Probably a consequence of being pregnant – and of having moved again – I find myself thinking more and more about the choices that we make, how these choices impact our children, and the notion of Home. After leaving my country of birth at 25 and living in three European countries since (the Netherlands, the UK and now Ireland), it appears to me that the notion of home is actually a hard one to define. It is a subject that comes back very often, especially in times of political upheaval.
What is your Home? It seems unimaginable to a lot of people that the identity of one’s home may change. Some say it is your country of birth. Others that it is your country of origin. What if these two are different? What if they are the same but you left years or decades ago?
Some say that they couldn’t leave their country of origin and/or birth. Or “you will go back” they say “people always go back”. But my mum didn’t and she left her country 40 years ago. On behalf of my son I try to explain that although the country of birth (the Netherlands) and the country of origin (France) are important, the place where you grow up, where you live, is also important (Ireland from now on, hopefully). It is where you learn the codes, the language with the local accent, the culture, you follow the news and the TV, be it cartoons – they are different in different times and different countries – or films. Jokes are made and spread based on movies, events or politics, and your relation to others is linked to this. How many jokes and cultural references have I missed since I left France? How many of our jokes – or even the words we use – does our family not understand? If we were to go back, I try to say, we would never be totally French anymore, not in our eating habits, our references, our points of views.
I truly believe that we would not be able to live in a small village and be accepted there. We would be seen as different, the ones always discussing subjects from another point of view, always taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. The ones who would not care if children eat in MacDonald’s once a month or watch so many hours of TV, or are breastfed past their infancy or in public… A lot of the local opinions we wouldn’t agree with anymore, or wouldn’t care about. We would stand out.
My country of birth is France.
My country of origin is France, but also England, or the UK: my mother was born in the UK and left when she was 20. One of her grandfathers was Scottish of origin (from both his parents who had been born and bred there), and one of her grandmothers was Irish, again of origin if not of birth.
My dad is French from French parents who lived in two African countries in the 50s, he was still little when they came back to France. One of his great grand father was born in Columbia in the 19th century, from French parents, who decided to go back to France when he was in his teens.
Am I French? Part British? I believe I grew up a mix, about 60 to 75% French because of school, TV, having a French dad, growing up in France… 25 to 40% British because we went to the UK regularly to visit our family there. My mum probably raised us a bit more like British children than French (how could she do otherwise?) and as a girl I showed interest for where she came from.
Then I left France when I was 25, to the Netherlands, where I lived for 8 years. The first years were tough, I was homesick for my family, for parts of the culture, for the language (though we speak French at home). But it passed and Amsterdam became Home. Not Dutch, we were something in between. We became what is known as “non-residents” of France. Not expats as we didn’t pay taxes in France, but French citizens living abroad, paying our taxes in the Netherlands, voting for the local representative AND for the French president. We had bank accounts in Amsterdam and kept a bank account in France. We had to give my parents address for that one: there was no possibility to give a foreign address! People always come back I suppose 😉
Over a year and half ago, my husband was offered a position in Cardiff, Wales. After eight years in Amsterdam, and with a son not yet of school-age, we thought why not? Now is the time if we want to try something else. So we went. I and my son have British passports thanks to my mother and we hoped that my husband could ask for one in a few years. Then many things happened, not the least Brexit. We started looking again and, 6 months pregnant, we recently moved after accepting an offer for a position in Dublin, Ireland.
When asked where we are from (you can’t hide the accent), we say we are French – and if I have time I explain a bit more, though most people probably don’t care, they just want boxes – but I don’t actually believe that we are French anymore. We are not registered to vote there – I feel a bit guilty considering, but should we vote, really? I don’t think we will ever go back, though who knows? But why should we? Home is not there. We have family there that is all. There are things we like there and things we don’t. We speak the language and know the history, yes… Home is not here yet either but it could become.
The thing is, home is not necessarily where you were born or where your parents were born or where you grew up, it can be where you choose (or were forced) to live for love or for work or for any other reason. It is as much a given as a choice. It is made of the place and the people. But it doesn’t mean you have to leave all your past experiences behind. Or that you have to like everything about the place. And who does, even for those who didn’t move from their country of birth?
Will we move again? I don’t know, I hope not. Will we go back to France? I don’t know, I think not, I hope not. It would be like giving up our dream, like going back to live with your parents at 35 after a divorce – we might feel like we failed. People wouldn’t care about our life in those years of living abroad. Of course we came back, it’s France! Well it’s a great country in some ways and not in others, and certainly not the centre of the world, as much as some could wish it 😉 To blend in we would probably have to pack up our memories and experiences and lock them up. We would have to follow the French rules of behaviour and communication again, some of which have probably changed since we left. I don’t even know what kind of music or TV shows or films people watch and listen to there!
To conclude, here are two links for poems that I wrote on the subject and which I think illustrate all that with different words: