Kalina Mladenova

One backpack. What would you take? Not a 20-year-old stuffed hippo, I suppose.

Over the past two years, I have been moving constantly. I lived on a ship in the ocean, in a hut in the savannah, in dorms in England, in hostels in Indonesia. Everything around me was constantly changing — the location, the people, the climate, the food. The one thing that stayed the same was my backpack — full of belongings that I brought from the place I called “home.”

I used to think that home is a place in a particular country. When people ask me where I am from, I immediately shout “Bulgaria” with pride. But the question is why?

Exploration helped me to learn that home is relative. It depends on how you feel and who you are with. In order to remind myself of “home,” I always carried something with me as a memento. And the thing I chose every single time was my hippo. I didn’t take a picture or the Bulgarian flag, but rather a fat, half-ripped, blind, two-decades-old stuffed yellow hippo. He has been with me since I was born and keeps following.

This hippo has seen more of the world than any other stuffed toy and, to be honest, his life wasn’t easy. He flew on planes, rode on trains, went on small wooden boats and even lived on a giant transatlantic ship. I took him everywhere, squishing him into my suitcase, just like a pillow. Carrying him is a habit; his constant presence is home to me.

So what is home then? Is it a feeling of being secure? A feeling of love?

Traveling and exploration made me redefine my sense of home. It became a place solely for sleep. No matter if it was in the forest in Bulgaria, in a random chalet in Italy or a double bunk bed in a tiny cabin on a rocking ship. The only thing I needed was a blanket, my hippo and something to sleep on (grass would do it for me).

In another way, what made a place feel like home was the people. Anywhere I went, no matter the language, the culture, the religion, the background, I always managed to find people who would make me smile, laugh and feel a sense of belonging. I carried my hippo, and these people had their own mementos: a German girl brought her donkey, an English guy wore his tattoos, others kept their friendship bracelets. It did not matter for how long we would be together. The only thing that mattered was the interaction. Maybe, we were all just weird explorers carrying our pieces of home, and that connected us. But, every time, I managed to find a new family and thus a new home.

Now, I have moved again, this time, to a new continent. And, guess what? My hippo is still here. This time, however, he is sleeping on an actual bed: an improvement!

Kalina Mladenova | kalina.mladenova@yale.edu