Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Going Home

In the modern day and age, the concept of “home” can be a bit of a subjective one. It’s been true for quite some time that houses aren’t passed down from generation to generation any more as places of primary abode; nowadays, people tend to move house when they can afford a better one, move regions when their jobs change, and, in my family’s case, move continents when the fancy takes them. My father grew up in South Wonston, a village near Winchester in Hampshire. His family moved there when he was young from Sutton Scotney, another village just down the road. His parents still live in the same house, so wherever he’s been, home has stayed in the same place. My mother’s grew up in Woking, a town in Surrey; again, her mother still lives in the house that Mum grew up in.

Although my parents manifestly do have a place to call “home” (whether or not they’ll ultimately choose to settle down in the UK is another story), their meanderings have had the curious effect of depriving my sister and I of one. My parents had six years in Tanzania under their belts before I even arrived on the scene, and I was born in Plymouth, a city that I can’t even remember returning to until I visited Alice last summer. My place of birth therefore means nothing to me. Aged 3 months, I was taken abroad again as my father took up a post in Istanbul, where I spent six years growing up somewhat romantically watching the big ships plying the Black Sea trade through the Bosporus, chasing sheep and catching tortoises in the garden, and experiencing both my first heavy snow (and first sledging, on lunch trays borrowed from the school cafeteria) and my first real bereavement (the beloved family dog, Buster), however little I may have appreciated those experiences at the time. Then, aged six and armed with nothing other than the knowledge (kindly imparted from Mum) that the German word for “lake” was “sea”, we moved to Bavaria: Starnberg for five years, and then further into the countryside to Hochstadt for the next seven. Anyone who knows me will be well familiar with the myriad ways in which I enjoyed living near Munich, so I shan’t go into it here. Ultimately, the overall effect of all this shifting was to mean that I didn’t really have anywhere that felt like home.

At school in Germany, I was unashamedly British. I would always dutifully support England in the sport, and the (illicitly acquired) Sky TV provided something of a cultural lifeline to make us feel connected. For my parents, England was home without question, and we would return without fail once a year to visit relatives. It never really occurred to me, as time went by, that I wasn’t really particularly English, even though English people arriving from the real place were culturally fairly alien to me. The accent that I seem to have acquired appears to have more in common with the imagined stereotype of the English (held by Americans in particular) than it does with the reality. Probably the most profound culture shock that I’ve yet experienced, then, was the return to England to start at Oxford. This wasn’t the typical expatriate culture shock that’s experienced as one reacquaints oneself with the familiar rhythms and idiosyncrasies of home after spending years abroad, particularly if it’s been in a country of a vastly differing level of material wealth. It was rather the much more serious culture shock of someone whose long-awaited return to the home country reveals that country to be nothing of the sort.

Again, my problems with England will be familiar to my (by now exasperated) friends, so I shan’t dwell on those either. Suffice it to say that this threw my sense of home wildly out of kilter. Where did I actually come from? Britain now seemed a foreign country, and not my favourite one at that. I switched to Germany, acquiring a slightly prickly and rather proud loyalty to Bavaria that I certainly had never experienced while living there as an expatriate, and that few sophisticated German expats would really share. But it’s hard to really sustain the illusion of such a place as home, however enchanting it might be, when you don’t really speak the language and you enjoy the setting with the constantly-surprised delight of the visitor falling in love with the place. If home is where your heart is, then it’s fairly clear which part of the world I’m in love with, but such romantic blossoming is perhaps not what the old saying is getting at: perhaps it means a deeper love of a place, accepting and acknowledging all its foibles (as opposed to wilfully overlooking them) because that’s just the way that things are, and that was how the world worked when you were figuring out what was going on. You might be able to sustain that old, deep affection for a given country if you’re moving around between areas that are, fundamentally, similar in culture and landscape, as most of the South of England is (and the North of England, too, for that matter). It certainly isn’t possible to sustain between Istanbul, Munich and Oxford, leaving me with no real complete sense of definitive homeness.

(The people as a nation – excluding those who grew up as expats – who share this trait are probably the Americans, where a move from Massachusetts to Arizona is a pretty wrenching one too. [On an aside, many Americans that I know would dispute this. One of the most abiding criticisms of the States by American expats, apart from its politics, is the supposed homogeneity and tedium of middle class, suburban America. I rather think that such criticism is overdone, though, with definite (and often enchanting) cultural variation clearly apparent to the outside observer. It seems more likely that many of the Americans who hold such views share the same distaste for their own country that I have for mine, perhaps for many of the same reasons. I should be delighted to hear some American perspectives on this, but in any case, the high geographic mobility that characterises much of American society still precludes for many the development of regional attachments, regardless of the existence of genuine regional characteristics to become attached to.] This might well explain why both my sister and I share such a strong affinity for the United States, despite having only ever been there once (and not having been terribly impressed with it). (Americans also tend to end up stuck with a single language after all their moving about within the States, which is something that my sister and I have in common with them, in stark contrast to the vast majority of expats who end up highly fluent in prodigious numbers of languages.) )

There is another meaning of home, of course, which is where your family is. When I say “home” nowadays, it’s true, I mean the pretty little village of Woodchester in rural Gloucestershire where my family currently reside. It’s certainly true that family is inseparable from a sense of home: without the presence of family members to inhabit a place, that place comes to seem fit for nostalgia rather than habitation. Perhaps it is the conjunction of family and place which comes to form a sense of home; but just as place divorced from family doesn’t seem quite right, so family divorced of place doesn’t capture the essence of home either. Although the word “home” is thus meant as the place where family is, I simply cannot really think of Gloucestershire as home. It’s not that Gloucestershire is a bad place (there are many worse); it’s simply a place that doesn’t mean anything to me. As a result, although it’s wonderful to spend time with my family, I find myself chafing at the inevitable restrictions of semi-rural life and at the irritation of sleeping on a sofa and living out of a suitcase.

So I itch to get down to London, where Kat, Karolina, Chris and I are sharing a nice, light, airy house in Archway next year. Rent payments have already started; my room is there for the taking. But of course, that isn’t home either. Inevitably, when we finally did the first run down to London on Friday to drop off some stuff, I was reminded of this: the house gets smaller every time I visit it, and the neighbourhood remains slightly intimidating. I somehow fail to find London enchanting at the moment. I don’t even feel secure there, like I did in Oxford. That, of course, will change with time: I don’t expect to feel at home in London, given that I’ve never lived there before, and the excitement of moving to a new city yields an altogether different and more exciting sense of place than that derived from feeling at home.

So maybe it was the sense of contrast that led to a sudden rush of feeling at home that I experienced at our next stop that afternoon: my grandparents’ house in South Wonston. This place is, in reality, the only place in the world that has remained to this day the way that it has been for as long as I can remember. Small details may have changed, but fundamentally it remains as it has always been: the same decorations on the walls, the same bookshelves, the same carpets and wallpaper, the same smell, the same garden, and of course, the same people: Grandma and Grandad, still going strong after all these years (Grandad turns 87 in September). Having not been back to visit in far too long, and coming hot on the heels of the unchallenging yet unfamiliar in Gloucestershire and the exciting but rather scary in London, I felt as though something clicked inside me when I came into this house, and suddenly I could relax. Collapsing onto my customary black armchair in the corner, I probably felt as much at home as I ever will. Wandering around Winchester the next day, without any sense of purpose, I could just sit back and enjoy taking my time over some shopping and sitting down under a tree in the Cathedral gardens to read. It was something to be savoured. Such relaxation, and such a sense of peace, in a spot where the conjunction of the place and the family come together, is quite a rare thing in the life of Nat.

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