Bouncing off the map
Let’s have a chat about belonging, cultural identity, migration and finding a home wherever you are, for all those who are relocating or thinking to, for all those dreaming to live abroad but too scared to take the final step, to ease up all the contrasting feelings that moving country can fire up and reassure everyone that is going to get better!
Personally, I have been trying to wrap my head around the concept of settling down where I should, for far too long. Most of my life has been a struggle between setting myself free from society expectations and what just felt right to me and falling back into their grasp. Over and over.
I didn’t feel like I belonged to my country of origin since my early teens and felt bad about it since. Unsure of what I was looking for I stumbled between the country and the city, between Paris and Milan and eventually took the leap and went to Kenya. The country of my dreams, the place where I felt I belonged, despite I had never set foot in it.
I know it all sounds crazy but I know now that for some of us, life is not about well meditated decisions and effective strategies but more about instinctive moves and leaps of faith. The truth comes from our gut. Our brains have unfortunately lost the ability to tell us what is right for us, the truth is still there but too many layers have been built up for it to surface. Confining ideas and social and cultural pressure hold it hostage. You can’t access it any longer. Fortunately our second brain does not fall for that and it’s still there, guiding us in its mysterious and unpredictable ways.
Since I started listening to its voice, my life has been about bouncing off the map: Kenya and Italy, Scotland and England. All places apparently unrelated with me and each other but deeply connected in the threads of my personal journey and search for a place to call home. For a home of my choice. For my identity.
Recently, I have experienced yet another bounce and I have to admit, it doesn’t get easier because you are used to it. On the contrary, it gets harder. You have more luggage to carry, you have more responsibilities for other people’s happiness, you have more history. You will always miss part of what you leave behind and you will always feel excited about what’s coming. You will never belong like you once belonged to the land of your birth, before you ever left, before you ever lived abroad, before you started being a migrant.
Nostalgia becomes a constant companion of your days. Your kitchen pantry fills up more and more with exotic ingredients that you bring to your table trying to keep the “everywhere” with you, every day, because you miss it, because it’s become a part of you. Your closet looks ethnic and somehow dysfunctional. Do you even know what is your style is anymore?
Conversations at home start sounding like a Babel market square: different tongues intertwine and play together to convey meaning that one language alone simply cannot translate. Too rich for just one idiom. You feel that if you would constrain it to one language you would be losing all those nuances that are so important. Language is part of the feel of a place, it speaks its culture, its habits, its sense of humour and its life force. You are from different places, so you need all their idioms and dialects to effectively express yourself.
Your friends are scattered around the world. You talk on Skype, Facetime and keep in touch with social media. You feel like they understand you like no-one else. They know what it takes to undergo all the administrative crap you have to deal with every time you change country: editing your address from the millions of websites you have entered it in, closing subscriptions, opening new ones, registering for services, finding your new tax number and finally looking at the puzzled face of your auditor trying to keep up with everything you have done that year while secretly thinking “what the hell is wrong with this woman”. You laugh at jokes most people would struggle to understand and experience that deep connection that ties nomadic souls regardless of place and time.
You observe your children growing up, real citizens of the world, dressing like English people, walking barefoot no matter what like Kenyans, raging like proper Italians… and when they ask you where they are from, what’s their nationality, you explain them about passports and citizenships, double nationalities, places of birth and various education systems, while thinking how all this is just scraping the surface and brushing the real issues of cultural identity, heritage, ancestry and moreover humanity.
So here I am. Back to England. A country I utterly adore and I am so excited to discover anew, in a different area, with different people. And of course for those who might like to ask, I will miss Italy, the food, the family, the familiar places, the language that like no other can express the thousands souls of my home country. And I will miss Kenya, the place that will always be home because I left my heart there and there is no way to retrieve it. I will miss Scotland too, the rough coastline, the cliffs, the open space and the wilderness, the northern lights and the wind swept landscape of the highlands.
It’s been hard this time to leave, again. Harder. I had an incredible turmoil of emotions to deal with before I could actually start enjoying the new adventure. Fears, doubts, anxiety, excitement. A cocktail I drank for weeks every day and every night. I needed time to myself. I needed to regroup. I beat myself up because I should be better at this. I have done it so many times. Because I know that the expats’ life is the only life I have and there is no turning back from there. Because I know I will never belong anywhere completely and my home can only be an immaterial place out of space that I carry with me, portable yes, disposable no.
Changing countries to live in is unsettling. Learning new ways and habits, cultures and languages it’s tiring. There is no pill to prevent this.
That’s why I think when you live the “high life” of the expats, making a home wherever you are, a home that contains all your places, all your lives, all your cultures is even more important. You might not be able to accumulate years and years of objects and items like proper settlers. You probably must travel lighter, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a place that feels like home, where whatever you carry in your suitcase (or most likely your container) can help you feel rooted, grounded and be your safe place in the big world.
After the storm quietened and I could hear myself thinking again, after the emotions that had kicked in had gone back to rest in a place within, I spent the past month nesting here and resting from the harsh experience of the migration.
How I made myself at home? Simple:
- I have picked an area I love because of the abundance of woods, open countryside, natural walks and tiny, quirky quintessentially English villages and hamlets. I am surrounded by beauty and that is essential for me
- I have moved into a period property with lots of character, a lovely little English garden, large windowsill for my flower pots and beautiful French windows that let the light fall in at every corner
- I have carried all my books and personal objects that tells stories from faraway places and past lives, my crazy pantry and my dysfunctional closet
- I am reading about my new home in the High Weald area of Kent and exploring as much as I can. Try grabbing the latest copy of the local area magazine, subscribing to the neighbourhood website, join the local gym. It really helps to ease out the transition. Live it as an opportunity, a permanent holiday break where you get to explore a new place in depth, without the rush and craze of the holiday maker. Get excited about it. It’s a privilege. You need to remember this even when you are unpacking the hundreds of boxes that came with you
- I am trying to get to meet the local community and build relationships quickly because nothing else like the people can make you feel home in a new place
Home for me now is a tiny village in the Tunbridge Wells area of Kent where houses have no numbers but names and we forget to lock the door. Home is an old primary school building closed years ago that has been converted into homes, the high ceilings and the big windows reminding us of the previous life of the place.
Home is being surrounded by rolling hills and fields that are now teaming with bleating lambs and grazing horses; it’s little farm shops and peaceful cemeteries now inhabited by rabbits and foxes; it’s wonky cottages with thatched roofs and local pubs in Diagon Alley style right out of a Harry Potter movie.
Home is where you and your loved ones are. Home is as tiny as a suitcase or as large as the entire world. There is no one size fits all. What matters is finding out what makes you feel at home and where you feel at home. It’s a very personal matter indeed.