Stranger in a strange land

How long do you have to spend in a place before it becomes “home”? I lived in Exeter for the first 20 years of my life, but Brussels (where I’ve lived for only 5) is definitely home now. Exeter has strong memories associated with it, but it’s 14 years since I’ve lived there. It’s hard to even say what it is that makes a place feel like home. Is it just where your family, friends and work are? Is that enough? Does it have to have happy memories associated with it? Is it a matter of feeling comfortable? I’m sure that there are many places in which I could feel comfortable, make friends and find a job – could they all, potentially, be “home”?

For previous generations, or even many people now, the idea of choosing where to live is a strange one. For most people, you live where you are – you no more choose your hometown than you choose your race or the colour of your eyes. And yet at several points we, and many people we know, have had to sit down and think “In which country should we live”? 

The film “L’Auberge Espagnole“, about Erasmus exchange students, contains a scene in which the French protagonist, who has just arrived outside his new apartment in Barcelona, pauses to look around at the unfamiliar streets. He muses in voiceover “Once you’ve lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times… it’ll belong to you. That was about to happen to me, but I didn’t know it yet.” He knew that, at some undefined point in the near future, this strange place would start to feel like home.

Now look at it the other way – try to see your home as if seeing it for the first time, as a stranger. It’s easy not to see something because you’re so accustomed to it, but for a visitor it’s all new and (potentially) interesting. I’ve been struck a couple of times in this way: once I was taking a bus across a bridge in London and looked out of the window at a view of the Houses of Parliament. Suddenly I felt like the tourist who finally catches a glimpse of that famous sight they’ve seen so many times before on TV and in magazines. Then recently I was walking through a park in Brussels, staring up at the apartment buidlings along the avenue running down one side, and I flashed back to the feeling I’d had before when wandering through some unknown old European city and wondering how it would feel to be the kind of person who lived there. It was the strangest feeling – like I’d suddenly jumped back to a younger version of myself who hadn’t yet had that experience.

Actually I’ve just remembered another one: walking along Exeter High Street one day as a teenager – a street I’d walked down a thousand times – I suddenly realised that, in all that time, I’d never lifted my eyes above head height to look at the top of the buildings. Try it some time (I did the same experiment on London’s Oxford Street, with amazing results). We’re so used to looking at the shop windows that it never occcurs to us to tilt up a little and see the upper floors. (Lydia in “The Fisher King” makes a remark to the same effect, about how you never really think that anyone lives in those apartments above shops. Later, Jack, climbing onto a roof in order to break into someone’s place, mutters “Thank God no-one looks up in this town”.)

Unsettling as it is, I love those feelings – anything which lifts the scales from your eyes and forces you to look at something familiar afresh is valuable.