I rolled my eyes when I learned that the conference cocktail reception would be facilitated by a get-to-know-you game. I was ready to decompress with a glass of wine in hand – but as one of the conference organizers I felt obliged to participate. The task was to randomly draw a card with an image that represented a time of major cultural transition in your life. You could trade with others until you had a card that really spoke to you – and share with each other why.
I reluctantly participated. The first card I drew was that of a strong runner facing forward in her starting position, waiting for the signal to launch her race. I scanned my brain for the most significant cross-cultural transition I had completed – my family’s move from northern Germany to Vienna, Austria, when I was twelve years old. Thinking back to that time in my life, I did not feel powerful like an athlete, nor that I was running my own race, so I set out to trade cards.
I noticed that many attendees of the conference (aptly titled Families In Global Transition) chose cards with strong or romantic images to reflect their first overseas experience, presumably when they were adults. My childhood relocation has shaped me in beautiful ways, but it did not feel romantic, and I did not feel in control of my destiny. It had been my mother’s decision to move, not mine.
A fellow attendee walked past me holding a card with the image of an ancient, uninhabited desert building with openings for doors and windows leading into darkness. I was immediately drawn to it.
Photo: Courtesy of Anne P. Copeland, The Interchange Institute
My colleague seemed all too relieved to get rid of the card, as if thinking that she’d drawn from the figurative bottom of the pile. I started to feel a bit self-conscious about choosing an unwanted image. Would it reveal my inner demons? I decided to run with it.
We broke into groups and introduced the picture we chose. I explained that as a teenager in Vienna, I felt I’d landed in an ancient culture that I couldn’t figure out how to access. Every time I would open my mouth and reveal my high-pitched German accent, I felt treated like an outsider. In response, I created my own world, at first in the solitude of my room, and eventually with friends who were also “different.”
Someone asked me whether I imagined myself on the outside of the building – and yes, that’s exactly how it felt! I was free to roam around, unenclosed, not bound to one place; yet terrified, in fact, to enter the building whose interior I could not see. I’d gotten so used to being home-less, I feared I’d be trapped inside.
I took a sip of my wine. The afternoon sun illuminated the glass-and-steel conference center. That’s when it hit me: I still felt this way today! Even after years of building strong friendships and investing in the places I inhabited, a part of me remained on the outside looking in.
I was free to roam the world, dabble in any profession, endlessly follow my curiosity, dip in and out of communities – but at the same time I’d been terrified that choosing a “home” would consume me, restrict me, hold me captive. Since graduating high school and leaving Vienna, I had moved house more than twenty times in five different countries. I easily maintained long-distance ties to friends, teachers and employers, but felt reluctant to commit to a romantic relationship or a “permanent” job. Entering that building was not an option for me.
Despite my incessant craving for freedom and non-attachment, subconsciously I looked to other people, institutions, cities or countries to provide me with a sense of identity. I became unable to articulate my personal needs and viewpoints, felt easily misunderstood, and quick to leave when I was trapped between my conscious drive to keep all options open and my subconscious desire to belong.
The metaphor of this game became all too obvious to me: I was still unwilling to pack up my tent in the desert to reside inside the building. That building was not mine.
I put my wine glass down and left.
* * *
On the Metro ride home, I felt perturbed by my discovery. I kept looking at the image of the deserted building, wondering what I had missed all my life by not going inside. Love, belonging, self-worthiness? If I was being really honest with myself, I didn’t even want to enter that dark, lifeless structure – I’d prefer the nomadic life out in the wild.
The doors opened at the next station and people got on. I briefly emerged from my introspection to become a passenger on the train. I imagined myself as a coach asking his client what would have to change about this building that would make him want to go inside?
Immediately, the image of the Parthenon came to me: the ancient Greek column structure that lets you enter and exit with ease, see through to the other side. A place where gossip, food and ideas are exchanged. A place where life bustles. A place that attracts life, transforms it, and allows it to move on naturally. An open-air home.
This new image gave me a sense of relief. I started thinking of other column structures, like in The Neverending Story, where the mystical Uyulála gives the young hero Atréju a riddle to solve. Uyulála exists only as a voice within her forest of columns, a place of divine mystery.
I pulled out my phone and looked up images for the Parthenon. One of the first was a reconstruction of the ancient Greek site, with this golden deity at its center:
In a flash I knew that the deity at the center of my house is me. “Home” is not just a place common to a bunch of people I know, but an ancient site that anchors me wherever I am. Home is not a trap, but an invitation. Home is where I am inside and outside at once. There resides a power at its center – my center – that is both still and eternal.
I decided that evening to move back to Vienna after fifteen years abroad. I had tried returning before, but now I knew that no person, no city, no culture can provide me with a deep sense of belonging. In the past, I kept wanting the deserted building to invite me in! Now I started to realize that this building had been my own projection, and that only I can change the structure of this house.
* * *
Kilian Kröll, Certified Executive Coach, dancer, published writer and President of Third Culture Coach, earned a B.A. in English from Haverford College and an M.A. in Cultural Studies from the University of East London. Kilian grew up in a bilingual family of classical musicians in Germany, Austria and the U.S. He just signed an indefinite lease in Vienna, Austria.