Saturday, 4 August 2012

I was born, lucky me, in a land that I love

I've been looking over my first ever post, Where are you going, where have you been? and am struck by the fact that my feelings from then and now are so similar. (And that I didn't actually know what "liberal arts" means, but I pledged not to edit anything retrospectively.) You would think that with everything that's happened to me over the last two years, I would be a different person entirely. Or at the very least, that I would view my old words as naive - but I don't. Back in 2010, I was sad to say goodbye and worrying about how to handle depression abroad, but I was also very excited. It's pretty much how I feel now. The only big difference is that I have a greater understanding of my own weaknesses, and how these can be challenged in such a situation.

If ever I talk to people who haven't studied/lived abroad about the difficulties I experienced, a common reaction is that my expectations must have been too high, or that I made the wrong choices. By contrast, when I talk to those who have been abroad, even if their experience was 100x better than mine, they usually nod their heads and say, "That's how it goes sometimes." Don't get me wrong, there is a lot that I could have done better. This time around, I do want to be more assertive, more forgiving, more aware of how I'm feeling and what I can do about it. I understand my strengths a lot more now, too. But I also know that for any year in your life, regardless of setting, you can't be expected to control every single thing. Quite simply: shit happens. It might be that it takes me awhile to make friends, or to get into the swing of classes, or to adjust to the new climate. It might be that something goes horribly wrong. But no amount of preparation and/or panic is going to change that possibility, so I might as well focus on the excitement. My enthusiasm for my year abroad was certainly not what made it difficult; if anything, it was the reason I was able to keep going.

Obviously, the major difference between then and now is the fact that I'm leaving for two years, not one. It's also a more transient time than when I left before. The lives of my friends and family are going to change so much between now and May 2014. They'll be pursuing careers, moving houses, travelling the world, getting engaged. It would be an entirely different world for me to come back to. I've had to say a more permanent goodbye to the life that I knew, both in Norwich and St Albans. Strangely enough, that is easier. I don't have the burden of coming home and trying to fit back in again a year later, pushing aside these experiences that no one else witnessed. It's easier to believe I can make Oxford my new home in a way that I couldn't with Chapel Hill. I expect I will still feel lost at first. When you move elsewhere, sometimes you have to accept certain sacrifices. For me, it's some of my hobbies, such as fashion and cooking. In Mississippi, I can't live with one eye on the high street at all times, collecting limited edition clothing*, nor can I comfortably peruse Sainsbury's to make my usual dishes. I will have to adapt, and accept I can't always get hold of Quorn or creme fraiche. These are little things, but I'm sure they will sometimes make me sigh. I'm not sure it's possible to ever feel as comfortable in a foreign country as the place where you grew up.

*I'm a proud owner of a Queen's Guard crop top, a Jubilee-themed Topshop item. It's a real wonder that I actually resisted the Corgi-patterned bags.

When my visa-approved passport was returned to me last week, my nana was surprised to see that I don't have an Irish passport. It would never occur to me to get one, since I have never lived in Ireland and my dad's side is predominantly English. She asked, "But do you feel Irish?" I thought about this for a moment before replying, "I do on St. Patrick's Day." It does go a little deeper than that. I love visiting Ireland, and knowing that people I love grew up there, saw these places every day. I have a lot of childhood memories that tie me to the country, even little things like the food I begged for and the music I heard there. I wear a Claddagh ring, a gift from my nana. I thought seriously about applying to Trinity College. Yet to be honest, my relationship with Ireland is almost no different to my relationship with the South. I love Southern food, Southern literature, Southern music. I feel like I have an understanding of the culture without being truly part of it. It's somewhere I would be excited to live. There's no rhyme or reason to me attaching myself to it in such a way, it just happened.

What does it means to "come from" a country or town - is it your heritage, where you lived as a child, where you move to as an adult? I've been meditating on this a lot recently, perhaps due to the number of patriotic events this year. Some people are dismissive of the idea that one can be proud to be from somewhere, as it's really only an accident of birth. Other people hold tightly to their nationality, whether it's somewhere they can barely remember or where they grew up all along. The other day I met up with Tash, who was the first friend I made at UEA. Whilst I grew up only a short train ride from London, Tash grew up 5 hours away, in Devon. We walked along the Thames, thronged by Olympics tourists, and both felt that in some way, this capital was truly ours and something to be proud of. I'm not going all Colonialist on you - I offer no intelligent comments on Britain's history, and I don't view my birthplace as an achievement of some kind. But I am grateful for the way my country shaped me. As the Olympics opening ceremony demonstrated, Britain is a country that values art, humour and compassion. Who I am now, as a person and as a writer, is largely the result of that.

For instance, I would probably not have encountered the same television and writing. Many people know how much I admire Michael Palin. I'm a huge fan of Monty Python, and he was always my favourite. I used to rewind the Biggus Dickus scene of Life of Brian. I love his travel shows and his books. Now, everyone and their parrot just likes to discuss how Palin is so "nice", which is actually not why I am drawn to his work. Obviously, he is a talented writer and actor, and his journeys fuelled my own interest in travel. But mainly it is the fact that he appears to be someone who is comfortable with the fact that life does not have hard and fast answers. He doesn't aim to conclude, and he lives his life with empathy. (I shudder when I say "empathy" now, thanks to my dissertation!) When I read his work or his interviews, I feel a sense of peace, even if my life is currently all over the place. Last week, I read an interview with him in the Independent. He made a comment about John Cleese which resonated with me:
"I think he set himself a very high standard of achievement and possibly feels he never quite attained it. He's always moving: first to New York, then to California, now Monaco. Where next? I always wanted to say to him: 'John, you're so talented. You have a lovely wife and kids; just relax.' But there was always something more that he wanted, to a point that was almost destructive."
"Just relax" is my new mantra. I worry so much. Every day I wake up asking myself if I'm good enough, in my relationships and in my pursuits. If I may say so, I have inherited the British tradition of apologising for everything, which means it's hard to congratulate yourself. Being awarded a scholarship is one of the biggest things that's ever happened to me. You would think that I spent every day since January being overjoyed, proud of myself, successful. But I've been taught modesty all my life, and sometimes that drifts accidentally into self-consciousness. In some ways it's easier to process failure than it is to know what to do with success. I think it's how most people would feel, actually. My inclination to deconstruct and understand is in many ways a good quality, but sometimes it does need to be ignored and replaced swiftly with a "just relax."

I was caught on camera the other day as I was considering all of this. I have no idea what it was for, but I was amused that the footage, shot so randomly, would be rather poignant to me. I had taken the familiar train journey from St Albans to Kings Cross-St Pancras, and sat down outside the station. I was dressed in Topshop and Miss Selfridge, my iPod in and playing the Kinks. As I waited for Tash's train to arrive from Norwich, I continued reading Faulkner's The Wild Palms. At some point I paused, thinking about the upcoming move, my tendency to agonise, and how I should "just relax". I glanced up, squinting into the sunlight, and noticed the camera pointed right at me. The person holding it couldn't possibly have known, but what they recorded was a moment which connected me to all the places I've lived, the person I've been in all of them, and the place and person I'm now going towards.

I also like to express myself with cake.