Each time we move to a new place, our son corrects his teachers, neighbors and soon-to-be friends. “My name is Sahhhmi,” he says, “not Sammy.” When they ask him where he is from, he replies without pause: “Earth.” We have lived in seven cities and four countries since Sami was born in 2014.
By contrast, I was raised in one place, where it felt like everybody knew my name. That included Essam, the owner of the magazine store around the corner, and Hakmet and Wassim, the co-owners of a Middle Eastern deli across the street. I knew the “hardware store man” and “the count,” a former Columbia University professor who wore a cape. I loved my neighbors because they made my neighborhood a home.
New York City has gotten a bad rap for being cold and disconnected, but my experience growing up in Morningside Heights contradicts that stereotype. The greatest gift that my parents gave me was this urban village of sorts. Among my closest friends are those I met at Riverside Church Nursery School and our next-door neighbors, who accompanied me through the ups and downs of adolescence. The ideal of a free-standing house and a white-picket fence never appealed to me. I grew up sandwiched between two massive urban parks — Central Park and Riverside Park — and down the street from the world’s largest cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where peacocks (today, Jim, Harry and Phil) “roam the grounds on their dinosaur feet.”
Despite my deep roots in New York, I got the itch to travel after college. I studied in England, worked in Germany and took a job based in Washington at an international organization that carried me to Cambodia, India, Guatemala and more. But I still imagined raising my own family in the same stone building where I grew up, sending my children to the same nursery school and introducing them to Jim, Harry and Phil.
When my father died suddenly a decade ago, business owners, neighbors and friends from Morningside Heights poured into the chapel of Riverside Church, where I had once sung nursery rhymes. To this day, when I see them, they ask about my mother and my child. They reminisce about a time when the middle class could afford an apartment in that neighborhood. After my father died, my mother relocated to a farm in rural Wisconsin, and we packed my childhood apartment into paper boxes, relegating it to the past.
Sami was born in Berlin, where I resided with my Turkish German husband. Four years have passed, and we still haven’t settled down, in my beloved neighborhood, or anywhere, really. We moved Sami from Berlin to Madrid when he was 6 months old, and then on to London while I finished my PhD research. We then lived in New Haven, Conn., hopping between sublets and one-year leases, not knowing where we would eventually land. By the time he was 2 years old, Sami had learned to crawl on Cava Baja in Madrid, walked along the London Thames and run through the Brandenburg Gate. My mother called us modern nomads.
We chose this international life and are fortunate to have been able to make that choice, but each time I return to New York, I am unsettled by nostalgia, and I question the decision. What has my son lost in not having a rooted home, where we can mark his height with a pencil on the walls? And what has he gained, as a citizen of the world?
Sami speaks two languages and understands a third. He can adapt to new situations with ease and makes friends without pause. He always says he’s from “Earth” because he isn’t tethered to a single city, country or even mother tongue. He sees similarity before difference. He creates new rituals in new places, exploring parks and city streets. His great curiosity is met with chances to explore. Each new day he embraces the present and lets go of the past better than anyone else I know.
The last time that we moved, though, from New Haven to Charlottesville, Sami said he missed his blue house and his best friend. Each time we travel to and then leave Berlin, he misses his aunts, uncles and grandparents there. Each time we visit my sister, her children and my mother in Wisconsin, he longs to remain on their farm. When you ask him where his home is, he gives one of three revolving answers — New Haven, Charlottesville or Yew Nork (New York), where he has never lived, but has often visited, and which I speak about with deep, enduring love.
I hope that we will soon settle in a place where Sami can establish roots. But I also believe that his openness to all that the world offers was born out of this nomadic early life.
My parents settled in Upper Manhattan in perhaps the last era of accessibility for the not-so-rich. They gifted us, their children, an upbringing where diversity was a part of our everyday experience, in a neighborhood where people knew each other by name.
Each time I return to Morningside Heights, I am struck by that gift, as I sit at the Greek-owned Hungarian pastry shop where my father once devoured almond horns, or at the Peace Fountain in the cathedral’s gardens, where a sculpted lion lies down with a lamb. But I try to learn from my son, who is proof that belonging can also transcend borders, and that we can belong to the Earth first.
I belong to New York City first, but not only. I am by all accounts a “New York City chauvinist,” as a colleague once said. But I married a Turkish-German Berliner who, like me, believed in a common humanity. We have lived by this belief in a household where we speak in English, Turkish and German, permanently linking us to both sides of the Atlantic.
We live as modern nomads, and this is the gift we have given to our son.
Elisabeth Becker Topkara is a sociologist and writer in New Haven, Conn.