Multi-locality, a new reality

A growing number of Europeans enjoy parallel lives - living in Prague and working in Paris or living in Vienna while having a girlfriend in Stockholm. Known as having “multiple habitats,” the phenomenon has piqued the interest of sociologists.

Published on 17 December 2010 at 11:24

Sitting in a café in a Prague theatre at the end of a play, Andrea Sedláčková is chatting with friends from work. It isn’t yet midnight but she has to leave because, tomorrow she must be at her office at 10am – in Paris.

This Czech film director emigrated in 1989. In France she works as a film editor. In Prague, she has her parents, her friends, memories and she directs films. “There are two parts to my life,” she explained, “if I had to choose just one, I would be split in half.” But this type of life style requires two of everything – two beds, two phones, two wallets and so on.

Living in two places at once has a cost – in time, money and energy. Yet, a growing number of people are leading these types of lives because, despite the constraints, they offer some clear advantages. With the planet becoming a smaller and smaller global village, opting for this life style is becoming easier.

On the weekend we were like a model family

Sociologist Knut Petzold is well acquainted with the subject. He lives in Leipzig but did his studies in Chemnitz while his girlfriend lived and studied in Stuttgart. Every month, he travelled several thousand kilometres. Despite all the back and forth he managed to finish his studies in sociology, specialising in “multi-localities”. This isn’t a new phenomenon but it has grown in recent years. “It’s always existed,” Petzold said, “farmers, for example, went to look for work in the city during the winter. The difference today is the parallel aspect of the two lives”.

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Aleš Chmelař is from Brno. He’s only 23 but for the past 10 years, he’s been, more or less, experiencing “multi-localities”. When he was a teenager, his father worked in Katowice, Poland and came home only on the weekends. “It wasn’t that bad, in fact,” he explained, “on the weekend we were like a model family while the rest of the week the rules were a little looser. That way there was never any tension around the house, the times we spent together were cherished”.

The scarcity of these moments together and the impatience for them to happen again are among the most often touted advantages of this type of family life which straddles two faraway places. It didn’t take Aleš Chmelař very long to adopt this life style for himself. Once his secondary education finished, he went to study political science in Dijon, France for two years. He would return to the Czech Republic to see his family and his girlfriend. When they split up, he found a new girlfriend in France. She was Bulgarian. He went to Vienna for the following academic year while his girlfriend moved to Stockholm. This year they are both once again in the same city. They live in London.

If people don’t identify with a place, they won’t commit to it

“People actually live in two different places at the same time because travel has become easier,” Knut Petzold explained. There is also a growing number of what could be called “travel jobs”. These concern academics, businesspeople or employees of multinational companies sent off to do a specific job in various parts of the world.

There are any number of situations which are accepted differently depending on the person involved. “Some see this as a privileged life style while others suffer from it,” said Knut Petzold. He conducted a survey of older Germans who travel from former East Germany to work in the West. “They see their lives as not normal, as a problem,” he said, while “the younger generations are better equipped to handle this type of life style.” Information on the phenomenon remains scarce for the moment. That’s why Petzold is gathering data through an Internet questionnaire

This issue raises another question: what are the consequences for the city in which people live only part-time? If people have no fixed home, they are not included in budget calculations even if they use the infrastructure. But there is an even more serious outcome, Petzold explained. “If people don’t identify with a place, they won’t commit to it,” he said and will be disinclined, for example, to run for local office, to demonstrate or to make a financial contribution to repair a church.

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