On the Road to Querencia

Posted on May 17th, 2012 by in Life Lessons


J.L. Johnson, Guest Blogger

I don’t know exactly when or how I came across the Spanish word querencia. Like torschlusspanik and esprit de l’escalier, it simply appeared as one of those foreignisms I’d scribbled down on scrap paper, marking a handy little bridge from feeling to expression that my own language—despite its sprawling infrastructure of a million or so words—had forgotten to build.

Broadly translated, querencia describes a place where you feel most at home. Its literal meaning comes from the world of bullfighting, where querencia refers to “that mysterious little area in the bullring that catches the fancy of the fighting bull when he charges in,” as one writer describes it. “He imagines it his sanctuary … there, he supposes he cannot be hurt.”

That connotation of animal instinct is much of what makes querencia an especially powerful word for me. But instead of a bull in its lair, I think of little Mole in The Wind in the Willows, as he catches the scent of his old burrow while traveling a country road:

[It] suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again … Home!

And like the Mole, I’ve felt the irresistible pull—that “telegraphic current”—of my own small burrow, a space in this world that’s meant only for me. The thing is, for years I didn’t know where it was.

***

For the rest of my family, who still live in the Kentucky town where I grew up, querencia has little to do with geography. My dad found it on his sailboat and down in his tinkerer’s workshop; my mother, in her students and fellow schoolteachers. My brother found it in his church and, later, his wife and baby daughter.

I, well, I was different. Discontented. Restless. Our town was as comfortable as any and lovelier than most, but something was wrong with its gravity: I floated through my years there, barely touching—or being touched by—the landscape around me. I might as well have been on the moon.

Some people are born with a yen for certain environments, the same way they’re born loving salty or sweet. They feel most alive in cities, or have to live near a large body of water, or need year-round sunshine. My own place-yearning wasn’t specific, but it was there nonetheless—and when I got older, it was strengthened by the books I loved best. From Faulkner’s Mississippi to Stephen King’s Maine to L.M. Montgomery’s beloved Prince Edward Island, I saw that geography could be more than a flat backdrop you project yourself onto. It could make you think and do and feel things that actually shape your life.

That’s when I came to believe my place in the world—my querencia—had an actual ZIP code.

After college, I set off like an addled homing pigeon, alighting in one place after another in search of my proper roost. Something about New England felt right, so Connecticut was up first. But the Nutmeg State wasn’t strong enough to keep me when Wyoming beckoned, with a cabin in the Tetons’ shadow and moose in the backyard stream. Turns out, though, too much oversized grandeur can overwhelm one’s psyche—within a year I’d skittered back to the more cozy proportions of New England.

And so from a downtown apartment in Portland to a horse farm outside Portsmouth, then—in a cross-county jolt—to a revamped garden shed in Olympia, Washington, and a genteel Victorian manse in Georgia, I moved from home to home to home, my family’s bewilderment trailing me at a distance.

It’s been estimated that the average American will move 11.7 times in the course of a lifetime. I did half that in less than 10 years, and ended up no closer to finding a place where I felt at home. I was 31; I was exhausted. My geographical clock was ticking.

Then, Boston found me.

***

Sure, I’d flirted with it before—anyone who lives in the peculiar little nation of New England must make a pilgrimage to its capital at some point—but Boston had always struck me as a bit aloof, reserving its charms for tweedy, privileged sorts. The city’s slablike skyscrapers and thronging streets didn’t seem very welcoming, either.

Not a place for one’s soul to breathe a sigh of relief. Not querencia.

Still, there was a job offer waiting, and taking it might get me closer to some perfect New England hamlet where, I fancied, my fully realized life was waiting to begin. So, I went.

It’s impossible to explain how it happens, how something ordinary becomes, to you, specifically extraordinary. How you fall in love with something, in other words. I didn’t walk down a vintage cobblestone street on Beacon Hill or see the morning light on Boston Harbor and suddenly think, “Ah, yes, this is for me.” There was no single bolt of lightning, but instead hundreds of little candles lit over time—moments, places, and people I wouldn’t have encountered anywhere else—that together have given Boston the unmistakable warmth of home.

Nine years have passed since I arrived, the longest I’ve stayed anywhere by choice. I live in a rambling old Queen Anne house that’s precisely my taste, my apartment overlooking a garden where the landlord likes to invite me for tea. My closest friends and favorite coffee shop are a few minutes’ walk away. I spend my days writing and editing; my weekends sailing on a nearby pond or strolling the city’s famed “Emerald Necklace” parklands.

And I am about to leave it all.

***

God does love irony, I suppose: A few weeks after agreeing to write about finding my home in the world, I’m taking a job that forces me to abandon it. An old colleague in New York looking to hire for his magazine pitched it as a golden opportunity, as he put it, to live in “the greatest city in the world.”

The Yankee in me harrumphed. Still, it didn’t take long for him to convince me that—whatever I thought of New York—this job would be an adventure, with the chance to travel the globe.

So, I am packing. As I write this, there are piles of clothes and stacks of books around me, and a cat that’s getting decidedly nervous about what I’m up to. With every drawer and shelf I empty, I get a little bit sadder. Yet a little excited, too.

I think of good old Mole again, now lying in his burrow:

He did not at all want … to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own.

It took a long time to discover my querencia, and I don’t leave it lightly. Truth be told, I probably won’t be able to bear looking at the Boston skyline in my rear-view mirror as I drive away. But I’m finally ready to trade the safety of my little burrow for new adventures again. After all, the only thing that’s better than finding your home, is the chance to return to it one day.

Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, J.L. Johnson moved to Boston in 2002 and has spent much of the past decade writing and editing for such publications as Boston magazine and the Boston Herald. She recently relocated to Brooklyn to become managing editor of Hemispheres magazine. She still cheers for the Red Sox.

Where is querencia for you? Has it changed over the years? How did you know when you’d found it?