My New Year begins with a trip to the train station at 5:30am on the 1st. I board a train, arms laden with bags, ready to relocate. Again. I’m heading for what will be my seventh country. I would not be able to say how many houses, but it must be over 20 for sure. The concept of home plays on my mind as the train whizzes towards Salzburg. I was at ‘home’ for Christmas, but I am leaving what I have called home for the last seven years. Incidentally, the longest I have stayed put in my 30 (odd) years. So what even is home, or where is it?
the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.
Going by the definition above, still does not help me. ‘Where one lives permanently’;- Vienna, or it was. However ‘as a member of a family? No, my family is very much UK based, my real family I mean. I have a motley crew of other expats who I would call my Viennese family, but not by blood, obviously.
It is a topic that is raised time and again with my girlfriend. She is a victim of the classic ‘But where are you actually from?’ question. It is only since we have been dating that I realise how annoying this question is, and how no one ever asks me it, purely because of my skin colour. When I answer ‘British’, there is never a follow up, even though I have never lived in Glasgow (fathers’ side) or St Albans (mother). When she answers Viennese, eyebrows are raised and the ‘actually’ question posed.
There comes a point in every person’s life where they accidentally tell a parental unit that they are going home. I remember the sadness that crept across my mother’s face as she realised I did not mean her house. She drew me in and told me that ‘this would always be my home too’.
However it plays on my mind every time someone asks me ‘are you going home for the holidays?’ If I consider my home as; ‘where I am living permanently’, no. Especially as I do not really see anywhere as permanent. Instead, I am visiting the family ‘home’, a place I have probably only ever been to for maybe two months in total (over 3 years). A place they informed us would be the final stop, the same as they said for the house three moves ago. The father hasn’t even lived there yet, work has taken him temporarily to Portugal. With none of us having rooms, per se, when we all gather, I always find myself sharing a room. This at least reminds me of my childhood. Military houses were rarely big enough for a family of six.
I am however a lucky one. All of my movements have been by choice, or for work, mainly the fathers’ work. Being a ‘military brat’ we were bounced around most of Germany and the UK for all of my life. Others are not so lucky. There are over 70.8 million displaced people according to the UNHCR (report from June 19th 2019). What is their concept of home? While I am in the privileged position of being able to muse the concept over, they have been forcibly displaced. Does this home then become dead to them?
Pair this number with 60 million odd expats (2017), and you have 1.3 billion people living away from ‘home’. That would be almost the population of China, 17% of the world’s estimated 7.7 billion people. A figure that will probably rise. While the debate will always rage about terminology regarding expat vs migrant vs immigrant, when put together it is a large proportion of the planet who do not know what or where to call home.
Irrelevant of which of the above we class ourselves (I’ve always gone for exile, just to be different; voluntary, mind), if returning home is possible, the longer we are away the more distance we feel from our apparent home. While we may sometimes muse of this perfect imagine of home, it often ends up drifting into the romantic image. I sometimes catch myself, on a hill in Somerset, (again where I have never lived) and think to myself ‘This is England’, or at least, the one of my imagination. However this is becoming a rarity, and while I catch up with my friends, with every passing year I feel more distant from them, we will always remain friends, but what connects us becomes less and less.
Making a new home
As I sit on my privileged pedestal and lament my lost idea of home, it is important to remember that this was indeed my choice. For many it is not, whether they are one of the many displaced persons, or even one of the many homeless (I just learnt there are over 100million, and that’s an estimate from 15 years ago).
While teachers all over the world are doing a sterling job in integrating the younger generation; in Austrian teacher training they spend up to three weeks dealing with the concept of home (in relation to refugees), it is the older generation, the parents and grandparents who would require more help. With a concept of home more firmly rooted in their minds, it will be harder to recreate a home for them. My concept, and that of many ‘expats’ has been that of flexibility, displaced persons may have left the generation old family homes and villages. Their blood in the soil, as the films portray it.
With news filled with negativity and plenty of right wing rhetoric, this is hardly helping anyone feel ‘welcomed’ or at home. They say ‘home is where the heart is’, so maybe a lot more of us ‘natives’ and settled expats need to start showing more heart to help people at least begin to feel at home.
Some Integration projects, in case you want to add to your resolutions…