Where have you lived?

Where do you live?” It’s a common question asked whenever you meet someone. It’s usually an easy answer. It’s printed right on your driver’s license, right? That address should be the one where your cell phone bill is delivered and the bulk of your earthly belongings reside.

As we grow up and put a few years behind us, people begin asking a slightly different version of that question. Especially over a shared meal or a couple beers. It changes tense and becomes “Where have you lived?” It is usually an attempt to find a common history between you and the questioner. It’s interesting to see the geographic path people take over time. Sometimes the path includes long enough periods of time in a given place which become a potential answer to that question.

That leads me to the question I’ve been kicking around for a while. “What does it take to be able to say ‘I lived there’?” Is it simply a question of time? How much time? Let’s look a few examples.

  • Move out of state to attend university. Easy, right? You leave home for four (or more nowadays) years during the school year, returning home for holidays and when class is out. It’s a good amount of time to get integrated into the local community despite never changing your driver’s license to the new state. Count it.
  • Join the army and see the world. Specifically, 10 weeks of basic training in Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. Did you live there? I argue that doesn’t count. Sure, your physical location is there, but you’re insulated from the local community. You can’t go to the local bars and restaurants, you don’t ever drive anywhere or take public transportation, you never go shopping… If you didn’t know where Uncle Sam took you, you may as well have been in Georgia or New Jersey or Oklahoma.
  • Join the army and see the world, take 2. During the Cold War, the US Army conducted month long exercises they called “Reforger” in which units from Texas, for instance, deploy to Germany, withdraw humvees from storage and conduct movement exercises throughout the countryside. In my case, we packed duffles with one set of civilian clothes and boarded C141s bound for Cologne. After sitting knee to knee on nylon webbed seats for hours, (I wish I had a picture like this one of it because most who complain about the cramped seats on planes don’t believe things could be worse) we drove slowly on the Autobahn, knocked over road signs on country roads, slept in tents in January, drank beer in Munich, and saw a lot of Bavaria. I saw a family walking their cat on a leash through the woods. I gave a couple young teens at one of our campsites a 20 Deutschmark bill and asked for a beer. Not only did they return with the beer, but they brought me change. I paid for things at shops in which the cashier counted my money out of my hand for me because I couldn’t tell the difference between “fünfzehn” and “fünfzig”. I’m claiming it.
  • Join the army and see the world, take 3. Attend Jungle Warfare School in Panama. Despite sleeping on the bottom of a boat with water sloshing around through the famed Panama Canal, we never actually experienced any of Panama. Well, we did spend a lot of time slogging through the swamps in Monongahela National Forest, but other than that we never saw any of the country. I can’t claim that.
  • Join the army and see the world, take 4. Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia. I was there for around five months, from the tense beginning after the air war started to the ground phase to the clean up and return of equipment and personnel to the US. The post festivities phase is when I really got to see the country and spend time with the locals in cities and restaurants. The story of a trip to Dairy Queen is quite interesting. Part of my job was to dress in civilian clothes, take an Army pick up truck into town, and buy repair parts for our military vehicles. Many of the stores we visited, especially those selling parts for Caterpillar earth moving equipment, raised their prices by simply moving the decimal point. We were there during Ramadan. I’m claiming that one.
  • Two weeks of language school in Mexico. Bella and I have done this on two separate occasions together and she has attended quite a few more. Read about all of them here. In Querétaro, for instance, we lived in a room in a house that had a kitchen in which we could cook meals if we didn’t find such awesome restaurants. Regardless of all that, I don’t feel like I could say “I lived in Mexico“. I don’t feel the amount of time is long enough.
  • Working in Canada for months on end. This one is pretty easy. I had to file for a work permit and file taxes in Canada. I officially lived there.

So what did I learn from this little thought exercise? I think the amount of time spent in the new location has to be greater than two weeks, since that’s the typical length of a professional’s yearly vacation. On top of that, you have to actually integrate into the local economy to some degree.You need to eat in restaurants, meet locals, learn the roads and public transport, and shop in grocery stores.

Bottom line:  Did you have to buy toilet paper?



I'm an engineer, a veteran, and an avid traveler. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson - "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

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