Blog | Outside In

Outside In: Miguel de la Fuente

outside-inIn 1962, a nine-year-old boy named Miguel Lino de la Fuente Alfonso and his two sisters were sent by their parents, with the assistance of Catholic Charities, from Matanzas, Cuba, to the United States of America in one of the world’s largest political exoduses of children in history. An estimated 14,000 unaccompanied children were airlifted from 1960 to 1962 to different locations in the U.S. as part of the Peter Pan project. As Miguel explains, “Under the Castro regime, a communist government, children – like the land, industries, stores, and housing – would become the property of the state. If that happened, parents would lose legal custody of their children.”

Once in the U.S., Miguel’s older sister was separated from him and his younger sister because she didn’t meet the age requirement of the Peter Pan project. So, although the two younger siblings were later reunited with their parents, they were never a complete family after 1962. “I did not come or was sent by my parents to chase the American dream for a better life,” says Miguel, “our life was just fine until it was taken away from us.” 

“Venceremos” oil, stucco Veneziano, shellac, gesso on paper 11 in x 14 in

Miguel has lived in three countries, seven U.S. States, an estimated seventeen cities, and countless residences. He now makes his home in Baltimore, where he works as a fine artist. He made this painting, Venceremos (meaning we will overcome), which shows his struggles to survive “the insurmountable challenge of using an unstable surface through the journey of applying incompatible materials, working each layer to compromise, morph, or dissipate.” He goes on to explain that through the complex experiences of loss, anxiety, fear, love, and happiness, the layers that are applied and removed to cover up, fix, or mask “create the beauty of never giving up.”

Ever since he remembers, Miguel has needed to be resilient. “Nothing is free. I have survived by trusting my instincts, being innovative, and never giving up.” In time, his immigrant status evolved from political refugee to U.S. Citizen, and it’s something he doesn’t take for granted. “Not only have so many Cubans fought and risked their lives to be wards of this great country, but human citizens of the world,” he says. He feels so fortunate to be educated, established, and to have made the best of all opportunities. At the same time, he struggles to make sense of all that he is. “I do have regret, or guilt, that my parents risked so much; risk of imprisonment, being black-listed, and even their own lives threatened for us to be in a democratic country, but we don’t have a democracy in the U.S. There is censorship, class discrimination, and lack of education.”

For Miguel, the strangest part has been not to be able to identify with his Cuban culture; having his life interrupted and not having a consistent upbringing until he was reunited with his parents four years after coming to the U.S. Even so, he makes the most of having two cultures, like observing all the hallmark holidays with a Cuban twist. “Celebrating Santa Claus and Los Reyes Magos, eating Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie but also roast pork, black beans and flan; all the US holidays that always gave us an excuse to get the family together and share our favorite foods.”

But he’s wistful about the happiness, dreams, security, and quality of life that his family lost. “I wonder,” he says, “what our lives would have been if we stayed in Cuba.”

Outside In: Gillian Harris

outside-inwavesGillian Harris has always considered herself a water-baby. She grew up in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, where the city and the coast, north and south, are a paradise of gorgeous, tropical beaches, embracing the warm Indian Ocean, and the golden sands. “Our family, mother and father included, all loved going to the beach.” Gill says. “This is how I remember my childhood – always in the surf (the bigger the better), and taking vacations in beach cottages up and down the coast.” When she was very young, and her parents couldn’t find her on the beach, her father would say, “See that little head way out there? The person well beyond the other swimmers – that’s Gill!” Most likely, he would join her.

That was that life.

When Gillian immigrated to the States, her American husband soon introduced her to the Northern California coast. It was foggy and cold, and Gill thought to herself that they were the most miserable beaches she had ever seen. “Today, over 30 years later,” she says, “I view those same beaches as utterly beautiful in their misty bleakness and grandeur.” It’s the perfect metaphor for how one’s vision of beauty and belonging changes.

It was in 1983 that Gillian came to the States for a vacation. At the time, she was working in the training department of a human resources company in Johannesburg, and she told her manager that her vacation would be about three weeks long. “He said, since I was coming such a long way, if it wanted to I could stay a little longer. Little did he know that I would never come back!” On her second day in San Francisco, she met a man she would marry four weeks later. “If I had intended to do it, I would at least have brought the right paper work,” she laughs, “my birth certificate, and so on. In fact, I had to go back for it.”

Initially, it was a difficult period for Gill, ending up in a pretty deep depression and sense of isolation. “When I first came, I went to a psychologist and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘you are displaced.’” The most difficult part was being so far away from her family and often feeling unsupported and alone. “I’m not sure I would ever give anyone advice to emigrate because it is very demanding,” she says. Gill has lived a life in this country and raised a child – ultimately as a single mother – without any extended family around. “So many of us South African friends have had to rely on each other almost as extended family.”

Gillian has permanent resident status in the States, rather than being a naturalized citizen and, while a part of her wishes that she had been “smarter” many years ago like her friends who became citizens when it cost $50 instead of $800, she recognizes that, unconsciously, a part of it may have been not wanting to give up her heritage. “My father was British, and when I was still at university in South Africa, I applied for British citizenship. I still have a British passport.” Another part of the picture is that, while home is here for Gill now, it’s actually always her adopted home. Even in the community where she lives in California, she has the sense that the underlying message is, ‘you’re not really one of us.’ “I miss that profoundly personal feeling of, ‘this is truly my home.’ I would call this home but I can’t say it is truly my home.”

This manifests itself in subconscious ways. Both her parents have died, but she is now, at the age of 63, experiencing these dreams where she is back in Durban, and asking people if they know her parents’ phone number, or their address. “It seems I want to go back ‘home.’ This dream takes the form of all sorts of contexts, but the final realization is that, if I found our old address, and tried to knock on the door, strangers would answer, and my parents would not be there. Where do I go?”

Yet, despite the dreams, Gillian is bound to the States now, for all the history and experience she’s enjoyed here. “I think what plants me here now in the USA, is the fact that my 30-year old daughter is very much American, loves living in San Francisco, and I am eternally grateful for her in my life.” Gill believes that the experience of immigrating has made her into a survivor and self-sufficient person, and the best part is that she has come to love this country and feel completely content to make her life here. “I live among the vineyards – what could be better than that? I have access to all sorts if physically glorious splendors – Yosemite, Tahoe, the Pacific coastline …” And, under current circumstances, she adds, “I am so grateful that I have an immigration story to tell, at all!”

Outside In: Cherry Clark


When she was 10 years old, living in Durban on South Africa’s east coast, Cherry Clark‘s father was under the surveillance of the apartheid government. He was teaching South African politics at the University of Natal, colleagues had been banned or even jailed and, as the founding member of the anti-apartheid Progressive Party, he was apparently close to the same sanctions. With the help of the South African academic, Arthur Keppel-Jones, who taught history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Cherry’s father was able to secure a position in the political science department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cherry’s family did not expect ever again to set foot in South Africa.

Travel was prohibitively expensive at that time – 1964 – but Cherry’s mother saved what she earned as a teacher to allow them all to travel home at four-year intervals. “My eighteenth birthday was at the end of a six-month sabbatical that allowed my father to bring us back to Durban while he and my mother debated whether to accept an offer from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,” Cherry says. “We all concluded that we could not live as unwilling participants in apartheid.” She did not see South Africa again until 2015, at the age of 60.


This image is a photograph taken this past July, while on a dawn shark trip out of Simonstown near Cape Town. “The image represents far more than the day or the event,” says Cherry. “The string of lights piercing the dark, bisecting land and sea, symbolizes the two halves of my existence, my early life in South Africa and the time since in North America, the light being a moment of magical fusion when it all came full circle.” Another interpretation also suggests itself to her in the distant lights – the warmth and life of home, viewed from far away as though in a dream. “All that water in between, and one might despair of ever making land, just as I thought I would never find myself back in South Africa no matter how much I grieved and yearned to be there.”

Cherry has a double longing. She grew up in Halifax, her ex-husband was a French Canadian, and their children were born in Canada. As her children grew up, Cherry studied canon law – Catholic ecclesiastical law – and obtained a master’s degree through a sponsorship from the diocese of Toledo, Ohio. The terms of the sponsorship required that she work in Toledo for a period of time, and so she came to the United States in 2003, having met her present husband, an American, in the canon law class of her final year. He was a Catholic priest on sabbatical, and resisted the lure of a career as a canonist, leaving his studies and the priesthood, and following Cherry to Toledo. The strangest part in all of this has been that Cherry now finds herself living indefinitely in the States rather than with her family in Canada. “In the back of my mind, the original move to Toledo had been a stepping stone until something came up somewhere in Canada. After living away from extended family while growing up, I truly never envisioned choosing to live in a different country from my own children.”

While Cherry has found that the most difficult part of being an immigrant is having no extended family in Canada or in the United States, a close second has been adjusting to the differences in political culture – being from a strongly socialist background and finding that many Americans consider this a bad thing. “There is a strong suspicion regarding government and those needing assistance here, versus the expectation of finding necessary help from government agencies in Canada,” she says. “I am much more comfortable with Canada’s ‘European’ attitudes regarding politics, religion, sex, family structures, and so many aspects of life; it was a surprise to discover such a strong expectation to conform to traditional behaviors and beliefs, especially among young adults here in the States.” The genuine belief that America is the ‘greatest nation in the world’ is very difficult for Cherry swallow, especially when combined with incredulity that she chooses not to become a citizen. “I live here, I am married to an American and love his family, but I would not choose to live here if I were not married to Curtis. I am here for him, not for me.”

Cherry misses everything about Canada and a great deal about South Africa. In all the time that her family lived in Canada, they considered South Africa to be home. “I did not want to leave, and have spent most of my life feeling that I was taken away,” she says. “Returning now after so many years has been healing, but if anything I want more than ever to ‘be there, rather than here.’” This has become, as for so many immigrants, a real psychological issue for Cherry, and it has pervaded so much of her life.

Outside In: Ingrid Bianca Byerly


fullsizeoutput_15d1On the face of it, this image might suggest the means of transport for an immigrant to get from Point A to Point B. In fact, it is the Semester at Sea ship on which Ingrid Bianca Byerly has circumnavigated the Mediterranean and sailed around the world as a professor of ethnomusicology. Yet, the two are linked: Ingrid first immigrated to America to pursue a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, with a dissertation on ethnomusicology, at Duke University – even though, at the time, she didn’t consider her move to America as leaving her native country. “I had every intention of returning to South Africa,” she says, “but ended up making a home, and having my children, and forging a career here.” So, although she didn’t feel she left South Africa, she did end up in America.

Ingrid has been in the US for 26 years and, as well as being on the faculty for Semester at Sea, she teaches music, ethnomusicology, and humanitarian advocacy at Duke University, describing herself as an ‘amphibious educator.’ “I have the most incredible place to lecture ‘on land’ at Duke about the humanitarian causes that I care deeply about, interspersed with opportunities to teach ‘at sea’ about the music of countries we sail to around the world.” And she thinks of the windows of experience that have opened for her through both her doctorate, and her teaching profession here, as the ultimate passports in themselves,

Ingrid finds it amazing that she has now been in the US as long as she has. “Maybe because I always felt as though half of me was still in South Africa, both in mind and anticipation,” she says. “I go back as much as I can, and I have been here as much as I have been there.” She adds, “I am not conflicted about this. It is an authentic and comfortable sharing of loyalties for me.” To this end, she has dual South African and American citizenship, and feels supremely fortunate to carry both. American citizenship affords her a security and opportunities she never dreamt of, and South African citizenship reminds her of who she is. “My family is South African, and my sons are American, so that clinches it for me in terms of standing firmly balanced with my two feet on two continents, and my heart in the middle.” She believes home is not necessarily where you were born, or where you lived the longest, but where you came into yourself, and feel most eternally at peace with where you are. And, for her, Cape Town has always been, and will always be, home. “I spent my most formative stage in Cape Town, and to me that glorious place will always feel like the souls of my feet are exactly on the soil they belong, and that very sea-air is exactly the air I need to breathe.” And home for Ingrid is really anywhere her three sons are. “So whenever we’re all together in Cape Town – that’s not just Home, that’s Heaven.”

Table, Mountain, Cape beaches, the sparse beauty of the Karoo, Peppermint Crisps, Highveld thunderstorms, safaris between acacia trees, and the call of hadidas and fish eagles are just some of the things – both the enormous and the trivial – that cause profound nostalgia for Ingrid. Also, “the spontaneous genius of South African musicians, the harmonies and exquisite blendings of choral singing (whether rousing church groups worshiping in fields, or meticulous school choirs performing on stages), the easy and kind and hilarious intercultural friendships between perfect strangers (yes, I could spend a great deal of time on this phenomenon, which the rest of the world doesn’t fully understand about South Africa), and of course, family and old friends.”

Ingrid has found that one of the most difficult parts of being here has been her adjustment to a surprisingly different type of social milieu in America. “I miss the irrevocable bonds and constant ease of ‘my home people’ – the ‘pop-ins’ and tea-times and the deep and amusing involvement in each other’s lives.” She’s had to make adjustments in other ways too. As of this posting, the strangest part of being here for Ingrid is Donald Trump. “I thought I understood America well,” she says, “but I’ve pretty much had to reboot my brain for a better insight, and now I perceive it very differently.”

In encapsulating the way she feels that being an immigrant in America has changed her, Ingrid tells a lovely story. “I once heard an interview with a woman who won the Texas lottery, and she said an interesting thing: she said that abundant access to money simply allows you to show who you really are. If you are mean and stupid, it reveals how spiteful and foolish you really are, and if you are kind and smart, it reveals how generous and clever you are too.” Ingrid believes that this thinking can be transferred to ‘abundant opportunity’ too; it just gives you prospects to become, and reveal, who you really are. It needn’t change you, just allow you to be who you really are. “The opportunity of attending graduate school in America, and becoming an American with a new life and fulfilling career, while maintaining and treasuring my deep connections with South Africa, has allowed me to realize who I really am.”

Outside In: Suse Cairns


fullsizeoutput_15a5For Suse Cairns, this is such a Baltimore moment – a crabfest with her former housemates and neighbors the summer she arrived in 2014. This photo sums up Suse’s first feelings of community – and captures a bit of a crush, too, because one of these neighbors would become her partner. In fact, the best part of being here for her has been “falling in love with someone wonderful.” This crabfest was also the first night she ever saw a firefly, and the strangest part of being here was learning that fireflies are real. “They still seem as magical as fairies to me,“ she says.

Suse is from Newcastle, Australia – a beachside town on the east coast of the continent – and her immigrant status is unusual. She’s on the E3 visa, a category of visa unique to Australia. It’s a two-year, temporary visa that’s tied explicitly to her job, which is currently Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at the George Washington University. If it wasn’t for the E3, she probably wouldn’t have been able to move to the US at all. That said, if she lost her job, she’d need to leave within ten days or risk overstaying her visa. There are no immediate pathways to residency from the E3, so it’s a bit of a no-man’s land visa, leaving Suse feeling vulnerable when it comes to longer term planning or building a life here. And she wants to build a life here.

Her first experience of the United States was in 2011, when she came to attend a conference in Philadelphia – and it was life-changing. “That trip introduced me to people, places, and possible futures that I hadn’t imagined previously. The people I met became my mentors, friends, and collaborators, inviting me back to the USA for future conferences and collaborations.” When her PhD was ending, Suse knew she wanted to be in this country; it was where the conversations were. “I openly told my friends and connections that I wanted to move over here, and that one of them would have to find me a job.” And one of them duly did.

The moment when everything fell into place has the aura of an epiphany. “Right at the end of 2013,” Suse says, “I was sitting on a break wall overlooking the ocean, thinking about how little I could predict what was going to come next. My life had been so unsettled by that stage, and I didn’t have a good sense about what the future would hold. Rather than getting too worried, I consciously decided to have faith that the right thing would come along, and that I’d recognise it when I saw it. A few days later, I got a call from a mentor of mine, telling me she was taking on a new job at The Baltimore Museum of Art, and asking if I wanted to come and join her?” Of course, the answer was yes.

The experience of actually living here was even more fundamentally life-changing for Suse than attending the conference in Philadelphia had been. “Moving to Baltimore was accompanied by so much change in my life generally, from leaving my marriage and job, to finishing my PhD, and leaving behind almost all my possessions.” In a relatively short period, almost everything that was familiar in her daily life was changed. And she found that she was also changed emotionally. “I became much more attuned to, and accepting of, my emotions,” she says. She found she had to grow up quickly in that time, and she learned how much she could rely on herself when under pressure. “That was a good discovery.”

The changes also rippled out to encompass broader issues. “I’ve become more charged to personally make a difference in the world, and to be an agent for positive change.” It has been challenging for her coming to a country as big and complex as the USA, and feeling both an incredible urge to be a part of its future, but not fully understanding its past (or even its present). America, she finds, is a much harder country than Australia in general, but the complexity is also what makes America so beautiful. “Being here, I feel like I’m learning to see and understand the world more fully. Even though some of what I’m seeing is hard to take, losing sight of that complexity would be far worse. I think it would be hard for me to return to Australia now. I’d be scared that I’d forget what I’ve learned since being here.”

So, Baltimore is home for Suse right now. And she suspects it might be for some time to come.


In a really wonderful addendum, after this posting, Suse married her crush in the crabfest photo, so Baltimore – and, indeed, America – will truly be home to her for some time to come.

Outside In: John Nicholas


outside-in-jnThis photograph was taken from the southbound platform of London’s West Finchley Station, which has, over the years, been the link to high school, college, cultural excursions, parks and recreation, intercity train services, and intercontinental air travel for John Nicholas. “I regard West Finchley Station very fondly,” he says, “and it represents home.” As John points out, the London “Underground” or “Tube” is an essential public transportation system  that makes the vastness of London accessible and manageable. As such, it is very much part of most Londoners’ being. “Absent road traffic, the clickety-clack of the trains was faintly audible from my bedroom late at night and early in the morning. I find the sound inexplicably comforting, even now when I visit my parents.”

John has been in Baltimore for nearly 25 years – working as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he is a Professor of Oncology – and he says that the longer he stays in the U.S., the more problematic becomes the thought of one day leaving. “I am settled here, with a house, pets, friends, and a workplace that feels like home.” Baltimore is the place he has chosen to settle and establish his adult life, and he feels extremely connected to it. He loved Baltimore from the moment he first arrived, despite its clear differences from London. “Quirkiness is a quality much admired by Brits, I think, and Baltimore has it in spades.” There was minimal culture shock for him, not least because of the common language and similar “Anglo” cultures. “Professionally,” he says, “one laboratory is pretty much the same as another; science is a global language.”

On the other hand, John’s entire upbringing was in a single location in London, the place where his parents still live, where his roots are. “This is the place that has mothered me, that I feel genuinely part of, that has deposited its values and character in me, and that accepts me fully as one of its own, so London is my inescapable and true home.” He misses the unimposing, down-to-earth nature and understated, self-deprecating humor of Brits. He also misses the architecture of London, including centuries’-old churches, houses and other buildings, the Tube, urban parks, and the English countryside . . . “I’d miss fish & chips and pubs if I wasn’t now a vegetarian and tea-total!”

It was professional and personal loss that made John immigrate in the first place. “The situation in London was difficult, as my Ph.D. studentship and then postdoctoral fellowship mentor had died following a short illness.” This was a very profound personal loss, and professionally it meant that a plan to establish his own lab in the same institution was no longer a possibility. This, and a recently failed relationship and associated complications, prompted his decision to cross the Atlantic. John says that the experience of being alone in a foreign country has matured him and made him very independent, and it has also allowed him to see and appreciate the world from a different perspective. Still, he doesn’t feel American. “I love many aspects of the U.S.,” he says, “but there are also characteristics and values that seem fundamentally different to my own.” For this reason, he thinks his green card status is entirely suitable for him. “I am at home here, but citizen status would feel inappropriate somehow.”

Like so many immigrants, John has carried a sense of guilt for being geographically distant from his parents. “In this respect, I will always wonder if I did the right thing in choosing to live on a different continent and sacrifice time I could have spent with them.” But, the upside has been forging his own path and making a true home in a foreign country. “I’ve met wonderful people along the way and I’ve experienced American life and culture from the inside,” he says. “I’ve visited more parts of the U.S. than I have of the U.K., enhancing my feeling of connection to my adopted home.” It’s small wonder that the thought of one day leaving is problematic for him.

Outside In: Pantea Tofangchi


Mount Damavand, a stratovolcano built up by many layers, is the highest peak in Iran and the Middle East, as well as the highest volcano in Asia. It is in the middle of the Alborz Range, which surrounds the mountainside city of Tehran, the beloved birthplace of Pantea Tofangchi.

fullsizeoutput_1579In Iranian mythology, literature, and folklore it is a very special place. This is how Pantea tells the story:

“When the bloody and long-lasting war between Iran and Turan came to an end, the rulers of both countries decided to make peace and to fix the boundary between their kingdoms. The defeated Iran was ordered to shoot an arrow towards Turan. Where the arrow landed was to mark the border between the two countries. An Iranian super hero, Arash, agreed to shoot the arrow from the peak of the Damavand; on the morning of Tir 13th (July 4th, ironic, right?) Arash climbed Mount Damavand and faced the direction of Turan lands, and pulled his bow. It is said the arrow travelled for days, and 2250 kilometers later it landed on the bank of the Oxus River in what is now Central Asia. The river remained the boundary between Iran and Turan for centuries. Arash’s body was never found. There are still stories from travelers who were lost on the mountain. They say that they heard Arash’s voice helping them finding their way.”

Pantea took this picture on the road few years back. Although she and her husband, a physician, have been in the U.S. 16 going 17 years, they still spend most of their vacation time in Iran with their family. This particular view is from Haraz Road, which travels through Tehran Province and Mazandaran Province, crosses the Alborz mountain range, and then descends northwards down the Haraz River Valley. That’s where a lot of Iranians spend their vacation time, by the beautiful Caspian Sea in the North of Iran.

So, for Pantea, this image means, “Root . . . and maybe hope, or perhaps that I still believe that Arash is out there watching over the mountain and over all the myth, literature, and every tangible thing that is lost in the era of technology, smart phones, and virtual communication.”

She believes it was fate that brought her to America: a combination of green card lottery . . . luck . . . work. When asked why they left Iran, her response is, “Why did we really?” Her husband wanted to get his medical specialty and sub-specialty from the States, and she followed him. “But,” she adds, “we also believed, and still believe, that there are more opportunities here in the U.S.”

The thing Pantea misses most about Iran is family. The most difficult part for her is that, “when I go back “home” I feel that I no longer belong, and when I come back “home” I still don’t “fit” no matter how many years pass!” She adds, “I have two countries but no home . . . that’s the saddest part.”

And yet, she says, the best part is not knowing. Pantea is a writer and a graphic designer. “I think not knowing makes me more creative!”

Outside In: Benn Edwards


When Benn Edwards came to America in 2002, he wasn’t planning on staying, just on gathering himself. He’d gone through a painful break-up, and felt he needed to start fresh with no baggage from the past. Fourteen years later, here he still is, and it has changed him in every way. “I was in my mid to late 20s when I arrived,” he says, “having really no responsibly for anyone, just myself and learning to master the art of making Ramen noodles with everything.” Now, he is married, with a house, and green card.


Benn comes from Wells in Somerset, England. For him, this image means, “this is where I am from, the history of my family, and the magic it holds for me.” He misses walking on the vast history everyday, seeing the American tourists in shock overviewing the ancient lands. “That keeps you from taking it for granted,” he says.

The reason that Benn landed up in Baltimore is that his sister has been living in the U.S. for some time, and she happened to live in the city. As their parents get older, that means more responsibly for the whole family unit, and that’s another thing that has changed him. The most difficult part of it all, he says, “is being away from friends and family in times of sadness and happiness, remotely viewing from my social media sites.”

Since he came to America, Benn has been working for BMW as a client advisor, and he says the best part of being here would be the financial aspects of this country. “It has provided me a lot more than I probably could have in the U.K.” Meanwhile, one of the strangest parts of being here has to be that we have to drive everywhere. “Back home,” he says, “you tend to walk a lot more to get to places.”

And that phrase “back home” brings up the question of where home is for Benn. “Home will always be Britain,” he says, “but my house is in Baltimore.” That part of it seems quite clear-cut for him, but he feels a bit conflicted about his green card status. “I know at this point I should get my citizenship for the U.S. But, I may feel I’m letting go of my Heritage … even though I can have duel citizenship. There’s a part that feels like I’m turning my back on my country.” It’s the eternal immigrant dilemma.

Outside In: Kristine Smets


Kalmthoutse Duinen 38-38a
Kalmthoutse Duinen

Kristine Smets is a self-employed genealogist, historian, and bibliographer from Kalmthout, a town north of Antwerp in the Flanders region of Belgium, and this image is of the well-known nature park in that area. Kristine says, “Every time I go back home I am again stunned at how beautiful this park is. And how I took it somewhat for granted growing up.” This is one of a series of “raw and unspoiled” images by her father from the 1950s, when taking photographs was a real luxury. “When I look at these slides I feel the same nostalgia I have for the town and family I left behind.”

Even though she knows she no longer belongs in Kalmthout, Kristine says it still feels like home to her, and she hopes to spend more time there in the coming years – perhaps even own a place to live there again part of the year. When she first left Belgium, she didn’t really think she was leaving anything behind. “I was 24, and assumed all would stay the same there forever,” she says. Of course, that’s not what happened. She comes from a large family, and missed a lot of celebrations. She’s also lost several people who were very dear to her. “My oldest sister passed away 16 years ago. And while I had wonderful times with her while I was still in Belgium, I regret not being more with her those 13 years.”

Kristine left Belgium originally because she didn’t really know where she was going with her life. She was in Leuven, finishing her college education, trying to make ends meet by working a variety of jobs. Through those jobs she’d met a number of foreign exchange students, many of them Americans, who were having a grand time with their experience abroad, something she’d always wanted to do. “Then I met an American professor who encouraged me to apply for graduate school in the United States.” She applied to three schools, was accepted at all three, and picked Kent State University in Ohio. “The prospect of going abroad provided focus to my life, which I desperately needed,” she says, adding, “I am not sure what would have happened otherwise.”

The first three years in Ohio were difficult. The average student there was not at all like the American students Kristine had met in Belgium. There were no Starbucks, Whole Foods, artisanal bakeries, farmers’ markets, or independent breweries in Ohio in 1987. The only restaurants she knew of and could afford served fast food. She started baking her own bread. Her parents would send her coffee. Quite simply, “Kent, Ohio, was not Leuven, Belgium.” Still, she did her best to like the experience, and she was too proud to go home. “I actually never really considered going home,” she says. With masters degrees in history and library science in hand, Kristine could get a visa that allowed her to work as a librarian in the U.S. for six years, and she found a job in Chicago, on the South side, near the University, where she met her future husband. When he was offered a post-doctoral position at Johns Hopkins University, they moved to Baltimore, a city that grew on them. “We love it here,” she says.

It wasn’t until Barack Obama became President that Kristine seriously considered taking American citizenship – perhaps the shared experience of Chicago’s South Side had something to do with it! – and she became a naturalized U.S. citizen on January 7, 2011. “I do love many things about this country,” she says. “Not the least that it gave me the opportunity to come here to study and work. But I don’t feel ‘American’ deep down in my bones, the way I feel ‘Belgian.’ I am not sure that will ever happen.” Even so, Kristine believes that immigrating has opened up her view of the world, brought her new perspectives. “It has made me a much better person. That would never have happened had I stayed in Belgium. Perhaps that has been the absolute best part of going abroad.”


When Christine was still living in Chicago she went to an Ed Miller concert, and she found that one of his songs summed up exactly the beauty of her own immigrant experience. You can listen to it here: At Home With the Exiles.

Outside In: Alan Marcus

outside-inAlan Marcus is a professor of geography at Maryland’s Towson University. He was born in Rio de Janeiro to an English father and a Brazilian-born mother, who was of English and Egyptian parentage. With this background, it’s not surprising that Alan developed an abiding interest in transnationalism, and he coined the word “autobiogeographies” to describe personal stories about place in answer questions like How did you end up here? and Where is home? He explores these themes in his latest book, Transnational Geographers in the United States: Navigating Autobiogeographies in a Global Age.


Alan snapped this photograph on his cell phone in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point. The turquoise blue building is the Cat’s Eye Pub on Thames Street, where he plays in a band from time to time. He used the image on the cover of the book and, for him, it’s symbolic on many levels. “I thought of the different colors and houses,” he says, “and the navigational theme is present – which all reflect the concept of trajectories, travel, movement, and the question of ‘where is home?’”

For him, now, the simple answer to that question is, “Baltimore” although, like for so many transnationals, the trajectory that led him “home” was far from simple. The most difficult part was, “perhaps the initial search for a true sense of place rooted in the moment, the present, and not exclusively in the past.” He left Brazil, as he says, “to find out if there was something wrong with me or with Brazil.” He never returned to live in South America, so it seems he found his answer. Via New York, London, the Golan Heights, Cairo, Scotland, and Massachusetts, he made his way to Baltimore eight years ago.

Many immigrant stories are full of tortured duality. Alan’s, it seems, is not. He has no qualms that he wants to be in Baltimore, and is very happy to be a United States citizen. “I have learned to appreciate the concept of new cultural and physical landscapes,” he says, “and particularly experiencing new emotional landscapes.” The geographer’s metaphor is crystal clear.