Saturday, 19 April 2014

"From" is a big word

"From" is a big word. People ask where a person is "from", expecting that there is a simple, truthful answer which they can use to understand something about you. Or, less charitably, which they can use to look up in their heads what polite or impolite prejudice to apply. One of the nice things about living in London is that rather few people make that mistake; and one of the nice things about tangoing abroad is that "London" or even "England" will do as an answer.

I had a very curious conversation once in which someone concluded "... Oxford, but I'm not from there any more". The sentence struck me as extraordinarily odd; almost ungrammatical: who would ever say such a thing? The state of being "from" somewhere is permanent. That's the whole point. You can't "not be" "from" somewhere "any more" - that's just not what it means. If you ever were, you still are. Or you are not.

I nodded politely. I suspected it might have had to do with the university, and it might well have been meant as an invitation to ask about that, but as a Balliol woman I had no intention of indulging any such nonsense.

A week or two ago I had dinner with someone I've seen twice in the last three months, and before that, hadn't seen for thirty years. She is the only person in my life - apart from my parents, and I'm not sure about them - who already knows where I am "from". It doesn't matter where I was born, how long I lived where, what accent I speak with. She knows where I am "from" because she is too, and she remembers me. And no other information can remove that knowledge. And somehow, inexplicably, we were on the same page.

It was a very unfamiliar feeling for me, and it took me a while to understand what it was. I didn't know what it felt like, to be from somewhere.

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