liminal_space

Is it France or Switzerland?


 

At the foot of the Jura mountains, not far from the suburb of Geneva where I live, is a lonely road I like to cycle in the mornings for exercise. It’s not mountainous, but the route climbs several sizable hills that get my heart pumping. Cattle graze lush fields as their bells clank in harmony. I ride through forests full of fragrant pines and birch that turn a rusty gold in the autumn. The views to the south open out to Lac Leman, and beyond, the needle-sharp summits of the Alps. Above it all looms the vanilla ice cream cone of Europe’s highest peak, the Mont Blanc. Often, I don’t see another person for most of the ride.

What I love about this loop is that at a certain point I cross the border between Switzerland and France. It’s not well marked, and so often I exist in a kind of geographical limbo, not sure which country I’m pedaling through at a given moment.

There’s a term popular in anthropology and sociology that applies to this experience: liminal. It’s an in-between space, a period of change where you’re not what you once were but not quite what you’re going to be. Anthropologists have used it to describe the moment in coming-of-age ceremonies (Confirmation, Bar or Bat Mitzvah) or at weddings when things are indistinct, in transition.

In the current decade, the phrase has come to take on a more complicated meaning, whether it’s describing people whose lives are in transition (say regarding work or living space) or to refer to people who feel “in-between” various cultural labels, whether they be gender, race, or nationality.

In a great article, At Home in the Liminal World in Nautilus, Pamela Weintraub explains how the concept of the liminal is becoming increasingly prevalent in our globally-interconnected world. A new group of people are emerging who comfortably exist in a state of transition. Some are global nomads who spend half the year teaching English in Hanoi and the rest of the year traveling Southeast Asia. Others have never left their home country, but work as freelancers with no set place of employment, and must navigate constantly shifting business cultures. As Weintraub observes:

In recent years, anthropologists have spotlighted a new generation at “home in the diaspora,” in Behar’s words. For them the liminal is not life’s interlude, but life itself. While being uprooted results in lost jobs, broken relationships, and, as cultural anthropologist Anthony D’Andrea says, “displaced minds,” scientists are finding benefits to life in the liminal lane. The more time we spend in alien realms, they say, the more likely we are to perceive the world in ways we could never otherwise imagine, evoking a perfect backdrop for fevered creative work, learning, and personal growth. “When you thrust yourself out of your usual context,” Behar says, “you find out who you are.”

I’ve lived overseas now for six years, first in Vietnam, and now in Switzerland. My daughters are definitely third culture kids who barely remember what it’s like to live in the U.S., and now speak fluent French, debate which variety of pho noodle soup is best, and keep connected with a network of friends across the globe. We’ve been living in a metaphorical liminal zone for some time, and soon we’ll be approaching the transition back to the U.S. That should provide plenty of challenges and the excitement of uncertainty.

One of the things I love about my liminal bike route at the foot of the Jura is that the border is ignored. Not long ago, I did discover two little stone markers overgrown with grass, so now it’s a little less “in between” when I ride.  And in the wake of recent terrorist attacks, there’s talk of eliminating open borders in Europe’s Schengen area. I suppose that might be necessary for safety’s sake. But I like to imagine a day without enforced borders anywhere, when we’re all comfortable cycling through liminal space.