“Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
There’s a scene in The Wind and the Willows when Mole, despite all his exciting adventures with Ratty and Toad and Badger, is unexpectedly reminded of home, and then that’s all he can think of. Badger’s Wild Wood and Toad’s Hall lose their shine. He just wants to go home. He longs for it. But his travelling companion Ratty is distracted by something new and Mole loses his chance. It’s wrenching; both because Ratty realises he’s inadvertently broken his friend’s heart and for the violence of Mole’s grief.
‘I went away and forgot all about it–and then I smelt it suddenly–on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat–and everything came back to me with a rush–and I WANTED it!–O dear, O dear!–and when you WOULDN’T turn back, Ratty–and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time–I thought my heart would break.’
Mum used to read this book to my sister and me when we were kids and I found it completely devastating. It imprinted itself on me as one of literature’s great tragedies at the time, and it has stayed with me. But I’ve had my own problems this week. Overnight, I went from flitting gaily through Montpellier, bonjouring anything that looked in my direction including random pigeons, to curled up in bed wracked with homesickness. I cried. Told my husband I wanted my mum. Cried again. Stuck my head in the bag of lemon-scented gum leaves my sister sent me for Christmas for so long that I nearly asphyxiated. Read old books. Not The Wind in the Willows, obviously. I’m not a masochist.
I embraced the sensation as passionately as I had embraced being a visitor in a new and beautiful city only the day before. But even as I pined, I felt a little bit embarrassed. There’s a kind of insubstantial air to the whole idea of being homesick in my case. I’m not young, leaving for the first time. I have a home to feel sick about, I can leave by choice and know it’s there to come back to. I’ve never been displaced or uprooted, home has never been too far or too dangerous to return to. My daughter is grown up and my grandkids have stopped wanting sleepovers. My husband is here to offer his shoulder and top up my champagne.
Homesickness for people like me, well steeped in comfort, brings to mind insipid things like, ‘having the vapours’. In my mind’s eye, I might as well be wafting about in a tie-dye singlet dress, pining for a pie and sauce, reading Tim Winton wistfully on a park bench, hoping someone who speaks my language will happen by and coax me into a game of footy or pour me a large glass of wine. White with ice, please.
I’ve noticed it doesn’t take much to set me off on a bout of mal du pays. Especially in a new country where I don’t speak the language and people I meet don’t speak mine. The following incidents reduced me to a wreck this week;
- A young boy working at the supermarket laughed in my direction while I was packing my shopping bags. (Here, clearly I was doing something foolish in his eyes, when I had been trying so hard to either fit in or be politely invisible. What an ill-bred tosser. Laughing at a vulnerable old lady. His mama et papa would be mortified, no doubt.)
- A woman in a fabric shop emitted a definite air of being annoyed or at least not effusively thrilled to see me when I walked in and wandered around browsing. So much so, that I approached the counter so she wouldn’t think I was a time waster, babbled something and mimed in a kind of hacking motion with my hand – do you sell cheese knives? She said coldly in English. No. We don’t. Which, to be honest, I took as a bit of a slap in the visage. And then when I left I accidentally banged the door really loudly on the way out, so in an effort to be conciliatory I pushed it open and shouted pardon! she didn’t wave or smile or in any way acknowledge my largesse. (Speaks for itself.)
- The Irish man at the local we have begun to frequent because, let’s face it, sometimes you just don’t feel like trying, politely asked us to sit somewhere else because we were blocking the service counter at the bar. (This was the worst. When one of your own turns on you. Likely he was hoping to insinuate himself into the affections of the locals at my expense. I’m onto you matey.)
The combination of all the above was enough to tip me over the edge. The uncomfortable whiff of someone not too far from where I’m sitting being tres sensitive doesn’t help. It only makes me more snivelly than I was to start with and adds a day or two to my recovery. Someone has to feel sorry for me and I have endless patience for the job.
Happily, previous experience has made me aware I’m vulnerable to both homesickness and a tendency to lean in to even benign misery and I had done some preparation in order to get mon tete out of mon cul. Before it set in too firmly.
Far from my romantic visions of self drifting through French flower shops smelling the imported wattle and shedding the odd elegant tear in response, homesickness makes me nervous as much as anything else. I think I underestimated how tiring it can be to brace yourself for everyday tasks, well, every day. Once the novelty wears off, it gets to be a bit of a slog. It becomes more of something that’s good for me and I have to do, unless of course I don’t want to eat or I’m happy to let my husband treat me like les enfant. So setbacks so minor they could be mistaken for entirely fabricated become wearisome.
I indulged myself with tissues and sleeping in and calling my mum but I also noticed other side effects, nothing fatal, but certainly more insidious. I was feeling anxious about going outside, tackling the tram system, going to a shop I didn’t know, trying to make myself understood, preferring to stay in. The idea of facing the market I’ve shopped at most days, felt, if not terrifying, a bit of a bridge too far. The Post Office, ok, definitely terrifying.
A friend at home, who is very well-travelled, unlike myself, tells me homesickness comes in waves, and just when you think it’s unbearable, it changes and turns into something new. My oldest friend, who has been living in Germany for several years now, takes the same approach. And my mum once described childbirth in a similar way, just before I was going into labour with my daughter, and it helped me then too. If you aren’t managing, hang on for a bit and things will change. There’s a lot to be said for pushing it a little bit. Not trying to do everything, but also not giving in to the urge to do nothing. It’s not about feeling completely comfortable or completely uncomfortable. It’s about trying something small to get going. Even when you don’t feel like it much. Especially when you don’t feel like it much.
So, after a fabulous start to my travels, then a tiny, ok big, bout of homesickness, today has been good. I took the tram for the first time on my own to shop, I had a lovely chat in broken French and broken English with a woman at my favourite fruit and vegetable stall and I braved the dreaded Post Office and bought a box and stamps. Huzzah! I couldn’t make myself understood well enough to find envelopes but to quote the great philosopher, Scarlett O’Hara, tomorrow is another day.
I miss you beautiful Fremantle. I miss my loves, (my other loves). I can’t wait to sit on my back deck at home under a high Western Australian sky and breathe the salted air. It’s where I always feel safe. How brilliant right now though, to be a little scared, sometimes.
“Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.