Tag: home

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Technology and finding home…elsewhere?

Imagine yourself moving country twenty years ago. How do you prepare for your encounter with a new place, a new culture, new people? If you have the luxury of time, you do some homework before moving. You go to your local library, take out books on the country or city you are moving to, study them. They give you a rough idea of what to expect. If you are moving to a place where you don’t speak the language, you take lessons or get hold of language tapes and books, perhaps a pocket phrasebook that you will carry with you during the first few months. Since you probably don’t know anyone yet in the new place, you ask around in your circle of friends for friends or acquaintances you can contact –usually through letter or phone call. When you move, you spend the first week or two looking for a place to live – reading the classifieds, talking to real estate agents, visiting. Then, there’s a whole range of logistics to take care of, from setting up bank accounts, credit cards and
transferring money, to making sure that your new place has a phone connection and that
your bills are paid.
Moving today is a whole different reality. To educate yourself about the place you are moving to, you hardly resort to books any more. There are so many websites, from Wikipedia to information and news sites, resource portals, discussion forums, blogs and magazines dealing with every possible aspect of life in the country you pick. You can get the real picture from real people in real time; you can compare sources and views; you can ask questions. If you want to learn a new language, you can still take a course; but in the meantime, Google Translate is quite effective, at least to get stuff done in the first few weeks. You do a lot of the paperwork and logistics of the move online. You look for housing online. You start building your new social network online: you join the local expat club or tap into the multitude of networking sites, online communities and local Meetup groups to connect with people who live in your new home – before you even get there.
Technology, in particular the Internet, has changed the way we move and find home. Anyone who started their foreigner journey in pre-Internet or early Internet times will agree that the tools and resources available to today’s expats have simplified the logistics of moving, massively reducing the hassle of preparing and executing a move.
So it’s all good at the practical level. But what happens with the emotional aspects of moving?Technology has made moving easier than ever but has it also made it easier to find home wherever we move – or harder?
In the past, we had no choice. When we moved somewhere, we had to live in the here and now. Whether we liked it or not, that was our reality. Now, there are so many realities to choose from. It is so easy to live elsewhere, virtually, on a permanent basis, if we want. We can shop online, communicate and connect online, get our information online. I can sit in a café in the middle of Zurich and Skype with my family in Athens or Berlin, read the New York Times and listen to the news on the BBC. I don’t have to know what’s happening in Switzerland if I don’t want to. A friend of mine, who never looks
at the local news where she lives, told me that she often risks embarrassment when something major happens in her country, because she is completely unaware!
As distances are minimized, physically and virtually, does our ability to put down roots, build and sustain relationships, feel like we belong – where we are, physically – diminish as well? Do we become more scattered – and is that a bad thing or does it just mean that our concept of home has changed? What does home look like when we choose to live
elsewhere?

Moving and that irritating neutral zone

In my last blog post, I wrote about being in transition – how I have often used it as an excuse to avoid making decisions and moving on with my life. Given that there will always be some aspect of our life that is temporary or uncertain, I argued, we should not use transition as a pretext for putting life on hold and staying in a “neutral zone” forever. Even though it feels like I wrote it yesterday, that post was six months ago. That’s how long it took me to emerge from the neutral zone of my latest move.
Moving is as transitional as it gets. The hardest part about moving, for me, is not the work involved in packing and unpacking our whole existence, with all the associated crises and catastrophes, big and small. My biggest challenge is making it through that nerve-wracking phase of constantly searching for stuff. You know, the weeks (or months) after you have moved into a new place, when you cannot find anything – or rather, you can find things, but not the things you need and definitely not when you need them. The time it takes for you to get used to where everything belongs, including yourself, that’s the neutral zone between leaving one home and creating another.
Moves sometimes are like black holes that make our lives, as we know them, disappear – thankfully not forever. That irritating searching phase is only one way in which that happens. How do people deal with that? Is there a way to shorten the neutral zone and not feel like the move is taking over our existence, forcing us to put everything on hold? I have been thinking a lot about these questions because for the past six months, I have
missed doing things that I love – including writing. Creating a new home, even with existing “material,” is exciting and inspiring; and it is all consuming. Everything else tends to be relegated to second, third, fourth place, joining a long list of things one will do “when settled.” But that takes a very long time. Half a year is a very long time to put everything on hold.
Every move has been a learning experience and
this one has taught me that it’s important not to fully immerse, thinking that it will speed up the process. It’s worth more to allow myself to keep doing what I am passionate about – even if it is in small installments; to find the time and space to engage with what energizes and motivates me; to not have my life on hold, even if only for a few minutes every day. Remaining connected to the  part of me that functions and creates outside the move gives me the strength and inspiration to put together the perfect home. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
I’d love to know – does a move take over your life and how do you cope with that?
expat, home

Other people’s homes

For us nomads, home is a subject that we constantly come across, touch upon, confront. We have to make sense of it in order to make sense of our lives. We ponder, explore and evaluate our
sense of home, what we need to feel at home, how we go about creating it. We value and protect it. Our home. The home of our partner. The home of our children. But what about the home of others – not our family or friends, but
people we don’t know, haven’t met before, total strangers? What if that home is at stake? How does that make us feel and what do we do about it?
I was sitting, again, in my neighbourhood café in Athens doing some work, when I noticed an elderly lady come in. I only guessed her age from the lines on her face, because she certainly wasn’t dressed or behaving like an old lady. She was rather elegant, though low-key, in her red leather jacket and dark pants, a leather bag hanging from her shoulder. She was holding a cane, limping slightly, but she wasn’t hunched, as often happens with age. She stood upright, though her eyes were cast downwards. She seemed shy.
I was taken aback when I saw her going from table to table, asking people if they could offer her some help. This woman was not your typical beggar. But then again, this has become a relatively common sight in my country in recent years – people who used to be
well off, leading what we would call ‘normal’ lives, being rapidly and ruthlessly reduced to poverty, desperation and the need to survive forcing them to ask for help.
Most people gave her coins; very few ignored her. Across from me, a middle-aged mother was just sitting down with her two kids. She was still busy getting them settled with their drinks and food, when the elderly lady approached her. The mother took one look at the lady and I could tell that she knew exactly what to do. Without hesitating, she
asked her if she could offer her something to eat instead of giving her money. The elderly lady accepted, and the two of them went to the counter together, where the mother bought her a sandwich and a coffee. If I hadn’t witnessed the beginning of their interaction, I would have thought they are two friends having coffee. I could almost feel the gratitude I saw in the elderly lady’s eyes as she tucked the food in her bag and swiftly got on her way. I saw her thankfulness, but also a sense of relief that she could interrupt what she was doing, at least for now. I saw an urge to get out of the café as fast as she could; to escape from a reality that wasn’t hers.
I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of that gesture; the instant recognition of how hard this must have been; the almost instinctive act to try to salvage what was at stake, even a minuscule part of it. The elderly lady’s home was at stake – emotionally and probably also literally – and the mother’s gesture indicated to me that she understood that; she knew how vital that sense of home was.
Because isn’t home a feeling of security and comfort; an ability to be our true self? And isn’t dignity part of that true self? For the elderly lady, preserving her sense of dignity, being true to herself was vital for sustaining her sense of home. She was holding on
to that dignity, through the way she dressed and through her behaviour, even while engaging in an act that effectively stripped her of it, therefore threatening to leave her homeless.
Most people at the café, but especially that mother, got that. With the way they reacted to her approach, they played their part in helping her sustain that dignity – at least
for a moment. Their kindness and compassion essentially kept her from being homeless – emotionally, if not literally.
Sometimes we are almost as protective of other people’s homes as we are of our own. Such little acts of saving home are proof of that, even if it takes a crisis to get us there. 

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up 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?