< SWITCH ME >

Born in Albania and brought up in Canada, Jona Xhepa has been in search of her roots for years. But rather than finding a sense of home in the Balkans, she has been drawn to Scotland and Ireland. Why do we feel we "belong" in places which have no obvious connection with our background? And what does "home" even mean to our wandering generation?

Setting out

Placelessness and rootlessness do not create contentment, but despair.

–Paul Kingsnorth, Real England; The battle against the bland

ireland
Photo: Jona Xhepa (all rights reserved)
Walking Sheeps Head Way, in West Cork, Ireland

Upstairs at the Waverley Bar, down the cobbled path of Edinburgh's High Street, a group of storytellers meets every month to share tall tales and true adventures. The patchwork, shadowy room is conducive to gather-round-me-children revelry. On my first encounter with the place, the featured guest was raconteur Andrew Steed, who told a story of reincarnating Robin Hood as a teenager and foraging with friends in a north England forest, only to be found and struck down by rangers, the Sheriff of Nottingham and his deputy. He changed the end of the story so that Robin and his merry friends stood back and laughed while a branch reached out and lifted the sheriff up in air, and then they made their daring escape. The epilogue to the story was that we have the power to change and create our own stories, and that we mustn't limit ourselves to what we assume our stories should be.

I set out to do just that a couple of years ago, to brave the unknown in creating my own story, when a particularly strong wanderlust hit me in my fairly cushy, busy existence in Vancouver, Canada. While freedom and how to go about getting it had been a main source of anxiety for a while, and the notions of belonging, in that I didn't feel I did, and national identity, had also been pestering the noggin, I had ignored them - except to resign myself to the fact that I couldn't really belong anywhere and I couldn't really claim any national affinity. Instead, I would belong everywhere. I would be a traveller without having to conform to the constrictions of a homeland and a home. To drive the point home, I would occasionally mutter under my breath that line from the ending of The English Patient, where the nurse reads from the dying man's scrapbook, "We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps," imagining myself to be saying it to a passport officer or government bureaucrat, sufficiently smugly.

dublin
Photo: Jona Xhepa (all rights reserved)
A rare sunny evening in Dublin.

Originally from Albania, that long-suffering piece of Balkan land struggling with its own boundaries and identity, my family emigrated to Canada when I was eleven. Had I misplaced a bit of identity, maybe related to Europe, along the way, that I'd never got round to recovering? It could have sparked my need for self-exile. Whatever the case, I never felt compelled to return to my country of birth, and felt more of a tourist when I eventually returned for a visit. Only an anthropological interest in our rich folklore remained. I went to Ireland instead.

Arriving

I was a Canadian citizen six years after emigrating from Albania, but never developed an attachment to the new homeland. It may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy; after a few weeks in Ireland on a working-holiday visa, I felt at home because I imagined I would long before I'd decided to go, visions of it looming in my mind: reading Joyce when I could muster the courage, gorging on comedy like Dylan Moran's, avoiding going out on Fridays because of the Celtic Connection programme on the community radio. I was going to be a poor poet in Dublin's streets, like in the folk songs, and hang around village bars with fishermen, making vague references to the crops and the high seas.

pub
Photo: Jona Xhepa (all rights reserved)
Session in Dick Mac's pub, Dublin.

After I'd been in the country a few months, I found a copy of Pete McCarthy's McCarthy's Bar in a hostel, another soul struggling with his roots. Raised in England, he spoke of feeling the ancestral connection to his Irish roots as a form of genetic memory that drew him back to the homeland. What genetic memory drew me, who had never touched on the Emerald Isle before this? My identity was being created anew, piecemeal, comically initiated in bureaucratic work in Dublin, the pubs where portraits of Kavannagh, Joyce, Yeats and Wilde look on the characters they've created and been created by, peacefully meditating around Lough Gill in Sligo, the joy of getting a seat by the window in the top deck of the bus, the pathways and coastline of West Cork. I had identified with Ireland's landscape and its people, so it would serve as my adopted homeland and its story would weave into mine.

As a result of all this, I felt homesick for the first time in my life when I had to leave last year. I was reluctant to diagnose myself as such, as the concept of home was still nebulous, and chastised myself for misplaced sentimentality. If I was going to be free there couldn't be any overbearing attachments.

Moving on

Reading Paul Kingsnorth's Real England recently, I realised it could be that I had deprived myself of a landscape. Kingsnorth laments a gentrified world, arguing that a continuous connection with our landscape is essential to identity and happiness, and we create our stories from that connection. A lot of cultures learn their behaviour based on the prescriptions of the anthropomorphised nature around them – the Athapaskan people of Alaska avoid certain foods and monitor their noise levels to appease the glaciers. By writing my story in rootlessness, am I depriving myself of the tools of storytelling, namely the connection to a landscape?

Furthermore, in a globalised world, the effects of gentrification have made it difficult to uphold cultural characteristics, which makes the whole thing more confusing. Kingsnorth talks about the difficulty of preserving a place's idiosyncrasies in the face of mass production and convenience; there is really no England, or Ireland, or Europe any longer, so national and continental boundaries are blurred as it is. It could be all in my mind, that little pub by the sea where I felt so at home, the patch of land I camped out in after bidding the donkeys goodnight. I might have found the same atmosphere anywhere else in the world – was I confusing the ideal with belonging?

It could be all in my mind, that little pub by the sea where I felt so at home, the patch of land I camped out in after bidding the donkeys goodnight. I might have found the same atmosphere anywhere else in the world – was I confusing the ideal with belonging?

A bit of consolation or affirmation comes from other travellers, wandering souls like myself. While we are facing one of the biggest socio-economic challenges, on a global scale at that, we are on the cusp of the most beautiful of all belles époques: it has never been easier to be a citizen of the world. Students have many opportunities for transferring to universities on the other side of the world, maybe ending up with a new permanent home, volunteer projects in disadvantaged, exotic nations attract a mass of middle-class youths in a way I imagine Delta blues musicians did white art students in post-war England, musicians and labourers rely on the international currency of storytelling to make a home out of a tent. And irritating passengers on trains repeat the mantra of their travels, that of "finding themselves." The trend of leaving a comfortable life and heading off with a rucksack seems to be more predominant than I thought, whether people are searching for a home, or choosing not to have one. A globalised world means global citizens. It helps that travel writing has become as great a fetish as the food network.

swan
Photo: Jona Xhepa (all rights reserved)
Swans on Lough Gill, Sligo, Ireland.

The thing is, wanderlust can hit anytime. As Larkin wrote in "The Poetry of Departures" about feeling at home,

...that helps me stay

Sober and industrious

But I'd go today...

Having strong inclinations to move on might mean I wasn't built to have a homeland anyway, so the problems of not belonging to a landscape remain; possibly I forsake bits of identity for freedom.

At one point, mired in nostalgia for my briefly adopted homeland, I sat in bed trying to come up with cunning plans to return permanently and join a permaculture initiative with an adjacent jazz bar and writer's club. And I remembered the self-exiled Dutch septuagenarian I met on a bus from Sligo to Galway, whose account of his life and move to Ireland thirty years ago ended in the summation "Yes, but now sometimes I think, maybe it is time to settle down." Then he added what I expected him to, "But there is still so much to do and see."

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