Where are you from?


In Rome we heard a lot of English and specifically a lot of loud American English in the form of complaints about having to walk up stairs and/or about being spoken Italian to in Italy, but on the train from Milan to Zurich there was not much English to be heard. Which is probably why, as the train was pulling into the Zurich station, a woman from New Zealand who overheard my son talking said to him with surprised delight, “do you speak English?” Yes, he said. “And where are you from?” she asked. The boy looked at me in total bafflement. “Where am I from?” he asked me. When you’re four, “I’ve lived my whole life in Berlin and am a native speaker of German but am not a German citizen, nor have I ever been encouraged to think of myself as German; I have U.K. and U.S. passports but little experience of either of those places, and the relatives of my American mother live in Canada while the relatives of my British father live in Austria, and the English I speak, though clearly that of a native speaker, as you, stranger from New Zealand, have astutely picked up on, has an odd American-British-German hybrid quality” is a bit much to grasp. His pleading, helpless look when faced with this question made me feel terribly guilty, as if the life I had chosen had consigned my child to a tragic placelessness like one of those stateless citizens who have to live their whole lives in international airports. “You’re from Berlin,” I said. Then he told the lady that his best friend’s father had grown up next to a volcano in New Zealand, and she told him about about the dormant and active volcanoes of New Zealand.

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