A Tale of Three Cities (or an Academic’s wanderings)

This is a New Year’s tale – suitably introspective, ending with a resolution and the beginning of a journey. Next post, back to the political.  But – despite the fact this one’s personal — it seems appropriate to include here, because in a sense it’s my own riff on the questions I’ve asked an awful lot of other people over the past six years: not just where’s home, but what’s home?
I’ve built a career around extolling the virtues of free movement. We are all post-nationals now!  Home is people, not places! Refugees and would-be migrants can build lives that cross borders, connect towns and cities, build new ideas of homes between spaces… while for a global cosmopolitan elite, mobility is the new normal. Somali businessmen commute between Nairobi and London; Indian software engineers who hop between Bangalore and Palo Alto.   Mobility will set you free.
I’d still defend that cry.  But I’d add some caveats.  In the past two years, personal experience has given me reason to if not question, at least revise my professional judgement. I’ve come to recognise that while living between places and trying to craft out multiple homes may be a necessary part of finding freedom, and that mobility may be part of the “new normal” for high-flying professionals, it’s no new ideal.
Why the change in tone? Well, like many academics, I’ve ended up with a house in one town (Oxford) and a job, friends and weekday flat-share in another (London).   Living the mobility dream. When strangers ask where I live, the answer is convoluted, a contorted explanation that perhaps amounts to “I don’t really know”.  The UK, sure:  but beyond that?
It’s just sixty miles. A distance that pales into insignificance when compared to those crossed by the twenty-first century’s Somali nomads or West African wanderers, especially those without the privileges of legal visa stamps and air crossings.  And I make the journey in two hours, at least once a week.  Yet it’s enough: too much. It’s tiring. It’s lonely.  You cannot be in two places at once.   Perhaps it’s turning thirty, leaving the wanderings of my twenties behind. But practising mobility, it turns out, isn’t all I cracked it up to be.
Is home a people, a city, a house? I’ve come to realise that my house is my home, but it’s empty half the time; that London (multilingual, multicultural, busy, disruptive) is my cultural home, my community of friends… but I can’t afford to live in it without forfeiting the space and the green in Oxford.   Spare me no pity: I’m hardly a forced migrant.  I’m lucky to have the choice to live in two places at once, to stitch together a vegetable garden with Ethiopian restaurants into my own version of “home”. And in fact, innumerable Saturday evenings have been spent working out that this is the best compromise, that – given our lives – this is the closest we can come right now to that mythical, elusive, enveloping “home” and still pursue our ambitions and aspirations.
There is, however a serious point to this: be careful what you wish for.  Mobility – the possibility of living between places, not anchored to a single “home” – can and has allowed many to pursue opportunities that would otherwise be lost, especially women whose careers might otherwise be relegated.  But increasingly I’ve come to feel it’s a double-edged sword.  For it’s also creating a world in which the expectation of mobility creates its own pressure.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the number of young academics “Living Apart Together”. My husband’s given up asking my academic colleagues where they live: inevitably, if they’re under 35 (and quite possibly if they’re over 35 too), it will be somewhere other than the University they’re working at.   Mobile – or rootless?  And if this becomes what’s expected to succeed, is it much of a choice any more?
So Christmas was spent (in part) confronting my own mobility-induced stress. And in fact, this has already had at least two positive outcomes, one professional and one personal.  The first is a resolution to bring these insights into my own work – and while I’ll remain sceptical about the idea of “natural” homelands, I already have much more sympathy with those I’ve spoken to about the longing for a home, a house – and the cost of a mobile (let alone a transnational) life.
But while I’ve come to recognise mobility is an imperfect choice, it’s also an imperfect world. For many, it remains the best possible option on the table, especially when constrained by poverty or conflict in a country of origin just beginning to emerge from War.  The real political fight remains to open up these possibilities to the poor, to push against borders, barriers and visas.  Migration can still be the best possible solution: even if alongside it you long for home.
And in the end, it’s sometimes migration that can help build a home.  As it has for us.  For this is a tale of three cities:  London, Oxford – and Palo Alto.  The second personal gain might be counter intuitive, but in fact, it turns out the way for us to beat the mobility trap and have just one home (at least for a while) is to both move 5000 miles to the West.  Free to move, not forced to move: a fitting mantra for 2013?