Where are you from?

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?

36 comments

  1. Dale · August 20

    I am rather jealous of you, to be honest. The most I’ve moved is from one town to another and back to my original town! And with the whole separatist crap, I want to say I am from Montreal (well, south shore thereof) Canada – skipping the Quebec because – ugh. I don’t want to be associated with that whole situation, though I love my province and all its IDIOsyncracies… 😉
    I like to use the “votre famille (ou votre nom) est originaire de quel pays” because so many people get insulted. Sheesh. When I hear a last name like Shrestha – I’m curious of its origin (Nepal, by the way!) even though she is a Newfie 😉

    • MELewis · August 20

      It’s a double-edged sword. I also feel envious of you, Dale, for being able to feel so rooted in one place! On the other hand, I do get your frustration. The whole Quebec identity thing is just so singular, and such a historical mess. One thing I have difficulty with now in Canada (and the US) is the cult of the politically correct. When you can’t even ask somebody where they’re from without risking injury — gah! The name thing is another kettle of fish: between the regional differences, the frankly foreign, the indigenous, and the ‘my family has been here forever’…. Like you, I am curious, but for now limiting my questions to the ones where I feel confident of the answers!

  2. Ally Bean · August 20

    I’m from the midwest US. Nothing at all exotic about it, it’s just where I am from. Thanks for asking.

    • MELewis · August 20

      Lol, there’s something to be said about being from somewhere, exciting or not. And sometimes the most exotic stuff grows in the least expected places. Thanks for answering. Glad I asked!

  3. pedmar10 · August 20

    I have four passports/nationality but I am from where live now, France ::)

    • MELewis · August 20

      Four passports! I have two, and consider myself lucky. If anyone is from France, it is you. Your blog is a tour de force of French sights!

      • pedmar10 · August 20

        Hahaha yes its always a conversation topic around bars lol!! Thanks for the kind words I am a proud adopted son of France. Salut

  4. Carolyn · August 20

    I would always say the uk because depending on my mood my British accent could be more or less obvious. Nowadays I say France because after 40 years here I feel so much more French and when I do visit the UK it no longer feels like home. Of course when travelling I still get the comment ‘from France? But you sound so English!’

    • MELewis · August 20

      Ha, ha, oddly I can never think of you as anything but English. I do understand how you feel about the UK though, after so many years in France. I feel that way every time we visit Canada. How is Victoria?

  5. chezperrier · August 20

    I was born in San Francisco but grew up in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now I live in San Francisco with a French husband who says I am not very American. I never felt very American (whatever that means, as it is such a huge country with such a variety of people). Maybe it’s because my dad is English, my mom lived in Germany and Japan while growing up, and I grew up without a television. It sounds funny, but I do think those things did make an impact. Once we’re settled in France in a couple of years, we’ll see how American I feel then!

    • MELewis · August 20

      How interesting! Absolutely TV plays a huge role in our sense of culture, and the fact that your parents grew up in different places probably gave you skills that will serve you in your future move. I will be interested to read about your perceptions as a transplant in France when you move. My own feelings about the country have shifted considerably over the years, and continue to do so as we watch our French TV from abroad. Yet because I have a need to feel rooted where I am, I suspect it won’t be long before I identify as Swiss (even if I will likely never have a Swiss passport).

    • Kiki · 1 Day Ago

      That’s a great argument; growing up w/o a TV. So did I and in fact I never* owned a TV, as well as not missing it one bit. But of course it would have influenced my upbringing; I see it every day – there are so many references to emissions, to films, etc.
      * we DID have a small b/w TV when we lived in Toronto for a while. We picked it up at the street and made it somehow/somewhat work with a metal coat hanger I begged from the dry cleaner…. it was great to learn/better our English!

  6. kairosia · August 20

    I’m not sure why I have not found the French reticent about asking about my origins. Do I smile too much? Most often they interrupt our convo with “mais, vous venez d’où?” I respond that I’m from Chicago. This often merits a quick gasp—that I had survived so long life in the world of Al Capone? I follow up that j’habite maintenant l’état de l’Oregon, au nord de la Californie,” to which they’re likely to respond “Ahh, la Californie!”

    If not asking directly my origins, I’ve often been greeted when I speak with “Vous êtes anglaise?” Maybe this is written all over my face; my family’s British roots run deep. In this case, I usually say “Oui,” and leave it at that.

    • MELewis · August 22

      Leaving it at that sounds like a good strategy. For some reason, once asked any kind of personal question, I tend to ‘raconter ma vie’ and give people way more than they bargained for. Not French at all!
      Sounds like you have a face that invites people to ask questions. The best kind!

      • kairosia · 30 Days Ago

        “Raconter me vie!” I have the same un-French malady.

      • kairosia · 26 Days Ago

        *ma*

      • Kiki · 1 Day Ago

        so do I! And later, I’m ashamed of myself for telling ‘so much about me’ and wondering ‘How would anybody be interested in knowing my life?!’ 😉

  7. mistermuse · August 20

    I’m from here:

    • MELewis · August 22

      Now why doesn’t it surprise that you would answer with a song? 🤩

  8. Vanessa in France · August 21

    I had to smile when I read the bit on the Canadian pronunciation of ‘about’, because ‘aboot’ is exactly what I hear when Canadian friends say it! I have British nationality and Irish citizenship, but I have never lived in Ireland and probably never will. After 24 years in France, I should take French citizenship, but the process puts me off. French people are not reticent about asking me where I come from. As soon as I open my mouth, it’s obvious I’m not French, despite speaking it well now!

    • MELewis · August 22

      That retained accent can be a blessing as it avoids confusion — I used to sense frustration on the part of people who could hear just enough of something to sense I wasn’t from there, but not enough to make it polite to ask. As for French nationality, I got it years ago after hearing so much about politics decided it was time to vote. Wasn’t a big process really, just the searching of various family documents. But I can understand your reticence to go through any non-essential administrative process.

  9. margaret21 · August 21

    I’ve moved about too much to know where I’m from. In France, I was a mystery. My French was good, but nowhere near Native Speaker level, and people couldn’t place my accent. So they’d go for Belgian or Swiss. My husband, whose French was better, was known to be English – every time – before he opened his mouth!

    • MELewis · August 22

      Funny how our accents are a dead giveaway — or not! It’s kind of nice to feel incognito at times (or Belgian or Swiss…) How is your Spanish?

      • margaret21 · August 22

        Hmm. Could be better. I lost my mojo when I lost my teacher. I need to find someone else!

  10. davidprosser · August 21

    I’ve only ever been from the UK but I’ve lived and worked all over the place. It’s regional accents over here that make people curious. Unfortunately I’m a mimic, sit me in a room with someone for half an hour and by the time we come out I’m from wherever that person is from.(unless they speak sign language) i’ve lived back in Wales for about 35 years now and still get asked where I’m from. I don’t think I could cope if it was languages as well.
    Massive Hugs

    • MELewis · August 22

      So funny, David, I also do that thing where you pick up on other people’s verbal ticks. It’s a kind of sympathetic thing, I think. Although once or twice I’ve had the feeling someone thought I was ‘taking the mick’ as they say. I’m sure you would cope anywhere, in any language. Hugs are international! 😍

    • Kiki · 1 Day Ago

      David; I’m like that too – I do any accent of our 25 dialects we have in Switzerland! I can’t stop myself – I’m like a lingo-chamaeleon 🙂

  11. acflory · August 23

    Ouch. Perhaps the question should be ‘where is your home?’
    I was born in Hungary and didn’t arrive in Australia until I was four. My parents were refugees rather than ‘immigrants’ so there was an unbreakable rule: Hungarian at home, English ‘outside’. As a result, I would always answer the ‘where are you from?’ question with ‘Hungary’.
    That all changed when I spent a year in Europe at the age of 21. As much as I loved my relatives in Hungary and all the wonderful people and places I met in the rest of Europe, I became horribly homesick…for big spaces and wide open skies of a slightly washed out blue. Long story short: I finally discovered that I /wanted/ to be an Aussie. Now I’m Australian of Hungarian descent. And home is /here/. 🙂

    • MELewis · 1 Day Ago

      Ah, but where is your home can be a tough one to answer though! I guess at 4 you were young enough to feel at home from the start in Australia, even though you didn’t realize it until you actually went back to the ‘home’ country. Europe can feel awfully small and crowded for those of us from the new world! (Sorry I missed your comment earlier but glad that a new comment brought it to my attention!)

      • acflory · 17 Hours Ago

        No probs, Mel. 🙂 And yes, I was young enough to accept Australia as ‘home’. But…while I loved the physical reality of the country – great, wide open spaces, the quality of the light etc etc – I didn’t recognize how much of the /culture/ I’d absorbed until I visited Hungary in 1973. The contrast was what shocked me into fully accepting Australia as ‘home’. I suspect Dad underwent the same ‘culture shock’ when he finally returned to Hungary after almost 30 years. He too was glad to get back to Australia.
        Tell me something, Mel. Could you return to Canada for good again?

      • MELewis · 8 Hours Ago

        Hmmm…tough one, Meeks. To be honest, I think it would be very hard at this stage. That said — never say never!

  12. jlincoln50 · August 25

    I was born in Washington D.C. n we moved too Maryland n lived in a small town where I went to school n lived here for 37 yrs. My first job was McDonalds while I was still in High school. The I married a woman with her own 2 kids n we had 2 more n moved to West Virginia n still live in West Virginia today. All I have is my kids grandkids n great grandkid left in my life coz my wife parents n only 2 sisters passed away, but I happy with what I’ve accomplished in my 46 yrs of working n try to live my life to the fullest.

    • MELewis · 1 Day Ago

      Thanks for sharing. Sounds like a full life!

  13. Kiki · 1 Day Ago

    Ohoooh
    I need to start up my computer…. never saw that post. Si much to say about all of it… hang on in there. I’ll be back ASAP! 😉🇨🇭👍🏻🤩

    • MELewis · 1 Day Ago

      I can be patient! 😇 Glad you found it and looking forward to hearing more!

  14. Kiki · 1 Day Ago

    I’m Swiss, a Swiss German Swiss…. so my first NEW language was High German which we learned at school. Already at school I also learned English and French. I was totally in love with France and always wanted to work somewhere fancy in France. For English, we learned the ‘proper UK English’ – and I added to my CV shorthand not only in German but also English, which was a Godsent when I landed in Canada at 22 and could have chosen any job I wanted as I spoke already my 3 languages! Living in Canada for roughly 2 years made ppl asking about my ‘Oxford’ English! I – at that time and at my young age – didn’t even know what they meant, but obviously my E was far too posh for ‘Tranaaa’.
    I returned and lived in Switzerland, had my family, got divorced and met my French speaking Swiss Romand.
    Right when we became more than friends, HH went off to Devon, UK to work for a Canadian giant company (who got bust after a time). It was a super happy time for me although I had to re-train my ear to the Devonian dialect, which I loved too. After a good 8yrs we returned to Switzerland. By then I practically only spoke English and read only English writing authors.
    We lived for a while in the French spoken part of our country and I easily adopted and adapted the ‘Romand slang’…. and how I loved it! Still love it. Life was slower, somewhat easier, we lifted our sentences at the end by at least one full note. A ‘oui’ became a ‘oaaaauiiii’ and the mealtimes had interesting and funny names.
    Then, HH couldn’t find a job in our chosen new homestead, he worked on his own account and was forever away, in Ireland, England, Germany, but never at home. So much much later, when I well and truly found my paradise in this lovely corner of our country, he got headhunted to France, I thought: Bingo – I can finally go to my ‘other’ dream country I visited so often, where I can speak French, this will be my ultimate and best move ever!, except that it wasn’t…. My husband heard often the remark that ‘he didn’t speak proper French’ (eh ben, le Romand….) but with me nobody ever knew how to place me. I was asked by the super clever ones: Etes-vous Canadienne? I often was ‘English’ but hardly ever Swiss… I must have assimilated so much to any new country that my French wasn’t even ‘Romand’ enough to be from the same part as my husband (which I wasn’t anyway) but my being Zurichoise didn’t shine through at all. I loved that game and let them ask several times and guess as many countries as they could think of, Switzerland was only marginally mentionned.
    Anyhow, Mel, with English you get through Switzerland well enough…. Many Swiss never learned to speak ‘proper German’ as much as many English never learned to speak good English. Main thing We Understood Each Other 😉

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