Tag: expatriate

Recent Posts

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.

Rootedness and openness

We took the kids to a “family” concert last weekend, part of a series offered by Zurich’s main concert hall. The theme was Christmas
singing. There were several children’s choirs taking part and a program that extended from folk songs to Christmas carols to classical choral pieces. When I booked the tickets, I thought that this would be a very “Swiss” event, perfect to get into the Christmas spirit of our adopted hometown. I was not expecting to find, featured prominently among the several local community choirs, that of the International School of Zug and Lucerne; and later, wedged in-between the many lovely German and Swiss-German tunes, a section of the concert dedicated to English ones. Not to mention the interspersed orchestral pieces by a Polish composer and a traditional Estonian Christmas song. “Jingle Bells,” Benjamin Britten and “Grüezi wohl, Herr Samichlaus” somehow all fit perfectly together. A slightly different, and perhaps more powerful experience than I had expected.
Before we moved here, I had read about how attached the Swiss are to their homeland; how intensely homesick they get when they are away and how they don’t last long before they succumb to the urge to return. In fact, homesickness as a term was coined
in the 17th century to describe the condition also known as “Swiss illness” (mal du Suisse) – the pain frequently felt by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home, who would pine for their native landscapes. My favourite passage about the particular relationship the Swiss have to their home is from a book called The Geography
of Bliss
by Eric Weiner:

The Swiss are deeply rooted in place. Their passports list the name of their ancestral town. Not their hometown but the town of their roots. Maybe they weren’t born there. Maybe they’ve never even been there. But it is their home. It’s said
that the Swiss only become Swiss upon leaving the country. Until then, they are Genevans or Zurichers, or otherwise defined by wherever they happen to come from.

One would have expected that focus on one’s home and roots would be accompanied by a certain neglect towards the outside; a lack of interest leading to a lack of attention. Nothing like the pure openness that I felt at that Christmas concert. As a foreigner, I was not simply an observer of a beautiful holiday tradition; I was invited to become part of it. I felt included, welcomed, embraced.
Maybe I did not expect that, but it makes absolute sense. Being rooted in place, even if that is a tiny little spot on the map, makes the Swiss feel grounded. It is exactly that rootedness, the confidence and security that it brings – about one’s core identity, among others – that makes one open to the outside. It’s the grounding that makes one willing to acknowledge, include, integrate the foreign (and the foreigner), without worrying that they will somehow dilute or otherwise corrupt that
identity. That’s a big part of why I – and many other foreigners – feel at home here. At that concert, I did not feel any less of a foreigner than I usually do. I did feel, however, that my foreignness is something enriching; something to be appreciated and celebrated.
Holidays can be a confusing time for those of us who have chosen to lead a mobile life. Sometimes we are torn between so many different traditions and customs, that we don’t know which one(s) to choose and when we do, often our choices seem like an incoherent mishmash. Last weekend, the Swiss taught me that might not be such a bad thing after all.
Happy holidays everyone.

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.

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.