Archive for 2013

Don’t forget me

June 30th, 2013 | Alina Müller

Adrian Paci, 'A Real Game', 1999

My first childhood world was made up of a town, a bigger city and a village. The town was connected to the bigger city by a road lined with poplars and to the village by a railway and a path through vineyards. We would take the bus to the big city and the train to the village. Sometimes we would hitchhike. Everybody did. (I don’t remember ever travelling between the village and the bigger city, though I’m sure we did.)

There was that and there was Abroad. I grew up knowing that that’s where we would end up. It was never really talked about, at least not that I can recall, but I had accepted this place as our final destination. I knew of no road or rail leading to it. I imagined Abroad smelling of bubble gum, the kind that my grandmother used to keep locked up in her special drawer of ‘goods from Abroad’, where packs of coffee were arranged in orderly stacks next to Palmolive soaps, Chinese fountain pens and German chocolate bars. Hard currency in the widespread bribery system, my father later told me.

One day we were ready to leave. I remember standing in front of my class in school with my favourite teacher, her hand on my shoulder, announcing that I would be moving Abroad. The afternoon lesson was cancelled so that we could draw and write goodbye cards, something we would otherwise only do on the last day before the summer holidays. The next day I used some of my piggy bank savings to go to the photography studio in the centre and take photos with my two best friends. I didn’t tell my mother I was going there so I could have my favourite hairdo for the occasion , a side parting, instead of the straight fringe she preferred (and that, in retrospect, was a better look). My friends and I were eight years old and we kept a black and white photo each. We wrote our names, the date and  ’Don’t forget me’ on the back.

When we finally got there, it turned out Abroad smelled more like Milka chocolate and caramel. Entering my new room and finding a table full of sweets waiting for me, I remember being pleased that it was just as I had imagined it. I wrote and received letters and figured out the country code I had to dial to call my friends and managed to run up a huge phone bill before I was discovered. We had a red automatic camera and we documented everything during that first year: my father drinking coffee at the kitchen table, my mother arranging her hair in front of the mirror, me standing next to the fish tank and the three of us in front of palmtrees at the botanical garden.

A few months ago I visited my parents in Sweden. My mother and I looked through some photographs from those first months. ‘I remember that bright pink jacket.’, I said pointing out a photo of my mother and I standing in front of the Christmas decoration in the shopping centre. ‘Yeah’, she said studying another photo of our first Swedish living room, ‘That first year, every single day I wanted us to leave and go back home.’

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 nostalgic citizen

March 5th, 2013 | Alina Müller

With the increased mobility of people and sustained emigration, what we see emerging is not a global citizen, not even a European one, but a nostalgic one.

The moderator, who was a stand-in for the advertised one, was not doing a great job. The talk was coming to an end and she had barely touched on the subject of the evening: politics, identity and the importance of  place. The panelists, three contemporary writers, were all acting out their discontent with the discussion in their own way: the French Philippe Claudel by being general, the Croatian Dasa Drndic, sarcastic, and the Haitian-Canadian Danny Laferièrre, aloof.  For the last question the moderator turned to Danny Laferièrre:

‘Being Haitian and living in Canada, you must have encountered racism. How did you deal with it?

Laferièrre, leaning back in his chair, replied through his French translator: ‘It’s not up to me to fight racism. That’s their problem. I didn’t go there to sort out their problems.’

The same writer had spoken passionately throughout the evening about the social, cultural and political situation in Haiti, his country of birth. The contrast between that and the engagement with his second home country that his reply suggested was striking. This difference could be attributed to the circumstances which had made him an immigrant in the first place: Laferièrre, then a young journalist, was forced into exile by the Duvalier dictatorship in 1976. One could expect that, throughout his stay in Canada, he would continue to look back.

But this exile state of mind is common among most types of emigrants, even the ones who left their countries in less dramatic circumstances. Many immigrants continue to read their no longer local news, passionately support their no longer local football teams, mobilise to protest against the latest injustice back home and even vote in their countries of origin. (To some extent, I too belong to this group. I have never exercised my right to vote in the local elections in the UK, for example, and I followed the national ones with the kind of interest with which someone might follow the Eurovision song contest. But I was devastated when, in 2010, a far right party won seats in parliament in Sweden, a country which I left 12 years ago).

Over and above technological developments and ease of travel, this link to the country of origin is further strengthened by the good old nation state. In an attempt to reverse the brain drain, open new markets abroad or harness remittances, nation states work hard to keep their emigrated citizens close. Meanwhile, national political parties are becoming increasingly interested in winning the external vote. This drive of countries of origin to maintain a strong grip on the hearts and minds of their nationals even after they’ve long left their territory is facilitated by the lack of interest of receiving countries to capture them. It’s not hard to see how the discrimination, racism and general hostility that immigrants are often met with today can kill even the strongest desire to integrate.

So between emigrants nurturing their sentimental attachment to their home countries, governments taking a growing interest in their diasporas and host countries failing to engage them, what we see is a growing number of people exercising their citizenship, or desiring to do so, in countries where they no longer reside.

The book Danny Laferièrre was promoting that evening is a semi-autobiographical account of his return to his country of birth, 33 years after he left it.

Can it be that we’re all just waiting to do the same?


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?

Where are the 13 percent?

January 9th, 2013 | Alina Müller

Immigrants in the UK are taking quite a beating these days.

Immigrants, the government seems to suggest, have problems ‘forming social bonds’ and building relationships with their neighbours and can ruin the community spirit. Even primary school children have been pointed out as a problem for social cohesion.

They put pressure on the infrastructure and ruin public service. They increase the house prices, keep ‘local people’ from getting a job and force them onto benefits.

Immigrant students are called ‘bogus’, and are kick out of universities and threatened to be deported. (How important it is that they are ‘bogus’ or not is unclear, as Theresa May remarked that they’re “not the best or the brightest” anyway. )

We hear that immigrant couples are probably fake and their marriage often a sham. They decided that if you’re an immigrant in love with a British person you shouldn’t be allowed to live here unless your partner is at least moderately rich. They also decided as a consequence that children who have an immigrant parent should get used to living without them.

The government even learned to use the power of social media to drive the message home – that if they really want they can come to your work or your house at dawn and drag you out of the country in handcuffs.  Finally, a few weeks ago, they decided to stop beating around the bush, and just text immigrants directly to leave the UK.

In the mids of this, the latest census was published. It showed that 13 percent of the total population of England and Wales – that is 7.5 million people – are born abroad.

Surely at some point a significant number of them will stand up and shout  ‘You talkin’ to me?


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.