For school teacher and itinerant Third Culture Kid Eleanor Nicolás, creating an audio tour of The Hague helped her reclaim her fragmented childhood. The picture above is of a map at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station, taken before Eleanor relocated to her current home in the Netherlands. The airplane from Schiphol is taking off in the direction of the UK, where her family will settle permanently within a year or so.
When I was a girl, especially when very young, I didn’t think much about where I was. Everything was about the now. That changed as I got older, though I was largely focused on my education at school and university. I gave birth to my daughter when I was 33 in France. It was my 12th international relocation. It was then that a huge wave of unresolved and delayed grief hit me.
This grief is characteristic of high mobility third culture kids, who don’t have the time to process the erasure of their worlds and the disruption of a developing identity. I can only describe it as having long carried a broken heart, and finally letting it break. I heard all these bygone radios from my past. I held my daughter and asked myself if I would give her the same upbringing as I had. When the answer was no, I had to ask myself hard questions about what it was that I hadn’t had. One way I did that was to write down what was coming to me in a personal blog and in my first novel. I’ve just finished the first draft.
Whilst doing some research, I came across a beautiful essay by Elizabeth Lowry called Free to write, free to be. It is now one of my favourites, and I keep a copy of it on my desk. She is South African, but is now based in England. She had an almost identical upbringing to the one I had. Her father was also a diplomat. She articulated something I couldn’t put my finger on about third culture and why I was so compelled to write:
There’s a sense in which writing is simply scar tissue, the attempt to create a meaningful self out of a compromised one, and in my case this damage was caused by the constant move from country to country, which made for radical instability.
I was compromised in that I had never been a British immigrant in Botswana, Zimbabwe, France, the USA, Turkey and Switzerland. I had been there for a limited time. I filtered the countries through a child’s eyes and the countries and its people looked back at me too. I was contending with all these different mirrors whilst never being allowed to belong. I finally felt how good and important it is to belong after repatriating to the UK at 17 years of age and settling there for a decade. That was the longest time I had ever lived anywhere. I would later get married and join my husband on his international postings as an engineer.
I made many connections whilst making my audio walking tour, Full Circle, for VoiceMap. I was apprehensive about recording my voice. I have never liked the sound of it. People remark on my accent straightaway. I have been told I’m Ukrainian, Swedish, Canadian, South African, and Australian, and the British tell me I don’t sound like them at all. I was shy and inadequate at each new school. My past had no relevance to my peers, so I never spoke up. But then I remembered the early months of my daughter’s life. Every new mother knows how hard and long those night feeds can be. At the time, I recalled that my mother had bought me some audio books and I started listening to them. They were narrated by the authors themselves. If you get the chance, I recommend A Streetcat Named Bob by James Bowen and Sula by Toni Morrison. I have never forgotten their voices. Why couldn’t I do the same? Our actual, out-loud voices are part of the map of who we are.
Writing the Full Circle script also taught me that I couldn’t be a master of place. I have always admired Stephen King’s stories because he really knows New England, where he sets most of his books. But if I tried to emulate a descriptive setting like him, I found I could not do it. But that did not mean I shouldn’t write from a viewpoint of having no place. I suddenly saw that that was just as valid.
Finally, creating a walk stressed again how much I want an inverse childhood for my daughter. Children are not little adults. I want her to know exactly who she is and where she is. I want her to have extended family close by, old friends and a community she can really be a part of. That does not mean dismissing curiosity of a greater world and travelling, but that cannot be more important. I hope my audio walk in The Hague shows the listener that I am connected to and love the many countries that built me, but that it was impossible for me to be committed to them. That requires time and staying put. A big thank you to VoiceMap for contacting me and giving me an opportunity to publish with them. I hope to create another walk before long.
Eleanor is an English and primary school teacher who has taught in many different schools all over the world. As the child of aid workers, she was raised in 7 different countries and is currently based in the Netherlands. You can learn more about her tale of transience and identity on her VoiceMap route, Full Circle. Keep up with Eleanor on her blog, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.