“Emigration, forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our time” John Berger.
Just like migrating birds some humans are destined to move, more often than not this is enforced by political or economic pressures. But some are stateless by nature, by inheritance or circumstances, so moving with the wind is not such an odd thing to do. I find that my own birthplace means very little and the term ex-pat has no meaning at all. My heart sinks when someone asks me where I am from: Surrey does not summarize me. But many of us live in privileged times, relative wealth and low cost travel has fueled freedom of movement giving indulgence to an urge to live with another version of the horizon, to vary ones outlook by viewing the world from more than a single vantage point. People who traveled a lot in earlier life or perhaps like me spent much of their teens and twenties abroad can not claim to have shared the full national experience of their contemporaries so are always marked as outsiders when they rejoin the fold. I should have known this would be my destiny when I chose to do my MA under the late Professor Maldwyn Jones, the leading expert on American immigration in the 1970s. I investigated what people brought with them from abroad and how agencies attempted to reconfigure their cultural identities and turn them into fully Americanized citizens. I see now this interest echoed my own pledging of allegiance to the American flag in 1967. Am I still honour bound ?
To turn away from what we call our comfort zone: cultural conditioning, from the loving warmth of family, the familiar banter of friends, from national stereotypes and all that is as regular and as predictable as the morning radio news and adopt a country which will forever be foreign, neighbors almost strangers and a language which often falters may seem like an odd choice to undertake voluntarily. It is a fundamental disturbance, at odds with cosy certainty, with the notion of home being the focus, the centre from which we project our outward images. It seems to violate domesticity, but at the same time it can be seen as a search for the ultimate expression of it; to try and make oneself more comfortable both in mind and habitat. The process of migration or long-term travel can have its own positive story, one to suggest discontent, intention, purpose, even idealism. It is an action rather than stasis, movement as opposed to staying put. The migrant is obliged to observe different rules, to negotiate another language, to endure the isolation of a life in what sometimes seems to be exile, to be patient of bureaucratic processes, to expect the unexpected and greet a stranger with a kiss. The result is a modification, both culturally and psychologically, and is often ample reward for the confusion of identity. Moreover, the creative viewpoint is freed from many old distractions or boundaries and repositioned by the physical shift of detachment where it can offer an angle from which the old world comes into sharper focus – a narrower field of view to concentrate the gaze.
Ideally it might be best that politicians don’t follow the migratory path, they are needed back home (?) but it must be a positive thing for some of a country’s citizens to live elsewhere, maybe just to keep an eye on things from afar. Of old the attraction might have been splendid isolation to capture an unfamiliar place’s spirit in paint, to allow poetry to ferment lyrical uplifting or fragments of unprocessed thought and perhaps along with them insanity as well; heroic searches for the dark night of the soul, romantic notions of enlightenment, experience and maybe a different version of death. This may no longer be the motivating force, but as travelers or migrants we are pleased to find new metaphors to stand in for the old ones, unfamiliar approximations that have a slightly exotic flavor and are more satisfying to use. The physical environment offers a distinctly new vocabulary that is etched in a subtly different light giving renewed inspiration to tired eyes.
A Pigeonnier is the ideal building to have for traveling birds when they finally rest from flight.
©John Heseltine 2013