Tag: belonging

Recent Posts
expat, home

Home is what you make it

“I see you.” As Doug Ota said in his moving keynote speech that concluded this year’s Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT15), we exist in the eyes of others. I see you. I see into you. I understand who you
are. We exist in the eyes of our tribe. We are at home,
with our tribe. We are “seen.”
Just like every year, coming to FIGT15 was like coming home – to my tribe. I was not the only one who felt that way. For the majority of the 150 or so participants from all over the world who braved the weather conditions and made it to Washington, D.C. that first weekend of March, this was home. First-time attendees and veterans alike, we had found our tribe.
We were seen, understood, “gotten.”
This year I had the privilege of being able to combine this annual ritual of finding home and being with my tribe, with my passion, which is to explore exactly that – how we, perpetual foreigners, find home. The theme of this year’s conference – “Finding ‘Home’ Amidst Global Change” – has occupied me for years. I have been researching, talking and writing about it and wanted to share some of that. Presenting one of the Concurrent Sessions at FIGT15 was thrilling, stimulating and rewarding. The audience was probably the most welcoming and responsive audience one could wish for. I shared their energy; I learned from them; I came away with a richer perspective and a sense of gratitude.
I’ve been asked several times for a copy of my presentation, so here’s a summary:
“Home is What You Make It: How Our
Concept of Home Shapes The Way We Move”
Why do we feel at home in some places but not in others? Why are there times when connection is almost immediate, while other times we struggle to find a sense of belonging? I believe that this has to do with our concept of home and how it affects the way we handle transitions; how it influences the strategies we use to adjust and
create home every time we move.
In my research, I saw emerge three broad themes that home evokes; three dimensions that pervade most concepts of home: Home as Place, Home as Feeling and Home as People.
Home as Place is the traditional definition of home, where geography is the defining aspect. We can be rooted in place and that place can be as narrow as a specific room filled with familiar stuff that gives us comfort; as broad as a landscape that speaks to our soul and makes us feel grounded; and everything in-between.
Home as Feeling refers to the emotional dimension of home: feeling a sense of belonging, safety, comfort, authenticity, love. Home can be a
single moment, a taste, a smell, an image, a sound or anything that evokes those feelings.
Finally, Home is People. We feel at home when we are with the people we love – whether these are our family, our close friends or our “tribe” – the people who “get” us and with whom we connect at a deeper level.
The need for home is a universal human need. But for us foreigners –who take the leap outside the normal paradigm of home – it is even more central: it shapes the way we experience expat life, how we reap its rewards and cope with its challenges. Our quest for home (and the kind of home we look for) affects how we cope with transitions and how we fare through them; how we constantly pack, unpack and repack our life; how we rebuild, recover and reconnect.
Different concepts of home often lead to different
strategies for finding home. These include gravitating towards particular landscapes that evoke in us a sense of home; choosing to live in a bubble that offers us comfort and homeliness; creating a physical home that makes us feel grounded; establishing (and transferring) rituals and routines that create continuity and familiarity; and nurturing relationships, whether that involves connecting with our close family or finding our tribe.
No one strategy is better than the others. There is
only what works best for each one of us; the strategy that helps us find the comfort of belonging and home. Reflecting on our experience and becoming conscious of our core concept(s) of home helps us make better transitions. If we can use that fundamental sense of home as a guide, if we know what we need and what to look for when we cross cultures and create new lives, then we can find home wherever we are.
Linked to #MyGlobalLife linkup at SmallPlanetStudio.com

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?
expat, home

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?

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.

Counting blessings

Although today’s post is not technically about crossing cultures or the expat life, essentially it is. To start, I am writing it from a place halfway around the world from where I call home; a place that has become home for a loved one, a member of my family. Though this was the main reason for visiting Vancouver, the city is also home to some other very special people in our life, so how could I be surprised when I felt an immediate connection to this city – its landscape, its vibe and most of all, its people. Besides all the personal reasons, I should have guessed this would happen from the pure fact that Vancouver is built on the shores of an ocean. I was bound to feel at home here. What I did not guess was that the main reason I would feel so welcome from day one would be the people. I have been to a few places – my current home included – where people are pleasant, polite and welcoming, but not yet to a place where all that is overlaid by an air of unambiguous authenticity and warmth. This is not your typical North American friendliness – there is a sincerity and kindness to it that makes it unique.

On our second day here, even though we had not slept well the night before and were still being brutally assaulted by jet lag, we decided to walk to the waterfront. Unfortunately, we overestimated our energy levels and after a couple of hours, the kids were tired and needy. No wonder. Their bodies must have felt confused. Schedules, mealtimes and nap times were all still a jumble. I was running out of patience, being exhausted myself. Just as we had finally managed to find a taxi to get back to our hotel (since nobody was up for walking), my youngest insisted on getting in the car by himself and, in his attempt, fell into a puddle of dirty rainwater.

That was probably the last straw for me, because I lost it. As I started fussing about how I’d had enough of all this and all I wanted was to go back home to Switzerland, an elderly lady who was passing by, overheard me and stopped. She took my hand and told me to calm down. She looked in my eyes and said: “As long as the sun is shining [which it was], you cannot be upset.” She pointed to my children and said that I should be thankful for such a beautiful and healthy family. “Besides,” she concluded, “how can you be unhappy when you are in Canada – the best country in the world?”

She said all that in such a gentle, non-judgmental manner that I felt embarrassed for having made a fuss. Her English had a barely detectable accent, which made me think that she might not have grown up in Vancouver, but had felt happy and comfortable enough there to make it her home – the best place in the world. Her kindness and wisdom left their mark on me. I really do feel thankful for everything I’ve got.
Leading a nomadic life is not always easy. It is rewarding, but it is also challenging. Not everything runs smoothly all the time. There is loneliness, exhaustion, frustration, even anger sometimes. When I feel that way, it helps me to remember the words of the wise lady who stopped me on the street that day in Vancouver. Stop and smell the flowers. Take a deep breath. Count your blessings. We tend to forget to do that, but it really works.