Two weeks ago I spent a few days back in the UK. I thought I’d probably end up writing a blog post about it, because I expected it to be a noteworthy experience. In a lot of ways it was, but not in the ways I expected it to be. I had expected to feel as though I was back in the UK, to feel a sense of having returned. I expected reverse culture shock.
I did notice a few differences. Oddly, one thing that really stood out to me is that people in the UK look, well, kind of miserable. Though perhaps that’s not so odd considering that Dutch children are the happiest in the world (UK children rank 16th), whilst the Netherlands was ranked 4th in the 2013 UN World Happiness Report. But on the whole, I didn’t really feel a sense of being back in the UK.
I’m reading Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage by Tim Robinson at the moment and a line from it struck me as appropriate. Robinson is visiting Dun Aonghasa, a stone fort on the cliffs of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands:
I usually glance around Dun Aonghasa with a slight sense of exasperation on leaving it… because once again I have failed adequately to be in this strange place, this knot of stone from which the sky has broken out.
I can identify with Robinson’s struggle to be in a place. I visited Inishmore in 2011 as part of my MA course and I struggled with this feeling, as Robinson did – despite the fact that Robinson also calls Inishmore the place to write about place. Whilst on Inishmore, I visited Dun Duchathair, another of the island’s ancient stone forts and I wrote in my journal at the time: I couldn’t seem to make any connection with the place. I thought, I’m here, now what?
And yet, by the end of my time there, when I had only just got back to Galway, I was writing:
Before Inishmore I liked Galway, with its brightly painted pubs and the Corrib flowing through it. Now it just feels out of kilter with reality. I can’t hear birdsong or the sea, I can’t see the sky from one horizon to the other, and there are no fields full of wild flowers.
A year after my visit, I wrote a very nostalgic blog post about my time on Inishmore. I also wrote an equally nostlagic blog post last week about my visit to the UK and saying goodbye to my childhood home. I think nostalgia and memory of a place play a large role in my writings about place. Although immediate impressions are important and I probably wouldn’t attempt to write about a place solely from memory, it seems to take a while for a place to really sink in and seep through to somewhere deeper than the retina. I prefer writing that is osseous – felt in the bones.
And yet, sometimes it seems as though the opposite is true. Last weekend, I visited the city of Utrecht. It was a hot, clear-skied day and as we walked along the Oudegracht – a tree lined canal in the heart of the city – I felt instantly intoxicated by the place. So much so that I haven’t really been able to write about it. I haven’t yet found that ‘tranquillity’ that Wordsworth so famously spoke about.