Friday, April 11, 2014

I Belong

A few weekends ago, on a Sunday evening, my daughter was preparing her schoolbag for the next day, when I noticed a sheet of paper on her desk. It was a drawing of a square with several layers, like concentric…squares. I asked her what this was and she explained that, as an assignment for one of the subjects, she had to draw a diagram showing all the communities to which she belongs.
When I looked at what she came up with, I couldn’t help but smile. This was a very rich diagram, if one can call it that. My girl feels that she belongs to one continent, three countries, four cities and two towns. This, beyond her family, friends and, of course, sports affiliations (should I be worried that she also “belongs” to Lionel Messi?). Even though I would not call our children seasoned expats, at least not yet – having been through a grand total of one international move –, this diagram pointed out (literally) how many layers make up their identity already, at such an early stage in their lives. It doesn’t take much, does it.
I asked her if this means that she feels at home in each one of these places. Without hesitation, she said that she could imagine herself living in any of them, but then quickly added the caveat – in case I got any ideas – that she has a preference for Zurich now (our current home) and that she’d rather not have to go through another move and leave her friends behind once more. Feeling equally at home in Athens, Vienna, Zurich or even the small town in the south of Austria where her father’s family comes from, was something completely natural for her. She didn’t seem to be concerned with the practicalities of living in each place. More important considerations were familiarity with her surroundings and the presence of people with whom she belonged. Oh yes, and knowing the language.

And this is just what a bicultural child with a relatively stable upbringing perceives and experiences. As we all know, it gets much more complicated. Is this complication a disadvantage? Are we doing our kids a disservice by imposing our itinerant lifestyle on them? Are we condemning them to a life of foreignness and confused identity? I suspect that often we, as parents, agonize more over these questions than they do.
Having multiple homes and multiple allegiances does not seem strange to my daughter because it’s what she has always known. She and most of her friends – children who have multicultural backgrounds or come from families that are leading a globally nomadic life – are born with several affiliations already. The multiplicity of belonging is a fact of life for them. It is something that comes naturally and often goes unquestioned. It is part of who they are. The number of layers is not important here. It doesn’t matter how many homes or communities they are part of. What matters is that there is belonging, that our children (and we, their families) feel grounded, comfortable and at home in each of these communities. As many as these may be, there is space in our heart for all of them.

Besides, if we, as adults, can handle having many homes without feeling like split personalities (well, most of the time), then it should be easier for them, who essentially come into this world “programmed” to be this way - right?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blood is not always thicker

I attended a conference last weekend, organised by Families in Global Transition (FIGT), an organisation whose aim, among others, is to support families going through international moves. I write “among others” because FIGT is so much more than that for those of us who lead a mobile life. It is a forum for discussion, an incubator of new ideas, an educational resource, a support network, a community. FIGT is one big family. I smiled when I saw that the theme of this year’s (16th) FIGT conference was, very appropriately, “The Global Family: Redefined.”


I discovered the FIGT conference last year and it was love at first sight. I was hooked; not only by the topics, which are close to my heart, but also by the people. As I wrote a year ago upon my return from the conference, I felt that I had found my tribe – that community of like-minded people who understood where I’m coming from without me having to explain much.
So going back this year felt like visiting old friends. For three days we discussed several aspects of the modern “nomadic” family. We tried to define it, describe it, highlight the rewards and address the challenges it faces. Of all the different subjects that were brought up, many of which my FIGT colleagues will certainly write about, I want to talk about two phrases that I heard that have stayed with me. They were both by our keynote speakers.
As part of her brilliant solo performance that concluded the conference on Sunday, global nomad actress and writer Lisa Liang, impatient with people constantly asking her where she’s from, answers: “I am not from a place. I am from people.” The day before, another citizen of the world, Dr. Fanta Aw, described family as a mosaic of relationships. Her definition of family as “the people that we claim and the people who claim us” also made an impression.
I found both phrases powerful because they touch upon two fundamental concepts – family and home. These are universal concepts, but especially for those of us who have chosen the nomad’s life, they tend to be dynamic and constantly evolving. My visions of home and family are much different now from what they were when I embarked on my mobile journey. I don’t think I’m the only one. The two phrases I mentioned are indicative of this transformation.
First, home. The more we move around, the less relevant geography becomes to our sense of belonging. Especially if we have had a mobile childhood, but also for those of us who entered this kind of life as adults, it is not place that defines us. We look elsewhere for affiliation and connection, for our sense of home. We find those in people. Our people become our home. We belong to them, instead of belonging to a place.
Who are these people? They are our family, but not in the traditional sense. They are our family, irrespective of whether we are related by blood. Given the kind of lives we lead, it is unlikely that we will find ourselves in the same place as our blood family anyway – at least most of the time. Instead, new people enter our lives constantly and often that network of relationships we build becomes our extended family; the family we choose. These family-members-by-association don’t replace our original family, but they expand it. They enrich our lives, they become our support system, they help us grow. We do the same for them. We become their family.

So our concept of family, like our concept of home, evolves. And that’s a blessing. Don’t you think?

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Our stories, our roots

A few weeks ago, I entered my neighbourhood café in Athens, laptop in hand, intending to take advantage of an hour free of household-related distractions (lovingly loud Greek family, adoringly attached toddler) to do some work. The place was full, so I asked an elderly gentleman if I could join him. He was sitting on the couch at the corner, not knowing that it was my favourite spot. He smiled warmly, invitingly. “Of course, please sit down. I just got here as well.” He stood up to go get his coffee from the counter, but his hands were shaking and, on his way back, he spilled a little on the lady who was sitting at the table next to us. He apologized profusely. He was visibly embarrassed. “That’s what happens when you get old...” The lady was really nice about it. “It could happen to anyone,” she said kindly and gave him a big smile. She saw me watching and smiled at me too.

Soon after he sat down, a friend of his entered the café. I guessed that they probably met there every morning because they didn’t look surprised to see each other. Instead of a greeting, the newcomer started reciting a passage from Plato’s “Republic,” something about the blessing of celibacy in old age. It was meant to be funny and they both laughed. Very naturally, as if they were continuing an unfinished conversation, they started talking about politics, the state of the economy, the state of their country, switching back and forth between the present and “the old days…” Occasionally, they threw in a passage from some Greek literary work or a quote from a historical figure to illustrate how it’s all linked, the then and the now. At some point, this being Greece, there was a brief, light-hearted argument about who would pay for the coffees (“You invited me last time, now it’s my turn” “No, it was you who invited me! You’re becoming forgetful in your old age”), coming to a peaceful conclusion (“Well, I’ll let you invite me, but only if you agree to officially adopt me”).

I found the whole scene so extraordinarily charming, that I’d forgotten about my work. I was captivated, absorbed by their conversation. A few times I couldn’t help but smile and as they noticed, they smiled back timidly, apologetically, with an almost paternal “So sorry to distract you from your work, my girl;” or “I apologise for my friend. He talks way too much.”

Eventually, they had to leave because their grandchildren were waiting for them to take them to the playground “now that the weather has warmed up” (it was already 20 degrees Celsius that morning, but for Greek standards not warm enough for children to be out and about).

I wished they’d stay. I felt an unexpected connection with these elderly men. I appreciated where they were coming from. I got their stories. The way they talked and behaved – with dignity, respect, affection – resonated with me. Their words, infused with a sense of rootedness and history spoke to me. I felt that we shared the same values; that their stories were my stories, their roots my roots.

I realised later that I felt more connected to those representatives of another generation than to any of my own. Maybe it was because their stories showed me where I come from – my life’s trajectory, that of my parents. They knew my story because they are my story. Maybe the older I become, the more interested I am in that aspect of my identity.


I suspect that I managed to hold on to that connection because I left Greece. My link was not eroded by the everyday. I was not disillusioned by current events. I did not rebel or disengage, like young people my age have. Surprisingly, I think that for the same reason – because I left – I am not as connected to my own generation. We haven’t shared the milestones, the victories, the frustrations, the hopes or the disappointments. We don’t share a present or a future. I wasn’t there and, most likely, I won’t be there. As sad as that makes me sometimes, I know that I can always look to the past and find a sense of belonging. Is this just me or are there more who have felt this way?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Variations on a home

I have long given up the belief that one should have only one home. Having multiple homes almost goes together with being a perpetual foreigner. We often end up having different places that we call home. But not only places. Our homes usually have many dimensions beyond the geographical. They can be feelings, people or landscapes. They can be moments in time – a look, a facial expression, an embrace. Our homes engage all our senses. A smell, a piece of music, a song, a story we heard, a memory – all can evoke home. Our many homes – whether they are physical, emotional, relational or other – can coexist harmoniously. They are part of us. We don’t have to choose; we just enjoy.

You know that you belong to that tribe – the one with the multiple homes – when you return from visiting home and still feel ok. The first time that happened to me – not being completely torn apart even though I had just come back – I was surprised and relieved. I was never particularly fond of that recurring process and the associated emotions that had been torturing me for years. Realising that it felt good to be back, that I even looked forward to being back somewhere other than the place that I considered home, was a revelation and a delight. Of course, I didn’t feel that way in every place I lived. But when I did, it was splendid.

I embraced the multiple homes theory with conviction. I believed, however, that no matter where home is and no matter how many of those we have, the feeling of home is constant and universal. There are certain reasons why we feel at home. Most often, it’s about comfort – the comfort we find in familiarity and routines, in the memories we’ve built and the roots we’ve put down, in the presence of people we love. But not always.

Having just spent two weeks traveling among three homes, I get the sense that the feeling of home is a little more complicated than that. How else can I explain feeling equally at home when I look at the endless expanse of snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake in the city where I live – a landscape to which I have no personal “historical” connection – as when I catch the first glimpse of the deep blue sea of my childhood, stretching beneath me when we are about to land in my Mediterranean home?

When I’m in my current home, I feel the excitement of discovering a new land and gradually becoming part of a community; but I also seek the safe haven of my family and our routines, the bliss of watching our children thrive and belong. I admire the rootedness of the people around me, their strong love for their country, even if I’m not one of them or ever will be, at least not fully. All are equally valid reasons why I feel at home. When I go back to one of my “other” homes, the feelings are no less intense – but so different. I savour the way the colours of the landscape light up under the sun. I delight in the way people interact with each other; their kindness mixed with respect and an ever-present consciousness of roots and history. I marvel at their conviction that they live in the most beautiful, most blessed country in the world. When I’m there, it is inconceivable that I could live without all that. Yet I do. Happily, with only the tiniest bit of nostalgia.


How do we manage to reconcile all the different associations we make with home and still end up with the same essential feeling? I don’t have an answer for that. What matters more to me is enjoying those incandescent moments of perfect clarity, when I know there’s nowhere else I would rather be, when I know I’m home. Wherever that is.