Jenny Lind Schmitt

Lifestyle Design

Belonging vs. Fitting In

What makes someone Belong, even if they don't Fit In?

Posted Dec 14, 2010

Since July we've been living in this little Swiss village of 1,400 people. The kids have been at the local school since mid-August. With their American accents and American mom and broken French and weird lack of knowledge of pop culture in any language, ("Yes, we're from Seattle but we don't watch Grey's Anatomy", "No, we don't really listen to much Lady Gaga") they were bound to not fit in.

That was to be expected and I'm okay with that and we prepared them for it, as much as one can. Still it's hard, especially in a culture where unabashed staring isn't considered rude. They are kids and in a small school in a small village, being the new kid who sticks out is not easy.

It makes me reflect upon the whole idea of fitting in and belonging. Down the street lives a woman whom I'll call Madame Cardozo. She is retired from teaching school after forty years, but she still keeps track of the children in the village and usually has a piece of chocolate to hand out. On the side of her house is painted a huge rainbow and a dove, a fitting background for the myriad of garden gnomes hiding in the grass. As far as I can gather, she spends her days doing errands for older folks or assisting at the group home for the disabled. Last week when the mamas waited out in the cold rainy afternoon to pick up preschoolers, there passed Madame on her faithful bicycle, covered from head to toe in a yellow bicycling raindress get-up, waving at all of us, as cheery as the day is long.

A few years ago, before we had met officially Madame, she appeared at our side after church one Sunday, exclaiming loudly what good children they had been during the service and presenting each with a cold, heavy five franc piece. Imagine the reaction of our kids when they heard that we were moving just down the street from the "lady who gave us money at church!"

She is what in English we would name ‘a character' and in French they call ‘original.' The point is that Madame Cardozo does not really ‘fit in' in this staid, conservative village, but she does belong. Everyone knows her and as far as I can tell has a fond spot for her --even including the bit of an eye roll from one mom when we went trick-or-treating and the kids were all invited in for an impromptu snack and catechism lesson. It would not be as nice a village without her.

Then there was this guy in Sardinia. We went to visit our friends, and each day as we drove out to the beach, we passed through a small village where a middle aged man stood alone on a corner hailing passing cars with a straight armed Mussolini-ish salute. My friend Paolo calls him The Greeter. Paolo doesn't know his story, but suspects the man has a mental disability and now this is ‘his job.' He obviously takes it seriously. He was out there in all kinds of weather, greeting each car from either direction all day, except during the long Italian lunch break.

He, too, doesn't fit in, but he belongs. Whether The Greeter is supported by his family or the village, it is a nice, if quirky thought, that they gave him this position where his presence or absence matters. Or maybe he gave it to himself. At any rate, if I ever get to visit Sardinia again, I will look for him when I pass that corner. If The Greeter isn't there, I will feel the loss.

I suppose it is a matter of time. After awhile, if we look at it long enough, even the strangest thing just becomes part of the wallpaper. Eventually, people must get over the curiosity that an unusual person provides and accept that they are now part of the fabric of their place and their lives. The difference is how long that might take. In some American cities, it might take only a week before the people around you accept that you belong. Other places, I realize, it can take years until a newcomer ‘belongs,' even if they never ‘fit in'. I am a little concerned we may be in one of the latter.

So I wonder, Will my kids ever feel that they belong? Will our one year experiment be long enough? Is this a place where they even want to belong?

While ‘fitting in' has never been high on my priorities (I rather hope I end up like Madame Cardozo,) I would like them to gain a feeling of belonging here. After all, this is the village where their father grew up. On their Swiss passports, it states that this is their village of origin. Supposedly they are from here.

Time will tell. And in the meantime, it's not a bad thing to ponder what makes anyone belong anywhere.