I was born in Leon, a city of 100,000 inhabitants located in North West Spain. Technically being born was the only thing I did there, as my parents and baby me instantly moved to Santander, a city located on the coast near the Basque country. Again this was not my last destination and at the age of 4 my family and I moved to another place, this time a bit more far away: Brussels. I grew up in this metropolitan city and assisted the European School where I met students from all around Europe and attended lessons in Spanish, German, English and French. Since I was little, I got used to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures and found it very easy and straightforward to adapt to persons with different values and ways of understanding the world that surrounds us. Why? How? Now being a bit older, I realise that probably it is because I personally lack such an easy-identifiable single national identity.
What do we understand by identity? Identity and citizenship are concepts that are strongly connected to each other. In broad terms, citizenship means belonging to a community in place, but it is most often used to define the relationship between an individual and a nation- state. In the contemporary era, many argue that the nation-state and citizenship have been redefined by globalization, some commentators claiming that we now live in an era of post- national or denationalized citizenship where the importance of the nation-state has been diminished. ‘More and more people (…) consider themselves part of transnational networks that diffuse the sense of citizenship as a watertight category.’ (Ong 2008: 55) Moreover, the meaning of citizenship constantly changes and adapts to our understanding of what identity is and requires. A good recent example is the way in which two EU countries have recently changed the ways in which they define citizenship. In 1999, Germany introduced a new citizenship law that permitted German citizenship on birth. In contrast, five years later the Republic of Ireland changed its basis for citizenship from place of birth to descent. Identity and citizenship are therefore vibrant and malleable terms, always in constant change.
Having a look at my background, I was born in Spain and have a Spanish identity card and passport. Therefore, I am officially Spanish. However, considering that I have only lived 4 years of my life in Spain, and that I cannot remember those years due to the fact that I was very little, if not a baby, it would be weird to say that I am 100% Spanish. Let’s have a look at my Belgian ‘side’. As said, I grew up in Brussels and lived there 15 years until I graduated from school. Obviously when I first arrived there, I could not speak a single word in French. I learned it on the street and first took grammar lessons at the age of 14. Nowadays, even if I speak it fluently and French people laugh at my Belgian accent and usage of Belgian words, Belgians immediately realise that I am Spanish when I speak to them. The European School is mainly attended by children of people working for the European Union, which ultimately creates a very European and unique atmosphere. So even though Belgian students of course also went to the European School, this was not a reflection of normal Belgian schools or of the Belgian society. In conclusion, I cannot consider myself Belgian either.
The situation got more complicated when I started going to university in Brighton (United Kingdom), studied there for two years, and then moved to Berlin for an Erasmus year. For geographers, the concept of identity is so closely connected to place that it would be impossible to answer this question without referring to places. Place and identity are, for geographers, inextricably linked. In my case, developing an emotional connection to four different places does not rend the task easy. So now when I meet people the awkward moment always comes when the following question is raised: ‘where are you from?’ I do not pretend to write a pessimistic text of how lost I feel without a properly defined identity. Let’s be honest, having lived in four different countries being only twenty years old is an amazing experience that not everyone can enjoy and I always try to use it in my favour. But yes, having four interdependent identities does not really help explaining where I am from (did I mention that my grandmother was German?). At the end of the day, my ‘built up’ answer is always ‘I was born in Spain, lived in Brussels for 15 years, studied in the UK and I am currently living in Berlin’ and straight away make a big smile.
So who am I and where do I come from? Heritage, history and roots are important components of individual and collective identities. Having a look at mine, I should then confidently feel Spanish and a bit German. However, when I go to Spain, I do not really feel like the rest of Spaniards, I feel like a foreigner, probably a bit Belgian. On the other hand, when I am in Brussels or in Brighton I feel pretty Spanish and when I am in Berlin, oh well, some people say I behave like a British person. I have tried to answer this question for a long time, but I still have not been very successful at it yet. ‘European Spaniard’ sounded pretty good and interesting in the first place, but I think in the end I prefer simply ‘European.’ I guess the way I think and behave is to some extent Spanish, Belgian, British and even German at the same time, picking up different cultural features of each nationality without even noticing it. Moreover, feeling identified or connected to a specific community also includes having an emotional link towards family members, friends and so on. As in my case, these have lived and are still in Brussels, I thus consider this city my home.
In conclusion, I probably should identify myself as a product of the 21st Century and globalisation and adhere to Aihwa Ong’s (a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California) opinion that citizenship is now ‘flexible’, with people carrying multiple passports, crossing boundaries, and living in more than one place. Last but not least I would also like to point out the need to develop a global sense of place and thinking of humankind as essentially one. If we understand citizenship in terms of belonging, and stress the fact that we all come from the same world and the notion of universal human rights has been developed, it is then possible to seriously consider the idea of ‘global citizens’. As the geographer and anarchist Petr Kropotkin expressed it in 1885: ‘we are all brethren, whatever our nationality.’