DECEMBER & JANUARY 2019
VIENNA, AUSTRIA &
PARIS, FRANCE

From living abroad to learning new languages, Pia has no desire to put herself in a cultural box. After our first interview in Vienna, I visit her in Paris, where the Austrian discusses defining cultural identity on her own terms.

US_UK_Apple_Podcasts_Listen_Badge_RGB
spotify-podcast-badge-wht-grn-165×40
Pia_Kind_DSC00397

Pia is searching. I know this because we've been friends for almost a decade, and she's told me on multiple occasions about her hunt for her place in the world. It's hard for me to imagine that she lacks it, because that's what she gives me: a feeling of home and security.

Pia grew up in a family where cultural diversity was a donnée. She is Viennese with Italian roots and has lived, studied and worked in various countries, including Costa Rica, where we first met eight years ago. (We spent six months as volunteers working in public institutions.) Since then, she has been on a student exchange programme in Bordeaux, a town on the west coast of France, has graduated with a master's degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and has completed an internship in Strasbourg, followed by a freelance contract that allowed her to settle down in Paris with her Italian boyfriend, Francesco. Since then, and four months into our conversation, she (unsurprisingly) relocated to Brussels for a new job at a European NGO. If there is ever a book written about Pia, New Beginnings should be the title.

We met up by the St. Charles church in Vienna on a cold, late December evening of last year, shortly before Christmas. She was visiting her parents over the holidays before flying back to Paris a few weeks later. We sat down by the fountain, wrapped up in scarves and warm jackets, talking about stability, seeking change and the normality of saying goodbye. As someone who has moved countries so often, I wonder if the unknown is what drives her.

"I've had this curiosity over anything abroad really since I was a small child. My grandmother was born in Austria, [but] she spent one year abroad in the UK, and I think she was so happy with that experience that afterwards she became an English teacher, [a]nd then my aunt moved to the UK, so we had this one link somehow."

Pia's grandfather (paternal side), who died in 2016, grew up in Italy but moved to Austria at age 14. Leading by example, he's played an important role in Pia's life, encouraging her to travel and broaden her horizons. "The older he got, the more important [his Italian] roots became for him, and he also liked to share that with his grandchildren," she says. "I remember when my [grandfather heard] about my first endeveours to move abroad, he was really happy, and he really encouraged me to do that. I think all of that really pushed me to have these kinds of experiences."

 

Pia_Kind-DSC00376
Pia_Kind_DSC00378
Pia_Kind_DSC00389
Pia_Kind_DSC00373
Pia_Kind_DSC00385


"You go along life with this feeling of having a mask sometimes, and there are not many moments when you can put it down. Home is when you can be calm and relaxed and laugh from deep inside. And it can be anywhere; you just need the right people."


"You go along life with this feeling of having a mask sometimes, and there are not many moments when you can put it down. Home is when you can be calm and relaxed and laugh from deep inside. And it can be anywhere; you just need the right people."

 

Despite being raised and having spent her teenage years in Vienna, Pia's home was never monocultural. "Even family meant more than Austria. Family meant going to Italy every year; it meant having friends from the UK coming over for a Christmas Eve; it meant having a grandfather who speks another language. I guess I identified with this kind of diversity."

On the other hand, going abroad, she says, is oftentimes romanticised, and she is careful not to fall into this trap. "When you're young and you have the first opportunity to break free, you idealise this experience. And then you realise, well, that's not everything either, right? You understand that there is no perfect place in the world, and you have similar problems everywhere, so you cannot really escape. I think this is a component you only understand when you actually try and move somewhere else."

Despite this realisation, she doesn't regret any of her experiences abroad. "All of them were enriching, because they made me reflect on things I wouldn't have reflected upon otherwise."

"You understand that there is no perfect place in the world, and you have similar problems everywhere, you cannot really escape. I think this is a component you only understand when you actually try and move somewhere else."

"You understand that there is no perfect place in the world, and you have similar problems everywhere, you cannot really escape. I think this is a component you only understand when you actually try and move somewhere else."

Paris

Pia_Eifelturm_DSC5247

Her home, by her own admission, is being with her partner, with whom she had been living in Paris for two years before moving to Brussels a month ago. Living in Paris wasn't all plain sailing - speaking English with her Italian boyfriend (whom she met in Scotland) in France has brought her share of doubters. For Pia, this is not plain ignorance, but a judgment on her way of living.

"It's not a nice feeling that you're questioned for the way you decided to live your life. [This cultural  mix] makes me happy, because it brings so much diversity into my life, but it's also something that challenges even more the feeling of belonging and being part of one culture."

She doesn't consider the world to be black and white and decides to position herself somewhat in the middle. "I always think that people want clarity. When they ask you, 'Where are you from?' Ah, you're from Austria, so you're like this, and everything is clear,' but it's not at all and it confuses people!"

"There is no clarity. I always think that people want clarity. When they ask you, 'Where are you from?' Ah, you're from Austria, so you're like this, and everything is clear,' but it's not at all and it confuses people!"

"There is no clarity. I always think that people want clarity. When they ask you, 'Where are you from?' Ah, you're from Austria, so you're like this, and everything is clear,' but it's not at all and it confuses people!"

If truth be told, does she never long for clarity herself? "I don't think I need it for myself, to be honest. I'm very happy with this situation until the moment I have to answer these questions, and I'm given the feeling that it's a problem. When I think about [my life], I think it's great. I love it! I've always wished to lead a life that is diverse [and] speak many languages. I was always amazed by people who had crosscultural backgrounds, I always found that amazing."

Striving for diversity doesn't come without its price, as the affects of being away from family and friends linger. "Now that I've been away from home continuously for three years, every goodbye feels more like actually saying goodbye," she explains. "I can play it very well, but it doesn't get easier. And that's the weird thing: yes, I call many places my home, but for every home I leave, it hurts to leave it."

SONY DSC
pia_smaller_DSC5217
Pia_paris_smaller_DSC5214
SONY DSC
Pia_Paris_Small_DSC5202
pia_paris-smallerDSC5244
Pia_paris_SmallDSC5212

"Every Home I leave, it hurts to leave it."

Honfleur

Small_DSC5307
Small_DSC5400
Small_DSC5357
Small_DSC5336
Small_DSC5331
Small_DSC5325
Small_DSC5369
Small_DSC5334
Small_DSC5298

A month after our interview, I flew to Paris for a visit. After a week in the French capital, we craved a getaway to the seaside, an afternoon spent away from the chaos of the city and a place to put our minds to rest. We came to Honfleur, an old French coastal town just two hours outside of Paris. With three million tourists a year, Honfleur is the third most popular place to visit in France, but in winter it seemed almost sleepy.

Back in the 19th century, Honfleur’s native artist Eugène Boudin and his mentee Claude Monet spent quite some time capturing the charm of the place. Therefore, it’s not surprising that it looks like an impressionist painting: narrow cobbled streets, art galleries and colourful timber framed houses with slate roofs. Pia and I walked down the beach where the Seine flows into the sea, and strolled down the charming alleys. After lunch by the sea-side I asked Pia to write down a few lines about the affect Honfleur had on her mind. Having escaped the loudness of Paris, I wondered, did the quiet calm her down? That's what she wrote:

Pia_Small_DSC5386
Small_DSC5384

By Pia, January 2019

"Honfleur, a little picturesque town on the north-west coast of France. A thick layer of clouds is resting protectively above the small, thin houses. Coming from fast-paced Paris, this place seems extremely sleepy to me at first, but after a while I notice, that I’m enjoying the calming effect that the misty small streets and the fresh salty air has on my thought and my mind. After following the sea side walk, departing from the pretty little port, I arrive at a point where the Seine flows into the sea. On the other side of the coast, the silhouette of the great port of Le Havre looms behind the thick fog. The feeling of being at the edge of the world gradually overcomes me at this point. It reminds me of the feeling I often felt while walking along the coast in Scotland. And even though I have never been here before, this resemblance makes me feel somewhat at home. A remote place in the country I am currently officially at home. Foreign to me, but yet familiar. Somehow melancholic it reminds me of the constant feeling of missing something and yet striving to discover what’s out there. A perfect place to reflect about my place in the world."

So, what is it?

"Home is really,... it really is a feeling. You go along life with this feeling of having a mask sometimes, protecting yourself with certain attitudes or gestures. There are not so many moments after all where you manage to put that aside and stop thinking about how you want to be, and you're just yourself. It really becomes more and more difficult to find those moments, [in which] you can open your heart and enjoy the moment, like, really laugh from deep inside, having this sense of being calm and relaxed. This is home, and it can happen anywhere, really, anywhere. You just need the right people, I guess."

She might still be looking for her place in the world, but I know I've found mine. And that's with a friend like her.

Follow WYCH on Facebook & Instagram

 

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.