Saturday, 12 July 2014

homeward bound?

In the last two weeks I have lazed around in the glen studying Japanese, walking, pampering the pussy cats and watching movies. I spent a couple of days in Edinburgh, found a flat, had a nice visitor, tardily packed my backpack for Japan and Vietnam and headed south on a long full day road trip, not knowing whether I would ever return to my home in the glen. Setting off at 3am on the 7th July my dad and I took a whirlwind tour of Britain, from the highlands to St Ives in Cornwall via Edinburgh airport, the Scottish borders, Newcastle, Lindisfarne, the angel of the north, Sherwood forest, Cambridge, Stonehenge, Exeter and Glastonbury tor. En route we also saw a surreal apocalyptic scene, fireballs coming out from the clouds in Cambridgeshire and smoking as they came closer to the earth. We arrived at our final destination at about 7pm, making this a tiring 17 hour drive.. Unfortunately on this trip I will have no time to visit my birth place, Bath, though this is potentially something I will do at the end of August.

Months ago upon arriving in Milan I quoted Nelson Mandela. This wasn't because I wanted to be pretentious, but rather it rather fitted the moment...

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered."

Never has this quote been more applicable than now. The last time I was here (in St Ives) was in March 2010 when I received a conditional offer from Edinburgh University. I have not been in England for over four years, aside from my brief time spent waiting at Gatwick airport back in January, earlier this year. I made a similar trip from South to North.

St.Ives, Cornwall

cat asleep in food bowl

There are two main factors influencing my relatively unique and slightly more objective fresh perspective. Firstly, despite having lived in Devon, Dorset and Somerset for most of my life I no longer see the west country as a place in which I am stuck. Secondly, having been out of the country for so long I have forgiven some of the country's faults and can compare it with other countries in which I have lived, so have been able to find more of the country's qualities.

Immediate observable differences between Scotland and England: down south it is definitely warmer, the accent is different and the stone used for building is much nicer. Arriving in Cambridgeshire I was reminded how attractive English houses can be; the cottages are far more colourful and the prevalence of thatched roofs makes a welcome change to the grey slates and pebble dash used in far too many Scottish towns. Moving south the accents changed dramatically, though admittedly I am far more familiar still with southern variants. The west country has always been recognised for its mild climate thanks to the gulf stream of Mexico; this is evidenced by the fact that palm trees are common place, shoals of dolphins grace this coastline and in winter there is hardly ever any snow. As a child this was something that greatly irritated me, though Scotland has readdressed the balance by offering snowy winters and summers which feel more like autumn.

After living in France and Italy for a bit and travelling a lot I must also emphasise that I do not agree with the European stereotype that the English are always cold and snooty; only in the UK will you see passengers thanking bus drivers. Our etiquette may appear fussy but I think that it is generally very useful in protecting people from non-constructive criticism and uncomfortable situations. I also appreciate more than ever the great variety of international cuisines which are available both in terms of dining out and ethnic food aisles in supermarkets. Here it is easy to sample Japanese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, American, Mexican, French, Italian, Polish, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Spanish cuisines. The British could do with a bit of European moderation and exercise though, testament in the most recent statistics regarding British obesity... It would also be nice to see a change in attitude towards Europe amongst the many Euro-skeptics in this country. Nowhere is perfect, clearly, but one can pull out the qualities and flaws of a society more easily after living there and then stepping back and experiencing something else.

So I stayed in a static caravan for the last few days in Hayle, a coastal town around the corner from St Ives. This is really a quintessentially English holiday destination. In the “resort” there is a fish and chip shop, a swimming pool (which I made use of), a cringe-worthy club, and there is the possibility to hire a surf or body board. We were minutes from a great big white and sandy beach and a pub with a beer garden (another thing I missed in Scotland). These beer gardens are very common in south England and are usually very family friendly. We visited St Ives, walked from St Ives to Zenner along the National Trust coastal path, saw wild seals and dolphins, drank cider, tea and ate a Cornish pasty. In a way it was a bit of a shock to find myself in this part of the country again; the smells, sights, accents and tastes were familiar but at the same time now a little exotic. I can see the appeal in the rolling green hills and thorny hedgerows which once symbolized conservationism and oppression in my mind.

Campsite in Hayle

Walk from St.Ives to Zennor

Cornish pasty (wholemeal with mixed veg)

Yesterday I had lunch in Exeter before spending the evening with family and friends in Lyme Regis, the town where I spent most of my time growing up. It was prettier and less hostile than I remembered it, the weather was fantastic (sunny, warm and wind-free). Being in these places again was pretty strange... Even though I can't see myself living in such a rural and touristic area again for a prolonged period, I see the allure of the Celtic mythology and idyllic country landscape. The west country is without a doubt one of the prettiest and culturally rich parts of the United Kingdom.

I am curious about what London will stir inside of me. London is still a place where I can imagine living one day, be it for postgraduate studies or work. Even though I often felt slightly caged in Lyme Regis, I always saw London as a gateway to the world, a cultural melting pot in which you can travel the globe in tastes, languages, museums and architecture.

I have come to realize that I don't feel a great degree of affinity towards Britain or the UK as a whole.. Home for me is a familiar place characterized by memories and warm feelings. A nation really is just an attempt to find commonalities between many tribes and create a super imagined tribe, a political tool of some sort. I do however feel my roots strongly in certain places which have shaped me, and see similarities and familiarity in nearby places, a gradient which fades with geographical distance. A common language also helps break down these arbitrary frontiers. One can indeed notice a great European common identity when in a culturally and geographically very distant place such as India or China, and people with relatively similar cultures unite when in an apparently alien environment. Home for me is where you lay down some great memories and meet some great people.

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