Tag: roots

Recent Posts
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?

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.