Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How Can an Expat Go "Home"?


Marienplatz, Munich
An expat often hesitates when someone asks “Where’s home?”

Gosh, I don’t know. Munich? London? Nashville? Earth?
Radnor Lake, Nashville, TN

Am I a Nashvillian because I was raised there and love Radnor Lake? Am I English because I spend half my time there and I have the blood of English ancestors muddling through my veins? I've studied Shakespeare. Does that count for anything?

Am I German because I was born in Frankfurt and because I’ve lived in Munich for the last fifteen years? I’m obviously an earthling, so at least there’s a bit of clarity there.

The Globe, London
 When I left Nashville on May 31, 1995, I apparently didn’t feel at home there. When I arrived in Munich the next day, I didn’t feel at home there either: I was sleepy, and I didn’t speak the language, understand German directness or drink beer. My dog, on the other hand, trotted through the airport doors and took a mighty large dump on the airport lawn. While I spent the day listening to country music and wondering what the hell I was doing moving to Germany, my dog was putting down roots.

And why not? Besides Gehen wir Gassi! (“Let’s go for a walk!”) he didn’t have to learn the language. As a dog—an adorable American Cocker Spaniel—he was instantly issued a pedestal in Munich. He could now go to restaurants and accompany me to my classes. Everyone—except one particularly grumpy Greek teacher at the language institute—loved Bodie. Lesson learned: people love cute, stupid animals. In a bind? Play dumb and smile sadly. And pant.


Fifteen years later, I speak—and feel—the language . . . and Bodie is buried in an unmarked grave. RIP. I call Munich home now (one of several). München ist mein Zuhause, I say every time I come through passport inspection at the Munich airport. Sie sprechen Deutsch? the border official will invariably ask. Auch, I say because this is how a German responds when he means he speaks the language but it’s not his native tongue.

I travel in and out of the Munich airport four or five times a month, but the border officials never recognize me. I know it’s silly to think they would, but Munich is famous for being the world’s largest village. I’ll know München has finally accepted me as one of her own when a passport official says Habe d’Ehre, Chris! and waves me in. I keep hoping.

Home, though, is not where everyone knows your name. It’s not the country in your passport or the place on your birth certificate. It’s where you feel the language.

I must be off (Ich bin dann mal weg/verrückt),
Christopher

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Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, an episodic commentary on how sitcoms create gay identity in modern America. Available from Amazon Anything. 

9 comments:

  1. I've been rediscovering Shakespeare through the Classic Comics graphic novel series. They do a bloody Macbeth and Henry V. Beats reading the plays themselves.

    ::runs away::

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  2. Someone didn't have the right Shakespeare professor. :)

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  3. "In a bind? Play dumb and smile sadly." I think this is truly beautiful advice! Nice that you finally feel like you have a 'home'. Also fun that you get to travel so regularly though.,

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  4. interesting and something I struggle with too... I guess because despite nearly 4 years in Germany, my facility with the language is still rather basic. Probably because I like to think of myself as fluent and articulate and persuasive when speaking/writing English, and I hate that I am subnormal auf Deutsch ;)

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  5. Hey, jkdavies,
    I think it's quite a normal "problem" to feel subnormal when speaking another language. I have days when I feel like a six-year-old. I have great respect for those people who plough right through despite mistakes and the inevitable searching for the right expression. I'm often too concerned with these things.

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  6. wonderful post that i (re) discovered via mike solender's blog carnival #3. thanks for sharing. brings back my own memories of study days in munich...

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  7. It sounds more exotic to me to have your identity in question like that, but maybe the grass is always greener, as they say.

    We met some drug-sniffing dogs here in Wisconsin that respond perfectly to voice commands--just so long as they're in Dutch, since their copious training took place in the Netherlands. So officers have to learn a little Dutch, just to talk to the dogs.

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  8. Hi, Cathy! Yes, I think they train the dogs in another language so they'll listen only to their trainers and not other people in the airport.

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  9. Lovely writing. I'm glad you're feeling at home in Munich.

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