Gulliver’s Travels

Going back to the UK is always a weird, dislocating experience, and becomes moreso as the years go by. While I stay in contact with the motherland to a certain extent via the media, and still have friends living there, there’s no substitute for being immersed in the culture full-time, and the occasional few days back there have two contradictory effects: it reminds me how much we’ve both changed and grown apart, and it reminds me where I came from and, to a certain extent, what it means to be English.

Also, I feel taller in the UK.

No, really. When I wander around parts of my hometown I used to frequent as a child, it always strikes me that I can now, for example, see over walls which were tall and unassailable when I was a scabby-kneed boy trying to climb them. It’s not just a height thing: apparently as you grow and your head expands, the distance between your eyes increases, meaning that you literally see things with a different perspective as an adult.

So the familiar things look different, but there are also the new things. Things that have disappeared, changed, or appeared since you were last there. Each time we go back to either of our home towns my wife and I seem to spend the first day wandering around pointing at things and saying “That’s new; that wasn’t there last time; where’s that one gone?” and “I can remember when all this was open fields!”.

Ok, maybe not that last one.

This applies to the culture as well as the physical environment. References to musicians, TV shows and commercials that have entered the mass consciousness are often mysterious or meaningless to me, making it all the more comforting when I find something I do recognise; a little unchanged corner that I can point to and say “Yes, that’s mine, that’s part of me.”

It also applies to the very house where I grew up. Mostly redecorated several times over since I lived there, I have to look hard beyond the new carpet and re-arranged furniture to recognise the places I used to sit in, hide behind, and play in as a child. I never sat on this carpet as a child, but the stairs beneath them contain memories, if I look hard enough.

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3 thoughts on “Gulliver’s Travels

  1. Erik R. September 8, 2008 / 7:03 pm

    I suppose that everyone, at least the people whose parents live in the same town/house, experience this to some extent. But I’m pretty sure the feeling must be stronger for expats.

    On a side note…those steep, shallow stairs – and particularly the usual lack of a downstairs W.C. – always annoyed the heck out of me about UK domestic architecture.

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  2. sgazzetti September 9, 2008 / 5:47 pm

    This resonates with me, though not ago it would have had a good deal more resonance. Since I was last in the states, my mother has sold the last house I had spent any time in and moved into a place that is now completely new. So when I next visit, which I expect will be next summer, it will be the first time visiting family in a place with exactly no memories.

    This seems very American to me.

    Nice sunlight/shadow in that photo, by the way. Evaluative metering?

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  3. simonlitton September 10, 2008 / 7:19 am

    sgazzetti: I believe it’s called “Full Auto”. I’m just the finger that pushes the button.

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