Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Strangely (Not) At-home: Being at Home and Away From Home



We were somewhere once.
Home. Now I am here. Home. We’re still haunted by that somewhere then. Home… ~ Φ ~**

Living abroad makes you think about home. Then you go home and you’re thinking about that place and that person you were abroad. You don’t quite full back into the home that was or back into the person you once were. People don’t see you, you say to yourself, the way you are now and the ways you’ve changed since you left.

You left. They stayed. That is the logic you feel in your relations.

You feel ill-at-ease in this tenuous in-between. Your home is already lost and fleeting. Your former friends and confidants seem suddenly so…unfitting. You’ve changed. I suppose they have too, but you’re feeling like what’s going on is from a movie being replayed and you’re the only one noticing that it’s a repeat, that you’ve seen this before. You’ve cut a before and after through you’re leaving. You feel a space, a décalage, between you and your former friends, past places, and old haunts.

It’s a terrible, hollowing feeling that anyone that has gone abroad or, as the French say à l’étranger, to the foreign, for any serious amount of time has experienced. When you learn the language, watch the TV, listen to the radio and the music, read the newspapers and the classic and popular literature and talk to and with the people, you start thinking, speaking and reasoning like them. You say as they would do in a similar situation. With modifications, that are your own. This is the plunge into participative or immersive ethnological studies or simply living like they do.

There is still the popular psychological “fear” that when you go abroad, into the jungle and to live with the “natives” you might just go all the way, erasing your past self. While this is surely a psychological possibility at the extreme, our experience of the world rarely radically alters as such; it is rather a slower process of forgetting yourself to the language and following “native” ways of saying or speaking. You lose yourself but never completely. You speak like they do but you’re still there, as you always already were.

This ethnological immersion into the context, the language, and the reasoning of another culture changes you and takes you away from home. But it’s a fragile away-from-home that you are constantly reexamining with images and memories of your at-home. This away-from-home is a forgetting and fall-into of another home. You’re actor. You always were.

You never really leave home completely. You never really go completely abroad, fully into the strange. This tension between home and abroad is a feeling we have across our lives: our first day of high school, our graduations, our birthdays, our first job, aging others, death, or any other experiences that cut time in two: before/after, then/now. Because we are historical and narrative communal beings, we divide time between seasons, ages, generations, birthdays and symbolic moments. When we return to our youth, our youthful friend or former abodes, we feel equally ill-at-ease, because what was once home is no longer. While it could never have been forever, this home has turned into that home. Living abroad simply makes this everyday tension between home and away an experience we, foreigners, feel and reflect upon more often.

I have lived in France now for over 3 years now with only two brief trips back home. I have learned French to such an extent I feel more or less “integrated” in almost any language situation. Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t want to give a speech in front of 500 people in French and I sometimes hesitate with people I don’t know but I still have no problem talking with any French speaker in any context as longer as there is time. In fact, I speak like a French person. This sounds pretentious, so let me explain. I know and use their expressions. We often think of language as a massive system, which is impossible to learn or teach to its deepest grammatical and significative core. This is a misguided notion of language. If language was so difficult and complicated, it’s amazing children ever learn it. Language is much more like an acquired assortment of words and ideas, especially when you learn a foreign language.

I learned French word by word, phrase by phrase. Admittedly I learned some usage guides with the verbs and things. But mostly I learned French by stealing and memorizing their ways of saying this or that, their manner of describing that or this. Learning French for me has been like building up a record collection for a jukebox. At the beginning I only had a few phrases in order to express myself but over time I learned and acquired new records (i.e. words and phrases) so that I could put together more sophisticated ideas and formulate more “creative” dialogues. I’m always mimicking and following their ways of saying. I’m a copy-cat. I’m sorta French now, without even doing it intentionally or even doing it that well. I wouldn’t say I speak perfect French, nor do I really want to. With my “jukebox,” through these “acquired” and contextualized words, dialogues and speech patterns, I think in French (this is a complex idea meriting further attention for another time!).

~ Φ ~**

My friend Michel at Le Francais en Suede and I have been having a long conversation across places and languages about the experience of “home” (le chez toi) after the experience of “being abroad” (être à l’étranger). He left France several months ago to move to Sweden. He’s been working and learning Swedish. And, after much work and study, as anyone who has undergone this experience, he has started to feel “at home” in Stockholm and in Swedish, but after returning that home, to his “natal home” as he writes, he was “taken-aback,” “thrown-off,” disturbed and put “ill-at-ease.” In a recent post entitled “Le Chez Soi Impossible”, he asks in open honesty:

Car, au fond, qu´est-ce qui produit cette émotion étrange, éphémère, si douce et si âpre à la fois, qui naît d´un retour dans la demeure de son enfance ? Pourquoi est-on si attaché à un lieu en particulier, alors que nous pouvons déménager, changer de vie, repartir et recommencer, sans guère éprouver le moindre souci ?

Translation: *At the bottom of it all, what is that produces this strange, ephemeral emotion, both so sweet and so embittering, when we return our childhood abode? Why are we so attached this one place in particular, when we can move-away, transform our lives, leave and start over without undergoing hardly the least of worries? *

We can move-away. We chose to move away while others are sometimes forced to. Michel is right to point the idea that mobility is at the heart of many of our questions. We live in a highly mobile society where goods, money, ideas, language, and people traverse massive amounts of distance and time. We are highly interconnected by communication and technology. In our liberal, capitalistic society we are described (and sometimes act as though we are) individualistic, detached or, as Michael Sandel has rightly worded, “unencumbered.” But something haunts or catches up with us from the past, that home follows us wherever we go. This haunting something agonizes us when we go back to that home, when we look at that so meaningful “bench” of former days:

Voila d´innombrables images qui remontent du fond de ma mémoire dès lors que je passe la porte de la maison de mon enfance. C´est ce moi, dispersé, éclaté dans tous ces endroits qui m´ont vu rire, parler, pleurer, aimer, que j´essaye de rassembler, de reconnecter avec celui que je suis devenu. Construire une unité de ma personne.**

Innumerable images rise up from the bottom of my memory when I pass through the door of my childhood home. There is this me, dispersed, scattered in all these places that saw me laughing, talking, crying, loving, that I try to reassemble, to reconnect with whom I have become. To construct a unity of myself.

Michel is fighting with the depression of a loss and the with hopefulness of newly-found, of the newly-found home. In-between is the doubt of reconstructing a whole. These are doubtful moments, because we have lost something or, at least, we have the feeling of having lost something. But which is it? Have we really lost our former identity, our former self-same home? Or is this just an illusionary feeling of having lost a not so permanent identity, a not so strangeless home?

This is not the moment to debate metaphysical notions of identity. What counts is this tension or this feeling of tension between the same-same home and the strangifying abroad.

Michel, like many foreigners abroad, myself included laments that “ce monde là a disparu. Ce moi a disparu. Impossible de le recréer. ” (That world has disappeared. This self has disappeared. It’s impossible to recreate it.). We go to our old friends seeking reciprocation. But our collective notions have changed in relation to theirs. We are still terribly close to this home in a way that maddens us by its receding. Home should be something we can hold on to, forever, together. But something doesn’t quite meet between these two “universes.” We ask ourselves, as Michel does :

*ces deux univers, peut-on encore les partager ? Peut-on ériger un pont entre ces deux planètes qui se sont disjointes ? *

Can we exchange and share these two universes? Can we construct a bridge between these two disconnected planets?

This is a fundamental question. Its response holds much of the challenge, hope and danger of contemporary thinking and political becoming: Can we understand the other? Can we come to understand that which is strange, different and outside of our self-same everydayness?

This is the tension between the abroad (the strange, the different, the unknown, the changing, the becoming) and the home (the same, the known, the changeless, the “is”). This is the challenge of all understanding, because ultimately outside of the rare self-same truths learned through our own bodies, the rest of our knowledge and understanding comes through passages from same-to-different, home-to-abroad, normal-to-strange and then back, back to home, back to the reconcepualized “same.”

Phenomenologists are used to this experience of the fragmented or fragilized home, because in describing any experience we must break it apart from itself, restrict it from other, put in brackets, and describe it as it-self, as it is its self-sameness. Husserl is right to point to Descartes as inspirational starting point that never reached fruition.

Descartes isolated himself in order to prove existence, to prove the simple sameness of the self through the sameness of him-self. Descartes’ proof fails, because he could never quite get to his lunar ego-home. He never quite got outside completely of the world, away from others, and beyond the strange. Descartes tried to use personal reflection to restrict the uncertain and establish the fundamental home in the frantically repeating cogito ego. Phenomenologists appreciate Descartes’ effort to leave the earthly home for his lunar home, but they are quick to remark that he failed to “come back home,” he failed to admit that we always have to come back home in the same way that we always have to go abroad, go to the foreign.

You can be a pessimist about these “two disconnected planets.” You can say to yourself that they don’t or can’t understand you and your new world. This is true to some extent. They cannot understand what you have gone through because they haven’t gone through it.

You can also be an optimist and militant about bring-together these “two universes.” You can speak with others and communicate even with those who don’t speak the same language. We make gestures for drinking and eating with people who don’t speak our words. These gestures communicate. Further gestures and deeper, learned words further bridge and join these separate universes. Even with former, hometown friend we can share if they are willing to listen, learn and fall-to the mysterious foreign home.

In fact, if you aren’t an optimist and a participant in sharing and exchanging “the homely” and the “foreign,” then you are never communicating, you are just talking to yourself, like Descartes with his lunar ego. The challenge of all thought in today’s interconnected world is not defining impossible borders but engaging in seemingly impossible but do-able conversations across languages, across differences and cultures and, ultimately across homes.

~ Φ ~**

Traveling can take place in a number of ways:

1.) Often people travel with such rapidity in order to see “what should be seen” but they often miss what is simply there. You go to Paris to see Paris as it is imagined through diffused images, postcards and landmarks. This is guided experience that fails to see what is not guided to be seen. Such an experience does classify as “having seen” this or that thing, but it does not necessarily mean you saw everything else or anything outside of this funneled and pointed-out experiencing. We are busy and so we have to see what should be seen. Study or travel abroad groups risk a simply isolated experience abroad, because instead of breaking ties with home in order to understand the “strange” or the “difference,” these groups tend to enclose themselves amongst their compatriots. These are all admittedly valid forms of experience, but these are not the only ways of traveling or of going abroad.

2.) My friend Michel and I along with thousands of others have taken a different kind of “trip” abroad. We moved there. We learned the language and fell into roles and characters. We got lost in the jungle and ended up finding a kind of new home. Then, suddenly after a time you find yourself fitting-in in some familiar context outside of your formerly familiar. Concepts and conceptualizations get mixed up when you throw yourself up in another context and through another language. But new concepts and new conceptualizations come through this difficult mixing, “tranchant” or cutting ill-at-ease. When our friends back home ask simple questions (or don’t even ask questions!) about life, behavior, lifestyle or politics in our new home, we, those abroad, those e-strange-d, often have to work through many cultural and linguistic universes in order to answer their questions. Our answers to simple and complex questions about our new home are often hard-fought for, because we have to work through multiple levels of meaning and signification across contexts and horizons.

~ Φ ~**

We were with them once. Home. You are here with me now. Home. We found ourselves haunting, ourselves, together, then, here, now, alone, somewhere, lost, there, everywhere and us. Home…