Saturday, March 8, 2008

Where is home?

This was written in October 2006 and got me the second prize in an International Students Essay Contest at UW-Madison.


I am asked this question often. So often in fact, that I should have a pretty good answer to give by now, only I don’t. Which is why I decided to write this essay, to make sense of my own experience, my life in the last nine years. This is how long I have been away from “home” - the place where I was born and raised: Greece.

My usual answer is that I am a gypsy, or a nomad of sorts. My journey has brought me to live in four different countries and cultures in the past nine years even though I spent roughly half of that time in Madison. It all started with an exchange program that took me to Vienna, Austria, where I met my husband. I decided to spend another year there as a special student before we came to Madison for Graduate School in 1999. Since 2003, I spent two years in Peru, doing fieldwork, and one year in Germany before recently returning to Madison to complete a full circle of adventure and growth.

I have experienced “culture shock” multiple times in these years. My first night in Vienna I couldn’t stop crying and wanted to go back home instantly. A few months later I went home for a week and I could not stop crying because I felt out of place; I was experiencing “reverse cultural shock” and everything around me seemed unreal. My first month in Vienna I hated everything about it. Eventually I came to know it like the back of my hand and it became my favorite place in the world. It was hard to leave it behind but there is this force inside that keeps me going. Sometimes I think that I will not rest until I have known every corner of this planet; but most importantly, until I have met people from every culture in the world.

If I think about it, the best thing about having lived in all these places is the people I had a chance to meet. People that enriched my life in many ways. They showed me the possibilities that are out there and inspired me to follow my dreams. I hope I inspired some of them too. There is something unique in sharing a bit of your self with strangers when being away from home. It makes you feel alive and connected. I have made friends in all the places I have lived; some of them feel like friends for life. It feels rather comforting to have friends in all the corners of the world.

That is not to say that the last years of my life have all been peachy. I have encountered people who were rude, aggressive or plainly threatened by me because I am different. I have experienced many misunderstandings and cultural frustrations. At first I found it hard to cope with things that I now consider “normal”. There were dozens of things I had to get used to, from the way Americans throw a party to their diet and social etiquette. In my country we feed our guests to death, here they serve crackers and cheese and you bring your own drinks. I was used to a spontaneous attitude about going out. Here we often have to make plans weeks in advance. People don’t understand my humor and they might get offended at times, even though they are too nice to say it. Where I come from we touch others a lot more and we don’t keep the vast distances from each other that Americans do. On the other hand, personal space is not respected as much. People are in your life all the time and they always have an opinion. I guess I have come to appreciate American individualism even though the social distance makes me feel lonely at times. There are countless little things that challenge my way of looking at the world, from the fact that a physician diagnosed me with depression in five minutes and immediately offered to prescribe pills, to what I view as Americans’ obsession with safety. And don’t even get me started on the size of their cars and the energy they waste!

Despite what you might conclude from the above most of my friends here are Americans. Whether it was our mutual love for poetry or rock n’ roll, we made many friends in Madison. Apparently I get along with them better than with some of my own country people who just don’t know what to make of me and my husband. My husband is Bulgarian and we speak German at home, while living in countries where other languages are being spoken. Sometimes we joke that if we have kids they are going to be pretty messed up culturally…

I couldn’t tell you the secret little ingredient that makes life sweet; all I know is that my happiest time was when I was doing fieldwork in Peru and all my possessions could fit in two suitcases. I wore the same clothes for months and had little else to call my own, and despite the cultural differences I was happy. And I am a better person for having gone through that experience. I wouldn’t be the same today had I not witnessed the dignity and the humanity of Peruvian people despite their poverty. Bottom line is I have found things that frustrated me in every place I have been, but I will not dwell on them. What is important is to focus on the things that bring us together, not the things that separate us.

After all this you must think that I am a proper citizen of the world. Not so. No matter how much I travel my roots remain the same and they are strong. I try to go home once a year to keep that contact with my roots and my kin, but that annual return turns more bizarre every year. I realize that a lot has happened in people’s lives that I have missed and they have missed what happened in mine. I nurture my friendships from afar but it is not the same as actually being in each other’s lives. Then the culture seems to change more every year I go back. The language itself for example; there is always some new slang phrase that I am not familiar with and people have to translate for me. I immediately feel like an outsider and I curse the day I left Greece. I speak the way people used to speak ten years ago and I can barely keep up with all the changes during my annual visits.

I could tell you that home is the place for which I look up the weather online everyday, but I have four places in MyUW weather module. Home might be the house I grew up in, the street where I played as a child, the tree I found refuge in. But I found refuge in many places since then. In all of them, I learned, I felt and shared. I carry a little bit of all these places inside of me, like the turtles that carry their home wherever they go. I miss them all the same. In the end, the only thing I can say for sure is that home is where my loved ones are but again I have loved ones all over the planet; people who made me more loving, open, grounded, confident and tolerant. With all its beauty and frustration, I wouldn’t change a thing in my journey of the last nine years. And I know that there is more to come.

As I watch my husband sleep, I know I am home.

OK, how about this for an answer: home is where I am right now, where I have been and where I will be.

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