WITHOUT A HOME
The perplexing thing is, that I never knew home until I left it. I lost my sense of home when I emigrated. Before that, I knew where I belonged, who my people were and what my language was. Without realizing it, I possessed a cultural identity and automatically assumed ownership of all the places, so well known to me from my schoolbooks: history, geography, and the topography, learned by rote in those days. I recognized without a second thought the places shown in movie clips on TV and described by others in their stories.
I was familiar with my nation’s recent history and the fate altering effects of the Second World War on our people, especially on our devastatingly decreased number of Jewish citizenry. I knew that the birth of our modern nation really started when the 80-year war with Spain ended in 1648 and the stadtholders of the Dutch Republic of the Seven Provinces elected the Prince of Orange, William the First, as our first Father of the Nation. This same House of Orange that is still acceptable to its Dutch citizens, and even revered by some, in a succession of women on the throne mothering the nation in a low key, practical and modern style–very unlike their royal relatives in the United Kingdom of Britain.
The dialogue I overheard in my country of birth contained no underlying secrets to me. Nobody tried to figure out what exactly I was saying and no misunderstandings occurred because of my use of a word that did not quite fit. No one laughed about my mispronunciations or questioned by ability to work on writing assignments within a study group. I always had excellent grades for any language project, regardless of the language: French, English, German, or Dutch. I was destined for greatness, or, at the very least, a very good job. That identity I took for granted, until two days after my 33rd birthday.
On April Fools’ Day, I left for Canada, possessing a fair level of fluency of the language–or so I thought. After all, the music of my generation was in English by British and North American artists. I had had given myself a year to find out whether I could manage staying with my chosen new man in my new country. What could be the big deal, right? A year should be long enough to get the hang of it.
Thirty years later, I recognize the enormity of that step and its effects on the rest of my life, indeed, on my personality even. The stress that move has exerted on my brain processes, not in the least on my sense of identity, has been mind altering. No level of preparation could have warned me for the loss of identity, based on a shared national history, on the strategies used in the education system to promote critical thinking, on the beliefs and attitudes towards tolerance of other religions beside the mainstream, and on its leaders’ encouragement of citizens’ political involvement. When I lost the privilege of automatically knowing what people around me are talking about, I felt like I was floating in no man’s land, almost like being born again at an adult age, but needing to learn a whole new set of skills on a completely new planet, set apart by my foreigness.
Home, what is that anyway? I have struggled with that concept ever since I left the safety and comforts of my country of birth. Since that day, I can only feel a nostalgic sense of what home was–once upon a time. When I see my home country below me while flying over and preparing to land, before feeling the bump of the landing gear hitting the tarmac, I feel a familiarity that is like a soothing blanket softly laid out over me by an unseen hand—a memory. The reality is different once landed: I don’t fit in anymore autimatically.
When I meet people from my home country in Canada–identified by their accent–an immediate familiarity arises within a few sentences of our exchange, as if I was their twin removed at birth for some reason and whom I never met until this moment. Then we part again.
Before I left home forever, I travelled to other countries during a few weeks of each year. I now view those trips as experiments. I took in the flavours and natural beauty of foreign sites, so different from home. All what was new to the eye, what challenged the senses, was exciting to me. I made comparisons, observed benefits and drawbacks. After my return home, maybe a vague longing to return to that beautiful place lingered in the recesses of my mind for some time. But, arriving home is also nice: the return to what is familiar is soothing. To fall back into a routine takes no effort. My brain processed the new impulses and I quickly put conclusions to the back of my mind. Life went on as usual.
Although I had enjoyed my vacation experiences very much, leaving one’s country forever is nothing like going away for a holiday trip. My brain could not process that much information for that long without an end date; it could not return to equilibrium and was challenged beyond anything that is comfortable. Stressed, I became insecure.
I searched for the familiar. My tongue was getting twisted with the foreign language and my brains seemed to work extremely slow; I could not grasp what my companions were joking about, missed the nuances, had no clue what those words in that context meant. I was looking for a reprieve. I went to bed early most nights–exhausted. My new friends were completely opposite from my old friends, their lives filled with rough teasing and much drinking; none of it made sense to me.
For months on end my ability to adapt was stretched and stretched, until it felt like only a thin line connected me to sanity. Through a lucky circumstance, I found work with mentally challenged young people within three weeks of landing. They have patience, they see no differences, and they accepted me unconditionally. Slowly I felt my acute stress levels decrease. I could feel my level of familiarity rise: my–very small–world of the group home made my day-to-day life predictable. Those routines in my life gave me a bit of security.
My companion was quickly getting tired of me when the novelty of a new girlfriend was wearing off. He wanted to hang out with his buddies as before, drinking and playing pool in the bar. I wouldn’t let him do that without a fight: I didn’t leave all my friends and my comfy life behind for that! I whined and demanded, I got clingy, pleaded, I didn’t recognize myself. I cried myself to sleep those days. How long was this terrible time going to last? Who could I talk to? Did anybody even like me here? What was I doing here? Should I go home?
I got a driver’s licence—my first ever. It’s fun driving the large boat–a Ford Elite 2-door–especially with this little traffic compared to Amsterdam’s crazy multi-user streets. The purchase of our home–another first–was the next step in my adjustment; I got a foot in the door. The house had a garden and I was digging in, the dirt gliding loosely though my fingers, soft to the touch. The plants were growing well in this warm, dry climate; carrots and lettuces smoothed their way into my taste and favour. This was familiar to me, made me think of home, the weeding so soothing and automatic, leaving my mind free to wander.
I made new friends of my taste who could actually carry on conversations that made sense to me, some of them from elsewhere too. We laughed about our observations and the differences we noticed around us. There’s safety in numbers. My brain produced some endorphins and I actually was enjoying myself a year after I had left home. Life was beginning to make sense again.
Now I have lived an almost equal number of years in my new country and in my country of birth. Nevertheless, I have accepted that my new county will never feel completely like home. Much like a newborn baby experiencing abandonment for the first time, a pathway was forged in the brain: a new emotion has substituted the previous one that now became a faint memory. I have a daughter who was born here. To her, this is home.
You can’t go home again. I know what that means. I moved several times, divorced, my daughter grew up, and I live alone. Yet, I would not do a thing differently, even if I had known everything beforehand. What did I gain by leaving home? I feel I can live anywhere, in any country, undergo any number of changes and still survive. The human spirit is my home: it is indomitable.