It’s a simple question.
People live in different places but they are usually from somewhere. A hometown or a country or a continent. Recently, on holiday in Germany, I realized that I’m not sure how to answer it anymore. Because here’s the funny thing: where you’re from changes.
And sometimes there is no short answer.
I always used to say I was from Toronto. I was born there and for most of my life considered myself to be ‘from’ that city. It was mostly where I grew up, came of age, fell in and out of love.
For a brief while, I was less sure about where I was from. Our family moved from Ontario to Minnesota when I was a young teen. To American Midwesterners, it seemed I had a British accent. And what was so funny about the way I said ‘about’? To them it sounded like ‘aboot’. When we moved back to Toronto five years later, I was reproached by my teachers for using words and expressions that sounded ‘American’.
Now I feel a bit too disconnected from life in North America to say I’m ‘from’ there anymore.
When I first met my husband and got married in France, the answer was a no-brainer: I was from English-speaking Canada. Otherwise, it begged the question: Vous êtes Canadienne? But you must speak French! And where’s that Céline Dion accent? I became used to explaining that French is mostly spoken in Québec and a few pockets of other Canadian provinces. Yet the French people I met would shake their heads in wonder, secretly believing that I spoke more of their tongue than I admitted. I wasted no time in learning the language and proving them right.
Living in France, the question of where I was from rarely came up. The French only ask you where you’re from if they know you well enough to ask you personal questions. Because your personal life is, well, your business. And if they’re going to ask, they will use neutral language: Vous êtes originaire de quel pays? (What country are you originally from?)
In Switzerland, people don’t often ask where you’re from either, at least outside of Geneva. They just get on with the business of communicating with each other. The fact that Switzerland, like Canada, is a country home to people from many different places means that more often than not, more than one language is involved. Language isn’t much of a barrier here. You just work with whatever words you have until sufficient understanding is achieved to get things done.
It’s been awhile since anyone asked me where I’m from. Perhaps because, like most of the world, I haven’t traveled much in the past year and a half. And in the meantime I moved, changing home from one adopted country to another.
On holiday in Germany last month, the question came up several times. And now that I live in German-speaking Switzerland, I found myself stumbling to answer.
I finally landed on this: I’m from France but I live in Switzerland.
Which prompted: Ah, but you’re English speaking?
Yes. Originally from Canada but I lived in France for nearly 30 years.
People in northern Germany, especially the younger generation, seem to readily speak English as soon as they realize you don’t speak their language. They even apologize for their ‘poor’ English (which I rush to compliment while excusing my own lack of native lingo).
I also realized that I love it when people ask outright where I’m from. It doesn’t feel rude or resentful or prompted by anything but honest curiosity. It makes me feel more at home.
But it also makes me realize that I really don’t know the answer, which seems kind of sad. Not that it really matters. We are from wherever we are right now. At least for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege.
And right now, I’m happy right here.
Where are you from?