The start of yet another grey, rainy, winter in Holland and I am starting to realise that it still feels very strange to be back here.
Even though it’s almost a month since my return, this place feels very unfamiliar to me at times. Sometimes travel does that to you I guess? Makes home seem a little less familiar with every return.
You come back a little altered. The biggest cliche of them all, I know.
And yet, for all that, it’s these changes and the sheer smallness of them that matter. Minor, imperceptible changes that only manifest themselves later, in surprising ways.
Like forgetting a word. Something that simple. Something that commonplace.
I stumbled the other day on the phone. The word I was seeking wouldn’t come to me. I searched for it and in the end, being unable to find it, used the English word instead.
But why should this be a notable incident? After all, this is not my country. Dutch is not my language. I can forget a word occassionally and be forgiven. So why the fuss now then?
I think it’s to do with being foreign. Being a visitor is some other man’s land. Not belonging. Not really. Learning the language is really just a comforting illusion. A way of convincing yourself that you can wander round a country and blend in, not be noticed. Not be singled out as “the foreigner”, “the stranger”.
Until you slip. And a word suddenly becomes elusive. A hint of accent creeps in without you noticing. Small mistakes that suddenly reveal the truth about who you really are. That suddenly provoke in people a quizzical and surprised look, a look of realisation.
“You’re not from here.”
“No. No I’m not …”
That was the word that did it.
I was cancelling a subscription. Was explaining to the woman on the other end of the line that I wanted to stop a direct debit.
But the word wouldn’t come. Subscription. That was what I needed. What was the Dutch for subscription?
The line went dead. Silence. My brain was furtive, anxious even. But nothing came. The anxiety, the disbelief that I could lose such a simple, banal word crowding out my ability to run the search, to call up the answer.
So I used subscription, reverted to the English. A pause at the other end of the line as the word is registered and the implications of it revealed.
The operator reverting to English once the truth was known.
I put the phone down and stared out the window.
That was what I was looking for. That was the word.
Why did it come to me now? Now that I had no more use for it?
And I wondered if it had something to do with somehow caring less. In the sense that the same desire I once had to belong, to fit it, to disguise myself and merge with this country, has somehow lessened.
I no longer felt the same urge to belong in quite the same way. Somewhere along the line I have decided that it’s okay not to belong. That foreigness, strangeness is perhaps not so bad. That assimilation is really, deep down, an impossible quest.
So the mask fell away. The illusion of blending in that language had once afforded me, suddeny revealed itself as nothing more than that. A self-deception. My own version of tilting at windmills.
Like I say. You come back altered.
So forgetting that word is perhaps just the start of it. The first sign of change. The first hint that more is to come. Something bigger perhaps. Time to move on. Time to move away from here, find another country. Is that was it is?
It’s like noticing the scar on my leg. That red mark left on my shin from a fall in Nepal. A bloody souvenir that is starting to fade.
That scar contains a sharp focussed memory that no photograph could ever capture.
I look at it and remember the fall, recall the feeling in my stomach as I realised I was going over and that nothing could stop me.
The shock and panic in my friends eyes. The sound of their voices as they scurried back to help me.
The old Nepali woman who was coming up the stone path when I fell towards her, and who stretched out her arm to me, took hold of my arms, moved my wrists to check that nothing was broken. Talking to me all the while in a language I didn’t know, but both of us understanding the other nonetheless.
I remember all of this and only then understand how long I have been back. A month. Not so long. But long enough for a scar to fade. Long enough for some of the marks to disappear.
Long enough to believe that perhaps it never really happened at all, that journey.
When the scar is gone, how will I ever know I was ever away?
But I will.
Because I will forget words. Will merge into the background a little less.
But perhaps all of this is thinking too much. Perhaps this separation has more tangible roots.
I’ve been away so much this year already (half the year in fact if I count it up) and it’s starting to dawn on me that this travel has two purposes.
One is the sheer excitement of the travel itself, the curiosity, the adventure, the novelty.
The other though is definitely something to do with fleeing. I think part of the journey for me is as much about leaving at the moment, as it is about returning.
Which could be a bad thing if it weren’t for the fact that it has heightened my awareness when I do go away. I seem to appreciate it more now.
In the past I have often found myself in a foreign place very much in a daze, just floating around not paying attention. The space around me was very small, the space I was aware of I mean. So I could have been anywhere really, for all that I paid attention to my surroundings. My mind seemed to be static – in this closed off world which made my physical surroundings strangely irrelevant.
Now though, it feels as if I have opened my eyes somehow, for some reason, and I think that has something to do with this desire to “flee” to be somewhere “other”. The stranger in the strange town.
Like Paul Bowles when he wrote:
“Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next moves slowly, over periods of years, from one end of the earth to another.”
But this isn’t my home, is it? Not belonging here, I find myself moving on. There is always some other “there” to go to. Some further alteration to undergo …