Where are you from? It’s one of those very standard, straightforward questions, like “What’s your name?” or “How old are you?” A question most people don’t really think twice about before they answer. Well. Most people, maybe. Not me. It’s a question that has always made me second-guess myself. I was born in Veliko Tarnovo, a small city in Bulgaria – the old capital, in fact. But I was raised in Sofi a and, except for the childhood holidays spent in my hometown, Sofi a was all I knew. So when someone asked me where I was from, I would say Veliko Tarnovo; but clarify that I had never actually lived there.
But then came the whole year abroad situation. Never in my life had the seemingly simple “Where are you from?” question been more complex.
Where I am from? Do you mean that as in my home country, or where my home university is? What’s higher education like in Bulgaria? What’s my course like back in Sofia? Well, funny you should ask that, actually… And then there was meeting British people doing Erasmus at the same university. There, I would say: “I’m from Exeter, I go to university in the UK, I’m not some random international person on an exchange, I’m one of you!” Well, kind of.
And don’t get me started on being scrutinised at Stansted when I visited the UK from Berlin. The border control lady very carefully inspected my Bulgarian ID, taking much longer than she had with the person in front of me. She flicked her gaze from me to my ID several times, then finally asked: “So, where do you actually live?” Bam. Another question that should be simple enough to answer but wasn’t. At that point, I lived in Berlin. I was due to move to Spain in two weeks’ time for the second part of my year abroad. And I was a full-time student in the UK. But where did I actually live? “In Bulgaria?” is what I finally said. “Ah.” More staring at me, then my ID, then me, then my ID. “So, like, are you going home now?”
“You know what, yes,” I felt like saying. “In fact, I am going home, because Exeter is very much home for me.” The UK does really feel like home to me, even though I won’t have an address in this country until September. “And you know what else, maybe you should, like, look at a map or something, because believe me, if I want to get to Sofi a from Berlin, rest assured that I won’t be flying from London.” Imagine if I had lashed out at her like that. I might have actually been held up at the airport. I said I was a student at a UK university, and she let me go. Not that she should have been quizzing me in the first place, as I do have an EU passport.
Exeter is where I found it easiest to make friends
Fortunately, that’s one isolated incident. I have never not felt welcome here. All my stereotypes about the UK were shattered in my first week at uni. The food stereotype? Rubbish. The reality? Pretty good. The weather stereotype? Constantly rainy and cold. The reality? Often much better than what I was used to in Bulgaria. And finally, the people. Stereotype? Very cold and reserved. Reality? Friendly, open, always up for a chat. Especially the last one; whoever came up with the British being cold and reserved must not have ventured to other places much! I can’t speak for everyone, but in my own personal experience – having spent time at universities in Berlin and in the south of Spain – Exeter is where I found it easiest to make friends.
Which brings me to our University’s national reputation of being a very white, middle-class place and being “hostile” to international students (in a bitchy-border-control-lady-at-Stansted kind of way). Let me tell you, I don’t know a single person, international or otherwise, who’ll find a grain of truth in that. I’ve had the most vibrant, incredible years of my life here – a place that has always made me feel like I belonged no matter what – and one part of the answer to “Where are you from?” will now forever be Exeter, where I learned how to be an adult (ish) and where I met some of the most important people in my life.
“Are you going home?”, however, is a question that really hits, well, home. Now, whether I’m flying to the UK or flying to Bulgaria, I always feel like I’m going home. I’m always home, and I’m always not home