It Is More Than Just Place
I feel like I’ve used the word ‘homesick’ more times in the last five weeks than I have in my whole life. I’m excited to expand my vocabulary again, but there is one final question I wanted to ask you before I do: Have you ever been homesick for a place that no longer exists?
The First Train
Familiar streets lined with brick houses lazily rolled past my window. I saw the same woman walking the same dog along that same field as I had seen dozens of times before. I caught a glimpse of the cathedral, a black silhouette against the grey British sky. The train slowed, then stopped. I stepped off the train at Durham Station. And for the first time in three years, I wasn’t coming home.
When you decide to travel, there are some inherent risks you are signing on for. You may lose your luggage, you’ll probably get lost at some point, and it’s very likely you’ll feel homesick. Things that are familiar feel safe. It’s no surprise that running off into the great beyond will not be sunshine and daisies all the time. I knew I would miss my home when I left to live in the UK, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
I was going back to Durham for a reunion of sorts. Every year there is a formal dinner where the colleges invite graduates back to their old stomping grounds. Since I was living only a few hours away in Edinburgh, a few friends and I decided to meet up and go to the dinner together. We got dressed up, had a good meal, met some new people, and danced the night away in our favorite bars. We were back and it felt good. Everything about our little city felt familiar and safe and the same.
As the train pulled out of the tiny station the next day, it felt like I was leaving my home all over again. Edinburgh was lovely, but it was still new. It wasn’t Durham.
The Second Train
A few months later, I had the chance to return for another university tradition: College Day. At this point I had warmed to my new city somewhat, but I was excited to get back to my British home turf. Dozens of graduates from my year were gathered to day drink and reminisce. It reminded me of the old days, but every now and then I noticed something was off – a person who couldn’t make it, a new drink in the college bar, a different student president giving a toast.
As I sat on the lawn watching dozens of first year students I didn’t know chatting and strutting in their best red chinos, I felt a little sad. But only a little. There was a ferris wheel, so I couldn’t stay all somber and pensive for long.
That evening, as I walked back to my friend’s house where I was staying, I realized one of my favourite cafes, Cotton’s, was empty, the sign gone. I wandered through the bus station and along the Viaduct into my old neighborhood. My pace naturally slowed as I came upon the house where I had lived for two years. My friend’s neon pink garden gnome no longer sat on the windowsill. There was only a stack of books. My eyes lingered on the door as I continued down the street.
I realized that my Durham was gone. It didn’t hit me like some great epiphany. It was more of a defeated sigh and a ‘yeah, I knew something was up’. The place was physically the same, but most of the people that had made it feel like home were spread out across the globe. I felt homesick. Even worse, I felt homesick for a place that no longer existed. No plane or train or car could get me back to where I wanted to go.
Sitting on the train north the next day, I felt less like I was leaving home and more like I was drifting in a vast British sea with no anchor at all.
The Third Train
During the summer, I decided that I needed to visit Durham one last time before I left for the US. I didn’t want to end on the weird emotional note of my previous trip. This time it was just me. No former classmates were going to meet me in town. There was no big event or fancy dinner. There was no plan.
I met up with my rugby friends and had tea at the new cafe that had opened in Cotton’s place. I walked past the market square where the vendors were set up with their chocolates and fruit and secondhand clothes. The scaffolding that had surrounded one of the statues for ages was finally gone. I walked the cobblestone streets as I had done countless times, and I didn’t recognise a single face.
But I wasn’t as sad. I had finally hit my stride in my new city. It could never replace what I had left behind, but different isn’t bad. I still miss my Durham to this day, but I know that there are plenty of other places out there waiting to be discovered. As I boarded that last train to head back to Edinburgh, for the first time it felt like I was going home.
To close out this series, I would like to amend the definition given by the Oxford English dictionary that I quoted back in my first post.
Home· sick /’hōmˌsik/ adjective
- Experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.
- Experiencing a longing for a place of emotional significance, even if that place no longer exists.