The Changing Meaning of “Home” Amid Coronavirus Quarantine

I lay down an eggshell white frame on the soft carpeted floor. With the tip of my fingernail, I prop the thin metal tabs on the backside, one by one. Some give in easily, others play it stubborn. Once the backing is off, I clean the glass with the hem of my t-shirt before inserting the print and securing it in place. Alright, five more to go! I think, glancing at my semi-red tip of pointer finger. 

On the bed, there’s an assemblage of prints — a Berthe Morisot art exhibition poster, a botanical illustration of a walnut tree, a little reproduction of Rembrant’s The Night Watch. They’re all still curled into the shape of a horseshoe from when they were rolled and shipped in a cardboard tube. I try my best to straighten them out, but it feels like they have a mind of their own. 

Truth be told, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. Maybe I’ve been watching too many European films or perusing too many moodboards of quaint Parisian apartments, but the concept of a “gallery wall” has been on the “to-do” list for quite some time. Why did it take me so long to finally do it? 

A big part of the reason has to do with the idea of home. Home has always been an abstract concept to me. Ask any foreign kid who spent her life being a foreign kid wherever she went, and she’ll likely give you the same answer. (And please, don’t ask her where she’s from, if you don’t have more than 10 minutes to spare.) 

I’ve been told that if you hesitate before drilling a hole into a wall, then you’re likely not home. I don’t think I’ve ever hammered a nail without overthinking and questioning everything first. Am I going to be able to remove this easily before I leave? Will this cause the plaster to crumble? Will this cause us to lose our security deposit? Apartments are all I’ve known. All temporary, all just a quick fix to a living situation that’s always changing, always evolving. Tbilisi, Cairo, Ohio, Buffalo, Little Rock, California — that’s the trajectory of my migration around the world. So that’s the first reason why I never really fully committed to going all the way, decorating-wise. 

The other reason is a more obvious one. In early March, when quarantine began to take effect, I wondered what it would be like to spend so much time at home. I’m no stranger to sheltering in place for prolonged periods of time. In 2008, when I was visiting my grandparents in Tbilisi for the summer, the Russo-Georgian war broke out. We huddled in front of the television, watching scene after flashing scene of soldiers and humvees and tanks roving around the streets of Georgian territory. We’d planned to spend our summer eating, drinking and exploring our hometown. Instead, we were stuck at home. It was a sobering reminder of how the universe can alter your life in one fell swoop, no matter how hard you plan or how badly you want something entirely different. 

In 2011, the beginnings of what would become the Egyptian Revolution (and ultimately, the Arab Spring) began brewing in Cairo, where I lived. We were, once again, in the grip of cabin fever while the outside struggled with violence and strife. Our entire world became a series of rooms attached to one another. The more we stayed at home, the more I began noticing all the corners of my home that were a blur to me before — details I’d missed while rushing to school and outings with friends before the chaos began. Maybe not so much the things themselves, but the way I felt about them. 

I realized I don’t like the way our lace curtains filtered the sunlight and cast a filigreed shadow on our faces. I didn’t like the green bathroom tiles that made me feel as though I were in a hospital from the 50s. And I really, really hated our zebra-print armchair, but in all honesty, I didn’t need a revolution to tell me that. (In my mom’s defense, that’s the way our eclectic Giza apartment was furnished before we moved in). On the other hand, time at home also made us look at the things we did like with a lot more compassion and even more importantly, gratitude. 

I learned early on that when the outside world changes, the “inside” changes, too. “Home” becomes “shelter.” It’s no longer just a building that stores your bed, your couch, your favorite collection of books and all the other things that you’ve accumulated over the years. It becomes a safe place, a sanctuary, the greatest luxury on planet Earth. The ability to stay at home becomes a privilege within itself. 

I don’t own a big house. My life is tucked neatly into a 710-square-foot apartment in California. It’s where I sleep, eat, work and do most of the things that humans do. (Like, y’know, Netflix.) Since I spend so much of my days here, most of the time, I’m breathlessly waiting for the weekend to get out — to take a trip out to DTLA or The Huntington Library in Pasadena. The only time I had to spend giving my walls a face-lift, I used to spend outdoors. 

That’s the thing about homes. When you’re outside, you’re much more likely to keep your eyes open, much more likely to notice things. Home, on the other hand, is something so familiar that it’s more likely to represent an “idea” than a “place” that needs to be discovered, explored, observed and maybe even appreciated. 

So now that I found myself staring at the inside walls of my apartment day after day, I started noticing things inside again — like just how barren my living room looked. So, I decided it was time to take on that home improvement project that’s been taking over my mental interior-design moodboard. If not now, then when? So I scoured the internet until I found the perfect collection of prints on Etsy. Affordability was important. Most of the prints cost me between $15 to $45 (the latter being the largest and most expensive) from WallBuddy. I picked my frames with price in mind, too. 

As I waited, I began working on other parts of the apartment — organizing, cleaning, decluttering. I thought I’d be glued to my phone, but instead, I’m spending most of my free time writing songs, watching classic movies and talking to family. Sometimes I pace and procrastinate. But more often than not, I’m happy to sink into the sofa, a glass of wine in hand, and stay there all evening. The thought of spending so much time indoors would’ve quickened my pulse before all of this started. Now, somehow, despite the fleeting moments of restlessness — of worrying about the state of the world, my family, their health and jobs — when it comes to my home, I’m filled with nothing but gratitude. 

They say quarantine might make you go either way. It might cause you to hate your living situation. You might find no familiarity, no warmth, no sense of calmness in being at home. You might be feeling exasperated, uninspired and longing for a change. Maybe certain realities, needs and wants are brought into clearer focus. Maybe you find that your possessions are no longer tied to your identity. Like a painting you bought way back when and never replaced, even though you’ve always wanted to. Or, perhaps, a zebra-print armchair. 

On the other hand, it might help you fall in love with your living space even more, mainly because you now have the opportunity to fix the things that prevented you from fully loving it in the first place. Is quarantine making me appreciate my humble abode more than before? Yes. More grateful that I even have a home? Absolutely. What about “more grounded”? I’m not so sure. I think about this as I line up where the frame needs to go and mark the spot with a pencil. And for the first time, when the tip of the nail pokes the wall, I don’t hesitate.