Friday, 29 June 2012

Location fatigue

By: Claire

The other day in Brussels, where I live now, this guy had to know exactly where I come from. He seemed nice enough, but I bit the nose off him anyway.

"I'm from Dublin, is that not enough information?"

He looked shocked. He meant no harm, but I knew he wanted me to be more precise. How did I know? Because most Dubliners I meet are preoccupied with which square meter of the sprawling town you come from. 

Universal. (Glenn Euloth) 
The beauty of living away is the anonymity that goes with it. But I learned early on in places as far away from Dublin as St Petersburg that Dubliners won't let this one go.

"Okay, so you are not from the Northside so you must be from the Southside. You're a posho aren't you?"

Well-intentioned people might assume that it's just about striking a familiar chord with someone, walking the old streets together, homesickness, but this kind of questioning usually brings out an argumentative streak in me.

The reason I refuse to answer is because I can predict the reaction: "Ooh Killiney? Isn't that near where Bono lives?!" Yes it is close, but not a strone's throw. Bono lives in a mansion on a hill overlooking the sea. My parents live more like at the very bottom of the hill in an estate of small bungalows.

I told Bono where the carrots were once when I was working at the local grocer's checkout counter during the summer of 2004. He nodded, grabbed a bunch, paid and left carrying them nonchalantly by their leafy top.

I grew up outside Ireland, apart from a two year stint at a convent school in Killiney during my teens. Back again at 23, I tried to fit in. I happened to arrive at the same time as many Poles. When I wasn't immediately outspoken, I became just "the Polish girl." The name followed me when I took up work at a bar in Sallynoggin, at the far other end of the income scale.

All in all, which end of the scale I live at means little to me. Abroad (in Germany and the Netherlands to be as precise as I want to be) we always got by easily because the cost of living was low. But even Dad, who was part of Ireland's industrial book, is now paying for recent excesses with other Dubliners.

Recently some Occupy types thought they were doing a good thing by pitching up outside an old couple's house in Killiney because they were being kicked out for late repayments.Then it transpired they could just sell one of their other ten houses.

That's Killiney! So don't ask me where I'm from, ok?

~ Part of Strangers in Strange Lands. Claire Davenport writes for Reuters and (currently) lives in Brussels. She won't tell you which neighbourhood, but she will help you locate the local green grocers if you ask nicely. 

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Stranger radar

By: Emma

I am not a Refugee. I have not left my country, exiled for reasons so utterly terrifying that you wouldn't believe me even if I tried to explain.

I am an expatriate. Someone who is privileged to live in another country for work reasons. I am privileged to explore the world at will, rather than forced to travel out of necessity.

Same ground, different footing.
I am however, someone whose eyes have been opened to the feeling of what it is like to be an outsider. Who at times has been made to feel unwelcome and unwanted in another's land. And that's the only thing I have to worry about. I can just forget about the feeling of unease that might have momentarily upset my day, and carry on. I am lucky, it probably won't happen to me again, not for a while anyway.

To those that are in exile, I am grateful for what you have taught me.The best privilege yet, has been to meet some amazing people from a multitude of backgrounds and cultures in the two countries that I have lived in away from my home, the UK. And I have yet to meet more gracious and lovely people than the friends who fled Sri Lanka for example, or the countless others we have met along the way, who had to leave home behind.

We all have one thing in common “us foreigners”. A special skill, only granted to you when you have been a foreigner yourself. A kind of inbuilt radar system that alerts us to mutual “strangers” in the vicinity, whether on a train, or just passing each other in the supermarket. When it’s activated, you might see us smiling at each other, for we have a mutual understanding of what it feels like to be different, and to not truly belong. In this respect at least we are always the same, despite our backgrounds and cultural variations.

~ Written for the Strangers in Strange Lands series. When not taking in the delights of Copenhagen with her family, Emma can be found on A Bavarian Sojourn

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

From Nowhere

By: Daianna

I have a rare phobia. It’s so unusual, I don’t think doctors have bothered to name it.

I am afraid of a question. One that I’m asked by almost everyone I meet. The inevitable follow up to exchanging names and polite comments on the weather.

“Where are you from?”

Nowhere is the new everywhere. 
First, my lips purse. Then, I look nervously around the room and up at the ceiling. I pause for a while, waiting for my interrogator to forget he asked the question and move on to another one.

But there is no escape. And as far as he is concerned, it is a simple question with a simple answer.

I still don’t know how best to respond. Once or twice, I’ve tried “everywhere and nowhere”. But people seem unsatisfied with this. So I usually warn the questioner to prepare for a long and convoluted story.

I breeze through the roster of American cities where I grew up – east coast, west coast and in between. I try to put a quick end to my torture by skipping the messy last decade, when I’ve moved several times between London and Chicago. But everyone wants to know more. “How did you end up in London”?

Before I got married, I’d get the bonus question, “Where is your surname…Rincones…from”? Curses! Another extended and multifaceted yarn featuring another country entirely.

Despite my phobia, I’m mindful of how lucky I am. Whereas various members of my family left Venezuela after being burgled, assaulted or kidnapped, I’m simply a refugee from boredom. When I start feeling too comfortable in one place, I get an itch to move onto the next.

As the world gets (figuratively) smaller, I see more people doing the same. Born in one place, educated in another city and working in different countries – stories like mine are becoming more common. Maybe, one day, people will stop asking the question I dread. We won’t need to be from anywhere. We’ll just be.

Or maybe we’ll make the effort to craft, and the time to hear, these great stories that make us who we are.

~ Part of the Strangers in Strange Lands guest blogging series. Daianna Karaian is a marketer at EDF Energy and a blogger at Sexy Or Susty, where she writes on the importance of doing over saying.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A tale of two countries

By: Erica

As both Californian and British, never formally comfortable calling myself one or the other, I have always related to the tale of Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim.  

Nicknaming themselves Christopher and Columbus, the Twinkler twins, orphans of an English mother and a German father, find themselves shipped off to America during World War One. They were “refugees, castaways, derelicts, two wretched little Germans who were neither really Germans nor really English because they so unfortunately, so complicatedly were both.”  Despite von Arnim’s customary wit and charm, there is also a forlorn sadness to the twins inability to belong.

British pragmatism. 
It is perhaps not surprising that Von Arnim, herself, was a refugee of sorts. Born in Australia to British parents, she married a Prussian aristocrat, and lived in both Germany and England, before ultimately ending up in Charleston, South Carolina.

Although I love nearly all the works of Elizabeth von Arnim, I have always identified with the Twinkler twins.  Unable to define themselves to one specific nationality, they are always at a loss when asked if they are British.  Their standard reply of “Practically” results in “surprise, reflection, and then suspicion.”  Unable to fit neatly into any particular box, they alienate and confuse any new acquaintances.

Born in England, but largely raised in California, I, like the Twinkler twins, always have a hard time telling people where I’m from. I tend to give a long, drawn out, complicated explanation that leaves everyone, including myself, confused.  And perhaps the truth is that I am confused by my own nationality. I would like to be British, but despite a love of baked beans on toast, and Cadbury flakes, I don’t always remember to say lift instead of elevator, or biscuit instead of cookie. And yet, I don’t feel entirely Californian either. I’m not blonde. I don’t surf or skateboard. I don’t eat healthy. And I’m terrible at sports.

Although the twins tell themselves that they must decide what they are, they never do. They are constantly in limbo, neither one nor the other. Their German soul inspires them to love Slush (excessive sentiment), while their British soul tells them to mock it. 

I must admit to the same hypocrisy in many of my own opinions and preferences. I love both the British and American office, Steve Carrel and Ricky Gervais being equally brilliant in my transatlantic eyes. I despise the undemocratic nature of the British aristocracy and yet romanticize William and Kate. I’d be hard pressed to say whether I prefer a good Sunday Roast or an all American BBQ. Roast pudding and hamburgers being equally delicious and decadent. But, I always prefer my tea with milk. And I love clotted cream and jam on my scones.  

So I guess at least when it comes to tea, I am well and truly British. The other areas of my life will have to go undefined.

~ This piece is the second installment in the Strangers in Strange Lands series. Although she is liable to change polarity at any moment, Erica is currently a Californian in Britain. A tea-drinking romantic, she can be found dispensing "old-fashioned advice for life's modern dilemmas" at Teatime with Erica.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Careful Construction

By: Arina 

My baby daughter is British. I am not. 

I was born nearly a third of a century ago in a country that has ceased to exist since then. I acquired my fatherland in 1991, when in the aftermath of a failed Soviet coup, Latvia regained independence. Ten years of carefully constructing my Latvian identity have followed. 

The grass is greener. 
So when I left Latvia for the greener meadows of England, I hoped to come back one day in order to singlehandedly pull the Latvian economy out of the post-Soviet mess. Ten more years have passed, and in contact with reality the dreams of a romantic teenager have withered somewhat. 

During my years spent in the UK, I have learned to hold the swinging doors for strangers, instead of inadvertently slamming them in the face of unsuspecting victims who are used to and thus take the courtesy of fellow human beings for granted. I have also learned to give change directly to shop assistants instead of seeking for a little plate to use as a neutral space in the exchange of coins. 

I got used to the idea that if ever I were to afford a house, it would be a hobbit house with tiny doors and tiny windows and I would always have an uncontrollable urge to stoop before entering it. I no longer fear that the local food will unrelentingly make me go up in dress sizes. And on cold winter days I no longer look with horror at cyclists wearing shorts or mothers taking their babies for a walk without a blanket and with bare feet under never-ending drizzle.

By now I cannot imagine going back to Latvia, where border police never smile, and women in the broad daylight wear skirts so skimpy that Westerners frequently mistake them for sex workers. After the
birth of my daughter I started to feel that London is my home. Yet it still feels so strange to watch Postman Pat with my daughter. It is so quintessentially British. 

~ Written as part of the Strangers in Strange Lands series. Arina describes herself as a mother (translation: waitress, cleaner, transportation device), lecturer (subverter of young minds), theoretical economist (creator of toy worlds), modern art junkie and a traveler.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Strangers in strange lands

I have been reminded by Refugee Week that there is a joy to being foreign, and a joy in knowing foreigners.

Songs of innocence and experience. 
To celebrate this joy, I am handing over the reins to some of my favourite migrants over the coming days, and instructing them to write on the vague topic of 'being and foreignness'.

My guest writers are a handful of the wanderers I have met in the green and pleasant land that I am proud to call my second home.

For me, being foreign is the experience of being a snowflake out of water: forever unique and eternally lost. Of course, being unique ain't always great, and being lost can be pretty cool.

Please tune in daily this week for a new story from a faraway land.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Dreams of home

Proof that he grew up on a farm, Yashar Ismailoglu's first memory is of being kicked by a cow. 

His second memory is of waking from a dream to discover a snake descending on him from a branch overhead. The snake landed on his shoulder and dragged its cold scales down the length of his arm, all the while Yasher's body remained paralyzed by lingering sleep 
Warm welcome. 

There must have been points that felt similarly uncomfortable on Yashar's journey as a young student from Cyprus to Britain in 1972, and then again on the return journey he never took from Britain to Cyprus after war broke out in 1974, leaving him a refugee. 

A friend introduced me to Yashar, and I met with him on the occasion of Refugee Week, to talk about his experiences as one of the first Cypriot refugees to Britain. Yashar welcomed me into the Alevi Cultural Centre in Hackney with a sort of warmth and openness that I imagine comes from having had to rely on the kindness of strangers himself. 

When Yashar arrived in Britain, he insisted to the Scottish boarder guard that he could speak English. The border guard insisted the same thing to Yashar, but neither could understand the other. 

Eventually Yashar convinced the guard to let him through, and he went on to discover some local culinary oddities - for instance, that his new country appeared to have a mere two Turkish restaurants to it's name. Turning to local cuisine, he struggled with the notion that the headless, beer-battered lump on the plate was actually a fish.

Land of plenty.
A long-time community organiser, Yashar admits that one of his initiatives has been far more successful than the others: football. The league he helped found as a "bridge between Cyprus and London" now has thirty-two clubs. At one point it sent twenty-three members of the league to Cyprus, paid for by an enthusiastic community raffle. 

Yashar is a poet, and he writes on the impossibility of going home. Years after coming to Britain, Yashar returned to the village of his birth. he found that people of his childhood were gone. "Our fields, rocks, mountains, hills - had all become houses."

Yashar is cautiously optimistic about the plight of future migrants to Britain. "If you come here and rely on the state you will be starving." He points out that migrants must rely on kindness and serendipity anyway. It was a famous Turkish musician who covered Yashar's bus fare to Ankara, and an Irish produce seller who taught him how to supplement his meager wages with leftover fruit and veg from the Ridley Road Market.

Every week is refugee week if you're a refugee. Yashar writes that home becomes place in one's mind rather than in geography. "There is always somewhere else," he says. 

Sunday, 17 June 2012


My papa was a Hotshot in the US Forest Service - those crazy guys who go running into flames when deer go running the other way. The job meant that he was ace with a chainsaw, and could navigate around Big Sur with only a topographical map and the stars. It also meant that, unlike his daughter, he rarely panicked even when fire was involved.

Remember to look up. (JP Stanley, 2006) 
One time my papa found himself walled into a meadow by flames. There was little he could do in the circumstances but wait, so he curled up next to the embers of a smoldering log and decided to get some rest. Back to the burnt earth, eyes to the heavens, he watched the long-dead fires of ghosting stars blink overhead, and felt the resigned peace of a tiny ant in a gargantuan universe.

This is my memory of a story I was told when I was little. Due to the challenges of stargazing through smoke, I am probably embellishing some of the details. But it is true that my papa made a point of showing me the constellations when I was a girl.

When Ana was born, my initial course of action was to obsessively hover over her to make sure she was still breathing. Papa's main concern in the was getting me to stop hovering and go the heck to sleep. His next priority was to take her outside and show her the stars. Apparently - and he remembers this like I remember the Big Sur story - he was taken outside and shown the stars in his infancy.

I did eventually stopped hovering. Ana kept on breathing, and she even got to gurgle at the stars like a baby ant. Thank goodness for papas.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Ray of sunshine

Last week, Ray left planet earth in a rocket bound for the great beyond.

Humans and aliens both loved Ray, who referred to his craft as 'joy'. His stories helped grown-ups retrieve their childhoods from the attic, and prevented youth from sending their imaginations out with the recycling. Plus, he just seemed like everybody's granddad.
Cult of Ray. (Alan Light, 1975)

Ray said: "Life should be touched, not strangled. You've got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it." Ray grew up in libraries, and loved paper. But he eventually said that Fahrenheit 451 could go electronic, like a fire balloon casting off into the dark unknown.

He was wise to make his home in Los Angeles, because here in London, it's summertime again. 'Summer' is an ancient Celtic word that means 'three months of rain, just like last year'.

Britain is a land of traditions. Rain or shine, a hose-pip ban must be declared each summer. Yet under no circumstances must anyone contemplate fixing the leaky Victorian sewer system under London. Rain or shine, Union Jacks will flood the streets for Jubilees, and Olympians will flex at appointed times on blinking plasma screens in terraces. Shows and showers carry on, year upon year.

Where traditions are destroyed, it is traditional for the local council to do the destroying. In May, Brent council sent the police to stand guard as they stripped the Kensal Rise Library of its books at 2am. It's not clear whether their concern was ex-military sniper-librarians, or Dan Brown books. In a move that would make Cindy Lou Who cringe, they even removed a plaque commemorating the library's opening by Mark Twain in 1900.

London's libraries are becoming an endangered species. My two local libraries were closed just this year. I'm no economist, but I can't imagine that supplying Kensal Rise with the latest Dan Brown book is anything like bailing out the Royal Bank of Scotland - even given Dan Brown's rate of publication.

Douglas Adams once wrote an excellent profile of local councils. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy opens as a guy called Arthur Dent wakes to find a wrecking crew in his garden, poised to tear down his house on planning orders from the council. When Arthur becomes agitated, the wrecking crew insists that planning documentation has been posted for a disused lavatory, behind a sign that says 'beware of the leopard'. Of course, only minutes later earth (excepting Aurther Dent) is vaporized by alien bureaucrats called Vogons, who are making way for an intergalactic bypass.
Don't panic. (Megan Trace, 2011)

I suspect the officials who shut down Kensal Rise Library at 2am have posted lengthy justifications for their actions somewhere - likely in a disused mental lavatory, guarded by a leopard. 

When their busy schedule of defending the universe against sniper-librarians allows, Vogons and councilors should both consider spending more rainy summer afternoons in the library. They can bring their Kindles if they like. Ray said: "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them."

Monday, 4 June 2012

Unrequited cake

Ana wants to meet the Queen.

Not some street fair amateur in a creepy cardboard mask, or a lost tourist toting an inflatable corgi. Certainly not that guy who sashays across Westminster Bridge.

The Queen, dammit. The REAL Queen.

So far no luck.

It was Ana's first, upsetting glimpse of a fake queen a week ago that triggered this fixation. Since then the cacophony of Jubilee hoopla has exacerbated her delicate condition.

Ana is not unreasonable - she merely wants to play with the Queen's toys, and maybe have tea. She has even made a Victoria sponge for the occasion.

Ana knows where the Queen's house is. She promises to share her toys and be sweet. What else could be required?

Grown-ups talk about the Queen till the are red and blue in the face. They throw parties for her, but she never shows up.

Befuddlement is becoming suspicion - Ana reckons people say the Queen is coming just to shut her up. She wonders if the real Queen is stuck in traffic. Perhaps there are the wrong kind of leaves on the line?

Last night Ana left a wedge of lovingly-crafted Victoria sponge on the windowsill, on the assumption that the Queen would be peckish after her boat ride.

The cake was gone by morning, and the Queen was thoughtful enough to leave personalised stickers in it's place. But it wasn't enough.

On the train this afternoon a nice man noticed her far-off expression and drooping toy flag.

"Have you been to see the Queen?" he asked with the sort of bubbling excitement that only granddads on the train get.

Ana turned her gaze to him, her eyes teeming with the lost empire and unfulfilled Victoria sponge. She sensed that saying the right thing would shut him up.

"Yes" she said "I have."