Society has oh-so-slowly warmed to the idea that people should live in ways that make them feel happy and secure, even if some members of that society see it as odd or uncomfortable. Something like moving back to your parents’ home may seem bizarre to people used to the move-out-at-18-and-buy-a-house-at-21 mentality, but it’s hard to argue about the value of a home (not a house) that makes its inhabitants happy.
Besides, there are definitely stranger ways people choose to live. Some are by accident, but many are by choice. Although they may seem odd, these people have managed to turn their unconventional houses into homes.
The Happiest Man on the Seven Seas
Student filmmaker Lance Oppenheim has made quite a portfolio from documenting nontraditional living situations. His latest short, The Happiest Guy in the World, follows retiree Mario Salcedo, who has lived every day of his life for the past 20 years on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship. Last year, Oppenheim documented a group of airline employees who live in a parking lot at LAX.
“During the recession, my parents—both real estate attorneys—were forced to transition from representing home-builders to people losing their homes,” Oppenheim said in an interview with The Harvard Gazette. “These stories implanted an idea that I continue to explore with my work, of what just a home truly means today, both in Florida and across the country.”
“Having fostered an interest in making films that explore heterotopian spaces,” Oppenheim tells Urbo, “I was immediately intrigued by the worlds of Mario and Dave, Amy, and Rudy at LAX.”
Oppenheim stumbled across both of his subjects mostly by accident. “I spent nearly eight months living right near LAX, and in that time, I had noticed the parking lot (and was also perplexed by it),” he says. “The same went with Mario’s story. I had met a friend of my grandparents who had shared with me that seniors were starting to live on cruise ships.”
“In both instances, I set out to discover more and researched as much as I could, digging up older newspaper articles about each story. Both stories—as well as a third I am shooting right now—belong to a series I am hoping to expand entitled In Transit, which follows the lives of everyday people who choose to make their homes in nontraditional spaces.”
Oppenheim, a junior at Harvard, says that his main focus in his films is defining what it takes to make a home. “I can’t speak for society at large, but personally, my own definitions of what makes a home are far different than the subjects I tend to follow in my films,” he says.
“While I certainly find their worlds fascinating, the way I define freedom is far different than Mario and the airline employees at LAX. Rather, what I hope to explore and pose with these films are questions that have less to do with advocacy or architecture [and more to do with] helping draw a portrait, both hopeful and bleak, of Americans trying to redefine what counts as ‘home.’”
Home of the Century
For some people, home is a place. For others, it’s an entire lifestyle. Sarah Chrisman and her husband Gabriel live in Port Townsend, Washington in a house that was built in 1888 or 1889. They are engaged in a “long-term experiential study of culture and technologies of the late 19th century,” according to their website. In translation, that means they live a Victorian-era lifestyle, including what they wear, what they eat, how they cook, and more.
“We’re both people who very much love learning and engaging deeply with the world,” Chrisman says via email. “We also both have a lifelong fascination with history, although at first we approached it from different angles. Gabriel was raised in a very academic family and his approach to research has always been to go straight to primary sources. I put myself through college and earned a degree in cultural studies, a discipline in which one studies cultures by immersing oneself in them. The way we live now is a real marriage of these two approaches to life and to studying a subject about which we’re both passionate.”
Chrisman is a novelist, and the Victorian lifestyle helps inform her work. “One of the basic axioms of writing is ‘write what you know,’ and living with Victorian technologies and cultural elements on a daily basis helps me know and understand them at a very deep level,” she says.
“When I mention the cat’s-whisker sense that tells a woman her skirts are brushing a piece of furniture or a character gripping her chatelaine chains together so she can move stealthily without them clanking or the way that the homey smell of kerosene can raise someone’s spirits when a lamp is lit on a gloomy night, these, and many more, are things I experience myself with quite some frequency.”
She drafts all of her manuscripts by hand and researches with physical books, a practice which studies suggest helps improve recall and retention.
Meet Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman of This Victorian Life! They visited the museum today, and we had a wonderful time showing them our carriages! https://t.co/k0WFwNWy6f #nwcarriagemuseum #thisvictorianlife pic.twitter.com/cwsEtzuKAv
— NW Carriage Museum (@NWCMuseum) February 2, 2018
As one can imagine, wearing a corset day in and day out can be frustrating, but not for the reasons you think. Chrisman says that ignorant people often taunt or harass her because of her lifestyle. “It’s very hard when people assume that we’re somehow playing a part,” she says.
What a fantastic day at the Thackeray Medical Museum. The reality of life in Victorian Times has definitely hit home. It was gruesome! #lotsoflearning #victorianlife #greatday #5AC pic.twitter.com/mbCnPewKMz
— Year 5 (@MV_Year5) June 6, 2018
“Not only is it rather insulting to have the veracity of one’s principles called into question, but some situations can get physically dangerous or downright cruel. People act in incredibly inappropriate ways; out in public, I have to be constantly on my guard because complete strangers will come up and try to lift my skirt or grope my waist (an incredibly violating experience). The Victorians considered the waist to be one of the most intimate parts of the body.”
One of the most painful experiences Chrisman can remember is detailed on her blog. For their fourteenth wedding anniversary, the pair saved money for an entire year to visit Butchart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. When they got there, they were accused of wearing costumes and denied entry. “It’s hard. But, we refuse to let the ignorance and intolerance of others dictate the pattern of our life for us,” she says.
Home is where the heart is.
Whether it’s with mom and dad, on a cruise ship, in an airport parking lot, or in a Victorian-era house, people who live in nontraditional living spaces are redefining what home can mean for them.
“In my opinion, the way Mario views Royal Caribbean cruise ships as home is no different than how several airline employees at LAX view their trailers,” says Oppenheim. “I think in large part Mario—as well as Dave, Amy, and Rudy—live their lives where their versions of reality are different than our own.”
“In these differing definitions of what is ‘essential’ and what defines the ‘heart’ in their homes, I believe that they all have discovered a freedom of a certain kind.”
For Chrisman, living the lifestyle that she and Gabriel do on a daily basis is simply a matter of following dreams. “We think a lot of people miss out on following their dreams and engaging deeply with the world,” she says. “Too many people never try anything different in life because they get hung up on the idea that any shift has to be an ‘all or nothing’ proposition, but when they let this attitude stop them from exploring different avenues of learning or different ways of living, they get in their own way and become their own stumbling block.”
While Chrisman acknowledges that not everyone is going to agree with or have the same kind of dreams that she and her husband have, she thinks the world would be a better place if people would stop letting societal pressure and expectations dictate how they live.
“Too many people drift through life doing things a certain way or buying products they don’t need simply because these are things other people do and buy,” she says. “It would be much better if people really considered what they truly need and want from life—then pursued those goals with all their heart and nerve and sinew.”
When asked if she feels that she and her husband are missing out on any of the modern advancements of life in 2018, Chrisman is unequivocal. “Not at all,” she says. “We’re doing this because it brings us joy and draws us closer together.”