Category: home

Recent Posts

Heart and home

 

Sometimes we recognise home by contrast. We know when we are not home; we miss it. We also recognise the particular ways in which home has shaped us when we are away from home. As usual, it is the little things that give it away. I was in Vienna last weekend and it took me a while – a few bewildered looks, actually – to realise that I was merrily spreading grüetzis all around. I did manage to get my compulsive distribution of Swiss German greetings under control eventually, but wasn’t it only a few months ago that I got rid of the opposite impulse – greeting people in Zurich in a typical Austrian way – so that I would stop being singled out as the foreigner? When did the switch happen – from one home to the other?
There were other little things indicating that home might have changed – like the taste of my favourite drink which was not what it used to be; or the fact that the person who made it for me did not recognise me any more. Having a home is a lot about creating and maintaining routines and rituals. When we leave, these are a big part of what we miss. I am usually wary of my ability to create new routines when I move. Surely they will not – cannot – be as satisfying or as special as the old ones. Yet, somehow I manage to (re)build my life around such routines every time. A couple of days ago, I was walking home from my morning ritual, favourite drink in hand, and my mind went to a very similar scene from another morning – in Vienna. Different place, same ritual. I’d come home.
Is it just me – being a routine-seeking, habit-cherishing person? Or are we all, to different degrees, programmed to seek home that way, over and over again? How easy is it to get over the essential elements of home and replace them with new ones that become as essential?
As perplexing as it was to discover the ways in which Vienna was no longer home, I came to terms with it. At the same time, finding out, only moments later, that it very much is home felt like the most natural thing in the world. All it took was spending time
with dear friends and watching all the distance, the months, even years that we had
not seen each other become irrelevant with that one first look. Again, I’d come home.
Can your heart be in one place and your home in another? And are the two ever going to coincide when we keep moving ourselves from one location to the next?

The space between

I have wanted to write this post for a while. A comment on a previous post made me think about how we – foreigners, expats, global nomads – raise our children; the choices we make with respect to their education; our aspirations, explicit and implicit, for their present and future lives. While we each have our own ideas, methods and child-rearing philosophies, there seems to be a common pattern: many of us want to turn our children into expanded versions of our – international – selves.

We go to great lengths to broaden their horizons; to open their minds to different cultures, people and perspectives; to make them multilingual, multidimensional, multicultural, citizens of the world. We speak to them in our mother tongues and teach them about our native cultures. We travel with them; send them to international schools; hire native speakers as caregivers to teach them their languages; sign them up for immersion camps and exchange years abroad. And this does not only happen in bicultural or multicultural families; I know several couples who come from the same culture, speak the same language and decide to raise their children bilingually.
We make all these efforts to equip our children with their world citizen identity, knowing that at the same time, we are pulling them further and further away from any
specific cultural identity. They will learn to embrace our home cultures, but will never be native in any of them, since they will not have lived in them. They will travel and live in many different places and the world will be their oyster but where exactly will be their place in that world? Like us, our children will be neither here nor there. They will inhabit an intermediate space: the transitional, the “almost home,” but not really. They will be foreigners like us, only an enhanced version.
The paradox is that we raise them to be perpetual foreigners even though we struggle with our own foreignness. Why do we set them up for that kind of life? Do we recognise benefits for them that outweigh the challenges and adversity that
they will confront?
Absolutely. We actually want them to have that life – our life. We want them to experience the richness, the stimulation, the
excitement. They may often feel like foreigners, but what they will have seen and learned and experienced will make up for that – in our book. They may feel homeless and rootless sometimes, but only in conventional terms. Essentially, they can always be at home, because their concept of home will become deeper and much more portable. And yes, they will get lonely and miss their friends, who will be spread out all over the world, but their life will be richer because of those friends.
That said, they didn’t choose this life. What if, at some point in the future, they turn around and tell us that they would rather have lived in one place, put down roots in one
community and made lifelong friends? What will we tell them then? Most of us just
keep hoping that moment will never come.

What if

 

My seasonal foreignness was not so bad this year.
Maybe because I was too busy vacationing to deal with existential issues. Maybe because when you are expecting something, it is almost never as bad as you expect it to be. It wasn’t. The irony is that when things go well on the foreignness front, another set of existential issues comes to the surface – the “what ifs.”
I felt cosy and comfortable being around family, seeing familiar faces that I had not seen in a while and meeting some new ones. It was – momentarily and in the un-real-life context of a vacation – as if I had never left. One thing led to another and at some point, I could not help thinking, wondering how it would feel if I actually lived there. What would happen if I returned? What would real life there look like? Would my children be happy? Would I still feel like a foreigner at home and if I did, would that be such a
big deal?
I indulged myself, building scenarios in my head,
imagining scenes from our daily life in Athens. I visualised the late summer days, still warm and sunny, with the evenings a little bit cooler and the sun setting earlier, announcing the onset of autumn. The city filling up again. The first autumn rain after several months of dryness (there is actually a word for that in Greek). What would it be like to spend winter there again and not just a couple of sun-drenched weeks on the beach? Would I create my own daily routines? Would the constant presence of my extended family be bliss or torture? Would I get used – again – to calling 15 degrees Celsius (the temperature this August morning in my current home town) “winter temperatures?” Would I be able to reconnect with all those – inevitably – long lost friends? Would I make new ones?
For a moment there, I did not think of all the reasons why this is an impossible scenario. I did not rationalise and it felt good. I felt free. But eventually, I did feel sad. Because the “what if…?” is always followed by the “why not.” Without a question mark at the end.

Seasonal foreignness

 

Every year , around the start of summer vacation, I hear the same familiar complaint from my children: “Why do we always have to go to Greece for vacation? Why can’t we go somewhere else for a change?” Every year, my answer is the same (including the part where I tell them how spoiled they are and that other kids – not to mention adults – would be thrilled to go to Greece for
vacation, while they are being so difficult about it): “Because your mother is from Greece, which makes you half-Greek, and this is our home.” But is it really?
Lately, I have been reading a lot about what happens to people when they move back to their home country after having lived abroad; how the experience is predictably rewarding but can also be unpredictably challenging. The fact that the challenges catch most people completely by surprise is the main reason why repatriation is so hard to cope with. Not having been through it myself, I have been trying to find ways to relate to that experience, so that I can write about it.
In fact, a lot of what I have been reading about re-entry reminds me of what happens when I return home for longer periods of time, which is the case every summer. Many expatriates who go back to their passport countries find that home does not feel like home any more; that they have become foreigners where they least expected that to happen; that their loyalty is divided between two (or more) “homes.” That’s something to which I can relate. It does not make such a big impression on me now – maybe because I have been used to it over the years – but being home always reveals that split in my life and in my identity. On the one hand, I have a strong bond with Greece. It overwhelms me with euphoria the moment the airplane touches down on Greek soil and crushes me with nostalgia when that other airplane takes me away. I love everything about “my” country – its natural beauty and its (disorganised) chaos; the warmth of the weather and that of the people; the fact that I can understand both the text and the subtext when I interact with them; the feeling of belonging.
On the other hand, when I am in Greece, I am always the visitor; the tourist; the foreigner. Nothing much is expected of me. I am not supposed to completely fit in, but that feels strange rather than liberating. There are moments when I miss the comfort of being a foreigner somewhere where I am actually justified in being one, rather than somewhere where I really shouldn’t. And, of course, after a while
I start missing my “other” home; my house; my routines. To quote Kundera, (my) life is elsewhere.
Many of us perpetual foreigners experience this duality – the “split personality,” the unexpected emotional connections to different places at the same time. The contrast is always there, but it is only when we come “home” that it becomes blindingly obvious.
Do you feel foreign, at home?

Closing doors

 

When one door closes, another opens…right? I hadn’t known that the famous quote from Alexander Graham Bell goes on to add: “…but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Being able to close some doors and open others, to look ahead and not back should be key skills to have when one leads the nomadic life. Isn’t that a large part of what we do when we move constantly from one place to the next – dismantle our existence and
rebuild it, in a slightly different way, somewhere else; close one door and open another?
Does this mean that all of us who choose the mobile life have what it takes – namely the ability to let go and move on in absolute smoothness? Is there hope for those of us who are not naturals and find it extremely difficult to close doors – despite being excited about the ones that open? Even though we do get better at it with every move, it is always hard. And painful. Sometimes heart-breaking.
It helps not to see it in absolute terms. Yes, we should be getting better at closing doors, but we don’t need to close them all the way. We should be developing our proficiency to
bravely and skilfully move on to a new life, but there are elements of our previous life that have become part of our identity and make us who we are. We don’t close the door to those the same way that we don’t close the door to the people from our various past lives. That makes it easier – at least when you are an adult and can reason that way.
It’s different for kids. They see things in much more absolute terms. They don’t think in terms of the big picture.
When we left Vienna last summer, we were not sure how long we would be away, so we asked the schools to “reserve” spots for our children for
another year, in case we came back. That year has passed and yesterday we had to officially give up those places. As happy as I am with our new life here and all the new doors that it has opened, it still felt strange to close the last “old” door that was still open.
I’m not sure how the children will react when we tell them. They could see this as a sign of stability in their new life; less uncertainty. But it could also be that, in the back of their mind, those reserved spots were a silent promise that they could always go back; a secret outlet for when they were not too happy with their life here. Do we take away that outlet? Or do we wait until the excitement about the new doors becomes more powerful than the regret about the ones that are now closed? Even if, in the grand scheme of things, they are not really closed.