It’s the question that I dread above all others. A conversation starter that stops me dead in my tracks. Four little words that confuse and conspire. An innocent enquiry that sends me spiralling into an abyss of self-doubt. I’m thirty seven years old and I’m still not able to answer that most simple of queries: ‘Where are you from?’
I want to say that I was born in Suffolk, that I grew up in Dorset and that I went to university in Staffordshire. That I have lived in England, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. That I currently reside in Somerset but have no idea how much longer I’ll be there. But all that comes out of my mouth is ‘Oh, all over, really.’ And what I mean is ‘I haven’t a clue’.
We all have many attributes that define us, from our gender and our physical appearance to our taste in music and our choice of career. But our geographical heritage lies at the heart of who we consider ourselves to be. Whether we’re a northerner, a southerner, Yorkshireman, Cornishman, Liverpudlian or Bristolian, these are still the ties that bind.
I can see why this was such a big thing in decades and centuries past, when people rarely moved more than a few miles from where they were born. But in this age of cheap travel, insecure employment and wide-eyed globalisation, what does it mean to ask someone where they are from? Do we mean where they were born? Or where they live now? Or where they have lived for the longest period of time? Can any of us, in fact, now even claim to be from anywhere at all?
I think we can. But it’s not as simple as it used to be. Some of us have a clear idea of where we are from. It might, for a privileged few, be the ancestral family home in Oxfordshire or the Scottish highlands. For others it is the house in which we grew up and where our parents still live. Indeed, I have several friends in their thirties, all with houses and families of their own, who still refer to visiting their parents as ‘going home’.
Others of us, meanwhile, lead a more nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in response to the demands of family, career or simple curiosity. We collect addresses and residency permits like our childhood selves used to accumulate stamps or football cards. Some places pass fleetingly through our consciousness, but others leave an indelible impression on our soul. They become part of who we are.
I challenge anyone, for example, to spend time in the wilds of Scotland and not develop a sense of awe at the majesty of nature. Or in Russia and not learn to reflect on the darkness of the human condition. Or in rural Provence and not long for the simplicity of a life built by one’s own hands.
Just as scientists can tell from our bones, our hair and our teeth much about when, where and how we have lived, the places we have called home all make a difference to how we think, feel and behave. We absorb a tiny part of that place’s culture, traditions and values, adding them to the ever-growing repository of ideas and attitudes that we call ‘me’.
So if you want to learn what makes me tick, ask me about the things that have influenced me the most. Ask me about the people I have known, the things I have done and the places I have been. Ask me where I have lived, where I have loved and where I have felt most alive. Just don’t, please, ask me where I’m from.