Somewhere to belong

Zürich’s Kunsthaus museum, November 2011. I was tired, and not particularly enthused about the artworks. A friend and I decided to hand back our audio-tour headsets and have a wander round outside before our 6pm rendezvous with the rest of our group. But we never made it outside, because we got caught up in a nearly hour-long conversation with the guy at the counter for the headsets.

The conversation ranged over Switzerland, mixed-race babies, London, studying, Australia and drinking, amongst other things. But the subject that stuck with me most was the issue of moving countries, and trying to find a place that fits. For all three of us, that meant somewhere we could feel both belonging and excitement, comfort and challenge, familiarity and variety, and none of us felt we had quite hit on that magic combination just yet.

For the Swiss, an actor and arty type, Switzerland is charming, but too conservative. Too small and reserved to appreciate innovative theatre, recognition in Switzerland is more likely to come once acclaim has first been gained abroad; somewhere bigger and more liberal. This guy spoke French, English, German, Swiss German and Italian (I think that’s all), and had lived in the States and England.

So though he came back to Switzerland in the end, and it is still his “home”, I got the impression that it felt like a bit of a misfit for him. I’d say I feel “at home” in many ways here in Switzerland, but even the familiar things still feel foreign to me – probably because I am always functioning in a foreign language. It’s not a bad feeling, but it doesn’t make for the homeliest vibe. And if I were to continue living here after the vast majority of my exchange friends had left, I don’t suppose I’d feel very much at home any more; I guess it’s my friends who made Lausanne feel like home.

My friend had studied at a foreign university and whilst there went on three different exchanges in three different countries (including, naturally, Switzerland). I myself have moved “home” (in the physical sense) every year for the past four years, starting at three different universities in that time. With so much locational shifting inevitably comes mental adjustments, and the attempt to create “home” in each new place. Indeed, the very concept of what constitutes “home” can begin to blur.

What does “home” mean to you? Is it the house where you grew up, or the town, or the country? Is it even a physical place at all, or does it move with the people who matter most to you? Is it merely a state of mind, a sense of belonging, which can be found anywhere? Did you choose a home for yourself, or was it chosen for you, and either way, do you love your home, or resent it? Do you even feel like you have a “home”, or are you in fact still searching…?

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