Tag: home

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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.

The language of foreignness

Last week I read an article on how our personality changes when we speak different languages and it reminded me of a conversation I had years ago. A good friend and I were talking
about our “mobile” life and the challenges of adjusting to different environments every time we moved. I asked her how she felt about having to function in a language other than her native one – she is a Spanish speaker in a German-speaking country. “I get by fine,” she said, being quite fluent in German, “but I am only an adapted version of myself in that language.” Somehow, switching to German managed to turn this lively, assertive, energetic Mediterranean woman into a much tamer, quieter, shy person. I thought of my own French or German persona and how different it was from the Greek one.

The image we project in different languages differs – especially when our level of proficiency differs among those languages. It is not unusual to be more reserved than our usual self when we don’t feel confident enough to express ourselves in a foreign language. My husband often says that his IQ drops by at least 30 points when he speaks French. I feel intellectually challenged when I try to function in a language that I don’t master. While I struggle to make a point and get frustrated when I can’t, someone who does not know me may assume that I don’t actually have a point to make.
The opposite can also happen, though more rarely: we may feel more confident in a language that’s not our own. Another friend of mine discovered that there was a language that fit better with her personality than her native one. Although she came from North America and grew up speaking English and French, after learning Spanish as an adult, she realised that she felt more herself, more genuine in that language than in the ones with which she was raised. So she gravitated towards everything Spanish – both in her professional and personal life – because in that context she felt more connected and more genuine.
When we move around a lot – unless we are perfectly versed in all the languages of the places we move to (which most of us are not) – language is a big part of the foreigner experience. While it might be fun to slip into different characters and switch between personalities depending on the language we speak, it also makes it harder for us to be our true selves all the time. Doesn’t this inability to feel authentic and genuine, make us feel even more foreign? Doesn’t it make adjustment more complicated and challenging? How do we deal with that?
I used to disapprove of people who moved away from their home country only to end up socialising with the same kids of people – from back home or from similar cultures. Greeks seeking out other Greeks; Francophones or Anglo-Saxons clustering together. Typical expats, in my condescending opinion, wasting a unique opportunity to enlarge their horizons and enrich their lives; stagnating rather than moving forward. Then I moved to countries whose language I did not master and, over time, I understood. When you are assembling and disassembling (and reassembling) your life multiple times over, in the process of reinventing yourself, you sometimes lose track of who you are – at the core. So there are moments when you need to be able to feel genuine; to be yourself; when you crave the comfort of authenticity. And for most of us (though there are exceptions, of course), despite our multicultural, multilingual upbringing and multiple exotic experiences, that can only happen in one language. We do not necessarily seek out people who speak our “comfort language” to that we can continue to lead the same life we led back home; we seek them because it feels good to be ourselves from time to time. In our nomadic life, that comfort is essential.

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.