I moved into my flat in Vienna in August. I was lucky; this was an old friend’s small one-room flat, with the stove less than a meter away from the entrance door, not too high a rent, a market just around the corner, and more space than I have ever had to myself. It was exactly what I wanted after feeling like a guest for the past three years of living intermittently in University accommodation and in my parents’ flat. I was moving in and out multiple times a year and always having to obey other people’s rules on how to live. Half of the time, this meant not enough fridge space, no oven, no pans and no pan-frying, no extra furniture, no pictures or posters on the walls. The other half of the time, it meant no privacy through the thin doors that separated my mother’s study (and my sofa bed) from the living room, and being bound to my parents’ plans for when we would clean, eat, do the dishes, and go to sleep and turn the WiFi off.
I spent a few months forgetting to do all the things I used to do and wanted to do. For the first time, I discovered what I do when no one’s watching.
In the past, I was very attached to the idea of ‘home’ being in Vienna (where I was born). I moved around a lot as a child, always taking at least a year to adapt to a new country, new school, new languages, and always hoping to one day go back to where I grew up, to find the same comfort and familiarity. But every time it was time to move again, I found that I finally felt at home in the space I was about to leave – twice in Luxembourg, then three times in Cambridge. ‘Home’ for me became less bound to a place, but more to the people around me. Home was who danced in my bedroom with me after school, who listened to music with me on the bus home, who stood in the kitchen with me while I made dinner, whose study music I shared in the most stressful times, who came to my parties.
After the move back to Vienna, I was suddenly confused about everything. How do people decide how much time to spend with their friends, or how much time to spend inside, outside? How do people just do their dishes? How do people do anything when their day-job makes them so tired? How do people not feel weird about all the waste they produce? or remember to take a reusable bag? or consistently eat all their fruit and veg before it goes bad? or consume anything without feeling guilty for all the ways it wasn’t the most ethical? Why don’t I feel at home in my hometown?
I had been so determined to have my own place, but now I wasn’t sure how to get from “I live here now” to “this is my home”. For the first time, I was the only one home most of the time. I wasn’t prepared for the silence.
Home is how I live.
I spent a few months forgetting to do all the things I used to do and wanted to do. For the first time, I discovered what I do when no one’s watching. I discovered that I smoke more than I really want to, I get too easily stuck in the depths of the internet, and that I’m worse than I thought at telling people how I am really doing.
And in my little household, I slowly started to understand what it means to take responsibility for the way you live.
As I settled in, my habits changed gradually, and so did my surroundings. I discovered that not everything I do when no one’s watching is a bad idea. I unpacked boxes and even more boxes. I alphabetised all my books. I bought a pan. I plugged in my radio and wiped the dust off of my old CD collection. My walls were filled with sticky notes, posters and random memories. For the first time, everything I owned was in one place. Without noticing, I became my own little household.
And in my little household, I slowly started to understand what it means to take responsibility for the way you live. I became acquainted with sustainability, not in the form of lots of rules that made me feel guilty, but simply as what happened when I gave some thought to how I actually wanted to live. I started to collect old glass bottles and jars and fill them with fermentation projects. I was finally able to recycle everything that could possibly be recycled. I mourned the absence of a compost in my vicinity, but then I started making stock from my veggie scraps. I started to shop at the market and became friends with local shopkeepers. I gave what I didn’t need to my neighbours and got exactly what I needed in return. I improvised designer lampshades out of old plastic bags. I hung up herbs and chillies to dry.
Living in connection with the earth in a city works through small habits that all add up. Cooking with seasonal and local food makes you feel in tune with where and when you are. Re-using and DIY-ing what you can and learning how to reduce unnecessary waste makes everything around you start to feel a little bit more solid. Shopping locally and personally, you can feel the part you play in the lives of people and communities around you. Really, the choices I was making were less motivated by sustainability and more by what made me feel at home... And so, my little household gained a system that benefited what was inside of it and what was outside of it.
One thing I have learned is that sometimes sustainability looks less like self-restraint, self-sufficiency and asceticism and more like awareness, generosity and community.
I didn’t do this all on my own. The first few big gatherings in my flat felt like breakthrough moments where everything fell into place. I decorated my flat not just for myself, but also for my friends. The first time I used my oven was to make Christmas cookies for everyone I could think of. The first time I liked the living-room light was when people were dancing under it. Nowadays when I have guests, the first thing they comment on is how lived-in it feels. Whenever I can host someone, my space feels three times more valuable than it is just for myself. Because “home” is a feeling that is not just for me - it deserves to be shared.
The first time I liked the living-room light was when people were dancing under it.
Now, I would say that home is much more than just a place. Home is where I take care of myself. Where I fill my fridge. Where I recognise the scent as soon as I enter the building. Where I sleep. Where I store my sauerkraut.
But beyond being the physical place where all these things can happen, home is how I live. It exists because I learned to make it that way. One thing I have learned is that sometimes sustainability looks less like self-restraint, self-sufficiency and asceticism and more like awareness, generosity and community. Home is where I learn and practice what is good for me (and the planet). It is where I take care of others, and where others take care of themselves. It is a communal effort between friends, neighbours, and strangers to make everyone feel safe in our environments. Home is about making sure there is space for everyone, including yourself. And the things that help myself, others and the planet are exactly the things that make me feel at home.
By guest contributor Ada Gunther.