Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 8, 2022

From New York to Sevilla and beyond: What makes a city feel like home?

By GABRIEL LESSER | October 15, 2022

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COURTESY OF GABRIEL LESSER

As he embarks on a new journey abroad, Lesser recounts his experiences with the many cities that he calls home.

When I first landed at the airport in Sevilla this past August to study abroad, I felt an overwhelming weight on my shoulders. In addition to the sweltering heat and my exhaustion from travel, I felt immensely unfamiliar with my surroundings and didn’t know how I’d fit into the city.

All my life, I’ve asked myself the question: where do I belong? To this day, I still don’t know the answer. 

The truth is, I feel connected to multiple places in the world and don’t feel tied down to one specific location. The two cities I’ve identified most closely with my entire life have been New York and Rio de Janeiro — the former being where my dad grew up and the latter being where my mom grew up.

On a deeper level, I identify with New York because I myself have lived in the area my entire life: it’s my home. And I have so many stories with family and friends intertwined with this city. 

From visiting my dad at work in Midtown to attending elementary school field trips to the Bronx Zoo or the Manhattan Circle Line Cruise, I’ve grown up with this city as my point of reference. 

As I’ve gotten older, I continue loving this city and the time I can spend here with family and friends, whether that be eating my way around the Smorgasburg food festival (or even just getting a New York bagel!), relaxing in Central Park or spending time in my suburban town of Scarsdale.

I identify with Rio because it’s where I spent every summer growing up, visiting my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends. Spending each summer there, my sister and I developed routines of going to school, camp, the beach and all around the city, especially in the neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. 

I’m in love with Rio’s landscapes. From the mountains of Corcovado to Pão de Açúcar, the city’s endless beauty never ceases to amaze me. Most importantly, I feel most embraced by the kind and welcoming Carioca culture, which makes me feel like I’m always part of a loving, interconnected community throughout the city. For me, Rio is a second home.

Then there’s Baltimore. When I first started college and arrived at Hopkins, I was scared that I would get sick of Baltimore quickly. I had already spent ample time in the city growing up, as my dad would take us annually to Fort McHenry, and when my older sister started college here, I would visit frequently. 

However, as I began establishing new friendships here during my freshman year, my perception of the city changed. I couldn’t care less if I had already been to the Inner Harbor several times, or that the city felt quieter than New York. All that mattered was that I had a community that I felt connected to, one that made me excited to come back to school and make new memories after every vacation. 

Discovering new places in Baltimore, whether it be a new coffee shop or a farmers market, is always fulfilling because I’m surrounded by my friends. There's a reason this place is called "Charm City" — it's because the people bring it to life.

In addition to New York, Rio and Baltimore, I also learned to adjust to a new city this past summer when I worked and lived in Tel Aviv.

I spent the first 10 days of my summer traveling the entire country with Hopkins Hillel through the organization Birthright Israel, which was an amazing and unforgettable experience. Tel Aviv was the last stop on our Birthright trip, and moreover, it’s where I stayed for another two months to work in a neuroscience lab at a hospital. 

When Birthright ended, I remember the immediate sadness I felt when I waved goodbye to all my friends as their bus left for the airport and I stayed in the city. I was immensely grateful to be able to spend the following days with family friends, but when my internship began I couldn’t help but feel like Tel Aviv was emptier and quieter. I’d walk down the same streets and see the same sights, but I felt lonelier without the friends that I had made these initial memories with. 

Fast forwarding a bit, I got into a routine in my internship at the hospital. I made more friends in the city, and I also learned how to discover new things on my own and gain more independence. By the time I was leaving Tel Aviv in August, I felt super attached to the city, to its people and to its neighborhoods. 

It’s interesting how a city that once made me feel insecure could develop into a place where I felt at home. For this reason, Tel Aviv will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the city where I’ve grown the most as an individual in the shortest period of time, where I learned how to say goodbye to friends and make room for change and where I learned to enjoy my own company and find comfort in my independence, whether that meant going for a run on the beach or reading a book in the park.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today studying abroad in Sevilla if it weren’t for the growth and challenges I experienced in Tel Aviv.

I just came back from my first big weekend trip of the semester, and when I arrived back at the Sevilla airport I no longer felt this overwhelming weight on my shoulders. Rather I felt my relief return, this time with a sense of familiarity. I knew which bus route to take, I could point out things on the ride home, and I no longer felt lost or confused.

So I pose the question: what makes a city feel like home? 

To me, it’s the people and places we surround ourselves with. It’s the fond memories we experience but also the risks we take that truly integrate us into the cities we live in.

I’m excited to see where Sevilla takes me, both literally and figuratively. I’m a month into the university here, and I’m definitely already more at ease in the Spanish and Andalusian environment. I hope to continue growing here, carrying my experiences from New York, Rio, Tel Aviv and Baltimore along with me.

While I don’t know where life will take me next, I’m thankful to call each of these cities, to some extent, home.

Gabriel Lesser is a junior from Westchester, N.Y. studying Neuroscience and Romance Languages. His column explores his memories along with his current reflections and the lessons that he has learned.

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