This weekend, my boyfriend and I went to Scotland to visit our alma mater, the University of St Andrews. We stayed in our former halls, along with some old friends we hadn’t seen for years. It was a strange and surreal experience, to say the least.
We arrived in St Andrews around midday and decided to go for a walk. We headed off down the road towards the town centre and without really thinking I turned down a narrow alleyway hidden by hedges. It was the same path I used to take from halls to Spencer’s house in our second year, a path I hadn’t thought about for over four years but that was there nonetheless, a part of my internal map of St Andrews.
As we walked along, I found myself pointing at things and saying I remember that, or I don’t remember that, but mostly it was still the same small town by the sea. At least, superficially it was the same, but the way I felt about it had changed. I was still able to navigate the town, but it was no longer my home and I realised that fact without any sense of sadness. It’s hard for me to judge how long four years is. It sounds like a reasonably short length of time and yet, it feels like so long ago that I graduated (a day that involved kneeling down in front of Sir Menzies Campbell, whilst he hit me over the head with a 500 year old pair of trousers).
We walked down to the Kinnessburn and along the river, wound our way along the three main streets of the town centre and then went down to East Sands. As I sat at the end of the pier and looked alternately out to sea and back towards the town, it occurred to me why my perception of time might be a little warped. I felt as though I had outgrown the place, as though my life had become much bigger than the old grey town. Being in St Andrews and re-living my life there felt like trying to fit a large matryoshka doll inside a smaller one.
When I decided to study at St Andrews, my decision was, in large part, guided by the fact that I didn’t want to live in a big city. I had grown up in one and I wanted to live somewhere smaller. I had a romantic notion of being a misunderstood poet, wandering the beach and composing poetry. St Andrews served its purpose, but as Julian Hoffman writes in The Small Heart of Things: At times we need to turn away from a place when it no longer suits or sustains us, when our ability to adapt to its vagaries has run its course. Moving to Amsterdam, working for a European organisation and meeting people from places I couldn’t have pointed out on the map before – all of this has expanded my notion of home and belonging. It doesn’t need to be a small town by the sea, it doesn’t need to be Manchester or Nottingham or Amsterdam. Home is right here, as I type this and the sounds of night-time in this old apartment in the city surround me: the baby upstairs crying, the man downstairs watching TV, a car screeching down the road, the clinking of metal as someone locks up their bike, the ticking of the clock on the mantle piece. And yet, home might be any number of other places, in other parts of the world. I suppose, ultimately, what has changed for me is that I’m no longer wedded to a particular notion of what home ought to be. As Philip Larkin put it: A joyous shot at how things ought to be, Long fallen wide. Perhaps sometimes, we don’t set the mark wide enough.