, our study understands home as a relational notion; it involves a set of relationships, recollections, and aspirations influenced by material and social practices through which individuals order their social reality in terms of space and time.
The process of attaching a sense of home to one's life is what Paolo Boccagni refers to as ‘homing’. This process includes the evolving ways of understanding home according to specific cultural and social standards; the ways of cultivating it as an emotional and relational experience; and the ways of orienting one’s multiple social practices. In short, homing as a process aims to reproduce, reconstruct, and possibly rebuild meaningful home-like settings, feelings, and practices.
HOME wordcloud. Most used words by the participants to define home.
The purpose of our research was to provide a reflective journey for the participants. Using the photovoice method, they shared photographs and narratives of their homing processes in the past few months. We found diverse experiences on the nexus between homing and COVID-19.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Marta had moved to Bologna. She understood her home as an expanded place, encompassing public spaces, since she felt safe there. After the lockdown was declared, the city seemed more hostile than safe. She felt that her space had shrunk and that she had become ‘displaced from the world, from nature, and from people’. She started to feel homesick, a sensation that she had not experienced before lockdown. She did things to feel more at home and reconnect with her family and country of origin (such as cooking her mother’s recipes, remembering childhood stories, putting pictures of her dogs on the walls, and making video calls with her family). These activities made her re-establish those connections that had been damaged by COVID-19. Her notion of home shifted from spanning across a variety of spaces and experiences to solely relying on her partner and her memories.
New arrangements. ‘The space was reduced, my partner and I lived in a tiny, open-space flat in Bologna. With the lockdown, the spatial conditions of the apartment forced us to share everything in our small universe.’ —Marta
Take a look. ‘A home is a cosy place. I can hide or not under the blankets, it is my choice. It sure takes an extra effort to show myself, but I have seen I do not have to hide. I sometimes still need to do it, but hopefully, soon I won’t have to and I will not do it.’ —Sophie
Sophie used to link her notion of home to the place where her family and close friends were. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made her realise that she could have more than one home. ‘Home’ was no longer only a geographical space. Additionally, the lockdown gave her the time to be with herself. She reflected on the things that she had left on the side about her sexual orientation. She noticed that she had been hiding, but she no longer wanted to. Now she felt more comfortable in her own skin.
For Pablo, there was no significant change in his idea of home since the outbreak of COVID-19. Nevertheless, as borders started to close, he reflected on how sometimes the process of homemaking is forced on us; he no longer had the chance to choose where to be, he was obliged to ‘stay at home’ and he was not able to visit his family. Moreover, due to the insistence of his mother, he felt the pressure to stock up on food, buying around 80€ of meat, something he would not normally do. In other words, he was not free to experience home as he would have wanted to.
Emine found in the COVID-19 pandemic an opportunity to reflect about herself. She discovered that her body was precious and comfortable and that she needed to take more care of it, especially now that COVID-19 represented a threat to her health. She expanded her perception of home adding her body as a part of it.
Luis projected his idea of home into the future; he was still looking for it. COVID-19 reinforced his notion of home, which involved the necessity of settling down or having a fixed place that he could make his own, where he could build up a relationship with a partner. He believed that being gay and on the move were obstacles to having a dwelling with a long-term stable relationship. Therefore, Luis felt he could not fulfil his ideal of home due to his path of high mobility and his sexuality.
Xiang discovered new ways of experiencing home during COVID-19. He adopted new routines, for instance exercising and drinking coffee. He also started to use spaces that he and his partner had not used before, such as their garden. His dwelling was a cosy and comfortable space that he now enjoyed more.
Two boys home. ‘Home means [ac]company and love. When you are alone, it is not like a home.’ —Luis
After documenting all these experiences, we concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping at different degrees what ‘homing’ means for the LGBTQI+ Erasmus Mundus master students, each in their own unique way. They realised how some of their daily life experiences were taken for granted, such as having personal space, taking care of their bodies, and their possibility to move across borders. Other aspects became more important, such as cooking familiar food, adopting new routines, and reinforcing bonds.
Most of the participants related their experiences of home to their sexual orientation in the same way as they used to do it before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for some of them, the pandemic created a new space to understand and review how they had lived their sexual orientation during their home-building process with themselves and with their families. Moreover, despite having a highly mobile life, their notion of home was still strongly attached to the idea of being settled down. Therefore, they were still pursuing their ideal home.
In conclusion, their testimonies show that they are continuously becoming at home through practices of rooting and uprooting.