As the world focuses on London, I ask myself – is this what ‘home’ feels like?
Like half of the country, I’m currently a little bit in love with Danny Boyle, and the ridiculous, chaotic, bonkers, hilarious and politically-divisive show of history, culture, technology and Britishness that was the London Olympics Opening Ceremony 2012.
Unexpected and unfamiliar patriotic warmth suffused through me as I cried with laughter over Rowan Atkinson, gasped as old Queenie dived out of a helicopter ahead of a very delicious-looking Daniel Craig as Bond, applauded the defiant entrance of early 20th century suffragettes, punched the air at the NHS show, scratched my head slightly at the dancing nurses, cringed good-naturedly at the ‘social networking’ elements, nodded approvingly at Internet-inventor Tim Berners-Lee, and clapped along to the stunning run-down of British pop music through the decades before an incredible fireworks show topped it all off and it was over.
But even before that, before billions of eyes tuned in to watch my capital city’s spectacle, I’d been feeling oddly patriotic; oddly like this might actually be my home – a feeling that is very weird for me, and something that has only happened in the past few years. My history hasn’t exactly leant itself well to making someone feel at home; the inevitable question, ‘So, where are you from?’ isn’t an easy one for me to answer in the succinct way such a polite enquiry usually demands ‒ nobody really wants to provoke eye-rolling too soon in any relationship, after all.
But this feeling of displacement and worldwide belonging ‒ rather than a feeling of home ‒ goes back even before I was born, as my grandfather was British, but grew up in Argentina, and married a young Argentine woman from Mendoza, just outside Buenos Aires, where my father was born before moving with the family to Mexico and Colombia, and then ‘back home’ (whatever that means) to England. You’d be forgiven for thinking my mum is on simpler ground, and yet she was born in Hereford, grew up in Yorkshire, with a mother (my grandmother) whose maiden name is the very-German Kinder.
Personally, I was born in London, moved to Somerset aged two, moved around there for a bit before upping sticks entirely to the South of France for nine years, and then moving again to Madrid, before coming back to Britain aged 18.
And so began my sense that belonging, and nationality, isn’t quite the simple, monolithic thing it sounds. A ‘family home’ in the physical, familiar sense; ‘home friends’ who I’ve known since primary school, long-term ideas such as having ‘the family hairdresser’, a doctor who’s known you since infancy or memories of what the town used to look like – none of these things apply to me.
By the age of eleven I’d lived in four different houses – now aged 24, in my lifetime my parents have lived in eight; including two in France, one in Spain, and three in the UK. While, through being in an expatriate bubble in both France and Spain full of people who barely stay in the same place for six months at a time, I know people who have lived in far more countries, far more far-flung, alien nations, and far more houses than I have – but I just can’t comprehend the idea of living in one house in one place since childhood – it just doesn’t compute.
And when we first moved from the house in Somerset, I remember crying terribly and sorrowfully, as only a six year old can, grasped by the fear that everything I called home was about to be ripped away. I don’t do that anymore – and not just because I’m older.
There are a whole load of background reasons for this – primary among them that I’m pretty adaptable, and as a teenager and young adult evolved the feeling that home is pretty much what you can carry around with you, plus memories, and a resilient outlook that refuses – or at least, tries very hard not ‒ to get sentimental about years gone by.
Home, I believed passionately and, it has to be said, a little petulantly, is truly where the heart is – no matter the surrounding location. I didn’t feel like I especially belonged anywhere; living in Somerset but not from the West Country; living in France but not French; going back to my parents’ house in Spain during University holidays, but not Spanish. To this day, I have never been back to the part of Somerset that we drove away from, all those years ago, each clutching one-way tickets to Toulouse.
In some respects, that feeling of being adrift still remains. I still don’t have a place to call my own in London (where I now live, via three years of Uni in the picturesque, historical, quaint, grandiose and wonderful Cambridge, at one point also a contender for the ‘home’ badge, sadly snuffed out by the sheer awesomeness of the Big Smoke), I still feel at ease with people who’ve not lived in the same place all their lives ‒ through my international schooling, I have friends and acquaintances from Europe, the US, the Middle East, South America and New Zealand. I speak three languages and have a knowledge and love of the history, culture and (let’s be honest, primarily) the incredible food of France and Spain, and have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit throughout the European countries that were, for over a decade, my geographical neighbours.
And also, since I can remember moving to France, I’ve felt apart from the rest – unfamiliar with what ‘home’ feels like; different, foreign, weird, not quite able to express myself as well in French or Spanish as in English; hankering after an culture imagined from a patchwork of childhood memories, two-day-old newspapers bought from the international newsagents in the local airport, and freeview BBC broadcasts via weak-signal satellites that are out of sync from your current timezone. Not only did I feel ‘other’ simply because I was a moody teenager – I felt ‘other’ because, for a lot of the time, culturally and nationally, I was. ‘Belonging’ – pah, try feeling like a foreigner for over a decade before you come crying to me about ‘belonging’.
And yet, I’ve been living in London now for three years. And do you know what? It looks like ‘home’ has managed to creep up on me while I wasn’t looking.
The sense of excitement I still get when I see a British number-plate, a Sainsbury’s; a Marks and Spencer; a bar of Cadbury’s or a pork pie; the red and blue graphics of the London Underground; the BBC logo; a black cab – is now less due to the novelty or sense of occasion (I only used to see these things when we came back to the UK for a special trip, such as seeing family for Christmas) ‒ and more due to a reassuring sense of familiarity – that I’ve come, almost begrudgingly, almost imperceptibly, to recognise as home.
That nine times out of ten I don’t need to look at a map before I get on the Underground; that I know where I’m walking in central London; that I know that such a shop is there and it stays open until that time and stocks that stuff; that I’m so familiar with the view from Waterloo bridge down the Thames or the world-famous tower of Big Ben by Westminster that if I’m travelling by my usual bus or in a hurry, nowadays I don’t always open my eyes to take it in (although often I do, because, really, it’s a damn great view) ‒ all that stuff somehow makes me feel at home.
Yes, I hate that England’s summers are crap compared to the long months of sunshine I grew up with. I hate that things in London are so extraordinarily expensive that, after rent and bills, saving enough for any kind of large financial decision is but a pipe-dream (on the likely salary I can expect for a job in the career I’ve chosen). I know the NHS has its problems, and I didn’t vote for the Government currently in power.
I don’t like how all my friends seem to have ‘London’ friends and ‘home friends’, as if people are either one or the other, with me left rootless in between; and I don’t feel some strong cultural or homesick pull back to some part of the country in which I’ve always lived. I often wonder what it would be like to have parents who’ve only lived in one house since I was born. Would it be a lovely place to go back to, filled with my memories and sense of identity ‒ or would I just be monumentally bored, reminded of that Christmas when my mum threw a shoe at my dad, or when my ex-ex-boyfriend I haven’t spoken to for eight years met the family for the first time, all the while having to fight my way through old shit I haven’t looked at since I was nine?
I still can’t answer the question ‘Where are you from?’ without going into a bit of a tirade, because ‘London’ doesn’t quite cover it – and anyway, I’m not a born-and-bred Londoner, so I feel a bit of a fraud calling myself that without a caveat or two.
And yet, despite all this, I do know that as me and my Oyster card sailed through the Underground barriers at King’s Cross the other day with a clear sense of which exit I needed and an exact knowledge of where I was going after I left the station, as hapless Olympics tourists got flustered and faffed and got stuck and looked pained – I felt only a touch of the usual annoyance Londoners reserve for the poor sods who can’t use a barrier, who peer at maps as pissed-off locals stream irritatingly around them.
Because while I do get short-tempered when tourists take up the entire road during rush hour – a habit initially learned from my University town in which you also couldn’t move for people taking photos or walking so slowly you’d swear time had stopped ‒ I also felt a curious sense of wonder at my own familiarity at it all. At the near-certainty that, after feeling like a foreigner for the best part of my life, I actually knew, to the tiniest degree, what the hell I was doing. I could speak the language. I know the roads. PEOPLE! I CAN WORK A LONDON UNDERGROUND BARRIER WITHOUT EVER GETTING STUCK! I know what tube lines I need to get to Stratford; I can negotiate the six confusing platforms at Earls Court without missing a beat.
And when I watched that Olympic ceremony, I got the jokes, the references, the historical notes, the humour, the pride, the love and all the bonkers-ness in between; watched the reaction on Twitter and from around the world, and felt, for the first time since, well, ever, HOLY SHIT, THESE ARE MY PEOPLE. My crazy people who can laugh at a bloke playing piano with an umbrella, dance around on NHS beds, stand up for what Americans would call ‘socialism’, and make pretty damn good music at the same time.
For all its flaws, its sentimentality, its ridiculousness, its fantasy; its echoes of jingoism and my shock that me, who strongly believes that patriotism is a social construct, could feel anything like patriotic ‒ I had a strange sense.
Could it be that this is what ‘home’ feels like?