On identity, home and an imaginary Ithaka

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‘So, where are you from?’

A perfectly innocuous question, part of the meaningless social chatter most people feel obliged to engage in when introduced to someone. And one that I always feel the need to give a concise and incomplete answer to, because it’s something people ask expecting a one-liner, not a biographical note. Usually I just say Greece, and the people I move beyond the initial acquaintance with get the rest of it in instalments, with plenty of asides and clarifications, that’s I’m certain most people outside of my oldest friends don’t remember, and why would they? I can barely keep it straight myself.

Recently however I got the question that never really gets asked:

‘So, what place do you consider your home? Where do you feel you belong?’

The answer to that one is a lot shorter: Nowhere.

I’m forever making fun of the convoluted geography of my life, history and family (I will point to the title of this blog as evidence), but something about being put on the spot and giving the bare, unadorned truth felt different.  It’s not that I would change my background even if I could—I’d be an entirely different person, and I can’t say I don’t value the richness of experiences and perspective I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d firmly been from somewhere. Whenever I discuss this with fellow mongrels/nomads (and it doesn’t matter if none of the pieces making up the mosaics of our cultural identities overlap, it’s in the fragmentation we find commonality), we always bond over things we notice that monocultural people generally don’t, and how that can make us amused, frustrated and occasionally smug.

There’s a trade-off, however. The thing about having a permanent outsider’s point-of-view is, well, that you’re kind of stuck with it. You get to experience different cultures but never fit in with any, change and adapting to new environments becomes very easy but actually standing still is almost impossible and the one perspective that’s always out of reach is that of belonging somewhere.

I’m generally indifferent to poetry, but one of the few exceptions is this poem by Constantine Cavafy, that keeps popping into my thoughts lately:

Ithaka
Original poem in Greek

The core theme, of course, is about life as a journey and not a destination. But going beyond the accepted popular analysis, what always strikes me about Ithaca is it’s both the ending point and starting point of Odysseus’ voyage. It’s a lot harder to strive towards even a metaphorical destination when you are unclear of where you started off from. A concept that I think Cavafy, whose cultural identity was as murky as my own, probably gets, putting something into his poetry that appealed even to my own decidedly non-poetic sensibilities.

Cultural/national identity is not something that most people think about in their day-to-day. It’s something generally taken for granted, so it’s hard to explain the effect of the absence of one. But those invisible, taken for granted points of reference and ties matter, whether it is years of familiarity with a certain city, having common experiences like school systems and children’s shows or even having a primary language throughout one’s life (I’m grateful for being multilingual, but there’s something slightly disconcerting about 80% of your conversations, writings and even dreams not being in your own tongue).

Lacking that tangible link to something I can’t quite define beyond knowing it’s not mine has always made me try to forge alternate connections. Connections to specific places, like London, whose chaotic, multicultural and reassuringly anonymous character meant that it was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling, if not like precisely part of it then at least as less of an aberration, albeit briefly. Connections to subcultures, that are both something that sets people apart from the dominant culture and can often create communities crossing cultural and national borders (also, let’s face it, geeky things are just cooler than…well, whatever normal people in every place are supposed to be into). And connections to people who are also, frequently due to other factors and sources of identity crisis (because there is more than one force shaping each one of us) standing slightly on the outside from whatever the accepted ‘norm’ is. But exciting and valuable as these things have become to me, like the riches and knowledge Cavafy describes in his verses, I still sometimes feel like I’m drifting at sea at the whim of Poseidon, looking for an Ithaca that only exists in my imagination.

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