Where is home? Where are you local?
Where do you call home?
Is it the place you were born, the place you spent your childhood in, the place where you live now, the place you miss the most, or none of those?
There’s a fantastic TED Talk by author Pico Iyer called ‘Where is home?‘ that discusses the concept of home and how his own definition of home has shifted throughout his lifetime from India to Oxford to California to Japan, and at one point was even burnt down by a Californian forest fire. I really recommend watching it.
My own concept of home has changed less dramatically than his, having spent the first 18 years of my life literally in one part of the English south coast. While I would traditionally say ‘Hampshire’ was my home, as the county of both my primary and secondary schools and of both my parents’ houses, I was technically born in Salisbury Hospital (Wiltshire). And if I had to choose one single house to represent ‘home’, then that would be in Hambrook (West Sussex) at my grandmother’s house where I spent most summer holidays and subsequently where most of my childhood memories were made. And if ‘home’ were where I spend Christmas, that symbolic annual pilgrimage ‘back home’ made by every Briton, then that doesn’t reveal the answer either: last year we spent Christmas skiing in the French Alps and the year before that at my aunt’s house near Hascombe (Surrey). I haven’t lived in Hampshire for over 9 years now (!) and I can count the number of visits I make each year on one hand, so I can hardly call Hampshire home.
Before moving to London, whenever I was abroad and asked where I came from, I’d say England, for the mere reason that few foreigners have heard of Hampshire. But in my heart of hearts I would never call the whole of England ‘home’, as I’ve barely ever been to the Midlands or the North, for example, and those places have zero connection to my identity or sense of belonging. Since moving to an internationally recognised city like London in 2012, answering that question became a lot easier and I usually reply ‘London’. But does London even truly represent ‘home’ for me? It’s true that I now have a flat there and a real, legal, freehold tie to a piece of land in south-west London, however while I’m living abroad I don’t actually have a room of my own in London. During my reading week back in the UK in November, I enjoyed my time in Hampshire and London but, to my great surprise, I found myself missing Groningen and my new ‘home’ in the form of the flat I rent here, my student lifestyle, the city atmosphere and even my bike!
If I think about other places I’ve lived or called ‘home’ over the years, the obvious two that pop up are Italy and Spain, two countries in which I’ve spent a year each and where I speak both national languages. Spain bizarrely doesn’t feel like a ‘home’ for me, despite being the more recent of the two countries I’ve lived in (Madrid in 2014 vs Modena in 2011). Perhaps it’s mere nostalgia or something else I can’t put my finger on, but Italy has always called to me more, and whenever I’m asked which is my favourite country in the world (as a travel blogger I’m asked that question by practically everyone!), my answer is Italy. But neither of them quite come close to ‘home’, no matter how much I wish Italy really were my home!
These maps are screenshots I took of my Instagram map, before Instagram annoyingly deleted this amazing feature last week! It used to be a beautiful way to visualise and explore the places I’ve travelled to and Instagrammed over the last 4 years – so I’m very disappointed it’s now gone!
Where are you local?
In November, Groningen’s annual Let’s Gro festival descended upon the city and I attended three great events. One on refugee integration (apparently the province of Groningen receives most of the country’s refugees, as one of the least populated areas of the Netherlands), one on conscious travel (which was exceptionally depressing, showing the impact our unstoppable tourist industry will have on the world) and one on local and cultural identity, co-organised by one of my lecturers Dr Margriet van der Waal. All three were fascinating but this last one really chimed.
Instead of asking the question ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Where is home?’, the discussion revolved around the question ‘Where are you local?’ and I really liked that approach. It stems from this TED Talk by Taiye Selasi called ‘Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m local‘.
The question of locality allows me to recognise Groningen as an important part of my current identity, likewise it allows me to acknowledge the 3 years I spent living in Exeter during my Bachelor’s and the 4 months that I spent living in Bhalu Khola, a rural Nepali village. Even though I lived in a true Nepali home with a Nepali host family and even a mitini sister, due to the cultural, religious and linguistic differences I’d feel too pretentious to call that house ‘home’, but nonetheless it still has a very significant place in my heart.
The question ‘Where are you local?’ also brings up an uncomfortable truth regarding my relationship with London. In 2013, after a year of living in London, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘An Account of Life in London’ in which I acknowledged that London as a broad concept of 1,570m² and 8 million people didn’t yet feel like home, but that I did love and feel at home in my little corner of south-west of London, which at that time was Parson’s Green, Fulham and SW6. So to be truly accurate about where I feel like a local in London, I’d have to specify that small corner of London called SW6.
The main problem for me now with that statement above is that a year ago I moved just south of the river to the neighbouring borough of Wandsworth, SW18, into the flat I bought with my sister. Wandsworth is perfectly nice and it’s still close to my beloved Thames, but the atmosphere is just a bit different. Since moving into that flat 16 months ago, I’ve only actually lived there for 3 months in 2015 and 3 months in 2016, meaning I haven’t had time to grow roots and learn to love my new corner of London. So when I returned there last month, Wandsworth didn’t feel local to me. When I did head back into SW6 however, a place I lived for 2.5 years, I instantly felt local again. So why did I move from SW6 to SW18? Cost! I could afford to rent in SW6 but not to buy (although don’t get me wrong – I am very grateful for the fact that I was able to buy anywhere in London at all, let alone in a borough neighbouring the one I’d ideally have stayed in).
So I’m torn over where my ‘home’ or local identity lies. Is it Groningen in the Netherlands: the city I live in now and love, but which I’m leaving in January and whose local language I barely speak? Is it London: a city where I have a flat but not a room of my own, and even if so, which part of London? Is it Hampshire: where I grew up but which I barely ever visit? Is it soon-to-be Uppsala in Sweden: a city I’ve never visited but which I’m moving to in February? Is it somewhere else in mainland Europe like Italy: where I dream of living, but where I may not have the freedom to live after Brexit? Or is ‘home’ and local identity merely a construction or figment of my imagination?
I’m currently writing a 6,000-word research paper on national identity in Britain for my Master’s and it’s given me a lot of food for thought. Through researching the identity formation process in Britain and its constitute parts, I’m swiftly realising that my ideology and life philosophy is far closer to that of mainland Europe than of the British Isles, which prompts me to question all the assumptions I have previously had about my own identity. Hence this blog post really…
Anyway, I’ve rabbited on enough about myself, someone with an uninteresting monocultural background and a relatively conventional upbringing in one location. Things get much more interesting when looking at someone like Pico Iyer, Taiye Selasi or one of my many friends who have dual-nationality, with parents from different countries or even continents, and addresses shifting all over the globe. Not to mention the people who’ve had to forcibly leave their home due to civil war or environmental danger. I’d love to ask them all where they believe their ‘home’ or local identity lies!