By Maria Ilona Moore
‘Where are you from?’ shouldn’t be a hard question for me to answer. I’ve always lived in the same country, only ever in the south of England, and I benefit from having two passports that, given current circumstances, allow me a freedom even the other members of my family don’t have. I’m white and I’m middle class and I’ve always had somewhere safe to sleep at night. I‘m not an immigrant, though I am the daughter of one.
Despite these privileges, I like to avoid the question if I can, but it’s something I get asked surprisingly often. Perhaps it’s due to my Spanish sounding name, vaguely maybe-Mediterranean looks, or my non-accent that people find difficult to place (it’s just a bit squeaky, I tell people). Or perhaps it’s just because I’ve changed jobs so frequently and these are the kind of generic questions that saturate the first few weeks in a new workplace.
So where am I from? The country part is easy. I’m just English. If pressed I might tell you I‘m half German, a fact which doesn’t really mean anything except I’ve got a limited knowledge of the language and a (now very precious) second passport. But dig deeper, and I’ve spent more time in Austria than I have in Germany, but no my family isn’t Austrian, my mum is German and my grandparents too. Well, actually they’re kind of Hungarian? And while I feel all of these places somewhere deep within me, I’m not really from any of them.
Narrow it down further and I get stuck again. I know people don’t really care and they just want a straightforward answer. They want the name of a single region so they can add context to the rest of me. It’s all part of a) that peculiar need we have as humans to place people in neat little boxes and b) that peculiar inclination we have towards small talk. I know that it doesn’t really matter, but for some reason, it does matter to me.
Just before my eighth birthday, my family moved from London to a middle-of-nowhere town in Dorset. And this is where my life splits. Literally, I divide childhood memories into before and after London. I’m not a Londoner, but I’m not from Dorset either. Although I feel a strong tie to ‘growing up in the countryside’, the town where my parents still live is a place I struggled against for many years. Even now that I’ve lived away from home for nearly 10 years, being back in the town fills me with a very particular kind of dread. But I’m not a city girl either. I didn’t learn how to be in a bustling place from a young age and am still excited by the novelty of living in walking distance to a train station, or a supermarket, or a friend’s house. As much as I didn’t feel I belonged in Dorset, I didn’t feel instantly at home coming back to London at 21, in fact it’s taken years and several moves for me to be able to honestly say I like living here.
“While I feel all of these places somewhere deep within me, I’m not really from any of them.”
Since starting university, I’ve lived in seven houses scattered across two towns and three boroughs of London. This number is tiny in the grand scheme of things, but it all adds to my developing sense of ‘being from somewhere’. I’ve experienced itchy feet, the urge to run, the displacement of living somewhere out of necessity not an active decision. I’ve experienced a misguided move to a town where I didn’t know anyone, which gave me some of the most difficult months of my life, but also taught me a lot about myself.
I’ve also experienced the ping of pride when you get to know a new area – the moment where it goes from just being that place where your house is to a place you know on a fundamental level. Now when I move house and I get that familiar sense of unease about being in a new place, I remind myself how many times I’ve felt this before and how in a few months, or maybe less if I like the place, I’ll have a preferred route to the shops and a favourite café and I’ll know what time to get to the bus stop to avoid the school rush on my way to work.
While each of my moves have played a part in my sense of self, I’ve never felt ‘from’ any of them. ‘From’ implies history, ‘from’ implies something bigger than living in a place for a couple of years. To me it means more than a place you were born in, or a place you grew up, it means who you are and why you are. It bothers me, not being from a single place; I want to easily fit in a neat little box, want to find my place in the world, want to be proud of where I come from. Or, at least, I used to want those things.
Now I realise that what I really wanted was to feel like I belonged somewhere. And once that fell into place, I realised that when it comes down to it, I am from lots of things – not just from places, but from people and history and interests. We put so much emphasis on ‘place’, but it’s not, and shouldn’t be, all that defines us.
Like everyone, I’m from an amalgamation of all the things I’ve experienced until this moment. I’m from school holidays spent with my dad on the Devon coast, clambering over pink-hued rocks and looking for the best shells and stones to take home. I’ve only spent scattered days in Devon in recent years, but there’s always a comfort that comes with it. While out walking on my most recent trip, I looked down at the ground and the simple sight of the red sandstone earth made me think “oh, hey, I know this place”.
From my years in Dorset, it’s the smell of gorse and damp leaves and, unfortunately, manure drifting over from a nearby farm that shaped me. That, and getting on the bus in the order you arrived at the bus stop, not learning to drive when it would have been really useful, and feeling like the odd one out in a town where other families have lived for generations.
Then it was three years exploring Cornwall’s coves and cliffs and pubs, so I’m also from eating pasties on the walk home, jumping in the sea in all weather, and seagulls utterly destroying the binbag you just put out. More recently I’ve come from growing to love London, a city that I’m both from and not from, a city that can suck you up and make you feel trapped, but is also pretty magical when the light hits it just so.
I’m from a language I can’t speak very well but which feels so comforting I will sometimes cry when I overhear a family of German tourists deciding what sandwiches to buy in Tesco. I’m from a family for whom the phrase ‘you’re an idiot’ has been passed down to mean ‘I love you’ and teasing is a sign of affection. It’s a family that knows it doesn’t matter if you share the same genes, you can still be family (and people will still tell you that you look alike). It’s this belief that has led to the family I’ve forged for myself; the friends who are like sisters, and the importance I place on the people in my life.
I’m from all these things and I’ll keep adding to the list as I move jobs and cities and as my interests evolve and people in my life change. Because I’m learning that the answer to ‘where are you from?’ isn’t simple for anyone. It develops over time, it grows as you grow. And just because you don’t really feel from any particular place, it doesn’t mean you don’t belong anywhere.
Maria Ilona Moore | @dearmovieszine | mooreofthis.co.uk
Maria is a currently a Londoner but she still feels confused about where she’s from. You can find her making Dear Movies, a zine about films and feelings, and writing about memory and nostalgia for her TinyLetter, Sorry I Forgot.