Don’t ask me where I live…

Home is complicated. The dictionary says that for humans at least, home is “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.”

For some, home is clearly defined and without question. It is that physical sense of fitting into a place or structure, but it is also the complete emotional certainty about belonging there.

To me, the definition of home was not so clear, and it took decades to reveal itself. I have always believed that home is not just a geographic location, although in part, it is about a place where heart, mind, body and soul feel at peace. I also believe that home is not simply defined by the country in which you were born, or the country where your parents were born, or even their parents.

The idea of nationality, which many people closely link to home, is incredibly complex. Just because one is born in a certain country, it does not necessarily mean that they must for evermore be allegiant to, or defined for the rest of their lives by their birthplace. And if you are only fleetingly a resident in the country of your birth, then perhaps move somewhere else (or several somewhere elses), how do you know which place you should be allegiant to?

In the extraordinarily accurate speaking address on TED by author Taiye Selasi, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”, she refutes the ridiculous notion that our passports define us.  She herself is a writer, photographer, and accomplished speaker. She was born in London, is of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, and was raised in Boston. She now lives in Rome and Berlin. She has studied widely, speaks multiple languages and is herself a case study on the dilemma of identity and home. Her view of identity, nationality and her own definitions of home struck a resounding chord with me.

A baleful yearning has infected everything I have ever done in my life since the age of 10. Every thought, every action, every achievement and certainly every mistake has been linked to an indefinable thirst for seeing what else is out there in the world. Growing up, my restlessness was like an itch that could never be scratched.

The yearning I felt was a complicated jumble of resolute resentment about where I was, ardent determination to get out of where I was, and inexorable curiosity about anywhere other than where I was.

I was born in the Republic of Ireland. My parents are Hungarian, with a smattering of Germanic DNA I believe. They are not overly forthcoming about their ancestry and I learned long ago not to keep asking. I find the reluctance to talk about the past a common trait of those generations who were born during war times. Anyway what I do know is that they fled Hungary during the revolution of 1956, as many people did.

Shortly after my birth, we moved to Northern Ireland, and if you don’t know, the border that separates Northern Ireland (part of the British Sovereignty) from the Republic of Ireland, is an invisible, painful reminder of another country dealing with a troubled and often dangerous co-existence.

As a child living in a small town in rural Northern Ireland, I was oblivious to religious and political conflict. I picked apples from the orchard at the back of our house and wild gooseberries from hedges in rambling green fields. I planted gardens, climbed trees, collected chestnuts, scribbled stories.

                                While I love taking photos, I hate being in them and this is always sadly evident

From the age of around 5, I was fascinated with books and magazines. I saw them as windows to the world. National Geographic Magazines were like crates of cold sparkling water on a desert island. I’d snip out stunning photographs of exotic places with names I couldn’t pronounce.

I’d make glue from flour and water and stick my pictures into scrapbooks to admire at every opportunity. But strangely, once I’d severed these magnificent pictures from their contextual home and transferred them to the stiff pages of my scrapbook, they became islands onto themselves. Somehow, they seemed to have floated away from me and become even more impossible to reach.

I have always been captivated by vast mountain ranges, spectacular rainforests and waterfalls. I love bridges, and the mighty rivers and lakes they span.  I am enthralled by cities with their monolithic skyscrapers and to this day I’m astounded at the engineering that creates them. The world is an extraordinary showcase of natural and man-made wonders. It would take several lifetimes to see and appreciate them all, but the quest to do so is a quixotic dream from which I will never fully wake up.

Tromso, Norway, 2016. Not a National Geographic shot, but one of my own, and I was happy with it.

In 1967, I was almost 10, and ‘things got bad’ in Nothern Ireland. Our family moved to Australia. This should have been the perfect tonic for my adventurous spirit. A vast new country with lots to explore. Unusual wildlife, eternal sunshine and as my parents intended, a better life for my siblings and me.

But for me, it was the beginning of a lifetime of longing and an excruciating sense of displacement. It was an inability to explain the constant ache that had settled in my heart and become a fulltime squatter.

In that parched, strange land I was panic-stricken to think that through no choice of my own, it was to be my home forever. I didn’t fit. I didn’t want to fit. It was as though my soul had floated away from me.

I cried myself to sleep so many nights, I felt certain I would never be able to cry again.

As a child, I tried to explain my pain, but nobody understood. Even I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, and why my siblings and parents adapted so easily to our new home. After all, what could have been better? A sunny environment, a wonderful country full of opportunity and an escape from the possibility of danger and war, things my parents had left behind in Hungary two years before my birth.

To my family, Australia was land of plenty. A place of hope and joy. The promise of a bright future, and of opportunities which would have eluded us had we stayed in Northern Ireland.

To me, Australia was a vast, hot, secluded, inhospitable prison. To me, it wasn’t like the glossy brochures we’d pored over for weeks before leaving. I missed the familiarity of the only place I knew as home. The void in my heart bled pain and resentment.

But even at the age of 10, I knew that everything that had defined my life in Northern Ireland would just move on. I had to accept that I’d been thrown off a ship and the ship had sailed away.  The only way to ease the pain was to accept it. Over the next few years, I tried to forget about the first decade of my old life in the country of my birth, and get on with the new one.

I grew up in Australia. We moved around a lot. By the time I exited the education system, I had changed schools nine times. This all added to my confusion about what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be.

I was a curious teenager, though not overly social. I have always been a writer, reader, and a taker of pictures. I preferred the company of books to most people.

I married, had two children, divorced, re-married, had two more children, divorced, embarked on another doomed relationship that lasted years too long. This business of sharing my life with other people simply wasn’t working out, and it took most of my life to realise that I was not ‘relationship material’. I doubt that this realisation had anything to do with my restless spirit, but then I am no psychologist. In truth, I am far more comfortable and happy with my own company.

The most important things I gained from my marriages is of course my four extraordinary children. Now all grown up, they continue to light up my world. Without doubt, they have given me purpose and direction. They are a constant in my life, and for a long time they successfully dumbed down those feelings of being a displaced soul. They soothed the unrelenting ache and for many years I had far less doubt as to where I belonged.

The 4 best things I ever did. Christmas day in Oswestry, England, 2012

But as they grew to adulthood, and with the important parts of the job of parenting more or less done, the familiar, maddening itch…the yearning to see beyond the back fence returned.

As the kids grew older, we did trips together, and the seed of curiosity was planted in them all. Each one is widely travelled and their love of exploring the world and hunting for new experiences makes me happy. But the thing that makes me happiest, is that they have no doubt as to where they belong. They have a home, where their roots are thick and strong.

The year of my 50th birthday in 2008 turned out to be a monumental turning point. It was as if the fog had lifted and everything was clear. All decisions I made henceforth would be an attempt to assuage the feeling of geographical dysphoria from which I’d suffered all my life.

My first stop was to revisit my childhood in an attempt to deal with the ache and make peace with the sadness I’d carried with me all these years. I’m happy to say that it was cathartic. The experience didn’t make me want to return there forever, but it was a mesmerising experience to see where I spent the first formative years of my life. I reconnected with a childhood (now lifelong) friend from that time, and I got resolution at last.

That year opened the drawbridge and freed me. After the visit to Northern Ireland, I travelled to London, Paris, Athens, Santorini. Later that year I discovered New York, the city that captured my heart and ensnared my soul, and I’ve been going there every year since. From the moment I stepped from the plane, I was struck by the indescribable energy of the city. I was rocked to my core. But more about New York in other blogs…

These days I live in England. My eldest daughter left Australia on an overseas adventure in 2007, and never went back. She settled in England with her new partner and has blessed me with twin granddaughters.  The joy of watching them grow up has given new meaning to my life. I feel more at home in England than I’ve felt in nearly fifty years.

However, it is a bittersweet contentment, because I have three precious offspring who still live in Australia. They have lives of their own, and we are as close as it’s possible for a mother and her children to be. We communicate every few days via all the technological methods at our disposal, but a new ache has replaced the old one. I just miss them so much. Fortunately, they travel a lot like me, so physical contact happens quite often.

I travel when I want, grateful for the fact that it is much easier to access the world from here than from the remote Antipodes.

I feel like the luckiest person in the world, and I have never been happier. The persistent, maddening itch to see new things and visit new places is under control because I can satisfy it so easily.

I think I’ve finally defined what home really is…I now believe it is more than the place, in which you live, or the place where you were born. I discovered that home is a living, breathing, palpable (and portable) state of being which encompasses feelings of belonging and familiarity and comfort.

The idea of home, or ‘feeling at home’ enters our consciousness and becomes a way of identifying and organising space in our minds. It is the relief you feel when you become lost, then are able to find your way again. It is the sense that you don’t fit in some places, and some places don’t fit in you.

Home can be anywhere that your soul feels at peace. For me, England is my residence and I love living here because it’s as though a severed artery has been reconnected. New York City feels as though I belong there, and even though it’s not my residence –  I still consider it home. Australia was my residence for 47 years, and even though I don’t consider it home, it still feels that way when I’m there with my three children.

In my travels I’ve been to Budapest, Paris, Amsterdam, Krakow and many other exciting places all over the world. When I arrive, I wait for the ‘feeling of belonging’ to descend on me. That sense of home. The first question that always strikes is ‘I wonder if I could I live here?’ Irrational I know, but I suspect it has something to do with that lifelong feeling of disconnection.

But for me, at least the yearning to be somewhere other than where I am, is gone. I’ve found home – and home has found me.

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