International shipping isn’t cheap. You fill boxes, weigh them, use up the remainder of your overdraft in paying to have them wrapped and shipped 3,000 miles. The boxes travel slowly, meandering their way across the ocean, waiting in containers in ports with other boxes containing other lives, with other destinations. It takes time and money and effort to pack up and move, so it makes sense that you’d choose only the most precious possessions and that you’d weigh their value against their literal weight. You wouldn’t choose things that could be purchased again on the other side of the ocean for far less money than it’d take to ship them. You wouldn’t choose to take things you’ve already used and probably won’t use again. You wouldn’t choose things that are worn and old and probably have a resale value of about 20 cents. Except of course if you’re me, and those things are your books, and where you go, they go, no matter how inconvenient or irrational or expensive.
So when I moved to a suburb of Boston in 2010 (from London), I didn’t take furniture or dinnerware or even my good chef’s knife. I didn’t take my spice collection or some of the larger artwork that had hung on my walls since my teenage years. I didn’t take my stack of old love-notes and photographs. Some I’d pick up later, cramming what I could into overfilled suitcases and hoping my theory of ‘if I can lift it, it’s not too heavy’ would hold true. But most I’d leave behind in my parent’s house, dodging my mum’s comments of how once you’re married you really shouldn’t still be storing things in your parent’s attic.
What I did take, packed tenderly into two cardboard boxes with reinforced sides, were my books. Books that I devoured during my teens, trying desperately to understand myself and the world and love; books I’d destroyed with highlighter during my undergraduate degree; books that had changed my life; and books I’d never read but always meant to. In a few instances I took two copies of the same book for different reasons: a cherished inscription, a favorite cover. And as they sauntered across the Atlantic, as I finished up a job and attended my own leaving parties, as I spent three misguided months couch surfing to save money and pay off the aforementioned overdraft fees, I felt them missing from me. Their weight and familiarity, wit and wisdom, temporarily boxed up, sealed and floating on a dark ocean without a track-your-package option.
They arrived in Boston before me, a chunk of my heart waiting (along with my fiancé) when I got off the plane, claiming space for me in an apartment that was bleakly utilitarian, male and overrun by mice. I hated that apartment. The kitchen floor seemed to be designed to look dirty and the linoleum tiles had tiny pock marks in them perfect for catching dirt and never letting it go. The bedroom was painted a dark mauve. Our upstairs neighbor was a big guy who ran on a treadmill right above our bedroom every morning and the whooshing sound below seemed reminiscent of the womb, except not in a good way. The basement was semi-finished and smelled of mildew and mice. I was glad to be in America and thrilled to be in the same country as my husband. I hated that apartment.
Moving countries comes with the longest and strangest to-do list you’ve ever encountered. I had to complete a series of HPV vaccine shots (because for a brief moment in time it was a visa requirement, until it wasn’t), learn to drive, sign up for a Social Security card in my maiden name and then switch it to my married name once my green card arrived. I had to find a volunteer role to keep my resume from stagnating and find friends to keep my spirit from stagnating.
But top of the list was a bookcase for my books. I knew if I had to live in that apartment, finding a space for them would allow at least a corner of it to feel like home. I was right. Once my books were unpacked I felt myself start to relax a little, as if they emitted a quiet calm energy just for me. I spent those early months stubbornly working my way through the to-do lists and buying more books, feeling as though each new acquisition grounded me more definitely into my new life and claimed more space for me in that hideous apartment.
We’ve now moved, thank goodness, and my books were the last things I packed and the first things I unpacked. Even in an empty house littered with boxes to be emptied and belongings to be found, a full bookshelf equals home to me. And placing books on shelves is a sacred ritual, weighing each one for a moment before sliding it onto the shelf, that helps me accept and embrace my new environment. Filling shelves with books is an immediate statement of home and a quiet-but-bold declaration of self. Like a tortoise with his shell, my books are the home I take with me, just a little more awkward and a lot more expensive to carry.
Hannah Nersasian is a first-time ‘mum’ from rural, southwest England, currently living in Framingham, Mass., with her American husband, son and cat. You can read more from Hannah on Boston Moms Blog and on her personal blog. Find her on Facebook, or follow her on twitter @Alien_Hans.
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