When Reading and Reviewing Leads to Reflection on Life Choices

I’ve just finished reading two superb books for #WITMonth, both of which I intend to review: Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance. Both of them discuss linguistic and ethnic identity, the possibility of bridging cultures, how to find a home (or not) in exile – whether voluntary or not. These are topics so close to my heart that I could not remain indifferent and they both got me thinking deeply about my own situation, past and present, and pondering about future decisions – where I might settle next. It doesn’t seem fair to include such personal musing within my reviews of those books (‘we’re not interested in your life story, Marina, just tell us what the bloody book is like, will you?’). In fact, it’s not fair to share all these personal details in a public format online (even if I am not a huge celebrity or have that many blog readers – which probably would be even more of a reason for me to remain quiet). So I will wrestle with the granular decisions and uncertainties mostly in my offline diary, but here are some higher-level thoughts which may be more universal.

Shepherd. Painting by Nicolae Grigorescu.

Illusory Freedom of Choice

I am very fortunate at present to have dual citizenship and therefore settle anywhere within the EU or the UK. However, for the longest time, the Romanian passport was an albatross around my neck. Therefore, I cannot help but think of all the people who have no choice about moving to a different country: they might not be able to get out of their country at all, very few countries might ‘accept’ them (after making the process of entering or settlement as complicated as possible), the information they might have about the relative safety of certain countries might be out of date and so on.

But there are other reasons why this ‘I’m choosing to start a new life in X’ is seldom a clear-cut decision for people.

First of all, countries change over time, as do your requirements. You may be fine in your twenties, living in London or New York, working shit jobs and living in inadequate accommodation, learning the ropes for a future splendid career. But when you have children and it’s time to move to the ‘suburbs’, you might prefer the safety of rule-bound societies like Switzerland or family-friendly policies like the Scandinavian countries. When you start feeling the creak in your knees and a twinge in your back, you may decide you need the warmth of the Mediterranean or Australia. It’s a little bit like moving houses over the course of a lifetime, but just much, much harder to do, because it usually involves lots of paperwork and learning of new languages and ways of doing things.

Secondly, in my experience, the choices are never quite as deliberate as we make them sound with the benefit of hindsight. We often ascribe patterns or purpose where there was mere serendipity, or where small steps and choices led us up a corridor we didn’t even know we wanted, and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face. How could we know at the time that our professional qualifications might be worthless in another country (or require many expensive years of re-qualifying)? Should we have picked our life partners by the worth of their passport – and what if that passport becomes worthless when political circumstances change? What to do if your pension is no longer recognised in other countries and you are never going to be able to achieve the minimum number of years required for somewhere else? What happens when the value of your house or your currency is not enough for you to afford something even halfway decent in another country? Worst of all, once children come along, you have only a limited number of years left for uprooting them, before it can seriously impact their education or their mental wellbeing, before they start formulating their own preferences and tying you down.

Nostalgia for Something Which Never Existed

Many immigrants and expats have a great nostalgia for the country they left behind – or the country that might have been… if poverty, war, nationalism, hateful ideology, corrupt politicians and so on hadn’t driven them away. As we grow older, we start remembering the butterflies fluttering across the meadows, picking cherries and peaches directly from the trees, the warmth of the sun as we lay in a haystack, the low mooing of cattle coming down from the mountains, grandmother’s apricot dumplings… Our senses tingle with all of these rich memories – and we forget that this is because we were children, and life was easier for us as children, even when it was hard. Our memories become selective and bring forth the sensual pleasures, while banishing any less than perfect images. In Mizumura’s novel, the protagonist craves a Taisho or Meiji Japan she has glimpsed in the literature she loves to read, but which hasn’t existed in that country for over a century. The very title of Gansel’s book ‘Translation as Transhumance’ conjures up my ancestors’ almost mythical occupation as shepherds (one of the most famous Romanian ballads Miorița is about three shepherds), which I will proudy proclaim at every opportunity. Yet I only visited my great-uncle’s flock once when I was a small child and thought the mountain hut smelled revolting.

Comfort, Friendship, Heritage?

Pragmatism and sentimentalism are at war within me as I try to decide, over the next two years, where I will go.

Remaining in the UK is probably the easiest option, now that I am so familiar with everything here and have established networks and connections, as well as pension rights and a house. But is it truly the comfortable choice, even if this absurd and corrupt government comes to an end within a few years. The curtain has been lifted on the dirty mechanisms and assumptions that lie below the magic of the stage, and I don’t know if I will ever recapture my entire love for the theatre again.

Perhaps I can forget that I never truly felt ‘at home’ in Romania while I was living there and return to a country that has changed so much since I left it in my early twenties. There are certain thirsty pockets within me that nothing but the Romanian landscape, language and literature (and food) can quench. Perhaps the happiness of my childhood there is less illusory than the nostalgia of my Viennese childhood. Who can afford a flat in Vienna, anyway? Plus, all of my childhood friends were so international that they have moved away from Vienna, even if we all love returning there from time to time.

As we approach old age, perhaps it’s friendships that nourish us most – and, oddly, the vast majority of my close friends seem to be divorced or single now. But when your friends are scattered all over the world, replacing the biological family and supporting each other becomes difficult. Nevertheless, I am fortunate once again in having two of my oldest friends both living in Berlin. Two friends that I can see myself growing old with, sharing stories, joys and burdens. A city I have often visited with delight, but which would be an entirely new adventure for me.

Berlin by night. From Strong Cities Network.

When you have no real sense of belonging, you have endless choices, or so it may seem. I remind myself that I am fortunate to have choices, but just how endless are they really? Will my choices be determined by my fragile parents, my children ready to fly the nest, my financial and legal position? And would I trade it all for a real sense of belonging?

If you want to read much more sophisticated musings on sense of belonging, then I really recommend the two books below, which I hope to review by next week.

An I-Novel: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/an-i-novel/9780231192132

Translation as Transhumance: https://www.lesfugitives.com/books/mireille-gansel-translation-as-transhumance

24 thoughts on “When Reading and Reviewing Leads to Reflection on Life Choices”

  1. I am interested in your life story, Marina! You have led and are still leading a fascinating life and have much to contribute to the book/blog world and in general. I sometimes question my choice to leave the south of France and return here, but I wouldn’t have my beautiful daughters if I hadn’t. Have a peaceful day, my lovely x

    1. Aww, you’re too kind! And it’s an interesting observation you make about contributing to the book world, because our life experiences do have quite an impact on the kind of books we read and champion (which is why I want to see a lot more diversity in publishing – luckily, in blogging, there seems to be a lot more of that!)

  2. Thank you for sharing this more personal piece, Marina. I have been dealing with some similar dilemmas, too, and I perfectly understand how difficult it is to make those choices. (This sentence “…where small steps and choices led us up a corridor […], and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face” has truly struck me deeply.) It might feel like we have so many choices, but in reality the choices are pretty limited I think. I sincerely hope you do what brings you the most joy, and I’m sure you’ll be able to fit it and do amazing things no matter where you choose to settle down 🙂

    1. Thank you so much. And it’s true when we are young, we barely realise how those tiny, almost imperceptible decisions lead us down certain paths… from which it is much, much harder to return. At the same time, I have seen people make really major decisions and U-turns later on in life, so one shouldn’t be too pessimistic!

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the major changes that come with moving to another country, whether it’s voluntary or not. It can’t be an easy choice, and no matter what one chooses, there are prices to pay as well as benefits. I can’t help thinking, too, that no matter where one might move, no matter how welcoming that society, there’s always the ‘otherness.’ It’s something that has to be taken into account, especially if one also starts to feel ‘other’ about one’s own country (e.g. one’s been away for a long time, and things have changed). There’s a lot to think about, and I appreciate reading your insights on the experience.

  4. I’ve led such a different life from you, Marina, and found this post so interesting. Thank you for sharing it with us. I wish you luck where ever your next choice takes you, and I love Berlin! I hope we’ll be rid of this shabby crew that we call a government as soon as possible. They shame and embarrass me.

    1. I always thought Britain would be my forever country, but perhaps my peripatetic lifestyle has made me less willing to wait and wait for things to change…

  5. By coincidence I had a conversation a little along these lines today when out with a walking group. My companion was born in Prague, came to Wales as a 19 year old, married and had children but then moved with him to Greece for 20 years. She came back to Wales 10 years ago. We talked about what do we mean by home – is it the place you were born or where you had a family or where you felt most comfortable.

    1. Thought you might relate to this! I’ve never been able to make up my mind who is the luckier one – the person with deep roots, or the rootless person.

  6. We do like to hear, Marina, and it is indeed a difficult choice. My original country was Scotland, but I haven’t lived there since I was 6. I ended up living where I do because of my OH’s and then my work, but I feel no real great attachment to it. So when the time comes to retire it will be difficult, but OH is attached and still has family here, but I would happily move on. Is the grass greener elsewhere? I don’t know, and I’ve not really made many active decisions to move in my life, it has been circumstances as you say. Very very difficult…

    1. Ha, at least I have no one to please but myself (well, elderly parentcare permitting)! Many people tell me: ‘Oh, you will want to be close to your boys and the grandchildren!’ but it’s probably just as easy to visit (in non-Covid times) from Berlin or Romania as it is from Scotland or Wales by train.

  7. I appreciate you opening up like this, Marina, even if you’ve made your commentary quite general, and I agree with all the points you make so well.

    Maybe though those who’ve moved several times have the greatest confusion when nostalgia, friends, family, age and/or health have to be taken into consideration? I have nostalgia about Hong Kong where I spent most of the first decade of my life but it will be a very different place from the one I knew; I spent most of my life in Bristol and still have a few friends and family there but would I want to voluntarily return to a busy city now I’m confortable in a rural Welsh town?

    And then the climate crisis, environmental considerations, political uncertainties, precarious economics and a little thing like a pandemic must lessen the options on moving for the comfortably off; what real choices do those who really desperately need to seek refuge have? Your piece makes questions like these more relevant, not less.

    1. Yes, exactly, I have the luxury of considering pros and cons, rather than having to make a go of it in whichever country will have me (and in whatever conditions they will have me), as so many refugees have to. I have, however, had relatives or friends who were asylum seekers, so I am only too aware that ‘starting over’ is often not a pleasure at all.

  8. I’ll look out for these books. We lived in France for 7 years – our choice to go, our choice to come back. In many ways we were well integrated, but became aware how much of the culture that one takes in unconsciously growing up would always elude us. Now our daughter lived in Spain with her Catalan partner and their child, and I see that she too, who’s living, working and raising a family in an entirely Spanish context, as well as being a young woman with less UK ‘history’ has some of the same struggles. She doesn’t foresee returning here ( ‘What? After Brexit?’), but sometimes … I wonder. Good luck to you as you face these unenviable choices. Sometimes it’s easier when decisions are forced on you, isn’t it?

    1. Thank you for sharing this story. I can completely relate to you and your daughter’s experience. I am so English in many ways, having gone to an English school as a child, having been labelled ‘The English Lady’ when I returned to Romanian in my early teens, so it really hurt to realise that no matter how ‘at home’ I believed I was in Britain, I would always be perceived as an outsider. I hope this won’t be the case so much for my children, but who knows…

  9. Thanks so much for this post, Marina! Loved it so much! Thanks for sharing your experiences and sharing your thoughts on places and belonging.

    1. Most days I consider myself really fortunate to have experienced different cultures and even half-belonged to many of them, but on other days, it does feel… complicated.

  10. Excelent post Marina. Ma intereseaza atat recomandările de cărți cat si comentariile despre viața ta personală. Exprimi atat de bine ceea ce am gândit de multe ori despre alegerile pe care le-am făcut sau lipsa lor ca emigrant plecat din Romania. Ma bucur ca am descoperit acest blog si canalul tau de Twitter.

    1. Si mie imi pare bine de cunostinta! E adevarat ca unora li se pare ca suntem norocoase ca am avut aceste posibilitati, dar nu e chiar atit de simplu…

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