September 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I went travelling for months with only a backpack, something happened to the concept of home. It became an “other” place, far away, immediately nostalgia-wrapped. It was unattainable.
I was homesick. For the first weeks, desperately. In a bleak, high Thai hotel room, I lay awake through the night staring at the ceiling fan, my shocked body gathered around what felt like a huge empty space. I didn’t know how I’d get through it.
The way I, like, perhaps many other 18-year-old backpackers, got through was by obliterating the need for home. After a few months, I marvelled at how I had ever filled a whole room with stuff. What was it? What did I use it for? Would I ever want to own things again?
Yes, I would. I do. Home is important. Maybe that’s what holidays are for.
In August I travelled by train from London to Paris and from Paris to Berlin. The second part was a sleeper service, a cabin just for me and my partner, where we drank a celebratory beer and ate pistachio nuts. There was a foldable table, on which we laid out a picnic bought in a cramped French supermarket during our hour in Paris. Olives, sausage, goats’ cheese, butter, bad baguette, red wine.
We fell asleep. Mine was relatively sound – perhaps I’m used to trains. His was disturbed. A long train journey through Germany, through the night, is a reminder of past journeys, taken by others.
The cabin was dark and close.
It was long after midnight, but someone was banging on the door, and shouting. We struggled up, confused about where we were, needing to find clothes in the dark. They didn’t want to wait, they banged and shouted – the words, to German-less us, incomprehensible. It was probably the border, we would need passports, perhaps. We opened the door. A black-clothed policeman saw us and immediately apologised. I’m sorry, he said in English, go back to bed.
Travelling, other spaces become proxy homes. It wasn’t hard to imagine, trying to fall back asleep, what it would be like to be woken at home, forced to open the door.
The next night we spent in a tent, inside another tent. The two after than in a Berlin flat. Then there was a night in Milan, in the room left behind by a grown-up daughter, we guessed.
Then for seven nights we had a home again, though we had to seal the space against mosquitoes and chase wasps away from the window, where they would sleep in clusters each night in the warm space between glass and shutters. Those shutters opened out onto a view of Lake Trasimeno and the mountains on its southern shore. It looks like a painting, I kept saying, forgetting each time about how paintings and landscape made each other.
We left, reluctant but excited because the next stop was Rome.
And yet. In this, our last resting place, I couldn’t relax. The apartment, bang in the centre of the city, was loud with the echoing talk of a restaurant below and pungent with the scent of cat. The cats were grey and friendly, the restaurant benevolent. But the nights were too hot, the streets too crowded with tourists and empty of Romans (it was August, they had escaped).
I love Rome. But the Colosseum was bundled in scaffolding, the road that runs past it dug up and closed. The Trevi Fountain, somewhat monstrous at the best of times, was stifled in plastic and dry and yet, still, a trickle of tourists passed by on a specially-constructed walkway to take photos of it.
Morons, we thought. Yet we were tourists too.
Or maybe the problem wasn’t the city’s endless, in-your-face beauty, or the too-friendly waiters, or the warmth. I once thought that that backpacking trip, all those years ago, broke something which wouldn’t knit again. But maybe, weirdly, I was homesick.
We got back to London Heathrow after dark had fallen, caught the Tube to Finsbury Park. London’s faces, lined up in Tube carriages, are diverse like the faces of almost no other place. Its fashions are wild and various. Tube travellers read, listen to music, sunk in their own full worlds.
From the station, the 254 bus, which stops close to the end of our road, and runs bafflingly often. Outside the house, the sunflower grown from a seed had bloomed.*
While we were away, black mold had grown in the bathroom, but otherwise there were no disasters. We’d cleaned before leaving and the house had its particular home smell, which isn’t describable but contains the smell of rushes, and perhaps candlewax, something like rice and clean washing.
The sheets were cool, clean. Due to a piece of planning brilliance, only just coming into its own, the bank holiday weekend was all before us. We left in order to return.
*Today I came home to find that the sunflower had been killed, its flower cut off and its stem snapped. But it was splendid while it lasted.