THE MEANING OF 'HOME'
8 November, 2018
A friend of mine recently asked me whether I was going to go home at the end of this year. What he meant was: was I going to leave Australia after four years in this beautiful city of Sydney. As most of my readers know: I fell in love with Sydney at first sight when I visited in October 2014, full of excitement for the adventure lying ahead of me. The thought of leaving fills me with sadness.
But what I was really musing about was the age-old question: What is home? Or, more precisely, what is home for me? I have moved so many times (probably more often than Beethoven) that I find it hard to recall all my previous addresses. I sometimes try to remember them all, at night, when I have trouble going to sleep. It is less boring than counting sheep – which, alas!, also makes it less effective: I lie awake in frustration when I struggle remembering all the postcodes.
None of this nomadic lifestyle was planned: it just so happened that an opportunity arose to work in Scotland when I was a postgraduate student, which gave me the travel bug as well as a sense of vocation. The rest, as they say, is history.
I am not actually the world’s biggest traveller. I don’t need to tick countries or tourist sites off some bucket list. It is so much more rewarding to spend significant periods of time in a country, settle down, strike up real friendships, work, lead the local way of life and gain an understanding of the politics or, in my line of work, the education systems of other countries.
As a linguist, I also enjoy picking up new languages: my spoken English was woeful when I first came to the UK (despite years of learning it at school), and when I moved to Italy, I did not speak any Italian: I mainly learned it through immersing myself into the language, and writing new phrases into my little notebook constantly, whenever I came across them at work or at home watching Italian television.
Of course, like any foreign immigrant, I am no stranger to linguistic blunders. When my first headmaster asked me whether I had already made friends with the housemistress whose assistant I was, I answered cheerfully: “Oh yes! We have been doing plenty of bondage!” (I meant ‘bonding’, of course). In Italy, I scribbled down phrases that my pupils used when they chatted to each other, and then tried them out in the staffroom. Not a good idea, my fellow travellers, when you are not yet well versed in recognising rude swear words as such. I once stunned the whole staffroom at the Swiss School Milan into silence and was taken aside by a senior colleague who asked me mildly: “Astrid, cara mia, do you actually know what you just said?” I blushed when she told me.
Apologies, I am digressing. As always. The question of home is what has triggered this blog. Because frankly, at the moment, I am not sure what home is for me, or where I belong. For some people it is inextricably linked with where they were born, or where they grew up. Partly that is true for me, too. When I visit Heidelberg, and do the walk from my parents’ home to my old primary school, in the very village-like, picturesque suburb Handschuhsheim (a short walk, but so full of adventures for a six-year old child), it feels very much like home: much smaller in scale than the child in me remembers, but very familiar. My parents still live in the flat where I grew up, and my sister and her family live in a house close by. Therefore going home (in the geographical sense) always involves seeing family and making sure that I do not become too much of a stranger to my nieces and nephew as they grow up into young adults.
And yet, they have their lives, and I have mine. And my life has, for the last 27 years, largely happened abroad: in Scotland, Italy, England, and now Australia. Every time I moved to a new school, I had to make new contacts, establish myself, establish friendship and support networks and, to a certain extent, reinvent myself. When I made the big move to Australia, a friend of mine remarked that she admired me for it. She had moved overseas herself, but had a family of her own who moved with her, her “little support package”, as she called it. She had the cognitive empathy to understand how much harder it is to make such a move when you are on your own. It requires, every time, a great deal of emotional work, and it gets harder as you get older.
When I was younger, my network inevitably consisted of people my age, also single, adventurous and carefree, and the staffrooms I worked in provided plenty of peer support. When you get older, people in your own age group tend, overwhelmingly, to have families of their own, with all the commitments that brings, and it is so much harder to find friends to hang out with, have dinner with, or in whose company you can enjoy a few drinks al fresco in a nice pub. And as you rise in seniority in your line of work, that adds further challenges to carefree and jolly socialising with like-minded friends. You also need to be increasingly judicious in differentiating between the real friends, and those who seek you out because of your position. The field narrows, and loneliness creeps in.
Funnily enough: my move to Australia was the one that I was least nervous about. It was, of all the moves I made, the only one where I already knew somebody at the other end. It is hard to describe how reassuring that felt, and how it seemed to remove the need for all that emotional labour and starting afresh. Whilst things here developed differently from the way I planned, I have now worked and studied at three great institutions in Sydney and certainly feel enriched by the experience. I have also met some truly good people.
Good people are important: people with a moral core, who are true to themselves and others. Those who are fun to be with, and with whom you can have an intelligent conversation over a glass of wine, overlooking, for example, Balmoral Beach when the moon casts its beam over the sparkling waters of Sydney harbour. This is where home is for me.
So, yes, if ‘going home’ means leaving Australia, I will go home very soon. Visa regulations won’t leave me much choice. I just need to figure out where my new home will be. And where the good people are. And then the emotional labour will start all over again.
Tiefburgschule Handschuhsheim, my old primary school.
With my nieces and nephew at the Christmas market. (This, too, is home: Christmas in the southern hemisphere is not really Christmas!)