I think every expat has a complicated relationship with the notion of 'home'. Is it where you've been living for longer than a year? Where you grew up? Where your children are born? Where on earth is it?
I've been living in London now for almost thirteen years (had to do some quick maths there, as I'm losing count!), and it does feel like home. I arrived a newly graduated teacher, eager to experience the much-vaunted education system of The Olde Worlde. Imagine my surprise when I was thrown willy-nilly into what can only be described as supply teacher hell. Every morning I'd rise at six and get ready, half-hoping for a call (I needed money to buy my daily packet of Kettles Crisp for supper) and half-hoping I'd escape with a day of blessed freedom.
On London's South Bank, a few years after I arrived.
The call, when it inevitably came, would direct me to a primary or secondary school somewhere within two hours of my house in Highgate, North London. I'd grab my A to Z (Google maps weren't really a thing back in 2004), and try my best to navigate the complex web of Tube, trains, and buses. By the time I reached the school, I felt like I'd done battle with the city . . . usually winning, it has to be said.
But the fight was just beginning, because my vision of the British school system and the reality, well . . . let's just say a bit of a gap existed between the two. By the end of the day, I was absolutely knackered, losing both my voice and my mind.
Still, I look back on those months fondly (maybe I have lost my mind). Despite the challenges, those were the weeks when I got to know my city in a way I wouldn't otherwise. I'd travelled to godforsaken locations so far off the tourist trail they wouldn't know a tourist if he hit them with his 'fanny pack'. I'd got insight into real life, because nothing lets you see how a society functions like taking on 30 screaming five-year-olds. I'd even conquered the transit system, blithely shrugging off signal failures, leaves on the track and overcrowding. I'd paid my dues, and I was now a Londoner.
But was I? After all, my accent marked me out as 'foreign' (to this day, I'm still asked how long my holiday here is). I didn't use the same words they did; I couldn't grasp the fun involved in standing all night with a drink outside a pub. And I missed my old home, the place I'd grown up. I wasn't sure I'd ever feel fully British.
Fast forward thirteen years. I'm now a British citizen, and I know my part of London like the back of my hand. My vocabulary has changed; my accent has morphed slightly. I've had a baby here who's now in school himself, and I've formed my own network of friends from every walk of life. I don't know if I'll ever feel 'British', but I feel like a Londoner through and through. Because one of the things I love about this city is the mix of people from everywhere. No-one is out of place. Nothing is surprising; everything goes, from the burkas in Knightsbridge to the blue hair in Camden to the tousle-haired Sloane Rangers.
And so, this is the place I call home: the city I love, the city where I live. But the memory of foghorns, the smell of the sea, and the cry of the loon -- the cacophony of sights and sounds from the land I was born -- will always be there . . . my other home, tucked away inside me for safekeeping.