Archive for the ‘Movement’ Category

We to whom the world belongs

June 1st, 2013 | Alina Müller

‘It’s not about where you belong. It’s about what belongs to you.’, Aleksandar Hemon writes in his ‘The Book of my lives’. And as I read this, I’m filled with joy.

One of the most difficult things about being an immigrant is getting used to being one. When you move away, your position changes fundamentally but your desires remain the same. And for some time you continue to expect them to be fulfilled, seemingly unable to recognise that, from where you now stand, some of those things that most people can take as given for you have become out of reach.

The desire to feel rooted, to be a part of a community, to recognise something of yourself and your past in your physical surroundings, in the taste of the coffee, in people’s gestures, in the language – the things that make up that elusive sense of belonging – becomes, not unexpectedly, the hardest thing to realise once you’re no longer where you were ‘supposed to be in the world’.  So you have the impression that either you have to give it up – the sense of loss and sadness would be unbearable  -  or try to return ‘home’.

Unless of course, as Aleksandar Hemon writes, it’s not about where you belong but about what belongs to you.

If that’s the case, then we should adjust not only our expectations but also our strategy and tactics. From expecting that there is a designated place for us and looking for it by sampling humanity and its geographies or trying to blend in and assimilate, to instead focusing on finding ways of acquiring – a place, a community, a language.

So as I read, I think of people that have walked the streets of a city until it became theirs, that told and listened to the stories of others until they recognised themselves in them, that learned a language by shaping it with their own words – and also of those brilliant people that document it all and share it with us.

And the joy I feel in Hemon’s words is one grounded in the realisation that, in this default state of non-belonging, everything can belong to you.


The privilege of memory

January 13th, 2013 | Alina Müller

I left my home city twelve years ago and my birth town twelve years before that. Sometimes when I go back, I take a friend from outside along. On their first tour of the city, I point out some of the ‘landmarks’:

‘This is where I went to school until I was eleven years old. I loved my teacher Maja’

‘This is the swimming pool where I learned to swim. We used to always buy candy at that shop around the corner’

‘This is where I had my first cafe latte ever. My friend L and I would sit for hours’

And I’m really excited as I point out the random buildings, as if this was also the first time I had ever seen them in real life. If you’re lucky and come along to my birth town, the landmarks are even more obscure:

‘This is where my grandfather used to go to get merchandise for the grocery store he was running. I used to always stop by there to check if he was around.’

‘This is where a lot of my mum’s friends lived – I don’t remember their names anymore – they would get together and make Nescafe.’

I’ve always wondered how this information and the places I point out register with my travel companions. During the sightseeing I study their facial expressions and they never seem to match my excitement. How could they? I’m navigating the city using a mental map forged from fragments of memory – some my own, some really aged and some constructed from stories I’ve been told and repeated to myself throughout the years. The buildings and streets I insist that my friends look at (and ideally photograph) recall relationships, experiences and people that, without the privilege of memory, to them remain just random spaces.

Despite the distress stemming from the unfulfilled desire to share, I can never blame my guests. In fact their experience as the unprivileged tourist is more familiar to me than that of the privileged ‘sharer’ in this respect. Having moved around a lot, there’s often been a disconnect between myself and my immediate physical surroundings.

In one of his works, the French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs describes this  ’breakdown of contact between thoughts and things’:

Auguste Comte remarked that mental equilibrium was, first and foremost, due to the fact that the physical objects of our daily contact change little or not at all, providing us with with an image of permanence and stability. They give us a feeling of order and tranquility, like a silent and immobile society unconcerned with our own restlessness and change of mood. In truth, much mental illness is accompanied by a breakdown of contact between thought and things, as it were, an inability to recognise familiar objects, so that the victim finds himself in a fluid and strange environment totally lacking familiar reference points. So true is it that our habitual images of our external world are inseparable from our self that this breakdown is not limited to the mentally ill. We ourselves may experience a similar period of uncertainty, as if we had left behind our whole personality, when we are obliged to move to novel surroundings and have not yet adapted to them.

This breakdown Halbwachs describes is central to the immigrant experience. And so I can’t help wondering what is lost and, since we can’t live for long without a sense ‘of permanence  and stability’ (despite what our ‘mobile and restless’ generation often tells itself), what we can do to recover it.

Could we find a way of extending the privilege of memory?

Everything is foreign, nothing is foreign

January 1st, 2013 | Alina Müller

I stood on the hotel terrace in the balmy evening looking down at a busy motorway, and across it a palm tree lined beach, and I remember thinking only two things,

“How did I end up here?”,


“Should I sit down and order a beer?”,

hoping that the casual and universal nature of such an act would trick me into feeling less desperately displaced and give some purpose to being alone on the terrace of a hotel overlooking a beach in Salvador in North-eastern Brazil.

A few days ago, this time on holiday, I had a stop-over in Salvador. In the taxi from the airport, driving on that same motorway, I pointed out to my fellow passengers the hotel where, back in 2005 and newly-arrived from Sweden, I had spent those first anxiety-ridden hours of what became a 10-month stay.

And as we were dropped off in Rio Vermelho, a neighbourhood where I used to go out, the sounds of the busy bars in the square, the heat and the humidity triggered that familiar feeling of foreignness that never left me when I lived in the city. I was reminded of how, walking around the streets those first weeks, I was unable to read the emotions in people’s faces and the intentions in their body language. The city stretched along the waterfront, old colourful dilapidated  mansions alongside giant fifteen-floor apartment blocks. It took me ages to figure out how to navigate its neighbourhoods and after many months of living in the city, I still kept getting on the wrong bus trying to get home from work.

There are different strategies for fending off the anxieties of being a foreigner and achieving that much-desired sense of ‘belonging.’ A common one, often employed for shorter stays, is to make your house your castle – bring along your favourite pillow from home, get some plants, make  your house an island of familiarity in a sea of foreignness. This is a good strategy and can work quite well until the demands of everyday life require you to leave your castle and face the world outside. Having a home in this sense, though, at least gives you the energy to mediate the unknown and, when overwhelmed, you can always retreat back indoors to regain your strengths. (In retrospect, having moved around a lot, I should have been better at this. My half-hearted efforts in this regard used to consist of spreading my clothes around in my new room and always bringing along the same ten books and the same coffee machine).

Another strategy is to try to transplant your community to your new country – complete with customs and traditions, artefacts and, depending on your level of ambition, even institutions. A necessary condition for this is that you end up in a place where there are already quite a few of your fellow country-people and that you share a vision. You can start small by installing a satellite dish or setting up a shop that sells produce from your hometown. Follow it up with a restaurant, a bar or a bakery. Eventually you can go all out and build a church, a hospital and schools that teach in your mother tongue. When successful, the result of this strategy is the envy of any foreigner who’s struggling to shake off the feeling of being displaced. (Rosemary, in Don De Lillo’s Underworld, observes the Italians living in the Bronx in 1950s New York: ‘The Italians. They sat on the stoop with paper fans and orangeades. They made their world. They said, Who’s better than me? She could never say that. They knew how to sit there and say that and be happy.’)

Yet another strategy, one that can require tenacity and a strong sense of purpose, is to re-imagine and re-invent yourself in the new place, building around you a new community from scratch. The context and circumstances are extremely important for the success of this strategy – for you have to be free to imagine yourself in the first place. (And it so often happens as an immigrant that your life instead ends up being defined in relation to others’ ideas of you.) It helps, for example, if you blend in easily with the local population from the start. It also helps if the locals – and this depends on how well you blend in – don’t keep reminding you of how different you are and regularly suggest that you have invaded their country and taken their jobs and have the wrong religion and the wrong memories.

Finally, as some may remind us, there are the wonders of social media, which make it possible for you to be away from home but really never be away at all. Chatting, skyping and sharing on Facebook and Instagram allow you to seamlessly fold the new place into the old one and at the same time actively keep up with all the developments ‘back home’. But thinking about it, I’m not sure it counts. Really, in your mind, you were never a foreigner in the first place.

None of these strategies is better than the other, and there is no guarantee that any of them will help you achieve that almost mystical sense of belonging. In real life, we probably employ our very own mix of these and others. During my stay in Salvador, whatever my mix was, it didn’t work very well. Perhaps the tension between having a very specific idea of what ‘home’ was suppose to be like at the time and the fact that Salvador – despite or most likely because of its unique splendour -was so far removed from that image, meant that I never really gave the city a chance.

In an interview with The Atlantic in 2000, Susan Sontag declares  “I like foreigners. I feel like a foreigner in New York. I like not being too comfortable.” Echoing that sentiment, after a few hours back in Salvador, on a terrace overlooking Largo de Santana, I announced to the people around the table  ‘I could live here again’. Before they could react, I hurried to add, ‘for six months’. I suppose that if all strategies fail, we all have a threshold for how long we can endure – or enjoy, for that matter – feeling like foreigners. In an age when so many people have to leave their home, what a privilege it is to have the option of not having to cross mine.

Homo diaspora/Birth of a nation

December 15th, 2012 | Alina Müller

Description of Jonas Mekas' 'Birth of a Nation', The Serpentine Gallery

The 2011 census for England and Wales was released on 11th December. We found out that 7,5 million people are born abroad, making up 13% of the total population in England and Wales – an increase from 2001 when the proportion was 9%. The census also tells us that 40% of these people arrived since the EU enlargement in 2004. As I was starting to engage with the details and some of the analysis of  who’s around, where they came from and when they moved here, these two quotes were read out to me:

“Technically, our name, to those who speak science, is Homo sapiens – wise person. But we have been described in many other ways. Homo narrans, juridicus, ludens, diaspora: we are storytelling, legal, game-playing, scattered people, too. True but incomplete. That old phrase has the secret. We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast & awesome hole.”

“Had I ship-hopped in other directions, I could have gone to regions of immer and everyday where Bremen was the fable. People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace. Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion – of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech – go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost. It’s been this way for megahours, since women and men found the immer and we became Homo diaspora.”

Homo diaspora. Are we there yet?

Both quotes are from books by China Miéville. The first from Railsea and the second from Embassytown. I have never engaged with him or in fact this literature genre before, but it seems to be timely Christmas reading.


Meanwhile, at the Serpentine gallery in London, I got to see a glimpse of Jonas Mekas’ nation. Born in Lithuania in 1922, he emigrated in 1944 and eventually ended up in New York in 1949  after some time in a labour camp and a few years in various displaced people camps in Germany at the end of the Second World War. In New York he created/pieced together his own community from scratch and he was a happy man. At the Serpentine he shares part of it. And it’s beautiful.


On waiting

October 23rd, 2012 | Alina Müller

‘Who is going to Bucharest?’

‘I am!’

The build up started several weeks in advance. I was about 7 years old and my mother announced that she would take me along on a trip to Bucharest. The Romanian capital was about the biggest and furthest place I could imagine at the time. From where we lived, it would be a whole night on the train – the distance was more than I could fathom.

‘Who is going to Bucharest?’

‘I am!’

This call and response had become a bedtime ritual in the weeks leading up to the trip. So when the day finally came and we were standing on the platform at the regional train station, I was pretty excited. I can’t remember what I was wearing but I’m sure it was something from the collection that my mother kept further back in the wardrobe, behind all the day to day clothes and school uniforms. I imagined Bucharest huge and smelling of bubble gum. There would probably also be some gold.

Since we lived in a different city, my aunt had had to pick up the tickets for us at the travel agency a few days before and we were now waiting for her to arrive. We were there in good time. It was going to be a long journey and the train to Bucharest only passed by once every few days. So it was better to wait for a few hours than risking it. We waited for what to my 7 year old self felt like an eternity, until finally the train was announced. My aunt and the tickets, however, were still nowhere to be found. ‘She’s on her way’ my mother kept telling me. And in between a few attempts to call my aunt from the station pay phone she would turn to me with a smile and ask ‘Who is going to Bucharest?’.  I was. I replied on script but I was starting to sense that something was not quite right. When the train started moving again and we were still on the platform, with no aunt and no tickets in sight, it became devastatingly clear. I was definitely not going to Bucharest. I was inconsolable.

Most accounts of the experience of migrating, have one thing in common: this feeling of anticipation which turns into waiting which turns into despair. Regardless of the reason why they decided to move in the first place, eventually the majority of migrants seem to end up suspended in waiting at some point in the process for one reason or other.

Some wait in their home countries while their work visa application is being processed. Others wait in detention or camps while their asylum application is being processed. Once/if they get the permission to live in the new country, they wait for indefinite leave to remain and eventually citizenship to be absolutely certain that they will not be sent back. Others that have managed to move just wait to make enough money to go back home and no longer have to share a house with ten other people and work harder and be paid less than everyone else. Some wait for the people they love – partners, children or parents, to join them so that they can finally start their new life. Many wait for their degrees to be validated and to finally be considered for a job. Some, especially with age, longingly wait for the day when they can go back to their home country.

Two days after my aunt’s failure to deliver our tickets, my mother and I were on our way to Bucharest.

A lot of people, trying and anticipating to get somewhere, remain standing on the platform.



Pobeda [ Победа ]

August 11th, 2012 | Alina Müller


Pobeda [ Победа ] is a Russian brand of wrist- and pocket watches. Based on a French design, the Pobeda’s simple, 15-jewel movement was cost-effective, reliable, and easy to manufacture and maintain. This ensured its remarkable production life span between the years 1946 and 2004.

Prior to World War II during a period of rapid industrialization in the Soviet Union, the Soviet government sought international funding and expertise in developing a domestic industry for timepieces. Eventually the French watch manufacturer LIP was chosen; they established a new watch factory in Penza. [...] World War II temporarily disrupted these plans, but after the Allied victory, this watch design was quickly finished at Penza, and full scale production commenced at the First Moscow Watch Factory. Joseph Stalin chose the name Pobeda (Victory) to celebrate the end of the war.  (Source: Wikipedia)

My father wore a Pobeda wrist-watch the first time he managed to cross to the other side of the Iron Curtain (to străinătate, the foreign lands). My mother had found it on the side of the road when they were visiting his hometown earlier that year. 15 years later, I left Sweden wearing the same watch.

Contemporary migrants according to frequency and direction of movement

June 11th, 2012 | Alina Müller

Those that move once and stay

Those that move, stay for a longer period and then move back

Those that move, stay and move again

Those that move and keep moving to new places periodically

Those that move and move back, back and forth

Those that didn’t move but are abroad